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

December 4, 2019

From the Archives: Fred Claus

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Vince Vaughn’s getting no presents this Christmas. Despite being Santa Claus’ older brother Fred Claus is a self-centred jerk who spends the film being hostile to people and ruins Christmas for everyone by making the elves shirk their toy-making work so they can join him partying. Obviously this naughty boy needs to be taught that it’s bad to be so selfish, and about the true meaning of Christmas, and – wait…does the world really need another Santa film? Children just about recovering from the trauma inflicted by the dead eyes of the soulless characters in The Polar Express must be kept away from Fred Claus for the love of God. There is a problem with the elves… John Michael Higgins as Willie and Ludacris as DJ Donnie for some reason aren’t subjected to the clever tricks of set design and camera positions used on the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Oh no, someone thought it would be simpler to CGI their faces on to the bodies of smaller actors. The result is quite disturbing, as their faces don’t quite synch up with the rest of their heads.

Elizabeth Banks is gorgeous as Santa’s Little Helper and is given no character. Paul Giamatti is oddly anaemic as Santa Claus, as if he’s not entirely sure how he got roped into this movie, while Vince Vaughn is just not funny as Fred Claus. Reuniting with his Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin they fail to strike comedic sparks and he’s too abrasive for a kid’s film. There is an agreeably chaotic delivery of presents by Fred standing in for Santa but really it’s the Superman absurdities which keep you interested up to that point.

Superman action figures modelled on Brandon Routh are prominently displayed in the early scene where Vince Vaughn gets arrested, prompting his trip to the North Pole. He is picked up by Willie, who achieves amazing speed in his sleigh by the use of a team of what must be Krypto the Super-reindeer. Kevin Spacey aka Lex Luthor then arrives in a chopper to music very similar to his theme tune in Superman Returns. Why is his efficiency expert Clyde so evil? Because he topped the naughty list in 1968 and so didn’t get his Christmas wish for a Superman cape. His subsequent refusal to stop wearing glasses because Clark Kent wore glasses only prolonged his bullying and he became bitter and twisted, bent on punishing Santa someday. But damn it all if Clyde doesn’t have a Christmas miracle too and, finally donning the Superman cape, repents. All this and Roger Clinton, Frank Stallone and Stephen Balwdin alongside Fred at Siblings Anonymous too! It’s a pity that Vince Vaughan is so charmless that even his obligatory moral transformation is not enough to inject some real Christmas spirit.

2/5

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