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

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