Art Films Jostle for Attention As Mainstream Movies Flop

EVEN as the major studios watch this season's profits hover below expectations, art-film buffs are enjoying the other side of the summer-movie equation. Recent years have turned the late-July early-September dog days into a heady time for independent and international releases, which jostle for attention as audiences lose interest in played-out Hollywood productions. Examples include:

* The Usual Suspects. ''Who is Keyser Soze?'' read the advertising posters for Bryan Singer's thriller, and while it's not the catchiest slogan ever devised, it sparks appropriate curiosity about the movie's most mysterious character - a villain so elusive that nobody is certain he exists, and so nasty that folks tremble at the sound of his name. The violence is sometimes fierce, but the picture is edited so swiftly that the bad stuff is over almost as soon as it begins. What remains is a clever, sometimes troubling parable about the ability of some individuals to continually reinvent their lives, for better or for worse.

* Jupiter's Wife. Not many documentaries reach commercial screens, but this highly personal production has enough human appeal to make it an audience-pleasing competitor for the many fictions and fantasies on hand. The movie was launched when filmmaker Michel Negroponte met a homeless woman in a New York park and decided to tell her story, which turned out to be full of surprises. The film raises more social-issue questions than it's prepared to answer, and the narration is often pat or simplistic. But the free-spirited animal lover named Maggie Cogan is a character few will forget.

* Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey. Leon Theremin invented the weirdly whining instrument that's heard in the Beach Boys hit ''Good Vibrations'' and a zillion science-fiction movies. This enterprising documentary by Steven M. Martin traces his remarkable life, and features a guest appearance by the grand old inventor himself.

* Hyenas. This sardonic drama focuses on a woman who returns to her long-abandoned village, offers a contribution to its impoverished treasury, and demands that a fearsome price be paid by a man who once wronged her. Although the story is taken from a great European play, ''The Visit'' by Swiss author Friedrich Duerrenmatt, its move to an African setting transforms it into a chilling allegory on the temptations of wealth in the third world - a subject that deeply interests director Djibril Diop Mambety, a giant figure in Senegalese cinema.

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