Movie Reviews
3:30 pm
Fri April 11, 2014

Big Names, High Production Values ... And These Are Indie Flicks?

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 7:13 pm

A small budget doesn't mean a film can't have big-name stars or high production values. Witness the rural Southern drama Joe, which brings Nicolas Cage back to indie films, and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, which turns the city of Detroit into an otherworldly landscape. Their low-budget aesthetic also allows these films to turn Hollywood conventions inside out.

The title character in Joe poisons trees for a living. It's a lumber company scam: They're allowed to cut down dying trees but not thriving ones, so Joe and his crew wield axes fitted with nozzles that turn living forests into dead zones.

This would, in most movies, make Joe a bad guy. But while he's played by Nicolas Cage as a hard-drinking ex-con with a short fuse, in his aggression-plagued stretch of rural Texas, he counts as a model citizen: good to local hookers, to his attack dog, to his workers and to a new kid in town, Gary.

Gary (a terrific Tye Sheridan) comes to Joe asking for work for him and his dad. Joe's persuaded, and the kid turns out to be as hard a worker as he claims. His dad, though, is a drunk who beats his son and steals from him, and has all the moral compass of a copperhead. Joe, who's only managed to stay out of prison by tamping down his anger, starts to care what happens to the boy, and a grim, Southern Gothic fatalism takes over.

Director David Gordon Green, whose stoner-comedy Pineapple Express clicked in a big way with mainstream audiences, has made Joe in a manner calculated to re-establish his indie cred. He even recruited a homeless guy he found in a bus station, Gary Poulter, to play the abusive dad. Shortly after filming wrapped up, Poulter died during a night of heavy drinking, never knowing his scenes with Cage and Sheridan would become the beating heart of a film about a rescue. For Nicolas Cage, whose dumb, rant-for-hire projects have lately been making audiences forget how good he can be, Joe is more than a rescue — it's a rebirth.

By comparison, I suppose Only Lovers Left Alive qualifies as an undeath — a vampire flick as only Jim Jarmusch would ever conceive it, languidly poetic, world-weary and crammed with hipster in-jokes.

It centers on Adam, a young-looking but ancient musician who lives in a crumbling Detroit mansion. He's surrounded by stacks of 45s and vintage guitars brought to him by fanboy Anton Yelchin, his only regular visitor, who wonders why Adam doesn't crave attention.

Played by Tom Hiddleston (whom fans of The Avengers know as Loki), Adam yearns for his Eve, who lives halfway around the globe in Tangier and is played by a delicate, downright translucent Tilda Swinton. Eve, sensing that her hubby is sulking more than usual, plans a visit (night flights only). And in a room lined with portraits of long-gone buddies — from Buster Keaton to Lord Byron — they lament the mess we humans have increasingly been making of the world: contaminated blood, contaminated water ...

What's really on their mind, and pretty clearly on Jarmusch's in this gorgeously shot mood piece of a movie, is the way recent generations have contaminated art and literature, music and philosophy. Why so down on the "now"? Well, picture a boomer trying to explain The Beatles to a millennial, then imagine that the gulf between them isn't decades, but centuries. How could Jarmusch's Adam and Eve not be swooningly, rapturously in love? They're the only ones who get each other's references anymore — the Only Lovers Left Alive.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Nicolas Cage earning praise from critics? A laid-back hipster making a vampire movie. Our reviewer Bob Mondello looks at two films this week that seem intent on turning Hollywood conventions inside out. The movies are "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "Joe."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The title character in "Joe" poisons trees for a living. It's a lumber company scam: They're allowed to cut down dying trees, not thriving ones, so Joe and his crew wield axes fitted with nozzles that turn living forests into dead zones.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "JOE")

NICOLAS CAGE: (As Joe) Used hatchets are in the back. Get yourself one, fill it up with poison, come on back...

MONDELLO: This would, in most movies, make Joe a bad guy. But while he's played by Nicolas Cage as a hard-drinking ex-con with a short fuse, in his aggression-plagued stretch of rural Texas, he counts as a model citizen: good to local hookers, to his attack dog, to his workers and to a new kid in town.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "JOE")

TYE SHERIDAN: (As Gary) Hey, mister.

CAGE: (As Joe) Yeah.

SHERIDAN: (As Gary) I got question for you. You see me and my daddy just got into town. I was wondering if you'd give us a job. We're looking for work.

CAGE: (As Joe) How old are you?

SHERIDAN: (As Gary) 15.

CAGE: (As Joe) Well, you got 45 seconds to tell me why I should hire you.

SHERIDAN: (As Gary) I bailed hay before. I worked on a truck. I picked tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers...

MONDELLO: Long before 45 seconds Joe is convinced and the kid, played by a terrific Tye Sheridan, turns out to be as hard a worker as he claims. His dad, though...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "JOE")

GARY POULTER: Person just don't know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.

MONDELLO: ...is a drunk who beats his son and steals from him. Joe, who's only managed to stay out of prison by tamping down his anger, starts to care what happens to the boy, and a grim, Southern Gothic fatalism takes over. Director David Gordon Green made a detour into commercial comedies with "Pineapple Express" a couple of years ago, but he's made "Joe" in a way calculated to re-establish his indie cred, even recruiting a homeless guy he found in a bus station, Gary Poulter, to play the abusive dad.

Poulter died a few weeks after filming finished, not knowing his scenes with Cage and Sheridan had become the beating heart of a film about a rescue. For Nicolas Cage, whose dumb, rant-for-hire projects have lately obscured how good he can be, "Joe" is more than a rescue. It's a rebirth.

By comparison, I suppose "Only Lovers Left Alive" qualifies as an undeath, a vampire flick as only Jim Jarmusch would ever conceive it, languidly poetic, world-weary and crammed with hipster in-jokes.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE")

TOM HIDDLESTON: (As Adam) You're looking very pale there, Dr. Watson.

MONDELLO: "Only Lovers Left Alive" centers on Adam, a young-appearing but ancient musician who lives in a crumbling Detroit mansion surrounded by stacks of 45s and vintage guitars brought to him by fanboy Anton Yelchin, his only regular visitor.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE")

ANTON YELCHIN: (As Ian) You being so reclusive and everything is probably only going to make people more interested in your music.

HIDDLESTON: (As Adam) Yeah, what a drag.

MONDELLO: Played by Tom Hiddleston, whom fans of "The Avengers" know as Loki, Adam yearns for his Eve, who lives halfway around the world in Tangier and is played by a delicately translucent Tilda Swinton.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE")

TILDA SWINTON: (As Eve) Remember when you gave that string quartet to Schubert?

HIDDLESTON: (As Adam) I only gave him the (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: Eve, sensing that her hubby is sulking more than usual so she plans a visit...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE")

SWINTON: (As Eve) Is there a possibility of a night flight from Tangier to Detroit?

MONDELLO: And in a room lined with portraits of long-gone buddies, from Buster Keaton to Lord Byron, they lament the mess we humans have increasingly been making of the world.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE")

HIDDLESTON: (As Adam) Oh, they've succeeded in contaminating their own blood, never mind their water.

MONDELLO: What's really on their minds, and pretty clearly on Jarmusch's, is the notion that recent generations have contaminated art and literature, music and philosophy. Why they're so down on the "now"? Well, picture a boomer trying to explain The Beatles to a millennial, then imagine that the gulf between them isn't decades, but centuries.

How could Jarmusch's Adam and Eve not be swooningly, rapturously in love? They're the only ones who get each other's references anymore, the "Only Lovers Left Alive." I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.