Local cinemas this week

Movie of the week: Leave No Trace

Maybe it’s an indictment on the state of art-house programming – or something else (have you noticed how they’ve been all desperately discounting?) but this week’s only high-quality release is getting just a single screen, where it’s tagged with that ominous warning, “limited sessions”. A 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes with 169 reviews, in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival, with a major distributor (Sony) backing it – and yet it’s hard to find? How is that possible? Well, I dunno, just hurry then, for Debra Granik’s follow-up to her thrilling Winter’s Bone is that rarest of cinematic achievement  – a deeply moving, completely original story that achieves its heartbreaking power without a trace of manipulation. It’s just a magnificent film.

Like Winter’s Bone (which shot Jennifer Lawrence to fame) it’s set in off-the-grid, alternative communities and focuses on a problematic father-daughter relationship. Will (Ben Foster) and 13 year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living in a national park on the outskirts of Portland when we first meet them. “Happy campers” it seems, in fact their environment and lifestyle looks quite idyllic – if a little wet (it does rain a lot in the Pacific NW). But while “its not a crime to be homeless” as we’re told by a social worker later, it is illegal to live in a park. After Tom makes a “leave no trace” mistake and their presence is detected, they’re arrested by heavy-handed police. “We have to work out what’s going on here,” says one, looking suspiciously at the teenage Tom…

Well, that’s complicated. Will it turns out is a badly traumatised combat vet who deeply cares for and loves his daughter, an affection which is shared. He’s done a fantastic job as a dad, but just can’t live in the real world. Clearly, their situation and co-dependency can’t last. Oregon authorities treat them well, Portland is a famously liberal city (not a coincidence – it has a large homeless problem) and they’re re-housed in a modest but charming home in the countryside with the assistance of a local farmer. There Tom tentatively opens up to others, including a boy (no, it’s not that sort of movie!) and his rabbit. That’s such a tender, beautiful scene, and a sign of the tears to come. The young New Zealander Ms McKenzie may not be the next J-Law but she is just sensational here, and in her remaining adventures as she starts to negotiate her own way in the world. The ending may seem pre-ordained, yet it still surprised me with its empathy, sensitivity and compassion. Bring tissues – by the time the credits roll they’ll be as damp as that Oregon forest. G from Aug 23 at Dendy Newtown only. ★★★★★

Book Club

There should be a rule that reviewers don’t get sent along to films specifically not targeted for their generation, sex or class, but sadly that’s not the way the media works… For indeed, there is a very lucrative movie market – particularly in its art-house segment, for products to accompany big slices of black-forest cake, generous glasses of Pinot Gris and social get-togethers. Those movies are aimed at people with lots of time on their hands during the day, and probably aged around the medium age of the four leads of Book Club. That’s Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda  whose average number of years on this planet is 72. That stat is pushed upward by Ms Fonda, though judging by her physical appearance here, exactly what planet she’s been living on for her 80 years is a mystery.

These four are old friends – all intelligent, prosperous, white, up-market professionals, who get together regularly to discuss books. For some reason they choose the infamously tacky and down-market Fifty Shades of Grey series, a choice that would make sense only to a hot and bothered writer-director (Bill Holderman) in desperate search of a plot. Naturally all four then get hot and bothered and spend much of the film’s run-time trying to find a mate and get them into the cot. That involves dodgy hook-ups, disapproving adult children, ageist jokes about having to be taught about that new-fangled thingy called “online dating”, and (oh, save us…) a Viagra joke. Of course there is a Viagra joke, an extended one – but whether or not you find it funny may depend on more than just demographics. It involves a woman secretly spiking the drink of her male companion in a bar for the specific purpose of having sex. Switch the genders around and drop the ages a bit, go on… Still laughing?

Plenty of people will be. Tickets for Book Club were one of the most popular competitions Ciao has run recently, and the film is currently rating 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. A figure which may accurately match the male/female ratio of reviewers… M from Aug 23. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Broadway, Burwood and Dendy Newtown. ★★ 1/2

West of Sunshine

Jim (Damien Hill) is a knock-about working class dad living on the fringes of crime, the sort of Aussie bloke who would have once been played by Ben Mendlesohn before he started being cast as British monarchs. He’s got that same dishevelled, floppy-haired, sad-sack appeal, and his problem here is a serious gambling addiction. In deep shit with a heavy Melbourne thug (Tony Nikolakopoulos), Jim works precariously as a courier, but on the fateful day when he has to pay up or suffer serious facial damage, he also has his young son Alex (Ty Perham) from a wrecked marriage in tow. A sorry scenario for sure, but of course he has a plan: Race 2 at Ballarat.

The trouble with stories about out-of-control addicts is that there is really is only one story. And writer/director Jason Raftopoulos’ debut feature, which is expanded from his earlier short Father’s Day, follows some well worn-genre tropes. On the positive side it does do a great job of showing us a gritty slice of hardscrabble working class Melbourne life (this is no Sunday-night-on-the-ABC Jack Irish fantasy), and the not-always-so-easy chemistry between father and son feels refreshingly natural. The film is at its best in those scenes, and it certainly has its heart in the right place, though for something tagged as “social realism”, its plot serves up some major challenges. It seems to have a particularly shaky idea of what the working day of busy city couriers actually involves, and no, that’s not late starts, leisurely jaunts in a muscle car with a couple of parcels in the boot, two-hour pub lunches, visits to the TAB and ex-girlfriends, or an entire afternoon off freelancing for a drug dealer (Underbelly’s Kat Stewart). And then, not delivering your normal run-of-the-mill dope pusher’s expected return  usually produces repercussions a little more severe than just a disappointed frown! West of Sunshine debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and also had recent runs at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals. Chances are those audiences don’t know how couriers (or drug dealers) spend their days either. M from Aug 23. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown.  ★★★

The Happytime Murders

Even the night before its release, reviewers had to sign a strict embargo on posting online reactions to this atrocity. I’m going to pretend it’s still in place, and say as little as possible about Bryan Henson’s (son of Jim) trashing of his father’s legacy with a misbegotten tale of potty-mouthed muppets with a taste for kinky sex and illicit drugs. Apparently this project has been around for a decade, and has been mired in controversy and blocking litigation – presumably by sensible members of the Henson estate. But sadly, it’s now (briefly we hope) on wide release, including (and this is very odd indeed) at Dendy Newtown. Other inner west cinemas include Broadway and Burwood. MA15+ from Aug 23. ★

Also opening this week

Slender Man and (this weekend only) Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy – both unpreviewed

Reviews – Russell Edwards