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Films I Neglected To Review: The Dumb Generation
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Infamous," "Long Gone Summer" and "Mr. Topaze."

Chicago's Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are continuing their virtual cinema partnerships with independent film distributors to bring the movies that they normally would have been screening into homes via streaming arrangements and collect a portion of the proceeds as a way of helping to keep them in business during these trying times. At the Music Box, the new offerings include a new restoration of Peter Sellers's rarely-seen 1961 directorial debut "Mr Topaze" (see below). "Sometimes Always Never" features the great Bill Nighy as a man trying to mend his relationship with his younger son while trying to discover if the unknown Scrabble player he has been competing with online is actually his older son, who stomped out of the house during a game and has not been heard from since. "Picture a Scientist" is a documentary from Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck that takes a look at the new wave of female scientists and how their experiences, research and discoveries are revolutionizing their fields of expertise.Through the Siskel Center, you can view "Marona's Fantastic Tale," a visually striking and emotionally stirring animated film that takes look at the life of a stray dog who goes from one owner to the next and who tries to find as much love and happiness as she can, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. (Although more or less suitable for kids, there are moments--especially at the very beginning--that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.) There are also two documentaries--"For They Know Not What They Do," which explores the recent push for full LGBTQ equality and the ways that they are having their attempts thwarted via campaigns that claim to stress "religious freedom" but which are clearly designed to discriminate., and "In My Blood It Runs," which follows a ten-year-old Australian Aborigine child named Dujuan and the conflict that arises when the heritage he is taught by his family is challenged by a school system that only acknowledges white culture and which sees him as nothing more than a troublemaker.

To order the Music Box titles, go to musicboxtheatre.com For the offerings from the Siskel Center, go to siskelfilmcenter.org/filmcenterfromyoursofa


It was probably inevitable that some film would take the standard violent criminal-lovers-on-the-run-from-a-society-that-just-doesn't-understand template and apply it to the age of social media, where the central characters can not only literally broadcast their crimes to the world as they are happening but even monitor their growing fan base as well. It is too bad, however, that the film in question would turn out to be "Infamous," a genuinely dreadful movie that clearly yearns to be considered as the natural successor to "Bonnie & Clyde" (which it even namechecks at one point) and "Natural Born Killers" (which it doesn't dare to overtly mention) but which even at its best generally fails in comparison with the ugly likes of "The Doom Generation" at its worst. Arielle (Bella Thorne) is a young woman living the trailer trash life in a small Florida town and yearning to break free and, more importantly, become famous and admired, especially on social media. One day, she meets bad-boy-with-a-criminal-past Dean (Jake Manley, looking like an escapee from a project inexplicably charged with cloning Stephen Dorff) and before long, circumstance force them to leave town in a hurry. Short on cash, the two decide to rob a convenience store for some quick cash and Arielle decides that it would be a brilliant idea to not only record the crime on her cell phone but to post it as well. (Don't worry--they are wearing masks and she has a super-strong IP blocker.) Dean thinks this is a remarkably stupid idea but once the likes start piling up, she continues to post footage of their crime spree and he goes along with the plan. Before long, the body count begins to rise along with the viewing stats and while Dean thinks that Arielle's obsession with social media fame is going to eventually get them jailed or killed, she wants to keep things going in order to placate her growing collection of followers.

The idea of a couple of young people embarking on a violent crime spree primarily to boost their social media profile (their interest in the money acquired during their crimes is nominal at best) sounds like an ideal premise for a darkly funny satire on contemporary culture--an increasingly debased place where shooting someone in the head can only boost someoneís standing on Twitter-in the manner of "Natural Born Kiilers," which sort of anticipated it all, did for the media more than a quarter-century ago. Writer-director Joshua Caldwell clearly thinks that this is what he has created here but that is completely belied by what is up there on the screen. The storyline is incredibly dumb and implausible, the insights on Where We Are Now and Where We Are Heading offered up are so facile and lacking in anything resembling insight that they would be laughed out of most entry-level sociology classes and the two main characters come across as people who have the collective IQ of a rutabaga and elect to play down their intelligence. At least Bonnie & Clyde and Mickey & Mallory were interesting characters who felt like genuine products of their respective environments--this is what made them watchable--even likable--despite the gruesome nature of their deeds. By comparison, the main characters here are empty-headed slackwits who are of absolute no real interest at any point, even when they slip over into cold-blooded murder, and the shallow performances from Thorne and Manley do not help matters in the slightest. The only mildly effective scenes in the film are the ones involving Amber Riley as a fan of the duo who winds up encountering them herself--sadly, just when this thread threatens to get interesting, it winds up petering out into nothing. Shallow, stupid and largely devoid of anything resembling a point or a purpose, "Infamous" is a film that would probably appeal only to its own main characters and even they might come away from it wearing for something else.

For those of you who watched every second of the mammoth miniseries "The Last Dance" and are clamoring for another documentary looking back on a defining moment in recent sports history that occurred in 1998 and involved a Chicago-based team, ESPN has come to your rescue with "Long Gone Summer" (premiering this Sunday), the new entry in their acclaimed "30 For 30" series that examines how that yearís baseball season turned into a home run derby that captivated the nation as two players vied to break Roger Marisís record for the most home runs in a single season. When the season began, many expected St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire to make a run for the title and he did not disappoint. However, while he was racking up the home runs, an unexpected challenger emerged in the form of Sammy Sosa, a relative newcomer who played for the Cardinals' chief rival, the Chicago Cubs. As the season progressed, the two continued to hit them out of the park and the fan base that had cooled on the sport following the 1994 players strike (and subsequent cancellation of the World Series) returned to the fold, captivated by both the run for the record and the sense of friendly competition that developed between the two men. The whole story is recounted through loads of archival footage as well as interviews with sports reporters, analysts and McGwire and Sosa themselves.

Directed by AJ Schnack, the two-hour film is a slickly made work that is effective enough as a nostalgia trip but which is marred by two flaws, one minor and unavoidable and one significant and extremely questionable. The minor problem is that the good-natured back-and-forth that developed between McGwire and Sosa--each one always quick to praise the achievements of others--made for an undeniably feel-good story at the time but the lack of any overt conflict between them results in a certain lack of drama after a while. The bigger problem is that this dream season, as we all now know, would prove to be too good to be true when both were hit with accusations that they were using performance-enhancing drugs that would cast a shadow on that season and their accomplishments. (It is virtually impossible to watch the always-exuberant Sosa bouncing around without thinking about what would be coming down the line that would make the former hero into a pariah in Chicago.) You would think that this aspect would be a key focus of the film but by employing a strict chronological approach to the narrative, Schnack essentially dodges the question until the last 15 minutes or so and when he does get around to it, what is offered up is just too little too late. Yes, it is nice to see home runs flying out of Wrigley Field right now, even if they are old, and there are nuggets of intriguing information scattered about (such as the revelation that McGwire was so burned out by the end of the season that he asked manager Tony LaRussa to scratch him from the final game--LaRussa refused and McGwire was able to pad his record with two extra homers that day). However, considering the impact that this story would have on sports, both at the time it was unfolding and years laters when the secrets behind it began spilling out, "Long Gone Summer" cannot help but come across as a slightly disappointing and far too benign take on a potentially fascinating subject.

The career of the late Peter Sellers contains any number of obvious high points--his two collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, the massively successful "Pink Panther" franchise and his stellar late-period performance in "Being There"--but include just as many, if not more, oddities and obscurities as well. Falling into the latter category is "Mr. Topaze" (a.k.a "I Like Money"), a 1961 project that also marked the only official feature directorial effort of his career. (He would take over the direction of his last film, the posthumously released "The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu" (1980) but original director Piers Haggard retained the credit.) Based on Marcel Pagnol's 1928 play, which had been adapted to the screen several times by this point (including two films directed by Pagnol himself), Sellers plays Auguste Topaze, a teacher in a provincial small town whose only truly noteworthy quality is that he cannot help but be utterly honest, regardless of the situation. This proves to be his temporary downfall when the slimy headmaster (Leo McKern) of his school insists that he change the bad grade of a student who is the grandson of a wealthy and powerful baroness--naturally he refuses and he is immediately dismissed from his post. However, his reputation for scrupulous honesty come to the attention of a crooked government official, Catel Benac (Herbert Lom) and his mistress, Suzy (Nadia Gray), who decide to exploit his good name by making him the front man for their shady business dealings. When Topaze discovers that he is being used, he is outraged at first but not only does he finally succumb to the temptation to lie, cheat and steal in order to get ahead, he proves to be surprisingly good at it, much to the chagrin of all of those who had been underestimating him.

When the film came out in England, it was, despite Sellers's enormous popularity at the time, a commercial and critical flop and Sellers himself was so appalled by the reaction that he strove to have all the prints destroyed (the one held in the archives of the British Film Institute is said to be the only one left in existence) and as a result, "Mr. Topaze" has languished in obscurity for decades. Seen today in this new restoration, the film reveals itself to be somewhat better than the initial reception suggested but is more of a curiosity than anything else. Anyone assuming that a film with Sellers at the helm would inspire him to deliver a decidedly surreal work of crazy comedy with one (or possibly more) of his more outrageous acting turns but the opposite proves to be true--his Topaze is one of the quietest and most restrained of his performances of his career and the film as a whole is equally low-key. (Even the table-turning climax is done in a surprisingly minor key.) Likewise, his work behind the camera is equally subdued--he is clearly less interested in the visual aspects than he is in the performances. Besides his nicely downplayed tun, he gets good work from his entire cast, which also includes the likes of Michael Gough, Billie Whitelaw and John Neville. The essential problem with the film, as it turns out, lies with the material more than anything else--in charting a nice and honest man rise through the social ranks as he goes from being used by everyone to cheerfully using everyone himself, screenwriter Pieree Rouve never quite figures out a way to make this transformation work in either dramatic or comedic terms (a key criticism of the original play as well) and as a result, the whole thing just comes across as being overly cynical and without any real insight towards Topaze or his change in behavior. For fan of Sellers, "Mr. Topaze" is clearly worth watching, if only to at last fill in one of the blanks in his filmography, but more casual observers may find it to be a bit of a slog.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4249
originally posted: 06/12/20 05:18:20
last updated: 06/13/20 01:28:29
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