At some point, everyone has wondered what it’s like to be somebody else. Movies have explored this idea in all sorts of ways, from Freaky Friday to Single White Female to Persona. A pair of new films, one comic and one creepy, tackle the allure and the danger of taking on an identity that’s not your own.
Official Competition unites two of Spain’s biggest stars, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, for the first real time onscreen. (Despite both being among Pedro Almodóvar’s favorite actors, they’ve only shared one brief scene in that director’s films.) And while their long-in-coming pairing isn’t a masterpiece, it is an amusing showbiz satire with a slow-burn pace and a nasty little twist.
Aging billionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) wants to leave a legacy. “A bridge, maybe.” Instead, he opts to become a movie producer, hiring the acclaimed, eccentric director Lola Cuevas (Cruz, sporting a wig of explosive curls) to adapt a novel about the rivalry of two brothers.
She casts Félix (Banderas), a fame-addicted movie star, and Iván (veteran Argentine actor Oscar Martínez), a self-important thespian. As rehearsals get under way, the clash of egos between the two men is only encouraged by Lola’s unorthodox methods, which include dangling a giant boulder over them as they run lines and destroying their acting awards in front of them.
Other than occasional intrusions by Suárez and the daughter he insists on casting in the film, Official Competition is basically a three-hander for most of its running time. It’s hard to get a handle on how scathing it’s trying to be, since the figures of the inanely artsy auteur, the vain matinee idol, and the smug (but secretly insecure) Actor are pretty low-hanging fruit. And directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat are more interested in gentle spoofing than scathing critiques, although they do include a number of tiny, wordless interludes (Lola joylessly practicing the Floss in her bedroom; Félix using an ab stimulator while a bored, topless woman looks on) that puncture the genial mood.
That is, until the final act, which takes a decidedly dark turn I won’t spoil here but which does involve an attempt at identity theft. Like I promised. (Opens on Friday, July 1, at Cinema 21.)
A MORE STRAIGHTFORWARD AND DISTURBING take on that whole concept comes in Poser, the debut feature from Columbus, Ohio-based directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev. Poser follows a shy young woman named Lennon (newcomer Sylvie Mix) who’s fascinated with Columbus’ apparently thriving underground music scene but is stuck in a dead-end dishwashing job. To ingratiate herself, she begins introducing herself in clubs as a podcaster and interviewing artists. At the very least, this will be a time capsule of real-life Columbus bands, including one that identifies its style as “queer death metal” and another that rejects the whole idea of “a band.”
Soon enough, Lennon comes across the compelling figure of Bobbi Kitten (playing herself), half of a “witch rock” duo calling themselves Damn the Witch Siren. The other half is an anonymous male drummer who constantly sports a latex wolf mask. Dixon and Segev have said that Damn the Witch Siren were their initial inspiration for the film, and it’s easy to see why. Kitten vibrates with riot grrl energy, and puts on a heck of a stage show, which makes up for her occasional awkwardness delivering dialogue.
Lennon, believably enough, becomes obsessed with Kitten, even singing lyrics she stole from another interviewee in order to impress. (She’s got a lovely voice, which makes her unexplained inability to create her own tunes even more tragic.) Her thirst to fill her empty existence with embezzled authenticity grows more and more extreme. It’s not hard to predict where this fixation will lead, but the journey there is more than worthwhile. (Opens Friday, July 8 at Living Room Theaters)
Mad God: Legendary special-effect guru Phil Tippett (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Robocop) started work on this magnum opus decades ago, and now he’s released it upon an unsuspecting world. As one might expect, it’s a startlingly vivid, dialogue-free cavalcade of stop-motion animation, with a few live-action roles (including my buddy Alex Cox) tossed in. What one might not expect is that it’s an unrelenting tour through an unforgiving hellscape through which a lone figure, garbed somewhat like a World War I soldier, wanders on some sort of undefined mission.
The grotesqueries on display are visceral, fecal, and monstrous, and the score only adds to the perception of dread and disgust. It’s rather like an unrated version of an 85-minute long Tool video. Or the stuff that the Brothers Quay only show to their therapists. The only comparably creepy stop-motion masterpiece I can compare it to is Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. All of which is to say that, for those willing to put themselves through its gauntlet, Mad God will be hard to forget. (Playing at the Hollywood Theatre and available to stream at shudder.com)
Mr. Malcolm’s List: This toothless take on an Austen-esque romcom is set in a post-racial 1818 England, where the wealthy, titular Mister (Sope Dirisu) has composed a list of qualities he insists upon in a potential wife. After he humiliates her during a date to the theater (by exposing her ignorance about the Corn Laws, the ninny!), prospective suitor Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) decides to get revenge after she acquires a copy of Malcolm’s list.
This involves setting her childhood friend Selina (Frieda Pinto) up as Malcolm’s ideal mate through subterfuge, so as to break his heart by refusing his eventual offer of matrimony. Matters are only slightly complicated by the presence of a dashing military officer (Theo James) who threatens to distract Selina from the game.
What could have been a sharp takedown of antiquated ideas about romance and courtship is instead content to conform to bland platitudes and unmemorable characterizations. It’s odd that a film which so embraces race-neutral casting would shrink from other, substantive, progressive takes. (Opens Friday, July 1 at Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters)