Sex, lies and . . . . . . a Dobermann

 

The highly publicised problems of his messy personal life have tended to eclipse the remarkable acting ability and versatility of Robert Downey Jr, as evinced by movies as diverse as Chaplin, Natural Born Killers, Chances Are and One Night Stand. Like Daniel Day-Lewis and Sean Penn, he is one of that rare breed of risk-taking actors who immerse themselves in their roles to produce memorable work.

Downey Jr delivers one of his most complex performances in James Toback's three-hander, Two Girls And A Guy, which has taken an unusually long time to reach here since I first saw it at the Toronto festival in September 1997. Filmed on an exceptionally tight shooting schedule of just 11 days, this claustrophobic picture of sexual duplicity is set almost entirely within a Manhattan apartment.

It opens with an exterior sequence as two women, the streetwise Lou and the forthright Clara, meet for the first time outside the apartment building where each is waiting for her lover to return from Los Angeles - and discover that they are both involved with the same man. Neither of them picked up on the significance of You Don't Know Me being his favourite song, or of the poster for Truffaut's classic menage a trois movie, Jules Et Jim, which hangs prominently in his apartment.

Robert Downey Jr plays their two-timing lover, Blake Allen, a selfish, smooth-talking actor who has strung the two women along. The movie follows Allen's desperate attempts to talk and charm his way out of the dilemma. The acuteness of the sharply observed dialogue, much of it improvised, and the dextrous camerawork within such a confined space, ensure that the movie skirts the potential pitfall of staginess. Even when it begins to sag under the sheer weight of its dialogue in the later stages, Toback's film is carried by the conviction of its three actors - Downey Jr., Heather Graham (from Boogie Nights) as Clara, and Natasha Gregson Wagner, the daughter of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, as Lou.

Very Bad Things (18) General release

Playing Laura, a single-minded bride-to-be who's obsessively determined that her wedding day will go off perfectly - and utterly regardless of certain ghastly events in which her fiance, Kyle (Jon Favreau), has become embroiled - Cameron Diaz comfortably stretches her range in Very Bad Things, an ultra-black comedy which makes her previous movie, There's Something About Mary, seem like something by Jane Austen.

Peter Berg, the actor who plays Dr Billy Kronk on television in Chicago Hope, makes his directing debut with Very Bad Things, which deals with Kyle's cocaine-and-booze-fuelled stag party in Las Vegas during which a prostitute is accidentally killed in a hotel bathroom. What follows involves the five male partygoers in a chain of guilt and aggression - and amazing cold-bloodedness - from which few survive.

The only one who responds with a moral conscience is the single married man on the trip, the nervy Adam (Daniel Stern) whose younger brother, Michael (Jeremy Piven) caused the accident which triggers off a snowballing series of gradually more out-of-control behaviour among his friends. What is most audacious about Peter Berg's movie is that the more serious its themes become, the wilder and blacker its humour turns. However, the further the extremes to which he pushes his material, the more Berg loses his grip on the picture, and he allows it to fizzle out in a gross, ill-advised epilogue.

Bogwoman (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

Belatedly released 18 months after its world premiere at Galway Film Fleadh, Bogwoman is the first feature directed by the producer and documentary-maker Tommy Collins. An opening caption informs the audience that the movie follows one woman's journey from the boglands of Donegal to the Bogside of Derry. Hence the title - one which does the film no favours.

The "bogwoman" is Maureen (Rachael Dowling), a single mother who leaves her Donegal island home in 1958 and crosses the Border into Derry where she marries Barry, a bookie and compulsive gambler played by Peter Mullan, the Scottish actor who went on to win the best actor award at Cannes last year for his superb performance in My Name Is Joe. The rapid growth of their family is wittily summarised in a sequence wherein Barry is presented with one baby after another; meanwhile, Maureen's Catholic doctor refuses to give her advice on birth control.

Bogwoman is at its most successful in depicting the relationships between Maureen and her husband, and the close friendship which she forms with two women, her resilient mother-in-law and a hard-working neighbour (Marie MacDermottroe and Noelle Brown). Writer-director Collins treats his hard-pressed principal characters with an infectious affection and lighting cameraman Peter Robertson bathes them in warm lighting. The film turns sketchier in its second half as it charts the rise of the civil rights movement in Derry, its dramatic potential drained thanks to a heavy reliance on archival footage and explanatory voiceover provided by a newsreader - the unseen Bryan Dobson, who provides the latter's voice, seems to have more lines than anyone in the movie other than Maureen herself.

Stepmom (15) General release

In this shamelessly manipulative tearjerker, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris play Jackie and Luke, a married couple who met and fell in love at college. When Jackie had her first child, she left her job as an editor at Random House to concentrate on raising her daughter, while Luke carried on with his lucrative law practice. Some 12 years later, Luke leaves Jackie for a much younger woman, Isabel, a successful fashion photographer played by Julia Roberts.

The first half of an unwisely over-stretched movie dwells on the mutual antagonism between Jackie and Isabel, with the older woman seizing on every opportunity to attack or humiliate Isabel in front of Luke and their two children. The mood turns more sombre - and sentimental - in the second half as Jackie is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

It is hard to credit that it took five credited writers to assemble this slender, contrived and heavily padded concoction, directed with unremitting blandness by Chris Columbus.

Bestowing an unwarranted dignity on it all is Sarandon's reliably strong central performance, never less so than in the scene where she meets her husband to tell him of her illness, only for him to give her his news first, that he plans to marry Isabel.

Dobermann (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

The view that nothing succeeds like excess would appear to be the credo of the Dutch director, Jan Kounen, on the evidence of his loud and flashy debut feature, Dobermann. It opens with the dog of that breed urinating over the credits as Kounen sets up an eye-grabbing opening sequence. This involves the christening of the baby Yann, who is about to be given a pistol as a gift from one of his uncles when the dog lurches through the church, sending the gun flying into Yann's pram.

Clearly, that incident had a profound impact on Yann because when the film leaps forward by about 20 years, Yann (played by Vincent Cassell) is not only nicknamed Dobermann, but he and his mute girlfriend (Monica Bellucci) are leading a criminal gang.

Bullets fly and the violence gets progressively more mindless and shocking in the frenetically-paced consequences, which are littered with heavy-handed references to such obvious influences as Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson, Oliver Stone, Trainspotting and The Usual Suspects. Unfortunately, those influences do not extend towards director Kounen injecting any notable substance into his gore-fest.