Film reviews: Joe | Earth to Echo

Nicolas Cage in Joe. Picture: Contributed

Nicolas Cage in Joe. Picture: Contributed

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BY NOW, there’s a whole series of bad Nicolas Cage performances – bad action flicks, awful graphic novel adventures, unspeakable undead biker movies – so it’s something of a pleasant jolt to find Cage deliberately muting his usual eccentricities and committing himself to underplaying a character.

Joe (15)

Director: David Gordon Green

Running time: 117 minutes

* * *

Adapted from Mississippi author Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, Joe stars Cage as the titular ex-con Joe Ransom, who keeps the scars of his brutal past under wraps while living a semi-detached, bourbon-medicated life in a bucolic but economically depressed backwater. Joe’s constant struggle is to keep himself in check, even calling the cops on himself during a bar fight. But his ex-girlfriends regard him a decent man, and he is scrupulously fair to his crew of labourers, paid to hack into trees and apply poison to the gashes, so that the trees die off and make way for strong, young replacements.

In a film that deploys allegory with all the subtlety of a buzzsaw, a message about toxic environments is hard to miss. But just in case you did, there are other omens, such as a brothel suffused with red light, and a bulldog with a gory mouth, telegraphing that there is bloodletting to come. Put it another way: this is the sort of film where you learn how to disembowel a deer.

Joe is a movie oddity, constantly teetering on the brink of gothic melodrama, and yet reined in by its fine and believable actors. Cage is very good here – Leaving Las Vegas or Raising Arizona good – abandoning his usual tics, such as speaking softly then ending with a bellow, or making films where everything gets set on fire. Admittedly there’s a startling moment near the start of the film where Joe grabs a deadly cottonmouth snake by the scruff of the neck – and once again the venom analogy rears its head – but the best scenes are quieter, especially one that establishes a gradual paternal bond between Joe and a new teenage employee, Gary (Mud’s Tye Sheridan).

Gary is from the kind of bleak family background that could keep Jeremy Kyle in material for weeks. His sister is mute and damaged, his mother is battered and distracted. Worst of all, there is his vicious drunk dad. Wade (Gary Poulter) is as rotten as his teeth, beating up his son and later committing far worse acts. Poulter is remarkable as the alcohol-damaged father, and it’s tempting to suggest that this was because he knew the territory too well. David Gordon Green uses a lot of non-professional actors in Joe, and homeless drifter Poulter is one of them. Two months after filming he died in three feet of water following a drinking binge.

I’m not entirely at ease with filmmakers putting non-actors into their movies to imbue them with authenticity, but Joe is at its best when allowing its low-key performers to exchange naturalistic, off-topic vignettes, or lingering while Joe advises Gary on how to impress women (although, do you know any woman who melts at the sound of a Zippo lighter?). Moody, melancholy and well-intentioned, Joe works better as a character study than the melodramatic parable that it eventually embraces.

Earth To Echo (PG)

* * *

IT’S tempting to relabel Earth To Echo, ET: iPhone Home, because there’s a lot in Dave Green’s children’s film that feels familiar. A bunch of kids (including Teo Halm, right) in the suburbs saddle up and BMX bike off on a quest, they discover a timid alien, and then parents and authorities provide all sorts of obstacles when all the ET wants to do is go home. However, there are some tweaks to keep the film of the moment: chiefly a heavy reliance on smart phones, so that the pre-teens can text, use social media, navigate their bikes through 20 miles of California desert, Google how to drive a car for the first time, and video absolutely everything.

If there’s one thing that extra-terrestrials must puzzle over, when our transmissions bounce off the other end of the galaxy, it’s our filmmakers’ obsession with shoogly camerawork and “found footage”. But Earth To Echo could not exist otherwise, since it’s supposed to be shot and pulled together by the kids, although I’m puzzled how they got hold of footage filmed by Echo the alien, let alone used it. Maybe it’s the same technology that allowed Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith to share a virus with aliens apparently foolish enough to sign up with the same Microsoft platform in Independence Day.

Echo is pretty cute – it looks like a robo-owl and sounds like a Furby – but his film still feels like an echo of classic Steven Spielberg material, done cheaper, not better.

General release from Friday

Who Is Dayani Cristal? (12A)

* * *

Gael Garcia Bernal narrates and retraces the arduous journey of an illegal immigrant found dead in the Arizona desert. Part detective story, part earnest inquiry into a human rights crisis, Marc Silver’s documentary is correctly outraged, if sometimes lacking focus.

Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday until 29 July

Northwest (15)

* * * *

Crime drama set in a Copenhagen housing estate about teenage brothers drawn into organised crime. The spiral into violence is not unexpected, but the details are so confidently handled that it’s still a gripping watch.

Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday until 31 Jul

Under The Rainbow (15)

* * *

French writer-director-actress Agnes Jaoui returns with a multi-generational cast who contemplate the chance of fairytale romances in Paris. It has droll moments – and some cruelty at the expense of a matron who has spent too much time and money at the plastic surgeon.

Edinburgh Filmhouse, Friday until 29 July; Aberdeen Belmont, Friday until 31 July

The House Of Magic (3D) (U)

* * *

An abandoned cat is given a home by an eccentric magician. This simple, old-fashioned animated storytelling is quaint, but also sweet and rather restful for accompanying adults.

On general release from Friday

Believe (PG)

* *

A talented child footballer catches the eye of a retired Bill Shankly (Brian Cox) in a simple-minded family drama that makes you long for the relative grit of the Children’s Film Foundation.

On general release from Friday

Pudsey The Movie (U)

*

If you were captivated by Pudsey the performing dog on Britain’s Got Talent, you may be curious about this clunky cash-in family comedy, but alas, although Pudsey talks (courtesy of David Walliams), he’s got nothing funny to say. It’s all over and done with after 90 minutes, but unless you relish slapdash special effects and crummy jokes about incontinent pigs, this feels a lot longer in dog years.

On general release from Friday

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