#114 - Mathematical Games

Dedicated To
Martin Gardner
1914 - 2010

Added 5/24/10

Hello again, cinephiles. Rather than wasting both your time and mine discussing the diminishing returns of the Shrek franchise, this week’s Electric Theatre takes a look at a movie opening in limited release here in the States on Friday, May 28. Check your local listings and plan your life accordingly because this one is a keeper.



It’s been five years since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s last picture, the underrated wartime romance A Very Long Engagement. And while you may not have spent every waking moment of the intervening years wondering when Jeunet would resurface, the thought should have crossed your mind at least a few times. Nobody else makes movies quite like Jeunet and half a decade is far too long to wait. His latest might not hit the sublime heights of the globally beloved Amelie but it is a deliriously inventive comedy that fits right at home with Jeunet’s singular vision.

The story follows Bazil (Dany Boon), a video store clerk who is accidentally shot one evening. The doctor opts to leave the bullet lodged in his head, fearing that removing it would leave him in a vegetative state. Once released from the hospital, Bazil finds himself out of a job and evicted from his apartment. He’s taken in by a “family” of societal misfits, scrap metal scavengers including a contortionist (Julie Ferrier), an aged career criminal who escaped the guillotine (Jean-Pierre Marielle), and a human cannonball (Jeunet stalwart Dominique Pinon) bitter that no one believes he made the Guinness Book of World Records back in the 70s. While collecting junk, Bazil stumbles upon the headquarters of the weapons manufacturer that made his bullet. They’re directly across the street from their main competitor, the company that made the land mine that killed Bazil’s father years earlier. Along with his new friends, Bazil concocts an elaborate scheme to get revenge on them both.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Jeunet’s work and the films of Fellini, Terry Gilliam and even the Coen brothers. They all share a similar but utterly unique visual style and an uncanny ability to cast some of the most fascinating faces you’ll see on screen. But Jeunet works with a much lighter touch than these other filmmakers. He has the ability to tap directly into your brain’s pleasure center and leave you with a smile on your face and a lingering glow of happiness. It almost defeats the purpose to analyze why Micmacs makes you feel so good. It’d be like chemically breaking down an éclair to discover what makes it delicious…perhaps academically interesting but nowhere near as much fun as just savoring every bite. It’s enough to let Jeunet’s boundless imagination wash over you and get lost in the amazing images, sounds and delightful characters. And make no mistake, Micmacs offers up so much detail and so many clever asides that you’ll want to experience it again the moment the credits roll.

There’s a brief sequence in the film that encapsulates Jeunet’s approach to filmmaking. Two characters who have been blindfolded imagine where they’re being taken based on the sounds around them. We see them both in split-screen and while they’re essentially thinking the same thing, the specifics of each imaginary journey are completely different. It’s a small, almost inconsequential, detail. But it proves that, more than any other filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Jeunet recognizes and respects the power of imagination and understands that no two are identical. Micmacs is a madcap delight and a tribute to the enduring (and endearing) power of lunacy. (* * * ½)


The Monster That Challenged The World / It! The Terror From Beyond Space

There are essentially two types of TFTQ entries. There are those that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of personal tastes and preferences. And then there are those that benefit from a pre-existing appreciation of the movie’s genre. For example, if you don’t already have a fondness for 50s creature-feature sci-fi, you’re probably not going to enjoy (or even bother watching) a movie called The Monster That Challenged The World. But if you do, check this one out. It’s an above-average example of the form that might have slipped beneath your radar.

The one-two punch of an earthquake and top-secret atomic testing in the Salton Sea releases gigantic mollusk-like creatures possibly descended from the Kraken! It’s up to Naval Commander John Twillinger (Tim Holt) and scientist Dr. Jess Rogers (the incomparable Hans Conried) to stop the monsters before they can get loose and lay eggs in the adjoining All-American Canal.

Director Arnold Laven treats the material with a surprising amount of seriousness. The effects are pretty good for the time, particularly the ghastly corpses left behind in the monster’s wake. The movie’s pace is a bit lumbered, though. Our heroes are forced to do a lot of waiting before they can track down the creatures, which they spend getting dinner and drinking coffee rather than actually being concerned that the Imperial Valley might be overrun by mutated mollusks. But Laven keeps our attention with vivid, highly entertaining supporting characters like Milton Parsons as a local historian. The Monster That Challenged The World might not be high art but it’s a fun, suitably creepy monster movie that makes for ideal rainy-day matinee fodder. (* * *)

MGM’s co-feature on this Midnite Movies disc is 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Marshall Thompson stars as the sole survivor of the first manned expedition to Mars. When a rescue ship arrives and finds the other crew members dead, Thompson is accused of murder, despite his protestations that a malevolent alien was responsible. His version is corroborated on the trip back as they discover the monster is now on board the ship and killing the crew off, one by one.

Written by legendary science fiction author Jerome Bixby and directed by Edward L. Cahn, you may have heard that It! bears a certain similarity to Ridley Scott’s Alien. In fact, It! is shockingly similar to Alien. Ordinarily I have a knee-jerk preference for whoever got there first but in this case, Alien really is a much better movie. It! has its moments, including a virtually silent space-walk, but the movie isn’t done any favors by the monster itself. The creature looks fairly silly even in shadow and downright goofy in close-up. Even so, this is a brisk, fun picture and I can understand the impact it must have made on kids back in the 50s.
(* * ½)

Thanks to Alan McKenzie for this week’s TFTQ recommendation! As always, don’t forget to send me your suggestions of underrated and little seen gems. You can email me or become an official “Liker” of Jahnke’s Electric Theatre on Facebook, where your privacy is everybody’s business! And while you’re there, be sure to browse through JET’s Most Wanted for the latest in forgotten films not available on DVD. It’s a veritable cavalcade o’ fun, I tells ya!

Your pal,

Jahnke's Electric Theater

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