Friday Movie Roundup: The Great Divide

Perusing the releases so far this summer reveals a divide that has been growing wider recent years. In fact, the gulf between big-budget Hollywood productions (most of which are sequels or recycled material) and smaller films (most of which are documentaries or foreign films being offered by a dwindling handful of specialty distributors — plus the ever-vital Sony Pictures Classics) has never been as wide as it is right now.—-

Once a place where solid, adult storytelling flourished, Hollywood is now the polar opposite — an industry town where story is trumped by lowest-common-denominator spectacle and/or an endless parade of risk-averse sequels designed to lure teenage boys. The last two weeks' worth of new releases is a prime example: mondo-marketed Hollywood fare The Hangover Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2 and X-Men: First Class on one side of the divide, micro-marketed indie offerings The Double Hour, The First Grader, Incendies and Meek’s Cutoff on the other.

Anyone who reads this space on even a sporadic basis is probably sick of me bitching about the current state of cinematic affairs, but I’ll do it again: The vast majority of contemporary studio pictures are nothing more than products intended to fatten the bottom line of the large corporations that finance them. Sure, every so often a unique vision beats the odds and makes its way to the multiplex, but that’s becoming more and more of a rarity amid a post-recession era in which something as seemingly safe and conventional as 2010 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech has trouble getting a green light.

No one knows the dire situation better than actors and filmmakers, many of whom have turned to cable television, a place where the Hollywood dramas of yesteryear are finding a home. In yet another recent example of the cultural shift, Todd Haynes turned to HBO as an outlet for his multi-hour take on Mildred Pierce, which is headlined by A-list actress Kate Winslet. (The alternate route seems to be that of Paul Thomas Anderson, perhaps the best American director of our day, whose distinctive, uncompromising vision has yielded only one theatrical release, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, since 2002. Or is he just lazy?)

It’s no coincidence that we’re in something of a golden age of television, a place where rich, edgy, long-form fare can thrive and engage an audience eager to experience something different — see The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Shield, True Blood, Mad Men, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire and on and on.

Newsweek recently published a piece by film critic Roger Ebert entitled “Sequel Madness,” in which director/screenwriter/film scholar Paul Schrader admitted that cable television has now usurped Hollywood: “The quality of theatrically released films has been dropping so precipitously in recent years that the Academy Awards are no longer a fair gauge of audiovisual entertainment. Several decades ago audiences could expect a film such as The Social Network every week; now we are lucky to have one or two a year. Add to this the fact that serious dramas have more or less migrated to television, and it’s clear the Oscars have become progressively less relevant.” Schrader could just have easily replaced “Oscars” with “Hollywood” — or, perhaps more ominous, what critic Andrew Sarris used to call “The American Cinema.”

Opening films:

THE FIRST GRADER — There are, to be sure, foregone conclusions in any kind of true-life inspirational story of this ilk, but British filmmaker Justin Chadwick (who co-directed the exceptional BBC miniseries Bleak House) is weirdly keen on deflecting all drama. We have pretty much all the information we need within the first half-hour, which undercuts the film's supposedly climactic reveal. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at AMC.) — Kimberly Jones (Rated PG-13.) Grade: C-plus

INCENDIES — Brilliantly constructed from the bountiful narrative fabric of Wajdi Mouawad's complex stage play about a familial legacy passed down from a mother to her fraternal twins, Incendies is one of the most powerful dramas ever conceived. Director Denis Villeneuve tells the retrospective tale of Nawal (Lubna Azabal), a woman from an unnamed place in the Middle East. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — Cole Smithey (Rated R.) Grade: A

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS — Matthew Vaughn's prequel feels like the bookend to X2 on the post-9/11 decade, for even though it rewinds the X-Men franchise to the 1960s, it couldn’t be more pertinent to today. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — MaryAnn Johanson (Rated PG-13.) Grade: B-plus