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Films I Neglected To Review: Rope-A-Dopes
by Peter Sobczynski

Winding up the year in moviegoing, please enjoy short reviews of "Cirque de Soleil: Worlds Away," "The Impossible" and "Not Fade Away."

I have never personally sat through a show by the wildly popular Cirque de Soleil but seeing as how hundreds of thousands of people have seen and enjoyed their various acrobatic extravaganzas over the years, I will manfully concede that they must be doing something right other than providing gainful employment to at least one member of my extended family. Alas, that does not extend to "Cirque de Soleil: Worlds Away," the group's botched attempt to transfer their popularity from the stage to the big screen via a vehicle that offers highlights from some of their most popular programs with the added attraction of 3-D photography presented under the supervision of none other than James Cameron himself. The film's flaws are twofold. For starters, instead of simply presenting the performances--which is all that anyone attending the film is presumably there to see in the first place--writer-director Andrew Adamson has instead elected to try to tie them all together via a spectacularly uninteresting framing device involving a young woman who meets a mysterious aerialist at a traveling circus and travels through a number of fantasy worlds in pursuit of him. (Put it this way--"Carny," this is not.) The bigger problem is that whatever excitement that the live show generates by seeing the performers going through their often-astonishing paces right before your eyes simply does not translate to the medium of film and the whole thing soon grows kind of monotonous, though those thrilled by the notion of watching 3-D close-ups fabulous and incredibly flexible minxes in tiny outfits contorting themselves into outrageous positions might disagree. (They might also wonder what the results might have been if Paul Verhoeven had been in the director's chair instead of the auteur of several of the Shrek and Narnia films.) "Worlds Away" is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a souvenir T-shirt and while that may satisfy fans of Cirque de Soleil, more casual observers are liable to feel as if it has left them hanging.

"The Impossible" is a film that asks audiences to do just that--to pay money to sit through a gruesomely detailed recreation of one of the most horrifying natural disasters of our time as seen through the eyes of a family caught up in circumstances way out of their control. In this case, the family consists of a British couple (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three young sons on their Christmas holiday at a beautiful beach resort--unfortunately, they are in Thailand circa 2004 and their idyll is shattered by the arrival of the deadly tsunami that instantly and remorselessly destroys everything in its path. Although separated by the wave and with the mother badly injured, they all manage to survive and the film chronicles their respective journeys through the physical and emotional devastation surrounding them in a desperate attempt to reunite against seemingly impossible odds. On the surface, it sounds like the worst kind of emotional manipulation in the way that it positions what is eventually a feel-good story of survival against such a nightmarish backdrop but "The Impossible" manages to pull it off thanks to a number of reasons. For one, director Juan Antonio Bayona demonstrates an astonishing sure hand with the material--the extended tsunami sequence is one of the most terrifyingly effective disaster scenes ever filmed and the more conventional dramatic moments are equally strong without ever feeling exploitative. For another, the performances are just as powerful--Watts and McGregor create indelible portrayals of parents driven to the brink by their need to protect their children while newcomer Tom Holland comes out of nowhere to dominate the proceedings with his amazing turn as their eldest son. And yet, while "The Impossible" is an undeniably powerful and incredibly well-made cinematic experience and I am glad that I saw it, I must confess that I cannot imagine that I will ever have the urge to subject myself to a second viewing in this lifetime.

In the wake of the stunning critical and commercial success of the groundbreaking television series "The Sopranos," show creator David Chase was presumably given the chance by Hollywood to write his own ticket for his first feature film in the hopes of striking gold twice. With "Not Fade Away," Chase returns to the suburbs of New Jersey but shifts the subject from organized crime to rock music to tell the story of a trio of teenagers in the mid-1960's who, inspired by the sight of the Rolling Stones on Ed Sullivan, decide to start their own band. Over the course of the next few years, they keep plugging away at it despite the usual personal obstacles, best represented by James Gandolfini as the traditional dad who doesn't know from mop-tops or Cuban heels, and intergroup jealousies like the pot-smoking mishap that inadvertently results in a key personnel shift. This may not be the most powerfully original story that you will encounter this season but thanks to Chase's expert writing and direction, a gallery of wonderful performances from a cast consisting mostly of unknowns and a killer soundtrack of period tunes compiled by Steven van Zandt, most viewers will be too entertained to care. It may not top the likes of "The Commitments" or "Almost Famous" in terms of classic rock movies but it is definitely worthy of being a part of that conversation and for those worried about Chase's ability to stick the landing in the wake of the controversial conclusion of "The Sopranos," I can assure you that he finds a closing image here that is just about perfect. Because it lacks the epic ambitions of Chase's previous work, there will no doubt be some who will dismiss this as a minor and unimportant work but I can assure you that of all the holiday movies out there, this is one of the most purely satisfying of the bunch in terms of sheer entertainment value.

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originally posted: 12/30/12 10:14:15
last updated: 12/30/12 10:40:02
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