Isle of Dogs (2018) review: Audacious, futuristic rebellion adventure (with stop-motion dogs)

Film

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Director: Wes Anderson Writers: Wes Anderson (screenplay) Stars: Bryan CranstonKoyu RankinEdward Norton 

In Japan, in the not-too-distant future, the dog-hating Mayor of Megasaki island has banished all dogs to nearby Trash Island. As part of the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty the Mayor tells his citizens he is protecting them from the perils of Canine Flu and Sout Fever, which have infected the entire dog population and are threatening to transfer to humans. We follow the adventures of a pack of dogs. (including Bryan Cranston and Chief, Edward Norton as Rex and Jeff Goldblum as Duke) on Trash Island, who are working to help a 12-year old boy (“dogs love those”), The Little Pilot, find his beloved dog Spots among the piles of rubbish and feral hounds.

In order to capture the communication difficulties between man and hound, Anderson has all of the dogs speak in English, while the human population speak largely in Japanese (save for Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson and Greta Gerwig’s Tracy the Exchange Student). The Japanese is largely offered with no subtitles, but due to context and the deft animation it is never hard to understand what is being said.

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The animation is beautiful, managing to keep the unique Anderson aesthetic while also giving firm nods to everyone from Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyasaki to Nick Park. The animation is apparently at 12 images per second, fewer than many stop-motion films, which adds to the jerky, off-kilter appeal. The intricate details in every scene are mind blowing, from the dogs’ fur seemingly blowing in the wind (from the animators hands simply touching the puppets between shots) to some of the scenery there is always a lot to look at. It’s a true feast for the eyes, sushi preparation and all.

This is a film that will stand up to multiple viewings as it is both visually stunning and densely packed with minor characters who could hold their own as part of their own narrative. Tilda Swinton’s brief turn as The Oracle, the seemingly psychic pug is just wonderful and all too brief. Yoko Ono also makes an appearance as Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono, a woman whose back story I would love to hear.

Anderson is often criticised for the coldness of his films, retaining a constant distance from the audience which means connection with the characters become difficult. Isle of Dogs is no different, with an omniscient narrator and chapter headings clearly delineating where in the narrative we are. The landscapes are bleak, with the monochrome of Trash Island a stark contrast to the beauty of Megasaki city. However the characters, despite the trademark Anderson stilted dialogue, still manage to display a lot of warmth. I’m not ashamed to say this was the first Wes Anderson film that made me cry. Twice. The dogs and their relationships both with each other and the various humans they encounter seem far more developed than many of Anderson live action human characters, perhaps a nod to the high esteem with which he holds our canine friends.

Isle of Dogs is a beautiful and engaging film, with plenty to keep both ardent cinephiles, dog-lovers and more mainstream cinema goers entertained.

9 out of 10

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Veronica (2017) review: Claustrophobic and unnerving Spanish coming of age horror

Film

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Director: Paco Plaza Writers:  Fernando NavarroPaco Plaza

Stars:  Sandra EscacenaBruna GonzálezClaudia Placer

Set in Madrid in 1991 and based (extremely loosely) on true events, Veronica tells the chilling supernatural tale of the 15 year-old titular heroine and a series of unexplained events taking place over a few days.

Veronica is the carer for her three younger siblings, while their mother is mostly absent, a fleeting figure in their lives who spends her days and nights working in a local bar since the death of the childrens’ father. While Veronica’s friends are experimenting with smoking and boys Veronica is left with the mundane role of young carer, cleaning, cooking and acting as babysitter to her siblings.

The film is set in familiar horror territory; an eclipse and a convent school. Scary nuns and the world being plunged into darkness provide a solid start for supernatural horror. Amidst this backdrop Veronica and her friend (with interloper to the friendship and experienced older girl Diana)  try to contact Veronica’s dead father through a ouija board in the basement of the school. Very quickly the seance takes an unsettling turn and Veronica has a terrifying seizure.

Veronica finds herself in the school nurse’s office where the event is explained away as anemia or low blood pressure, leading her to reveal she has not yet had her first period. Thus we stumble into the real main theme of the film, the changing pubescent female body, which has long been a source of great fascination and horror.

Paco Plaza keeps with the urban high rise setting of his previous films [REC] and [REC 2] (which are two films which I find genuinely chilling) to great effect. Employing a Rear Window approach to exploring Veronica’s own stunted teenage years he shows the stark contrast of a teenage girl in a neighbouring building who is enjoying all the normal teenage freedoms of dancing, making out and being looked after. Meanwhile our heroine slowly unravels under the weight of responsibility of being parent to her much younger siblings while tackling her own changing body, forcing her to straddle the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.

While the film could be viewed as another ouija board driven supernatural horror, an alternative explanation for events is firmly apparent, making Veronica far more compelling viewing than many of it’s horror counterparts. Veronica’s mother uttering ominously “I need you to grow up” framing the narrative for the rest of the film.

Sandra Escacena is mesmorising in the title role, managing to capture both child-like innocence and a building anger and passion, all the torment of hormonal teenage years coming out in rage filled bursts, which may or may not be related to a summoned demon. Her siblings  are also superb, with the two bickering twin sisters  Irene and Lucia (played by Bruna Gonzalez and Claudia Placer) displaying sass and verve, while young Antonito (Ivan Chavero) manages to be supremely cute without being irritating.

The special effects are largely practical and in-camera, which is when the projection of Veronica’s haunting is at it’s most effective. Indeed the appearance of the children’s father is an image that will remain with me for a long time. Some appearances of the spirit are a little hokey, but these are always the moments when we see the horror through the childrens’ eyes.

The real test of effective horror isn’t so much the experience while viewing, but what it does to you afterwards and somehow Veronica got firmly under my skin, making me sure I’d firmly locked my doors before going to bed.

Like The Babadook and Rosemary’s Baby before it, Veronica works best when it is rooted in the claustrophobia of family life and the terror of both childhood and adulthood. The hokum of being based on true events should remain secondary to what is an excellent piece of coming of age horror.

8.5 out of 10

 

 

Free Fire (2017) review: A distinctly British twist on an American classic

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Director: Ben Wheatley  Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley Starring: Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay and more…

“An arms deal goes spectacularly and explosively wrong. Justine (Brie Larson) has brokered a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two Irishmen and a gang led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer), who are selling them a stash of guns. But when shots are fired during the handover, complete pandemonium ensues, with everyone at the scene suddenly thrust into a heart-stopping game of survival.”

If you were pitching to a studio executive you could describe Free Fire as being an action-packed homage to the 1970’s gritty crime B-movies so beloved of Quentin Tarantino.  Sold in another way you could describe it as a talky, theatrical set piece all housed in one warehouse in Boston. In another way you could well describe Free Fire as 90 minutes of 10 (Ok, shhh…12) great actors crawling around the floor, firing guns indiscriminately at one another. All are true, but all under-sell it as a film, as it’s certainly more than the sum of it’s parts.

Wheatley and Jump’s witty script takes in a range of styles from a pastiche of the aforementioned gritty 70’s crime flick like the two choices presented by Vernon to Ord:

Vernon: We’ve got two choices. One, you distract them and I leave.
Ord: What?
Vernon: Two, you kill all of these motherfuckers and I leave.

To those which could have been plucked from a distinctly pre-PC 70’s sitcom:

Vernon:You’re a bird, they’re not going to shoot a bird!”

The costumes, hair and make-up are all fantastic, capturing the glamour of the late 70’s while perfectly encapsulating each character.

Somehow, in spite of the witty dialogue (which more than passes the Kermodian 6 laugh test), great costumes and a plot familiar to more glossy films, Free Fire feels wonderfully ordinary. I mean that in the best possible way. The film seems to outline exactly what would happen if 10 (*cough* 12) real people with guns, grudges and quick tempers found themselves in a shoot-out. Shots ring out randomly, people get shot in the leg, bullets graze shoulder-pads. This is not neat, Hollywood violence (a nice aside about the ‘real’ Hollywood being in Ireland is made early on). This is bullets accidentally ricocheting off the walls and hitting your mate in the butt. This is you cowering behind a concrete pillar hoping everyone will just walk away.

Even the direction and choreography of the violence lends itself to this feeling of chaos and normality. None of the usual action director tricks are pulled out of the bag, with bullets flying in all directions, the camera crossing the line wildly, dragging the audience in to the character’s point of view.

Free Fire somehow manages to brilliantly balance drama, comedy and tension, with huge laughs almost immediately interrupted by a wince and your hands involuntarily flying in front of your face.

Sharlto Copley’s comic turn as the ostentatiously-coiffed and 70’s Savile Row-suited Vernon is a joy to behold, as is Armie Hammer as the charismatic and handsome stoner who just doesn’t really seem to be bothered about the whole affair. Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson’s more straight laced roles are also worthy of note as both give great performances which hold up against the big comedy guns.

Being Ben Wheatley there is of course somewhat of a twist in this cinematic tale…

Free Fire feels like a modern classic, somehow managing to breathe new life into what was a tired cinematic trope.

9 out of 10

 

 

 

Mustang (2015) review: A powerful, magical feminist masterpiece

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Mustang is a film which (as is the case with many foreign language flicks) has taken a while to make its way over to the UK. First released in France back in June 2015, after a successful showing at Cannes, ‘Mustang’ was actually only released in select UK theatres in May of this year.

In a small Turkish village, five orphaned teenage sisters play on the beach on their way home from school at the start of their long summer holiday. They splash around with some boys from the school, jumping on the boys’ shoulders so they can wrestle each other into the warm waters. By the time they have arrive home, their world has changed forever, as news has reached their strict grandmother (via a nosey neighbour), that they have been “putting their private parts against boys’ necks”. Soon the girls find themselves under virtual house arrest, having all items which could “corrupt” them removed from their lives and being groomed for life as wives and mothers, having their freedom ripped away from them. The three eldest sisters are taken to have a “virginity test”, finding themselves at the mercy of a middle-aged male doctor armed with a speculum.

Seen largely through the eyes of youngest sister Lala (brilliantly played by Gunes Sensoy), director Deniz Gamze Ergüven expertly weaves a tale that is equal parts endearingly mundane, truly horrifying and a little bit magical. Events that are seen through the eyes of a grown-up could have dominated the whole film, but are instead reduced to mere footnotes and shadows, as Lale’s understanding of them is limited. At the same time, moments where the girls play together achieve a kind of magic as you can feel Lale reveling in the simple joy they bring her. By subverting the way in which the events are viewed, Ergüven gives what could have been a well-worn tale, a truly fresh voice.

The girls, and the Turkish countryside, are filmed with the utmost reverence and love, portraying their beauty in spite of the bleak circumstances. The sisters retain their sense of humour, and provide a few laugh out loud moments in the midst of the most difficult situations. However, as the girls are married off, one by one, the horrors become more real for Lale, and the remaining girls’ freedom becomes more and more restricted to ensure they comply. While the men of the world they occupy eat separately, shoot guns in the air and lob fireworks onto football pitches, the girls’ sexuality is treated as the most dangerous and subversive thing in society.

The real joy of cinema is being transported to another place for the duration of a film – be it galaxies far, far away, a zombie-infested dystopia, or a very real, very current horror. Ergüven, and the terrific ensemble cast, throw a spotlight on a modern tragedy; that women the world over are still having to fight for their right to freedom from oppression. The magical realism of ‘Mustang’ helps the reality of life, which affects far too many women in our world, truly hit home. This is a powerful, magical, raw, feminist masterpiece.

9 out of 10

Tale of Tales (2015) review: a brutal carnival of the grotesque and magical

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Director: Matteo Garrone Writers: Giambattista Basile (book), Edoardo Albinati (screenplay) Stars: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones

In ‘Tale of Tales’ Matteo Garrone takes the basis of three Italian folk tales – originally collected in the 15th century by Giambattista Basile (who also made the first known records of the tales of Rapunzel and Cinderella) – and weaves them into a sumptuous and magical portmanteau film.

In the first tale we see Salma Hayek as Queen of Longtrellis, with John C. Reilly as her heroic King, being told they will be able to have their long-yearned-for child if he can only defeat a sea monster, and she can then devour it’s heart having had it cooked by a virgin. Bizarre, I know. The second tale sees Vincent Cassell as the lothario King of Strongcliff, who is banging his way around the kingdom, exhausting himself and the ladies he leaves strewn in his wake. One day he hears the beautiful voice of a woman he has never heard before, and finds himself accidentally wooing two elderly sisters. Toby Jones leads the third tale, as he finds his Kingly affections swayed not by women, but an altogether very different kind of creature, leading him to make a decision which leaves his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) in mortal peril.

‘Tale of Tales’ is a very grown-up fairy tale of sorts, with sex and violence galore, and some pretty adult themes to boot. Part ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, part ‘The Princess Bride’, it comes as no surprise to learn that the cinematographer is Peter Suschitzky, who has a long history working with David Lynch on films such as ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘eXistenZ’, and consequently is well-versed in capturing gruesome beasties and body horror to maximum effect.

The performances are all excellent, but they are often eclipsed by the incredible costumes, sets and make-up, which really make the film stand out from its more saccharine counterparts. The practical effects in particular are stunning, with several impressive and terrifying creatures being bought to life not through CGI but through good old silicon and ingenuity. The aged make-up on Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson is truly something to behold.

It’s great to see that the women of these fairy tales are not all damsels in distress needing saving by a handsome Prince. Indeed, their lives are far more complex, their desires more nuanced, and they certainly don’t all live happily ever after. While one of the tales peters out and another meets a brutal, gory end, it is Toby Jones and Bebe Cave’s tale which provides the substantial backbone to the film, and gives us the most satisfying resolution.

‘Tale of Tales’ is a resolutely gorgeous, brutal carnival of the grotesque and magical, although it is a little too patchy for it to be ranked as a classic, it may still make it to cult status.

7 out of 10

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) review: Warm and wise odd couple comedy

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Director: Taika Waititi Writers: Taika Waititi (screenplay), Barry Crump (based on the book by)  Stars: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata

If you consider that Taika Waititi’s previous body of work includes the supremely quirky ‘Eagle Vs Shark’, and the pant-wettingly hilarious vampire mockumentary ‘What we do in the Shadows’, to go into a viewing of ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ expecting anything other than offbeat and idiosyncratic would be foolish.

‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ takes on a familiar story as we follow the progress of orphaned Ricky (the very charming Julian Dennison), as he reluctantly starts out his new life with foster family Aunty Bella (played with unabashed joy by Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (a grumbly Sam Neill) on a small holding in the remote outback of New Zealand. Having been through a number of foster homes, with social workers writing him off as a wannabe gangster and rotten apple, Ricky tries his best to escape his new life, but soon finds himself drawn in by Bella’s unflinching warmth, good humour and ninja-like deployment of hot water bottles.

Tragedy soon strikes, although it is handled in a distinctly low-key and stiff-upper-lipped way, with the men going about their normal business to the best of their abilities. Then, through a series of unfortunate events, Ricky finds himself on the run with stoic Uncle Hec and dogs Zag and Tupac in tow, trekking through the thousands of hectares of dense forest surrounding the family’s farm, on the run from both the police and a very angry social worker.

As with Waititi’s previous directorial outings the real joy comes with the unpolished and off-kilter, from Hec’s quiet awe at the “majestical” landscape that lies before them, to Ricky’s ill-fated attempts at running away from home. There is the seemingly obligatory appearance by Rhys Darby as outback hermit Psycho Sam, along with a cameo by the director himself as an eccentric Vicar (who almost steals the show with his tale about Jesus hiding behind doors).

The New Zealand landscape looks both awesome and terrifying as the pair immerse themselves in wilderness living, becoming both an ally and an enemy in their battle to stay together.

Waititi is becoming masterful in his directorial style, and brings a wonderfully fresh slant to what could have been a hackneyed, odd-couple buddy movie, making it a joyous and heart-warming tale of strong characters overcoming adversity and finding comfort in new forms of family.

8 out of 10

The Girl with all the Gifts (2016) review: Imaginative and emotional update on the zombie trope

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Director: Colm McCarthy Writers: Mike Carey (novel), Mike Carey (screenplay) Stars:Gemma Arterton, Dominique Tipper, Glenn Close

Based on a novel of the same name, ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ is a horror/drama set in a dystopian Britain, where an aggressive fungal infection has turned most of the population into mindless, flesh-eating ‘hungries’ (zombies essentially). ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ follows the fortunes of a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) on her journey of self-discovery. Starting in a bleak underground bunker on an army base, we see Melanie and her classmates being strapped into wheelchairs and transported from their tiny cells to an austere classroom by heavily armed soldiers. Leading the class is affable teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who treats the children with a warmth and respect the military personnel lack. As the story unfolds Melanie finds herself on the run with Miss Justineau, Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), Sgt Parks (Paddy Considine) and Kieran Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), fleeing to escape a horde of hungries, slowly learning more about who she is, where she came from and her part in the unfolding horror around her.

Created by a British team on a relatively tiny £4.4 million budget, ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ is an ambitious genre piece with a surprisingly glossy production feel. Mike Carey has taken his own novel and penned the script, making some interesting choices with its adaptation from book to big screen. Taking out some of the more horrific elements of the novel, Carey instead brings us a more intimate tale, with some of the characters sharp edges filed away; which at times leads to their motivations feeling muddled and two-dimensional.

Melanie however, played by shining star Sennia Nanua, feels fully formed, ferocious and frightening, veering from wide-eyed innocence to feral abandon with ease. Her idolisation of Miss Justineau is both claustrophobic and beautiful, with Arterton and Nanua managing to convey their peculiar bond with a single glance. Glenn Close was an apt choice for the role of the Cruella De Vil-esque Dr Caldwell, who is desperate to dissect our heroine. She seems to disappear into the background for most of the middle act, only to make an impactful return for the heart-crushing finale. Some light relief comes in the form of Paddy Considine as Sgt Parks, whose ‘call a spade a spade’ attitude and practicality reflects the fact that despite the horror it portrays the film does not take itself too seriously.

One of the most successful aspects of the film is the wonderful score, by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, which takes a repetitive refrain of looped voices to add a real sense of foreboding and dread to the bleak landscapes.

While some of the practical make-up and effects look a little clunky (understandable given the budgetary restraints), and not all of the hungries elicit the same level of fear (indeed one or two raised a quiet snigger), the sheer imagination and emotion of ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ manages to steer it past B-movie territory and could well see it considered one of the best films in the zombie genre.

Now you all need to see it so we can talk about that ending…

7 out of 10

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) review: Burton’s peculiar take on YA

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Director: Tim Burton Writers: Ransom Riggs (based upon the novel written by), Jane Goldman (screenplay) Stars: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson

‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is so Tim Burton, it feels like it could have been specifically written for him! Jake (Asa Butterfield) is an outsider, his parents tolerate him, everyone at school ignores him and he feels in some way different. The only person he is truly close to is his grandfather, Abe, (Terence Stamp), a man who believes in the magical and tall tales. Following Abe’s untimely demise, Jake finds himself taking a trip to Wales, accompanied by his wonderfully passively-neglectful father (Chris O’Dowd), trying to track down the children’s home where Abe grew up, to help him piece together the mystery of the man he misses so dearly. Upon arrival at the children’s home Jake is plunged into a world of peculiar children; one of whom is lighter than air, one stronger than 10 men and one who has a whole hive of bees living inside them, all overseen by Scary Poppins, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Oh, and they’re now in 1943, live the same day over and over again, ‘Groundhog Day’ style, and are being chased by monsters. Still with me? If anyone other than Tim Burton directed this, it would have been a nonsense.

The first act of the film sees Burton and cast on top form, with the pastel-coloured Hopper-esque Florida homes reminiscent of those in ‘Edward Scissorhands’, paving way to the dark dreary Welsh island where the children’s home stands. The characters seem profoundly real, and Jake’s need to connect with his grandfather proves to be a powerful drive, providing a good emotional scaffold to the tale. Indeed, during this first act it appeared this was a film that could rival Harry Potter in it’s imagination, scope and sense of whimsy.

However, the film seems to lose it’s way once it disconnects with reality entirely. The early scenes of Jake travelling through the ‘loop’ (the plot device explaining how the children remain shielded from the real world) from the dark and rain of Wales to the seemingly idyllic sunshine bathed children’s home in 1943 work well, as Burton explores the disconnect between fantasy and reality, unpicking Jake’s grieving process.

Rather than becoming the next Harry Potter, the narrative seems to drag the film down into becoming the next generic YA outing. You know, the one where Percy Jackson fights immortal trolls in a maze, and heals the rifts in a divided society, all the time finding out who he is as a person.

A whole raft of faux-mythic words are unleashed upon the audience as ‘ymbrines’ (Miss Peregrine herself is one, capable of creating a time-loop, turning into a bird, and entrusted with the care of the titular peculiar children), and ‘hollowgasts’ (‘peculiars’ who were transformed into terrifying eyeball eating, invisible creatures) take centre-stage, over-shadowing the very charming tale of Jake and his grandfather.

Then Samuel L. Jackson’s Barron (head hollowgast) bursts into the plot, in full comic-book bad guy mode, (providing the Johnny Depp element, perhaps?) and drags the film even further into the realms of the silly.

Those criticisms aside, ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ still feels like a return to form for Burton, as he captures both the gothic and magical elements of the story and the dreary mundane heartbreak of reality with some style. The connect between the Hollowgasts and the horrors Abe’s grandfather endured during his time in Poland during WWII is made subtly, and with care. Visually it is pure Burton, playing with colour-palettes and surreal and uncanny imagery. He even indulges in paying homage to other films, with nods to Ray Harryhausen and Stanley Kubrick (“Heeeerrrre’s Samuel!”) peppered throughout.

The fact the original novel was written around some intriguing photographs speaks volumes. The images here are clear and precise, but the narrative feels somewhat secondary.

Largely enjoyable, if overly long and peppered with over-cooked YA tropes (when an intriguing story about family bonds lay underneath it all), ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will probably prove to be a popular addition to future Christmas TV schedules, but is ultimately quite forgettable.

6 out of 10

Birdman (2015): Theatre of the abs-bird*

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*I’m sorry

The blurb says: A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.

My verdict: The first twitchy, look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever-with-my-long-takes, 20 self-conscious minutes of Birdman led me to believe I’d hate it. With a soundtrack that sounds like someone falling down the stairs carrying pans and pretentiously staged dialogue, Innaritu seems to be present looking smug in every early camera movement. Luckily the over- stylised direction calms down and allows the stream of consciousness black comedy to unfold. I am by no means a big fan of the film, but Norton, Keaton and Stone all put in excellent performances, which emerged as an enjoyable, but slim, farce. I strongly suspect Birdman will become another American Hustle, where in a year’s time we’ll all be wondering what all the fuss was about.
Of course, with it’s unabashed slamming of the role of critics (or was there?) me criticising it seems redundant.

6 out of 10