Film releases: August 20

Image of Nigel Andrews

Just when you think the silly season can’t get sillier, it makes a bold quantum leap towards insanity. In Salt (), an inspirationally gaga thriller about the cold war (still going on, apparently) starring Angelina Jolie, every new surprise is outwitted by another. The film is fluff, nonsense and artful tomfoolery, all at the speed of sound.

Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA officer accused of being a Russian “sleeper” planning a top-level hit. Her eyes speak to us of her shocked innocence. Her lips, large enough to be a pair of disguised Trident submarines, pout in a warlike way. Soon she is dashing all over Washington DC and points adjoining, trying to stop “her” impending assassination of the Russian president, at a meeting of premiers, since “she” is the supposed agent provocateur.

What can her pal and ex-colleague Liev Schreiber do back in CIA HQ? He tries to shepherd the US president out of shrapnel range when the hour strikes. Suddenly – everything is sudden here – bombs go off and bullets start flying. Jolie, fleeing the FBI goons, is now jumping from flyovers on to the tops of moving trucks, then from truck to truck, then from flyover to flyover. Should we mention the later scene in which Mr President (US) gets to put his finger on the nuclear button? Or the one in which Jolie escapes captivity at sea by slaying, single-handed, an entire generation of the Russian navy?

Director Phillip Noyce, largely quiet since The Quiet American (2002), makes up for lost time and unexercised decibels. The volume is turned all the way up as bangs, crashes and music take over whenever screenwriter Kurt Wimmer finishes playing his latest hand of plot or dialogue tricks. Great art? No. Great entertainment? Pretty damn close.

Mother () comes from South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, who made The Host, that clever, seditious crowd-pleaser about a monster in Seoul’s river system. For this more restrained drama thriller Bong has sliced the “sur” off “surrealism”, though the body still quivers a little in the eerie tale of a dimwitted mother’s boy (Won Bin) whose single parent (Kim Hye-ja), a besotted old dragon, tries to save him from a murder charge after a young girl’s death.

Did he do it? Mother is partly a Korean Rashomon – the true events of a crime disputed by those involved – and partly a brainstorm with variations, characteristically east Asian, about generational tension and fraught family relations. Are ma and sonny sleeping together, in a more-than-bed-sharing way? Will she make matters worse for him by trying to frame someone else after he is jailed? Who is the true killer?

Bong’s skill is in choreographing not just action but states of mind. Mother dances alone in a valley of white grass in the opening scene, a weird jig of ambiguous exultation. A hit-and-run street accident and its follow-up are a swift fantasy of survival and revenge, a metaphor for the son’s ability to bounce back from the daily setbacks of a congenital victimhood.

Some scenes have a Hitchcockian suspense flair, others dark streaks of sardonic wit. I loved the rich, hardworking lawyer too busy to sit down in a buffet restaurant. “I just walk along scooping up the food,” he says.

Mother is always a little larger than life – a little richer and more strongly defined – while never making life, real life, seem less than the full and focused object of its gaze.

After Belleville Rendezvous, his hand-drawn animation wonderwork set in a France fantasy-enlarged with eccentric bikers, dogs, circus performers and old ladies, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist () is like a flat tyre experienced on the road to international cinema. We are in a whimsical, touristy Scotland. Here are the adorable kilt-wearing drunks (as opposed to the real, feral Saturday night Edinburgh/Glasgow thing), the giant posters for haggis (yes, haggis, no brand name) and the mouldering Victorian-gothic hotels. In Edinburgh the Jacques Tati-resembling magician hero shares a suite with the sweet little barmaid who has followed him from a one-night stand in a fishing village. (His one-night stand, let’s make clear, though this relationship does stir Nabokovian questions.) Will the girl find young love, even as the curtain comes down on the old trouper’s music-hall era?

If you are allergic to elegies – I may be – the film’s fogeyism is fatiguing. Chomet adapts a never-filmed screenplay by Tati, left on his death to his daughter Sophie, the movie’s dedicatee. The story and script identify with every wistful fluttering of the bulb in the human-lamppost protagonist, from his dismay at the rock’n’roll act whose howly-yowly encores steal his stage time (in London) to the jukebox newly installed in the fishing village’s pub to the dying lights of vaudeville in Auld Reekie.

I wish The Illusionist were funny, but it isn’t. That would make up for, or distract from, the arch nostalgia. The drawing at least delights. The Edinburgh cityscapes, at best, are like Doré crossed with Daumier. In the last scenes there is a nearly heartbreaking shot of a book’s wind-ruffled pages casting a bird-like shadow – growing with the sinking light – on the wall of the empty hotel room. But “nearly” heartbreaking is it. A film whose too-manifest agenda, at the outset, is to break our hearts causes a sceptical spectator to apply sealant to that organ from Scene 1.

Pianomania () is about an overworked international piano tuner. Now there’s an idea for Sylvain Chomet. Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck’s documentary is so enthralling – Steinway whiz Stephan Knüpfer’s plinking-plonking perfectionism, his last-minute repair improvisations (help, wrong-size hammer-heads!), his general generalship as he prepares concert grands for the likes of Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Pierre-Laurent Aimard – that 93 minutes pass like a bar of the “Minute Waltz”.

Great pianists prove to be manic obsessives, as we suspected. Aimard harries Knüpfer to near heart-failure by his inability to choose between Steinway 245 and Steinway 170 for his long-planned Bach recordings. Both are lugged into the recording venue, just as the warehouse is closing and the studio warming up, so the master can sound their subtly differentiated depths. Aimard wins prizes; he must know what he is doing. Cibis and Franck definitely know what they are doing; they should win every music-documentary prize available.

Despite security, more breakouts have been reported recently at the Tinseltown Twilight Home. Sylvester Stallone’s escape, along with Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, The Governator and others, has resulted in The Expendables
(), a piece of sclerotic all-star machismo about as exciting as Veterans’ Arm-Wrestling Night at the Hollywood Bowl. The film climaxes on the strife-torn South American island of “Vilena”, a name that, looked at closely, is an anagram of “Any old fascist banana republic we could think up”.

Piranha 3D () starts with Richard Dreyfuss, 35 years on from Jaws, fishing on a lake. He is dragged to his doom by dentally over-advantaged fish. The film sinks downwards ever after, accompanied by a parade of severed limbs, heads, torsos and even – a first? – a male member. All up close and stereoscopic. Keep a protective hand poised above the 3D specs.

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