Monday 24 June 2019

A right Royal family like no other

CINEMA: From dysfunctional siblings to ghosts, PAT STACEY and SOPHIE GORMAN review new movies

The Royal Tenenbaums

(15PG, general release)

Your enjoyment of The Royal Tenenbaums will depend on how readily you surrender to the weird and wonderful worldview of remarkable young director Wes Anderson. Personally, I found its warped charms irresistible.

The Royal Tenenbaums is just as idiosyncratic as Anderson's previous film, Rushmore, and, if you're prepared to go with the flow of its off-centre humour, it is utterly beguiling.

Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the head of a New York family once feted for their intellectual and athletic precocity but now noted for being chronically dysfunctional. Royal, a disbarred lawyer, was kicked out of the vast family home by his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) 22 years earlier for an unspecified misdemeanour and has been living in a swish hotel ever since.

Royal and Etheline, who never got round to divorcing, have two sons and an adopted daughter. Each of them was a child prodigy and each has grown up to be a neurotic mess.

Chas (Ben Stiller) is a financial whiz kid who made a fortune in his early teens by breeding a strain of Dalmatian mice. Since the tragic death of his wife, Chas who dresses his young sons in naff red tracksuits identical to his own has become obsessed with personal safety, waking the boys in the middle of the night for fire drills.

Richie (Luke Wilson) is a former tennis pro who was ranked second in the world at just 17. He turned his back on his career after his game fell apart during a crucial match and now aimlessly sails the world on a cruise liner, still wearing his trademark headband and nurturing a secret love for his adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Margot is a literary genius who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning play when she was in the ninth grade, but hasn't penned a word since. Having squandered her life on doomed relationships, the permanently fur-coated Margot is locked into a dull marriage to pompous intellectual Raleigh St Clair (a deadpan Bill Murray), who's more shocked by the discovery of her secret smoking habit than by her infidelity.

Completing this collection of misfits is Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Anderson), a neighbour and friend of the Tenenbaums since childhood who also has a thing for Margot. A novelist who churns out best-selling but critically panned westerns, Eli has a fondness for fast cars, ill-fitting cowboy clothes and cocaine.

When Royal is ejected from the hotel for failing to pay his bills, he decides to return to the family fold. Being an incorrigible liar and chancer, he invents an illness for himself stomach cancer which has left him with just weeks to live, yet hasn't interfered with his appetite for three cheeseburgers a day, a fact not lost on Etheline's accountant-turned-suitor (Danny Glover).

Royal finds himself, whether by accident or design, healing his fractured family a process that includes teaching his grandsons to shoplift, play with the traffic and fling objects at passing taxicabs.

The Royal Tenenbaums constantly walks a fine line between outrageous, laugh-out-loud comedy and more introspective moments. It's by turns hilarious and moving in all sorts of pleasing, unexpected little ways. It shouldn't work but it does, even if you're never entirely sure why. Anderson has assembled a splendid cast which also includes veteran Seymour Cassel as Royal's "doctor" (a hotel porter who dispenses Tic-Tacs in medicine bottles) and they do full justice to the material. Anchoring the film is Gene Hackman in marvellous form. You could say he gives a Royal command performance.

Suffused with warmth and colour, and making liberal and inventive use of flashbacks, captions, voiceover (by a droll Alec Baldwin) and even chapter headings to break up the story, The Royal Tenenbaums won't be to everybody's taste, but it is a blast of original, irreverent air from a Hollywood currently in danger of choking on post-September 11 sanctimoniousness. PS

Thir13en Ghosts

(general release)

What has happened to F Murray Abraham? One minute he was poised for greatness, with roles in All the President's Men, The Name of the Rose and, most recently, Finding Forrester. Hollywood seemed to be in the palm of his hand. Then this happens: a starring role in one of the most embarrassing films of recent years.

A remake of William Castle's 1960 film, Steve Beck's directorial debut gives the original story the blockbuster treatment.

Take one tortured young medium, Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), working for an unconventional ghostbuster with demonic aspirations called Cyrus (Abraham). Add in Cyrus's only relatives, a motherless family on the verge of destitution, and their decidedly token black babysitter and get the action going with an inheritance that may not be as wonderful as it seems.

Complete the recipe by sealing everyone in a steel-and-glass house, the walls of which are engraved with Latin spells to keep the 12 poltergeist in the basement under control.

Who will be the crucial ghost number 13? Will anyone get out alive? Is your heart beating faster? It won't be after watching this.

Elaborate, very expensive and very, very bad, Thir13en Ghosts is filled with ghouls who look like rejects from for Michael Jackson's Thriller video. Overseen by a production team who should have known better Joel Silver of The Matrix and the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series and Robert Zemeckis of the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump and Cast Away the only real element of horror is just how horrifyingly unfrightening it is. SG

Little Otik (Club)

Director Jan Svankmajer's updating of an old folk fable is an initially eerie, but ultimately ponderous experience. An infertile couple discover a tree root that resembles a baby, "adopt" it and then watch in horror as it comes alive and starts to eat everything in sight, including the neighbourhood cat.

What could have been a sharp satire is drawn out to a punishingly repetitive 127 minutes, dominated by tedious close-ups of the actors' mouths. The tree-baby is a laughable creation, straight out of one of those Eastern European animations RTE showered upon us in the '70s. PS

Comedie de l'Innocence

(Club)

Isabelle Huppert plays the well-heeled Parisian mother of Camille (Nils Hugon), a boy whom she and her husband assume has a powerful imagination.

Based on The Boy with Two Mothers, an acclaimed Italian novel, the film begins on Camille's ninth birthday, as he starts to reveal a different side. When his mother arrives to collect him from a local park, he starts addressing her politely, but coldly, by her first name. He insists to be taken to his real home and his real mother, who has a strange address and a strange name.

Unlike most childish fixations, this one does not go away, and Camille's mother allows him to pursue it, in the hope that he will grow out of it. This does not happen, of course.

Driven by the performances of Huppert, Hugon and Jeanne Balibar, as Camille's second mother, the film at first holds your attention by blurring the lines between adult and child. Comedie de L'Innocence ends up curiously unengaging, however. The stilted style of the drama is meant to reflect the dreamlike quality of the story, but it makes the film painfully slow-moving, even by French standards. SG

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