Short reviews of some of the first-week offerings.

friday

HELI

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1:30 p.m.; also 4:45 p.m. April 11 (Mexico)

Amat Escalante was named best director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for this unflinching take on Mexico’s drug war and its repercussions on innocents unfairly tangled in its web. It deals with the issue in a circuitous way, delving into the lives of a working poor family. Heli lives with his wife and baby as well as his father and preteen sister. The sister is dating a police cadet who steals drugs during his training. Things spiral out of control. The imagery is equal parts ugly and beautiful as the tale descends into a nightmare most could never conceive. (105 min.)

ERIK MCCLANAHAN

stay then go

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7 p.m. (USA)

At first, Minneapolis filmmaker Shelli Ainsworth’s semi-autobiographical look at what it’s like to be the mother of a young man with autism seems like a slight if touching tale whose audience might not reach far past those who share the same experience. But a didn’t-see-that-coming surprise kicks things up a notch, and subtle performances by Janel Moloney (“The West Wing”) as the mother, Marion, and Matt Kane as her son, Eddie, elevate the story to a more nuanced reflection on parenting, sacrifice, grief and letting go. (103 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

sHARON ISBIN: TROUBADOuR

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7:30 p.m.; also 1:45 p.m. Sun. (USA)

“Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” is an odd and inadequate title for an hourlong, TV-style documentary about one of the world’s preeminent classical guitarists. Directed by PBS veteran Susan Dangel, it feels a bit like a hagiography, with gratuitous testimonials from the likes of Martina Navratilova and Janis Ian (neither of whom is identified by name). But this work will be of compelling local interest because Isbin is from St. Louis Park (Minneapolis, according to the film), and her early breaks were related to Minnesota Orchestra competitions. The woman who once dreamed of becoming a rocket scientist talks about how in the guitar world she had to fight as a woman, and how in the classical world she had to fight as a guitarist. Fearless, pushy and persistent, she has become a virtuoso. (60 min.)

jon bream

Breathe in

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9:55 p.m.; also 7:20 p.m. Mon. (USA)

Despite two excellent lead performances by Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, “Breathe In,” never rises above its melodramatic Lolita-esque story line. The family dynamic of music teacher Keith (Pearce) and housewife Megan (an underused Amy Ryan) is thrown off-kilter with the arrival of British exchange student Sophie (Jones), staying with them and their high-school daughter for the semester. When Keith discovers Sophie is an exceptional pianist, he begins pushing the boundaries of their new relationship, while pushing his family further away. Director Drake Doremus’ (“Like Crazy”) overwrought romance falters with a bland and predictable emotional connection. (98 min.)

JIM BRUNZELL III

saturday

SAGRADA: THE MYSTERY OF CREATION

11:05 a.m.; also 6:30 p.m. April 13 (Switzerland)

The never-ending construction of one of the Western world’s greatest modern wonders, the towering fantasy cathedral La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, has potential to yield a new and fascinating story with each turn of its vertigo-inducing winding staircases. The grand final dream of eccentric visionary architect Gaudi, the century-old project is a noble testament to the wishes of Barcelona’s favorite son. But the only mystery here is why, even for architecture geeks, this documentary is duller than watching stucco dry. (89 min.)

KRISTIN TILLOTSON

Ilo Ilo

⋆⋆⋆½

1:05 p.m.; also 4:40 p.m. April 17 (Singapore)

Mike Leigh fans will love the heart-tugging mix of domestic drama and humor in writer/director Anthony Chen’s feature debut, which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Set in Singapore, it’s a kitchen-sink chamber quartet featuring a hard-pressed middle-class couple, their bright but bratty young son and a Filipina woman they hire to help out. Rich with precisely observed detail, the film elicits sympathy but never pity for its characters — especially the pregnant mom, who becomes jealous of the growing bond between her troubled boy and the plucky maid he calls “Auntie Terry.” Young actor Koh Jia Ler’s brave performance recalls “The 400 Blows,” he’s that great. (96 min.)

TIM CAMPBELL

Waltz for Monica

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5:05 p.m.; also 4:15 p.m. Wed. (Sweden)

Stylish and sexy, “Waltz for Monica” is a biopic about the late Swedish jazz singer and actress Monica Zetterlund (radiant Edda Magnason), tracing her trajectory from small-town telephone switchboard operator to troubled star in the early 1960s. A gig singing jazz standards in New York City ends in failure after a racist audience reaction to the beautiful blonde’s appearance with a black male trio, but leads to an encounter with Ella Fitzgerald, who advises Monica to sing about her own life. Back in Sweden, she starts performing in her native tongue, winning fans and fame. “Waltz” flirts with “Behind the Music” territory but stays engaging. (111 min.)

Marci Schmitt

COHERENCE

⋆⋆½

7 p.m.; also 7:10 p.m. Sun. (USA)

Writer/director James Ward Byrkit’s sci-fi mystery is mystifying and frustrating. Four couples meet for a dinner party. Later that evening, a comet flies across the sky, the power goes out and weird and unsettling things begin to happen. Seeing a lone house down the street with its lights on, two men leave to call for help. When they return, even stranger revelations occur. Byrkit’s story has plenty of twists and turns before losing credibility and momentum. An unsatisfactory conclusion ruins an engaging and promising idea. (89 min.)

JIM BRUNZELL III

UGLY

⋆⋆½

7:35 p.m.; also 9:20 p.m. Tue. (India)

On a crowded Mumbai street, a young girl disappears from a car as her divorced father, a wannabe actor, is taking a meeting nearby with his casting-director pal. It appears she’s been kidnapped, possibly by someone hoping that mom’s new man, a high-ranking cop, will pay the ransom. As this standard psychological thriller unfolds, it’s hard to tell whether director Anurag Kashyap (previously acclaimed at Cannes for the two-part crime epic “Gangs of Wasseypur,” also playing at this fest) is intentionally damning ever-encroaching Western values or if canned iPhone rings truly have become the most recognizable sound in the world. Don’t expect a Hollywood ending — there’s no one to champion among this sorry lot of soulless connivers. (128 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

GOOGLE AND THE WORLD BRAIN

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7:45 p.m.; also 6 p.m. April 12 (UK)

Ben Lewis’ cautionary documentary about Google’s efforts to digitize all the world’s books is well-intended but poorly focused. It deals almost exclusively with chump-change copyright battles between the information giant and authors whose works — held at Google-friendly libraries like the University of Michigan — were included without their permission. That angle deflects attention from the book-scannning project’s real implications, the creation of artificial intelligence that could devastate the middle-class professions. Lewis leans heavily on sinister music and dystopian prophecies from H.G. Wells’ pessimistic last essay “Mind at the End of Its Tether” (available, by the way, on Google Books). (90 min.)

COLIN COVERT

Just a Sigh (Le Temps de l’Aventure)

⋆⋆⋆½

9:30 p.m.; also 4:30 p.m. April 17 (France)

Jittery struggling actress of a certain age Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) exchanges glances with a handsome sad-eyed Londoner (Gabriel Byrne) on the train from Calais to Paris. They speak briefly, but she’s unable to give him directions to the church he’s seeking. After a discouraging audition, and unable to reach her longtime boyfriend after her cellphone battery dies, she impulsively tracks the man down at the funeral he’s attending, and then to his hotel room. He’s not frightened but bewitched. “Just a Sigh” charms, with its scenes of street musicians, philosophical debates and headstrong romance, as much as it poses dilemmas of fate and desire. (104 min.)

Marci Schmitt

CANNIBAL

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9:50 p.m.; also 9:45 p.m. April 14 (Spain/Romania/Russia/France)

After its creepy opening death scene, this deliberately slow-paced drama begins taking shape in writer/director Manuel Martin Cuenca’s oddly confident character study. Carlos (Antonio de la Torre) is the best tailor in beautiful Granada. He kills women, drains their blood and cooks them up for his consumption with no remorse. When Nina (Olimpia Melinte, in dual roles), the sister of one of his victims, shows up, Carlos begins to feel real affection for her. Cuenca’s mixture of beauty and grotesquerie brings enough edginess to Carlos’ murderous and loving ways. (116 min.)

JIM BRUNZELL III

R100

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11 p.m.; also 10:15 p.m. April 13 (Japan)

To call this Midnight Movie entry “not for everyone” is understating it. But connoisseurs of weird, twisted sex comedy will revel in its transgressive, audacious mischief. Hitoshi Matsumoto’s film follows a milquetoast salaryman who enlivens his dull existence by signing a yearlong contract with a strange S & M escort agency. The firm dispatches dominatrixes to dish out comically harsh thrashings in public, at work, even at home. He should have read the contract’s fine print: There’s no escape clause. Nao Ohmori underplays deliciously as the hapless client even as the film opens up outrageous new subplots and metafictional detours that further multiply the lunacy. (100 min.)

COLIN COVERT

sunday

GANGS OF WASSEYPUR

(Parts 1 & 2)

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12:45 p.m. (part 1) and 3:55 p.m. (part 2) (India)

– 159 min.)

JIM BRUNZELL III

THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM

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1:25 p.m.; also 4:40 p.m. Tue. (Sesotho)

“Forgotten Kingdom” opens with some major Harmony Korine vibes — bustling Johannesburg, with booze-swilling, shoplifting, nightclubbing youth running amok. The party quickly ends for one of those youngsters, Atang Mokoenya (the fantastic, understated Zenzo Ngqobe), as he’s forced to return to his rural village to bury his estranged father. What begins out of callous necessity (and also includes plenty of heartless pawning), morphs into a soul-searching journey set in the jaw-dropping rural Lesotho landscape. Director Andrew Mudge’s expansive film combines death, romance, poverty, mysticism, philosophy and friendship while holding steadfast to its realism; it sticks with you. (98 min.)

JAY BOLLER

AFTERNOON OF A FAUN

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1:30 p.m.; also 1:55 p.m. April 11 (USA)

“Tanny is mythic,” says dancer Jacques D’Amboise in “Afternoon of a Faun,” referring to Tanaquil le Clercq, the New York City Ballet dancer and subject of this absorbing documentary. In 1956, at the height of her powers, the 27-year-old Le Clercq was stricken with polio. She never walked again. Director Nancy Buirski unfolds Le Clercq’s life through a deft mix of interviews, riveting photographs (the camera adored Le Clercq’s coltish, Veruschka-like looks) and a haunting series of faraway-looking film clips that tap the ballerina’s singular aura, most notably in Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun.” Mythic, indeed. (87 minutes)

RICK NELSON

death to prom

⋆⋆ ½

5:30 p.m. (USA)

Like the girl who’s always voted Miss Congeniality, never the queen, this modern take on the classic teen love triangle tries so hard and gets so much right that you can’t help but root for it, even though the cast’s line delivery never lets you forget they’re acting. Good thing they’re all so darn likable. Shot entirely in and around the Twin Cities, this lighthearted, teen-targeted “promedy” follows gay fashion-crazy Rene and punky tomboy Frankie, BFFs who plan to go to prom together until each falls for the same guy, teen dream Sasha. Attention fashionistas: Christopher Straub designed some of the over-the-top gowns. (95 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

THE SYSTEM

⋆⋆½

6:45 p.m. April 6 (Minnesota-made)

A cynic could argue that “The System,” a Minnesota-made comedy that personifies and politicizes the internal goings-on of the human body, is “The Magic School Bus” for liberal arts graduates. That’s not to diminish Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario’s supremely creative film, one that follows a rogue neuron protagonist and his Manic Pixie Dream Girl blood cell cohort. Together they traverse the body to save it from itself, as a sometimes clunky war wages between the Cerebellum (that cunning, corrupt corporate giant) and the Union (those blood-and-guts workmen). Bonus: loads of Twin Cities arts scene cameos, plus Jason DeRusha (?!). (90 min.)

JAY BOLLER

DESPITE THE GODS

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7:30 p.m.; also 7:05 p.m. Wed. (Australia)

In 1993, at age 25, Jennifer Lynch (daughter of weirdmeister David) made “Boxing Helena”; to call it controversial would be a woeful understatement. It was 15 years before she directed another film, the better-received “Surveillance,” which encouraged her to take on what she calls the “comedy, horror, action-adventure, musical love story” called “Hisss.” “Despite the Gods” follows the cursed shoot in India, where Lynch encounters bad weather, worker strikes, a superstitious crew and the occasional actor falling unconscious. “Gods” is intermittently insightful about the logistics of shooting a film in the Third World, but mostly serves as an overwrought “woe-is-me” tale about a director in over her head. And “Hisss”? Over schedule and over budget, it was re-cut by producers — Lynch publicly distanced herself from it — and still took a critical drubbing. (85 min.)

CYNTHIA DICKISON

MYSTERY ROAD

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8:30 p.m.; also 9:35 p.m. Thu. (Australia)

There’s a literal Mystery Road in “Mystery Road,” the updated western crime drama starring an indigenous Australian detective. There’s also a Slaughter Hill, Massacre Creek and zero hints of irony. Ham-fisted at times, the Ivan Sen-directed movie manages to unspool an engrossing story of murder and drugs set in the beautifully captured outback. It’s there that Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), actualizing his stoicism via a constipated deadpan, investigates a crime that hits too close to his broken family. As a straight-up, “Law & Order”-esque criminal investigation, it’s watchable. But lingering shots and half-baked racial commentary overstate the importance of “Mystery Road.” (118 min.)

JAY BOLLER

METRO MANILA

⋆⋆⋆½

9:30 p.m.; also 9:30 p.m. Tue. (U.K.)

Pulling off a rare combination of affecting melodrama and nail-biting action, this sensitive crime thriller set in the Philippines follows a failed rice-grower, his pregnant wife and their two young daughters from the country to Manila, where Oscar (Jake Macapagal) eventually lands a job as an armored-truck driver and falls under the sway of his scheming partner (John Arcilla). Co-written and directed by British filmmaker Sean Ellis, the movie works as a contemporary look at desperation in crime-riddled Manila, but it’s also as deliciously old-fashioned as the late ’40s-era film noir “Kiss of Death,” and nearly as entertaining. (115 min.)

ROB NELSON

monday

THE ROCKET

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4:45 p.m.; also 6:45 p.m. April 14 (Australia/Thailand/Laos)

For a while, this story — about a young Laotian boy cursed with bad luck who sets out to build a rocket in order to win a local competition — seems like it’s wallowing in misery just to rub the audience’s nose in it. But then its true crowd-pleasing nature reveals itself, which will no doubt leave the audience smiling as the credits roll. In some ways, it feels like a throwback to many ’80s teen movies, where everything comes down to a competition at the end, and the hero will finally get the chance to prove his worth. (96 min.)

ERIK MCCLANAHAN

harmony lessons

⋆⋆⋆½

5 p.m.; also 4:30 p.m. Thu. (Kazakhstan)

The only first feature admitted to the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, this story of a shy, bright victim of intense bullying who starts to emulate the ugly behavior of his attackers in experiments on cockroaches is an impressive debut for young director Emir Baigazin. Thirteen-year-old Aslan, an affectless rural teen who we first meet impassively butchering a sheep, becomes a target of a school gang that shakes kids down for money they then pass along to adult criminals. Many scenes are almost too painful to watch, but Baigazin’s pacing, restraint and eye for depicting both internal and geographic desolation add up to a transfixing tragedy. (115 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

tuesday

WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY

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5 p.m.; also 1 p.m. Apr. 13 (Canada)

Having completed his trilogy of nakedly personal comedic documentaries, including “I, Curmudgeon,” Jewish Canadian filmmaker Alan Zweig here goes back to the source. Even the title of this playfully fretful investigation into the meaning of Jewish humor is a joke — and a Jewish one, too, to the extent that, as several of the film’s interviewees argue, kvetching with an inner grin is what it’s all about. Aptly enough, Zweig’s movie is equal parts witty and provocative, as when David Steinberg opines, “The thing that helps humor is oppression; the thing that kills humor is assimilation.” That’s a joke, no? (89 min.)

ROB NELSON

wicker kittens

⋆⋆ ½

7 p.m.; also 5:45 p.m. Wed. (USA)

No other film in the fest this year could possibly evoke stereotypical Minnesotan-ness more than this look inside the driven psyches of competitive jigsaw puzzlers prepping for their annual showdown at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. From the group of banged and be-cardiganed girlfriends who celebrate with a jigsaw-decorated cake to the Iowa legislator whose passion for puzzlin’ rivals that of politics, the characters in this short-’n’-sweet documentary are straight outta “Fargo,” in the best sense. (52 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

My Sweet

Pepper Land

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7:10 p.m.; 2 p.m. April 11 (France/Germany/Iraq)

Here’s something new: A Kurdish spaghetti western. Director Hiner Saleem brings wit and style to his mini-saga of two contemporary freedom fighters in Iraq’s wild, wild north. The scenery is rugged and gorgeous, and so are his stars: Turkish actor Korkmaz Arslan, playing a stoic Charles Bronson type who literally arrives on horseback to bring order to a lawless border town, and Iran’s glowing Golshifteh Farahani, as the village teacher. Both run afoul of a corrupt tribal lord. The film’s outcome may be predictable, and its framework decidedly retro, but the themes are anything but, including a healthy dose of feminism. (100 min.)

TIM CAMPBELL

concrete night

⋆⋆⋆½

9:45 p.m.; also 1:10 p.m. April 18 (Finland)

Black-and-white bleak never has looked more beautiful. Young Simo (the achingly open-faced Johannes Brotherus) spends a night wandering Helsinki’s meaner streets with his jaded-philosopher thug of an older brother. Bro, who’s headed to jail, wears sunglasses at night and makes pronouncements like “There is no one stronger than someone without hope.” Director Pirjo Honkasalo and cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg create a shadowy, shimmering netherworld where lush dream sequences meld with stark reality as Simo shuffles hesitantly toward a violent climactic decision that, though predictable, still shocks in its execution. (96 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

PROXY

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9:45 p.m.; also 9:45 p.m. April 14 (USA)

Not for the faint of heart, this horrific drama opens with an act of unflinching violence so brutal it will send some heading for the doors. But there’s more going on in director Zack Parker’s fourth feature than just shocks. The fun (if you can call it that) of watching it is in succumbing to its narrative unpredictability. The story will keep you on edge as to where it’s actually going, and the character reveals peel back layers of disturbing behavior hidden beneath a sunny, suburban facade. Genre mashups are tough to pull off, but “Proxy” mostly does it. (120 min.)

ERIK MCCLANAHAN

wednesday

FLASHBACK MEMORIES

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6 p.m. (Japan)

A stunningly psychedelic technical achievement and one of the most danceable music documentaries since “Stop Making Sense,” this 3-D concert film of Japanese didgeridoo player Goma pushes the musician’s protruding instrument into the viewer’s lap and his harrowing back story into her brain. While Goma blows out propulsively trippy musical phrases in the third dimension, documentary images on a 2-D screen behind him tell the story of his traumatic brain injury and miraculous rehabilitation, at least to the point where his onstage delivery of thrillingly discursive jams again draws goose bumps. The effects of this beautifully unique hybrid of music and cinema are exhilarating and unforgettable. (72 min.)

ROB NELSON

THE KILL TEAM

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9:30 p.m.; also 5:45 p.m. April 14 (USA)

Those of us who aren’t a pivotal part of the military have very little idea what goes on when soldiers travel overseas. When Adam Winfield went to Afghanistan in 2009, he was shocked to find other soldiers killing civilians as a way to stave off boredom and channel their feelings of rage and fear. They had no idea war wasn’t like a video game. Winfield, whose father is a former Marine, felt compelled to say something, but nobody would listen. Then he participated in a kill, and the story moves quickly from there via interviews with Winfield, his family and others involved in the controversy. “The Kill Team” is emotionally heavy; as you watch, you feel conflicted about Winfield’s role and about your own perception of right and wrong. The documentary, directed by Dan Krauss, has swept recent film festivals, including TriBeCa. (79 min.)

KARA NESVIG

me too (Ya Tozhe Khochu)

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9:40 p.m.; also 3:15 p.m. April 18 (Russia)

Lanky, taciturn musician Oleg meets cocky bandit Sanja at the banya, and they set off on a road trip in search of happiness with a couple of other sad sacks in tow. Along the way to an abandoned bell tower located in a wasteland where a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident killed all the locals instantly, they pick up a young prostitute, who eventually strips for no reason and runs around naked in the snow for what seems like forever. Aside from that annoyance, the film is a darkly pleasing, sometimes surreal parable shot through with thoroughly Russian attitude — and humor. As a herd of cattle crosses the road in the middle of the desolation, Oleg asks “Why didn’t the cows die? “ Sanja replies, “Because they are not people.” (83 min.)

Kristin Tillotson

BORGMAN

⋆⋆⋆½

9:45 p.m.; also 10:15 p.m. April 12 (Netherlands)

This awesomely bizarre deconstructionist home-invasion movie/religious allegory looks and feels like nothing of its ilk. The title refers to the main character, a bearded and disheveled vagrant who shows up at the front door of a well-off family asking for a bath. They refuse, and the funny games begin. A film that will frustrate and fascinate in equal measure, but is no doubt worth your time. Be ready to pay attention and theorize after the credits roll. For those who get on its wavelength, the rewards are ample and the desire to re-watch will take over. (113 min.)

ERIK MCCLANAHAN

AFTERMATH

⋆⋆⋆½

7 p.m.; also 5:10 p.m. April 16 (Poland)

After 20 years in America, Franek Kalina returns to his native Poland to find that his brother Jozef’s strange new hobby has lost him his family and turned him into the village pariah. Jozef has begun rescuing Jewish gravestones that had been desecrated by the Germans during the occupation and the Poles thereafter, a mission that Franek deems crazy but in which he finds himself getting further and further involved. Digging (sometimes literally) into the past unearths horrible truths about the townspeople and the Kalinas’ own family, with tragic results. “Aftermath” offers yet another slice of World War II history, one suffused with a heavy sense of dread. (107 min.)

CYNTHIA DICKISON

thursday

THE TRIP TO ITALY

⋆⋆⋆½

7:15 p.m.; also 9:15 p.m. April 13 (UK/Italy)

British comedians and dueling partners Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back in this witty and incisive follow-up to “The Trip.” The globe-trotting gourmands eat their way across Italy amid much sparkling banter. Much of the joking is aimed at keeping midlife angst at bay. Notorious womanizer Coogan realizes that repairing his relationship with his seldom-seen son is his top priority, while Brydon sails into warm, Mediterranean waters of infidelity. Along the way they ponder subjects as varied as Batman’s vocal register, the artistic merits of “Jagged Little Pill” and, of course, the virtue of sequels. (115 min.)

COLIN COVERT

A WOLF AT THE DOOR

⋆⋆½

9:40 p.m; also 9:25 p.m. April 12 (Brazil)

When Sylvia goes to pick up her 6-year-old daughter from school she learns another woman has picked up Clara. Sylvia’s husband, Bernardo, is brought in for questioning. He confesses to the police that he has been having an affair with another woman, Rosa, who may be responsible for kidnapping Clara. Based on true events, this Rio de Janeiro-set thriller opens and ends promisingly, but struggles to keep its nerve-racking tension consistent throughout. It never comes undone, thanks in large part to writer/director Fernando Coimbra’s stylistic flashbacks and the unfolding of terrifying scenarios. (100 min.)

JIM BRUNZELL III

WITCHING AND BITCHING (LAS BRUJAS DE ZUGARRAMURDI)

⋆⋆½

9:45 p.m.; also 10:30 p.m. April 12 (Spain)

Remember when Rob Zombie made horror movies? They toed the line between pure terror, camp and high comedy, which is what director Alex de la Iglesia does so well with “Witching and Bitching.” The high-octane pace, insane cast of characters and murky colors of this film gave me some serious Rob Z vibes. Two men down on their luck commit a robbery (they steal a bunch of wedding rings!) and go on the run, only to wind up as prey for a coven of witches who are out for their blood. “Witching and Bitching” is not high art by any means, but it is pretty entertaining if you like a good slice of crazy horror-movie fun once in awhile. (104 min.)

KARA NESVIG