This month, we’re introducing a new column to Cineccentric. What We’re Watching is a place for critics to share with our readers the films they’ve been watching this past month. In a world where streaming holds a greater place in cinema than in the past and new releases seem akin to a flash in the pan, What We’re Watching allows us to share what has caught our interest and we hope to encourage you to watch the films as well.
Soylent Green (1973)
Most people are probably aware of the iconic ending to Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green, but what is perhaps less discussed about the sci-fi dystopian film is how disturbingly prescient its images and themes are to modern times. Set, like much of dystopian cinema of its time, in our present day (2022), the film imagines a world where climate change, overpopulation, and resource shortages have resulted in extreme inequality and widespread misery. Half of the world’s food supply is controlled by a single private entity, the titular Soylent Corporation, which maintains not only a monopoly over the means of sustenance but also, uncoincidentally, the means of death (assisted suicide is not only legal but a banal, everyday fact of life). Despite its rather dire premise, the film begins rather laid-back, unfolding as a police procedural wherein its main character Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) seeks to uncover the cause behind the mysterious death of an important Soylent executive. Shot in gorgeous widescreen photography (by Richard H. Kline), the film simply but effectively illustrates the vast economic divide between the sterile, extravagant penthouses of the upper bourgeois strata and the crumbling, crowded apartment buildings of the masses (a particularly striking image that recurs frequently is Thorn literally stepping over a sea of slumbering bodies to simply reach his own apartment). In addition to being an exceptional and exceptionally influential piece of science fiction, Soylent Green serves as an ominous warning for the years and decades ahead, and is a film unfortunately well-suited for the eyes of modern audiences. – Ben McDonald
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese has long been my favorite American director, so this year I’ve made it a personal mission to go through his entire filmography in chronological order not only to knock out my many blindspots of his work but also to revisit my all-time favorites of his with fresh eyes and renewed context. While I had seen Taxi Driver, his 1976 arthouse psychological character study, a number of times, this most recent viewing was perhaps my most rewarding yet. Until this watch, I had always watched and remembered Taxi Driver first and foremost as a mood and style piece – from the romantic, ominous final score from Bernard Herrmann, to the expressionistic New York City photography by Michael Chapman, to the subjective, almost dreamlike editing the film imposes onto its cyclical structure. Frankly, I think the style has always overwhelmed me, to the point of severely underappreciating the disturbing ideas the film is very clearly exploring. I was particularly struck on this watch by just how alienating and menacing the dark, damp, artificially-lit streets of New York are presented, and how they serve to place us uncomfortably within Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) deeply misanthropic headspace. Especially upsetting is the way Scorsese subjectively blends Travis’ very real and understandable socioeconomic frustrations with his barely contained racism, an essential element of his character that the film only acknowledges through the occasional match-cutting of his rancorous glances with various Black people he sees in the city. Most troubling of all is the manner in which Scorsese refuses to leave or resolve the moral contradictions of his character when he inevitably explodes into violence, showing us every last grotesque detail of his impotent rampage while simultaneously highlighting the aftermath, wherein he’s lionized by society and, most repulsively, relieved. It almost goes without saying, but Taxi Driver is quite possibly still Scorsese’s most accomplished film to date. – Ben McDonald
Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977)
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is not an easy film to track down. Owing to issues with music rights licensing, the film has never made the jump from VHS to even DVD, let alone blu-ray. Controversial to this day, the film adapts the novel of the same name by Judith Rossner – who hated the film – that was inspired by the murder of Roseann Quinn in 1973, a New York City schoolteacher. Whether the film condemns women sleeping around or does the opposite has been a sticking point in analyzing director Richard Brooks’ film. It is only natural as the public and reporters of the time often blamed Roseann Quinn for her murder, victim blaming owing to the life she led, bars she frequented, and strange men she would sleep with, especially a time where such behavior by woman was particularly frowned upon. Brooks’ film, in my estimation, comes firmly on the side of tragedy. Diane Keaton stars as Theresa, the character inspired by Roseann Quinn, and is brilliant. Graceful, elegant, flirty, and sultry, Keaton embodies every element of Theresa, capturing what makes her such a brilliant teacher, the Catholic-based struggles she faces in her family life, and the tensions and passions she finds at night. She is a lively personality, wearing her insecurities and strengths in her actions at every turn, laying bare her inner nature in a very revealing and powerful performance.
The film is similarly impressive – and also features great supporting roles for Richard Gere and Tuesday Weld – with great cinematography and editing – especially in the film’s horrifying finale – along with a layer of grime that cements this as a NYC classic. It brings the nightlife to its gritty reality, while also showing the danger that lurks around every corner. While Theresa is after a chance to feel something in a cold world, that cold world meets her with a pent toxic masculinity looking to lash out at any woman who dares think for herself. Whether her father, her employers, or her relationships, Theresa’s life is filled with toxic men who are the end product of a patriarchal society that expects women to act a certain way and then punishes them when they do not. Great use of disco and other classic sounds of the time gives Looking for Mr. Goodbar a distinct 1970s feeling, adding to its considerable appeal and cementing it as a well-rounded, incredibly told true crime story, and a truly excellent film. – Kevin Jones
A Little Romance (1979)
Director George Roy Hill went from directing Slap Shot in 1977 to directing A Little Romance, a tender romance about two 13-year-olds finding first love in Paris. It was an about-turn that the director more than pulled off, pairing together Thelonious Bernard and Diane Lane as Daniel and Lauren, respectively, who meet by chance and soon strike up a relationship. It is awkward and goofy, full of classic hallmarks of first love while the pair – mainly Lauren – find themselves drawn to the stories of an old man they meet, Julius Santorin (Laurence Olivier). It was a film derided as “improbable” by Roger Ebert upon release, but in watching it, it is hard to deny the magic of A Little Romance. It is improbable, of course, after all these two kids will run away from home and travel to Venice just to live through a story told to them by Julius but the connection they form and emotion Hill draws out makes the film hard to resist. It also serves as a great travelogue with gorgeous scenery from around Paris, Verona, and Venice. At the center, however, is the romance and Bernard and Lane make a charming pair. From their initial meeting to their tearful goodbyes and promises made to stay in touch, the couple strike a wonderful chemistry that truly has one believing in the magic of first love. – Kevin Jones
The Discarnates (1988)
Nobuhiko Obayashi is a name that is likely familiar to even the most casual of international cinema fans in no small part due to the director’s groundbreaking absurdist horror-comedy Hausu from 1977. Anyone who has seen Hausu will admit that it is the type of film that needs to be seen to be believed, a work of madness so stylistically unhinged and original that attempting to describe its various psychedelic antics would be laughably inadequate. With that context, one could be forgiven for imagining all of Obayashi’s work to be similarly insane, yet as I discovered this past month from watching his 1988 film The Discarnates, that is decidedly not the case. While The Discarnates bears some extremely loose genre similarities to Hausu as another ghost story, the film couldn’t be more different, taking the subject matter of spirits instead in a much more personal and emotional direction. The film follows a dissatisfied television writer named Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama), who, after returning to his hometown on a whim, runs into the young ghosts of his parents who died in an automobile accident when he was just a child. Having not truly known his parents his entire life, he resumes an odd relationship with their spirits somewhere between a friend and a son. The three begin to spend long sunny afternoons together, eating home-cooked food, playing cards, and drinking beer. For the first time in years, it seems, Harada is happy. Around the same time, the writer begins a romantic relationship with the only other person living in his apartment complex, a lonely young woman whom he initially rejects out of annoyance. The film evolves naturally from these premises as a kind of nostalgic hang-out movie, before slowly creeping in a sly but not particularly menacing sense of decay. I don’t wish to say much more about the film, but would highly recommend it to anyone curious to check out more of Obayashi’s work. It is a breathtakingly beautiful work, one that sentimentalizes the comforting embrace of nostalgia while simultaneously imbuing it with an explicit, tangible horror. It may become my favorite film that I see all year. – Ben McDonald
Bad Girl (2016)
Fin Edquist, the Australian writer and director who mostly dealt with animated films up until 2016, decided it was time for something much darker, namely Bad Girl. Featuring Sara West and Samara Weaving, the film never provides less than adequate acting. What I mostly liked, though, was the fact that the visuals are -maybe not the whole time, but more often than not- stunning. The lack of a complex plot or limited innovation might make it less appealing for some, but Bad Girl is quite worth it for its runtime which is a tad less than ninety minutes. – Alper Kavak
The film that put the long-time Australian screenwriter Leigh Whannell on the radar as a unique director was 2018’s Upgrade, who then went on to direct the critically acclaimed The Invisible Man only two years later. Especially judging by its not-so-mainstream cyberpunk theme, Upgrade is really different in terms of directing. Sure, some of the action sequences are less than perfect, though its gritty atmosphere definitely makes up for it. Combined with Logan Marshall-Green’s great acting, Upgrade is a really interesting film that does not get stale at any given time. – Alper Kavak