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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 30

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THE SKIN I LIVE IN Step aside, children: It's time to let the adults come out and play. Anyone not interested in tracking the romantic travails of Twilight and Like Crazy hipsters will take delight in the disturbing relationships coursing through The Skin I Live In, the latest blaze of originality from writer-director Pedro Almodovar. Antonio Banderas, who starred in five Almodovar films before making the leap to American cinema, reunites with the Spanish auteur for this patently bizarre drama in which a plastic surgeon, haunted by the fiery car crash that engulfed his wife, spends years attempting to invent a durable, synthetic skin. With his assistant (Marisa Paredes), he experiments on a lovely young woman (Elena Anaya) held captive in his home, an emotionally fraught situation made even more explosive by the arrival of a freak (Roberto Alamo) from their collective pasts. Almodovar is known for writing more meaty roles for women than just about anyone else out there, so filmgoers might be startled at some of the horrors endured by Anaya's character. But by the end, it all makes sense — it's the journey itself that provides the unexpected, often queasy twists and turns. Let's just say that the recent Shrek spinoff isn't the only Antonio Banderas film that could have been released with the title Puss in Boots. ***

THE THREE MUSKETEERS Break out those No. 2 pencils, cuz it's time for a pop quiz. Which line of dialogue is not spoken in the latest screen adaptation of The Three Musketeers? A) "What would you like me to put on your headstone? 'Little shit'?" B) "Your horse took a dump on the street." C) "Find my sword. It's the one that says 'Bad Motherfucker' on it." The correct answer is C, although given the other liberties taken with Alexandre Dumas' classic novel, nothing included here would have surprised me. I'm hardly a stickler for movies remaining faithful to their source material, but this Musketeers is a travesty, even worse than the dopey 90s version that thought nothing of casting Charlie Sheen as Aramis and Chris O'Donnell as D'Artagnan. Perhaps not since Robert Duvall danced around a campfire with a dead deer balanced on his head in 1995's misguided take on The Scarlet Letter has a film so savagely violated a literary chestnut. Director-producer Paul W.S. Anderson is best known for those Resident Evil movies starring his real-life wife Milla Jovovich, so it's hardly unexpected that he stages this as a slick video-game adaptation, complete with an excess of CGI and a fondness for those slo-mo Matrix-style action sequences that wore out their welcome somewhere around the time Kelly Clarkson was winning the first American Idol championship. Jovovich, in fact, is showcased in many of these interludes, as her Milady de Winter, heretofore only known for scheming and blackmailing behind the scenes, has been transformed into a kick-ass warrior. Yet at least she possesses a smidgen of pizzazz; not so dull Logan Lerman, whose demographic-friendly casting — he's a young American cast adrift in a sea of European actors — as D'Artagnan makes me wonder why they didn't go ahead and cast Justin Bieber or a Jonas brother in the part. Faring even worse is newcomer Gabriella Wilde as his love interest — her line readings prove to be even less animated than those of 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL. Clearly, Anderson and his scripters felt like simple swashbuckling antics would be boring to modern audiences, so in addition to Milady's reincarnation as Lara Croft, a couple of airships — yes, airships in the 17th century — have been added to the narrative. The film's conclusion sets up a sequel, so if it indeed gets made, I expect the Orient Express and at least one Aston Martin to figure in the action. *

TOWER HEIST Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as seasonal multiplex blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about a group of working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings. The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs. Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that Hollywood would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis. ***

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