Capsule movie reviews, March 26

Writer James Baldwin in “I Am Not Your Negro.” Photo: Bob Adelman, Magnolia Pictures

American Anarchist Documentary about William Powell, who wrote “The Anarchist Cookbook” in 1971, which contained information about making explosives and illicit drugs. Not reviewed. Not rated. 80 minutes.

Bokeh Sci-fi thriller about a young vacationing couple who wake up to find that everyone else on Earth has disappeared. Not reviewed. Not rated. 92 minutes.

Chips Action comedy about a rookie CHP officer who is teamed with a hardened veteran. Dax Shepard wrote, directed and co-stars (with Michael Peña). Rated R. 100 minutes.

ALERT VIEWERFifty Shades Darker Despite the title, this second installment in the “Fifty Shades” saga is softer and more pleasant, with Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan playing lovers growing within and coming to terms with their relationship. The movie is silly, but weirdly appealing. Rated R. 120 minutes.—M.LaSalle

WILD APPLAUSEFrantz Director Francois Ozon reimagines Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 antiwar film as from the perspective of the young German woman (Paula Beer) who has lost her fiancee in World War I and meets a mysterious Frenchman. Beautifully filmed and acted. Rated PG. 113 minutes. In French and German with English subtitles.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSEGet Out This first film from director Jordan Peele is very much a product of 2017, a comic horror film about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who goes with his new girlfriend (Allison Williams) on a visit to her parents’ house. It’s a funny and unsettling mix of paranoia and a comic awareness of its own paranoia, and it’s irresistible. Rated R. 103 minutes.—M.LaSalle

SNOOZING VIEWERThe Great Wall This is a Chinese action/monster movie, somehow starring Matt Damon as an English mercenary. The narrative is clumsy, and the monster scenes are ridiculous, but not ridiculous enough to be funny, just ridiculous enough to be boring. It’s hard to care, and there’s no reason to try. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSEHidden Figures A by-the-books historical piece, about black female mathematicians working in NASA’s early days, the film is enlivened by the three principal actresses, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, and by Kevin Costner, who is the perfect vision of the early 1960s man. Rated PG. 127 minutes.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSEI Am Not Your Negro James Baldwin’s writings on race (spoken by Samuel L. Jackson) are interspersed with footage of Baldwin making speeches and appearing on talk shows. The result demonstrates that Baldwin, who died 30 years ago, is as relevant today as he was in the 1960s and ’70s. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.—M.LaSalle

SNOOZING VIEWERJohn Wick: Chapter 2 An action movie that fails even on its own limited terms, it features Keanu Reeves as a one-man killing machine, but also as a hapless victim of circumstance. It’s an exercise in monotonous choreographed spectacle that doesn’t do justice to Reeves and ends up leaving the audience dispirited. Rated R. 122 minutes.—M.LaSalle

WILD APPLAUSEJulieta Pedro Almodóvar delivers one of his best films, the story of a woman from age 25 to 56, as played by two actresses who really do seem to be inhabiting the same soul. It’s subtle, brilliantly acted and in touch with essential truths, a great film. Rated R. 99 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.—M.LaSalle

Keep Watching Horror thriller about a family tormented by murderous home invaders. Not reviewed. Rated R.

POLITE APPLAUSEKong: Skull Island King Kong never looked so good as in this well-directed, well-acted, imaginatively crafted and very respectably written revisit of the King story, this time on his native habitat of Skull Island. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.—M.LaSalle

WILD APPLAUSELa La Land This modern musical takes the best of the old (rich color, extended shots for the dances) and weds it to new music and a contemporary story. The result is one of the best films of the year, with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a pair of strivers who meet in Los Angeles and try to help each other. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes.—M.LaSalle

ALERT VIEWERThe Last Word Shirley MacLaine is a difficult retired businesswoman and Amanda Seyfried is a newspaper obituary writer with poetic aspirations, in this slightly canned but satisfying story of two women becoming friends at opposite ends of their lives. Rated R. 108 minutes.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSEThe Lego Batman Movie The animated comedy is less awesome than its predecessor, but it’s a clever, well-paced, self-aware and completely satisfying kind of less awesome. It takes the most entertaining secondary character from “The Lego Movie,” then builds 104 minutes around him with little fatigue. All inferior sequels should be as fun as this one. Rated PG. 104 minutes.—P.Hartlaub

Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire Documentary about the singer-songwriter’s 1972 European tour. Not reviewed. Not rated. 106 minutes.

Life Science-fiction/horror thriller about the discovery of life on Mars. With Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal. Rated R. 103 minutes.

WILD APPLAUSELogan The ninth appearance by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in 17 years takes a massive tone shift from the relatively bloodless earlier X-Men films, going berserk in its own moody and ultra-violent direction. Jackman and director James Mangold create something great here, upsetting comic book norms without losing entertainment value. Rated R. 141 minutes.—P.Hartlaub

POLITE APPLAUSELove & Taxes Josh Kornbluth stars in this dramatic version of his stage monologue, about his adventures with the tax man, including not filing and dealing with a very expensive accountant. Kornbluth is an appealing actor, and the result is an engaging film. Not rated. 90 minutes.—M.LaSalle

WILD APPLAUSEMoonlight One of the best movies of the year, this Barry Jenkins film tells the story of a man, from childhood through young adulthood, and shows how environment can exert enormous changes on the spirit. Vigorously filmed and sensitively guided, this is beautiful work. Rated R. 110 minutes.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSEMr. Gaga Offering rare insight into ultra-private Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, this gorgeous if gushing documentary includes into his origins, his artistry and the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company. Directed by adoring fan and 20-year friend Tomer Heymann. Not rated. 101 minutes.—C.Bauer

SNOOZING VIEWERPersonal Shopper Kristen Stewart strains to hold up the edifice of this awful Olivier Assayas mess, about a personal shopper to a celebrity (Stewart), who is also trying to communicate with the dead. Long, dull and structureless, it brings out the worst in Stewart, who has never seemed so mannered and inauthentic. Rated R. 105 minutes.—M.LaSalle

Power Rangers Science-fiction/adventure film about a group of teenagers with superpowers who fight to save the world. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes.

POLITE APPLAUSERaw Director Julia Ducournau understands coming-of-age fears as much as she gets scary movies, and she manages both near-perfectly in this graphic thriller about a cannibal college student. Not for the squeamish, but Ducournau’s expert hand should earn the respect of any cinephile who can handle the explicit content. Rated R. 99 minutes.—P.Hartlaub

POLITE APPLAUSEThe Salesman A husband and wife, actors appearing in an Iranian production of “Death of Salesman,” have their lives thrown off balance when the woman is attacked by an intruder while taking a shower. It’s another perceptive and compulsively watchable examination of domestic life from Asghar Farhadi (“The Past”). Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSEThe Sense of an Ending Well-acted, understated and British to the core, this drama is based on Julian Barnes’ novel of the same title, charting what happens when the past abruptly catches up with an aging Londoner. Jim Broadbent does a fine job as a man who is old-school but not a caricature. Good supporting work from Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walker and Michelle Dockery. Directed by Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”). Rated PG-13. 108 minutes.—W.Addiego

SNOOZING VIEWERSong to Song Terrence Malick’s latest, about songwriters in Austin, is a huge disappointment, over two hours of wistful voice-over contemplation to the sight of various vague characters improvising in the most obvious and tiresome of ways. Starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender. Rated R. 129 minutes.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSESplit M. Night Shyamalan’s latest surprise twist is his own career revival. This low-budget thriller about a criminal with multiple personalities is an entertaining original. James McAvoy is excellent playing more than a dozen roles. Even as the story begins to fester toward the end, it never stops being fun. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes.—P.Hartlaub

WILD APPLAUSET2 Trainspotting The sequel to “Trainspotting,” the 1996 film about heroin addicts in Edinburgh, is a likable and sumptuously filmed comedy, delightful to watch from start to finish. Rated R. 113 minutes.—M.LaSalle

POLITE APPLAUSETickling Giants This documentary about comedian Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, delivers a loud and clear message about repression anywhere in the world. Not rated. 111 minutes.—L.Hertz

ALERT VIEWERA United Kingdom The marriage between an African king and a white British woman and the subsequent international fallout is the subject of this true story, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. But the movie, though conscientious, ultimately fails to satisfy as either a love story or as a tale of mid-century politics. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.—M.LaSalle

ALERT VIEWERWilson This dark comedy, about a curmudgeonly hermit who tries to reconnect with the world, is loaded with funny characters and moments, even if it doesn’t add up to an emotionally satisfying whole. Rated R. 94 minutes.—D.Lewis



Syrian rebels launch surprise attack on Damascus

Smoke billows up from Damascus in the wake of the fighting
Smoke billows up from Damascus in the wake of the fighting

Syrian forces were scrambling to defend frontlines near the heart of Damascus on Sunday after a surprise offensive by opposition groups.

Shelling and sniper fire echoed across the Syrian capital as rebels and jihadists attacked regime positions in the Jobar neighbourhood, just 2km north-east of the Old City walls.

Control of Jobar has been split between regime forces and opposition fighters for more than two years, making it one of the few areas in Damascus not under firm regime control.

The attack began in the morning when jihadists launched a barrage of car bombs and suicide attacks.

School was abruptly cancelled, and a normally bustling neighbourhood was put on lockdown as the sound of explosions and gunfire filled the air. Syrian state media said terrorists had infiltrated the city through tunnels in the middle of the night.

Opposition fighters took control of several buildings in Jobar and pushed into nearby Abbasid Square. From there they seized part of a large bus station and fired rockets into multiple neighbourhoods, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Abdel Rahman said with Sunday’s attack, “rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar into an offensive one”.

“These are not intermittent clashes – these are ongoing attempts to advance,” he said.

The advance appeared to be aimed at connecting rebel-held territory in Jobar to the Qaboun neighbourhood nearby. By linking the two pockets of opposition control, rebels seek to break the siege of Qaboun and cement their hold on an area uncomfortably close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s centre of power.

Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus
Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus

As the offensive progressed Sunday afternoon, regime warplanes launched air raids around the areas of the clashes. Army reinforcements arrived in droves.

Photographs and videos from the area show a city choking on smoke, with rubble from distant and more recent clashes clogging the streets.

This latest effort to advance on Damascus comes with rebels in the most dire straits they have yet faced in the six-year war.

Aleppo, once the capital of the revolution, is now firmly back under regime control.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

A patchwork of truce deals – which one FSA commander described to this newspaper as “surrender, nothing more” – has offered besieged civilians in opposition-held areas a lifeline, but banished rebels elsewhere, mainly to Idlib province which is itself under heavy aerial attack.

Even in Daraa in southern Syria, where the uprising began, the opposition is losing ground.

Sunday’s attack showcased a union once seen as awkward for the opposition’s backers: mainstream rebels like the FSA fighting alongside the Fateh al-Sham front, the jihadists formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.

But with external support fast dwindling and the revolution appearing to collapse, the mainstream opposition may be taking whatever help it can get.


Five reasons to give the new Top Gear a chance

The presenters of Top Gear season 24: Chris Harris, Matt LeBlanc, and Rory Reid
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

On a windy, and eventually rainy, day last month, I got to experience something that my teenage self would have been very jealous of: I rode around the Top Gear test track, being expertly flung around its corners by show presenter Chris Harris. It was part of a press preview of the 24th season of Top Gear, and you can already get a taste for what that’s like from my colleagues’ roundtable discussion of the season opener last week.

But I’m not here to give away spoilers or specifics of the new season. In my time at the Top Gear facilities, I interviewed all three of the show’s presenters, and now I just want to tell you why I’m rooting for the newly rebooted Top Gear to succeed. Yes, Vlad is being a fanboy.

  1. Chris Harris. The unabashed geek of the show, Chris Harris is in many ways the ideal car reviewer. His uncynical enthusiasm for cars is infectious, and he brings an encyclopedic depth of knowledge to Top Gear that I don’t think the show has ever had. The man can identify cars just by their engine noise, for crying out loud. At a time when popular culture seems impatient with real expertise, I’m delighted to have a true expert on TV from whom I can learn about cars and the joys of pushing them to their limits.
  2. Top Gear became pretty awesome last season, but few people noticed. We can all agree that Chris Evans was a poor replacement for Jeremy Clarkson in the lead presenter role of Top Gear season 23. He tried to be as loud and brash as Clarkson, but didn’t have the same level of camaraderie with his colleagues, and ultimately put audiences off from watching. I think the show’s producers grasped that fact quickly, and the latter half of season 23 ended up with more group driving adventures and fewer spots featuring Evans. As I observed at the time, the show became instantly more watchable, and with the promotion of Harris and fellow car journalist Rory Reid to more prominent roles, it’s only going to improve.
  3. The assholes are gone. There are many people who’ll tell you that the chemistry between Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond — consisting primarily of them playing pranks and being rude to one another — was at the heart of Top Gear’s previous appeal. I disagree. There’s nothing particularly charming about the emotional immaturity of three men incapable of openly acknowledging their friendship and shared passion. When I watch that old trio, I’m transported back to my school days, where I had to say “fuck” every now and again to reassert my masculinity. The new crew, on the other hand, features two long-tenured car journalists and the son of a mechanic. Harris, Reid, and LeBlanc are more interested in the cars than self-promotion, and I find that refreshing.
  4. The production quality remains stellar. This is another aspect of Top Gear’s first post-Clarkson season that went unappreciated: season 23 was full of gorgeous footage that turned cars into kinetic art. I’m convinced that whenever Top Gear does finally run out of gas, its signature achievement will be one of cinematography and staging. That stuff, the good stuff, hasn’t dropped in quality one iota, and season 24 promises to keep the standard high. Many of the best gadget review videos produced by sites like The Verge and YouTubers like Marques Brownlee owe a creative debt to Top Gear’s innovation in this space. Top Gear took the format of a luxury watch commercial, replete with excruciatingly tiny details and an admiration of the most basic mechanics, and turned it into a way to showcase big and burly cars.
  5. We all need an escape from fighting. Have you looked at Twitter lately? A CNN news broadcast? A New York Times front page? How about the latest choice of blockbuster Hollywood movies? It seems like life today is characterized by polarization, argument, and conflict — whether it’s between sports teams, political ideologies, or superhero motivations. Even our favorite modes of escapism don’t really give us a chance to relax and calm down (I’m about the start the new Mass Effect, for example, and I don’t anticipate it will let me casually farm on a rural planet for 100 hours). So it’s a little bit awesome to get a show on TV that has no villainy, that requires no obligatory two-minute hate for the bad guys. Top Gear is an indulgence. Everyone in it is on the good team, everyone has a common interest and fascination, and, except for the danger of overactive script writers, everyone just gets along harmoniously.

As Matt LeBlanc put it to me, his job is to drive the cars not being driven, and to recount the tales of those experience. His top priority at the show — after not crashing the cars — is to be honest. As a technology reviewer, I can’t help but relate to that ambition. When I speak to Chris Harris, I get the sense of a kindred spirit, a person who’s passionate about his subject matter and about doing it justice. And Rory Reid is someone I used to hang out with at the Geneva Motor Show, gawking at the latest Ferraris and Lamborghinis. So you can say I’m partial to this trio. In person, they convey a humility and seriousness about their jobs that was never apparent with their predecessors. But even without them, Top Gear is still the best and prettiest stage for car enthusiasm on TV, and well worth watching.

In the US, Top Gear airs on Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America.

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge


Blind adventurer to share insights

A renowned mountaineer and kayaker speaks Monday in Aspen, but this adventure story has a twist.

Erik Weihenmayer has quite the resume. He’s the only blind person to climb Everest, has summited the highest peaks on all seven continents, and most recently, he kayaked the Grand Canyon.

He’s also written several books, and will be speaking in Aspen today about his latest, titled “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon.”

“I think that our community in particular, the Aspen community will find his story really inspiring and relevant,” said Ellie Scott of Explore Booksellers, which is sponsoring the event.