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'Cloud Atlas' an overly pretentious disappointment

Feb. 28, 2013 |

By G. Michael Dobbs news@thereminder.com This week in the movie review column, the new film from the people who brought you "Persepolis" and one of the pretentious films I've ever endured.
Chicken with Plums
I'm a big fan of Iranian cartoonist and writer Marjane Satrapi, whose animated adaptation of her graphic novel "Persepolis" was a huge achievement in my book. I was looking forward to her live action film debut — with co-writer and director Vincent Parannaud and although the film is stylish and visually engaging, it was a disappointment. Set in Tehran in 1958, the film tells the story of acclaimed concert violinist Nasser-Ali Khan who decides he has no alternative other than to die and sets about waiting for death. Through clever editing, we learn that Khan's life was deeply affected by his first and only love and that his inability to be with her not only gave his playing ability the emotional element it was missing, but it ultimately caused his death. The difficulty with the film's story is that Khan is so single-minded and selfish it is almost impossible to have any empathy for his plight. Perhaps because this film is told in an unconventional manner — with animated sequences, flash forwards, flash backwards, switches from comedy to drama — the narrative is to be judged more of a fable or fairy tale than a "serious" story. Is the film is telling us is that a great artist should be immune from the everyday requirements of life? Perhaps. Satrapi and Parannaud seem to be leaning in this direction. I might be looking too hard at this cinematic confection, but as much as I wanted it to succeed, "Chicken with Plums" didn't satisfy.
Cloud Atlas
I went into viewing this film with a degree of expectation as it was written and directed by Tom Tykwer (director of "Run Lola Run") and Lana and Andy Wachowski, the siblings responsible for "The Matrix." I'm not sure if the novel by David Mitchell made any sense, but this over-long pretentious art house film failed to deliver its promised theme of how the ripples caused by events and actions can carry through time. The co-directors have assembled an interesting cast that included Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving. Each of these people play multiple roles in the stories that sometimes have apparent links, but sometimes don't. The film opens with an aged and scarred Hanks looking up at the stars. His character is in the far future, but not for long. The story then proceeds to whip about like a pinball bouncing around its machine. There's a story line about a middle age writer whose brother confines him to a prison-like rest home. Another story presents a tale of greed on the high seas mixed with a meditation on racism. The story that takes up the greatest amount of running time is a science fiction tale in which a clone leads a revolution that eventually matters to a primitive group of humans many years in the future. The idea is that all of these stories — and there are more — are somehow linked. There is nothing new with this approach — multiple stories over different times and places with the same cast members in many roles — as D. W. Griffith did in 1916 in "Intolerance." The difference is that Griffith's film had a point — it was about prejudice as seen over the ages. As try as I might, I couldn't discern a theme that united the various story lines. Instead the main game with "Cloud Atlas" seems to be guessing which actor is in which role in a story. That's not enough to sustain nearly three hours of screen time. The other off-putting part of this film was that in these politically correct times, I was amazed at how many of the non-Asian actors played Asian roles with all of the finesse of Roland Winters as Charlie Chan. A huge disappointment, "Cloud Atlas" is a film to avoid.

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