Film reviews: The Expendables | Mother | The Human Centipede (First Sequence) | The Illusionist | Pianomania

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AS NOSTALGIC, wilfully rubbish 1980s-style action movies go, The Expendables has a slight edge over the 12A inanities of The A-Team and The Losers thanks to writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone's ability to invoke the kill-crazy mayhem of his heyday by insisting the intervening years never happened.

That means a film that takes place in a world dominated by vein-popping, muscle-bound action heroes who blow people's torsos in half while invading small countries. It also means cameos for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, who appear with Stallone onscreen for the first time in a scene that plays like an awkward Planet Hollywood shareholders' reunion.

As for the old school action, sadly this isn't the The Dirty Dozen-on-steroids mercenary mash-up suggested by the poster. It's a vanity project for Stallone and a stingy showcase for the reliably ace Jason Statham, whose relative youth, charisma and ability to mow down bad guys with a machine gun while perched on the nose of a seaplane helps offset some of his director's inability to make better use of the film's titular crew of senior citizen psychos.

That the supporting cast really needn't have bothered showing up is the closest Stallone gets to a decent joke.

Mother (15)****

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Ku

HAVING reinvented the police procedural with Memories of Murder and the monster movie with The Host, South Korean maverick Bong Joon-ho applies his powers to the detective thriller, with a wonderfully oddball film in which the titular matriarch (played by Kim Hye-ja) devotes herself to proving the innocence of her son, Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin) after he's indicted for murder.

That he's something of a simpleton – or at least acts like one – has defined her life as one of constant worry, leading to a warped and over-protective relationship with him. His erratic behaviour, meanwhile, seems to be driven by both his love for her and his buried resentment of her ever-watchful presence.

Bong weaves this complex bond into the fabric of the film's detective plot, which sees its never-named protagonist driving herself half-mad as she turns gumshoe after the cops coerce a confession from Yoon.

The film has visual panache, but it's the way Bong uses such a unique character to tap into the lonely, damaged nature of the private eye archetype that really makes Mother stand out.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (18) **

Directed by: Tom Six

Starring: Dieter Laser, Ashley C Williams Ashlynn Yennie

IN THE staid world of modern endurance-test horror typified by the never-ending Saw series, The Human Centipede deserves a little credit for the originality and outlandishness of its hideous premise.

In a European backwater where ditsy American tourists can easily get lost, mad surgeon Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser) has devised a diabolical plan to reverse-engineer some "Siamese triplets" by linking three people together via their gastric tracts: an icky idea that requires the unlucky test subjects – two irritating American gals and a Japanese man – to be sewn together, ass-to-mouth as it were.

If that description is already churning your stomach – and it should – writer-director Tom Six's use of strategically placed bandages, blood stains and Frankenstein-esque facial stitches relies upon the power of suggestion to ensure the bulk of the film reaches look-away-now levels of unwatchability – a cunning trick that allows discussions of its theoretical merits (is it a comment on the incremental "more gore" nature of modern horror franchises?) to supercede assessments of the film's rather flat visual style and rote plotting. David Cronenberg this ain't.

The Illusionist (PG)***

Directed by: Sylvain Chomet

THERE'S no disputing the artistry and craftsmanship of The Illusionist, Belleville Rendez-Vous director Sylvain Chomet's animated love-letter to Edinburgh. Deploying the defiantly 2D hand-drawn animation style that has become his signature, his team has created a detailed vision of the city circa 1959 that's both warmly nostalgic and tinged with melancholy. Sadly all their work is in the service of an unappealing story that recycles the old "tears of a clown" clich and expects us to mourn the passing of things that probably weren't that great to begin with.

Adapted from an unproduced script Jacques Tati wrote in the 1960s, its thin plot revolves around a Parisian magician facing his own obsolescence as he's forced to travel in search of work. His journey takes him to the Western Isles, where a young Highland girl, entranced by his magic tricks, follows him to Edinburgh in the hope of finding a fulfilling future.

The film clearly wants us to feel something akin to profound sadness about the magician's plight, but once you strip away the wow factor of the film's design, the absence of strong characterisation ensures the end result is less affecting than was perhaps intended.

Pianomania (N/C) ***

Directed by: Robert Cibis, Lillian Franck

PEOPLE whose obsessions threaten to get the better of them often make great subjects for documentaries, but the subsequent films can often seem exploitative, especially if the subject's monomania is mined for dramatic effect. Pianomania, a cheerful delve into the little-explored world of piano technicians mostly avoids any such moments of discomfort by following an expert with a healthy sense of humour about his all-consuming passion and occupation.

This is Austrian piano technician Stephna Knpfer, a mischievous music lover whose highly skilled but somewhat maverick approach to getting the best sound out of a piano for his world class clientele – who include Alfred Brendel, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Lang Lang – is frequently met with an array of responses ranging from reverie to outright bafflement.

The film follows him over the course of a year as he prepares for Aimard's first Bach recording and though directors Robert Cibis and Lillian Franck never provide much insight into the effect his pursuit of perfection has on his personal life (a wife is mentioned but never seen), it does highlight the curious relationship that exists between pianist and tuner, and provides a new appreciation of just how much work goes into creating each note.

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