Danny's little girl

Roald Dahl's Matilda Danny DeVito (PG) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Jacques Demy (PG) Through the Olive Trees Abbas Kiarostami (U)

In Roald Dahl's Matilda, Danny DeVito returns to the snarling, primal energy of Louie De Palma, the character he played in the TV series Taxi. It's been too long since he sleazed it up on screen, and it's easy to forget what he can do with a crummy sneer and an even crummier wardrobe. He's a cigar-butt of a man; he fills the screen with his terrible odour. He plays the father of Matilda (Mara Wilson), a gifted child who's making secret trips to the library at the age of three. The scenes of her wheeling a cart full of books back and forth 10 blocks might have a Toy Story effect for adults - "so this is what children get up to when adults aren't looking" (though any parent who fantasises that their child spends every spare moment in the library needs to take a reality check).

In a lovely twist on the fears of modern parents, Matilda's Mum (Rhea Perlman) and Dad fret because their daughter isn't watching enough television - "There's nothing in a book that you can't get on TV faster," argues DeVito, buoyed by his own terrible logic. He and Perlman give the picture its crude, obscene vigour; the more appalling they become, the more we crave them. And though DeVito makes us feel grubby for relishing these ghouls, he serves huge dollops of them anyway -- he's like a short-order cook who gets a kick out of the muck he fries up, and a bigger kick out of seeing people devour it.

DeVito directed the film too, and he knows that when Matilda starts school, the demotion of her parents to the background could make the film sag. So he goes for broke with Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), the hideous headmistress who thinks nothing of applying her shot-putting and javelin expertise to the classroom, hurling children out of windows. DeVito shoots her like the demented matriarch of his first film, Throw Momma from the Train, all obscene eyes and gasping pores. After that, and his second film The War of the Roses, and now Matilda, there's a case to be made for DeVito as dysfunctional America's very own portrait-painter.

Despite Ferris's sweaty conviction, the film loses something in the second half, perhaps because the idea that your teacher is a sadistic monster will never quite be as terrifying as the suggestion that your parents neither want nor love you. Roald Dahl's book, and DeVito's film, are ferociously radical in this sense: they hint that your real mother and father may not necessarily be the best people to bring you up - a shocking suggestion for some of us, a tragic fact for others.

When the picture descends into a straightforward war, with Matilda employing new-found telekinetic powers to crush Miss Trunchbull, the tone becomes slack and indistinct, though the thrill you take from the beautifully paced and photographed opening half-hour carries you through. It's fitting that Paul Reubens, best known as Pee-Wee, should turn up in a dry cameo: much of Matilda runs on the same choreographed chaos as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. DeVito shoots almost entirely from grotesque low-angle shots, and the set design indicates that somebody vomited over the camera lens. The only thing uglier than Matilda's parents is their wallpaper.

More crimes of interior design in a new print of Jacques Demy's 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where turquoise co-exists with orange as though it were the most natural union in the world, and you emerge from the cinema with a crushing migraine. Catherine Deneuve stars as Genevieve, the dreamer whose romance with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is cut short when he's drafted for military service. When he returns years later, everything has changed: she's in love with someone else, he's in love with someone else - but they're still singing. Like Evita, the picture is wall-to-wall with music. But unlike Alan Parker's film, you'll hunt long and hard for verse or chorus here - Michel Legrand's sumptuous score has an abundance of melody, but the "songs" are simply dialogue set to music. Demy's writing is as fizzy as his eye for colour: he can't resist popping lines like "I don't like opera - all that singing gives me a pain" into the mouths of his perpetually warbling cast. Deneuve, meanwhile, is simply breathtaking; you can believe that grown men would be moved to burst into song at the sight of her.

Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees is an acquired taste. And no, that isn't a euphemism for "avoid at all costs". The film is a gentle zoom in on Hessein (Hossein Rezali), a bricklayer who lands a part in a movie that is being shot in a village wrecked by earthquake. There are tremors in Hossein's heart too, over his co-star, who happens to be the love of his life. Give the characters a little time and they elbow themselves into your affections; Kiarostami's subtle comedy may be just the ticket for when you're sitting at home surrounded by relatives you want to tar and feather.

`Matilda' and `The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' on release from tomorrow; `Through the Olive Trees' on release from Fri 27 Dec

Ryan Gilbey

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor