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Movie reviews: 'Fury,' 'St. Vincent,' 'The Good Lie'

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"Fury" (R) ***1/2 (out of four)

Writer-director David Ayers paints one of the most brutal pictures of World War II on the big screen to date with "Fury," an incredibly detailed account of a Sherman tank behind enemy lines in Germany. Intense, violent and gory at times, it's not the easiest film to watch, but a necessary one to gain an appreciation of the plight of U.S. tank troops as they stormed through Germany in their efforts to defeat Adolf Hitler.

Brad Pitt stars as Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, a fearless Army tank commander who leads with an iron fist a group of four tank troops as Allied forces make their final push into the European Theatre in April 1945. After suffering the loss of one man, the dynamic of Wardaddy's tank is thrown off when a green private, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), is tasked to take the fallen member's place with virtually no experience.

Village-by-village, the tank – dubbed "Fury" – rolls into bloody battles with the SS forces and the German Army, and little by little, Wardaddy and his men (Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal) face mounting forces with seemingly miniscule odds of survival as they watch fellow tank troops fall victim to the Nazis.

"Fury" is riveting in its depiction of war, from its battles in brutal, unforgiving environments, to the damaging psychological effects the carnage has on the men as the war rages on. No detail was spared in bringing this depiction of a very important time period in America's military history to life, all the way down to the colors of the soldiers' uniforms and stitching of the patches they wore on their arms (full disclosure: my two WWII enthusiast brothers came along to verify authenticity). Clearly, Ayer did his homework to tell the most accurate story possible.

The body count, not surprisingly, is extremely high in "Fury," and clearly the film's graphic violence is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps the most surprising facts that Ayer brought to light with the film was the way the troops had to turn to savagery in order to survive. Most WWII film depictions may only focus solely on heroics, but Ayer decided to expose the deep flaws of his characters, and put them in situations as if to say, "If you are going to defeat the animals, you need to fight like animals." The actions by Pitt as Wardaddy in his resolve to kill his enemies are often times shocking, but a necessary evil if he and his men are ever going to accomplish their mission.

While there are no particular scenes in "Fury" that capture the harrowing open of "Saving Private Ryan," the film needs to be commended for venturing to a dark place with its characters that few WWII films dare to go. Sure, the characters in "Fury" are surrounded by armor, but their hearts and minds are always exposed. It's an important film that won't soon be forgotten.

"St. Vincent" (PG-13) ***1/2 (out of four)

Bill Murray gives a career performance in "St. Vincent," a touching coming-of-age comedy-drama that highlights the venerable comedian's strengths in, well, playing curmudgeons. The difference with this curmudgeon, though, is that hidden within his boozing, scheming and out-of-shape body is a complicated yet compassionate heart of gold that takes the film to an entirely new level. "St. Vincent" could have easily been a one-joke movie, but writer-director Theodore Melfi takes audiences to places they won't see coming.

Murray is Vincent, a trouble-making slacker who lives in a New Jersey neighborhood and is occasionally kept company by his pregnant Russian prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts). Flat broke and owing the bank and criminals lots of money, Vincent seizes an opportunity to watch over Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), the pre-teen son of a struggling mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), while she's away at work.

Vincent and Oliver become fast friends, and soon enough the boy joins him on trips to the track and early evenings at the local bar, and even teaches him to be a man and stand up for himself in the absence of a father figure. Most importantly, though, in an unexpected trip to an assisted living home with Vincent, Oliver begins to learn that there's an important side of the apparent ne'er-do-well that nobody is quite aware of, setting up the film's surprising and emotionally-charged final act.

There's already lots of talk about Murray and an Oscar nomination for "St. Vincent," and if that comes to pass, it will be a nomination well-deserved. Some may want to argue that the film is Murray playing Murray, and while that may be true to some extent, the actor easily disappears into his loveable loser character. Curmudgeons may take exception to the film's sentimentality, and that's OK. If everybody had nothing but sweetness and light in their lives, films like "St. Vincent" wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable when they sneak up and surprise us.

As talented as Murray is, though, the film probably wouldn't have been nearly as effective if not for the stellar supporting performances by McCarthy (who is great in an uncharacteristic, understated performance), the hilarious Watts and Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") as Oliver's good-natured Catholic school teacher. It's the newcomer Lieberher, though, who pushes Murray's performance over the top, and he and his veteran co-star's brilliant performances make for one of the best on-screen duos this year. It's a must-see film.

"The Good Lie" (PG-13) **1/2 (out of four)

Minnesotan Kouth Wiel gives an admirable performance in her debut role in "The Good Lie," a drama based on true events that chronicles the life of four Sudanese refugees as they adjust to life in the U.S. after grow-up orphans in war-torn Sudan.

Wiel, who grew up in Faribault and graduated from Augsburg College, is one of the four real-life refugees cast opposite Reese Witherspoon in the film, which follows an employment counselor (Witherspoon) who grows attached to the refugees as they try to adjust to their new homes in the U.S. in 2001.

While its narrative is rooted in the story of the 20,000 Lost Boys of Sudan, "The Good Lie," sadly, falls short of relating the harrowing plight in a meaningful sort of way on the big-screen. True, we experience what the younger versions of the film's main stars go through in a heartbreaking 30-minute flashback scene to begin the film; but once the characters arrive in Kansas City, director Phillipe Falardeau appears more content on focusing on the humorous aspects of the refugees' misadventures as they try to adopt to the culture.

While their inner turmoil is touched upon, it seems Falardeau should have delved deeper into the lasting psychological effects the war has had on them. The film just doesn't feel as compelling as it should have been.

Fans expecting to see more of Witherspoon on the big screen may also be disappointed. She doesn't turn up in "The Good Lie" until about 40 minutes in, and from there, appears to play more of a supporting role to her relative newcomer co-stars. The good thing is, there is a definite chemistry in their scenes together, showing potential for Wiel and her co-stars Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal and Ger Duany.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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