Ansen's Alternatives

Last year at about this time, I complained that there hadn't been one good Hollywood studio movie released in the first quarter of 2001. ("Shrek" broke the curse.)

At the time it seemed like an aberration, but here we are in May 2002, and once again the January through April studio schedule was as bleak and arid as the Dakota badlands. OK, I could make a couple of exceptions: Fox's animated "Ice Age" was a lot of fun, if hardly at "Shrek's" level, and Paramount's "Changing Lanes" was an ambitious, though strained, attempt to take the measure of our national road rage.

But for anyone who takes movies seriously, the only deep satisfactions so far this year have come from foreign films and a couple of American independents. The Mexican "Y Tu Mama Tambien" tops the list. It's looking more and more like a classic (it loses none of its sexiness on second viewing and its poignancy only deepens). "Monsoon Wedding" is a delight. The good news is that both these films have broken through the ghetto of the "art film" and found a big, appreciative audience. The charming American indie "Kissing Jessica Stein" has also hung in against the more expensive competition. But while the rough-hewn Danish romantic comedy "Italian for Beginners" found many fans, such gems as Taiwan's "What Time is it There?" or two French beauties-"The Town is Quiet" and "Time Out"-failed to light any commercial fires. These are, to be sure, demanding movies. They ask you meet them halfway, and most moviegoers these days like their films to resemble bathtubs-slip in, lie back and let it wash over you.

Meanwhile, while we wait for Hollywood to get its act together this summer, here are some off-the-beaten-track alternatives. It may take a while for some of them to get to your neck of the woods, but they're well worth the wait.

For both sheer entertainment and for a true insider's glimpse at what the '60s felt like at their wildest and woolliest, you can't beat the new documentary "The Cockettes." Not many people remember this troupe of cross-dressing, acid-dropping San Francisco stage performers. If you didn't live in San Francisco (where their campy, hallucinatory appearances at the Palace Theater were legendary) or New York (where they bombed on stage after being hyped by the likes of Truman Capote and Rex Reed), you might possibly have seen them in their cult 16mm movie "Tricia's Wedding," thoroughly trashing the Nixon-era First Family. But no previous knowledge is necessary to enjoy David Weissman and Bill Weber's exhilarating, bittersweet historical document. The filmmakers have a treasure trove of archival footage, fascinating interviews with the surviving members of the troupe, not to mention such astute observers as filmmaker John Waters, a kindred subversive spirit.

Audiences today will marvel at the chemical and sexual excess on display. All the same, you can't help but be struck as well by the innocence of the era, and the genuine if cockeyed idealism that fueled these flamboyant experiments in living. "The Cockettes" captures the anarchic, radically naive spirit of the San Francisco acid culture as well as any film has, but it doesn't avert its eyes from the fallout, either. The psychedelic dream comes tumbling down in the form of drug overdoses, AIDS and brain damage. At Sundance, where the film first played, viewers who weren't even born when these flaming creatures burned bright caught the movie's contact high. "The Cockettes" is not going to be a hit in Pat Robertson country, but if you want to understand what the '60s felt like at their most decadently madcap, this doc's for you.

If you want a really disturbing film (and a very smart one), check out "The Believer." This is the movie that beat "In the Bedroom," "Memento," "The Deep End," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "L.I.E." for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. A political hot potato, it scared off most distributors and was first seen, last month, on Showtime. Now it's hitting theaters, and due to world events it may be even more controversial than when it first appeared. Its protagonist is a virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi skinhead-who happens to be Jewish. Novelist-turned-filmmaker Henry Bean based his story on a real person who committed suicide when the New York Times ran a story that revealed his secret identity.

"The Believer" plays like a thriller, but it is that rare thing in American movies-a movie of ideas, a provocative meditation on self-loathing, Judaism, sadomasochism and fascism. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), a product of yeshiva schools, has become a rising star in fascist political circles, but as he gets deeper and deeper into the movement, defacing synagogues and spewing venom at skinhead training camps, he finds himself drawn back to his roots. Bean's movie offers no simple "explanation" for Danny's radical behavior, but Gosling inhabits this deeply divided soul so completely (it's one of the year's most extraordinary performances) that you believe his every contradictory move. He's a fascinating, tortured character, and Gosling, a young Canadian actor of great range and discipline (he's currently in "Murder by Numbers") doesn't seem to have an actorish bone in his lean body. Bean's film has its rough spots-the depiction of the fascist organization (led by Billy Zane) is sketchy and unconvincing-but I don't know of any other movie that has examined the phenomenon of anti-Semitism so fearlessly, or from such a unique angle. Still, be warned: no bathtub movie this.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India," the most expensive movie ever made in India and one of the five films nominated for a foreign-film Oscar this year. A vast historical epic set in 1893, it's a wonderful introduction to the Bollywood style of filmmaking. Giddily extravagant, the popular Indian cinema-as opposed to the art cinema, exemplified by the late great Satyajit Ray-offers sprawling, colorful, larger-than-life tales that pause frequently for lavish musical numbers and action. Bollywood is the ne plus ultra of bathtub cinema.

The hero of "Lagaan," a proud farmer named Bhuvan, is played by Indian superstar Aamir Khan (he's like a cross between Tyrone Power and Kyle MacLachlan, and he can dance). Bhuvan leads a protest against the crippling land tax imposed by the sadistic British Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). The captain issues a challenge: he will repeal the tax if the peasants can defeat the English at a three-day game of cricket. (He knows, of course, that the Indians don't even know the rules of the game.) If the British win, the tax will be tripled, driving the drought-afflicted province to ruin. Add a romantic triangle (the captain's rebellious sister falls for Bhuvan, to the despair of the beautiful village girl who worships him), plus betrayal, vast crowd scenes, gorgeous landscapes, rousing singing and dancing, and a cricket game to end all cricket games. It's an embarrassment of somewhat shopworn riches.

Oh, did I mention that the movie is almost four hours long? Amazingly, once you settle into its rhythms (the first hour is a challenge) the movie sweeps you away on its tide of enormous emotions. "Lagaan," written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, is utterly shameless in its melodrama. Generously intent on showing you a good time, it speaks the universal cinematic language of kitsch.

If "Lagaan" unfolds exactly as you think it will, the unclassifiable Japanese "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" spins off in delightfully quirky directions. It's the work of the mischievous master Shohei Imamura ("Vengeance is Mine," "The Battle of Narayama," "The Eel") who at age 76 is still making movies that exude a young man's spirit. The unemployed hero Yoshuke (played by Koji Yakusho, the star of "Shall We Dance?" and "Eureka") sets off on a quest for a gold Buddha hidden in a house in a town by the Sea of Japan. Living in the house is an old woman and her granddaughter Saeko (Misa Shimizu), with whom he becomes obsessed. And for good reason. The alluring kleptomaniac Saeko is blessed (or cursed?) with a mysterious affliction: her body fills with mysterious water, which can only be released two ways-when she steals something, or through the act of lovemaking. When she achieves orgasm with Yoshuke, she gushes like Old Faithful, producing a torrent of water that has the power to make flowers bloom and seems to draw fish from the sea. Saeko needs Yoshuko to alleviate the pressure, and Yoshuko increasingly needs Saeko to replenish his hollowed-out soul. It's hard to think of any sex scenes quite like these-at once hilarious, erotic and magical. It's also hard to think of a movie quite like this, replete with gangsters, an African marathon runner and womb symbolism galore.

The whimsy, however, is held firmly in check by Imamura's droll, matter-of-fact style. This is not a man who makes bathtub movies. But in Saeko's watery explosions he's found a metaphor of regeneration that could also be extended to the movies themselves. Like Yoshuko, we all want to be immersed in the dark, and swept away on a warm tide.

Ansen's Alternatives | News