Talking Movies

December 22, 2019

Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium rounds up so much A-list Jewish talent for a festive kid’s flick that it is the unofficial Hannukah film for 2007. And all the better for it, there is more generosity of spirit on display here than in all this year’s ‘Christmas’ films combined. I mean, Fred Claus? Please… If you want mean-spirited trash check that out, if you want very sweet fun turn to Mr Magorium where Dustin Hoffman adds another loveable eccentric to his recent turns in Meet the Fockers and Stranger than Fiction as Magorium, a toy store owner who gave Thomas Edison the idea for the light-bulb. Natalie Portman’s struggling composer Molly Mahoney has a hit a creative dead end in writing her piano concerto while she works as an assistant, helping the 243 year old Mr Magorium run his magical toy store. Her life is about to be turned upside down along with that of lonely child (and avid hat collector) Eric.

Mr Magorium hires an accountant Henry Weston to sort out the store’s tangled tax status so that he can bequeath it to his protégé Molly. Magorium considers that the word accountant must be a cross between a counter and mutant so amusingly all concerned refer to Henry to his face as ‘Mutant’. Jason Bateman as Henry reacts to this with his trademark comedic dead-pan but without the sharp one-liners of Arrested Development he’s somewhat wasted here.  He does have some wonderful moments though. A scene where Molly tries to convince an uncomprehending Henry that the store is magical while he keeps just missing a wooden dinosaur behind (that is playing with a ball in the most endearingly dopey fashion) is painfully funny.

Quirks abound from Eric’s capital collection of hats to Molly’s habit of always moving one hand about trying to find the right notes to finish her stalled piano concerto which we hear tinkling on the soundtrack as she twiddles her fingers. These all proclaim that this is a film from the off-kilter imagination of Stranger than Fiction writer Zach Helm. As a debutante director he’s drawn good performances from his cast but this film is just a bit too insubstantial to truly satisfy. Natalie Portman as Molly Mahoney exemplifies this odd feeling of unfulfilled promise as she is good but not outstanding. It’s also hard not to feel that Portman should have moved on to the great roles by now, especially when 20 year old Ellen Page is earning rave reviews of the sort that Portman used to get for her turn in Juno, rather than appearing in kid’s films even if it is alongside Dustin Hoffman. Helm wrote one of the best and most startlingly original films of 2006, but this is merely good fun.

3/5

January 31, 2018

Top Performances of 2017

 

 

 

December 2, 2016

Hail the 1930s Generation!

Leonard Cohen’s morbid remarks about waiting for death some weeks before his death had made me think about the 1930s generation who were actively working and not thinking about death. So the day that Clint Eastwood (86) releases his latest film Sully into Irish cinemas, and a day after Woody Allen turned 81 having recently made his first TV show, I thought I’d round up some people born in the 1930s who are still very much alive and well and working as hard as ever.

Clint Eastwood

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Woody Allen

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Donald Sutherland

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Glenda Jackson

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Michael Caine

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James Earl Jones

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Vanessa Redgrave

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Martin Sheen

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Dustin Hoffman

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Anthony Hopkins

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Maggie Smith

Downton Abbey Season 2 on MASTERPIECE Classic, Part 4 - Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 9pm ET on PBS; Shown: Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE CLASSIC. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

Ian McKellen

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Quincy Jones

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Harvey Keitel

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Morgan Freeman

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Diana Rigg

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William Shatner

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Robert Redford

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Ridley Scott

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John Williams

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Judi Dench

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Judd Hirsch

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George Takei

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Philip Glass

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Lily Tomlin

Jane Fonda

Terence Stamp

Derek Jacobi

Eileen Atkins

Steve Reich

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April 10, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part III

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

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Fear of Marketing
In a nigh endless series of blogs last year about the state of Hollywood I noted the utter laziness of marketers when it came to doing their job. To wit, their reluctance to actually market something from scratch; they’d far rather market something that someone in the past had managed to make a successful brand than make something a successful brand themselves – which one might have imagined was what they were paid for. Anywho, I laughed hysterically when I discovered that The Avengers had actually been re-titled for the British and Irish market (we’re hard to tell apart apparently) as Marvel Avengers Assemble. Obviously Marvel Avengers Assemble is funny in its own right as a ludicrously clumsy title. Far funnier though is the idea that The Avengers, a show which ended its 9 year run in 1970, and which, even if one counts its second incarnation in the late 1970s as The New Avengers, has been off-air for over 30 years is considered to have such abiding brand strength that a $100 million marketing budget can’t defeat it. Apparently the marketers have decided that bus posters, Tube posters, cinema trailers, bus-stop posters, TV spots, huge outdoor advertising hoardings, radio spots, and endless media interviews across radio, print, digital, and TV won’t be enough to get punters to comprehend that The Avengers starring Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson will not feature Downey Jr in a bowler hat wielding an umbrella, even if it might admittedly feature Johansson in tight leather kicking people. I’ve started thinking about other films that have titles that could equally profit in the renaming stakes from such fear of confusion. Perhaps The Magnificent Seven in order to avoid confusion with The Seven Samurai could be re-titled Seven Gunslingers Assemble for the Japanese market.

Not all taglines are coherent
At the risk of harping on about this lack of effort on the part of people supposedly in charge of enticing us to the cinema, did anyone else raise an eyebrow at the tagline for Chronicle? ‘Not all heroes are super’. It’s meant to be enticingly dark; implying this is a movie about people like Fassbender’s Magneto. But…think about it for a second. ‘Not all heroes are super’. Yes, obviously. Heroes generally tend not to be super, but just ordinary people. Well, ‘ordinary’ in the sense that they are usually charismatic, have an exceptionally developed skill (like archery, or even just running like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man) or are an intellectual or practical genius, with a sound moral compass; even if rusty. The tagline meant ‘Not all super-humans are heroes’, but that’s not a good tagline, even if it accurately expresses the intended meaning.

June 10, 2011

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

It may seem obvious, as it’s an endlessly cited term, but I’d like to examine it because I’ve been musing for a few years now about a brace of BBC documentaries which seemed to imply there were two styles of acting filed under the one term…

 

Method Acting was invented by Constantin Stanislavsky who directed the first productions of Chekhov’s four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) from 1898 to 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre. So far, so good – you couldn’t hope for a better provenance, and sure enough Stanislavsky wrote numerous books on the more realistic style of acting and staging that he had developed, which focused on emotional authenticity and hyper-detailed/intrusive sound design to suggest the surrounding world offstage respectively. Best to gloss over the fact that Chekhov thought him incredibly ponderous in his staging, and given to destroying comedic scripts by weighing them down with psychological realism. The Method made the leap from Russian into English and from Russia to America and, as taught by Lee Strasberg in the Group Theatre in New York, became a vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s. But what exactly is the Method? The late great Dennis Hopper, in a detailed BBC interview a few years ago spoke extensively of the Method as a way of imbuing acting with felt emotions thru the use of a magic box of memories. In short the actor playing a role mined his own experiences for emotional equivalents and thought of them to achieve the desired emotion rather than trying to imagine out of nowhere an authentic emotional response to a fictitious event.

So if Hopper was told onscreen that his father had died, Hopper the actor wouldn’t start crying because he had intellectually thought about the troubled father-son relationship of his character and conjured an appropriate level of sorrow, he would start crying because he would have thought of the death of a beloved relative and hammered into that memory until real tears started to flow – and the audience would never know that these real tears were being shed for a real person and had nothing to do with the character’s father. Hopper then clarified this point, saying that it was crucial for Method Actors to continually renew their magic box of memories with new emotional triggers because otherwise memories would cease to be vivid and fresh and the resultant acting wouldn’t be authentic but would simply be ‘just acting’.

 

Fine, that’s good Method Acting, and Brando, James Dean and Hopper all gave great performances in the 1950s, and seemed to redefine the lexicon of screen acting. Except…Marlon Brando wasn’t really a Method actor. Sure he mumbled onscreen like Dean, but not to somehow be in the moment in character, but because of a hilarious inability/refusal to learn his lines. In theatre other actors on Broadway spoke in awe of how he could use tiny details of stage-craft to convey sucker-punches of emotion, how Brando hunched over a counter with his legs wrapping around a bar-stool could convey a helplessness and a weak despair that could reduce an audience to tears. In other words he wasn’t Method acting, he was merely ‘just acting’ exceptionally well. Indeed Brando only spoke of using the Method for one film, Last Tango in Paris, and felt violated as a result of how much of his own life Bertolucci had tricked him (as he saw it) into revealing to millions of people by talking about his own parents when his character spoke about his troubled relationships with his parents. Brando vowed never to make himself that emotionally vulnerable again, and to never dig deep into his own soul for roles in that fashion ever again, before triumphantly boasting that in future he’d ‘just act’, and no one would be able to see that he wasn’t engaging on the Method level – purely because he knew he was that good at regular acting.

Where then does that leave Brando’s performances in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather? Physically changing his appearance to more closely resemble the role as written shows great commitment but it’s not strictly speaking Method acting in the Dennis Hopper magic box of memories sense. Brando’s dismay at his one use of the Method technique of using real emotional traumas mirrors Stanislavsky’s alarm at the hysterical reactions this technique was producing in some of his actors. Ironically Brando’s vow to merely ‘just act’ really well seems, in its emphasis on improvisation and physicality, to actually replicate Stanislavsky’s later emphasis on physical actions and improvisation rather than the magic box of memories to achieve subconscious authenticity. So, as Brendan Behan said of every Irish Republican endeavour thru history, the first agenda on the item was the split – another type of Method.

 

A type of Method exemplified by those 1970s show-offs Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and their more recent confreres, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. The fact that Al Pacino is the one member of the 1970s generation of Method actors who does the most theatre work, associated with Lee Strasberg, and can still be found at the Actors’ Studio even now, should give the answer to the question of where the dividing line between the two Methods lies. What Hoffman, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and Bale do is not Method acting as Stanislavsky originally understood it; certainly it’s hard to think of Chekhov doing anything but throwing his hands up in even more than usual horror/despair at their antics. Hoffman’s continual improvisations would destroy any Chekhov play, or indeed any play, hence his great difficulty in performing Macbeth on Broadway until another actor menaced him into just finding truth in the words Shakespeare had written for him… Indeed if you watch the extras on Marathon Man you can see Hoffman’s insistence on endless improvisation damn near destroying that film as it leads to endless deleted scenes where the other actors get so rattled by his in-character ramblings that their minds go visibly blank, because they can’t improvise, and they start nervously babbling but all they have to babble as dialogue are the screenplay’s plot points; whose premature disclosure is not advisable in a suspense thriller, and is the reason those scenes were unusable.

Pacino never worked the same way that De Niro and Hoffman did in their hey-day, and that Day-Lewis and Bale still do. What this quartet does can only work for film, it is utterly unsuited to theatre, and given that Stanislavsky was a theatre director perhaps we need a new term for this quasi-hysterical evolution of his later conception of the Method. I’d like to propose ‘Immersive Acting’ as a more accurate term, because that is what they do. They don’t bring their own experiences to the role as Dennis Hopper propounded with his magic box of memories, instead they take the role and bend their own life for a certain period of time to make it the same as the role; think of De Niro driving a taxi, Hoffman long-distance running, Day-Lewis learning the craft of butchery, and Bale losing a terrifying amount of weight; and then they play that, interpreting Stanislavsky’s emphasis on physicality as meaning the actor gaining subconscious authenticity in the role almost thru sheer muscle memory.

Immersive acting produces terrific performances, but I think it needs its own term to emphasise its peculiarity, its curiously self-promoting showiness, as if acting somehow consisted of weight-loss and skills-training. Colin Firth’s reaction to a phone call in A Single Man has nothing to do with physically immersing himself in his role, but it will break your heart. Not bad for ‘just acting’.

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