Past, Present and Future. Movies reviewed: Muscle Shoals, The Dirties, Gravity
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Toronto is a city overflowing with film festivals, and fall high-season is upon us. Coming soon are the BRAFFTV Brazilian film fest, Toronto After Dark (for horror, science fiction and cult), ImagineNative for aboriginal film and art, Planet in Focus for environmental documentaries, Realasian – films from Asia and the Asian diaspora, and Rendezvous with Madness about addiction and mental health… to name just a few.
So this week I’m looking at three movies (opening today) that originally played at Toronto festivals: Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark and TIFF. These movies are set in the past, the present and the future.
Dir: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Alabama. In the 1960s, it was still the land of cotton, and old times there were not forgotten. Die-hard Segregationist George Wallace was Governor, and Alabama had also been the sites of sit-ins, boycotts and protests — a centre of the civil rights movement. So Alabama was very much in people’s minds in the 1960s. But there’s also a small town in northern Alabama, population 12,000, called Muscle Shoals. Ever heard of it? Me neither.
Mick Jagger knew it. And Bob Dylan. And Jimmy Cliff. The Stones’ Brown Sugar was recorded there. Later, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers. Most important, powerful music producer Jerry Wexler – the man from Atlantic records who coined the term R&B – knew about it in the 1960s and started bringing his singers down south to record there. Soon Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Picket and countless others were heading down to get a slice of that Muscle Shoals Sound.
The heavy, powerful Muscle Shoals sound — described as a punch in the gut that sends shivers down your spine — was made by the Swampers, a team of (mainly white) back-up musicians at studios like Fame and Muscle Shoals. They jammed away on their electric organ, drum, bass and guitar sweetened with background horns. These free sessions, just some music and words, gave them a looseness, a funkyness, a dirty sound so different from the highly-produced, precisely composed pop songs coming out up north.
At their peak in the 1970s, they were cutting 50 albums a year, shifting from R&B to that country-influenced rock, reggae and pop. This film looks at all the musicians, the singers and the local producers who used or were influenced by Muscle Shoals. They have amazing footage from the recording sessions with new interviews with the big names (Bono, Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards). Very informative documentary – beautifully shot — that told me everything about where this music comes from. I’m not enough of a “history of rock” devotee that I care about all the infighting and production rivalry. But it’s the music – even those overplayed staples like Brown Sugar and Mustang Sally – that makes it so good.
Dir: Matthew Johnson
Matthew Johnson and Owen Williams (played by Matthew Johnson, Owen Williams) are movie geeks at a Toronto high school. Matt is pudgy and flamboyant while Owen is shy and introverted. They’re best friends, almost by default, since they are two of the school’s most-picked-on kids. Not a day passes without a confrontation in the halls, a punch, or a rock in the head. They hear that perennial bully F-word more than their own real names.
They’re taking a movie-making course, and Matt is totally into it. He plunders old movies for lines, scenes and costumes to make them their own. They film it on school property. But while directors like Tarantino rely on old B-movies, Matt and Owen take it one step further, plundering equally from revenge pics and news accounts of real-life crimes.
The movie they’re making is about two tough guys (played by them) who get back at the bullies who persecute them – the guys they call the Dirties – in a great, long gun shoot-down. Their “making-of” is documented by unseen cameramen – that’s the film we’re watching.
The teacher doesn’t approve of the director’s cut, so the class just sees an embarrassing mess
So Matt has taken to carrying around copies of Catcher in the Rye (like Mark David Chapman) and is brushing up on details from books about the Columbine shootings. He wants to get the character (of insane high school spree shooter) just right. Owen is more interested in pursuing Chrissy (Krista Madison) a girl he’s crushing on heavily. Matt seems to be blurring things between the film they’re making and real life. Is Matt a psychopath? and is he just a movie copycat… or a copy-cat killer?
The Dirties is so meta it’s astounding. The conversations and incidents in The Dirties we’re watching, are edited, over the course iof the movie, into The Dirties that he’s making. The viewer never knows for sure whether it’s a comedy/drama, a documentary, or just found footage of a horror movie. This film is unclassifiable and uncategorizable.
The Dirties is excellent, low budget and local, a movie that can shift from hilarious to quite disturbing in a flash. It’s easier to watch than it is to describe… so watch it!
Dir: Alfonso Cuaron
Three astronauts are floating around admiring the beauty of outer space. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission, so she’s very meticulous about fixing some machinery. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a veteran space guy, a regular Buzz Lightyear. He’s using his jet pack to fly in circles around their space station. Wheee!Look at me – I’m an astronaut… wheeee! A warning comes from Houston: there’s been trouble with a Russian satellite, and its debris is heading their way. Nothing dangerous, they say.
And then it hits! They’re cut off from Houston and their lives are in danger. Dr Stone starts to panic – oh no… what can she do? It seems like yesterday she was in her safe, suburban home worrying about PTA meetings. She’s just a soccer mom – not an astronaut-man. Unless Kowalski can calm her down, she’s going to use up all her oxygen.
The two of them must get to a safe space ship, somewhere with oxygen and protection from the elements. Hopefully she can learn to drive one of these crazy foreign spaceships with all their gibberish controls! Maybe if she pushes buttons at random she’ll be fine. Oh, I’m such a klutz! Will Sandra Bullock and George Clooney – oops, I mean their characters – ever make it back to earth?
Gravity lets you experience what it’s like to be an astronaut, and it is quite an experience. The special effects are flawless. But, I suppose because it needs someone we can identify with, it gives us Dr Stone as a bumbling everywoman who has to overcome her fears. I get it. But it made her the antithesis of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. This makes women look helpless without a man there to save them.
Gravity isn’t a movie, it’s a ride. I saw it in 3-D and UIltra AVX. There’s a 20-minute-long scene where you’re spinning and spinning and spinning around in 3-D space. It made me physically ill. I didn’t actually throw up, but it was horrible, like when too many tequila shots kick in all at once. If you like experiencing the spins, or want to go on a midway ride for half an hour, then this is the movie for you. Otherwise, I can’t think of why you’d want to watch this simplistic, boring and sick-making film.
The Dirties, Gravity, and Muscle Shoals all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. Also opening is the cute, Saudi-made movie Wadjda I reviewed last week, and 15 Reasons To Live by Toronto documentarian Alan Zweig. I spoke with him last spring about this heart-warming, quirky film.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com