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After the Lights Go Down

Photos by Enrique Goded (top) Xiao (center)

Year after year, the prospects get brighter for festivalgoers in Los Angeles, with the American Film Institute and the Independent Film Project’s Los Angeles Film Festival vying (in a friendly way, of course) for recognition as the L.A. showcase for domestic and international independents. (Meanwhile, numerous special-interest festivals — Outfest, the Pan-African Film Festival, the Visual Communication (VC) Festival of Asian-Pacific Film, et al. — work hard each year to keep their own profiles up.) For 2004, the AFI Fest lineup, from opening through closing galas, boasts 136 films from 42 countries, including 24 world premieres, 11 North American premieres and 28 U.S. premieres. The film staff at L.A. Weekly managed to see a bunch of them, and here’s what’s up. For tickets and information, call (866) AFI-FEST (231-3378), visit the AFI box office at the ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd. (open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.), or visit their site.

*SYMMETRY (Poland)

Unfolding with the intense dread and darkness of a Dostoyevsky novel, this tale of a man wrongly imprisoned showcases a fascinating character arc. Meek, educated, 20-something Lukasz finds himself at the mercy of both sadistic guards and an inmate hierarchy whose violence and complex codes he has to master or fall victim to. Writer-director Konrad Niewolski does a fine job capturing the gradual shifts in Lukasz, from his struggle to protect himself to the pride he eventually feels in being accepted by the dregs of society. Then, when freedom is just within his reach, Lukasz is forced to choose which world he really belongs to. (ArcLight 11, Fri., Nov. 5, 7 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 6, 2:30 p.m.) (Ernest Hardy)

*THE WOODSMAN (USA)

Kevin Bacon gives a startling, grimly intense performance as a recently paroled pedophile readjusting to life on the outside in this risky and thoroughly impressive debut feature. Director Nicole Kassell pulls no punches in her depiction of social attitudes toward sex offenders, but what is most remarkable (and unsettling) is the way she leads us to see the world through her protagonist’s eyes and to feel his gnawing, paralyzing fear of succumbing, at any moment, to familiar temptations. With excellent support from Kyra Sedgwick (as Bacon’s co-worker and love interest), Mos Def (as a dogged detective) and the extraordinary child actress Hannah Pilkes (as a precocious young girl in a red riding hood). (ArcLight 10, Fri., Nov. 5, 7 p.m.) (Scott Foundas)

DÍAS DE SANTIAGO (Peru)

Santiago (Pietro Sibille) is a ticking bomb, a young soldier released from the anti-terrorism campaigns of Peru’s military onto streets of poverty and neglect. With more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle — Santiago holds a dialogue with himself that combines De Niro’s “You talking to me?” soliloquy with the “This is this” speech from The Deer Hunter — the bullet-headed young man seems destined for explosive violence. But writer-director Josue Mendez undermines Sibille’s fierce performance with arbitrary technique, including distracting jumps from color to black-and-white. By the end, as he pours depravity upon depravity, Mendez’s vision comes undone. (ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 5, 7:15 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 6, 3 p.m.) (Jon Strickland)

*HEAD ON (Germany)

Fatih Akin’s alternately cheerful and forlorn portrait of a Hamburg punk rocker crashing into the dark forest of middle age — and of his encounter with the suicidal young Beatrice who may manage, if inadvertently, to lead him out of it — picked up the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and deservedly so. Life and death battle mightily for the souls of two first-generation Turkish-Germans — alcoholic slacker Cahit (Mick/Keith look-alike Birol Ünel) and middle-class rebel girl Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) — amid a degenerate city ambiance straight outta Fassbinder. Meanwhile a Turkish pop group, seated against a backdrop of the Bosporus and Istanbul’s gorgeous Aya Sofia mosque, provides occasional narration — and a welcome distraction from the misery of Mitteleuropa. (ArcLight 10, Fri., Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m.; Arclight 13, Mon., Nov. 8, noon) (Ron Stringer)

ROCK FRESH (USA)

Using the world of graffiti artists and their assorted struggles as source material, director Danny Lee shows how this relatively new art-world category (“aerosol arts”) contains the same struggles that have plagued artists forever: the struggle to strike a balance between artistry and the demands of commerce; the struggle to balance day jobs with the time needed for creativity, etc. With a hip-hop and trip-hop soundtrack to remind you that this is not your granny’s tortured artist, and with settings from inner-city street corners to downtown L.A. to Tokyo, this urban essay on a decidedly urban art form embodies the grittiness of the world it captures. (ArcLight 12, Fri., Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 13, 9:45 p.m.) (EH)

*ONG BAK: THAI WARRIOR (Thailand)

A glimpse into the airborne future of the martial-arts movie. Muay Thai kickboxing prodigy Phanom Yeerum (re-named Tony Jaa for his U.S. debut) never needs to be hoisted on wires to catch more air than Michael Jordan; he then plummets down, like death from above, in a flurry of bone-crushing knees and elbows, upon a succession of hapless opponents. Playing an earnest young village lad searching for a stolen religious idol in the decadent lower depths of Bangkok, Yeerum has a likably bashful manner when he isn’t kicking ass, and director Prachya Pinkaew (999-9999) is a real discovery, a witty orchestrator of human and vehicular mayhem. Two thumbs way up. (ArcLight 14, Fri., Nov. 5, 9:45 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Sun., Nov. 7, 2 p.m.) (David Chute)

*NOTRE MUSIQUE (Switzerland/France)

Modeled on Dante’s Divine Comedy, this brilliant, eminently quotable new film by Jean-Luc Godard follows a filmmaker (played by Godard) as he travels to a literary conference in postwar Sarajevo, where he meets (among others) a circumspect Palestinian journalist, an Israeli woman hell-bent on martyrdom and a coterie of disenfranchised American Indians. Perhaps the most easily accessible of recent Godard movies, Notre Musique is less explicitly about the Bosnian and Israeli conflicts than it is a mournful and exceptionally relevant reverie on several centuries of global terrorism and human suffering, from the blood-curdling montage that opens the film to the image of a heaven guarded by U.S. soldiers that caps it. (ArcLight 14, Sat., Nov. 6, 4 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 12, 9:30 p.m.) (SF)

INNOCENT VOICES (Mexico)

First-time screenwriter Oscar Torres supposedly based this tale of a 12-year-old boy’s odyssey through war-torn 1980s El Salvador on his own life story, and director Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle) returned to his native Mexico — following a decade of anonymous, big-studio assignments — to make it. Together, they aspire to show us the absurdities of war as seen through a child’s eyes, à la Forbidden Games and Hope and Glory. The most absurd thing, though, is how pat the whole movie feels. It’s canned triumph-over-adversity tale proves that while you may be able to take the hack out of Hollywood . . . (ArcLight 11, Sat., Nov. 6, 7 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Mon., Nov. 8, 1 p.m.) (SF)

*THE TAKE (Canada)

An earnest if overly talky documentary on a fascinating subject — the expropriation by more than 15,000 Argentine workers of businesses closed during the recent economic collapse. Claiming a debt to the community after the massive government subsidies handed to business by the Menem government, workers at auto-parts forges and tile factories are shown occupying and restarting the plants, then running them as collectives. If director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein are too apt to insert themselves into the proceedings, this remains an inspiring account of the type of participatory socialism observers of the global economy have long declared dead. (ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 6, 7:15 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 7, 12:30 p.m.) (JS)

A PANTHER IN AFRICA (Tanzania)

Former Black Panther Pete O’Neal fled America for Tanzania over 30 years ago, after being arrested on false criminal charges. Having turned his exile into a continuation of the political work he did in America (utilizing the Panthers’ programs for educating and feeding the poor), O’Neal and his activist wife, Charlotte, have carved out lives of community service while battling the elements, poverty and recurring illness. What gives Aaron Matthews’ film its poignancy is O’Neal’s painfully articulated sense of being a man without a country. And when he speaks of his anguish over the pimp lifestyle he led before becoming a Panther, his voice crackles with regret and remorse. (ArcLight 12, Sat., Nov. 6, 7:15 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 9, 1 p.m.) (EH)

*THE OTHER SIDE OF AIDS (USA)

This cinematic hand grenade makes a convincing case that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, tracing the unchallenged belief to political agendas, government laziness and indifference and corporate greed. Having filled his documentary with reasoned arguments by political activists, medical experts and celebrated professors who don’t adhere to the HIV-AIDS connection, director Robin Scovill clears plenty of space for the conventional thinkers to make their case, and he doesn’t ridicule or dismiss them. But their arguments seem flimsy and unconvincing when stacked against the counter viewpoints, and the film sizzles within that gap of opinion. (ArcLight 12, Sat., Nov. 6, 9:45 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 8, 4 p.m.) (EH)

INVITATION TO A SUICIDE (USA)

In Brooklyn’s Little Poland, Kaz (Pablo Schreiber) is into a neighborhood gangster (Matthew Rauch, terrific) for 10 grand, and unless he pays up fast, his baker father is a dead man. Eureka! Kaz decides to sell tickets to his own suicide, an act of desperation that’s never as amusing as writer-director Loren Marsh apparently intends. Suicide as comedy is a tough sell, and it doesn’t help that Kaz is surrounded by callously shrieking old men, including his ungrateful father. Schreiber has an innate, sweet melancholy, which plays nicely off the worldly Katherine Moennig, portraying Kaz’s would-be girlfriend. They deserve a suicide-free love story. (ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 6, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Mon., Nov. 8, 4 p.m.) (Chuck Wilson)

*SECONDHAND CHILD (Germany)

This winner of the Children’s Jury Prize at the 2004 Montreal Film Festival, written by newcomer Michael Demuth and directed by German TV veteran Karola Hattop, plays enough like the after-school version of Shona Auerbach’s excellent Dear Frankie that you have to wonder who may have influenced whom. No matter. Despite one or two painful plot contortions and a syrupy score, Secondhand Child makes its points about absent dads and the longing for family connection with considerable eloquence, thanks in large part to strong performances by Michael von Au as a reluctant surrogate parent and Frederick Lau as the latchkey kid and social outcast who adopts him. (ArcLight 13, Sun., Nov. 7, 2:30 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Tues., Nov. 9, 7:15 p.m.) (RS)

*THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOON (Canada)

A movie nearly as impossible to describe as it is wondrous to behold, Canadian film and theater director Robert LePage’s The Far Side of the Moon is a deliriously clever, visually spectacular human-scaled epic about man’s eternal yearning to better understand his own place in the cosmos. In a dazzling dual performance that rivals Nicolas Cage’s in Adaptation, LePage plays two radically different brothers — one a vain TV weatherman, the other a neurotic graduate student — but the film is less a straightforward narrative than it is a series of interconnected musings on childhood, love, loneliness and the narcissism of space exploration. (ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 7, 3 p.m.) (SF)

QUIET AS A MOUSE (Germany)

Director Marcus Mittermeier and writer Jan Henrik Stahlberg’s mockumentary, about one untermensch’s vigilante crusade to apprehend and punish jaywalkers, shoplifters, turnstile-jumpers and even darker manifestations of a godless age, starts out a promising enough satire of German fastidiousness in observance of the social contract — any social contract — then, having run out of ideas, begins to rely more and more on a series of Gaspar Noé-ish shock effects. The movie plows ahead at a decent clip, taking cheap shots at stationary targets, but don’t expect anything resembling I Stand Alone’s formal or philosophical rigor. (ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 7, 6:45 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 10, 3:30 p.m.) (RS)

AFTERMATH (Denmark)

Danish actress Paprika Steen (Mifune, The Celebration) makes her directorial debut with this harrowing examination of loss. Taking a different tack from recent middlebrow weepies like In the Bedroom, the film presents a couple’s grief over the death of their daughter from the outside, as they become insufferable in their hypersensitivity, abusive in their single-minded pain. The broken life of the drunken driver who killed the girl (Karen-Lise Mynster) provides the film’s most sympathetic moments, while the parents of the dead girl find some catharsis in action, but little is resolved in this unrelentingly bleak film. (ArcLight 11, Sun., Nov. 7, 7 p.m.; Tues., Nov. 9, 3 p.m.) (JS)

DOWNTOWN: A STREET TALE (USA)

What happens when a young white couple from Texas (read: innocence personified) stumbles onto the stylishly distressed, bombed-out New York squatter’s lair of a multi-culti band of hookers, addicts, homos and their stuttering autistic mascot? In Rafal Zielinski’s Downtown, from a script by Joey Dedio, the result is a hackneyed, cliché-addled attempt at uplift and affirmation. The dialogue is dross, the performances are right out of an acting-school exercise, and everyone in the cast (save Geneviève Bujold) has a strained air of grit and/or nobility. The whole thing is undisguisedly inauthentic and, more often than not, unintentionally hilarious. (ArcLight 10, Sun., Nov. 7, 7 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 10, 3 p.m.) (EH)

BAD EDUCATION (Spain) (and Pedro Amodóvar tribute)

Having wobbled a few years ago through a handful of films, the great and hugely influential Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar returned to form with the wise, emotionally calibrated All About My Mother, a work that synthesized the outrageousness of his enfant-terrible stage (Law of Desire, What Have I Done To Deserve This?) with a newfound maturity. This tribute, which unfortunately doesn’t feature any of his brash early work, does include the films Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Live Flesh, All About My Mother and the Academy Award–winning Talk to Her. The centerpiece is Bad Education, starring international “it” boy Gael Garcia Bernal as a former Catholic schoolboy turned cross-dressing chanteuse and aspiring movie star. But nothing is quite what it seems in this noirish film of double identities, stories within stories and sexual one-upmanship. Almodóvar himself has said the film is his darkest since Matador, but it also vaguely evokes Law of Desire in its exploration of the damage done by a Catholic priest upon an angelic young boy, and the far-reaching consequences of thwarted love. Bernal gives a ballsy performance, one that cements his rep as one of the most fearless and interesting actors working today. Here, the diminutive heartthrob is teamed with one of the few modern directors who really knows how to capture male beauty, and the collaboration sparkles. (Bad Education, Cinerama Dome, Sun., Nov. 7, 8 p.m.; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, ArcLight 10, Tues., Nov. 9, noon; Live Flesh, ArcLight 10, Wed., Nov. 10, noon; All About My Mother, ArcLight 10, Thurs., Nov. 11, noon; Talk to Her, ArcLight 10, Fri., Nov. 12, noon) (EH)

*RAHTREE: FLOWER OF THE NIGHT (Thailand)

“Thai phantoms aren’t like American ones,” growls a sorehead Bangkok landlady, whose tenants now include a blood-spattered, ghostly squatter. Onto a solid base of slangy urban farce this horror comedy adds layers of sly parody (skewering everything from The Exorcist to the 1999 Thai shocker Nang Nak) while also telling a surprisingly heartfelt story about a pretty scholarship student (Chermarn Boonyasak) who dies during a botched abortion and returns as a vengeful zombie. The vertiginous plot twist needed to extract even an ironic happy ending from this grim premise confirms writer-director Yuthlert Sippapak (Killer Tattoo) as a rising star of the Thai cinema renaissance. (ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 12,Tues., Nov. 9, 4 p.m.) (DC)

*THE RABBIT ON THE MOON (Mexico/U.K.)

When a young husband and father attempts to better life for his family by investing in some prime real estate, he’s unwittingly drawn into a web of political intrigue that stretches from Mexico to England and will rip his family apart. Writer-director Jorge Ramirez-Suarez has crafted a sleek and effective thriller in which the ever-twisting plot ratchets up the tension to near unbearable levels. His is a Mexico that is simultaneously ultra-cosmopolitan yet deeply in the grip of age-old but still vital government corruption. A top-notch cast and taut screenplay are the foundation for this sure-footed Rabbit. (ArcLight 14, Sun., Nov. 7, 10 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 8, 4:30 p.m.) (EH)

THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS (U.K.)

One of the bolder strokes of this year’s AFI Fest is its inclusion of Asia Argento’s sophomore feature, about a young boy, his white-trash mother (a blond Argento, channeling Courtney Love) and her series of abusive boyfriends (played by the likes of Jeremy Sisto and Marilyn Manson). Adapted from the cult novel by JT LeRoy, the movie is nothing if not a provocation — a phantasmagorical orgy of child abuse, incest and gender transmutation that makes Tarnation look like something the whole family can enjoy. As with Argento’s infamous debut, Scarlet Diva, many viewers will simply be repulsed. But I’d be lying if I called the film boring, or denied that some of its crudely lyrical images stick in your head for days afterward. (ArcLight 10, Mon., Nov. 8, 9:30 p.m.) (SF)

OMAGH (Ireland/U.K.)

A violent terrorist attack occurs, and the ensuing investigation reveals a rat’s nest of suppressed intelligence and miscommunication between government agencies. Though the story sounds familiar, the date in question in director Pete Travis’ unnerving docudrama isn’t September 11, 2001, but rather August 15, 1998, when a car bomb claimed the lives of some 29 victims in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh. Co-scripted and produced by Paul Greengrass, Omagh functions as a companion piece of sorts to Greengrass’ own Bloody Sunday, but Travis shifts his emphasis from the tragic event itself to the aftermath, as surviving parents, spouses and friends struggle to reassemble their own lives out of so much emotional and physical shrapnel. (ArcLight 14, Mon., Nov. 8, 9:45 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 10, 4 p.m.) (SF)

LET’S ROCK AGAIN! (USA)

Given that insufferable frauds like Avril Lavigne and countless indie boy bands are now considered “punk,” a documentary on the late Joe Strummer is most timely. Unfortunately, as the camera follows the former Clash member on a tour that took him and his last band, the Mescaleros, from Japan to America, director Dick Rude’s documentary is often a slight, unsatisfying affair. (The opening credits, though, are pure adrenaline.) And while footage of Strummer passing out handmade fliers on the Atlantic City boardwalk in order to drum up a crowd for the night’s show will jab at your heart, scenes of him performing, or explaining to an interviewer why he (Strummer) is a hack, remind you what a golden man he was. (ArcLight 13, Mon., Nov. 8, 10 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 10, 3:30 p.m.) (EH)

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)

*RHYTHM IS IT! (Germany)

This superb documentary tracks an unlikely collaboration between the Berlin Philharmonic and 250 area schoolchildren, mostly teenagers with little concept of classical music. The plan is for the kids to train for and develop a dance to accompany the orchestra’s rendition of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Focusing on a few key kids, co-directors Thomas Grube and Enrique Sanchez Lausch capture the bravery with which they move into uncharted territory — particularly Martin, a naturally gifted dancer with a fear of being touched. Watching him and his newfound colleagues awaken not only to the music but the unexpected grace of their own bodies is a beautiful thing. (ArcLight 13, Wed., Nov. 10, 7:15 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 12, 1 p.m.) (CW)

ETHAN MAO (USA/Canada)

After being kicked out of his suburban home for being gay, Ethan hits the streets, turning to drugs and selling his ass to survive. A fateful return home escalates into a violent standoff between the boy and his family: hardened father, bitchy stepmom, mild-mannered younger brother and spoiled jock stepbrother. Director Quentin Lee’s script is filled with leaden dialogue while his characters (almost all badly performed) range from half-baked to shrilly over-the-top. Like many contemporary American filmmakers, Lee mistakes arming his underdog with a gun for radical, subversive cultural representation. The imagery might sizzle for a moment, but it fizzes without substantive insights to back it up. (ArcLight 12, Wed., Nov. 10, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 13, Sat., Nov. 13, 12:30 p.m.) (EH)

HOTEL RWANDA (U.K./South Africa/Italy)

A prime example of what Pauline Kael meant when she suggested that “The subject of a movie should not place it beyond criticism.” Writer-director Terry George and co-screenwriter Keir Pearson labor so excruciatingly to turn the 1994 Rwandan genocide into an uplifting, inspirational story — by focusing on the mild-mannered hotel manager (Don Cheadle) whose heroic efforts saved the lives of some 1,200 people — that they end up cauterizing it. The movie feels counterfeit through and through, with the major exception of Cheadle’s performance, which is extraordinary. (ArcLight 10, Thurs., Nov. 11, 7 p.m.) (SF)

*DUCK SEASON (Mexico)

Set largely in a middle-class apartment over a span of 12 hours, Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season is a compressed, gilded coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old best friends Flama and Mok Pablo are typically vacuous teenagers — bodies filled with sugary, greasy junk food, brains consumed by Xbox. But when the 16-year-old girl next door and a beleaguered pizza delivery guy enter the picture, the vacuum-sealed world becomes one in which burgeoning sexualities, disintegrating families and the crushing blows of life are grappled with through gently comedic touches and observations. Shot in black-and-white with cool visual flourishes. (ArcLight 14, Thurs., Nov. 11, 7:15 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 13, 1:30 p.m.) (EH)

*GAY REPUBLICANS (USA)

Director Wash Westmoreland (The Fluffer) returns with a timely, riveting look at queer Republicans and the anguish some have suffered under the gay-baiting Bush administration. Even more fascinating than those who’ve been hurt by Bush’s homophobic pandering are those who not only defend it, but take part in it. The film follows four individuals (a lesbian businesswoman, a former Mormon, a West Hollywood Reaganite and a Palm Beach hairstylist) as they come to terms with their political affiliation in relation to their sexual orientation. You may grind your teeth into dust watching the self-hating contortions into which some of them proudly fold themselves. (ArcLight 12, Thurs., Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Sat., Nov. 13, 1 p.m.) (EH)

*BLACKBALLED: THE BOBBY DUKES STORY (USA)

First-time writer-director Brant Sersen assembles a talented cast around Rob Corddry (TV’s The Daily Show) as a disgraced paintball hero, with members of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe as the motley crew he bands together to mount his comeback. Set in the lowbrow mid-America of Dodgeball and the Farrellys, this mockumentary nevertheless stays closer to the improvisational takes of Christopher Guest. If Sersen never hits the Guestian high mark, and Corddry’s deadpan grin refuses to translate to the big screen, there are still some funny moments from Rob Riggle’s sociopath and Rob Huebel as Dukes’ supercilious rival. (ArcLight 10, Thurs., Nov. 11, 10 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 13, 4 p.m.) (JS)

VOODOO, MOUNTED BY THE GODS (Benin/Germany/Switzerland)

Photojournalist Alberto Venzago risked life and limb (and, presumably, having his head shrunk) over the 10 years that he filmed the people of West Africa’s Mawu-Lissa cult. However, despite Venzago’s intimate access to his subjects, his movie exudes the repugnant exoticism of such ethnographic “shockumentaries” as Mondo Cane and Shocking Asia , right down to the way all the color has been drained out of the images, save for the bright red of gushing blood. ( ArcLight 13, Thurs., Nov. 11, 10 p.m.; ArcLight 11, Fri., Nov. 12, 9:30 p.m. ) (SF)

 

*THE GREAT WATER (Republic of Macedonia)

Ivo Trajkov’s beautifully shot tale of a brutal orphanage reeducating children in Tito’s Yugoslavia recalls both the hallucinatory child’s view of The Tin Drum and the morally charged realism of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Water tells its story through flashback, as politician Lem Nikodonski falls into a coma, revisiting his youth in the home and his friendship with the mysterious, charismatic fellow student Isaac. The film tempers its Orwellian theme of truth as a last refuge from totalitarianism with moments of moonlit magic and gleeful absurdity — an injured boy returns bandaged like a mummy, while a pair of red exercise shorts becomes a highly charged symbol of the brave new world of Tito and Stalin. (ArcLight 12, Fri., Nov. 12, 7:15 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 13, 1:30 p.m.) (JS)

*TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE (USA)

In this documentary about Haskell Wexler, the famed cinematographer’s son, Mark, pays tribute to his father’s career while simultaneously wrestling with the public and private personalities of a man he feels he hardly knows. The result is a revealing and balanced portrait of the artist as irascible autodidact, committed social crusader and deeply flawed father figure. Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen and a radiant Jane Fonda are among those who join in the discussion on both filmmaking and child-rearing matters, with a particularly fascinating segment devoted to Wexler’s direction of the Fonda-produced Vietnam documentary Introduction to the Enemy. (ArcLight 10, Fri., Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.) (SF)

MALACHANCE (Mexico/USA)

Writer-director Gerardo Naranjo’s debut wears its influences on its sleeve, from the loving tracking shots of a faded New Orleans that seem to come straight from Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, to Robert Phelps’ Lynchian turn as The Dutch, a small-time crime boss for whom the dour Mika (James Ransone) runs drugs. But just when the film seems settled into a rote Mean Streets homage, Mika gets out of the game, heading for Coney Island and a fresh chance. The New York scenes are gentler, less anxious, revealing hidden depths in Ransone and featuring a sweet turn from Nancy Anne Ridder as a big-hearted coworker. (ArcLight 13, Fri., Nov. 12, 9:45 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 14, noon) (JS)

*A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN (USA)

This slick documentary reminds us early on that “more Americans bowled last year than voted.” Often affectionate, sometimes (intentionally and otherwise) veering into parody — a few of the husband-and-wife teams act suspiciously like couples in a Christopher Guest film — League moves from a deftly cut archival history of bowling as the first great televised sport (lots of good mullet footage here), through its decline in the ’90s, to recent attempts by the Professional Bowlers Association and its Machiavellian CEO, Steve Miller, to revive the sport. Following four bowlers with very different backgrounds and styles, director Christopher Browne builds tension for the climactic duel. (ArcLight 12, Fri., Nov. 12, 9:45 p.m.; ArcLight 10, Sun., Nov. 14, 3 p.m.) (JS)

*INFERNAL AFFAIRS TRILOGY (Hong Kong)

Seeing these three almost too-ingenious deep-cover thrillers back-to-back and on the big screen is probably the best way to absorb them — at least before Martin Scorsese condenses them into one for a projected 2006 release. The first installment, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, is a masterful set of variations on a diabolically clever premise: the long-distance rivalry between two undercover moles. Yan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, from In the Mood for Love) plays a cop posing as a Triad gangster, while Ming (Andy Lau Tat-wah) is a Triad gangster posing as a cop. During one very long night, the existence of both moles is revealed — but not their identities. However deliciously twisty the plot gets, we never lose sight of the moral ambiguities that haunt these characters, their staunch though opposed codes of loyalty and duty versus their day-to-day lives, founded on deceit. I.A. 2 (2003) is a prequel in which Edison Chen and Shawn Yue (introduced in I.A. 1) take over as green young versions of Ming and Yan, whom they do not at all resemble, as we follow the more straightforward story of their recruitment and corruption. I.A. 3 (2003) is in some respects the masterpiece of the series, as one of the moles from I.A. 1 desperately strives to redeem himself in a battle of wits with a fast-rising cool-shark investigator (Leon Lai Mai). It’s a virtuoso interweaving of past, future and near-present timelines, in which crucial events are sandwiched in between those of the earlier two chapters. Thriller-genre contrivances are so layered and braided here that they achieve an almost abstract level of perfection. (Infernal Affairs 1: ArcLight 12, Sat., Nov. 13, 4:45 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 14, 1:30 p.m. Infernal Affairs 2: ArcLight 12, Sat., Nov. 13, 4:45 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 14, 1:30 p.m. Infernal Affairs 3: ArcLight 12, Sat., Nov. 13, 9:30 p.m.; ArcLight 12, Sun., Nov. 14, 7 p.m.) (DC)