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ASK THE DUST Movies don't get much more languid than Ask the Dust, yet for all its lackadaisical moseying when a trot here and there might have helped, the picture isn't easy to shake. Written and directed by Robert Towne, this LA-set adaptation of John Fante's novel casts Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek as, respectively, an Italian writer and a Mexican waitress who struggle to overcome their own biases to in order to form a meaningful bond. The love-hate relationship between the pair may strike many viewers as contrived, but their inexplicable mood swings will feel recognizable to anybody who's ever experienced (or observed) the maddening way that two compatible people will unaccountably behave when thrust into each other's presence. More difficult to swallow are the heavy-handed narrative developments that dominate the film's second half. Rating: ** 1/2

CACHÉ (HIDDEN) To borrow the words of Winston Churchill, Caché is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma -- and it's equally powerful whether one is watching it in the moment or reflecting on it months later. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play Georges and Anne Laurent, a well-to-do French couple being anonymously sent videocassettes that show nothing but seemingly benign images. But the deeper implication is that someone is watching their everyday activities, and this realization throws their lives into disarray and sends Georges on a mission to uncover long-buried secrets from his past. Writer-director Michael Haneke has crafted a dark, dense film packed with meaty material: an indictment of the French treatment of Algerians; a thorny examination of family dysfunction; and, like Hitchcock's Rear Window, a direct implication of movie audiences as the ultimate voyeurs. It's imperative that viewers pay close attention to the final shot, which may -- or may not -- clear up the mystery. Rating: *** 1/2

CSA: CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA Ingeniously presented as a Ken Burns-style TV documentary produced by the BBC, CSA offers a what-if scenario by imagining the parallel course of history had the South won the Civil War. Talking heads, historical reenactments and clips from faux-movies like D.W. Griffith's The Hunt for Dishonest Abe help paint a picture of an America that not only still allows slavery but also supported Hitler's desire for Aryan supremacy during World War II, went on to conquer Latin America, and initiated a Cold War with Canada (home for abolitionists, suffragettes and rock & rollers). Writer-director Kevin Willmott methodically lays out the requisite groundwork so that none of the developments in the movie seem unbelievable or out of place -- it makes for a razor-sharp satire that only flags at the end. Yet for all its wit, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness, as the CS history and our actual US history really aren't that far removed. Rating: *** 1/2

EIGHT BELOW Based on a Japanese film that was itself inspired by a true story, Eight Below relates the tale of a scientific expedition in Antarctica and what happens when punishing weather forces its members to leave behind their eight sled dogs to cope with exhaustion, starvation and a particularly nasty leopard seal. The dogs are gorgeous and wonderfully expressive (no creepy Snow Dogs-style anthropomorphizing here, thank God), and as long as director Frank Marshall and debuting scripter Dave DiGilio focus on this part of the story, the movie succeeds in the grand tradition of past Disney live-action adventures. But the picture runs an unpardonable two hours (can little kids' bladders hold out that long?), and its length is felt in the countless scenes centering on the human characters back in civilization. At 95 minutes, this would have been an out-and-out winner; maybe the DVD will include a function that will allow viewers to edit out the humans and leave only the remarkable canines. Rating: ** 1/2

FAILURE TO LAUNCH In this sputtering romantic comedy, Matthew McConaughey plays Tripp, a 35-year-old who still lives at home with his parents (Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates). Anxious to get their grown boy out of the house, the folks hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), a professional consultant who -- get this -- makes a career out of building up the self-esteem of adult males still living at home by romancing them and then dumping them once they feel independent enough to move out on their own. McConaughey and Parker try, but they can't save a premise as insipid as this one. Instead, the fun can be found in the margins: Bradley Cooper and Justin Bartha have their moments as Tripp's friends, Zooey Deschanel adds some much-needed edge as Paula's droll roommate, and Bates and Bradshaw invest their characters' relationship with the humor and empathy that's sorely missing from the top-billed stars' dalliances. Rating: **

INSIDE MAN Inside Man is A Spike Lee Joint, sho nuff, which may explain why it isn't your typical heist flick in either structure or spirit. Bank robber Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his crew take over Manhattan Trust, bully the hostages and make the usual demands from an NYPD repped by Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) -- so far, so Dog Day Afternoon. But the addition of a mysterious power player (Jodie Foster) to the equation takes the story in a different direction, and it eventually becomes clear that Lee and writer Russell Gewirtz aren't as interested in the thriller components as in making astute observations about contemporary society, especially as it relates to a post-9/11 mindset. For better or worse, Lee downplays his usual technical flourishes, though one defining Spike Lee signature move is certain to draw cheers from the faithful. Rating; ***

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