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By EW Staff
Updated August 10, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Season’s Bleatings: We’re sick of movies that get more excited about synthespians than about screenwriting. We’re tired of rip-offs of sequels to remakes of movies that weren’t all that great to begin with. We’ve had it with films that reach their creative peaks in their trailers. And we would like to believe that by Labor Day, we’ll still remember what it’s like to walk into a multiplex without having to check our brains (not to mention taste) at the candy counter. This has not, to put it mildly, been a distinguished summer for Hollywood. But all isn’t lost, especially if you’re willing to vet the small stuff. Here are comedies and dramas, musicals and thrillers, movies sprung from artistic impulses rather than marketing spreadsheets. In short, here are nine more long-awaited antidotes to a cruel summer.

The Others

Starring Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Fionnula Flanagan

Grace (Kidman) is a tightly wound, easily unnerved woman who doesn’t get out of the house much — her house being a Victorian mansion on the fogbound English Channel island of Jersey. And it’s driving her crazy. Her husband hasn’t returned from the war, her children are apparently allergic to sunlight, the servants have gone missing, and on top of all that, there are the ghosts….

Oh, but we’re giving too much away, and the last thing we’d want to do is spoil the English-language debut of gifted Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. Not that a plot synopsis could ever do justice to an Amenábar movie, anyway. ”I need two levels in my movies, otherwise the process isn’t interesting to me,” says the 29-year-old writer-director, who also composed the film’s score. ”For the audience who just goes to have fun, they are satisfied. But I also try to work at a level that can satisfy another audience looking for substance.” In The Others, the fun stuff is the style, which relies on shadow, silence, and creeping camera movements to earn chills. The substance is rooted in Amenábar’s Catholic school education and its nightmarish tales of special hells for naughty girls and boys. ”I kept thinking, This is insane,” says Amenábar, who’s now agnostic. ”I think the main questions people have in life have to do with suspense — with not knowing.”

Like his last film, the equally strange Open Your Eyes (just remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky, starring Kidman’s soon-to-be-ex, Tom Cruise), The Others has a trick ending that’ll have you rethinking the whole thing. ”I can’t help it,” laughs Amenábar. ”I like to play with the audience.”

Ghost World

Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Bob Balaban

Here’s what Ghost World doesn’t have: a Christina Aguilera soundtrack single; computer-animated anything; Freddie Prinze Jr. Now let’s breathe a sweet sigh of relief for what the movie does have: Enid and Rebecca (Birch and Johansson), two teens aimlessly drifting through the summer after high school with a snotty-sensitive confusion; a healthy (and funny) contempt for the corporatized pop mainstream; Steve Buscemi as the last honest man in America.

”I think of it as a teen comedy for adults or an art film for teenagers,” says Dan Clowes, whose acclaimed, spookily poetic graphic novel was the springboard for the screenplay he wrote with director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb). The latter’s primary contribution was Buscemi’s character, Seymour, a middle-aged blues freak who allows the director to vent his spleen on all things McBogus. ”You turn on the radio and you can listen to the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync, you can stop and eat a Big Mac or a Whopper,” says Zwigoff. ”There’s not much choice anymore. This country is just culturally bankrupt.” But will kids get it? Sure, says Zwigoff: ”There was one woman I was trying to hire as an editor. She called me and said, ‘Ya know, I left this tape of your film laying around, and my 15-year-old daughter and her friends watched it and they just went wild.”’ In other words: Enid lives!

Wet Hot American Summer

Starring Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni

In the middle of another season of dumb-and-dumber fare, it might be left to a plucky little summer-camp parody to capture the flag of our hearts. Incubating their baby for three years, director David Wain and writing partner Michael Showalter (former members of sketch-comedy crew The State) finally got the film made by casting their alt-comedy buddies (and buddies of their buddies): Molly Shannon (Superstar), Meloni (Law & Order: SVU), Michael Ian Black (Ed), and Amy Poehler (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo) all turned out for the gig. ”Literally, we’d just call ’em up, they’d say yes, we’d say cool,” laughs Wain. ”It was that easy.”

The shoot was anything but. Thanks to a gnat-size budget, the actors were forced to stay at an actual summer camp in northeastern Pennsylvania. ”We all lived in the bunks, there were no trailers, and it poured rain 25 out of 29 days,” says Wain. ”The worse it got, the more [it seemed] there was no line between the movie and real life.” We’ll assume that doesn’t extend to the hilarious, drug-fueled crime spree that camp director Garofalo leads midway through the movie.

”Nobody told me about the cabins! The no heat! The mud up to your ass!” laughs Pierce, who costars as a neighboring astrophysicist who becomes a hero to the camp’s geeky kids. ”But I hope the movie does well. It opened in two theaters the same weekend as Planet of the Apes, so I don’t even think that people in the movie went.”

Hedwig And The Angry Inch

Starring John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask, Andrea Martin

If you think John Cameron Mitchell’s fractured fairy tale of an East Berlin-born transsexual trying to make it as a dime-store rock star-cum-prostitute in America is a kinky bit of business, consider the writer-director-star’s relationship with Shor, the (female) actor who plays Hedwig’s (male) lover, Yitzhak. ”We would be on the set naked under the sheets with thousands of crew members around, and we’d be giggling and grabbing each other like 3-year-olds,” says Mitchell (who, incidentally, is gay).

Questions of gender confusion aside, none of the above means that Hedwig won’t play in Peoria, or wow ’em in Wisconsin. Against the current pop-cultural landscape, this freaky little flick seems like, if not quite mainstream entertainment, at least a thoroughly modern spin on the traditional Hollywood musical melodrama of degradation and redemption. ”The strongest reactions [to the film] I’ve had are from people who feel a little isolated,” says Mitchell, who, with composer Trask, adapted their stage version of Hedwig for the big screen. ”Middle-aged women from the heartland who got away from a mean guy and are trying to find their way seem to find some comfort in Hedwig’s story.”

Lumumba

Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Alex Descas, Maka Kotto, Theophile Moussa Sowié

This summer’s sound-and-fury blockbusters feel a bit like Dubya’s tax rebate: Win the crowd by tossing a bunch of cash up on the screen, and worry about the math later. But where, oh where, are those Nation-reading, Jim Lehrer-watching, NPR-listening lefties to go? How about to Raoul Peck’s Lumumba — a fire-and-brimstone biopic about the lightning-quick rise, fall, and martyrdom of charismatic Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba (played by French stage actor Ebouaney).

Now, if a French-language docudrama about postcolonial African politics sounds like the cinematic equivalent of wheatgrass juice, consider that Lumumba’s opening scene takes place on a sweltering pitch-dark night, with the sound of a hacksaw ripping through human bone. (PBS meets Pulp Fiction?) From there, Peck flashes back to detail the chaotic scrum for power after Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, leading up to Lumumba’s assassination by his CIA-backed rival Mobutu (Descas) — whose thugs, needless to say, were the ones wielding the hacksaws. ”I’d like to think you can still make provocative films that don’t serve everything on a silver platter,” says the Haiti-born director. ”I enjoy popcorn movies too, but it can’t be the whole film. Can it? I really hope not.” Us too. And that’s why in a summer spilling over with unpopped kernels, Lumumba feels like Smartfood.

Divided We Fall

Starring Boleslav Polivka, Jaroslav Dusek, Anna Siskova, Csongor Kassai

Here’s the summer’s other war movie — a subtitled drama set in occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII. This 2001 Oscar nominee for best foreign film deals with a seldom explored aspect of the Holocaust: the tedium of terror. Josef (Polivka) and his wife, Marie (Siskova), are cobbling together an existence under the Nazi regime when a Jewish neighbor (Kassai) appears back in town after escaping from a camp. The couple reluctantly agrees to secret the young man in a tiny hidden room, an awkward arrangement that lasts several years, as the trio learns to live with the daily possibility of discovery and execution.

Sounds grim, but the anxiety is eased by occasional bursts of humor — a tactic that’s earned the film comparisons to Life Is Beautiful. In place of Roberto Benigni is famed Czech comic Polivka. ”He’s like Jim Carrey,” says director Jan Hrebejk. ”Though perhaps his theater is on a higher intellectual level.” The director says that while the film is loosely based on two true stories, its message is, of course, universal. ”We shouldn’t leap to judgments about other people,” he says. ”We must understand that human existence is complicated.”

Tortilla Soup

Starring Hector Elizondo, Jacqueline Obradors, Tamara Mello, Elizabeth Pena, Raquel Welch

Each Sunday, Martin (Elizondo), a master chef, prepares a feast for his three daughters (Obradors, Mello, and Pena), even though he himself has lost his taste for food. Though it’s a Latino adaptation of Eat Drink Man Woman, director Maria Ripoll’s film is something of a departure in tone from Ang Lee’s 1994 comedy. ”I saw a 30-second snippet of [Eat Drink], and it was more caricatured,” says Elizondo. ”I don’t go to movies that are described with a Z. Zany is not what I like. Or a W. Wacky is not funny for me. We worked hard to get a human tone without making it Chekhovian.”

That human tone is aimed at a specific demographic — the approximately 35 million Hispanics in the United States. ”You have this enormous audience that none of the pictures except La Bamba and Selena have reached,” says exec producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. ”That audience is clueing in to this picture.” The only issue: How to classify the final product? ”I don’t like to categorize movies as comedy or drama,” says Elizondo (currently on screen in The Princess Diaries). ”Sometimes in the middle of tragedy, there’s something to laugh about. That’s life.”

Session 9

Starring David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III

As any fan of horror movies knows, there are a few rules to the fright game. To name but three: Never step backward; never have sex in the woods; and for God’s sake, never hang out in an abandoned asylum.

So fear for the fellows of Session 9 — the new indie chiller directed by Brad Anderson (Next Stop, Wonderland) — asbestos workers who encounter lobotomy high jinks, a gruesome treasure trove, and unsettling doctor-patient recordings when they’re hired to clean up a long-shuttered mental institution. Danvers State Hospital, the massive 19th-century building where much of the movie was shot, had long intrigued Anderson when he was living in Boston. But it wasn’t until he relocated to New York that he decided to break inside. ”We hooked up with a couple of guys on the Internet who are part of an urban spelunking crew, who go to places like this and explore,” says Anderson, who cowrote the film with costar Gevedon.

The $2 million production (shot in high-definition video) was relatively fright-free — emphasis on the relatively. While shooting one of the actors in a dark tunnel with a handheld camera, cinematographer Uta Briesewitz perforated her eyeball after bumping into a piece of old medical equipment. ”It was in the same place in the eye where you’d perform a lobotomy,” notes Anderson. ”It was like the building was giving us a warning. But,” he adds cheerfully, ”we all got out alive. At least, I think we didn’t leave anyone back there.”

The Deep End

Starring Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathon Tucker, Josh Lucas

A teenage son struggling with his homosexuality, an absent husband…a corpse on the property. Just another day in the life of a weary mother, as imagined in The Deep End, a drama that’s as much an examination of family dynamics and the bond between a mother and son as it is a creepy thriller.

Swinton (Orlando) plays Margaret Hall, a Nevada woman desperate to connect with her ever-retreating son, Beau (Tucker). Soon after Margaret discovers that Beau is involved with a sleazy nightclub owner, she finds the guy on her beach, impaled on an anchor. Assuming the worst, she hides the body — only to be tracked down by a blackmailer (Visnjic).

Based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall, the film was written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who made 1993’s Suture). For nearly a decade, the pair considered adapting the book, but it wasn’t until 1999, when another, higher-budgeted project set in Europe fell apart that they committed. Setting the film in Lake Tahoe, says McGehee, was a factor: ”It was so contained, we knew we could do it for $3 million. We liked the tight domestic world that it’s set in, and the way that people can’t talk to each other.”

Margaret’s actions may seem implausible to some, but Swinton, the mother of 3-year-old twins, disagrees: ”My sort of flippant line about the film is, ‘She’s a mother. It’s a mess. She cleans it up. Next.’ It’s as simple as that. It could be anything — it just happens to be a body on the beach.”

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