The Hottest August Review

Life during late stage capitalism is fraught with anxiety and hypocrisy. No one quite knows what the future holds for us, but if the present is any indication, it doesn’t seem promising – unless things start to change very quickly. Global warming, gentrification and a vanishing middle class, among other woes, all lead up to a sense that we’re headed toward a kind of post-apocalyptic Dickensian society.

This is the worldview that powers documentarian Brett Story’s The Hottest August, her follow-up to 2016’s excellent The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. Like her previous film, The Hottest August sets out to create a sociological portrait. In The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, it was the lives of people impacted by mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Here, it’s life at the end of capitalism. Story spent August 2017 interviewing everyday people from across New York’s five boroughs, asking them about their current fears and their thoughts about the future. The result is a collage of personalities, backgrounds and anxieties, ranging from natural disasters to economic collapse to fear about just making it through the day.

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Mike Wallace is Here Review

One of the emerging trends in the films at this year’s True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, Missouri has been curated footage. Several of the films at this year’s festival, like Apollo 11, Amazing Grace and now director Avi Belkin’s film Mike Wallace is Here, are made up entirely of archival content, either presented in a linear way, or edited together in such a way that it creates a complete picture all on its own.

In the case of Mike Wallace is Here, Belkin has assembled clips comprising the majority of the 60 Minutes journalist’s career, as well as interview clips where Wallace himself is the subject. The goal is twofold: to create a portrait of a notoriously tough journalist who mostly evaded the tough questions asked of him, and to consider the impact that his brand of journalism had on the way we report the news. Basically, based on what records we have of Wallace, and the way he conducted his work, what can we glean about the man?

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Cold Case Hammarskjold Review

In 1961, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on his way to broker a peace deal in the Congo. The official stated cause of the crash was pilot error. However, considering Hammarskjöld was an outspoken proponent of African countries retaining autonomy over their resources, and that the rebel leader he was meeting with was a puppet of a Belgian mining company, rumors circulated for years that foul play was afoot.

Danish journalist Mads Brügger’s documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, looks into the details of that case, and explores the very likely possibility that Hammarskjöld’s death was in fact a murder. Brügger, a gonzo provocateur known for genre-blending docs like The Red Chapel and The Ambassador, is joined in his research by Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl, who has his own connection to the case. Along the way, their investigation uncovers an even bigger conspiracy involving imperialism, murder and attempted genocide, one with staggering implications.

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apollo 11 trailer

It feels appropriate that Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 would come out on the heels of First Man, Damien Chazelle’s drama about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing. Chazelle’s film highlighted the stakes felt by otherwise ordinary people as they worked toward an extraordinary goal. Miller’s documentary, made up entirely of NASA archival footage and broadcast news clips, works as a perfect companion, using historical footage to create a fittingly tense account of the mission. The gathered footage shows plenty of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, but it focuses just as much on the hardworking people on the ground, as well as those who gathered to watch the launch.

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Amazing Grace Review

That the Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace exists at all is something of a miracle. It was originally filmed by Sydney Pollack to accompany the recording of her live 1972 gospel album of the same name. Franklin’s album would go on to sell two million copies. The film, however, went unseen for 46 years. Pollack failed to use clapper boards during the filming process, making it almost impossible to sync up the sound and the image. Filmmaker Alan Elliott bought the footage back from Warner Brothers in 2007 and fixed it up, but legal troubles with Franklin pushed the release of Amazing Grace further and further back.

Finally, a 90-minute version of Franklin’s two-night show at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church has seen the light of day, and the result, thank goodness, is glorious. Much like another long-embattled music doc, Les Blank’s film about Leon Russell, A Poem is a Naked Person, Amazing Grace provides not only dynamic music, but a detailed glimpse into the time and place in which it was made. The music is moving, Franklin is stunning, and the church is full of characters.

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if beale street could talk review

Art reflects the culture it’s created in. In the ’30s and ’40s, directors like Frank Capra produced optimistic comedies and dramas to help uplift a national morale brought low by the Great Depression and World War II. In the late ’70s and ’80s, punk music and hip-hop spoke to political frustrations. Part of the value of the art that makes up popular culture is what a piece of music, literature or cinema can tell us about the prevailing cultural attitudes at the time it was made.

In this way, events like the Toronto International Film Festival are valuable not just as marketing tools by studios to kick off their awards campaigns, but as a way to show audiences what ideas are currently dominating our cultural conversation. By gathering the biggest, newest films in one place, festivals like TIFF invite the world to consider what’s been on our collective minds, and provide a space to have a dialogue about it.

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wildlife review

Early on in Paul Dano’s Wildlife, the movie’s 14-year-old protagonist, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), takes an after-school job at a photo lab. It’s a plot point that also serves as a mission statement for the film, which tells the story of a family’s dissolution in early-1960s Montana. A spare, deeply empathetic piece of work, Wildlife also works as a sort of photo essay on the lives of its characters, presenting evolving snapshots of its central family’s members as they experience varying stages of exasperation, damaged pride, desperation and disappointment.

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Next week is the Toronto International Film Festival. With it comes the unofficial kickoff of the fall movie season, and the start – and sometimes epic failure – of Hollywood awards campaigns. With over 300 films on offer, TIFF’s lineup this year spans far and wide. Some of these movies vanish into obscurity (remember Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store? Me neither). Others become lauded classics.

Whether you’re attending the fest or keeping track of things from afar, here are the movies that should be on your radar.

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