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 NEW YORK AIDS FILM FESTIVAL
September 16 through 23, Quad

This new festival charts 20 years of medical and social progress through landmarks like An Early Frost (1985) and Philadelphia (1993). In the more recent Travis (1998), a South Bronx tyke writhes in pain for three years, downs experimental drugs, and reciprocates his grandmother's love. In Life's Evening Hour (2000), photographer John Dugdale, blinded by AIDS, transcends the physical to hover in the sublime. His portraits, grainy, blue, and naked, are as stunning as his ability to not merely survive but thrive. The Sky in Her Eyes (2002) is a poignant South African short that drips with sap but beats to a charismatic Zulu soundtrack as an AIDS orphan finds something to smile about. A spate of in-your-face activist films include 6,000 a Day (2001) and Pills, Profits, Protest (2003), two standout docs that speak to the rift between rich and poor in the global pandemic and to the basic themes of the festival: life and death. —Cindra Feuer


TIBET: CRY OF THE SNOW LION
Directed by Tom Peosay
Artistic License, opens September 19

Imagine a country where the head of state is revered because he's regarded as the embodiment of compassion (as opposed to our self-styled "compassion president"). The 1,200-year-old Buddhist theocracy that was once Tibet, where 80 percent of the national budget went into monastic universities, no longer exists. That's the story told in this unabashed propaganda film for the good cause of Tibet's people and their struggle with the Chinese government that now controls that land. Pitched for a sympathetic American audience, the documentary goes for shock with the filmmakers' first trip to "the altar of the world" in 1987, when they happened to be caught in an uprising of monks that was violently crushed by the Chinese army. Historical footage charts Tibet's encounter with its Communist neighbor, but the doc also provides a National Geographic kind of pleasure, where many images are just there to be attractive (though the viewer will likely have no clue why those monks are turning those little brass ornaments in slo-mo). The real drama is the brutally modern oppression of one of the last Buddhist states to resist modernity. —Thulani Davis


WILD STYLE
Directed by Charlie Ahearn
September 17 through 30, Two Boots Pioneer

Hip-hop rolls on tractor treads now, unafraid to colonize those who hesitate, but in 1982 it was small, self-selecting, and as specific to New York as the World Trade Center. Watching Wild Style, it's hard to believe that hip-hop was about to steal away the role of historical yeast from punk. Apparently the film "shattered house records . . . at the Embassy Theater in Times Square," but I remember a midday screening with eight other fiends who came just to see graffiti god Lee Quinones in the flesh.

Comfortable with fruitful wandering and slack time, director Charlie Ahearn reads more like Eric Rohmer than William Friedkin. The plot, such as it is, tracks Zoro (Quinones) on his anxious transition from layups to galleries accompanied by reporter Virginia (Patti Astor). Fab Five Freddy, as uptown ambassador Phade, generates the same pleasant dissonance Divine brought to John Waters movies, looking off to greener pastures and redder carpets in the middle of a low-budge art movie. Double Trouble's magnificent "Stoop Rap" makes you long for a Folkways library of hip-hop field recordings. (The final concert scene in a Lower East Side bandshell seems positively anthropological now.) Heads complained about Blondie's Chris Stein getting the soundtrack gig, but his clanky instrumentals are as perfectly off-center and adorable as the rest of the movie. Wild Style shows hip-hop when it was just some New York shit, one of many things to do on Saturday night. It had to learn to become hegemonic. —Sasha Frere-Jones


MAMBO ITALIANO
Directed by Emile Gaudreault
Samuel Goldwyn/IDP, opens September 19

Old annoying ethnic family stereotypes meet new annoying gay-relationship stereotypes in this candidate for Kiss Me Guido's heretofore uncontested niche. The nebbishy son of a backa-da-head-slapping, cannoli-mangia-ing Italian immigrant family in Montreal faces a madcap dilemma after coming out, not least due to his round-the-way boyfriend, who'd prefer to remain on the DL. Soon the neighborhood is talking, and the couple's parents heatedly debate which son is "doin' the bangin'." Produced with predictably campy post-Almodóvar candy-colored cartoonishness, Mambo serves decent performances in its genre's cookie-cutter fashion, and the Canadian setting offers some unusual cultural twists (" 'Ockey woulda made-a him normal!" screams phobic dad Paul Sorvino, adding a Canuck twist to English as she is spoke), but despite scattered, politically incorrect laughs, the pic devolves into self-referential sitcom platitudes. —Ed Halter


SECONDHAND LIONS
Written and directed by Tim McCanlies
New Line, opens September 19

Corn, corn, corn—nothing but corn!" exclaims Hub (Robert Duvall), one of Secondhand Lions' grumpy old men, upon discovering that a supposed variety of seeds have sprouted into rows of the same old vegetable. Could it also be Duvall's judgment of this life-lesson-chocked story? Hub and brother Garth (Michael Caine) sit on the porch of their house in the middle of nowhere, sipping iced tea and unloading shotguns at traveling salesmen who want to tap into the codgers' rumored millions. A flighty relation (Kyra Sedgwick) drops off her son, Walter (Haley Joel Osment), in hopes of having them will him the ka-ching. HJO, his voice pubertally low, seems profoundly embarrassed every time a sound emerges from his throat. The self-consciousness is unintentionally touching, but it wet-blankets the film into a thirdhand lark. —Ed Park

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