The Drop (Michael R. Roskam) *** - Mild-mannered bartender gets caught in the middle of a web involving his bar being used as a "drop bar" (bars used as cover for dirty money exchanges by the mob). Of course nothing is what it seems. Adapted by Dennis Lehane based on his own short story, this film is just a tad too talky (rule # 1 of screenwriting: show don't tell) but thankfully, the very strong cast sell everything and makes you hang on to every single word. This film is of course one of the final on-screen performances of James Gandolfini and he is as usual excellent here but the film belongs to Tom Hardy who continues to impress as one of contemporary's cinema's most gifted actors. The third act twist would have been a bit ridiculous had it not for his performance. Overall, yes, I've seen this type of stories before and done better but the cast is so much fun to watch, I didn't care.
Kapag Langit ang Humatol (Laurice Guillien) ** - The title translates to "If Heaven Judges Me". This is a restored version of a film from 1990 screened at a film festival. It's about a housemaid who falls in love with the son of her mistress and the mistress disapproves of the affair and of course you can surmise everything from there. It's pure Filipino melodrama with practically every soap opera cliche you can think of: love, anger, betrayal, adultery, deception, cancer, switched babies, etc. It's all silly and over-the-top but not enough to be subversive and not enough to be deliciously campy though there are moments. I think they pretty much used this film as a template for a lot of the Filipino soap operas on TV. It's pretty much a two-hour version of that. I wasn't bored. It's not terrible for what it is but it's not my thing.
Black Coal, Thin Ice(Yi'nan Diao) *** - This film comes from China. Police find the chopped up remains of a man in a coal processing plant. Then after seemingly hitting a dead end, five years later, body parts start to come up again and they seem to be connected to the widow of the first victim. This is something that I admired more than I liked. I can definitely see what the filmmaker is going for. A neo-noirish detective story set in the desolate industrial landscape of China. Deliberately paced and also eschews the expected trappings of the genre. There are inspired moments. But the film overall, left me a bit cold. It's gorgeously shot though.
The Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) **** - A group of down-on-their-luck showgirls and their producer wants to put on a show during the Great Depression. But it's so much more than that though. Yes, this film features a bunch of dazzling musical numbers directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley that are impressive even by today's standards but one thing that surprised me is that the story that wraps around those numbers is very funny and very sharp and tremendously well-acted. Predictable, sure but the actors give it their all and it's as fun to watch as the musical numbers which are impressive on their own. I loved this movie.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) ***1/2 - This year's winner of the Palme D'Or and Turkey's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. I'm more of an admirer rather than lover of Ceylan's previous film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which I think is due for a revisit by me) so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. I liked this one quite a bit better. It's about an aging former actor who runs a mountaintop hotel in Anatolia with his divorced sister and much younger wife. Despite the fact that this film largely consists of lengthy conversations, it managed to hold my attention almost its entire over-three hour running time. The actors play a significant part but the gorgeous cinematography of the beautiful rural landscape made the film for me. It's not QUITE a masterpiece since it lacked that extra something for me that would put it over the top. But as it is, it is a solid, admirable piece of work that would test some people's patience.
Violator (Dodo Dayao) ***1/2 - How to describe this film? Best way I can describe it is take Reservoir Dogs add in The Exorcist and have David Lynch direct it. You pretty much get this movie. But it's so much better than that and it's so much more than that. It's about a group of characters stuck in a police station during a huge storm with a teenaged boy in a cell who may or may not be possessed by an evil spirit. But don't expect the usual horror or even crime drama arcs from this film. It goes off in so many different tangents and manages to pull off most of them quite well. It's creepy, disturbing and in a weird way kind of fun. This is a Filipino film which won Best Picture at a local film festival and I think it's gonna win more awards. It's my favorite Filipino film AND horror film of 2014 so far.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Francis Lawrence) *** - I haven't read the books so I'm assessing this purely as a movie-goer who enjoys the films (though I'm not a super fan or anything). This one is not as good as Catching Fire but still very much enjoyable. The two hours just flew by. I still think the obvious profit-driven decision to expand the third book into two movies was a mistake in terms of making a narratively strong film but somehow they did a passable job. If you're neither a fan of the books nor the first two films, there's little here to recommend apart from checking out of the last performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman who actually elevates a lot of the material along with a surprisingly strong cast of supporting players. Jennifer Lawrence is great as usual. It's a solid film and I will be watching Part 2.
Liebelei (Max Ophuls) *** - This is one of the earlier films of director Max Ophuls who would eventually make films like The Earrings of Madame De... and Letter from an Unknown Woman, two films I consider among the best ever made in the history of medium. This isn't quite that but it's still pretty darn good film. This is about a doomed love story between a singer and a young lieutenant. You can definitely see the different themes and motifs Ophuls would eventually expound and perfect in his subsequent films all throughout this early work. It's worth checking out just for that especially if you're already a fan of his masterpieces.
Paprika (Satoshi Kon) ***1/2 - I have to admit I haven't seen a whole lot of non-Studio Ghibli anime features and among those that I've seen, I loved only one:Akira but this film has been praised highly enough that I thought I'd check out. What do you know? I kind of loved it. A piece of new technology used to visualize and monitor dreams is stolen and weird things start to happen. Yes, it sounds a bit like Inception but I have to say this movie has a bit more humor, color whimsy and sex appeal and yet somehow manages to be more "grown up" than the Nolan film while also having a bit more fun with the whole conceit of dreams coming to life. The animation is visually eye-popping. I still like the Nolan film but after this, I think I'm lowering the rating for that one a tad.