Men at Work is the definitive film about four middle-aged Iranian dudes trying to push a rock off a cliff. I’ve always felt the whole Guys Pushing Rocks Off Cliffs sub-genre has been under-represented by the Melbourne Film Festival, so the fact that this film was included was a bonus, but it’s actually better than it sounds.
A car-load of mostly bearded geezers are on their way home from a ski trip and notice a ten foot tall stone pillar sticking out of a bend in the road and ready to topple down into the lake below, and here’s where the audience is divided. I did a random sample survey of my male friends after the film, and most agreed that it’s a natural human instinct to give the thing a push. If you’re the sort who’d keep on driving, skip to the next review because there’s not much else in this film for you. For everyone else, though, you’ll be subtly engrossed by the escalating drama of this quartet as their initially whimsical attempts to knock the thing over become a mildly obsessed quest to finish what they’ve begun, as tools are secured, reinforcements called in and relationships are put to the test.
It’s a deliberately underplayed film that is more concerned with character than situation, and as various strangers, partners and work colleagues are drawn into the struggle we gain a pretty compelling portrait of masculinity and its shortcomings. After one of the guys is injured the crew drop the rock-toppling thing and head back to town in the fading sunlight, but one decides to persevere and do whatever it takes to bring the rock down. The film’s ending is a tiny tragedy in its obvious inevitability, but also a quiet triumph in the way it suggests hope despite the ridiculousness of these fellas’ macho aspirations. Highly recommended, though I don’t think it’s screening again.
Bug was based on a play, which usually means it was really, really cheap to make. You’ve got a script right there, and you probably only need to shoot in one or two locations at most. You’ve also likely got a small cast, since professional theatre pays its actors and rarely has much money to flash around on minor parts.
I spent half a decade studying cinema theory and my academically qualified assessment of this flick is that it’s really, really stupid. I’m still a little cautious in advancing such an damning appraisal as I clearly wasn’t any more clever than anyone actually involved in making the damned thing, since I actually sat through the whole film.
Ashley Judd plays the central character in a white-trash triumvirate, a seedy motel-dwelling hick who is being stalked by her ex-con ex-husband and courted by a creepy young guy with bug issues. It all comes to a heated confrontation as ex-husband takes on creepy new dude and is taught a valuable lesson about the perils of stalking your white trash ex-wife, and then a pointless and unjustified final act sees Judd and her new beau descending into a maelstrom of paranoia and bug-fear and aluminium-foil wallpaper that curiously manages to be both puzzling and sleep-inducing.
Judd’s former hubby is played Harry Connick Jr, who here continues a bewildering streak of film roles in which he plays foul-mouthed hillbillies with murder on their mind. I do appreciate how his cinematic career thusly distinguishes him from the Connick Jr of music, since his albums have always been solidly targeted towards middle-aged couples looking to rekindle the romance of their youth and hunting for the perfect soundtrack to accompany a candle-lit roast, some cheek-to-cheek on the back verandah and a quiet thank you to God that the old folks were willing to mind to kids for the weekend. He might not be an artist I have any interest in, but he plays a valuable social role for someone, I guess.
Here, though, he joins his cast in what we call an “actor’s film”. This usually means that he is given free reign to indulge in whatever expressive melodramatics he desires, and he’s surprisingly restrained in comparison to the others. Much of this flick is someone or other screaming, crying, eye-rolling, yelling, punching walls, scratching furiously, projecting delusions or otherwise boring their audience in some way or another. An actor’s film, unfortunately, is rarely an audience’s film.
There’s no real point to Children, either, but it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable. It’s an Icelandic character piece that is well-cast and well-acted and well-good. An ensemble number, it shifts between the fortunes of a diverse group of loosely connected folk – a young mother of four living in a council flat, her rebellious teenage son, his violent and thuggish father, estranged until now, and the schizophrenic man who is the poor kid’s only friend. It’s shot in black and white but doesn’t have any of the trappings of self-absorbed arthouse fare, instead creating a psychological realism that is heightened by the fascinating characters on offer.
If Ken Loach took a quick (if expensive) Iceland Express flight north and slapped together a film on a weekend off, you might end up with something like this. It's a deliberately paced work that superbly balances social realism with narrative intent, convincing characters dragging you into their conflicting worlds. As the harrowed young mother Karitas, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir is unforgettable, and worth looking out for in the future. I'm not a huge fan of films like this, and it's surely not the Iceland I like to see on screen, but I thoroughly enjoyed Children from its violent, Trainspotting-like beginning to its subtly transcendent, though equally bloody end.
THE BET COLLECTOR
Manila has long overshadowed its sister-cities of Spiral Bound and Lever Arch as the Folder Capital of the World, but this long-overdue doco-drama makes an earnest and non-document-organiser-related plea, a message in a bottle that to me reads: HELP NEEDED. SEND TRIPODS. An hour and a half into the thing, my humanitarian compassion towards the plight of its central character was matched only by my hypnagogic head-nodding induced by the epileptic camera work.
The Bet Collector centres on a middle-aged woman who walks the streets of a Manila slum daily, gathering bets for the regular local games of jeuteng. Jeuteng is a kind of lottery run by various syndicates, and is as popular as it is illegal - as the film's intro states, jeuteng-related corruption is rife in the police force, the government and even the church. The last two leaders of the Phillipines have either been deposed through links to jeuteng-related activities or are under investigation.
Luckily, the film is about as familiar with judgemental attitudes as it is with proper steadicam technique, so what we end up with is an amazing portrait of ghetto life that doesn't try to pin suffering and poverty on any one target. Most of the film consists of long shots of our heroine as she wanders around the corrugated labyrinth she inhabits, touching down on dozens of locals engaged in business, funerals, arrests, prayer, escape or self-improvement before soon moving on to the next bettor. Despite the horrific circumstances the film's subjects seem to live in, they aren't treated as objects of pity, but as fierce survivors. This is a film that doesn't revel in despair, though there's a coldness to its characters' existence born purely of the pragmatic need to eat tomorrow.
Shot entirely on handheld video, it's not the easiest thing on the eyes, though. If it helps, at least I felt guilty as I was nodding off around the 60 minute mark. If this baby appears on SBS or something, though, give it a shot. Ten minutes after I was feeling drowsy, the film dragged me back into edge-of-the-seat consciousness with a riveting and perfectly staged finale.