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Indie Snapshot: <i>The Skin I Live In</i> and <i>Father of Invention</i>

Pedro Almodóvar spins another twist-filled yarn, while Kevin Spacey's would-be comedy inspires more yawns than laughs.

The Skin I Live In
Few contemporary filmmakers employ the tricky art of the plot twist as skillfully world-renowned Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. At a time when too many films are content to work from the same laundry list of familiar plot points, Almodóvar's movies always bristle with an electric unpredictability. Even when you think you've got the story figured out, he's got a turn up his sleeve you likely won't see coming. Take his latest, The Skin I Live In. For the first twenty minutes, we follow a cutting-edge plastic surgeon named Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time since 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) as he pursues his latest project: constructing a synthetic skin that's impervious to damage. He's driven in this mission by the memory of his late wife, who was severely burned in a car accident and killed herself not long after. Naturally, he needs someone to test this radical design on, away from the watchful eye of the national medical board. So several years ago he went out and kidnapped his very own "guinea pig" -- a lovely young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), who he keeps locked up in a room in his giant house in the Spanish countryside. Having abandoned any thoughts of escape some time ago, Vera instead spends her days practicing yoga, flipping through art books and occasionally glancing up at the camera that broadcasts her image on a giant TV screen in her captor's den.

Like I said, there's a twist coming -- several in fact. The first is the unexpected arrival of Marilia's no-good criminal son, who mistakes Vera for Ledgard's wife, with whom he had had a torrid affair. It also emerges that the doctor also had a daughter, who was institutionalized after her mom's suicide. Having finally been declared well enough to go home, she accompanied her father to a party, where she was raped by a local punk, Vicente (Jan Cornet) and wound up back in the asylum until she too killed herself. This sets the stage for the movie's biggest revelation -- which I wouldn't dream of revealing -- one that turns the entire first act of the movie on its head and makes you reconsider the relationships between all of the main characters, particularly Ledgard and Vera.

And that's really the key to why Almodóvar is such a master of the plot twist: he's not out to surprise the audience purely to surprise them. All of the twists and turns built into his narratives are designed to deepen the emotional and dramatic complexity of the central situation and characters. If The Skin I Live In starts out as a tonier version of John Fowles' classic novel The Collector, by the end it becomes something very different -- a tragic story of love, loss and sexual identity -- and its evolution feels entirely organic because of the way Almodóvar has constructed the story. (It must be said that he doesn't quite stick the landing: the film's climax is disappointingly routine considering what has come before, although the open-ended final scene is beautifully melancholic.) If the main reason you go to the movies is to be spun a good yarn, almost nobody does it better than Pedro Almodóvar.

Father of Invention
Kevin Spacey has always excelled at playing unrepentant assholes; from Swimming with Sharks to Horrible Bosses, he's almost at his most likeable when he's being a mean SOB. Early on in his latest star vehicle, Father of Invention, it appears as though we'll be following another in Spacey's long line of bastards. The actor plays Robert Axle, an inventor who has built a multi-million dollar empire out of his infomercial-friendly products, which range from the Lightosaurus, a combination humidifier/nightlight shaped like a dinosaur, to the Ab Clicker, a workout machine that doubles as a remote control. Unfortunately, the latter invention ends up ruining his once illustrious career, when several customers lost their fingers while attempting to change the channel in the middle of an ab crunch. Tried and convicted on the dubious grounds of "depraved indifference to human life," Robert spends ten years in prison before re-entering the world an ungroomed and unrepentant man with no money, career prospects or friends. He doesn't even really have a family; his eccentric wife (Virginia Madsen) has remarried a mild-mannered forest ranger (Craig Robinson) and his grown daughter (Camilla Belle) can barely stand to look at him. Nevertheless, she's got just enough compassion left to let her dad bunk with her and her roommates (Anna Anissimova and Heather Graham) for a month while he tries to get himself back up on his feet. Naturally, it isn't long before Robert starts angling to get back into the inventing game, even if it means betraying the very people that are just starting to trust him again.

It's too bad that, instead of taking full advantage of its star's mean streak, Father of Invention turns Axle into a softer and cuddlier bastard as it goes along. Co-writer/director Trent Cooper (whose previous feature was Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector) has pulled something of a bait-and-switch; he's taken the premise of a dark satire and instead turned it into an unconvincing (and largely unfunny) redemption story. In doing so, he wastes the talents of some game comic performers besides his leading man, most notably Madsen and Robinson. Even the normally stiff-as-a-board Graham scores some spirited laughs as a militant lesbian... that is, until the screenplay turns her into another damaged soul that Robert helps to heal. In trying to send audiences out of the theater uplifted, Father of Invention instead leaves us sadly shaking our heads about how much better the movie could have been.

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