Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018). In adapting Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda to the screen, director Greg Berlanti and his collaborators honor the story of a gay teenager coming into his own by structuring the film like any number of other sweet, mundane high school comedies. The largely unremarkable tone and presentation of Love, Simon is what makes it remarkable. In the film, Simon (Nick Robinson) is worried about revealing himself as gay, even to his closest friends. Then a correspondence with another gay teen, who posted anonymously on a message board, starts to prompt Simon to come to terms with what he really wants out of life. Berlanti stages the drama smoothly and finds gentle comedy in the scenarios. The film is nicely ingratiating, even if it lacks the depth that would lend added poignancy.
Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019). Positioned somewhere between the icy precision of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the adventure-story romp of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, director James Gray’s latest film aims for arty only to wind up clumsy. In the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is charged with a secret mission, retrieving his father (Tommy Lee Jones), previously believed missing, from Neptune, where a project has gone terribly wrong. Gray combines science fiction with anguished family drama, throwing in a moon buggy chase and murderous spaceship monkeys for good measure. Despite the various attempts to jolt Ad Astra to life, the storytelling is problematically ponderous, in part because the protagonist is so intensely withdrawn. Pitt plays the role well, but he can only inject so much genuine emotion into the piece, leaving the film to grind mechanically in its pretensions. Striking imagery and a typically flinty turn by Jones similarly aren’t enough to compensate for the film’s shortcomings.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933). The last film Fritz Lang directed in Germany before fleeing the Nazi regime, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a blissfully bonkers thriller about a evil psychologist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) with extremely potent mentalism powers that allow him to serve as kingpin to a booming crime syndicate, even while he’s locked in an asylum. A sequel to the 1922 silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, also directed by Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is stacked with dazzling shots and moves with a headlong impish energy. The film also boasts an extremely fun performance by Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann, a police detective trying to crack this especially weird case. He operates with squirrelly energy and a clacking curiosity that’s a nice mirror of the restless ingenuity Lang brings to the whole film.