This week’s new films reviewed

Robert de Niro in The Family
Robert de Niro in The Family
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Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer play spouses with a dark secret in The Family

THE FAMILY (15)

The family that slays together stays together – with a degree of reluctance – in Luc Besson’s twisted black comedy based on a book by Tonino Benacquista.

Punctuated by scenes of cartoonish violence, including an explosive bout of supermarket rage, The Family razes one sleepy corner of Normandy in its ham-fisted pursuit of big bangs and laughs.

It’s a far, desperate cry from the propulsive energy and intense emotions of Besson’s hitman thriller, Leon, which starred Jean Reno and a smouldering, Lolita-esque Natalie Portman.

The family in question comprises of Fred (Robert De Niro), his long-suffering wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two children, 17-year-old Belle (Dianna Agron) and 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo), who arrive at their new ramshackle home in the dead of night.

“Do we still have the same name?” Warren asks his mother.

“No, now we’re the Blake family,” she reminds him.

It transpires that the exhausted quartet are the Manzonis from Brooklyn, who have been placed in witness protection under the supervision of FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and his stooges, Di Cicco (Jimmy Palumbo) and Caputo (Domenick Lombardozzi).

Giovanni snitched on fellow mobster Don Luchese (Stan Carp) and his family has been on the run ever since, moving from one location to the next to avoid a shallow grave.

While the patriarch disgorges his memoirs using an old typewriter and Maggie seeks absolution from the local priest (Christopher Craig), the kids acclimatise to their new school.

Warren creates a domino rally of scams to outwit the bullies while Belle decides to relinquish her virginity to a college student, who is the object of every hormone-addled classmate’s fantasies.

Like the dysfunctional clan at the film’s blackened heart, The Family pretends to be one thing – a giddy whirl of action, thriller and romance - but turns out to be something else entirely: an unholy mess.

Tonal shifts, which Besson accomplished with elan in his earlier pictures, are awkward and jarring like a first-time driver grinding through the gears.

The chief culprit is the script, co-written by Michael Caleo, which gives only a cursory glance to the characters.

We are kept at arm’s length from Giovanni and his brood when we should be warming to them before Don Luchese’s army of trench coat-clad assassins descends on their hiding place, armed to the hilt with guns and missiles.

Oscar winners De Niro and Jones have seen better days, and will again.

Both go through the motions with a weariness that suggests their minds are elsewhere, while Pfeiffer’s hot-headed matriarch has just one discernible quality: wizardry with pasta in the kitchen.

Considering the film is set in a region famous for its gastronomic specialities, her glory days of tossing al dente penne in fresh tomato sauce are surely numbered.

RATING: 5/10

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (12A)

Building on the robust foundations of last year’s opening salvo, Catching Fire is a lean and muscular sequel, which strikes a pleasing balance between brawn and brains.

The final hour of Francis Lawrence’s film might be devoted to the 75th annual Hunger Games, a televised battle royale pitting combatants against one another in a booby-trapped arena.

Yet the director and scriptwriters Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy aren’t in a hurry to bludgeon us with bloodshed and savagery.

They invest precious time in developing sinewy emotional bonds between characters and light the fuse on civil unrest that will explode in the concluding chapter, Mockingjay, which has been split into two films.

Catching Fire is every bit as unrelentingly grim and brutal as its predecessor, including a wince-inducing scene of flagellation at the hands of a sadistic commander (Patrick St Esprit) and a moment of heartbreaking self-sacrifice.

The film opens with resilient heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in District 12, hunting alongside her beau, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

They steal a kiss in secret before Katniss returns to the Victors’ Village to continue her fake romance with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) for the cameras.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is waiting for her.

“I think we’ll make this whole situation a lot simpler by agreeing not to lie to each other,” growls Snow, who threatens Gale’s life if Katniss steps out of line.

Flanked by booze-sodden mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and sartorially daring escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta tour the districts, scenting rebellion in the air.

Meanwhile, Snow recruits a new Games creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to stage a special anniversary tournament known as the Quarter Quell, which will pit the darlings of District 12 against former winners in the ultimate duel of death.

In the arena, Katniss and Peeta risk everything once again to keep each other alive, forging alliances with cocksure Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and his elderly mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen), quixotic duo Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and rabble-rousing loose cannon, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire whets the appetite nicely for a devastating final stand.

The script turns up the heat on the central love triangle to a brisk simmer, while Lawrence and Hutcherson expertly navigate their characters’ conflicting emotions, leavened by comic relief courtesy of Stanley Tucci as flamboyant TV host Caesar Flickerman.

With an extra $50m in the sequel’s budget, production design doesn’t disappoint, not least costume designer Trish Summerville, who pulls out the stops for Effie’s wacky wardrobe, including a dress festooned with monarch butterflies.

Most of the violence in the arena takes place off screen but as the cliff-hanger ending of the sequel makes clear, before every storm, there is a lull.

Take a deep breath, while you still can.

RATING: 8.5/10