Film Reviews: Impossible Pitch, Or A Wounded Showman Beguiled

December 26, 2022




Mission: Impossible – Fallout / Directed by Christopher McQuarrie / 13LV

Pitch Perfect 3 / Directed by Trish Sie / PGV

The Greatest Showman / Directed by Michael Gracey / PGDPV

We Don’t Belong Here / Directed by Peer Pedersen / 13D

Inxeba: The Wound / Directed by John Trengrove / 18DLNPSV

The Beguiled / Directed by Sofia Coppola / PGSV


Thanks to consistency of quality as much as a willingness to both get exceptionally creative with setpieces and take the risks necessary to make those fantasies reality, the Mission: Impossible franchise has arguably become the gold standard for secret agent/fast-paced action thrillers. Matt Damon-starring Bourne films keep pace but don’t come along as often, while James Bond is simply not on the same page for the moment. This instalment sees Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) needing to unravel an even more complex than usual nefarious scheme that kicks off when he makes the difficult decision to fail in completing a mission in favour of ensuring his team makes it out alive. The shadowy government sorts who hire him aren’t fans of having such ethics interfere with their outcomes, so they start to meddle with Hunt’s strategies, most notably by assigning him a CIA babysitter, played by Henry Cavill – a pleasing reference, having Superman as a colleague you don’t trust. From there on, there are a myriad cleverly executed double-crosses, which established fans of the franchise know must be there but will still likely fail to spot. There are some successful retro touches – the leaping all over the globe to take in a dozen countries as a vicarious tourist – coupled with seamless CGI and Cruise’s action-man derring-do (if you know where to look for it, you can actually see the actor breaking his foot in one scene, and then continuing to run). Fast-paced, and smart and funny to boot.


An unexpectedly massive hit up front, the Pitch Perfect franchise peaked in the first film, to the extent that it was deemed worthwhile to bring out a third chapter after a decent second stab at the idea. The formula for this instalment is decidedly different – beginning with a violent action scene on a boat, for one thing – and the charm of the original (both the over-achieving underdog angle and the brilliance of the singing and the arrangements of the music) is sadly absent. Ironically, the development of all the central characters during the previous films means that their established forms of interaction and repartee are enough to keep things afloat for most of the running time of this last (we are assured) in the trilogy. The dark, often bitter banter of a capella contest commentators John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks remains a highlight, but for the most part, the expectations created by the first couple of chapters in this series don’t come close to being met, and that frustration clouds your enjoyment even as the Bellas get together one last time.


That this now hugely successful film was savaged by many critics reveals a satisfying sort of irony. The major complaints about the piece were to do with its historical inaccuracies in painting PT Barnum, entrepreneur, ringmaster and giant of early showbusiness (in the commercial sense, anyway; it could be argued that many singers, magicians and playwrights in preceding centuries could have been similarly described) as a driven, often ruthless but basically pleasant chap, and simply ignoring some of the less savoury truths about his way of doing business, and of the era in which he operated (the mid-19th Century). But in the same way that Barnum himself (as the charismatic Hugh Jackman plays him here or in his factual historical incarnation) created fantasy worlds in which his customers could lose themselves for a bit, the filmmakers, cast and writers of the soundtrack – Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, also responsible for award-winning work in La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen – have produced a place where modern audiences can, if they are able to similarly suspend disbelief, experience a similar diversion. It’s a production that has appealed to huge numbers of established musicals fans, and which has likely introduced an appreciable new audience to the delight and daftness of narratives punctuated by enthusiastic singing and magnificent choreography that happens to make the most of the structures in the setting in which the characters find themselves. An historically accurate biopic of Barnum would certainly be fascinating, but to suggest that outcome was ever the goal here is like saying that every group of transvestites who drives across Australia in a bus is going to have a moving story to tell. And once you’re on board with the story – satisfactory though it is, mind – being necessarily superficial in order to fit in all the musical setpieces and keep the pace at an entertaining level, The Greatest Showman flies. There is not a weak song in the repertoire performed by an excellent cast (with occasional exceptions; singer Loren Allred stands in vocally for actress Rebecca Ferguson), and the musical highlights – A Million Dreams, Never Enough, This Is Me and Rewrite The Stars among them – are well on their way to becoming classics already. More whimsically, this is a film that generated a great deal of joy, a vastly underrated emotion or phenomenon is a world driven by corruption and violence, according to the news headlines. And that’s not to say that the story is absurdly cheerful: there are numerous ups and downs as Barnum’s fortunes rise and fall and rise and fall again, but as the character strives to achieve something magical, viewers will find themselves wanting him to succeed so they can experience the result. On DVD, this is a keeper likely to get watched again and again.


The late Anton Yelchin’s final movie (a dedication to his memory at the beginning of the film rather distracts from what comes later; it might have been wiser to place it at the end), ensemble drama We Don’t Belong Here suffers from what feels like trying to feel too weighty. It’s themes – the examination of dysfunctional family relationships and the impact of abuse – are certainly worthy but, while such subject matter would never make for particularly easy viewing, the structure of this piece, which cuts and pastes narratives following the perspectives of different characters, makes its audience work harder than many might feel its entertainment value is worth. Catherine Keener as the matriarch of a sadly broken family (her four grown kids are all obviously damaged, in ways that many viewers will be able to relate to, sadly) gives a strong performance, if one that is fairly typical of her indie film output. Maya Rudolph, as Keener’s characters best friend, adds some valuable balance with her humour, though her character is no less damaged. Not a happy film, which is fine, but also not a particularly compelling one, which is more of a problem.


The response from certain conservative elements to Inxeba – could they have fitted anymore letters in the age restriction here? – has given the piece a very different profile to what it otherwise might have had, or perhaps deserved. It’s an intimate, penetrating look at the initiation ceremony Xhosa boys are expected to go to as they move from childhood to manhood, and at the multi-faceted cultural complexities and prejudices that are part and parcel of the process. For anyone with a vaguely open mind, it’s a fascinating look (particularly if you are not of Xhosa descent) into the circumcision camps that often make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, if or when a youngster dies after a botched incision becomes infected.In this narrative, the homosexuality of one of the mentors, Xolani (Nakhane Toure), who returns from the city to the rural area near his home to take part in the camp, is a concurrent topic of controversy, with  Xolani unashamedly meeting his needs with an old partner with whom he enjoys a reunion while also needing to keep his sexual orientation secret from the community at large for fear of being marginalised. Meeting expectations and being true to himself requires Xolani to walk a difficult line, and John Trengrove’s carefully paced direction and Toure’s focused performance combine to give viewers a genuine feel for a scenario in which a young man comes to understand his place in the world – flawed as that context is.


A remake – the original was released in 1971 – The Beguiled is supposedly a gothic thriller, but that doesn’t feel like a particularly apt description once you get into it. Colin Farrell plays an injured Union soldier taken in by a group or women and girls living in a boarding school in the South during the American Civil War. The thrust (as it were) of the story is that the arrival of a charming, good-looking man begins – regardless of his politics or agenda – is reason enough to set off a chain reaction of repressed sexuality that forever changes their relationships. But even from the initial set-up stages, there is precious little fizz, and “thriller”, it quickly becomes clear, is a desperately inaccurate descriptor. The locations, sets and costumes look wonderful, but that’s just cosmetics – the superficial beauty doesn’t outweigh the general leadenness of the piece.