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Best Mainstream Multiplex

No, we really can’t believe it either. For years, the Village 7 has been a symbol of how quickly this city can turn what was once shiny and new into a steaming pile of disrepair. But since a 2015 renovation, this theater is one of only a couple of multiplexes in the city with giant, comfy recliners and reserved seating in every auditorium, with much-improved projection and sound. (The other is the AMC 84th Street, which was also a total pit until recently.) Even the dodgily designed bathrooms have been fixed and improved. More renovations are on the horizon: The oft-empty Regal Battery Park, for example, has had half of its auditoriums revamped, with the rest currently closed for renovation. (Expect it to make a run for this category next year.) The IMAX screen at AMC Lincoln Square is also under construction. Within a couple of years, many of New York’s weathered, musty gigaplexes might actually be pleasant places to see a movie. For a little while, at least. Bilge Ebiri

66 Third Avenue (at 11th Street), Manhattan

amctheatres.com/movie-theatres/new-york-city/amc-village-7

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‘Trumbo’ Honors a Blacklisted Screenwriter With Drama He Would Have Cut

Bryan Cranston parades through Trumbo, a wiki-pageant of shorthand history, like he’s a costumed kid playing Actor Bryan Cranston at a Disney park. As blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a man given to mannered diction, Cranston layers movieland falseness over the scraped-raw heart of his Breaking Bad triumph.

Remember how you could see Walter White creak and tremble in his low moments, then get grimly off when at last he worked out some new way to best everyone? You never get to see Cranston’s Trumbo think, which is a demerit in a movie about a writer: Here, the two-time Oscar winner, for pseudonymous work on The Brave One and Roman Holiday, only speaks lines that he might have composed — the ringing dialogue of classic Hollywood — even when knocking about the house. His daughter, riding on a spotted horse, asks, “Dad, are you a Communist?” and in his response, a plummy cheese about whether she would share her lunch with a hungry classmate, he could be Gregory Peck’s Atticus teaching Scout about justice.

His every line is so composed — and so fussily enunciated — that it’s a little confusing when, deep in the film, he recedes from his family so as to find time to bang out the scripts he couldn’t put his name on: When his every utterance sounds like movie talk, who knew it was work for him to come up with it? Cranston’s Trumbo is a cartoon drawn without doubt or anxiety, with nothing grinding away behind his specs and ‘stache. His every word is a sip of the grandest Bordeaux, and he’s his finest sommelier, appraising each mouthful. My favorite is the way he hits right in the phrase “the right to know,” luxuriating in the R like Tony the Tiger might. Trumbo served two years in jail for his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Cranston declaims his letters to home: “Yet in all things I know that I am the luckiest unlucky man ever to be,” he says, and however pretty that line might be, the movie is wrecked by the fact that it sounds exactly like everything else he ever says.

So you’ll never mistake the lead here for a real man, not even the quite refined screenwriter of Spartacus, Exodus, and — in his blacklisted years — Gun Crazy. Some of that anti-naturalistic studio-era corniness is intentional: Witness Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird, the rare character who behaves like he doesn’t know he’s in a movie, complain, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled on a rock?”

But acknowledging the problem isn’t the same as correcting it. Director Jay Roach has specialized in the loudest and lowest-aiming star-driven comedies — the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies — and here, as in those, everything else seems subordinate to the whims of his leads.
The film fails as a portrait, and it’s not much better at drama. Cringe at the clumsy crosscutting between a celebratory picnic at the Trumbos’ house, where everyone for some reason summarizes the previous scene, and the approach of a black car on a sunny road, a sight that only suggests suspense because the editing insists that it should. This is a Hollywood where everyone always takes a moment to sum up the current situation for us at the beginning of each scene, where Hedda Hopper (a one-note Helen Mirren) snaps at Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), “Forty years ago you were starving in some shtetl!” before calling him an abusive “kike,” where Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), standing up for blacklisted screenwriters, actually gets to say, “I am Spartacus,” like he believes it. The history passes in a vague gush: Trumbo’s trial and conviction skip right by, as do his years in jail, which are marked by the film’s worst and best scenes. First the worst: Fancying himself a teacher, Trumbo perks up upon meeting a black inmate (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who appears to be illiterate, but Roach and screenwriter John McNamara immediately upend one black stereotype with another. Turns out the guy’s a ferocious bruiser who can read and compose tough-guy speeches for R-rated movies: “Look down on me, and I will fuck you up like you’ve never been fucked in your bullshit Hollywood life.”

That’s preceded by one of the few moments where Cranston proves compelling. Trumbo stands stripped before a prison guard who forces him to turn around and reveal every cranny. Without a mustache or glasses to hide behind, and given no lines to chisel-speak, Cranston looks, just for a moment, like a man gritting through something terrible — like someone you might understand.

For all that, the movie has one big thing going for it. Roach stages welcome cameos from Hollywood history, giving scenes worth watching to John Wayne (a mighty David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). One starts as a heel but almost proves decent by the end; the other vice versa. (Stuhlbarg’s Robinson is amusingly mild, not offering a single nasal quack, and he looks disconcertingly like Ted Cruz.)

Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger is cute, but the movie is stolen by John Goodman as Frank King, skinflint producer of cheapo B flicks, a robust comic figure who gets all the best lines and speaks them like a human being might. King and his brother Hymie (Stephen Root) employ blacklisted writers not out of a desire to right injustice but because they want cheap scripts. There’s a great comedy to be made out of Hollywood’s blackballed commies getting by working for the town’s crassest capitalists — judging by ten minutes or so of screen time here, Roach might even be the person to shoot it.

Trumbo
Directed by Jay Roach
Bleecker Street
Opens November 6, AMC Loews Lincoln Square and AMC Village 7

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Doc ‘The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers’ Is Like Listening to an Old Relative Tell Wandering Stories

This sweeping historical survey automatically limits its audience to diehard history buffs by exclusively assuming the perspective of former ambassador Yehuda Avner, who died in March. Avner, a charming diplomat who advised prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, tells the history of Israel’s major political developments through the myopic lens of his personal experience.

Since his memories are largely episodic, the sizable gaps in Avner’s narrative make it hard to appreciate his storytelling gifts. First he talks about being presented with an extravagant, whipped-cream-topped plate of cottage cheese at a White House dinner during the Ford administration. Then Avner discusses Rabin’s begrudging respect for Henry Kissinger, but only after he touches on the Entebbe crisis. After that, he recalls how put off the Israelis were when Jimmy Carter suggested that they attend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Before you know it, Avner and Begin are sitting down with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for the Camp David Accords.

While the jerky pacing of The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers doesn’t get really manic until Begin’s wife dies, the film’s incessant voiceover narration does often feel like an interminable suppertime history lesson delivered by your favorite poli-sci-obsessed granduncle.

Viewers will inevitably find Avner’s amiable rambling somewhat boring, but only after zoning out and subsequently tuning back in when Avner reveals he was once the Israeli ambassador to Australia, or when he remembers the assassination of Sadat. If you can focus on his narcotizing voice, you will learn some interesting trivia about the people who decided Israeli policymaking, and almost nothing else about the history of Israeli politics.

The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers
Directed by Richard Trank
Moriah
Opens October 9, AMC Loews Village 7

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‘A Christmas Horror Story’ Spins Four Gory but Impressive Holiday Fright Tales

Want to hear something really scary? It’s the beginning of fall and I’ve already heard my first Christmas carol.

Yet the timing is the least of the terrors in A Christmas Horror Story, an anthology from directors Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, and Brett Sullivan. The tones of its four braided stories range from the grim tension of kids trapped at the site of a gory double murder to the silly splatter of Santa bashing away at foul-mouthed undead elves. Mixed in are an unnerving tale of a young boy replaced by an evil changeling and a panicked chase as a bickering family is pursued by the holiday devil Krampus, vividly imagined here punishing the naughty with a barbed whip.

Veering from pole to pole makes the film’s overall timbre absolutely bananas, even when the scenes are buffered by framing material featuring William Shatner as a despondent holiday DJ. The anthology is a mixed stocking; if you reach inside, something’s likely to grab you. The doppelgänger sequences nicely turn the screws of paranoia, and there’s something oddly fortifying about a bloody viking Saint Nick.

We might just make it through another holiday season after all.

A Christmas Horror Story
Directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, and Brett Sullivan
RLJ Entertainment
Opens October 2, AMC Loews Village 7

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A Promising Lemon: ‘Cop Car’ Starts Well, but Doesn’t Get Anywhere

Promising and disappointing all at once, Jon Watts’s backroads thriller Cop Car heralds the arrival of a significant director, one adept not just at the usual action and suspense but also at the fleet, affecting depiction of lives as they’re actually lived.

In the opening scenes, the camera glides alongside elementary-school boys as they tromp through a field in one of those empty stretches of Colorado where the plains lift toward the Rockies. The kids dare each other to say out loud the most unspeakable words they can think of; then they slip through one of the barbed-wire fences that stitch their world from horizon to horizon. One boy’s uncertain in his baby fat, fumbling with the strands. The camera, though, slides right through, its movement smooth but not flashy — Watts stirs the sense that we’re picking along the landscape, too. That immersion in the kids’ vague adventure peaks with the film’s inspired first revelation: In the woods that edge along that field, the boys find a police cruiser, far off the road. A door is unlocked, the keys are in the seat, and there’s nobody around.

So they joyride, and the film — for its first twenty minutes — lets us do so, too. Watts, who co-wrote with Christopher Ford, is sensitive to his small-fry heroes’ fears and enthusiasms and playful illogic: Often, the boys seem to be in a space between play and life, and as the plot kicks in, and they hit the road, they look to each other for clues as to whether they’re in real danger or pretend.

Movies must grind on for 90 minutes, though, so the play must become something more. That’s where the disappointment comes in. After the joyous, specific evocation of the lives, inner and outer, of these small-town kids, Cop Car invests itself in indie-thriller generalities: The sumbitch sheriff up to no good, a shootout along a stretch of two-lane blacktop, a pitilessness about killing off incidental characters that might feel to the filmmakers like tough-mindedness but plays as grimdumb cruelty. Watts and his crew capably stage and cut all this, but the material is expressive of nothing except itself: The film soars early as a fantasy steeped in life and crashes into a drag of a crime drama, one ripped from the movies rather than anyone’s idea of small-town Colorado.

Kevin Bacon plays the sheriff, all mean leanness and a twitchy mustache. He’s amusingly stiff and beleaguered in the film’s first half, especially in the surprise flashback where we learn why he’s parked his car in the woods — and what bad news it is for him to find it gone. I say “surprise flashback” because Cop Car, in its commanding first reels, trusts us to work out the chronology — at one point, it’s not the kids driving anymore, it’s the sheriff, an hour or so before, and you might not know at first. Bacon’s biggest laugh comes the first time he speaks: The sheriff is desperate, up to no good, and all alone in the middle of nowhere, but when he radios dispatch with a cooked-up cover story, he’s all peaches-and-cream politeness. But after that, the sheriff offers little that’s new or surprising — and Cop Car gives this character a lead’s worth of screentime.

Eventually the film conforms to too-established generic principles. Bacon goes pure villain, the kids learn a lesson, and only scattered moments of the third act approach the promise of the first: The last 90 seconds or so are excellent, and there are some fine, nervy moments when the kids terrify by being naive with guns — but the surprise is all gone.

Cop Car
Directed by Jon Watts
Focus World
Opens August 7, AMC Loews Village 7

Directed by Jon Watts. Written by Jon Watts and Christopher Ford. Starring James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Kevin Bacon, Camryn Manheim, and Shea Whigham.

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Character-Driven Melodrama ‘Phantom Halo’ Doesn’t Have Believable Characters

Sleepy domestic-abuse/coming-of-age melodrama Phantom Halo never goes anywhere memorable because its two main characters don’t consistently act like they’re afraid of their big bad dad. Set in modern-day skid-row America, Antonia Bogdanovich’s film follows brothers Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Beckett (Luke Kleintank) as they struggle to make enough money to run away from drunk dad Warren (Sebastian Roché).

Warren, a belligerent failed actor, is supposed to have an immense influence on Samuel and Beckett, but neither of Warren’s sons seem that concerned with him. When Samuel, an ostensibly charismatic panhandler who earns money by performing Shakespearian soliloquies for spare change, fantasizes about comic books that Warren forbids him from reading, his daydreams of protecting the innocent “somewhere else” reveal nothing about Samuel’s need to run away from home.

And Beckett, a stoic pickpocket who tries his hand at counterfeiting money, only seems concerned with Warren in the scene where Beckett admirably delivers a soliloquy to prove that he’s just as talented as Samuel, Warren’s favorite son.

By contrast, Samuel’s impassioned, character-defining street-corner performances aren’t nearly as enlightening as Beckett’s brief presentation. Brodie-Sangster’s rendition of speeches from Henry V only reveal his own Kenneth Branaghian tendency of over-stressing every other syllable. Brodie-Sangster clearly put a lot of effort into his mannered performance-within-a-performance, but his straining is wasted on a character whose ostentatious “acting” is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Phantom Halo
Directed by Antonia Bogdanovich
ARC Entertainment
Opens June 19, AMC Loews Village 7

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Love & Mercy Lets Us Hear Brian Wilson Turn Pain Into Sound

What does the world sound like when you’re Brian Wilson? When you’ve made a record that sounds like cirrus clouds look — as Wilson did with the Beach Boys’ small modern miracle of harmony, the 1966 Pet Sounds — all bets are off when it comes to the way ordinary aural signals are processed on their journey through ear canal to eardrum and beyond. The clatter of silverware on plates, the voices of people speaking in another room: When you’re Brian Wilson, are they music, or are they unbearable?

The beauty, and the horror, of Bill Pohlad’s exhilarating and inventive Love & Mercy — which traces the sine wave of Wilson’s troubled adult life using two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack — is the sense it gives us of the world passing through Brian Wilson’s ears. When the older, circa-1980s Wilson, played by Cusack, explains to his new girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that he hears voices in his head, she asks, with great tenderness, how long it’s been happening. “Since 1963,” he says. Is it possible that the Beach Boys’ early hit “Surfer Girl,” one of the warmest and most youthfully wistful ballads of twentieth-century pop music, began with a whisper only Wilson could hear?

That’s not to suggest Love & Mercy leans on tired theories about the link between genius and madness: Pohlad’s approach, and that of his writing team, Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, is much more delicate than that. But Love & Mercy — which was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his now-wife, Ledbetter — is surprisingly specific in exploring both the mystery and craftsmanship of song creation.

It’s also, in the barest terms, a suspenseful and heartrending story: Love & Mercy opens in the early 1960s, after the Beach Boys — founded by Wilson and his brothers Dennis and Carl, along with their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine — have become a Top 40 sensation. We see Wilson in his younger incarnation, played by Dano in a mock-turtleneck ringer, worrying in advance about maintaining whatever gifts he’s got: “What if I lose it and never get it back? What do I do then?” The image is grainy and muted, like fake documentary footage, a relic from a mythic, mystical past. Shortly thereafter, the action jumps to the 1980s, where Cusack, as the older Wilson, sits behind the wheel of a Cadillac that he doesn’t yet own. It’s still in the showroom, and the breezy blonde who’s in the process of selling it to him — Banks’s Ledbetter — listens carefully as he drops breadcrumb clues about the misery of his life. He’s forced to leave abruptly, but before he does, he sneaks a card onto the seat. Ledbetter picks it up and reads the words he’s scrawled to her: “Lonely Scared Frightened.”

In Love & Mercy, reflecting what happened in real life, Ledbetter becomes instrumental in extracting Wilson from the clutches of shyster psychologist Eugene Landy, who essentially imprisoned Wilson after (incorrectly) diagnosing him as a paranoid schizophrenic. Paul Giamatti plays Landy in an unnervingly perfect performance: His smile is one of those false, jarring ones, where lips and teeth seem unsure of their respective roles. The performances in Love & Mercy are key to its power: Dano can be a dispassionate, affected actor, but all his arty coolness slips away here. We see him singing, and his face glows with unmitigated joy. Later, though, as the band he and his brothers founded begins to splinter — or as he bows under the abuse of his father, played by Bill Camp — he conveys the extent of his anguish with just the smallest flicker of an eye.

Cusack shows us a slightly different but no less believable Wilson, guarded and fragile, though we can also see how he yearns to be open: He’s like a sadder, mirror-world version of Say Anything‘s Lloyd Dobler, holding a boombox aloft in a cry for help, only to realize no sound is coming out. And Banks is superb: This is the finest performance she’s given yet, an antidote to the tricky novelty of characters like the Hunger Games‘ Effie Trinket. When Giamatti’s Landy tries to manipulate her with serpentlike charm, she almost visibly recoils — as if she could not only see and feel his snake oil, but also smell it.

If you know anything about the story of Brian Wilson, you know that Love & Mercy has a relatively happy ending, one in which Wilson’s creativity and happiness are restored to him. But on his way there, Pohlad — who until now has been working mostly as a producer, with credits including 12 Years a Slave and Wild — gives us more than just the ups and downs of one strange genius’s life. In one of the movie’s most rapturous sequences, Dano’s Wilson gathers a bunch of crackerjack studio musicians — players who will later come to be known as the Wrecking Crew — to turn the sounds in his head into a reality. They ask questions about unlikely countermelodies; they make little mistakes that Wilson, delightedly, incorporates into the record that will eventually become Pet Sounds. Under his guidance, these musicians become friends and allies; they warm to his touch. He’s painting sounds with people. And perhaps that’s how a record that might have become over-orchestrated to the point of artificiality instead sounds wholly, believably human, an instance of the voices inside one man’s head engaging in easy conversation with the universe of sound around him.

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Jennifer Connelly Gets Sad in Arctic Drama Aloft

Claudia Llosa’s first feature since the Oscar-nominated Milk of Sorrow, Aloft is as remote as its Arctic setting. Jennifer Connelly is in constant crisis mode as a single mother to two boys, one terminally ill and the other traumatized by the death of his falcon; after a shamanic prologue sets up the vagueness to come, Aloft jumps forward twenty years, by which time the avian aficionado has grown into an especially world-weary Cillian Murphy.

The family’s tough-to-follow saga is one of abandonment and reunion, with Llosa showing both to be equally taxing in their own ways. The freewheeling camera often stays close on the small cast, which also includes Mélanie Laurent and Oona Chaplin, roving around cramped quarters as it threatens to go out of focus — a soft, not-quite-blurry look that manages to suggest both intimacy and distance.

Ambitious aesthetics aren’t matched by Llosa’s overly opaque approach; what’s meant to seem artfully understated most often results in confusion over basic details.

It takes so much time to grasp the what, when, and where of Aloft that there’s little left to reflect on (or, at times, even identify) the why, which is clearly what most preoccupies Llosa. The writer-director’s ideas about our connection to the land and the many other animals roaming it may well be profound, but they’re buried under layers of superfluous storytelling devices. A better title would have been Adrift.

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Echoes of War Tries, Fails to Revive the Western

However you view the western in American filmmaking — as a moth-eaten relic or an eternal form to be resurrected every few years — there’s something stale about Kane Senes’s tepid historical drama Echoes of War, which utilizes the genre’s symbols without delivering on its potential for moral or narrative satisfaction.

Set in a rural Reconstruction-era Texas where exactly seven people are still living, Echoes of War serves up a scummy cattle baron named McCluskey (William Forsythe) who’s lost all his cattle. There’s also a mysterious rider (James Badge Dale) named Wade who turns out to be the long-lost brother-in-law to local milquetoast Seamus Riley (a cueball-bald Ethan Embry) and beloved uncle to two pipsqueaks (Owen Teague and Maika Monroe) whose food, he discovers, is being stolen right out of their mouths by the villainous McCluskey clan.

It takes a great deal of ho-humming for this conflict to come to a head — nearly 90 minutes of Seamus scraping a razor across his scalp, blood dripping from skinned rabbits, and tedious dinner scenes. Like John Hillcoat, director of the wonderful revisionist western The Proposition, Senes is an Aussie playing with American mythology, though in this case, there’s little to indicate who these characters are, let alone their roles in the largest civil conflict in U.S. history.

The actors look like they’ve just emerged from a trailer where they were combed, scrubbed, and instructed to speak in quasi-Texan mush-mouth (Monroe, a likable scream queen in It Follows, looks woefully contemporary). It works for William Forsythe, a veteran at portraying scabrous, degenerate types, but he’s about the only convincing part of this long slog through our country’s stinky past.

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The Classic Tale of Money vs. Abs Is Told Again in Beyond the Reach

In 1972, novelist Robb White wrote the desert thriller Deathwatch, about a rich hunter named Madec who accidentally kills a human in the Mojave and decides to cover up his mistake by murdering his guide.

Two years later, it was turned into the film Savages, starring Andy Griffith in the lead role. Griffith was unexpectedly great as a big-city bigwig, but the decades since have given us Michael Douglas, the slick-haired snake-oil actor who seems to have been slithering toward this part for 40 years.

Now Douglas gets a crack at the character in Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s remake Beyond the Reach. Today, the millionaire sniper stalks his prey in a $500,000 Mercedes SUV stocked with an espresso machine. Yet while Madec sautés asparagus in his car, his blue-collar guide Ben (Jeremy Irvine, most impressive for his six-pack) chows trail mix and rolls his eyes. Léonetti sharpens the film’s edges — this isn’t about one wealthy man, it’s about all wealthy men who think they can buy the world, and are rarely proven wrong.

Madec and Ben’s showdown becomes a battle to see which type of man is best equipped for survival: the well-funded scoundrel or the honest grunt. The film is too honest itself to always give us the answer we want. It’s also too dully on-the-nose to entertain. You know the second half is a slog when you start questioning Léonetti’s forensics. Dozens of spent bullet casings shining in the sun, and Madec still thinks he can hide his crime? The Wall Street bankers munching popcorn in the theater might nod, “Well, of course.”