THESE DAYS, we'd be foolish to expect our summer movies to do anything more than serve as air-conditioning. But this season, through some mysterious synergy, multiplexes don't quite seem like the brain-dead wastelands of recent years. Granted, the customary stinkers are out in force - and thanks to the witless, clunky, cynical, and unbearably tedious Godzilla, the designated kill-all-comers blockbuster is even stinkier than usual - but amid all the computer-generated sound and fury, there is uncommon evidence of studio-financed subversiveness. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Warren Beatty's Bulworth, for one, deserves kudos simply for being the rare American film that dares to tackle race head-on, even if its tactics sometimes come across as simplistic and muddle-headed. Beatty, who co- wrote and directed the film, plays a depressed, terminally compromised senator who takes out a contract on his own life. Reinvigorated by the imminence of death, he embarks on a cathartic bout of truth-telling, in the process gaining a sudden appreciation of black street culture. For much of the film, Beatty actually "raps". It's not so much funny as excruciatingly embarrassing (which may be partly intended), but the movie's attacks on socio-political evils - among them, media monopolies - are especially pungent, given that the backing studio is Rupert Murdoch's Fox (which apparently owed Beatty a favour and had to give the director-actor free rein).

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam's relentlessly faithful and quite hilarious adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's gonzo classic, looks set to sink here in the US due to pre-release controversy, bad buzz, and worse reviews (the hostile reception at Cannes doesn't help). The trailer was initially banned by the television network ABC for supposedly glorifying drug use (although, as its star Johnny Depp has pointed out, anyone who reaches that conclusion on the basis of the film is clearly insane). Depp and Benicio Del Toro, as Thompson and his overweight sidekick Dr Gonzo, strike me as a priceless comic pairing, but most critics here have been complaining that the film is "indulgent". What were they expecting? Its very "subject" is indulgence.

But the most startling artistic achievement of the summer may well be The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir from an inventive script by Gattaca director Andrew Niccol. It stars Jim Carrey as a small-town everyman whose life is, unbeknownst to him, the subject of an enormously successful, live, 24-hour-a-day television show. The less you know going in, the better. The studio behind the film, Paramount, is marketing it as this year's Forrest Gump, but don't let that put you off: the movies have absolutely nothing in common besides their clueless protagonists, who are, I can assure you, clueless for very different reasons.