Film Review: Sweet Smell of Success, Soylent Green, The Conversation, Z.P.G.

Constituting the movies we watched this weekend. 😀

Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)

Seen it before some time ago, loved it this viewing. We watched it as part of the Criterion Channel’s Starring Burt Lancaster series. From the moment Tony Curtis backs down from the physical confrontation with Martin Miller in one of the earlier scenes, you can tell this is going to be something special. Curtis’ performance of this deeply unsympathetic character is a joy to watch, and may be a career best. What impresses me about this performance are the moment-by-moment swings in mood from pathetic to striving, broken to confident. He is self-pitying and inflicted with abuse one moment, confidently prostituting his vulnerable friend the next. He accomplishes starring in this movie as an irredeemable character. Meanwhile, Burt Lancaster has some absolute gem lines. I am going to steal some of these for my D&D villains (“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”) Interestingly, Miller’s character (the victim of the scheming of Curtis and Lancaster) is not particularly sympathetic either; his brand of hard commitment to arbitrary righteousness does him no favors. It is hard to imagine someone so inflexible winding up with any other future than embittered regret. Excellent writing and excellent performances in this movie. [IMDB]

Soylent Green (1973)

This film was new to me on this viewing. We watched it as part of the Criterion Channel’s ’70s Sci-Fi series. This film is set in 2022, and the theme of environmental collapse was fairly on-point. I wonder if it seemed extreme to predict the oceans would no longer be able to support even plankton life, which now seems to be quite a reasonable outcome on our current trajectory. In general the casting is great, matching very well with the style of the film; this is in particular the ideal Charlton Heston role, very sweaty and slimy, but righteous. Great pacing, great sets, excellent ambience, this movie is much more about the journey than the reveal. It is actually kind of difficult to understand how that reveal makes much dramatic sense in this society that seems to place a fairly low value on human life. Maybe it hit harder in the 70s. Also features Edward G. Robinson’s final role, which makes his excellent performance and narrative arc just a bit more poignant. [IMDB]

Z.P.G. (1972)

New to me, also part of Criterion Channel’s ’70s Sci-Fi series. Frankly, we only turned this on because it stars Oliver Reed. Very slow, fairly uninteresting visuals and narrative. We wound up skipping through, catching scenes every 20 minutes or so. ZPG stands for Zero Population Growth, the concept is no one can have children for 30 years on pain of death. Has some pretty amusingly shitty child-replacement puppets, but overall the film is too slow to maintain even an interest in its amusingly cheap aesthetic. Interesting that this was programmed next to Soylent Green, which achieves much more with the very similar themes a year later. This series seems to be programmed to drive home the predictability of our current environmental catastrophe. Maybe this movie would have been more interesting if China hadn’t gone and done this IRL. [IMDB]

The Conversation (1974)

An old favorite, but one I have not returned to for many years. Part of the Criterion Channel’s Caught on Tape series. This movie is a must-see of the hacker genre, the basic concerns around paranoia and privacy are, if anything, only more relevant today. On this viewing, I was very focused on Harry Caul’s (Gene Hackman) paranoia, particularly in how he is right to be paranoid. One of his main claims throughout the movie is that he does not have a telephone in his apartment. He is shown making his calls from payphones. This resonates for me, having worked for some time in the adtech industry, I no longer use any Facebook products and run many levels of tracking-blocking on my computers and network. The last time I watched this movie, I was in my 20s; now in my early 40s I’ve somewhat become this character. Which is also a warning; Caul winds up making many mistakes as a result of not being paranoid enough. It is basically a downhill tumble from the moment his rival slips the pen in his pocket. When it turns out Caul does in fact have a telephone in his apartment, I lost all hope for him. And yet, I’ve never shut off my Twitter or LinkedIn accounts. It is too much to expect that we can completely throw off the constraints of our technological surroundings. [IMDB]

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Mandalorian (2019)

Bonus! I’ve skipped watching Rise of Skywalker (“I don’t want to say if you legitimately like this film you have a low IQ, but: if you legitimately like this film you have a low IQ”: I can wait for video) but did catch The Mandalorian on Disney+. I have been watching a lot of westerns for some time, and The Mandalorian‘s combination of “western as influenced by samurai movies as executed as live-action Samurai Jack” had me pining for that good old-fashioned Star Wars feeling. Unfortunately for most, such an experience is now impossible (MacKlunky!) unless you own the only DVD release that came with bonus discs of the unaltered originals. Which I do. #blessed. Watching a 4:3 letterbox version of Empire at DVD quality is much more satisfying than any modern Star Wars experience. The reason I chose Empire was when I think back to all of the iconic scenes from that movie, it is hard to believe they all fit in the trim 124 minute running time. Watching from that perspective, the economy of storytelling is impressive. What they manage to convey in a few lines, over the course of a few scenes, puts the running time of the last few movies to shame.

Which leads me back to The Mandalorian. I enjoy and am concerned about The Mandalorian for the same reason: it seems to want to return to the economy of the original trilogy, without completely jettisoning what has been added to the canon in the interim. I very much enjoy that in the first season they are merely using the canon as a background pastiche, focusing rather on the episodic storytelling. However, as seen with the introduction of the deeply esoteric Darksaber in the final moments of the closing episode, I cannot help but wonder if they can be as restrained in future seasons. If they can manage a few seasons of small-scale, personal, episodic storytelling, perhaps they’ll be able to pull of a final season as powerful as Samurai Jack season five. With the Star Wars franchise flailing and Baby Yoda being the only lifeline, it is hard to imagine Favreau and Filoni managing to continue this level of restraint. IMHO, the biggest mistake for the show to make would be to believe anyone really cares how the galaxy got from the end of the Episode 6 to the beginning of Episode 7.

Side note, Yoda mentions training Jedi for 800 years in Empire. He presumably was in fact 900 when he died, which gives Baby Yoda is 50 years old, so has 50 years to become a competent-enough adult that he could conceivably be training Jedi (or baking, or Mandaloring, or whatever this Yodaling takes up as a profession).

Bonus Link: The Latest Jedi is an excellent look at why, despite the overwhelmingly good intentions, The Last Jedi fails to be a good movie. I am less interested in the internal consistency of fantasy space combat than is Mr. Devereaux, however he nails how egregiously the movie gets wrong the basics of human military logistics.