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Films I Neglected To Review: !!!!!
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry," "Crisis," "Pinocchio" and "The Vigil."

Billie Eilish may be one of the biggest names in popular music working today--deservedly so, I should add--but even the most dedicated members of her massive fan base might find themselves raising eyebrows at the notion of watching a 140-minute-long documentary about her meteoric rise to fame. Sure, there have been similarly lengthy films recently about cult favorites like Frank Zappa and Sparks who have never enjoyed her level of mainstream success but in those cases, they at least had careers spanning decades longer than the 19-year-old Eilish has been alive. "Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry," the new film from R.J. Cutler (whose previous effort was the Showtime documentary on John Belushi) covers the period from 2018-2020 when she went from being the young cult favorite behind the hit single "Ocean Eyes" and EP "Don't Smile At Me" (2017) to one of the biggest names in the music industry and is roughly broken up into two equal parts (including intermission). In the first half, we see Eilish and her brother/collaborator Phinneas O'Connell writing and recording the songs for her first full-length album, "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?," culminating with its release to near-universal acclaim and an appearance at the 2019 Coachella music festival where she wows the crowd despite technical difficulties and, perhaps more significantly, finally meets her long-time idol, Justin Bieber. In the second half, we follow her as she tries to deal with the fallout from the unexpected massive success of the album, ranging from dealing with physical and emotional burnout and the demands of industry weasels to sweeping the Grammy Awards and landing the coveted gig of writing and performing the title tune to the new James Bond film, "No Time to Die."

While making a film of this length about a singer with exactly one full album to their credit might seem like a supreme act of hubris under normal circumstances, I suppose it can be forgiven in this case on the basis that it takes the place of her pandemic-scuttled world tour that would have normally served as the final word and victory lap for this particular era. Needless to say, the film proves to be such a deep dive into all things Eilish that those who are not already hardcore fans going in are likely to find it to be rough going after a while. That said, even fans may find it to be just a bit too much of a good thing as it goes into granular detail regarding a career trajectory that just unfolded in public a short time ago. That said, Eilish is an engaging presence--the film might have been virtually intolerable otherwise--the behind-the-scenes footage of her creating her music is interesting and the clips of her performing are suitably mesmerizing. While "Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry" may not quite hit the heights of such fascinating recent music documentaries as "Zappa" or "Miss Americana," but it is still a intriguing look at the development of a modern music powerhouse and it should help tide fans over until the next chapter of her career arrives.

Back in 2012, writer-director Nicholas Jarecki made "Arbitrage," a flawed-yet-interesting experiment in utilizing melodrama to explore a major social crisis--in that case, the 2008 financial meltdown and its fallout. Now he has returned with his latest film, "Crisis" and once again uses melodrama to explore another one of the great ills of our time--the opioid epidemic--but this time around, I will not have to deploy the phrase 'but-interesting." For this film, he weaves together a trio of narratives involving people trying to combat the opioid problem in different ways. In one, an undercover DEA agent (Armie Hammer) gets in too deep while trying to set up a bust involving Canadian and Armenian mobsters and dealing with a sister (Lily-Rose Depp) who is an addict herself. In another, an architect (Evangeline Lilly), herself a recovering opiate addict, learns that her seemingly straight-arrow son has died of an apparent overdose but when certain aspects do not add up, she takes it upon herself to find out what happened to him and to make those responsible pay. Finally, a professor at a private college (Gary Oldman) with a lucrative side gig running tests on new medications for pharmaceutical companies but when tests show that a supposedly non-addictive pill about to hit the market is actually three times more addictive than Oxycontin, he faces opposition from both the company and the dean of the university (Greg Kinnear), who will go to great lengths to keep him from making his findings public.

Because it deals with the topic of the drug problem in America and because it uses multiple narratives to look at the problem of combating it from different perspectives, most people will look at "Crisis" as a contemporary version of Steven Soderbergh's award-winning "Traffic." While some aspects of that earlier film have not exactly stood the test of time (the color-coding of the various plotlines now plays like hand-holding overkill), it was largely an ambitious and serious-minded exploration of a problem that affected people regardless of race, gender or economic status that was smart enough to recognize that there were no easy solutions to be had. The trouble with "Crisis" is that while Jarecki presumably went in with the best intentions, the results just do not work. The stories are mostly boilerplate melodramas and the one that initially seems like it could be the most promising and valuable--the one involving the professor-turned-whistleblower confronting both the problem he is trying to expose and his own past culpability--quickly fritters it away to nothing. To make matters more irritating, Jarecki seems to be illustrating the impossibility for any one person to truly make a difference in the face of such a massive problem but then gives each of his stories a pat final moment in which the main characters are able to do just that. The best thing about it is probably the Oldman performance but even that doesn't quite justify everything else since not even his pronounced talents are enough to overcome the hackneyed writing that he is working with throughout. (Everyone else is passable at best, though some viewers may now cringe at the sight of Hammer tying up a character at one point.) "Crisis" is well-meaning and clearly wants to be taking as a serious cinematic examination of a national problem but in the end, it proves to be a bit of a pill itself.

After achieving international success with his 1998 hit comedy-drama "Life is Beautiful," Roberto Benigni decided to use all of the clout that he had acquired to make an enormously expensive live-action version of the children's classic 'Pinocchio' that would hew much closer to the original Carlo Collodi story than the justifiably famous 1940 animated version from Walt Disney. While the resulting 2002 film featured stunning contributions from cinematographer Dante Spinotti and production designer Danilo Donati, their efforts and the film as a whole was fatally undone by two things--Benigni's inexplicable decision to play the title role (making him the first and only Pinocchio to apparently suffer from the early stages of male pattern baldness) and the decision by Harvey Weinstein to redub the entire thing for American release that resulted in a middle-aged man enacting the role of Pinocchio while utilizing the voice of Breckin Meyer. The end result was so disastrous that it pretty much stopped Benigni's career behind the camera dead (he has only directed one more film since then) and while the original Italian cut received some praise when it was eventually made available on DVD, it is still considered to be one of the most baffling bombs in cinema history. Therefore, when it was announced that Matteo Garrone, who hit it big with his acclaimed 2008 crime drama "Gomorrah," was not only going to produce a new and wildly expensive live-action version of "Pinocchio" but was going to include Benigni in the cast--albeit in the slightly more appropriate role of Geppetto--most observers probably checked to make sure that it wasn't actually April Fool's Day.

As it turns out, "Pinocchio" (which arrived in some theaters last Christmas and is just now hitting home video) is no joke and it is, in fact, a pretty effective movie. That said, I should state right up front that while the story is more or less the same--I assume that I do not have the relate the particulars here--but Garrone takes a darker and weirder approach to the material that is definitely closer in tone to the original book but which may prove to be too much for younger viewers to bear. (The scene in which Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) and a fellow bad boy are transformed into donkeys is almost painful to watch.) Adding to the surreal tone of the piece is the inspired decision employ practical makeup effects to bring Pinocchio and the other characters, many of whom combine human and animal features, to life in ways that suggest the illustrations found in an old book brought to life. Make no mistake, the definitive version of "Pinocchio" is still the 1940 version--which may have diverted from the original text but which is nevertheless remains one of Disney's greatest works--and it is definitely not for the younger kids but so much of it works (even Benigni is relatively tolerable) that it is definitely worth a look.

As "The Vigil" begins, Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) has recently left his close-knit Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in the wake of a personal tragedy and is at loose ends as to where to go with his life. After leaving a support group meeting for other defectors, he is approached by his former rabbi (Menashe Lustig) with an offer to serve as a paid shomer--someone who watches over the body of the recently deceased in accordance with Jewish tradition--for a Holocaust survivor who has just passed and who has no family around to do the task other than a wife (Lynn Cohen) suffering from dementia. Yakov agrees, though only because the rabbi offers to pay him for the service, but when he arrives, he finds that the widow seems fairly alert and insists that he leave immediately. Wanting to get paid, Yakov ignores her warning and settles in for the night in the living room alongside the sheet-draped corpse. Not surprisingly, things do not go quite as planned and while I won't give any big reveals, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to learn that a.) Yakov is not as alone as he would appear to be and b.) whatever is there with him is determined to thwart his efforts to escape.

While I presume that "The Vigil" will have a deeper and more profound meaning for members of the Hasidic faith, even the most clueless goyim will still be able to appreciate this debut feature from writer-director Keith Thomas for what it is--a stylishly-made and undeniably effective horror film that may be low-fi and relatively gore-free (it even comes with a PG-13 rating) but does not let its relative restraint get in the way of quietly creeping out those watching it. Although relatively spare in terms of setup--outside of the opening segment and a couple of flashbacks explaining Yakov's decision to leave his faith, the film is set almost entirely within the confines of the dead man's apartment and the only characters with substantial screen time are him, the widow and the rabbi--the screenplay does an effective job of establishing the premise and then running with it, though, as is often the case, the setup proves to be more intriguing than the resolution. I admit that the screenplay may lean a little too heavily on jump scares (backed by an overly insistent score that is perhaps the film's one significant flaw) that usually tend to grate after a while but Thomas delivers them with such skill that I didn't mind them. He also gets a strong performance from Davis in what is essentially a one-man show for long stretches of time and an equally effective supporting turn from Cohen as the widow who may or may not know more than she is letting on. It is a shame that current circumstances will mean that most people will wind up seeing "The Vigil" at home instead of in a theater, where I can imagine it playing like gangbusters for a properly primed crowd, but it says a lot about the considerable strengths of the film that it should prove to be just as effective for viewers sitting in their own darkened living rooms, perhaps wondering about that strange noise they thought that they heard behind them.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4295
originally posted: 02/26/21 23:58:16
last updated: 02/27/21 03:19:45
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