We review this week’s new cinema releases, including THE COUNSELLOR and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER…
THE COUNSELLOR (USA/16/117mins)
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Toby Kebbell, Ruben Blades.
THE PLOT: We open on pillow talk between our unnamed protagonist (Fassbender) and his girlfriend, Laura (Cruz), the two Texan beauties clearly in love. Cut to a Savannah, and what could be a Louis Vutton shoot, as spruced-up couple Reiner (Bardem) and his latest flame, Malkina (Diaz), enjoy some champagne served by attendant butlers as their pet leopards hunt down a hare. The counsellor is planning on marrying his beloved, and so he’s going into the drug-smuggling business with the flamboyant, niteclub-owning Reiner, their $20m cocaine shipment already making its way, hidden in a septic truck, from Mexico. Helping the deal run smoothly is Reiner’s buddy, the cowboy-hat-toting Westray (Pitt), who tries to warn the counsellor that he should always be ready to walk away and leave no trace. Which is pretty good advice, given that the shipment is soon in the wrong hands. Pretty soon, the counsellor doesn’t know who to trust…
THE VERDICT: One sweet mess, The Counsellor takes over an hour to get truly interesting. And then it’s only interesting for about 15 minutes. For the first hour, this is a Bond film without Bond, all glamour and pomp (a Scott trademark). For the second hour, it’s basically a Jason Statham movie without Jason Statham, as baddies begin killing baddies, and no one kicks in the door to save the kidnapped girl.
The only person who comes out of it not smelling like they’ve just spent two hours in a septic tank is Fassbender, but even he is somewhat all at sea, thanks to Scott’s general inability to direct people walking around in the present day. That beloved novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote the screenplay makes this misfire all the more dour, whilst Scott leaves his cast flapping in the wind again and again here. Bardem seems to be channeling Alan Hughes as a raving heterosexual, Cameron Diaz continues to morph into Joan Collins, and Rosie Perez is stuck with being Rosie Perez. Pitt – who helped get the film to the screen – is his usual calming influence, that trademark knowing smirk allowing him to pass through unscathed.
It’s highly likely that Scott was drawn to The Counsellor largely because of its closing reflections on death, given the recent loss of his brother, Tony, but they’re words of wisdom that struggle to pull back in an already frazzled and uninterested audience.
Review by Paul Byrne
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (USA/12A/132mins)
Directed by Lee Daniels. Starring Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard
THE PLOT: Based on a true story, Lee Daniels’ latest film focuses on Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a man who served eight Presidents during his time as a butler in the White House, as the Civil Rights movement unfolded around them.
THE VERDICT: Forrest Whitaker does a great job as Cecil Gaines. His story should be the heart of the film, and he does a beautiful job of having the audience on his side. He is gentle and kind, but is almost painfully aware of his place in society and history. Oprah Winfrey does what she can as Cecil’s wife Gloria and, while she is often great, she is let down by the script and her character being underdeveloped.
It is obvious that Strong was trying to tie Gaines’ personal and family experiences, and sometimes it works, but other times it feels forced, like the personal has been shoehorned in with the bigger picture for the sake of making a statement. Making Gaines’s son a man on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement also means that this story appears far more interesting than the one at the fore of the film. Perhaps Lee Daniels’ The Butler would have been better served if the story more closely resembled that of The Help, rather than Forrest Gump.
Lee Daniels’ direction does not help the situation either. While there are some interesting juxtapositions in the film – such as Louis and his friends refusing to leave the Whites only section of a restaurant, as his father seats the powerful in the White House – but many moments that should have been given a light touch, are hamfistedly handled, leaving the film feeling emotionally manipulative, oddly cold and all too historically convenient.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a great premise for a film, but sadly fails to form any kind of emotional connection with the story or the audience, other than blatantly trying to manipulate any sadness or guilt we, as a society, may have. Butler’s direction is heavy handed, his casting more than a little odd in places, and Strong’s screenplay races through history at a lickety speed. There are moments of greatness – such as Rickman’s performance – but these are too few and far between to make the film anything other than a mess.
Review by Brogen Hayes
IN FEAR (UK/16/85mins)
Directed by Jeremy Lovering. Starring Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert, Allen Leech,
THE PLOT: If there’s one thing that’s going to impress the hot young chick that you’ve just convinced to hang out with you, it’s not only driving her to that music festival where your mates are ready and waiting, but it’s also taking care of the little comforts in life. Such as booking a room for both of you in a remote hotel on your route to said festival. What girl wouldn’t be impressed? And stressed? The pressure on Lucy (Englert) increases considerably when Tom (De Caestecker) fails to find the hotel. Or, indeed, any landmark not situated on the road to nowhere. Perhaps Tom has got bigger plans than a simple night of passion? Or is there someone else out there with a grand scheme for both of them…?
THE VERDICT: Taking the Blair Witch approach of not letting the actors what, where or when the next bump in the night might be, Jeremy Lovering’s low-budget horror debuted to an appreciative audience at the London Sundance Film Festival. Lovering took inspiration from In Fear from his own experience (what a night that must have been), and, thankfully, the boy knows that the weird is far more wonderful than a simple psycho-killer-in-the-woods outcome here. Not that the ending will entirely convince everyone here, but it’s refreshing to see a young filmmaker looking for a new way to bring new blood – and fresh meat – to a stale old horror genre.
Review by Paul Byrne
DON JON (USA/18/90mins)
Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore.
THE PLOT: Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems like an average New Jersey guy; dedicated to his family, church, friends, home… and porn. Jon finds his carefully ordered world of one night stands and hanging out with his ‘boys’ thrown into chaos when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). As well as this, Barbara quickly finds, and disapproves of, his addiction to porn.
THE VERDICT: Gordon-Levitt not only writes and directs here, but takes on the lead role and he does a great job. Although his accent is a little jarring, Gordon-Levitt brings brashness to the role, but as soon as his ordered world is disturbed, a more vulnerable side to the character is revealed. Gordon-Levitt allows Jon to wander though his life as though he were playing a game; his weekly confessions are measured by how much penance he has to do, and his relationships with women – fleeting as many of them are – have to fit within the rules he has established, or he is not interested.
Scarlett Johansson is on fantastic form here too. Not only does she nail the New Jersey accent, but she also embodies the character; a woman who uses sex as a weapon. The other side of the coin is Julianne Moore, a woman who has experienced enough of life and tragedy to show people that they can change, rather than insist that they do. Moore is gentle and vulnerable, but also funny and engaging.
Gordon-Levitt’s film focuses on the life that Jon has built for himself, and very quickly establishes the world. Some of the more testosterone-fuelled arguments with his father get irritating after a while, but the rest of the film is clever and surprisingly funny. That said, Gordon-Levitt is not afraid to allow his characters to be ugly, showing rounded people, rather than heroes and villains. That said, however, Jon coasts through most of the film as a repulsive anti-hero – although Barbara does not comes off much better – so at times it is hard to tell why we are rooting for a character who uses his penance as a way of keeping track of his workout at the gym. Gordon-Levitt directs capably, and even though some of the characters stray into caricature from time to time, he shows that he is observant and careful presence behind the camera.
In all, Don Jon is not just a film about porn, but a film about relationships, honesty and vulnerability. There are some fantastic uses of sound and light throughout the film, and Gordon-Levitt’s screenplay is nuanced, emotionally engaging and funny. There are times when the film feels stretched thin to fill the 90 minute running time, but Johansson, Moore and Gordon-Levitt are such joys to watch on screen that this is quickly forgotten.
Review by Brogen Hayes