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?

NYFCC Don’t Want To Be Your Hero

Yesterday, the New York Film Critics Circle kicked off the next phase of the Oscar season (first comes festivals, then comes critics, then comes shiny statues in a shiny statue carriage). The results weren’t exactly surprising, but I would still call them refreshing: particularly in regard to the group’s choices in the leading performance races, there’s a notable effort here not to immediately narrow down the season to a handful of select names. It should be the job of the critics’ groups to look as broadly as possible around the world of film and perhaps come back with some ignored, foreign or otherwise overlooked candidates. I’d say the NYFCC generally accomplished that this year. Further thoughts along with each category’s winner below!

New York Film Critics Circle

Best Film: Boyhood

“Boyhood” hasn’t stopped playing at the IFC Center in NY since its first shows sold out for almost a week straight in August. The NYC crowd have been the main ones singing its praises the whole time, so this was no shocker. With some of the expected contenders winding up with mixed or lackluster receptions, “Boyhood” is looking better and better by the day, summer release be damned.

Best Director: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

See above. His spot in the field is as about as secure as anyone’s.

Best First Film: Jennifer Kent, “The Babadook”

I haven’t seen it yet, but Kent’s film has been a festival favorite since Sundance and has genre luminaries like Stephen King and William Friedkin stumping for it. Female directors FTW, in any case.

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night” and “The Immigrant”

Yes yes and yes – even if I’ve never been fond of the NYFCC’s tendency to reward a “career year” rather than one performance like this, I’m glad someone’s putting Cotillard (back) in the conversation, whether for James Gray’s period piece or the Dardennes’ economy-woes drama. There’s been a lot of complaints about a “thin” year for Best Actress contenders, which speaks more to Hollywood’s unwillingness to put an adult woman at the center of any of its films than anything else. But there’s a rich history in such “thin” years of the Academy reaching further for more interesting choices if they get pushed there – in fact, Cotillard’s already got an Oscar to prove it (“La Vie En Rose”). So let’s start pushing. Kudos, NYFCC.

Best Actor: Timothy Spall, “Mr. Turner”

Again, Spall remains on the right side of the conversation bubble for at least a little longer. Best Actor could go 15 deep and I don’t think anyone would argue this year – whether or not Spall gets a spot, a Cannes victory plus this will certainly get a few more people out to see Mike Leigh’s latest.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

In the supporting categories the NYFCC tended more toward solidifying groupthink – but when the performances are this good, it’s tough to argue. Arquette’s wonderful in the film, plain and simple, and it helps that she’s a respected and endearing actress that everyone will be happy to see rewarded.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Same logic goes for Simmons. His performance in “Whiplash” is the kind of instantly iconic work that often sweeps the field in this category (see Ledger, Heath; Bardem, Javier; Waltz, Christoph, the first time). Expect to see him in Oscar montages for years to come.

Best Cinematography: Darius Khondji, “The Immigrant”

Khondji’s something of an unsung hero of the field. He’s been doing fantastic work going back to Fincher’s “Se7en,” and even if “The Immigrant” didn’t light the critics aflame, it certainly looked gorgeous. Another nice keep-the-box-open pick.

Best Screenplay: Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Personally I haven’t understood the “GBH” hoopla. I think Anderson’s done far richer work and there’s a host of fresher options in this category this year (Damien Chazelle for “Whiplash?” Justin Simien for “Dear White People?” John Michael McDonagh for “Calvary?” come on, people). But he’s a writer’s branch favorite and despite the film’s very early-in-the-year release, he seems to be gathering steam for another nomination.

Best Nonfiction Film: CITIZENFOUR

Haven’t caught up with it yet, so no comment.

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida

Likewise, although it’s streaming on Netflix and is one of my last big priorities for the year (and should be for you as well).

Best Animated Film: The LEGO Movie

Not a whole lot of options out there for the critics this year, but as much as I enjoyed “The LEGO Movie,” I feel like clearly not enough of the membership saw “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.” I mean really, if the critics can’t even get out of the multiplex, where are we these days with animation?

Special Award: Adrienne Mancia, curator of film exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art

More well deserved than you all can know. Hear, hear.

Trailers of the Week: Lighthearted Until It’s Not

Begin Again

It’s been seven years since John Carney’s “Once” started its improbable run as one of the most beloved art-house hits of the decade – it collected the audience award at Sundance, made over $20 million at the box office on a pittance of a budget, won the Best Original Song award at the Oscars, and was recently turned into a highly successful Broadway musical. And during that whole run, Carney just went back to making quiet Irish indie films that never really made it out of the small-tier festival circuit. But now he’s returned to the subject of making music that he captured so well in “Once,” and it’s certainly attracted a much starrier ensemble this time around. “Begin Again” earned positive reviews at last year’s Toronto festival, where it played under the much-dripper title of “Can A Song Save Your Life?” (good call changing that, marketing folks). I wouldn’t have guessed that Keira Knightley would have any particular musical talent, but I can’t even think of the last time she played, say, a normal, contemporary person in a non-blockbuster/genre film (“Bend It Like Beckham,” maybe?). I’ll support that. Ruffalo’s obviously in his wheelhouse playing the incorrigibly charming ruffian, and there are some quality supporting players hanging around in Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden and Mos Def (OK, not so sure about Adam Levine).

Boyhood

I’m all in on Richard Linklater at the moment. I love what he did (is doing?) with the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy. He’s bouncing between interesting indies and passion projects in between. And little did we know that for the past twelve years he was working on this ambitious project. Just about the only fiction-film equivalent to “Boyhood” would be François Truffaut’s Antoine Donel films, and those weren’t nearly as methodical, nor as condensed, as Linklater’s attempt to capture the development of a boy from 6 to 18 in the course of a single film. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin festival and got nothing but raves out of Sundance – the utter singularity of this film ensures that we’re going to be talking about it all year, and, I have a sneaking suspicion, on the awards circuit.

Jersey Boys

Here we have a more obvious prestige contender. While “Once” went from screen to stage, this jukebox musical is going the other way, guided by the somewhat unexpected hands of none other than Clint Eastwood; though I suppose you might have guessed that, as Eastwood has brought his trademark washed-out color scheme to yet another period piece. I’m not really sure why he continues to insist the past has to look like the past, but oh well. Eastwood seems to have kept the stage version’s fourth-wall-breaking/Rashomon structure, and lead John Lloyd Young is reprising the role of Frankie Valli that he played on Broadway. Seems pretty much guaranteed to win over those who are already fans of the musical (or The Four Seasons in general), but can it draw in a wider audience?

Obvious Child

Jenny Slate didn’t have the most successful run on Saturday Night Live, but she’s been proving herself as a hilarious and talented comedienne in supporting TV roles in Parks & Recreation, House of Lies, Kroll Show, Bob’s Burgers and Hello Ladies. “Obvious Child” could be a breakout for her, as it seems like the whole thing is tailored to her particular abilities – so much so I was surprised to find she didn’t write it herself. Should make for some nice summer counter-programming.

The Immigrant

The latest from modern melodramatist James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own the Night”), “The Immigrant” got good reviews last year at Cannes but didn’t really burn the house down; but perhaps that’s to be expected from a film that sure looks to be all about craft and restraint. The film’s shimmering, glowing aesthetic is certainly striking, and the central trio is intriguing: Phoenix’s career has been revitalized on the back of “The Master” and “Her,” Jeremy Renner is proving himself again in prestige/auteur pieces after being ill-served by mainstream Hollywood in the “Mission: Impossible” and Marvel franchises, and Marion Cotillard is always ravishing in a period piece. Gray has a small but loyal band of defenders, and this could be the kind of baity piece that earns him some more appreciation.

Foxcatcher

Just to make sure that you don’t leave here too happy, here’s a moody and disquieting teaser for Bennett Miller’s delayed psychological thriller/drama, based on the true story of athletic sponsor John du Pont and his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz. Sony Pictures Classics pushed “Foxcatcher,” originally set to debut last fall, to 2014, not because of any issue with the film itself, but because the 2013 slate was just getting too crowded. Considering the dogfight of an awards race we went through, that was probably a smart move. Miller’s another intriguing filmmaker – “Capote” and “Moneyball” were very different, equally quality works, and “Foxcatcher” sure looks to continue his amorphous, flexible mastery of tone and style. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Steve Carell’s clearly attention-grabbing transformation into the schizophrenic du Pont, but his off-putting, mannered delivery could very well be the crux of the role – I’ll certainly reserve judgment until we get a better look.