We review this week’s new cinema releases, including THE DROP, THE IMITATION GAME and Irish film STANDBY…

THE DROP (USA/106mins/15A)
Directed by Michaël R. Roskam. Starring James Gandolfini, Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace. Matthias Schoenaerts.
THE PLOT: Every so often, Cousin Marv’s Bar in Brooklyn is used as a ‘drop bar’ for the criminals and thieves of the city to launder their cash. When the bar is robbed one night, the eye of suspicion falls on Marv himself (James Gandolfini) and his bartender Bob (Tom Hardy). Meanwhile, Bob finds an abandoned pitbull puppy and, as he and Nadia (Noomi Rapace) grow closer over the puppy, a jealous ex emerges to wreak havoc.
THE VERDICT: Tom Hardy treads a thin line as Bob; for much of the film it is not incredibly clear whether Bob is a simpleton or an incredibly clever man with little to say. Hardy allows the audience to change their mind several times throughout the film; such is the power of his performance. Hardy’s Brooklyn accent also helps matters, as does his tenacious determination to hold on to the dog he found. James Gandolfini plays a familiar role as Marv; this small time gangster with a hidden agenda is something we have seen a million times before, so it is not surprise that he does well with the part, even if he allows Hardy to completely steal the show.
Noomi Rapace plays Nadia as a stereotypical beaten woman with a dangerous past, who is determined to find herself a nice guy, despite all her insecurities; thus a similar, but less interesting role than the one she played in Dead Man Down. Matthias Schoenaerts hides away the impressive physique he displayed in Rust and Bone to play a small time crook with his eyes on the prize; he’s intimidating at first, but a lack of development leads to the character becoming annoying and distracting.
Dennis Lehane – writer of SHUTTER ISLAND and MYSTIC RIVER – adapts his own short story, Animal Rescue, for the screen here. Perhaps it is down to the fact that The Drop is based on a short story, but almost everything about the screenplay feels drawn out and elongated. This helps Tom Hardy’s performance, as his character is softly and slowly spoken, but it means that the pacing of the film is a mess. Also, there are simply two strands of story woven together here, but it feels like there is a whole lot more going on than there actually is.
Director Michaël R. Roskam, whose film BULLHEAD was Oscar nominated, does his best to allow the tension of the film to build, but since the story is rather obvious and predictable, it is hard to insert tension. Roskam coaxes great performances from Hardy and Schoenaerts, but then allows Gandolfini and Rapace to coast, hidden under the shadow of two strong actors, and never allows the pace of the film to pick up.
In all, THE DROP is a film that lives and dies with Tom Hardy’s performance… And the dog. Although there is just about enough her for the film to be entertaining, Gandolfini and Rapace are sidelined in this drawn out, predictable and familiar film.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

THE IMITATION GAME (UK | USA/114mins/12A)
Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiera Knightley, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong.
THE PLOT: During World War II a team led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) set up base at Bletchley Park in London to try and break the German Enigma Code, with the hopes of bringing the war to an early end. While Turing is undoubtedly a brilliant mathematician, he is also arrogant, awkward and willingly isolates himself. Although the team is working to break a secret code, it soon becomes clear that Turing is hiding some secrets of his own.
THE VERDICT: The story of the quest to break the Enigma Code has been told on screen before – notably in the 2001 film ENIGMA. There is little doubt that the struggle to break the impossible code is a fascinating one, but what emerges throughout the course of THE IMITATION GAME is a far more interesting, and tragic human story.
We, as audiences, are used to Benedict Cumberbatch playing alien characters, be it actual alien Khan in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Smaug the dragon in THE HOBBIT franchise or the human, but emotionally removed Sherlock. The surprise then, with THE IMITATION GAME, is that Cumberbatch has not only chosen to play a character who is decidedly human, but a character with deep insecurities and vulnerabilities that come from within. Cumberbatch makes Turing a relatable and engaging man; while he is nothing like an everyman, it is easy for the audience to relate to him, as he is so obviously out of his depth when it comes to everything but his work. Cumberbatch delicately balances Turing’s seeming arrogance and his vulnerability to make the character well rounded and, most of all, human.
Kiera Knightley plays Joan Clarke; a young woman who shows promise in the field of mathematics. Knightley drops all of her quirks and mannerisms for the role and allows Joan to be the emotional centre of the film. It is through her eyes and her relationship with Turning that we understand both characters better. Charles Dance ramps up the pompous as Commander Denniston, Rory Kinnear takes on the role of the man who outed Turing, Matthew Goode plays the cad rather well as Hugh Alexander and Mark Strong provides a father figure as Stewart Menzies.
The story, as mentioned, is one we have seen on screen before; the frantic scramble to break the Enigma Code and, hopefully, end World War II. This time out, however, screenwriter Graham Moore has woven the story of the code together with the enigma of Turning’s personal life. The title refers to both the quest to break the code, but also the life of Alan Turning, as he imitates the men around him, and hides his sexual orientation from the world for fear of prosecution. There are times when the drama feels artificially hyped – rather like an episode of House – and some of the exposition is a little too obvious, but for the most part, the story of The Imitation Game is the solid, tragic and engaging tale of the man who fought to break the unbreakable code.
Director Morten Tyldum makes his English language debut with THE IMITATION GAME, and makes the film poignant, uplifting and tragic. Tyldum allows the characters, and the film, to crest the highs and fall to the lows that come with breaking an impossible code, before realising that they must keep this discovery secret. At the same time, Turing’s back-story is carefully threaded through the film to give the audience an understanding of the special mind at the centre of the struggle, and the secret that eventually became his undoing.
THE IMITATION GAME is a gripping, poignant and tragic film, which shows the public highs and private lows of Alan Turning. Cumberbatch’s performance is the heart and soul of the film, with the rest of the cast supporting him admirably. THE IMITATION GAME, while slightly clumsily scripted at times, is a film that takes a look at a fascinating microcosm of World War II, has strong emotional heart and carefully juxtaposes personal and public; tragedy and success.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

STANDBY (Ireland/15A/90mins)
Directed by Rob Burke, Ronan Burke. Starring Jessica Pare, Brian Gleeson, Stanley Townsend, Tina Kellegher, John Lynn, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Johny Lynn, Louisa Harland, Francesca Cherruault.

THE PLOT: Alan’s the kind of 28-year-old halfwit who can trek all the way across Dublin to his dead-end job at the airport’s tourist information desk, and never notice that his lace is undone. Life is passing this not-quite-beautiful loser by – his co-worker mum (Kellegher) gives him Valentine cards, and his pub-running dad (Townsend) gives him constant reminders that women are evil. Is it any wonder that Alan has been very, very single for the last eight years?
All that might just change though when the last true love of his life, Alice (Pare), wonders up to his desk, needing a hotel for the night. After a little cajoling from his sexually promiscuous co-worker Beatrice (Cherruault), Alan convinces Alice to stay in his place for the night, and see the sights. The hope being that he’ll also convince her that they were meant for one another…
THE VERDICT: Yep, we’re deep in Richard Curtis territory – where there’s money, mawkishness and, very often, muck. Thankfully, writer/director brothers Rob and Ronan Burke avoid the latter here, but they’re unlikely to see much of the former either. Even if they have waited for six or seven years to make this, holding out for a proper budget.
Mind you, it was worth the wait, STANDBY certainly looking the Working Title part, making the most of its Dublin settings (just two weeks shoot in the Dublin capital, followed by two weeks in Luxembourg for the interiors), and of its two happy leads. Young Gleeson scrubs up like a likeable Ewan McGregor (which could be handy in the future), whilst MAD MEN’s Jessica Pare just about keeps the manic pixie girl poses under control.
There are some fine cute moments, some sitcom gags, and plenty of charm, STANDBY takes off but could soar higher.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Paul Byrne 

THIRD PERSON (UK | USA | Germany | Belgium/137mins/15A)
Directed by Paul Haggis. Starring Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis, James Franco.
THE PLOT: In this film about love and relationships, Michael (Liam Neeson) and Anna (Olivia Wilde) meet in a Paris hotel, and try to avoid the secret Anna is keeping. In New York, Julia (Mila Kunis) is trying to regain custody of her son after being accused of attempted murder. In Rome, Scott (Adrien Brody) meets a beautiful woman in a bar, and is drawn into her complicated and dangerous world.
THE VERDICT: It has been three years since we have had a film from Paul Haggis, the award winning screenwriter of MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH and CASINO ROYALE. With THIRD PERSON, Haggis has once again gathered together a strong ensemble cast to tell a fragmented story leading up to a whole. Perhaps he is trying to emulate the success of CRASH, but something gets lost in translation here.
As mentioned, the cast is stellar, with Liam Neeson, James Franco, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Mila Kunis and Maria Bello turning up throughout the film. It’s great to see Neeson step back into the type of role that made him famous long before he was an action star, Wilde convincingly portrays a woman who swings from delight to despair, Kunis shows a fragile and vulnerable side as a woman trying to get her life back together; Brody is surprisingly funny and warm and James Franco dials everything down to play a vindictive father and ex-partner. Each gives their all, in their own way, and it is the performances that make the film watchable and enjoyable. Sadly, all of this good is let down by Haggis’ script.
As screenwriter, it is fairly obvious that Haggis is hoping that lightning will strike twice with THIRD PERSON, but there are several problems with the script; firstly, all the women in the film are either, crazy, liars or con artists and, while the actors do their best to make the characters believable, Kunis is really the only one to come out of this on top, and with audience sympathy on her side. Haggis also touches on some very uncomfortable topics, and never fully fleshes any of them out, so concerned is the screenplay in hammering home the similarities between the stories – they all begin with water, they all struggle with the influence of a ‘third person’ and they all concern dysfunction around a child in some way – that none of them is ever given the chance to breathe. The ending is so startlingly self-conscious that the audience is unsure whether to laugh or weep for the 137 minutes spent watching the film.
As director, Haggis has created believable worlds and got fantastic performances from his characters. He also manages to weave the stories together in such a way hat for all the film’s faults; it is still watchable and enjoyable to a point. The running time is a definite detraction from the film as a whole though, as each story feels unnecessarily drawn out.
THIRD PERSON seems like Paul Haggis’ attempt to recreate the CRASH lightning in a bottle, and sadly fails. The cast give strong performances, but with dangerous and unstable female characters and a painfully self-conscious ending, THIRD PERSON feels incredibly unsatisfying.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes 

NATIVITY 3: DUDE, WHERE’S MY DONKEY?! (UK/G/109mins)
Directed by Debbie Isitt. Starring Martin Clunes, Marc Wootton, Catherine tate, Adam Garcia, Celia Imrie, Marcus Longford, Kayko Andrieux, Adrian Dobson, Lauren Hobbs.
THE PLOT:
Okay, bear with us. We’re back at St. Bernadette’s, and the young pupils are still having to coax their teachers through something approaching adulthood. Which isn’t helped when new arrival Mr. Shepherd (Clunes) has a little memory lapse, and, well, loses his beloved pet, Archie The Donkey. Which wouldn’t be all that big a deal really, were it not for the fact that Mr. Shepherd’s fiancee Sophie (Tate) is sitting patiently for the forgetful teach back in New York. Cue much non-hilarity.
THE VERDICT:
This is the sort of movie that gives Christmas, and British cinema, a bad name. Here’s hoping everyone behind it finally ends up on the naughty list, and never get to darken our Yuletide again.
RATING: 1/5
Review by Paul Byrne

LIFE ITSELF (USA/Light House/120mins)
Directed by Steve James. Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Gene Siskel, Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay.
THE PLOT: Based on the late, celebrated American film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, LIFE ITSELF is as much one man’s story as a celebration of cinema itself in the latter half of the 20th century. Having first starting reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, in 1975 Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitizer Prize for Criticism. That was also the year that Ebert joined Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel on a TV film review show, Sneak Previews, the two becoming, for many Americans, the no.1 guide for their multiplex kicks. After Siskel passed in 1999, Ebert continued on with various other co-hosts, becoming, in 2005, the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A year later, Ebert would lose his lower jaw in his battle against cancer, but, if anything, that made the man even more prolific…
THE VERDICT: Naturally, all great film critics of advancing years and superior taste and intelligence should be the subject of a fawning documentary, or two, but, in the case of the late Roger Ebert – almost as big a celebrity in America through his film reviews as those Hollywood heavyweights and hotties he waxed lyrical about – the attraction is concreted somewhat by his slow demise through cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, from 2002 to his passing on April 4th of last year. That he went out still fighting for any great new film he had just seen is testament to his passion for cinema, but director James (whose Hoop Dreams benefitted greatly from Ebert’s thumbs up) is plainly here to celebrate rather than judge. Still, some dirt makes it through with the diamonds, our boy being a perfect example of that most endangered of species – a critic with his own opinion.
If Ebert and Siskel didn’t always see eye-to-eye, that was, of course, part of their mainstream appeal. Otherwise, it would have just been Xpose with balls. RATING: 4/5
Review by Paul Byrne 

THE CASE AGAINST 8 (USA/Light House/109mins)
Directed by Ben Cotner, Ryan White. Starring Paul Katami, Jeffrey Zarrillo, Kristin Perry, Sandra Stier, Ted Olson, David Boies.
THE PLOT: Charting a legal challenge against Proposition 8, the 2008 Califoria state constitutional amendment that blocked same-sex marriage, we follow plaintiffs Katami, Zarrillo, Perry and Stier, along with their attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, as they prepare for a 2010 federal district court hearing, which declares the Proposition unconstitutional, although same-sex marriages remain illegal pending appeal. As we follow the four protagonists prepare for the next round – and catch them hanging out at home – their case is taken to the Supreme Court in 2013…
THE VERDICT: It feels like everyone wants the same thing in Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s amicable documentary. Amicable being the operative word. Good cause, good people, good fight, good (look away now if you don’t want to know the ending) result. Which is all very well and good; this is a fight that has huge implications, and quite a few troubling layers. Only, none of them really surface here, with even lawyers Olson and Boies (who represented Bush and Gore respectively in the Supreme Court case to determine the 2000 election outcome) coming across as thoroughly nice blokes. In truth, there are no fighters here, just lovers. Which is nice. Crushingly, numbingly nice.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Paul Byrne 

SET FIRE TO THE STARS (UK/97mins/15A)
Directed by Andy Goddard. Starring Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon.
THE PLOT: In 1950, Poetry professor John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood) brings celebrated poet Dylan Thomas to America for a spoken word tour. Believing Thomas to be one of the most beautiful and lyrical poets in the English language, Brinnin is utterly unprepared for the tornado of drinking, illness and despair that Thomas brings with him.
THE VERDICT: Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones work wonderfully on screen together; Wood’s ordered and careful character’s world is thrown into chaos by Thomas’ arrival and Jones, while portraying Thomas to be a drunk, allows the sensitivity and curiosity about people to shine through. The two are perfect foils for one another, and it is with them that the film lives and dies. The rest of the cast is made up of Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon, Kelly Reilly and Steven Mackintosh.
SET FIRE TO THE STARS is beautifully shot in black and white, but there are still times when it is obvious that the film was not shot in the US, This should not matter, but since Andy Goddard and Celyn Jones’ script is rather languid and dialogue heavy, this gives the audience’s eye time to wander, and realise that all is not as it should be. Small details are distracting, enough to draw attention from the character study on the screen. Jones and Goddard’s script also feels rather slight for much of the running time. It is clear, from the outset, that Thomas’ presence is going to be disruptive, but there is rarely a moment where Wood’s character rails against this, making Thomas the abuser, and Brinning the almost willing victim.
The film is beautifully shot, and heavily stylised, with Goddard’s direction allowing Wood to showcase his strength and command as an actor; in a story telling scene, he has the audience – and assembled characters – eating from his hands. That said, there is not enough of these engrossing moments to make the film work and a film that could have been an examination of the potential abuse of power between a destructive artist and an adoring fan becomes a test of how much Wood’s character can withstand.
SET FIRE TO THE STARS is a beautifully shot, heavily stylised but slight film, which relies on dialogue to create interest, interest that rarely arises. Jones and Wood excel with their characters but in the end, SET FIRE TO THE STARS loses track of what it is trying to say, and becomes a pretty but bedraggled film.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes