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After the Lights Go Down 

What's up at AFI Fest 2004

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IMAGINARY WITNESS: HOLLYWOOD AND THE HOLOCAUST (USA)

This skillfully assembled collection of talking-head interviews and film clips tracks the evolution of depictions of the Holocaust in mainstream movies, confirming the truism that the unimaginable can only be confronted at an oblique angle. The most effective sequences here, notably the title ordeal from Sophie’s Choice, find microcosmic moments that resonate with a historical horror too enormous ever to be depicted. Even at its best, though, fiction fails: The single most powerful scene in Daniel Anker’s film is the reunion between a brother and sister separated in the camps, staged in the 1950s on the original reality TV series This Is Your Life. The eloquent body language of their embrace is something no actor could ever hope to duplicate. (ArcLight 10, Tues., Nov. 9, 7 p.m) (DC)

ASTRONAUTS (Spain)

A surly, middle-aged loner, seemingly the sole occupant of the dilapidated building he’s fixing up, awakens one day to find a mysterious teenage girl sitting on the stairs outside his apartment. After a protracted, antagonistic standoff, he reluctantly invites her to take refuge in his home. Writer-director Santi Amodeo slowly develops their relationship, laying out a tale of addictions and isolation. But despite some tricked-out fantasy sequences and fine performances by the leads, it doesn’t really add up to much. The film ends just when the plot turns interesting, making for a conclusion that is both frustratingly open-ended and perfectly fitting. (ArcLight 13, Tues., Nov. 9, 7:15 p.m.; ArcLight 11, Thurs., Nov. 11, 3 p.m.) (EH)

*MACHUCA (Chile/Spain/France)

You don’t need to know a thing about Chile’s political history to be deeply moved by Andres Wood’s powerful remembrance (based on his own childhood) of the turbulent era in which, controversially, Salvador Allende was president and then “committed suicide.” The country’s social upheaval is seen through the eyes of a privileged young schoolboy whose private school takes in poor children from a nearby shantytown. The political unrest around the children plays out in class and classroom skirmishes between them, building toward a devastating climax. By delicately juxtaposing and balancing the minutiae of the boy’s life with greater social issues, the film essays its political critique without didacticism or shrillness. (ArcLight 10, Tues., Nov. 9, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Thurs., Nov. 11, 12:15 p.m.) (EH)

*DAYS AND HOURS (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

After war, life goes on, even for the grief-stricken Bosnian family of this lovely film from director Pjer Zalica (Fuse). Seven years after his cousin died in the conflict, Fuke (Senad Basic) visits his aunt and uncle in their tiny, close-knit village, and at first their talk is banal, mostly about food and broken furnaces. These conversations never grow intensely dramatic — the film requires patience — yet, in the way of family talks, old and new pains find their way into the mix, and gradually, with little fuss, the family’s grip on sadness eases. This is politics made human. (ArcLight 11, Tues., Nov. 9, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Thurs., Nov. 11, 12:30 p.m.) (CW)

*SOUNDLESS (Germany)

In this moody, taut thriller, co-produced by director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Viktor (Joachim Krol), a German hit man, falls in love with the girlfriend of his latest victim. Worried, his bosses mark him for death, even as a fascinated police inspector investigates Viktor’s past and discovers that he first killed at the age of 9. This is a complex tale, wrapped by director Mennan Yapo in a veneer that’s as elegant and cool as Viktor’s preparations for his next hit. While the final confrontation between cop and killer is anticlimactic, the film’s melancholy, secretly romantic undertones linger on. (ArcLight 12, Tues., Nov. 9, 9:45 p.m.; ArcLight 14, Thurs., Nov. 11, 4 p.m.) (CW)

I AM STAMOS (USA)

This recent darling of the film-festival circuit, directed by Rob Meltzer from a screenplay by Meltzer and Alex Eastburg, has proven itself a surefire crowd-pleaser. Credit for that goes to a very good John Stamos, who launched his acting career with a role on TV soap General Hospital but achieved his biggest success on the cheesy sitcom Full House, and here gamely pokes fun at himself. The script’s inspiration lies more in concept than execution. When homely character actor Andy Shrub becomes fed up playing Stamos’ goofy sidekick, fate intercedes and grants him a wish: Through the camera lens, the shlubby guy looks like Stamos, a fact that wreaks havoc on Shrub’s career. Wackiness ensues. (Los Angeles Film School, Wed., Nov. 10, 7 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 13, 1 p.m.) (EH)

*GUERRILLA: THE TAKING OF PATTY HEARST (USA)

Better served by its original, Miramax-vetoed title Neverland, Robert Stone’s scintillating chronicle of the rise and fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army dwells less on the abduction of Patty Hearst than it does on the counterculture that gave rise to her abductors. Through terrific archival footage and compelling new interviews with former SLA members Russ Little and Mike Bortin, Stone expresses clear nostalgia for a moment at which a real revolution seemed possible in America’s streets. But he also acknowledges how quickly those charged with the revolution’s execution OD’ed on their own lost-boy fantasies. (ArcLight 11, Wed., Nov. 10, 7:15 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Thurs., Nov. 11, 1 p.m.) (SF)

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