While reading Harlan Lebo’s “The Godfather Legacy” recently, it hit me that there once was a time when the distinction between art film and mainstream film was blurred.
“The Godfather” was a box office sensation, yes. But can anyone argue that it wasn’t also a marvelous artistic achievement?
In fact the 1970s were filled with movies that qualified both as hits and as explorations of cinema’s potential: “Jaws,” “The French Connection,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Apocalypse Now,” “China Town,” “Annie Hall,” “The Last Picture Show,” “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville,” “Deliverance.”
Nowadays, it seems, a film had better have a superhero or lots of explosions (preferably both) if it’s going to grab the short-attention-span mass audience.
(There’s a Tinseltown myth — perhaps based on fact, perhaps not — that a few years back a frustrated screenwriter began recirculating the Oscar-winning script for “Cuckoo’s Nest” under a new title. It was rejected by every studio reader who looked at it.)
Our movies have been tragically dumbed down in Hollywood’s quest for the big payday. Rough edges, controversial stands, serious emotions and challenging storytelling are verboten if a film is to score big time.
Which has led to the exile of “serious” films to the art houses. They’re not even on the radar of most ticket-buyers.
But then a week ago we saw the opening of three films — all aimed at the mass audience — that didn’t dumb things down.
“The Martian,” “The Walk” and “Sicario” represent first-rate moviemaking. Yet they occupy that sweet spot between the ambitious and the audience-friendly. They have big budgets, A-list casts and all the visual/aural bells and whistles, but they also have something on their minds.
“The Martian” features Matt Damon in an epic story of an astronaut stranded on Mars. While he uses his imagination and engineering skills to survive (he’s running out of food, air, water and fuel) thinkers back on Earth formulate a desperate rescue plan.
The film has everything: suspense, humor, spirit-lifting highs and terrifying lows. Damon is terrific in what amounts to a solo performance and Ridley Scott — a director (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator”) who all too often has been more concerned with the look of his movies than their content — masterfully orchestrates all the elements.
It’s the rare science fiction film that leaves you feeling smarter than when you went in.
“The Walk” re-creates French acrobat Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between NYC’s World Trade Center towers.
Petit’s story was the basis of the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” but director Robert Zemeckis (who has exhibited in “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” the ability to wring the most out of current filmmaking technology) poses it as a grand adventure.
Yeah, the film’s first half is a bit slow. But once Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his crew of artistic renegades throw their illegal scheme into high gear, “The Walk” becomes a true-life caper movie infused with longing and loss (thanks to 9/11).
And in the walk itself the 3-D process becomes essential, rendering a world above the clouds so realistic that viewers will be grabbing their armrests to fight vertigo.
“Sicario” is a taut, gruesome yarn about an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) recruited for an interagency task force taking on Mexican drug cartels. She soon begins to question her new team’s techniques.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”), “Sicario” (Mexican slang for “hit man”) is terrifically entertaining while posing the damning question: When the only way to combat evil is to perpetrate evil, hasn’t evil already won?
Go figure. Big, expensive studio movies that push the social, technological and humanist envelopes? Maybe there’s still hope.
Opening at the art houses this week
▪ “Freeheld”: In 2007 “Freeheld” won the Oscar for best documentary short. Now this true-life tale of a dying woman cop determined that her lesbian companion receive her police pension has been refashioned as a feature film. Cynthia Wade directs; Julianne Moore and Ellen Page star.
▪ “Crimson Peak”: Horror master Guillermo del Toro delivers a haunted house film with a special twist and an A-list cast: Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Mia Wasikowska.
Read more of freelance critic Robert W. Butler’s movie reviews and features at ButlersCinemaScene.com.