Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In only skims the creepy depths of homemade plastic surgery.
  • Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In only skims the creepy depths of homemade plastic surgery.
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The Skin I Live In **

As Dr. Robert Ledgard in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, Antonio Banderas has a John Boehner tan and a rather Republican attitude (cut, cut, cut). Experimenting in his luxurious home surgery near Toledo, Spain, the vanguard plastic surgeon does things to the human body that even El Greco, Toledo’s most plastically gifted painter, never imagined.

Is Robert carving a boyish stud who attacked his daughter into a trans-sex replacement because of incestual fixation on the suicidal girl? Why is his mother (Marisa Paredes), formerly the servant of his rich father, still a servant for Robert? Is his sexy new medical miracle, kept under lock and key, named Vera Cruz because of the classic Western? No, because she (the often pet-like Elena Anaya) has become the one true cross of Robert’s sado-erotic mania.

This being Almodóvar, we expect obscurities, shocks, kinks, tangents of loopy melodrama. Rape is staged beneath a grandiose Titian nude (a copy). There is an elegant display of high-tech dildos. A violent brother returns dressed as a carnival tiger with a ridiculous tail, like a horror-film joke. Almodóvar, film’s great gay celebrator of women, treats Anaya as a topic of perverse voyeurism.

Banderas, back in the Almodóvarian harness after two decades, is charismatic but dull, a hunk faking genius. The story sags with contrivance. We never get under the doctor’s skin. Those inspired movie ancestors, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Marina de Van’s In My Skin, invade their subjects’ sick minds and stir our pity. Too cosmetic for genuine risk, The Skin I Live In is good on the surface, but it only skims the creepy depths. This is an art object posing.


We Were Here ****

They came for fun and jobs and sex and freedom and because San Francisco is San Francisco. The Castro district became a nonstop gay carnival, but in 1979 their great spokesman Harvey Milk was murdered. And then AIDS arrived, as gruesomely mysterious as smallpox was to the Aztecs. Quickly branded “gay cancer,” it ravaged young men, took lovers and lives. Gayness became a vast funeral but then a family, a celebration of care more than a scorned and brazen lifestyle.

David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary We Were Here is a flood of sorrow and compassion, of stunning interviews and memorial footage, of disfiguration and transfiguration. The surviving witnesses are astonishingly genuine, including the tirelessly giving nurse Eileen (“I couldn’t turn my back”). The grim history, embraced so honestly, becomes more about life than death.


Margin Call **

New York investment hustler Stanley Tucci is canned in a 2008 corporate die-off, having warned that the big, crucial numbers no longer make sense. That night the firm starts committing financial suicide, but its greed king (Jeremy Irons, mercilessly entertaining) decides there could be one last fat kill even as they trigger the epic collapse.

Margin Call, debut film of writer and director J.C. Chandor, is like a ’50s TV drama spun through the frigid grid of David Mamet. Kevin Spacey is tops among the sweating suits (including Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, and skirted-suit Demi Moore). New York glows like a fabulous hell, but this slick story feels like necro-nostalgia for the masters whose feet of clay led up to computerized hearts. Millions (people, not dollars) still suffer, so must we feel for Spacey because his dog is dying?


The Way ***

The Way travels well. Emilio Estevez directed, on the fabled pilgrim road from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, using a small crew and Super 16 film. His dad, famous actor Martin Sheen, plays the California doctor Tom, who gets word that his footloose son (Estevez) has died in a storm soon after starting the trek. Tom goes to France, then follows his memorial impulse to complete the trip in his son’s honor, carrying his ashes on foot for 500 miles.

The Way engages. No preaching, though “holiday Catholic” Tom recovers some faith. Vivid sites, yet not postcard tourism. New road friends, finely played by James Nesbitt, Deborah Kara Unger, and Yorick van Wageningen. Flexible, perceptive direction by Estevez. And (the heart of it) a major Sheen performance — often terse, sullen, and grieving, including one of the most credible drunk scenes ever filmed.


Footloose (2011) **

Footloose, 1984: Kevin Bacon is the hip new boy in town (James Dean echo No. 627). Lori Singer and Chris Penn are cute teens. John Lithgow is the preacher who imposes a dance ban on “the kids.” A dance tune is the rousing climax.

Onward to the remake from director Craig Brewer, of Hustle & Flow and The Poor and Hungry. Kenny Wormald (Dean variant No. 963) plays Ren, a cool new dude from distant Boston. Julianne Hough is the preacher’s daughter, with blue eyes from planet Wow. Teenagers again feel repressed in Dixie, where preacher Dennis Quaid hates the devil’s music — funny, if you recall Quaid’s Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire!

Brewer does freshen the formula. Talk runs from corn (“hot dang”) to crude (“talk about a boner killer”) to crafty (“sexier than socks on a rooster”). Clever Ren quotes the Bible to oppose the ban. Wormald and Hough are a tasty tango. The title tune rouses again. There is the same hook that sold the first version and Flashdance and Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing: taut bods in tight threads can sure shake sexy.


Take Shelter **

Actor Michael Shannon has a Gothic stare beneath a craggy brow. He often looks like someone who might obsess on The Da Vinci Code or hammer medieval armor from soup cans. As Curtis in Take Shelter, he digs up his yard near a small Ohio town, feverishly expanding an old storm shelter and putting at risk his job, solvency, health insurance, and a crucial operation for his deaf daughter (Tova Stewart, an icon of sweet vulnerability).

His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, an icon of maternal care) cannot fathom his disturbing dreams, his visions of apocalyptic storms. Director and writer Jeff Nichols creates a humid aura of dread, a mental climate in which lucid realism relies on few (but good) special effects. Curtis might be crackers, and there is the rattling of an old family skeleton (mom Kathy Bates is schizoid). Alone, and spooked, Curtis makes irrational choices, such as building the big shelter when the old one could be cheaply refitted.

The talented Shannon is far into the role. But with so much fear and so few words (or ideas), Curtis seems muffled, vivid but also abstract. His panic is a stark metaphor of social anxieties, of good, plain, hard-working people who feel trapped in a punishing economy. No Tea Party rallies, yet we hear the inner howl. The ending is fishy, its mix of oil, water, and wind seeming to evoke hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Gulf spill.


Trespass 0 stars

The two Nics — Nicole Kidman, Nicolas Cage — have made some bad movies but remain major actors, real stars. Trespass is embarrassing. Joel Schumacher’s home-invasion thriller, using an awful script, spins so many dumb twists and cheap surprises that the story disintegrates.

Cage is a diamond dealer, Kidman his wife who designed their sterile showplace mansion. Their wall safe and dishy daughter (Liana Liberato) are bait for low-life scum. Frequent, sadistic shocks arrive in closeups as creeps preen, snarl, and expose their pathetic back-stories of parental abuse, drug addiction, predatory lust, and spoiled brotherhood.

Trespass, $35 million worth of worthless, is a warning that Cage and Kidman may be entering the fall-away phase of their careers. They try hard and pull off a few valid moments, but the effort is hopeless, hapless, helpless. As drama, this thing falls somewhere beneath apes cracking bones in a cave, and the message is simple: the audience is an idiot.

Reviewed in the movie capsules: The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, Finding Joe, Johnny English Reborn, and Where Soldiers Come From.

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