The bigger the better: that is, and always will be, Hollywood's midsummer mantra. But even as a returning Superman and a clumsily flamboyant Sparrow rule the box office roost by a fair margin, moviegoers with a taste for edgier, closer-to-the-bones entertainment currently have at least three compelling documentaries from which to choose when they enter a multiplex.
At the top of that list of three is An Inconvenient Truth, an engaging cinematic record of former Vice President Al Gore's impassioned campaign for the need to reverse the worsening threat that global warming poses to the planet.
An Inconvenient Truth, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, isn't what you would classify as great cinema. It isn't even particularly entertaining. If the 90-minute film holds your attention it is simply owing to the terrifying relevance of what it seeks to articulate.
A still from An Inconvinient Truth
Director Davis Guggenheim, aided by Gore's obvious commitment to the cause, has crafted a vital testimonial to the follies being committed by human beings, who, interestingly, are both the victims and the villains in this be-warned-or-be-damned real-life saga.
An Inconvenient Truth draws its power clearly from the trenchant subject itself - it goes well beyond the limits of politics. No matter on which side of the American political divide a filmgoer is, the point that Gore is trying to make through this commendable crusade hits home.
Critics have hailed the film as a huge achievement especially on that count - Fahrenheit 9/11 was polemics that divided the audience; An Inconvenient Truth is an honest, heartfelt entreaty that has bound people of all hues together in the darkness of the movie hall.
Another powerful documentary now running in the theatres in the US is Chris Paine's Who Killed the Electric Car? At the centre of its narrative is the environment - this low-budget, 91-minute film probes the 'mysterious' death of General Motors' EV1, a machine that was designed in the mid 1990s as a viable non-polluting alternative to the combustion-engine automobile.
GM's electric car was launched in 1996 amid much optimism. The EV1 was regarded as a breakthrough car that could set peed records without guzzling gasoline or oil. Hollywood celebrities like Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson drove the EV1 and they were more than happy with its performance. But this car was available only on lease and outright purchase wasn't possible.
When its 'owners' offered to buy out the vehicles to save them, GM withdrew the entire fleet and discontinued production in 2003 despite protests from environmentalists. Who Killed the Electric Car? does not reveal anything that we do not already know. The answer to the question contained in the title of the film is pretty obvious: the lobby that killed the EV1 was far too strong to allow the survival of a car so revolutionary that it could put them out of business.
Paine unpeels the mystery behind the demise of the electric car with the diligence of a sleuth and the sensitivity of a documentary filmmaker. Like An Inconvenient Truth, his film rises above the politics of the theme and presents its universal conclusions in a manner that eschews unduly aggressive posturing.
The third film under discussion here, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, blends the freewheeling nature of a documentary with the straightforward nature of a concert flick. Directed by Lian Lunson, the film was born when the Sydney Opera House put together a tribute show on the cult Canadian poet-singer's 70th birthday.
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival this year, runs for just under 100 minutes and yet tends to suffer from a lumbering quality. But the universality of the Cohen songs, most of which are performed in the film by singers influenced by this reclusive icon of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, salvage the film from the risk of drudgery.
The words of his acolytes are interspersed with Cohen's own interpretation of some of his songs and his narration of the personal adventures that took him from the nightclubs of New York to a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. The film comes alive especially when, right at the end of the show, Bono and The Edge join Cohen for a rousing rendition of 'Tower of Song'.
Reality always wields magnetic power, especially on the big screen. The continuing commercial success of low-budget documentaries in the US amid a plethora of big budget escapist films is ample evidence.