High Life (Claire Denis, 2019). For her English-language debut, French director Claire Denis doesn’t play it safe. High Life is a science fiction film about a small group on a shoebox-shaped spaceship that has an exterior vaguely resembling a wood paneling and hi-fi equipment combo, making it seem like a nineteen-seventies bachelor pad pirouetting through the cosmos. Treating chronology pliably, Denis reveals the film’s secrets with an intense European restraint, burrowing into the wounded psychologies of the assorted passengers with ferocious cunning. She is yet more ruthless in her attention to physicality. There are enough bodily fluids — of just about every imaginable sort — flowing through the movie to fill a fleet of tanker trucks, and lingers on bodies pushed to distortion with an unblinking attentiveness that rivals David Cronenberg. Her cast is game — Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Mia Goth are equally strong in their respective roles — but High Life is so clearly a realization of Denis’s troubling vision that most of her collaborators, despite their best efforts, start to feel like mere cogs in an especially greasy machine.
The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958). In the same cinematic year he played Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, earning his first Oscar nomination, Paul Newman took on the lead role in this similarly Southern-soaked tale of familial discord and charismatic caddishness. Adapted freely from a trio of works by William Faulkner, The Long, Hot Summer features Newman as Ben Quick, a totem of mildly menacing masculinity who arrives in a small Mississippi town, the cloud of personal and family reputation trailing him. He falls in with the Varner family, whose name is on practically every business in the community, and he’s soon working for the clan’s bullish patriarch (Orson Welles) and slyly testing its favored, circumspect daughter (Joanne Woodward). Martin Ritt directs with characteristic clarity, favoring simplicity over thematic or visual adornment. That suits the material well, allowing the tension to build slowly. Narratively, the film falls apart in the third act. Characters become beholden to contrivances of plot rather than established beliefs and motivations, and the whole endeavor slumps to an unsatisfying conclusion. This is the film Newman and Woodward worked on when they embarked on their laudably enduring relationship, and it’s a true joy to watch them work together, locking into an uncommon rhythm. There’s also a nice supporting performance by Lee Remick, but Welles, playing a character roughly twenty years older, is in his occasional mode of indulging in hammy stage acting that is ill-suited for the medium in which he’s actually working.
The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr., 2018). Based on the 2017 young adult novel of the same name, The Hate U Give sets itself lofty goals. At its foundation, the film is about the pervasive acts of police brutality against U.S. citizens with darker skin color and the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in protest. But its ambitions don’t stop there, and it sometimes seems as if director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells (adapting Angie Thomas’s novel) are trying to wedge in every last pervasive challenge faced by members of current black communities. The ambition is admirable, but it is hindered by a didactic approach that, while wholly understandable, serves to undercut the effectiveness of the drama. At the center of the film is Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a high school student who witnesses her childhood friend killed by a police officer during a traffic stop for a minor infraction. Her struggles in the aftermath — weighing self-protection against activism — are rendered with empathy, and Stenberg is very strong in the biggest, most intense moments, like an angry schoolyard confrontation with a callous classmate (Sabrina Carpenter). Although flawed, the film is important and powerfully acted (Russell Hornsby excels as Starr’s father). Tillman is notably unflinching, and therefore properly devastating, in his depiction of a law enforcement culture that operates too often with the the vile assumption of criminality among a portion of the population, employing a trigger-happy response with tragic results.