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MOVIE REVIEW: Banderas brings his best in nearly flawless 'Skin'

THE SKIN I LIVE IN

(R)

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

With his 20th feature, filmmaker Pedro Almodovar stretches quite a bit while never straying far from his handful of familiar themes. Amazingly adept at achieving the same kind of creep factor as Hitchcock, Almodovar also does so with considerable flash and style, but never more than what his material calls for.

As with all of his previous works, Almodovar takes the entirety of the movie to fully flesh out the story, which is a major plus for devout thriller fans. Unless you're very good -- make that an expert -- at piecing together mysteries, it will take at least an hour of screen time before you have any idea of what's happening between the frames.

On the surface, "Skin" is a horror outing along the lines of "Frankenstein" with Antonio Banderas starring as a plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard. Ten years after the death of his wife in a car fire, Ledgard stopped doing surgery and began research on synthetic skin -- one that will resist disease and extreme temperatures.

Being that what he's doing is highly unethical and probably illegal, Ledgard is careful not to reveal any details to his overly curious, buttinsky former contemporaries. Happily, Almodovar does the same thing with the audience by not overloading us with minutia or medical jargon. Only two scenes depict Ledgard plying his craft in a laboratory and Almodovar gives us all we need to know about the technical aspects of the story in about two minutes.

Most of this portion of the movie shows Ledgard observing and not-quite interacting with Vera (Elena Anaya), a breathtakingly beautiful woman that is often seen covered neck-to-toe in a clinging, opaque body suit. Whether she was another burn victim or simply not beautiful before is living testimony to Ledgard's skills, although Vera doesn't look at it quite that way.

On two occasions, Almodovar breaks away from the lead plot and -- as is usual with him -- it initially appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with the main story. One involves a fugitive in a tiger suit who has some connection with Ledgard from way back and another from not so way back, the sexually-related assault of his daughter at a party. The word "related" is used because it's not clear -- at least at first -- whether any assault ever took place, but it is clear that significant damage of some sort was done.

At about the end of the first hour, the pieces of the puzzle slowly begin to fall into place and if you think you've figured it all out at this point -- you'll probably be wrong. The last 15 minutes delivers three huge twists that ratchet up the squirm factor to about 11 and certainly will repel many viewers. If this is your first Almodovar film, prepare yourself to be shocked in a big way. You won't be grossed out by the visuals or the violence, just the mere suggestion of what might be taking place. It should be mentioned there is at least one sexually explicit scene and two others involving gunfire, but none of it is overtly graphic.

Awash in vivid color, steeped in terror and psychologically twisted and robust, "The Skin I Live In" should be a lock for a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination, writing, directing and maybe even one for Best Actor. Banderas made a small fortune voicing a swashbuckling cat ("Puss-in-Boots") and a playing a secret agent (the "Spy Kids" franchise) but it might be this low-paying turn as a psychopath with a God complex that could earn him that far-more-desired respect from his peers.

Presented in Spanish with English subtitles. (Sony Classics)