Watching so many films in a row can prove daunting at times. You can almost picture a room full of filmmakers shouting at once, “Look at me here!” or “My topic is most important!” As you ping-pong from one subject to another, it feels difficult to digest one before quickly, and kind of grossly, moving on to the next. But, there are way too many movies to see, so, “Next!”
The Novice ★★★★
Accomplished Sound Editor, Lauren Hadaway makes a blazing writing/directorial debut with the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival winner, The Novice, a psychological thriller which feels like Black Swan had a case of Whiplash. Isabelle Fuhrman (so iconic in Orphan) plays Alex Dall, a college freshman who joins the rowing team and soon becomes hellbent on winning at all costs. Alex brutalizes her body and confronts anyone who gets in her way of making the Varsity Squad. She begins an affair with her T.A. Dani (an impressive performance by Dilone), but Alex’s sexuality takes a very far backseat to her athletic goals.
Although the thin storyline grows repetitive, it seems to be the point as we watch Alex metaphorically die for our sins, or perhaps for hers. Hadaway has a kinetic filmmaking style reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s, using intense close-ups, shallow focus, experimentation with film speeds, and jarringly abrupt edits. The Novice also benefits greatly from its intense score by Alex Weston along with some unexpectedly woozy, nostalgic songs by singers like Brenda Lee and Connie Francis. The muted color palette by cinematographer Todd Martin also serves its main character well.
It’s so visceral and disturbing to be inside Alex’s head, I found myself praying for release while simultaneously marveling at the directing and at Furhman’s incredible performance. Alex is an intense, humorless, aggressive character, and yet you can’t take your eyes off this actor who clearly rises to the upper echelon here. She is one shapeshifting maverick of a performer, and this difficult yet intriguing film acts as one hell of a calling card for her and its director. The rest of the cast contribute perfectly to the hard-bitten aesthetic, with Kate Drummond and Jonathan Cherry doing nice work as the coaches and Amy Forsyth matches Fuhrman line-for-line as her rowing rival. It’s a tough film to watch, but it’s impossible not to fall under its unforgiving spell.
The Novice screens at 7:15pm at the DGA 1 on Wednesday August 18th. Screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 19th-21st 2021.
Boy Meets Boy ★★★
The dialogue-heavy hangout film has a long history, with such titles as My Dinner With Andre, Before Sunrise and its two sequels. It has had such an influence, one can find sub-genres of the form, including gay hangout films such as Weekend and Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo. Into this fray comes Boy Meets Boy from director Daniel Sánchez López. Set in Berlin, a young German dancer named Johannes (Alexandros Koutsoulis) meets Harry (Matthew James Morrison), a doctor, at a club. Instantly attracted to each other, they spend the next day and a half wandering the city as they come off their drugs.
Harry, who’s visiting from London, needs to print his boarding pass before his upcoming flight, so Johannes offer his help, eventually touring the city and discussing such topics as hookups vs. relationships, the climate change, sex, and more. While the two leads have an easy chemistry and give engaging, unforced performances, I didn’t find their conversations unique enough to have this film stand on its own against the previous heavy hitters. I believed that this is how Millennials and Gen-Z’ers talk, but not much of it made a huge impact on me. This couple says more with their eyes than with their mouths and the film eventually gives us some touching moments, building to its credible yet low key ending.
I think I liked what it had to say about the dynamics between two people more than any of its other topics. Moreover, it gets points for showing us modern day Berlin without visiting the obvious sites. López has a nice, gentle style, honing in on the little things like how a hand grazes a thigh while riding a scooter, or keeping his distance from his cast with long, wide shots. It imbues the film with a naturalism even if we’ve been there, done that several times before. There’s no way to watch this movie without it inviting comparisons to Weekend, and though it doesn’t scale that high bar, it’s still warm, inviting, and excels when focusing on the intimacy shared by this almost couple.
Screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 17th-18th.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story ★★★★
In a case of art imitating life and then life imitating art, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story tells the compelling true tale of Gloria Swanson teaming up with Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, a gay couple who were up-and-coming songwriters, in order to mount a stage musical version of Sunset Boulevard, decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber did so. Jeffrey Schwarz, the Go-To Guy for Gay Hollywood Documentaries, started researching this story and was led to a friend of Stapley’s who had a banker’s box filled with documents of this heretofore unknown bit of entertainment history. Full disclosure: I have known Jeffrey for many years, and feared reviewing the film in the event I disliked it, but I should have known better. He has made a warm, fascinating film which reaches far beyond the initial musical collaboration.
Just like the plot of the film, Swanson latches onto these writers, virtually becoming Norma Desmond to this pair of Joe Gillis’. Stapley, who had a long career as an actor, was somewhat closeted and would not discuss his love for Hughes. He eventually married a woman and rode motorcycles professionally, perhaps to throw the public off the scent. Decades later, his anger towards Hughes, who would try again to mount a different version of their musical, came to the surface again when their love affair worked its way into the production. Startlingly, when they learned of Webber’s production, Hughes pivoted and produced and starred in a production about the writing of the musical version of the film. Is your head spinning yet? This is meta climbing on top of another meta, and how can you not love that?
Using simple but mesmerizing animation, color-coded for each segment of the film, Schwarz latches onto some beautiful themes of the need to create throughout one’s life, and wanting desperately to be remembered. His subjects find themselves cast aside by Hollywood as they age, making this wonderful documentary feel like the non-fiction version of Mulholland Drive. When we learn of Stapley’s late-in-life rent controlled existence, which leads to further squalor down the road, I couldn’t help but think of Naomi Watts crying in her fleabag apartment.
It’s rare to see Schwarz in one of his own films, but his kind presence in this adds yet another layer to it. Had we not had the Jeffrey Schwarz’s of the world, a guy who has dedicated his life to uncovering little known queer stories, the Hughes/Stapley/Swanson tale would have sat in that storage space forever. It made me cry knowing that he opened that box.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story had its world premiere at Outfest last night and screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 18th-19th.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic