‘Cloud Atlas’ Has Cult Classic Written All Over It

With a movie like “Cloud Atlas,” I go into it expecting to be overwhelmed by the visual spectacle and unable to understand all of what is going on in the story. On this level, the movie does not disappoint as you kind of need a road map to tell you who’s who and what’s what. Then again, what matters most when watching something like this for the first time (and watching it once is never enough) is you get the gist of what’s going on. The gist of this story here is that everything and everyone is connected in one way or another, and once you understand this. then the film becomes a fascinating movie going experience.

Some will say “Cloud Atlas” is too damn ambitious, and we need to stop saying it like it’s a bad thing. What’s wrong with being too ambitious in this day and age? It may cause filmmakers to take a wrong step from time to time, but it also guarantees we will get a cinematic experience unlike many others we often watch. This project brings together the Wachowski siblings who gave us “The Matrix” trilogy and Tom Tykwer who directed the brilliantly kinetic “Run Lola Run,” and “Cloud Atlas” represents some of the best work they have ever done.

The film is based on the book of the same name by David Mitchell, and it interweaves six stories which take place in different time periods: the Pacific Ocean circa 1850, Zedelgem, Belgium 1931, San Francisco, California 1975, the United Kingdom in 2012, Neo Seoul (Korea) in the 22nd century, and the last story takes place on a beautiful ocean island in a time which could be our past but might actually be our future. Guessing which time period the island story takes place in is one of the film’s great mysteries right up to the end.

The characters range from 65-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish who flees from the associates of a jailed gangster to Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered clone who is freed from her servitude as a fast-food restaurant server to explore a world which she discovers lives to exploit her kind. “Cloud Atlas” travels back and forth through these stories, and once everything is set up the film becomes an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future. One person ends up going from being a killer in one life to being a hero in another, and one act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and many other actors here end up playing many different roles. They will be recognizable in some, and others will only become clear when you stay through the end credits. I can’t help but wonder how they kept track of all the different characters they played, some which are of a gender opposite their own.

Hanks’ performance in “Cloud Atlas” goes all over the map as he plays characters as varied as a tribesman trying to rebuild his life in a post-apocalyptic world to a doctor who looks to steal from a patient more than help him. I especially liked his role as Isaac Sachs, a worker at a nuclear power plant in the San Francisco story. Hanks is always so good when he underplays a role, and Isaac was the one character of his I wish was expanded on a bit more. At the same time, I think he is miscast as Scottish gangster Dermot Hoggins which has him doing a lot of bombastic acting for no really good reason. Where’s Jason Statham when you need him?

Berry’s career since her Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” has seen a lot of peaks and valleys, but she also does strong work here as a variety of characters. Like Hanks, she is especially good in the San Francisco story as reporter Luisa Rey. She also has some strong moments as Meronym, a member of a technologically advanced civilization who may not be all she appears to be.

Jim Broadbent, as always, is a blast to watch in each role as he is so delightfully animated whether he’s playing a publisher in hiding or a composer as famous as he is vindictive. Ben Whishaw, who played Q in “Skyfall,” “Spectre” and “No Time to Die,” is heartbreaking as Robert Frobisher whose artistic ambitions are unforgivably shattered. And Hugo Weaving channels his Agent Smith energy from “The Matrix” to portray a number of nasty antagonists, one of which threatens to give Nurse Ratched from “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” a run for her money.

But the best performance comes from Doona Bae who portrays the engineered clone Sonmi-451. Although she is not really a human being, Bae infuses this character with such a strong humanity to where she makes you feel the emotions she soon experiences herself. Just a look into those piercing eyes of hers is enough to melt one’s heart as Sonmi-451 finds a power no mere mortal can easily obtain, and one of her last moments onscreen speaks to a truth which no one person or a government can ever simply wipe away.

For the Wachowskis, “Cloud Atlas” represents a big comeback after the boring fiasco which was “Speed Racer.” I’m also thankful it doesn’t have the same kind of ending “The Matrix Revolutions” had because that would have driven me nuts. For Tykwer, the film represents a chance for us to re-evaluate him as a filmmaker. Ever since his incredible success with “Run Lola Run,” people have taken him to task (perhaps more so than they should have) for not making a film as good as that one was. But together, these three have created a visual feast which has you glued to your seat and at attention for almost three hours (yes, it’s long, but you won’t really notice).

“Cloud Atlas” was an independently made film, and an expensive one at that with a budget of over $100 million. It’s easy to see why no major movie studio would take the whole thing on themselves; it has a dense narrative which goes all over the place, and it forces the audience to pay close attention in a way most movies never demand them to. The fact it was not a big hit at the box office is sad because you want audiences to embrace films like this more as they try to do something different from the norm.

Regardless of its flaws, “Cloud Atlas” looks to be one of those films which will have a long shelf life. It invites repeated viewings so you can take in new meaning s you didn’t see the first time around, and you will come out of it wondering how the filmmakers put the whole thing together. This one definitely has cult classic written all over it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ is an Action Movie Buff’s Wet Dream

John Wick Chapter 3 movie poster

The “John Wick” movies have been an action movie buff’s wet dream, and “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. It is an exhilarating ride featuring a vast assortment of brutal fight sequences with all kinds of weapons being utilized, and even horses are around to provide painful injuries to assassins eager to terminate the ex-hitman who hasn’t lost a beat since his retirement. Yes, the body count is high, and taking this into account reminded me of what Col. Trautman told Sheriff Will Teasle will need to have handy while trying to capture John Rambo in “First Blood:”

“A good supply of body bags.”

Yes, and you need a really good supply of body bags when it comes to taking down John Wick. This ex-hitman has been legendary from the get-go to where crime lords, once they realize who they are up against, can only say “oh shit” when his name is mentioned. Going into “John Wick: Chapter 3,” I hoped those looking to take out Mr. Wick bought their body bags in bulk from Costco. Better yet, they still sell coffins, right?

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” begins shortly after Mr. Wick was declared excommunicado by his handlers at the High Table after killing a crime lord on the grounds of the New York City Continental. Winston (Ian McShane) has given John an hour head start, and this chapter starts off with only a half hour so remaining before the $14 million bounty is made public to all assassins. As John runs furiously through the streets of New York City, even a homeless bum is aware that the contract on his life is about to begin, so who can he possibly trust?

Even before his hour is up0, we find John fighting the first of many adversaries with only a book. It certainly worked for Matt Damon in the “Jason Bourne” movies, but Keanu Reeves takes things a step further by killing someone by breaking the guy’s neck with the book, and it is a brutal kill which had me saying “ouch” out loud in the theater. I love action movies which have me reacting viscerally to the violence on screen, and this is definitely one of them. Sitting back and passively observing routine action sequences is something I have long since grown weary of watching, so it’s always reassuring when something like “John Wick” comes along as the filmmakers make you feel all the punches, bullets, knives and horse kicks which come to be inflicted on dozens upon dozens of characters, most of whom have no idea who they are dealing with.

In “John Wick: Chapter 2,” it quickly became clear that it would take more than one bullet to take out an opponent. In this chapter, the same rule applies to when knives are used as it takes three or four to stop your assailant dead in their tracks. One of the first big action sequences involves characters hurling the sharpest of knives at one another, and I’m guessing it was adrenaline which kept some going even after the second knife inserted into their bodies failed to put them down. And just when you think a knife isn’t going to be shoved into a certain part of the body, it does. It’s nice to see an action movie which not only defies your expectations, but also refuses to set limits in terms of which body parts get damaged.

But in the midst of all the crazy action scenes, there is a story and characters worth following. With what seems like the whole world coming after John Wick, you have to wonder why he still wants to have a pulse after all he has been through. His answer is he wants to preserve the memory of his late wife, Helen, and to earn the right to do so. The question is, will he be willing to pay the price to make this happen?

Keanu Reeves is an actor most people are quick to ridicule as they don’t see him as having much range, and that’s putting it nicelt. We first got to know him as Ted Theodore Logan in the “Bill & Ted” movies, and since then many have been quite to call him a terrible actor as he appears to give only one-note performances. I myself am willing to defend Reeves more than my friends are willing to on a regular basis. He has given memorable performances in “Permanent Record,” “Speed,” “Point Break,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “The Matrix.” Still, there are those who are quick to remind us of the work he did in “The Whole Truth” and “Knock Knock,” and watching him in those movies proves to be as painful as the bruises he suffers throughout this sequel.

Reeves really hits it out of the park here, and he throws himself into this role in both a literal and figurative sense. I also have to say he handles guns with such ferocity and precision to where I cannot think of another actor who can accomplish the same feat so effectively. I had no problem accepting him as a hardened assassin who is lethal beyond repair, and he has long since turned this tragic figure into much, much more than the B-movie antihero he started out as. And considering how Reeves has suffered more tragedy in his personal life than any one person should ever have to endure, he has a full understanding of John’s loss and of the importance to stay alive to keep the memory of his late wife alive. Yes, it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit this character as effectively as he does.

Oscar winner Halle Berry shows up as Sofia, a close friend of John’s and an assassin just like him, and she handles firearms every bit as well as Reeves does. Too bad she disappears from this sequel far too soon.

The great Anjelica Huston steals every scene she has as the Director, a strict dance instructor and member of the Ruska Roma who offers John safe passage. Even as Huston makes this character look cold as steel, she allows you to see the brief glimmers of humanity she is forced to show at her most painful moments.

And as always, it is great to see Ian McShane back as Winston, the owner and manager of the Continental Hotel in New York. Ever since I first saw him in the brilliant “Sexy Beast,” McShane has never failed to make the slimiest and nefarious of characters all the more intriguing to where you can’t take your eyes off of him for a second. The same goes here as he makes Winston an enigma as the character holds his cards close to his chest while manipulating those around him with a controlled glee.

I came out of “John Wick: Chapter 2” wondering if there was any way director Chad Stahelski could top the insane mayhem that sequel had to offer. While this third chapter has a slightly lower body count, I think he has succeeded in doing so as the ways Mr. Wick dispatches his enemies are infinite to where no one can or even should feel safe around him. The only thing more insane is how it sets the ground work for a fourth chapter which is now set to be released in 2021. Personally, I cannot wait for the next chapter as this third one proves to be the kind of exhilarating and exhausting action movie I am always hoping to see at the local multiplex.

It’s almost a shame “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is coming out now as we can only pray the other movies of the 2019 movie season can measure up to this one in terms of endless excitement and the adrenaline rush. This one was well worth the wait, and it continues to provide Keanu Reeves with some of the best work in his long career.

I also have to say this sequel may very well have more scenes of exploding glass or characters being thrown into glass with epic shattering effect since “Another 48 Hours,” and that sequel came out in 1990. If there has been another movie since then which topped it before this “John Wick” chapter did, please let me know.

* * * * out of * * * *

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X Men Days of Future Past poster

Okay, let me get it out of the way now; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not only the best “X-Men” movie since “X2,” but it is also the most entertaining and emotionally powerful film of the franchise to date. For a while, it seemed like the series peaked as the succeeding sequels and prequels were critically maligned to where you wondered if this particular superhero franchise had finally overstayed its welcome. But with Bryan Singer, having been led away by Superman and a giant slayer among others things, back behind the camera again, everything feels fresh and invigorating again, and it’s hard to think of another “X-Men” movie which can top this one.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” starts off in a very bleak future where sentient robots known as Sentinels have exterminated most of the mutants as well as those humans who have helped them. Not much is left which leads me to believe that in the process of protecting humanity, humans ended up destroying themselves by creating the Sentinels. Time is running out for the remaining X-Men which include Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake / Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and of course Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and they hide away in a Chinese monastery and prepare to use the only method they can to save all of humanity: time travel.

Charles explains to Logan of how they need to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the military scientist who created the Sentinels, by Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While it is completely understandable for any mutant to hate Bolivar with a passion, his assassination ends up making him a martyr and Raven gets captured and experimented on to where the analysis of her mutant powers help to make the Sentinels all the more effective. So Logan, with the help of Shadowcat, ends up traveling back to the year 1973 to stop Raven from killing Bolivar as he is the only one of the group who can withstand the rigors of time travel. But just when you think this is going to turn into the usual time-travel flick, it becomes anything but.

What I love about the “X-Men” movies are how they focus on character as much as they do on visual effects. The mutants are treated as the outcasts of society, and we feel their pain at being excluded for who they are. Singer understands this pain, and it makes his return to the franchise all the more welcome. Also, there’s something bigger at stake than changing the course of events in time, and that’s preserving hope. While Morgan Freeman said in “The Shawshank Redemption” of how hope is a dangerous thing as it can drive a man insane, the mutants (the good ones anyway) thrive on it because they know no one can live any other way. Even in the darkest of times, they strive to make the world a better place for all of humanity. You feel the weight of the choices they are about to make, and it produced moments which truly left me on the edge of my seat.

After playing Wolverine for so many years, I figured Hugh Jackman would be sick of the character as he remained a moody son of a bitch in. But the great thing about Wolverine this time around is how he and Charles Xavier essentially trade places. In the previous films, Charles was always trying to get Wolverine to look past his anger and bitterness to embrace a better path in life, and now Wolverine has to do the same for Charles. When we catch up with the younger Professor X (this time played by James McAvoy) in 1973, he is a broken man who has regained the ability to walk (don’t worry, there is an explanation) and has become more comfortable being a functioning alcoholic instead of being a teacher. His school is now empty since the Vietnam War took away many of his students, and he spends his days hanging out with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hout) who tends to his needs.

In some ways, Jackman looks really invigorated this time around as Wolverine proves to be the source of hope the other characters desperately need. He still remains the Wolverine we all know and love, and it’s a lot of fun watching him interact with the cast members of “X-Men: First Class.” Both McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto, once again make these iconic roles their own without the shadows of Stewart and McKellen hovering over them. It’s also great to see Hout and Jennifer Lawrence back as well as both actors make Beast and Mystique more than just a couple of mere supporting characters.

It’s also great to see a lot of veteran “X-Men” actors here as I was afraid we would never see them together again in the same movie. Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page and Ashmore make their welcome returns count for every second of their screen time. And yes, Anna Paquin does make an appearance as Marie/Rogue. She’s only in the movie for a little bit, but at least she didn’t get cut out of it completely.

The screenwriter of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Simon Kinberg, and it is based on the famous comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. For a time, I thought this was going to be your typical time travel movie where everything hinges on a pivotal moment in human history, but Kinberg has a few surprises in store for us as the story doesn’t stop at the moment we expect it to. The characters are acutely aware of the ripple effects they can cause in the history of things, and there’s no time wasted on showing how out of place they are in the 70’s as they always seem to be out of place in everyone’s eyes regardless of the decade.

There are also a bunch of new mutants joining the party this time around, and the one which stands out the most is Pietro Maximoff /Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters. Peters is a gas to watch as his character moves at supersonic speeds around everyone, and he injects a good dose of humor into the proceedings. Singer also features Quicksilver in one of the movie’s most ingenious sequences which is scored to the most unlikely of songs. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has to be seen to be believed.

Another standout performance in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Peter Dinklage’s as Bolivar Trask. Like any good actor, Dinklage keeps Bolivar from becoming another one-dimensional villain as he infuses the character with an arrogance and blind ambition which makes him all the more dangerous. Bolivar believes deeply in what he is doing as he feels it is right, and you come out of the movie pitying him. This is a character who has struggled all his life to get the respect he feels he deserves, and he never gives much thought to the consequences of his actions.

I also got to give kudos to Richard Camacho who plays President Richard Nixon. After watching Frank Langella portray this American President in “Frost/Nixon,” I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another actor play Nixon again as anyone else would have simply played him as a caricature. But I was surprised to see how good Camacho was because he didn’t give us the usual Nixon as this movie would have suffered as a result.

But in many ways, the biggest star of this “X-Men” movie is Singer himself. Regardless of his current legal predicament (I’m not even going into that here), he makes a comeback of sorts with this entry as his last few efforts have seen him lose his touch as a filmmaker. No, I haven’t seen “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but I have yet to hear my friends say anything good about it. But just as he did with the first “X-Men” movies, he does a terrific job of balancing out the visual effects with character development, and what results is the most emotionally satisfying comic book blockbuster I’ve ever seen. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which was really good, set the bar high, but Singer surpasses it by a wide margin with this installment.

After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” you will agree that “X-Men: Apocalypse” can’t come soon enough. Seriously, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” only dreamed of being this good.

* * * * out of * * * *