The Fame Game

 

Celebrity (18) Screen at D'Olier Street, Dublin

A recording of You Ought To Be In Pictures plays with heavy irony over the opening credits of the new Woody Allen movie, Celebrity, a caustic and regularly hilarious reflection on fame, publicity, pretension and ego. The movie is set against a contemporary backdrop of round-the-clock television and multiple newspaper supplements, and the desperation which drives producers and editors to fill these screens and pages with the most trite of ephemera.

This is the future so accurately predicted by Andy Warhol in his famous dictum that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame; a world where people become famous for being famous, with the slavish support of the media. Of course, given the media's intense scrutiny of Woody Allen's own personal life, it's not surprising that he has axes to grind. He commented in a recent interview that we have reached the point "of such hysterical proportions that even a fellatrix can achieve nationwide celebrity".

There is fellatio in Allen's new film, too; one character even takes lessons with the aid of a banana. Those lessons are provided by a prostitute, and it's notable that prostitutes are regularly recurring characters in Allen's recent work, as are neurotic Manhattan writers. And the other significant change in Allen's 1990s movies, the use of expletive-littered dialogue, is taken several stages further in Celebrity.

Allen himself stays off-screen for the new film and offers a surrogate in the form of a New York magazine journalist with ambitions as a screenwriter. Named Lee Simon, he is played by Kenneth Branagh in a quite remarkable impersonation of Allen himself, with all his familiar inflections and mannerisms. The recently divorced Simon pursues a succession of beautiful women and sycophantically tries to ingratiate himself with some of the famous people he meets.

In her fourth film for Allen, Judy Davis is on prime edgy form as Simon's neurotic, insecure ex-wife whose chance meeting with a television executive (Joe Mantegna) leads to her losing her inhibitions and finding a new career as a media star. The new women who pass through Simon's life include a movie star (Melanie Griffith) whom he tries to seduce in her childhood bedroom; a supermodel (Charlize Theron) who goes out with him for what proves a deeply frustrating night; a book editor (Famke Janssen) who responds with understandable fury when her caring treatment of Simon is not reciprocated; and a young, aspiring actress (Winona Ryder) whom he pursues obsessively. Along the way the movie takes scathing swipes at the pretentiousness of the New York art world, the banality of celebrity interviews, the utter phoniness of confrontational and confessional TV talk shows, the prurience of journalism, the sheer absurdity of trendiness - and the vanity of actors, as expressed in a sharp parody of a vain, pampered and foulmouthed young movie star by a tongue-in-cheek Leonardo DiCaprio.

All easy targets, certainly, and nothing we haven't seen or heard before, but there is such an accumulation of venom and verve in Allen's scathing attacks that they charge the atmosphere, while the acutely observed narrative neatly connects its disparate characters in a scenario of self-doubt, misguided ambition and unfulfilled lives. It left me with a broad beam on my face from start to finish.

By Michael Dwyer

Cruel Intentions (18) General release

Cued by Baz Luhrmann's ingenious revamping of Romeo and Juliet and Amy Heckerling's spirited updating of Jane Austen's Emma in Clueless, Hollywood is tapping more and more into the burgeoning youth market with recyclings of tried and true literary classics. The recent She's All That was a contemporary reworking of Pygmalion, and on the way are modern spins on The Taming of the Shrew in Ten Things I Hate About You, Mourning Becomes Electra in Wicked, and Othello in the basketball movie, O.

Those imminent releases will have to go some way to match writer-director Roger Kumble's smart take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses in Cruel Intentions, the fourth film based on the epistolary 1782 novel by Choderlos De Laclos. Kumble's film is set in present-day Manhattan on the affluent Upper East Side as two scheming, manipulative step-siblings amuse themselves during the summer holidays by preying on vulnerable young women.

Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) is a handsome, charming but callous young man who routinely seduces women and takes added pleasure in dropping them immediately afterwards. "I'm sick of sleeping with these insipid Manhattan debutantes," he declares. "Nothing surprises them."

His step-sister, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a jaded, cynical young woman who hints at goodness by wearing a crucifix around her neck, although its true purpose is to conceal her cocaine stash. Outraged at being dropped by her boyfriend in favour of the innocent Cecile (Selma Blair), Kathryn coaxes Sebastian to ruin Cecile's image by seducing her. He agrees, even though it all seems just too easy for him, and he finds a much more interesting challenge when the new headmaster's daughter (Renee Witherspoon) publishes A Virgin's Manifesto in Seventeen magazine, announcing that she will remain pure until she falls in love. "She'll be my greatest victory," he drools. A double wager is placed, with Sebastian promised a night in his step-sister's bed if he succeeds, and forced to give her his beloved 1956 Jaguar roadster if he fails. The language of Cruel Intentions seems altogether crude and coarse when compared with Christopher Hampton's elegant De Laclos adaptation for Stephen Frears's 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons. However, Roger Kumble, a playwright and theatre director making a highly confident film debut, never loses sight of the story's essence, and he astutely treats its themes of lust, cruelty and guilt in its precisely sustained transposition to a present-day context.

In that respect, Cruel Intentions captures the keen sensibility of Clueless, as it does that movie's employment of contemporary trappings in its spot-on costumes, production design and soundtrack. Sarah Michelle Gellar reveals there is far more to her than playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer could ever suggest, and Ryan Phillippe, with a much meatier role in the recent 54, continues to show real promise. Even though the movie mostly relegates adult characters to the sideline, it offers some plum cameos for Christine Baranski, Swoozie Kurtz and Louise Fletcher.

By Michael Dwyer

Orphans (Members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

Critically acclaimed internationally and already the recipient of awards at several major film festivals, Peter Mullan's feature debut is a flawed but powerful piece of film-making which lingers long in the memory, despite its difficulties. That those difficulties stem more from highly-set ambitions than from any failure of imagination is a tribute to Mullan, a fine actor who won widespread recognition last year for his central performance in Ken Loach's My Name is Joe. While some comparisons may be drawn with Loach's work, Orphans is a highly original film which fuses naturalism with metaphor in its depiction of a family (and, by extension, a society) ripped apart by tragedy and violence.

Centring on the attempts by four Glasgow siblings to come to terms with the death of their mother, Orphans follows the escalating events over the course of one nightmarish, storm-tossed night in the city. The eldest son (Gary Lewis) retreats into mawkish sentimentality, singing a ridiculous song in her memory to a pub full of drunks. When a fight erupts, and another brother (Douglas Henshall) is stabbed, the third brother (Stephen McCole) sets out to take revenge on the attacker by buying a gun and shooting him. Meanwhile, their wheelchair-bound sister (Rosemarie Stevenson) is left to fend for herself on the dark streets.

Orphans is a film of extremities, often difficult to watch, but also full of surprises. The opening scene, as the family gathers around the mother's coffin, is so austerely bleak that it almost seems to be warning the audience off, but a seam of dark humour undercuts the apparent grimness of the material. In particular, the stereotype of the Glasgow hard man is subverted, explored and mocked, while the often taboo subject of bereavement is treated not just with tenderness but with a refreshing sarcasm.

In creating his gallery of grotesques, Mullan seems to be attempting a portrait of contemporary Scotland, an attempt which sometimes appears forced, but pays off brilliantly at other moments. Indeed, Orphans often feels like an attempt by its talented director to test his powers, and to break the unwritten rules of so much contemporary, safe British (and Irish) cinema. The result is a raw, sometimes ragged film that pulsates with energy, ideas and attitude.

By Hugh Linehan

Human Traffic (18) General release

Movies which loudly claim to capture pop culture movements on screen usually miss their mark, and writer-director Justin Kerrigan's portrait of British club culture in the late 1990s is unfortunately no exception. Set over the course of one hedonistic weekend, Human Traffic follows the exploits of a group of young clubbers as they search for fun, excitement and sexual satisfaction through the dance floors and all-night parties of Cardiff, but its good intentions are let down by clumsy film-making and a less than sharp script.

Narrated straight to camera by its sexually insecure main character (John Simm), the film depicts its characters - uninhibited party-goers Lulu and Nina (Lorraine Pilkington and Nicola Reynolds), drug dealer Moff (Danny Dyer), and Nina's obsessively jealous boyfriend Koop (Shaun Parkes) - as dedicated to the pursuit of Class A drugs and good times, but lumbers them with cliche-ridden attitudes and some truly awful lines.

Kerrigan's energy and enthusiasm for his subject manages to carry him through some of the film's dodgier moments, but his naivet e also leads to some horrendously ham-fisted proselytising, particularly a sequence in which the patrons of a crowded bar launch into an alternative national anthem. Although stylistically indebted to American indie filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, he never quite manages to achieve their ramshackle charm or well-tuned dialogue, despite energetic, likeable performances from his main actors. Veering uneasily between drab naturaliam, state-of-the-nation pontificating and clumsy attempts to convey the artificially-induced elation of clubbing, Human Traffic ends up looking merely pedestrian.

By Hugh Linehan

Last Friday's reviews of The Matrix, Get Real and The Red Violin were written by Michael Dwyer