Film Reviews by PJ

Welcome to PJ's film reviews page. PJ has written 82 reviews and rated 83 films.

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Ad Astra

A strangely fascinating, mournful space odyssey focused on an impossible quest

(Edit) 16/11/2020

This is the story of a quest that is somewhat slow and slightly mournful (Brad Pitt, whose acting is very good, continuously describes his feelings and thoughts, in voice-over mode, as he goes through his journey); it is not an action movie; it is not a conventional film. It is, rather, a philosophical tale with an obvious metaphysical dimension.

B Pitt is Roy McBride, who is looking for his father, also an astronaut, on the edge of the solar system. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) is (or was) on a quest of his own. Everyone is looking for meaning and for a reason to keep going, in the midst of a cosmic crisis (a power surge) that threatens the Earth and the entire solar system.

There are a few striking action-movie-type scenes, which are very good. There are many things that are implausible from a scientific or common-sense point of view. The end result is strange and weirdly fascinating. In its own way, it is a very good film, perhaps even a masterpiece. Judging from the reviews posted up on this site, it may only appeal to 15% to 20% of viewers, however.

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The Handmaiden

An intriguing erotic psychological thriller that fascinates

(Edit) 09/11/2020

In Japanese-occupied Korea, in the early part of the 20th century, a Korean con artist pretending to be a Japanese aristocrat plans to seduce a beautiful and lonely upper-class Japanese woman, Lady Hideko, in order to marry her and get hold of her wealth. As part of the plan, a pickpocket called Sook-hee is 'planted' in the household as Hideko's maid: her mission is to encourage Hideko to marry her suitor. She is to be rewarded for her part in the plot.

What follows is an unexpected and unique blend of psychological thriller, sentimental drama, eroticism, pornography even, and horror to produce a movie like none other I have seen recently: relishing its perverse and deviant inspiration, and the crooked nature of its lead characters, the film is morbidly fascinating to the end. The end result of this sumptuous and well-acted production is a masterpiece. I strongly recommend it, but it is not for viewers who may be conventional or squeamish in their filmic tastes!

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An Education

A charming and moving little film, telling a simple but interesting story

(Edit) 02/11/2020

In 1961 London, Jenny Mellor is a bright 16-year-old schoolgirl. Her life changes when she meets David Goldman, an older man who takes a shine to her.

This is very much a coming-of-age sentimental drama but it is exquisitely well-made. The plot is simple enough but convincing and captivating. The acting is excellent throughout. Rosamund Pike, as the blonde bimbo, for instance, gives an outstanding performance, thus showing how good an actress she is.

This is a charming and insightful movie: I enjoyed watching it and strongly recommend it. And the re-creation of the atmosphere of 1960s London is excellent.

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State of Play

A classic thriller on the links between journalism and politics

(Edit) 25/10/2020

Russell Crowe is a seasoned journalist working for a leading newspaper. He uncovers a dark plot full of surprises centred on a US congressman (B Affleck), who is also a friend of his (going back to his college days). R Crowe has to work with a young, inexperienced female journalist, played with conviction and charm by a very expressive Rachel McAdams.

The film is full of tension and suspense. It is interesting, not so much in terms of what it reveals regarding the world of American politics, but in relation to the way that investigative journalism works, and why it matters -- in our world swamped with commentary, opinions and blogs, where the facts take a back seat and the demanding work of cross-checking hard facts is being lost or neglected.

I recommend this movie, which is captivating on many levels.

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Sliding Doors

A well-made romantic comedy that will get you thinking

(Edit) Updated 20/10/2020

Gwyneth Paltrow, as Helen Quilley, is employed by a PR agency in London. (In the film, she is English.) She gets fired from her job and decides to head home. There are 2 scenarios: in the 1st one, she manages to jump on the 1st Tube train that pulls into the station when she gets there, and she gets home early; in the 2nd one, she misses the Tube train and ends up taking a taxi home. In the 1st scenario, she gets home early, while in the 2nd, she gets home mid-afternoon. Two storylines follow, with a chain of consequences that may surprise you.

The entire film is built around the question: What if? It is an exercise in counterfactual fiction, as it were. Helen has to contend with various problems apart from the fact she has lost her job, the main one being dealing with her unreliable live-in boyfriend. Sentimental complications follow.

I found the beginning of the film a bit slow and predictable (within the parameters set by the dual script). But, past the first 30% of the movie, things speed up, and we move away from the conventions of soap operas that threatened to kill off the movie. It becomes more interesting and more engaging. The characters are well constructed and the acting is excellent throughout. G Paltrow herself is very good in the role of Helen: in fact, she was a good actress. (I say 'was' as she has moved away from acting to focus on Goop, her wellness brand and marketing venture...)

So, the film is not a masterpiece, but it is charming and intriguing, as is the 'What if?' riddle, nicely developed in the movie. I enjoyed watching it and was pleasantly surprised. And there are many very funny moments and situations, supported by excellent and witty dialogues.

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The Assistant

A minimalist depiction of the horrors of office life

(Edit) 11/10/2020

The movie takes place over the course of one day in Jane's life: she is a junior assistant who has recently started working at a film production company in New York City. Julia Garner is excellent in the restrained way that she plays the part: her raw emotions can be read easily, even though she struggles to curb them. She works long hours and is, in effect, the PA to the CEO, who is a barking, foul-mouthed bully. The film, no doubt, is inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

It is a short film by today's standards (1 hr 30 mins). It is also a minimalist depiction of office life as it can be. It is so realistic that it feels almost like a documentary, which is scary, on reflection... The scene in the office of the HR manager is, in my view, the climax of the movie, and is excellent. The rest, somehow, is a bit dull and repetitive, simply because office life -- for a junior assistant performing clerical tasks, which is what Jane is at the start of her career -- is never going to be exciting. The storyline is surprisingly linear.

It is a good film because it expresses a lot of deep emotions, while referring to profoundly uncomfortable realities in the world of work: shocking realities that can become routine and totally normalized. But the movie is so realistic that it is a bit flat. I would still recommend it.

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Vincere

A very Italian tragedy that is, in its own way, a masterpiece

(Edit) 04/10/2020

Vincere (in English, 'To Win') is an Italian film based on the life of Ida Dalser, who had a torrid affair with Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in Italy, from 1907 to World War I. (In 1907, he is a member of the Socialist Party.) They have a son together. She will say, to the end of her life, that they were married.

Ida Dalser was clearly, madly in love with B Mussolini. The film tells us what happened to her, as it swerves between melodrama and tragedy. Rather than a movie about B Mussolini, it is a film about her and her self-destructive, limitless passion for the Italian leader, seen through her eyes. In this respect, it is highly original and quite fascinating.

The film's plot is quite simple; the movie is classically constructed and acted. It is, from a narrative standpoint, perfect, however. The acting is compelling and Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalser is remarkably beautiful. It is worth noting that Filippo Timi, as both Benito Mussolini and his son, suffers, in real life, from a very heavy stutter (according to his Wikipedia page, he is also partially blind), which you cannot fail to notice if you watch the interview with him in the 'bonus' segment of the DVD: when you see the film, you wouldn't know. It is possible that, while in the process of acting, he becomes a different person and totally loses his stutter.

So, in many ways, this is an exceptional film, which has much beauty that it depicts, despite the dark times it refers to and the tragic tale it narrates. I strongly recommend it. I don't think you will ever forget it, once you have seen it.

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The Drop

A little masterpiece of a thriller, thanks to outstanding acting

(Edit) 14/09/2020

On the face of it, the storyline of this American thriller is fairly simple: Bob (Tom Hardy) is a bartender in the bar owned by his cousin, Marv (James Gandolfini). They get mixed up with organised crime. And Bob gets drawn towards a troubled girl, Nadia (Noomi Rapace). The action takes place in Brooklyn, New York.

What makes this film so good and, in my view, a little masterpiece of the genre? The atmosphere is gripping and the environment the characters move about seems highly realistic; the suspense builds up gradually, in little unassuming touches, with fear and tension ever-present under the surface. The story also goes in directions you did not quite expect: in many ways, it is not a conventional thriller. But, mostly, in my opinion, it is the outstanding acting that is the movie’s chief asset: J Gandolfini, a big bear of a tough man, and N Rapace, a vulnerable yet strong character, are memorable.

As for Tom Hardy, he is remarkably good, in part because he is not quite what he seems to be, and I cannot say more so as not to spoil the film. He is quiet and low-key, almost dull, and yet he is the most important character, which makes the film unusual and intriguing. Who is he, really? What does he stand for, if anything?

As thrillers go, this is one of the best I have seen in the past 2 decades and I strongly recommend it.

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21 Grams

A difficult film which can be rather 'heavy' at times, but a very interesting one

(Edit) 06/09/2020

This is the story of an academic (Sean Penn) who will die unless he gets a heart transplant. What follows is the story of his heart transplant, his relationship with his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the role of 2 other couples that cross his path. The story is centred on S Penn, whose acting is good. But I found that of Naomi Watts better. However, the acting of Benicio Del Toro is, in my view, by far the most powerful and gripping: his presence on screen is simply amazing. He is like a wounded bull that is fighting against fate and tragedy. His acting is simply superior and breathtaking.

Although the movie takes place in America, the underlying themes are unmistakeably Hispanic (Spanish/ Mexican, given the background of the director): death Vs life, fate and destiny, grief and passion, loss and regrets, love and hate, tragedy and the desire for revenge... Add to this the fact that the director deliberately jumbles up the story line (it doesn't follow a linear/ chronological order, but is a juxtaposition of storylines and very frequent flashbacks), and this means that the film can be tiring -- almost exhausting. The combination of the confused storyline (during the 1st hour, at any rate, until things fall into place and you start making sense of the plot) and the intense tragedy and passion are not for the faint-hearted.

So, in many ways, it is an unusual film, very intense, deep and difficult; it involves you on a profound emotional level with the questions it asks, with explicit religious (Christian) references and sub-themes. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted at first, also because the camera seems to move in a jittery way all the time. But it is an interesting film and I am happy I have seen it. It is a one-of-a-kind sentimental drama, which (almost) becomes a thriller towards the end.

Be prepared, and you will enjoy it. But you will need to be prepared!

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A Perfect Murder

A well-constructed thriller that will keep you guessing from start to finish

(Edit) Updated 01/09/2020

This is a classically made thriller, a very good remake of the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock movie. A very wealthy Wall Street financier (Michael Douglas, powerful and threatening) suspects his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow, beautiful and rich as well as vulnerable) of having an affair with an artist. With something like inexorable logic, the story moves forward, still succeeding in surprising you, the viewer.

The acting is very good and there is real tension throughout. The lead characters as well as the secondary ones are all plausible, which surprised me since, usually, in such stories, suspension of disbelief is a pre-requirement. Not here. You buy into the storyline and you understand the characters' motivations. For all these reasons, I recommend this entertaining and gripping film.

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Mr. Jones

A powerful film about a man with integrity refusing to be told what to say

(Edit) 19/08/2020

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a young journalist from Wales who is known for having interviewed Adolf Hitler. He manages to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones is restricted to Moscow but succeeds in travelling unofficially to the Ukraine: he has become convinced there is a government cover-up and conditions are very difficult there. Nothing, however, has prepared him for what he discovers, i.e. the extent and horror of the Holodomor, the Great Famine that has hit the Ukraine, including empty villages and starving people.

[See Wikipedia on the Ukrainian famine, which would have killed between 3.5 and 12 million people (according to a UN estimate, 7 to 10 million): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor]

G Jones was a truly remarkable character, a bit idealistic, no doubt, devoted to the quest for the truth as part of his job as a journalist with principles. James Norton is very convincing as G Jones, and generally the acting is very good; the film succeeds in re-creating the atmosphere of 1930s Russia and Ukraine very well. You feel you are there, sharing in G Jones' nightmarish experience. What is also interesting is the reaction, back in the UK or in the USA, to G Jones' revelations regarding the Ukrainian famine.

This is a powerful film talking about one of the darkest aspects of J Stalin's rule. Some reviews, when the film came out, were very mixed and highly critical, implying that the film is conventional or dull. I disagree. It is moving and profound in more ways than one. I would certainly recommend it, all the more so if you are interested in the history of the 20th century, but not only.

The Ukrainian famine is not talked about so much outside the country. And G Jones would deserve to be better known: his tragically short life was, in fact, centred on his fight against what we now call 'fake news', which is not a new phenomenon at all.

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The Nightingale

An epic, bloody journey through the Tasmanian wilderness

(Edit) 10/08/2020

The story takes place in the early 19th century (1825) in Tasmania: the 2 lead characters are an Irish girl and a young Aboriginal man that she meets when she is looking for a tracker. The plot is simple, linear and fairly predictable since it is a bloody revenge story: A harms B, and B wants revenge, pursuing A as a result. What is far less predictable is the way that the revenge will be exacted...

The backdrop is the extremely violent colonization of Tasmania by Britain, with soldiers and settlers, as well as convicts, pitted against the native Aboriginal population. Although the notion of genocide has been disputed, what is certain is that, by the end of the so-called Black War (see Wikipedia article), there were no native Tasmanians left: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_War

The film is very good because it is not only about violence and retribution. It is also about the rapport between the 2 key characters and how, gradually, it changes and alters. Overall, an excellent and tense movie that you are unlikely to forget.

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Gangs of New York

An epic thriller set in 19th-century New York

(Edit) Updated 11/08/2020

This is a film about the criminal underworld in New York city, between about 1845 and 1875. A gang of 'natives' (i.e. Protestant Americans of English origin, from what we are given to understand), led by a sadistic criminal called The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, utterly scary and realistically portrayed), is fighting it out with the Irish immigrants, who are despised because they are new arrivals in the city and Catholic. This happens against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the issue of slavery. A good deal of it is based on historical facts.

The acting is good and Cameron Diaz is surprisingly convincing as the female lead in the story, who is a talented thief herself. The film sets look a little bit cardboard-like at times, I must say (it was filmed in Cinecitta, in Italy, I believe). And there is a lot of extreme violence, mostly involving knives and meat cleavers, so, it is not a film for the faint-hearted.

Having said all this, there is an epic and symbolic dimension to the movie that does make it relevant and captivating, also because the lead characters are unusually complex for a story of this kind. I certainly recommend the movie, which you will not forget.

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Gosford Park

A bit like 'Downton Abbey', but racier and more exciting: an excellent film

(Edit) 03/08/2020

In late1932, very wealthy English industrialist Sir William McCordle and his wife, Lady Sylvia, host a weekend shooting party. The film takes place, therefore, at their country estate, Gosford Park. What follows is an unforgiving depiction of the British upper-class a few years before WWII. There is, of course, a strong element of 'upstairs/ downstairs'; there is also the amusing contrast between the English aristocrats and the American guest(s). There follows a murder, and a police investigation.

The movie has been described as "a satirical black comedy mystery film" (Wikipedia entry). I would say there is an element of satire, but it is not a comedy, or even a black comedy, in my opinion. It is a critical and sarcastic description of a certain, entitled social milieu, in the twilight of Empire, which would be gone (in that kind of setting) 20 years later, as one of the servants rightly predicts. There is humour in the film, no doubt, and there is an element of mystery (to do with the murder that is committed), but that is not the central purpose of the film, in my view.

The movie is a bit like a sexy, raunchy, far more daring and harsher version of 'Downton Abbey': the aristocrats are not all nice and polite, far from it; the servants are not all well-behaved, far from it; and there is quite a bit of hanky-panky, also across the class divide! So, 'Gosford Park' is a better and, probably, more realistic version of 'Downton Abbey', as it were.

Overall, it is an excellent film and a must-see, in my opinion. The only thing that I found disappointing was the ending. I cannot go into details so as not to spoil the story, but the elucidation of the murder is not entirely plausible and is a bit contrived. With a better, more convincing, sharper ending, the movie would have been a complete masterpiece.

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The Adjustment Bureau

A good film that mixes romance with science-fiction in an original way

(Edit) 27/07/2020

This is a film that is both what one could call a romantic/ sentimental drama and a science-fiction thriller. It is highly implausible, of course, so, in a way, it is more some sort of cautionary tale -- and a little bit of a fairy tale.

The premise is quite profound and philosophical, which is reflected in the intriguing storyline: what if our every action was pre-determined by a faceless 'Bureau' that makes sure 'the plan' is carried out and things happen as they 'should'? There would be no free will. The Bureau in question is, in a way, a metaphor for God. But, precisely, in the Old Testament, God grants human beings free will, as they wish to experiment and discover things for themselves. And that's when problems start and things go wrong! On a philosophical level, therefore, this is the tussle between conditioning/ causation (or fate?) and free will, since we are all free agents -- up to a point.

The movie, however, is not at all a philosophical tale: it is an entertaining romantic sci-fi story. I enjoyed it and Matt Damon, as the fast-rising US politician, falling in love with a beautiful ballerina (Emily Blunt), is convincing and his acting is good (better than E Blunt's in my view). Despite what the Bureau says, those 2 want to be free to live their passion as they wish to... Things get complicated and even nerve-wracking at times.

With all of this, the film could have been a fascinating masterpiece. It is not. It is just a good piece of entertainment. Somehow, something is lacking and the story is a bit shallow, and so are the 2 lead characters' love affair: I couldn't quite believe in it, maybe because it is so quick and so 'perfect', at first sight at any rate.

Still, I would certainly recommend this film, which is unusual in some ways and genuinely charming and entertaining.

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