Film Capsules

In theaters this week

The Skin I Live In (R)

Vera (Elena Anaya) is, in one sense, Madeleine Elster, and The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodovar's Vertigo: a grand and discomfiting portrait of obsession and doomed love. It's easy to assume that Vera is married to Robert (Antonio Banderas), but it turns out that his wife died in a car crash years ago. Robert is an eminent plastic surgeon who has been working on growing synthetic human skin; Vera is his patient, and she happens to look more than a little like Robert's late wife. Even though Almodovar heads in a surprising direction, The Skin I Live In feels stitched together from solid if not necessarily complementary parts, like an especially stylish Frankenstein's monster. The surfaces of Almodovar's onscreen world retain a captivating luster, but beneath the luxe and sensuous shell lies kind of a mess, and one that doesn't go very deep either. (Lee Gardner) Anonymous (PG-13) — The latest salvo in the war between the Stratfordians (who believe William Shakespeare was the author of his plays) and the Oxfordians (who claim they were written by Edward de Vere) comes from the unlikely hand of Roland Emmerich, best known for action movies like Independence Day. The script posits that de Vere (Rhys Ifans), a literary genius and onetime lover of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), was compelled by his position as the Earl of Oxford to conceal his writing behind a front: a dodgy, functionally illiterate actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). There are some merits to this often laughable drama, but the story descends into a fever dream of botched history. (Pamela Zoslov)

The Big Year (PG) — "Only Americans can turn birding into a competition," remarks a British birdwatcher in this uncommonly gentle comedy about the compulsive quest of three men to win a contest to spot the most bird species in one year. Brad (Jack Black), a software engineer who can recognize any bird by its song, teams up with Stu (Steve Martin), a wealthy CEO and fellow obsessive, to topple the reigning champ: the cocky, underhanded Kenny Bostwick (Owen Wilson). The humor is a bit too larkish, but the story gracefully weaves the men's migrations with their personal lives. (Zoslov)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (R) — With its minimalist texture and deeply felt direction, Martha Marcy May Marlene is easy to love and impossible not to admire. That's also true of the film's breakout star, Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Mary Kate and Ashley), whose title character goes by any number of alliterative names for a variety of reasons. Martha is who she was born as and how her older sister Lucy refers to her when Martha, who has just escaped from years of seclusion in a cult, rings her up asking for help. Once in the relative safety of Lucy's sprawling vacation home, we learn via flashback that she was renamed Marcy May. The movie is a mighty achievement on the surface, but it has major structural problems, and an utterly baffling, abrupt ending answers nothing and only compounds the coldness. Martha doesn't require any parlor tricks, not when it features such a rare gift in Olsen — an actress who speaks volumes with barely a sound. (Justin Strout)

Margin Call (R) — The 2008 financial collapse was so large in scale that it begged for Hollywood's blustery myth-making. Margin Call, thankfully, resists the urge to go big, as it depicts the very moment when the owner of a fictional securities firm (played by the perfectly snaky Jeremy Irons) realizes the error of his firm's ways too late. Stanley Tucci plays a risk-management worker who, on the day he's downsized, passes on personal research to a rising underling (Zachary Quinto) who indicates the firm's path leads to a total meltdown. Margin Call's goal is to reassure us that this isn't about the evils of bankers or traders as a whole; they're pawns in a larger game — one controlled by shockingly few people. (Strout)

Puss in Boots (PG) — Shrek may have closed the book on his final chapter last year, but his furry friends are still around to keep the lucrative franchise alive. The first spinoff stars the swashbuckling cat (voiced by Antonio Banderas), who's on a quest for some magic beans and to redeem himself for some mistakes he's made. Along the way, he pounces on the usual visual gags, fairy-tale mashups, and pop-culture references that kept the Shrek series going for four movies. But like the last couple of the big green ogre's adventures, Puss in Boots runs out of ideas before it's half over. (Michael Gallucci)

The Rum Diary (R) — "The book is hopeless," Hunter S. Thompson wrote about his semi-autobiographical novel The Rum Diary, which went unpublished until 1998. Even so, this zesty adaptation, with Hunter protégé Johnny Depp as journalist Paul Kemp, is the best Thompson piece to hit the screen. Kemp, a hard-drinking but idealistic newspaperman, lands at a failing San Juan daily, surrounded by a cynical editor, greedy capitalists bent on exploiting Puerto Rico's riches, eccentric boozy colleagues, and an unattainable beauty. The picaresque plot is secondary to the impeccable design and cinematography, ebullient acting, and the script, which crackles with Thompsonian wit. (Zoslov)

Take Shelter (R) — Curtis (Michael Shannon) has nightmares of a storm so unrelentingly fierce that it sends the family dog into a bloodthirsty frenzy and birds into swarming black armies. The dreams become so intense that he begins preparing for the apocalypse, worrying his co-workers and straining his relationship with wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). Shannon gives one of the year's best performances as a man stuck in the center of a psychological torrent. Produced by Clevelander Tyler Davidson and shot in Lorain County, Take Shelter won't always connect with your heart, but it will mess with your head. (Gallucci)

The Thing (R) — Set just before the events of the 1982 classic with the same title, this prequel tells the story of the Norwegian research base that stumbled on the frozen alien remains. It seems like the discovery of the century until they realize the damn thing is still alive. Even worse: It's hostile and can take on the form of its prey. Despite the many similarities with John Carpenter's original movie, this new Thing isn't nearly as suspenseful. The filmmakers try to retain the original's subtle paranoia while pleasing modern audiences hungry for gory spectacle. This Thing gets tedious in no time, but fans will love the way it directly leads into the 1982 movie. (Ben Gifford)