(Netflix streaming, July 2017) It seems counter-intuitive that a dull movie would feature a great performance, but here you go: Sexy Beast is an overly stylish, largely forgettable crime film that can nonetheless boast of a terrific performance by Ben Kingsley. Kingsley enjoys a reputation as a very respected actor (he won an Oscar for playing Gandhi, no less), but many of his roles have been on the less respectable side of the spectrum, and in Sexy Beast he hits a nadir of sorts as a psychopathic criminal with a non-existent fuse. Copious swearing and psychological manipulation is the least of what he can do, and violence is never far from his actions. It’s a terrific performance, and unfortunately it lands in a film that doesn’t deserve it. Sexy Beast is a caper film that masquerades as a psychological crime drama, but it’s almost empty of anything looking like suspense. While I usually like stylishly directed film, Jonathan Glazer’s work here seems more pretentious and aimless than anything else—None of the pieces really add up to anything interesting, and while I liked the dynamics of a crucial scene in which victims take revenge, Sexy Beast takes a long time to get there, and falsely thinks it’s not the end of the story. Everything else is anticlimactic and increasingly irritating. The result couldn’t be more uneven: a great performance by a great actor, limited in a film that doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I am not a big fan of self-conscious artistic cinema, so I ask for forgiveness if my appreciation of Under the Skin is muted. I prefer clearly articulated plots to the kind of make-your-own-meaning exemplified in this film, as devoid as it can be of dialogue or unambiguity. The film often indulges in lengthy shots that may or not may mean on or many more things. What I took from it is; Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in Scotland who does terrible things to people, mostly men, that she picks up. When she develops empathy, she runs away, is pursued by a helper, figures out that she’s nowhere near being human and suffers the consequences of hate. At least I think that’s it – the film is made as such to provoke countless different interpretations, and if you’re not in the mood for that kind of shenanigans then stay away. My own patience was sorely tested (the grim shaky-cam cinematography didn’t help), although I can’t deny that some sequences are powerful in their own. (That beach scene…. Argh.) Johansson here seems determined to undermine her beautiful-girl persona, stripping away all layers of seductiveness until we get to the repellent reptilian core under the skin. (She does have one or two naked scenes in the film, and they are as far away from eroticism as you can get.) Director Jonathan Glazer is doing his own thing with this film, eschewing even basic storytelling foundations in favor of something far more experimental, hermetic and surreal. Under the Skin is a harsh puzzle rather than straight-up entertainment and while I’m not the best audience for that kind of movie-making, I can appreciate Johansson’s bravey in taking a role that riffs so effectively from her usual image. I wouldn’t want all SF films to be as abstract at this one, but once in a while isn’t too bad. This being said, I’m not watching Under the Skin again any time soon; once is bad enough.