Seen Off Broadway: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, at Lincoln Center Theatre, is about an odd little piece of World War I history. Playwright Frank McGuinness focuses on eight young Irish Protestants who have enlisted in the fight against Germany as a way of demonstrating their allegiance to England and distancing themselves from the Catholics who want an Irish Republic. Tragically, all but one will die in the carnage of the Battle of the Somme. It’s a rich dramatic subject but, after an interesting first act, the play bogs down in endless conversation, as the eight pair off to hash out their personal problems. The dialogue is doom-laden, with one character or another predicting their deaths every few minutes, but there’s no real feeling for the violence, terror, and squalor that these men must have encountered. This is possibly one of the most inert plays ever written about war. Nicholas Martin’s staging, on Alexander Dodge’s ingenious two-level sets, is generally effective, but his cast is uneven. Justin Theroux stands out as a neurotic interloper from the upper classes. Dodge’s settings make a strong visual statement even as they stand in for several locations. Don Holder’s lighting is superb, giving an extra touch of theatricality to the proceedings without being too showy (check out the sky cyc that slowly turns an ominous pink as the characters face death), Michael Krass’ costumes look thoroughly authentic. Jerry Yager’s fairly limited sound design is certainly professional. It’s hard to imagine a more propitious time for a play on this theme; its failure to move is, therefore, all the more notable.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme photo: Carol Rosegg

In Dirty Story, produced by LAByrinth Theatre Company at the Harold Clurman on Theatre Row, playwright John Patrick Shanley is waxing philosophic—a sure sign of trouble from this uneven writer. The play begins with a young, female graduate student approaching a famous writer for guidance. He trashes her work, then invites her over for dinner. There, in his grungy loft apartment, he dresses her up as Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (don’t ask), then holds her captive, subjecting her to various forms of terror. A cowboy enters to save her, and is summarily dismissed. Incredibly, after the intermission, this becomes an allegory of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The student now occupies the writer’s apartment, which has become a war zone, with the cowboy and his English sidekick trying, and failing, to adjudicate the situation. While it’s always good to see writers tackling complex political issues, this one is deeply troubled. The perfectly awful first act is off-putting in the extreme and in the second act Shanley never finds a workable comic tone. The cast certainly gives it everything they’ve got, with Florencia Lozano a standout as the grad student who learns to fight back. Michelle Malavet’s white-brick industrial setting stands in for three locations; Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes include a nifty cowboy outfit and a Euro-chic dress (complete with scarf and sunglasses) for Lozano. Jeremy Morris’ lighting is effective and Elizabeth Rhodes’ sound design, with its wicked use of movie themes including Exodus, The Magnificent Seven, and You Light Up My Life, is as effectively satirical as anything in the text. This one is, to put it politely, a mess, however. —David Barbour

Dirty Story photo: Webb Wilcoxen

Seen at the Movies: Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon is something of a comedown from the writer-director’s debut feature High Art, but it’s worth seeing for one major reason: Frances McDormand. She plays Jane, a veteran record producer living a freewheeling lifestyle in the bohemian enclave of the title. With flowing, softly curled hair, a burnished tan, and hippie redux wardrobe (courtesy of the excellent costume designer, Cindy Evans), McDormand has never looked more beautiful, and her performance carries an effortless star authority. The film is on shakier ground with the other major characters: Christian Bale, as Jane’s conservative son, and Kate Beckinsale, as Bale’s fiancée, who finds herself drawn into the pot-smoking, free-loving world of Jane and her young rocker boyfriend (Alessandro Nivola).

Laurel Canyon photo: Neal Preston/Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a Family Ties air around the movie’s mother/son dichotomy, and a rather queasy-making element is introduced when Jane starts coming on to her future daughter-in-law. But Laurel Canyon pulls you into its world anyway: the lure of Jane’s rambling house with poolside recording studio is powerful, even if the location is actually in Santa Monica, not Laurel Canyon. (The house is owned by the film’s executive producer Scott Ferguson.) Production designer Catherine Hardwicke has conceived this setting as a haven for people who have never gotten over the 60s, and cinematographer Wally Pfister lights it with a warmth that disappears when the characters venture into the outside world.

Today marks the first day of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a 10-day series of new French films shown at the society’s Walter Reade Theater. This year’s offerings include Benoit Jacquot’s Adolphe, starring Isabelle Adjani; Nicole Garcia’s The Adversary, which dramatizes the real-life case that loosely inspired last year’s Time Out; director/DP Raymond Depardon’s Untouched by the West, which boasts stunning black-and-white images of the Sahara desert setting; Claude Berri’s Housekeeper; and Delphine Gleize’s Carnage, which created a mini-sensation at Cannes 2002. (For complete information about the series, log on to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.)

demonlover photo: Palm Pictures

One of the most eagerly awaited of the Rendez-Vous films is Olivier Assayas’ demonlover, a wild, multilingual corporate thriller, ostensibly about a French company’s acquisition of a Japanese anime producer. The gifted Assayas, whose last film Les Destinées was a leisurely historical drama, takes his new work into uncharted and eventually absurd territory by introducing torture websites and violently inclined businesswomen (played by Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny, and Gina Gershon) to the mix. demonlover ends up, disappointingly, in a hackneyed reality/fantasy arena, but my interest was held throughout by the director’s showmanship, and by the consistently eye-popping work of cinematographer Denis Lenoir, production designer François-Renaud Labarthe, and costume designer Anaïs Romand.

Not in the Rendez-Vous series, but also opening today, is Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Be warned: from its opening frames, this film does everything it can to make its audience feel ill. Much of the talk has centered on two horrific scenes of violence in the movie: In the first, a man’s head is bashed to hamburger in a gay sex club, while the patrons egg the basher on; in the second, agonizingly prolonged sequence, a woman is raped and beaten in an underground tunnel.

But even before these scenes, which are as brutal as anything I can recall seeing in a movie, Irreversible’s camerawork, which is credited to Noe and Benoit Debie, was making my stomach flip. The film’s first part seems to have been shot from a carnival ride that spins in every conceivable direction—up and down and around, back and forth, sideways. It doesn’t let up for about 30 minutes, and then Noe gradually settles into a much more becalmed, classically composed mise en scène. This parallels the screenplay’s formal approach of reverse-order storytelling. I don’t know what to say about Irreversible: It’s certainly a directorial tour de force of sorts, but I find Noe’s misanthropic sensibility to be deeply repellent. His big point is that we’re all animals who will revert to our basest instincts at the drop of a hat. That’s not even very original.

Tears of the Sun photo: Columbia Pictures

Still, I’ll take Irreversible over the latest "uplifting" Hollywood embarrassment Tears of the Sun any day. In this unconsciously imperialistic action pap, Bruce Willis leads a group of commandos into Nigeria (actually Hawaii) to rescue a doctor (Monica Bellucci, who also plays the rape victim in Irreversible) from the region’s exploding civil strife. She refuses to leave without her worshipful black coworkers and patients, so Willis leads them to safety and discovers his humanity in the process, while the Africans provide choral accompaniment. Training Day director Antoine Fuqua handles the movie’s hopeless dialogue scenes and big action moments equally clumsily, with crosscutting in the latter that seems pre-Griffith in sophistication. DP Mauro Fiore does make the rain forest look lovely. —John Calhoun