VIDEO: This week’s new films reviewed

Bachelor Joseph Gordon-Levitt agrees to give up bad habits in order to woo his perfect woman in the romantic comedy Don Jon.

DON JON (18)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon

Award-winning actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first foray as feature writer-director is an assured comedy of modern mores that is by turns hilarious, smart and touching.

He is aided and abetted by a talented ensemble cast, who relish the script’s bounty of razor-sharp dialogue and colourful characters.

Don Jon has faint echoes of Saturday Night Fever, albeit without that film’s darker undertones, with its swaggering, bed-hopping hero and attractive New York locales.

Only here, the central figure doesn’t get his kicks by thrusting his hips to the Bee Gees, but from spending unhealthy amounts of time watching X-rated films on his laptop.

Real sex is good “but it’s not as good as porn”, asserts New Jersey ladies’ man Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose unrealistic attitude to sex – fuelled by the fantasy scenarios in his favourite films – makes it impossible for him to forge lasting relationships.

That changes when he encounters gum-chewing sex bomb Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson).

Romance blossoms and Barbara encourages Jon to better himself by taking night classes.

She also charms Jon’s parents, Jon Sr (Tony Danza) and Angela (Glenne Headly), but fractures appear in the fledgling relationship when Barbara catches Jon at his laptop.

“I’m not a junkie, it’s not heroin!” he protests, promising to give up his adult films and devote himself to Barbara.

However, old habits are hard to break and Jon turns to Esther (Julianne Moore), a mature student in his night class, for advice.

Don Jon spreads the wealth between the cast.

Gordon-Levitt is a charismatic hero heading for a fall while Johansson is a hoot with a pitch perfect ‘Noo Joizey’ accent and Moore injects heart-tugging emotion when she finally reveals the heartbreak of her character’s past.

Some of the quieter, seemingly throwaway moments deliver the biggest laughs, like Jon taking umbrage with his local priest (Paul Ben-Victor) over the unjustness of one confessional penance, or the moment Jon’s sister (Brie Larson), who has been mute for more than an hour, finally breaks her silence.

Strong language and occasional glimpses of pornography account for the 18 certificate but for the most part, Don Jon shies away from explicit, lurid and gratuitous detail.

Less is definitely more.

RATING: 7.5/10

THE COUNSELLOR (18)

Audiences may require counselling sessions after two hours of twisted desire and treachery in the company of Ridley Scott’s erotically charged thriller.

In the film’s most memorable scene – not necessarily for the right reasons – Cameron Diaz’s tattooed vixen removes her underwear, mounts the bonnet of her boyfriend’s convertible and energetically performs a gymnastic feat across the windscreen that would surely be better served by a sponge or chamois leather.

“You see a thing like that, it changes you,” whimpers the boyfriend.

We wholeheartedly agree – we will never see Diaz the same way again.

Her all-guns-blazing portrayal is accompanied by terrific performances from Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz.

All three are badly let down though by Cormac McCarthy’s overly complicated and wordy script, which isn’t remotely interested in the protagonists’ emotional turmoil, just their suffering.

It’s a far cry from the nuances of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, which elegantly offset his penchant for graphic violence with macabre humour and rich characterisation.

Fassbender plays a nameless Counsellor, whose girlfriend Laura (Cruz) tearfully accepts his marriage proposal.

“I intend to love you until I die,” he gushes.

That may be sooner than Laura thinks because the Counsellor has invested his fortune in a drug trafficking operation across the Texas-Mexico border.

Inevitably, the deal goes bad and the Counsellor is marked for death along with two associates from the criminal underworld: floral-shirted playboy Reiner (Javier Bardem) and swaggering cowboy Westray (Brad Pitt).

“It’s not that you’re going down, Counsellor... it’s what you’re taking down with you,” Westray remarks sagely, before he boards a plane bound for London.

Meanwhile, Reiner is distracted by his gold-toothed girlfriend Malkina (Diaz), who owns two pet cheetahs.

“When the axe comes through the door, I’ll already be gone,” she purrs.

The Counsellor looks glorious courtesy of Scott’s impeccable visuals, but all of that style means nothing when we can’t forge an emotional bond to the characters as they wallow through the mire.

Fassbender wrings himself dry of tears as he realises Westray’s words are right: “If your definition of a friend is someone who would die for you then you don’t have any.”

Cruz is luminous, providing sweetness and light to counterbalance Diaz’s slinky predator.

But dialogue is sodden with dense philosophical musings on the fragility of life that don’t sound like anything normal people would say to one another.

And when one doomed player takes an inordinate amount of time explaining the intricacies of a motorised device that tightens around the neck of a victim, we know it’s only a matter of time before Scott realises this grisly vision in blood-drenched close-up.

He doesn’t disappoint – but his film certainly does.

RATING: 5/10

THE BUTLER (12A)

When Barack Obama became the first black President of the United States in 2008, a story was published in The Washington Post.

It detailed the life of Eugene Allen, who had been butler to eight White House presidents over 34 years during the civil rights movement.

Five years later, we are served this film, directed by Lee Daniels of Precious fame, very loosely based on Allen’s life.

At the start, we meet Cecil Gaines (aka Eugene Allen) working on the cotton fields with his mother and father as a young boy.

When he is old enough, he leaves in search of a better life and after a chance encounter starts working as a waiter.

Now portrayed by Forest Whitaker, Cecil progresses through the ranks of various establishments until he achieves the position of butler in the White House.

So far, so simple, but Gaines’ home life is troubled.

The butler, pleased to have a good job, remains politically neutral.

As a result he clashes with his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who is strongly involved in the fight for civil rights.

His wife (Oprah Winfrey) is falling apart, struggling with her husband’s devotion to work and resulting absence from the home, as well as Louis’ stints in and out of prison.

It transpires that Louis is a Freedom Rider, and later a Black Panther, who becomes embroiled in many of the landmark civil rights events.

That is the first downfall of Daniels’s film – it tries to cram too much in.

There’s the life story of Gaines, the civil rights movement and the administrations of eight presidents.

On top of that, the cast is jam-packed with big names.

Robin Williams is Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber is Johnson, John Cusack is Nixon, Alan Rickman is Reagan, Jane Fonda is his wife Nancy, Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr are fellow butlers.

Even Gaines’ mother, who appears for mere minutes, is played by Mariah Carey.

It is little surprise that the stars wanted to be involved in a film covering such a significant topic, and as a director it must have been hard for Daniels to say no.

Of course, there are some great performances – Whitaker and Winfrey in particular.

But this naturally fascinating story does not need the starry faces to make it interesting, and what’s worse, the stellar cast ends up actually detracting attention from the very important tale at hand.

RATING: 6/10