Review: April and the Extraordinary World

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When I was around 10 years old, I fell in love with Hergé’s Tintin books. They contained such an effortless and innocent* sense of adventure, propelled by a core of simple, charming characters and a globe-trotting spirit that certainly appealed to a middle-school Geography Bee champion. There’s just something about a plucky, ingenious young hero foiling cartoonishly dastardly plots with their talking pet sidekick that puts a smile on my face.

Thus, the big, dumb grin I sported for pretty much the entire runtime of “April and the Extraordinary World,” an out-of-nowhere animated charmer that combines the escapist pleasures of “serial” romps like the Indiana Jones movies with the inventive, alternate-universe visual flair of Miyazaki. The Tintin comparison is an inevitable one – the drawing style, adapted (as is the narrative) from the graphic novels and comics of Jacques Tardi, even looks much the same as Hergé’s – but “April and the Extraordinary World” also has its own distinct flavor, a steampunk/early sci-fi/apocalyptic vibe that owes as much to “Metropolis” and Jules Verne and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World” as it does to a certain intrepid Belgian reporter. Should they ever re-attempt to adapt Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” for the screen, please, may it be tackled by a team like this.

To describe the setup of the story is somewhat a chore: imagine Napoleon III died, not as a deposed exile, but in a freak scientific accident while attempting to develop a super-solider serum (yes, something not unlike our dear Captain Rogers’ juju juice). Imagine further, in the wake of that accident, that the world’s leading scientists and inventors all began to mysteriously disappear, snatched up by a mysterious, roaming, all-seeing cloud. Einstein, Edison, Fermi, Marconi, Curie, on and on – without our greatest minds, the world stagnates under primitive 19th-century technology. France, under a revitalized imperial regime, is forced to scrabble for a share of the world’s dwindling resources. In the middle of all of this, a young girl named April is distraught when her parents, chemists secretly working on the same serum project that did in old Napoleon, are taken by that threatening, straight-out-of-a-Roald-Dahl-nightmare cloud.

These things are all related, and there are yet many more puzzle pieces and characters to keep track of as April grows and pursues the truth underneath her topsy-turvy life (indeed, the French title of the film more literally, and more aptly, translates to “April and the Twisted World”). The writers deal nimbly with a massive amount of exposition, fleetly bounding on to the next scene and the next setpiece before the weight of this expansive world can ever come crashing down. Yet the film also never feels rushed – despite leaps of years, even decades, between some sections early on, “April and the Extraordinary World” finds time to linger just the right amount of time on a particularly gorgeous image (the twin Eiffel Towers of Paris that house a transcontinental cable-car station, for instance) or a clever bit of dialogue. Have I mentioned that, somehow, amid all the international intrigue I laid out above, this movie finds time for April to read “Puss in Boots” out loud to her talking cat named Darwin? “I’d have a few things about cats to tell Msr. Perrault,” Darwin sniffs, and I am not sure how else I can convince you to see this film.

But if that isn’t enough, “April and the Extraordinary World” is also a welcome newcomer in the burgeoning recent sub-genre of science-positive entertainment (kicked off, I might argue, by “Interstellar,” and finding its platonic ideal in “The Martian”). April is not just a bland, brave everyman protagonist; she is fiercely, explicitly smart, and put in a position to go on her pulse-pounding, high-stakes adventure for that very reason. The film recognizes both the risk and reward in that, just as it sees the danger humanity so often creates for itself by pushing society forward for short-term gain at long-term expense. But ultimately, progress is the long-term gain – resources will run dry, but as long as the urge remains to advance, to push the boundaries, to dash out into the unknown…we might be OK.

Now playing in limited release – to be expanded wider starting April 8. Watch for it!

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

*I know, I know, I didn’t discover “Tintin in the Congo” until a while later, and the um, less-than-savory villainization of Asians, Native Americans, Jews, etc. didn’t register at that age. The moon ones are still OK, right?

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Top 10 of 2015

All right, the Oscars are long over and done with, so it’s time to finally put a cap in the year in film that was 2015. I ran down the 9th Annual EMOs a while back, but after having the chance to spend a couple of months catching up with titles that I missed over the course of the year, I can put out my Top 10 of 2015 and be done with it.

And honestly that sort of feels like a relief. 2015 was a varied and intriguing year – a year where genre contenders (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Creed”) went toe-to-toe with the prestige stuff, not just in critics’ lists, but on the red carpets of the awards circuit. A year where some of my favorite international auteurs fell short but new ones arrived with a thunderclap. It was also a year where it felt like some dents were finally made in the Iron Curtain that keeps women’s stories out of Hollywood; hopefully that will be the start of a trend and not an anomaly looked back at in melancholy.

But overall it felt like a year of solid craftsmanship and earnest filmmaking with few offerings reaching for the stars – and even fewer actually making it there. Any regular readers out there will hopefully know that I’m a fierce advocate for positivity in criticism – and indeed, there were many films this year that I would like to applaud, for one reason or another. But outside a few top candidates, I can’t say that my passion really ignited for this top 10 list. Ah well. We’ll always have 2007.

Without further ado then, my personal top 10 films of 2015:

10. The End of the Tour

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James Ponsoldt’s indie flick about the long-form interview performed by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest surprised with how unconcerned it was with the famed writer’s brilliance (or pretentiousness, depending on whom you’re asking). Ponsoldt’s film, adapted from Lipsky’s article by playwright Donald Marguiles, is almost wall-to-wall conversation, but the specifics of what Wallace and Lipsky are saying – ramblings about crap television, dogs, women, drug use, or supposedly “deeper” considerations of Wallace’s sudden fame and the nature of genius – are so much less important than what is not being said. Lipsky and Wallace have an instant congeniality, even chemistry (Segel and Eisenberg sell the heck out of the awkwardness of straight men who quickly take a liking to each other but don’t know what to do about it), yet deeper strains of envy and insecurity continually bubble to the surface and interrupt the friendship. The movie’s last moments hammer home the true sadness of not just Wallace’s premature death, but that of any suicide – not that the world lost a talent, but that these two people lost a chance at connection. A touching addition to Ponsoldt’s growing, melancholic collection of addicts and loners (see “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”).

9. Room

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What a curious movie. A potentially sensational subject matter handled with almost aggressively good taste. A blend of stark realism and stirring expression bordering on the manipulative. Two fine leads asked to walk a very fine line between subjectivity and authenticity. To be honest I am still not entirely sure what I think of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” and very much desire to revisit it – but I’m certainly still mulling it over, and the ambition of Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue’s vision has an enviable panache.

8. Brooklyn

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A charming immigrant tale, steering clear of melodrama in favor of the engagement and empathy of a very real, grounded young woman simply trying to move forward in life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are both wonderful as two equally intriguing romantic options for Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, in the best performance of her budding career), their divergent futures offered as possibilities, not inevitabilities. Rarely does a coming-of-age tale have the subtlety and agency that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby hand over to Ronan. The stunning, warm cinematography by Yves Bélanger and evocative, folksy score by Michael Brook play into the film’s strong sense of emotion without getting calculated about it.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road

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George Miller’s decades-in-the-making passion project was the cinephilic surprise of the year, a thunderous return to action filmmaking that signaled Miller’s innovation didn’t run out with “The Road Warrior.” A film-long set piece bursting with indelible design and imagery, “Fury Road” was an adrenaline-soaked reminder that most Hollywood blockbusters (even the entertaining ones) are sleepwalking their way through the motions. Simple but strong politics and Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic turn as one-armed badass Imperator Furiosa were also a gracious antidote to the prevailing action-hero trends of spandexed, tortured machismo. If there’s any problem with the movie, it’s that it may have validated the studios’ instinct to revive old properties over creating something new – if only all those reboots and revivals had a tenth of the energy behind “Fury Road.”

6. Spotlight

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“We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right.”

Tom McCarthy’s paean to investigative journalism is a reflective testament to the power of a well-told story: narratives don’t just entertain or inspire, they can tackle institutions, cause very real consequences. “Spotlight” lacks the paranoid, chilling atmosphere of “All the President’s Men,” its obvious cinematic reference point, but in some ways that makes the story ring all the more true. Corruption and crime doesn’t always happen in shadowy parking lots or shifty hotels; sometimes it plays out under harsh fluorescent lighting, in the false congeniality of men in drab khakis and ill-fitting suits. Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s crackling script is in total sync with a terrific ensemble of journeyman actors (McAdams and Ruffalo deservingly got the Oscar nods, but Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery and others are all equally on-point). Everyone involved in the making of this film was on the same page – the story’s the thing.

5. Carol

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“Carol” opens with an enigmatic closeup, an interweaving pattern of…what? Wallpaper? A fence? A carpet? Carter Burwell’s wonderfully woozy score swells and we finally pull back to see a subway grate, trampled underfoot as a dozen people walk by obliviously, until Todd Haynes actually gets interested in a character and we follow him into one of the more romantic films of recent years. The deception and beauty of things right in front of our eyes has always been an undercurrent of Haynes’ work, and in “Carol” he brings it to the fore to tell a story of repressed love with restraint and delicacy. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have a striking, otherworldly chemistry, relatable yet alien – but isn’t that always how it is when you look at a couple that you’re not a part of? Their attraction is a secret known only to them, and Haynes exploits that feeling to effective measure.

4. 45 Years

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Domestic drama with just the slightest touch of gothic horror, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” is more than a showcase for one of the more remarkable leading performances in recent memory (though that would be enough). Charlotte Rampling is superb as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher who finds her marriage, and indeed her whole life, unexpectedly fractured – yet Haigh’s direction is equal to Rampling’s boundless expression. A gesture, a small piece of sound design, a careful framing – these are all it takes for “45 Years” to convey a whole history of a couple. As Kate and her husband Geoff learn when a decades-old choice snowballs into an unraveling of forty-five years of content, it’s the little things that’ll get you.

3. Hard to Be a God

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Aleksei German’s last film may very well also be his masterpiece, a blistering, bilious stew of a movie filled with feverish imagery that feels like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Cross Tarkovsky’s philosophy with Pasolini’s obsession with the dirty, disgusting physicality of humanity, and you’re in the ballpark of German’s deep dive into sci-fi feudalism and fascism (the film comes from a novel by Arkady ad Boris Strugatsky, who also provided the source material for Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”). At 3 hours long, it must be said that “Hard to Be a God” veers close to overstaying its welcome – but German’s planet of medieval horrors is so stunningly and convincingly realized that it’s difficult to say what should be cut. As an Earthling scientist sent to study another planet’s cultural renaissance (which never arrives), Leonid Yarmolnik is fantastic as both tour guide and native, an intelligent man gradually losing himself in the baseness of a primal society. Not an easy sit, but an unforgettable one.

2. Taxi

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For Jafar Panahi, just turning on a camera is an act of protest. The Iranian director has been arrested and jailed for his filmmaking and its (gentle, humanist) criticism of religious repression and censorship, yet he keeps working, steeled by the absolute right of expression. His latest work, a mix of improvisation, casual conversation and quiet observation, is all the more bold for how unhurried and relaxed it is. Politics doesn’t have to be about righteous anger or fierce speeches – sometimes it’s just about watching, and listening.

1. Son of Saul

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My opinion of László Nemes’ debut feature probably came through pretty clearly in my review for The New Republic, but let’s put it on the record: “Son of Saul” is a landmark piece of film that I firmly believe we’ll be discussing for years to come.  It’s one of the most astonishingly confident first films I’ve ever seen, absolutely assured in its technique and fully prepared to debate with those who will (not unfairly) challenge its complex morality and obsession with depicting the unspeakable. For the record, I’m not even quite in step with Nemes on his interpretation of his own work – there is, I would agree with some commenters, a dangerous grotesquerie present in beatifying the character Saul, or presenting the film’s vivid experience as presenting any sort of “reality”, both of which are things Nemes has gone dangerously close to in his interviews. But this is the kind of film that takes on a life beyond its maker’s intentions: there are so many layers to pull back, particularly in Géza Röhrig’s astonishing lead performance. In so many of Röhrig’s tight closeups, as Saul wanders through Auschwitz on his desperate and foolhardy quest to properly bury a young boy, one wonders, what is he thinking? It’s something we (or at least I) will be pondering for a while, perhaps in nightmares.

Ten more, unranked: “Amour Fou”, “Creed”, “Ex Machina”, “Inside Out”, “Mistress America”, “Results”, “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, “Sicario”, “Tangerine”, “The Tribe”

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Final Oscar Predictions – 2016

In the interest of transparency, I always like to put out my Oscar picks, just for proof when I talk about getting 20/24 categories right (It’s always that number. Every year.) Think you know better? Let’s find out on Sunday.

Best Documentary Short: “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”

Best Animated Short: “Sanjay’s Super Team”

Best Live Action Short: “Stutterer”

I haven’t seen any of the shorts except for Don Hertzfeldt’s animated “World of Tomorrow” (available on Netflix!), which is a potential spoiler for Pixar’s favored entry (let’s all take a moment to rejoice that “Lava” wasn’t eligible this year). So yeah, I’m mainly going by descriptions and other people’s predictions here. You know as much as I do. Move along.

Best Documentary Feature

A couple legitimate options here – Netflix has poured crazy campaigning money behind “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Winter on Fire,” and the easy streaming availability of those options is not a bad thing. I’ve also heard and read only impressive things about “Cartel Land” from those who make the time. But the high-profile name and critical acclaim behind team “Amy” will probably carry the favorite all the way through here, leaving Joshua Oppenheimer to dry his tears once again with a thousand glowing Sight & Sound reviews.

Will win: “Amy”

Could win: “Cartel Land”

Should’ve been here: “Listen to Me Marlon”

Best Original Song

There’s a slight complication here in that ballots go out with only the name of the song and the movie it’s from – no attached artists names, so it’s possible a good chunk of the voting body is unaware of the Lady Gaga/Diane Warren collaboration (I would beware “Writing’s on the Wall” just because of the name recognition behind Bond films for this reason). But if you bother at all to listen to the songs it’s pretty clear what the best choice is, and I think enough of the Academy will go there.

Will win: “Til It Happens To You,” from “The Hunting Ground”

Could win: “Earned It,” from “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Should’ve been here: “See You Again” from “Furious 7,” and “Feels Like Summer” from “Shaun the Sheep Movie”

Best Sound Editing

The below-the-line categories are going to be an absolute dogfight between “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant.” It’s easy to see pretty much all of the crafts going to one or the other, and it’s hard to call how they’ll split up in the end. In the sound categories, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is also lurking as a spoiler (they’re historically the only categories where the franchise does well), but I think this is one area where the tortuous behind-the-scenes making of “The Revenant” will definitely impress. There’s some dubious ADR on the Native American characters, but overall the sound design of the frontier tale is incredibly immersive.

Will win: “The Revenant”

Could win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Should’ve been here: “Ex Machina”

Best Sound Mixing

See above.

Will win: “The Revenant”

Could win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Should’ve been here: “Sicario”

Best Visual Effects

A highly competitive category this year, with an impressive mix of practical and visual effects as well as in-your-face blockbuster bombast and effective low-key spot use. Will creating a super life-like animal character (the bear scene is memorable, if nothing else) be enough to carry “The Revenant” through? Will the flashier effects of “Mad Max” or “Star Wars” prevail instead? Or will voters be looking for somewhere below the line to express their appreciation of “The Martian?” All legitimate options – this is a close one.

Will win: “The Revenant”

Could win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Should’ve been here: “Crimson Peak”

Best Film Editing

We can probably cross off “Star Wars” here and gravitate towards the four Best Picture nominees in the mix – from there it gets a little trickier. “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” have both been praised for their energy, and the editing has a lot to do with that, particularly the latter with its many intercut interludes and asides. But it’s still likely one of the technical juggernauts here, and I think this is where the adrenaline rush of “Mad Max” starts to win out over “The Revenant.”

Will win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Could win: “The Revenant”

Should’ve been here: “Son of Saul”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Part of me thinks the peculiar inclusion of Swedish film “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” could be a sign for a possible upset (a la “Il Divo” a while back), but the changed rules that have the general Academy body voting on this category probably preclude that outcome now. Flip a coin between the other two contenders instead.

Will win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Could win: “The Revenant”

Should’ve been here: “Crimson Peak”

Best Costume Design

I would limit it again to the two technical steamrollers here, but never ever count out a Sandy Powell joint, of which there are two available this year. “Cinderella” in particular has the flashy goods to be a major spoiler in this category. I’m predicting the “Mad Max” victory train rolls on in the design categories much the same way “The Grand Budapest Hotel” did last year, but I’m definitely keeping an eye on this one.

Will win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Could win: “Cinderella”

Should’ve been here: “Crimson Peak”, “Brooklyn”

Best Production Design

Another category where love for “The Martian” could be a sneaky alternative – but I’ve learned at this point that “spread the wealth” isn’t actually a thing that Oscar voters much care about, especially below the line. Keep ticking off those boxes, it’s all that most of the Academy is doing as well.

Will win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Could win: “The Revenant”

Should’ve been here: “Crimson Peak,” “Ex Machina”

Best Cinematography

After years of being an also-ran, Emmanuel Lubezki has turned into a force of nature at the Oscars. Lock up a record third straight win (“Gravity,” “Birdman”) for Chivo.

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki, “The Revenant”

Could win: Robert Richardson, “The Hateful Eight”

Should’ve been here: Maryse Alberti, “Creed”

Best Animated Feature

Thanks to GKIDS, the nominees for Animated Feature have gotten delightfully unpredictable (and tasteful!) in recent years, but the winner remains, ultimately, rather predictable.

Will win: Inside Out

Could win: Anomalisa

Should’ve been here: actually i’m pretty much 100% on board with the lineup here

Best Foreign Language Film

“Son of Saul” has been the presumptive favorite since making its impact at Cannes last summer, and there’s little sense that anything’s changed. It’s got the highest profile, the subject matter is right in the Academy’s wheelhouse, and oh, it just happens to be an absolutely shattering and unforgettable film.

Will win: “Son of Saul” (Hungary)

Could win: “Mustang” (France)

Should’ve been here: abstain

Best Original Score

Tarantino may have been wrong about Ennio Morricone never winning a competitive American award (Morricone already had two Golden Globes to his name before claiming a third in absentia for “The Hateful Eight”), he’s right that the Italian master still only has an honorary Oscar as far as the Academy’s concerned. That name value and narrative (besides, you know, the terrific work) should be all that’s needed here this year.

Will win: Ennio Morricone, “The Hateful Eight”

Could win: John Williams, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Should’ve been here: Michael Brook, “Brooklyn”, Tom Holkenberg (Junkie XL), “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Original Screenplay

The writing winners have been locked and loaded for a while now. Look for them to line up in step with the Writers Guild Awards, both flashy, in-your-face examples of scripting.

Will win: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”

Could win: Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Ronnie Del Carmen, “Inside Out”

Should’ve been here: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, “Mistress America”

Best Adapted Screenplay

See above.

Will win: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, “The Big Short”

Could win: Drew Goddard, “The Martian”

Should’ve been here: Andrew Haigh, “45 Years,” Donald Marguiles, “The End of the Tour”

Best Supporting Actress

There’s narratives to support just about everyone nominated in this category winning – Winslet has the Globe and a BAFTA win behind her (Vikander went lead at the latter), Mara has the screen time of a true co-lead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rachel McAdams are both respected vets who finally got good parts to play to their strengths (Leigh has the favor of flashy Tarantino dialogue behind her). But I’m sticking with Vikander, the breakout star of the year, who again has the screen time of a co-lead and winds up being the emotional core of “The Danish Girl,” a film that will still appeal to many in the Academy.

Will win: Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”

Could win: Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”

Should’ve been here: Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina,” Tessa Thompson, “Creed”

Best Supporting Actor

It’s kind of odd that so many pundits (including myself) are so convinced that Stallone is going to carry this home, considering he has nothing but a Golden Globe to his name and the HFPA is hardly a reliable precursor for the acting categories. But I think his misses at the SAG and BAFTA awards has more to do with bad timing in the season – screeners of “Creed” hadn’t really gotten to SAG before they voted, and the heat really lit up under the movie after the BAFTAs had voted as well. Mark Rylance and Mark Ruffalo are both looming, but Stallone’s comeback, playing the same character the Academy adored forty years ago, is too good a story for them to pass up.

Will win: Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

Could win: Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”

Should’ve been here: Oscar Isaac, “Ex Machina”

Best Actress

Such a terrific lineup and such a boring race. For all that we’ve been discussing this as a great year for female leads and for all the possible nominees ultimately left on the sidelines, it hasn’t really been close at any step.

Will win: Brie Larson, “Room”

Could win: Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn” (but not really)

Should’ve been here: Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Mya Taylor, “Tangerine,” Lily Tomlin, “Grandma” (if we had like, ten nominees)

Best Actor

Finally a stupid fucking internet meme comes to an end. Are you happy, internet? You won.

Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”

Could win: Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”

Should’ve been here: Géza Röhrig, “Son of Saul”, Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”

Best Director

There have been two back-to-back Best Director winners before in the history of the Oscars: John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz. Look for Iñárritu to join that august company after triumphing at the Directors Guild Awards.

Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant”

Could win: Adam McKay, “The Big Short”

Should’ve been here: László Nemes, “Son of Saul,” Todd Haynes, “Carol,” Andrew Haigh, “45 Years”

Best Picture:

And now, ultimately, the hardest call of the night. Honestly I’m not sure we’ll have any idea what’s in this envelope until the last possible moment, unless “The Revenant” really goes on a below-the-line sweep – and even then I could still see “The Big Short” or even “Spotlight” coming out of the mouth of Tom Hanks (or whoever) at the end of the night. “The Revenant” got the Directors Guild award, which has been the best predictor in recent years – but “The Big Short” triumphed with the Producers Guild, who use the same preferential ballot voting system as the Oscars. Does that mean anything? Nothing? Any way you slice it, some kind of precedent is going to get broken, so you might as well go with your gut. And my gut feels kind of grumbly and unhappy this year.

Will win: “The Revenant”

Could win: “The Big Short”

Should’ve been here: “Son of Saul,” “45 Years,” “Carol”

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