The Counselor and Don Jon: Bad sex and good porn

Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" is the first film written by Cormac McCarthy, a mismatch which may remain the industry standard for years to come. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut "Don Jon", looks subtle by comparison.

The Counselor (18); Don Jon (18)
dir: Ridley Scott; dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

A debut need not be the product of a newcomer, as demonstrated by two films in which veterans of one discipline try their luck in another. The novelist Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been short of attention from cinema: John Hillcoat made a fine, harrowing film of The Road and there were middling versions of No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses. But The Counselor marks the first time that McCarthy’s name has appeared in the opening credits under “Written by”, rather than “Adapted from”. The spare, singed stoicism and bitter poison one might expect from his pen risks being detoxified by the “Directed by Ridley Scott” that follows. This may stand as cinema’s foremost mismatch until the day that Lars von Trier adapts Jilly Cooper.

The Counselor has the studied cynicism of a Bond novel and the high gloss of a Bond movie. It even features a pantomime villain with a predilection for exotic pets – Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whose hobbies include keeping cheetahs, being some kind of unspecified drugs overlord, intimidating her boyfriend (Javier Bardem in a Green Day fright-wig) and cleaning car windscreens in a novel way. How shall I put this? She’ll take her vulva to your Volvo. All things considered, it’s unlikely to catch on at the local Shell.

There is no cinematic equivalent to the literary Bad Sex in Fiction Award but perhaps The Counselor could be the catalyst for one. It’s regrettable enough that the film opens with coy pillow talk (“Where do you want me to touch you?” “Down there”) between the main protagonist (a corrupt, nameless lawyer played by Michael Fassbender) and his lover (Penélope Cruz). Even worse is the realisation that this scene is intended as an appetite whetting pre-credits sequence, complete with dramatic score. In The Spy Who Loved Me, it was a ski stunt that turned into a parachute jump. In The Counselor, it’s cunnilingus.

“You are the world you have created,” the lawyer is told when he starts bleating about his awful fate. The world of the film is one in which sex, drugs and money have filled the vacuum occupied normally by morality and compassion. Yet the ugliness of the environment doesn’t stink as much as Scott’s fawning camera, which seems to celebrate the opulence and narcissism decried by the screenplay. Not that the script is perfect. Characters speak in cryptic crossword clues. Buying a diamond ring involves a philosophy lecture: “Adornment is about enhancing the frailty of the beloved,” says the jeweller. You don’t hear that at Ernest Jones.

When someone does speak plainly (a gangster tells our hero, “There is no choosing; there is only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago”), the words are a relief. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, not without its healthy parts (Brad Pitt is witty as a self-satisfied crook in a milk-white suit) but prey to a creeping artistic gangrene.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt may be shorter in the tooth (he’s 32 years old to McCarthy’s 80) but this former child star has also taken a notable new career path. As an actor, he is unusual in moving between material of jaunty lightness – (500) Days of Summer and the batty sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun – and masochistic intensity: his strongest work was as a janitor exploited by criminals in The Lookout and as an abused hustler in Mysterious Skin. He also earned his blockbuster spurs in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, which must be how Warner Bros came to back Don Jon, his first film as a writer and director. It’s difficult to believe a major studio would have stumped up for what is, in effect, an overextended short had it been made by anyone else.

Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a libidinous Italian- American unable to reconcile the shortfall between real sex and the online pornography to which he is addicted. A brassy new girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) reads him the riot act, while an unpredictable older woman (Julianne Moore) provides unsolicited tutelage.

The film’s powerful points about the commodification of desire are made in the opening minutes. After that, Don Jon has nothing to offer but learning curves. Still, Brie Larson is a model of understatement in a near-wordless performance as Jon’s sister, her bored eyes clamped to her smartphone. And next to The Counselor, with its wipe-clean, laminated images, it’s refreshing to see a movie so visually undemonstrative. A lot of care went into making this film look as undernourished as its hero’s emotional life. At least, I hope it did.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in "Don Jon". Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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