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by Mark Jenkins,
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☆ indicates a film that's highly recommended; ★ indicates a film that's recommended to viewers particularly interested in the subject, genre, or region. Reviews are by Robin Diener, Patrick Foster, Michael Jeck, Mark Jenkins, Steve Kiviat, and Dave Nuttycombe. To reach the subsequent review pages, click page 2, or page 3. To reach the date-and-time list, click filmfest list.

THE POPE'S TOILET One of the world's bleakest potty jokes, this film is set in Melo, an impoverished Uruguayan border town. Beto and his neighbors rely on smuggling small amounts of consumer goods from Brazil, taking their bicycles off-road to avoid the customs checkpoint. Then comes word that Pope John Paul II will visit their village, and Melo's residents imagine making a fortune selling snacks and souvenirs. Beto's plan in a little different: He'll build a fancy (although not flush) toilet in his yard, and charge visitors to use it. Getting all the needed materials involves several ordeals, and a significant compromise, but surely it will be worth it. This is not the most devastating portrait of Latin American poverty, but its outcome is something less than a miracle. (2007, 97 min.) (Jenkins)

PVC-1 The Russian Ark of Latin American terrorist pictures, this film was shot in one continuous take by director-cameraman Stathos Stathoulopoulos, a Greek-born Colombian. The scenario is derived from actual events: A gang of brutal extortionists burst into a family home, attach a PVC tube to the mother's neck, and tell her it's a bomb that they'll remove when the family pays a ransom. The rest of the story involves the woman's frenzied journey — accompanied by her husband and teenage daughter — to rendezvous with the police, and the latter's attempt to remove the device. Principally a stunt, the film will be more interesting to film students than drama buffs, but the impressively choreographed action is appropriately frantic. (2007, 81 min.) (Jenkins)

SHALL WE KISS? Remember the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine decide it's okay for friends to have sex as long as they stick to certain guidelines? Well this is that, but it's French and a film — longer, wordier, and wittier. Both involve a lot of talky set up, both sequester the actual sex offscreen, and both concern the futility of applying guidelines to l'amour. The unlikely and unsought affair between a sleek modern beauty (Virginie Ledoyen) and her disheveled best guy friend (Emmanuel Mouret) unfolds with awkward charm, a leisurely and circuitous route unavailable to a sitcom, and is made convincing by Ledoyen's deadpan acting. Using an 18th-century narrative trick, the story is told by another woman (Julie Gayet) who's stalling temptation (Michael Cohen) by relating the cautionary tale. The languorous pulling back of this literary layer, over several glasses of wine, adds to the sweet, smart sensuality of a chaste and charming fable. (2007, 100 min.) (Diener)

THE SHOW MUST GO ON In this case, the show is Korean gangster life for the violence-prone but ostensibly good-hearted protagonist (Memories of Murder's Kang-ho Song). The initial blend of mayhem and comedy begins promisingly as the mobster moves from all-nighter pounding a bloody thumbprint on that pivotal building contract out of a reluctant associate, to a family Meeting With Teacher after his tweener daughter's grades take a nose dive (his attempted bribe includes a free coupon for a strip club). But the elements fail to gel as the plot moves on to they-won't-let-me-quit showdowns and betrayals — including a particularly well-done multi-car smashup in the midst of a busy intersection. Eventually there's a logical conclusion — but there's still about 20 minutes to go, prompting a "What'll it take to wise this guy up?" reaction and the realization that the principal character, despite the brilliant Song's inherent likability, is really a jerk. (2007, 110 min.) (Jeck)

TELL NO ONE I hate thrillers. Everyday corruption and violence is enough to keep me on edge. I'll go no further than Three Days of the Condor or Diva for fictional frissons. However, Guillaume Canet's film, which I attempted only because it's in French, is an exception: I've already watched it twice. Essentially a story of lovers torn asunder, the intricately plotted movie reveals more upon second viewing. Multiple portrayals of love — paternal principally, but also the love of dogs, friends, mothers, and mobsters — are rendered with cinematic concision, each illuminating the others. A huge cast of French-cinema veterans — among them Nathalie Baye, Andre Dussolier, Jean Rochefort, and Kristin Scott Thomas — support the mournful, taut performance of Francois Cluzet. He plays a man who, eight years after the murder of his wife (Mairie-Josee Cruze), finds himself under suspicion again. When the curtain is drawn back for us, the corruption is overwhelming but, unlike life, this fiction is comprehensible. (2006, 126 min.) (Diener)

★ TIMECRIMES Hector's new house in the Spanish countryside looks pretty nice, but it has a problematic neighbor: a scientific compound that contains a time machine. As his wife works on the garden, Hector checks out some mysterious activities on the other side of the security fence, and soon finds himself traveling to a moment earlier that day. But is this first time he's made the trip, and are the men threatening him simply other versions of himself? Writer-director Nacho Vigolondo's puzzler is slight but entertaining, even if all the pieces don't quite fit together — and the attractive bicyclist who happens by is misused not once but twice. (2007, 88 min.) (Jenkins)

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS Literally fragmented, this slight tale is chopped into multiple images as split screens bounce, slide, and flicker. Visually, Bruce MacDonald's stream-of-teenage-consciousness melodrama suggests a hip-hop remix of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. All the pictorial flash is just a cover, however, for a tedious story of adolescent alienation. 15-year-old Tracey (Juno's Ellen Page) is an outcast at school who finally escapes her unpleasant home, followed by weird little brother Sonny, who soon wanders off. As a blizzard looms, Tracey tries to find Sonny, seeks shelter on after-midnight buses, and encounters a series of low-lifes, many of whom either rape her or try to. The movie claims to be adapted from a novel, but unravel the events and there's barely enough to fill a gum wrapper. (2007, 77 min.) (Jenkins)

TUYA'S MARRIAGE On the steppes of Inner Mongolia, Tuya and her children run the family sheep farm. Tuya's husband, Batoer, does what he can, but he crippled himself digging a well and is of little use. Everyone tells Tuya she should divorce and take a new, able-bodied husband, and she agrees, but with one condition: That Batoer be allowed to live with the new couple. Tuya attracts many suitors, from a hard-drinking but well-meaning neighbor to a longtime admirer who got rich in the oil business, but the idea that Batoer would stay is not popular with them. Wang Quanan's film is the latest to use Mongolia's big-skied landscape and defiantly traditional culture, but the movie is not simply pretty or exotic. It's a full-blooded drama, with a powerful performance by Yu Nan as Tuya, whose protective instincts can turn fierce. In scene after scene, she easily upstages the dramatic setting. (2006, 86 min.) (Jenkins)

TWO LADIES This French parable of cross-cultural rapport states its theme quickly: In the opening scene, Franco-Algerian visiting nurse Selima arrives at the Paris home of a man who says he doesn't like Arabs. And the film polishes off its central conflict just as swiftly. One of Selima's clients, wheelchair-bound Jewish elder Esther, needs a place to stay while her son works out of town for a month. Esther moves in with Selima's parents, and the culture shock is minimal. Esther grew up in Algeria, so she and Selima's mom, Halima, have plenty in common — even if Halima doesn't know better than to mix meat and dairy. Phillipe Faucon's film is agreeably low-key, but its glib resolution barely touches contemporary France's real ethnic strife. (2007, 76 min.) (Jenkins)

UNFINISHED STORIES With three overlapping nighttime vignettes, Pourya Azarbayjani's debut feature illustrates the essential furtiveness of women's lives in contemporary Tehran. Setareh is a young romantic who plans to elope with her boyfriend, but he never arrives at the bus stop where they were to meet. Expelled from her home by a husband who doesn't want children, Hengameh searches for a late-night drugstore that sells pregnancy-test kits. With her husband in jail and no money to pay the hospital bill, new mother Saiideh decides to grab her baby and run. The film is basically a footnote to The Circle, director Jafar Panahi's roundelay of female oppression, and is less rigorous than that precursor. As the title indicates, none of the three tales has a full resolution. But that inconclusiveness effectively suggests that Setareh, Hengameh, Saiideh are all aspects of the same person, as well as representatives of millions more. (2007, 76 min.) (Jenkins)

THE WAR ON DEMOCRACY Another one of those documentaries that seems designed only for viewers who don't need it, this anti-American polemic begins in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, and then tours 60 years of American-planned or -backed coups, torture, assassinations, and other crimes in Latin America. Most of what British co-director and on-screen host John Pilger says is verifiable, but it's presented in a glowering style that doesn't boost his case. (All those spooky tracking shots of Washington, for example, don't mean anything at all.) In the age of Guantanamo and Iraq, it's well worth remembering what the U.S. (or its surrogates) did to subvert Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, and many other south-of-the-border nations. But people who pay attention to such things already know the history, and Pilger's approach won't attract less politicized viewers. (2007, 96 min.) (Jenkins)

WE ARE TOGETHER At the Agape Orphanage in a small village, a few of 1.2 million South African children who have lost their parents to AIDS rehearse for an overseas concert they hope will fund the institution. Young kids dream of returning to live with their older siblings, or imagine that their mothers are still alive, before practicing "O Happy Day." Paul Taylor's documentary is less striking than Angels in the Dust, the story of a similar (if larger) orphanage. But it does feature lots of glorious choral singing, and the kids do eventually get to perform in New York, where their patrons include Alicia Keys and Paul Simon. (2007, 86 min.) (Jenkins)

WITH YOUR PERMISSION This strident Danish husband-beating comedy has lots of fun subverting macho stereotypes, but the result is not much fun to watch. Jan and Beate, whose marriage has turned lethal, are failed opera singers. He manages the restaurant on a ferry; she stays home and broods. At night, she often hits him, so he spends his mornings inventing excuses for the bruises. After Jan's boss sends him to counseling, the couple's life changes dramatically, but for Jan it only gets worse — until, that is, the incongruous happy ending. Director Paprika Steen and writer Anders Thomas Jensen are veterans of the Dogma movement, but Dogma-tist Lars von Trier's misanthropy is far too nasty for this movie, which is fundamentally a sitcom. (2007, 95 min.) (Jenkins)

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: RETURN TO GOREE At the beginning of Pierre-Yves Borgeaud's film, acclaimed Senegalese singer N'Dour explains to a tour guide at Goree, an infamous center of the Atlantic slave trade, that he hears traces of African music in Latin, jazz, blues, and gospel, and wants to work with performers in such genres in a concert at the site. The Swiss director's home-movie-like footage doesn't quite capture Goree's role in that African holocaust, or fully show the influence of Senegalese music around the world. But this road film does manage to show one of the world's greatest vocalists stretching his limits in visits with Atlanta gospel singers, New Orleans musicians, Afrocentric New York jazz musicians and poets, and European jazz players. Blind Swiss-based Tunisian pianist Moncef Genoud helps guide the masterful Wolof singer on this expedition to America, Europe, and back to Senegal. While N'Dour never hooks up with any Latin or blues musicians, he does work with the impressive likes of New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad and Atlanta's W. Michael Turner & the Harmony Harmoneers. Unfortunately, the other chosen musicians are not skilled enough to help N'Dour achieve his cultural dream. However, any chance to see N'Dour gorgeously swoop up and down the scales is worth the trip. (2007, 110 min.) (Kiviat)

YOU, THE LIVING Life in Roy Andersson's Sweden remains as existentially absurd as in his Songs from the Second Floor, but this movie has a lighter touch that utterly transforms the director's outlook. Amid the despair, there's more than a little slapstick, and lots of music: Tubas are heavily featured, but there's also a goth-rocker and a song by a fellow Andersson, Benny (the second "B" in ABBA). The movie lacks a continuous plot, but its vignettes overlap in ingenious ways, and sometimes cycle back to previous locations or situations. A barber expresses his bad mood on an innocent customer, beer-drinking judges sentence a man to death for the destruction of heirloom crockery, and a psychiatrist explains, directly to the camera, the rise of drug-based therapy. Although the city's annihilation looms in the final sequence, Andersson's newfound playfulness suggests that he's concluded that you might as well live. (2007, 92 min.) (Jenkins)

☆ LA ZONA A taut thriller with a political edge, this is a tale of class warfare turned bloodily literal. One night in Mexico, an intense storm knocks out the electricity in a gated community known as the Zone, and also knocks over a billboard whose scaffolding provides a path over the Zone's fence. Three barrio teenagers take the opportunity to rob some of the cosseted mansions, but theft turns to murder, and soon an upscale posse is searching for the one surviving intruder, Miguel. As a dogged cop tries to determine what happened — the Zone is supposed to be self-policing, but that doesn't allow the slaying of outsiders — Miguel attempts to escape, ultimately seeking the help of a Zone teenager who's beginning to doubt his father's brutal approach. Rodrigo Pla's film is part metaphor, part action flick, complete with a homage to The Third Man's chase through the sewers. Both aspects of the film work separately, but also fit together neatly. (2007, 95 min.) (Jenkins)