The Illusionist (PG)
The Expendables (15)
You have to smile, but Tati's magic show remains a hat without a rabbit
Sunday 22 August 2010
The follow-up to Sylvain Chomet's gorgeously hand-drawn cartoon Belleville Rendezvous, is an intriguing proposition indeed, based as it is on a screenplay which Jacques Tati completed in 1959.
Using almost no dialogue, The Illusionist introduces an ageing conjurer named Tatischeff (Tati's own full name), whose music-hall bookings in Paris are drying up. Trying his luck across the Channel, he ends up on a rainy Scottish island whose inhabitants are sufficiently behind the times to appreciate his rabbit-and-hat routine. When he returns to the mainland, a chambermaid from the island stows away with him and they travel to Edinburgh together, checking into a boarding house for past-it vaudevillians.
At this point I should confess that I never enjoy Tati's films as much as I'd like to – and that sums up my experience of The Illusionist. Considerably more muted than Belleville Rendezvous, it's a gentle mood piece, with a drifting wisp of a story, and jokes that make you smile every now and then, rather than laugh. The animation is lovely, of course. Chomet's painstaking depiction of Edinburgh's gables and chimney stacks makes the ville look very belle indeed, and it's bound to inspire a walking tour of the film's locations. But it's easy to have reservations about the tale of a jowly old man who keeps buying expensive coats and shoes for the pretty teenage stranger with whom he shares his lodgings. Supposedly, the girl believes Tatischeff is conjuring these gifts with his magic arts, but there's a whiff of Humbert Humbert about him, especially when she receives her first pair of white stilettos.
A fortnight after Tom Cruise's Knight and Day, this summer's second Bourne imitation is Salt, a film which was due to have starred Cruise, too, until he dropped out of the lead role. In his place, Angelina Jolie plays a CIA agent who goes on the run after she's accused of being a Russian spy. And, at first, the casting switch would seem to be a change for the better. The film is exciting in its early scenes mainly because the action takes place in something approximating the real world, and the emaciated Jolie is convincingly anxious and exhausted as she stays just a whisker ahead of her pursuers. You wouldn't get that anxiety from the Cruiser.
But soon, with the symbolic dying of her hair from blonde to black – an impenetrable disguise, apparently – Jolie is transformed from a beleaguered Hitchcock heroine to a steely super-assassin, and the villain's scheme is revealed as a ludicrous, Cold War conspiracy that Blofeld would have rejected as too far-fetched. It's a gear-change which might have worked, but the tone remains determinedly po-faced however silly the story becomes. The director still thinks he's making a Bourne film, but the screenplay has gone Mission: Impossible.
The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone's latest attempt at career resuscitation, teams him up with some action heroes who are similarly not-quite-bankable – Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren – the logic being that if you put enough B and C-listers together, they add up to one A-lister. Throw in a scenario about a gang of mercenaries taking down a South American dictator, and it sounds as if it could be as much nostalgic fun as a class reunion with extra explosions. The problem is that as well as being the star, Stallone is the co-writer and director, and he's put more thought into his precision-engineered facial hair than anything else.
Maybe we shouldn't have expected him to put any plot twists or credible characters into his witless, lumbering film, but it's unforgivable of Stallone not to muster any decent action sequences. The dialogue I heard was woeful, too, but between Li and Lundgren's accents, Statham's gruff whispering, and Stallone's trademark mumble, I didn't hear all that much.
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