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EIGHT BELOW Parents taking their kids to catch this at a matinee showing should understandably be expecting a dog day afternoon; instead, those pesky creatures known as actors keep getting in the way of total enjoyment. 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 their eight sled dogs behind. As the animals spend months coping with exhaustion, starvation and a particularly nasty leopard seal, expedition guide Jerry Shephard (Paul Walker) desperately tries to find a way to rescue them. The dogs are gorgeous and wonderfully expressive (no creepy Snow Dogs-style anthropomorphizing here), 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 Jerry: his romance with a pilot (Moon Bloodgood), his bantering with a co-worker (Jason Biggs, heavy on the shtick) and his pity parties as he agonizes over the potential loss of his dogs (watching Walker try to convey brooding introspection and angst is never a pretty sight). At 95 minutes, this would have been a 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

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA / THE WHITE COUNTESS / THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN Call them the Oscar also-rans. Every December, a handful of long-shot hopefuls are released in New York and Los Angeles hoping to charge full-steam into the awards season; instead, they end up not even getting out of the gate. In 2004, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and The Woodsman were two such films; last year, these three were the low-profile indie efforts that qualified for the dubious designation of Academy no-shows. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada can at least rest on its laurels from Cannes, where it won the Best Actor award for Tommy Lee Jones and the Best Screenplay honor for Guillermo Arriaga. In this Peckinpah wanna-be, Jones (who also directed and produced) plays a cowboy who seeks a peculiar form of retribution from the border patrolman (Barry Pepper) who killed his Mexican buddy (Julio Cedillo). The White Countess, meanwhile, marks the final collaboration between director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant before the latter's death this past May. A middling example of the sort of tony projects upon which they built their reputations, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as a blind American diplomat in 1930s Shanghai who forms a bond with a Russian countess (Natasha Richardson) reduced to working as a prostitute to feed her family (including members played by Richardson's mom Vanessa Redgrave and her aunt Lynn Redgrave). And The World's Fastest Indian is yet another uplifting movie inspired by a true incident -- in this case, the story of an old codger (Anthony Hopkins) who travels from New Zealand to Utah to try to break the motorcycle racing record for speed. All three movies have their strong points (most notably the caliber of the acting), yet without anything to set them apart during the year-end glut, it's easy to see why all three were passed over for gold statue consideration. All three films: Rating: **1/2

Current Releases

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN The secret behind this adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is that behind its convenient (and infuriating) designation as "the gay cowboy movie," this is as universal as any cinematic love story of recent times. Scripters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee have managed to make a movie that vibrates on two separate settings: It's a story about the love between two men, yes, but it's also a meditation on the strict societal rules that keep any two people -- regardless of gender, race, class, religion, etc. -- out of each other's arms. In detailing the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Brokeback Mountain is about longing and loneliness as much as it's about love -- indeed, loss and regret become tangible presences in the film. Gyllenhaal delivers a nicely modulated performance, but this is clearly Ledger's show: He's phenomenal as Ennis, and his character's anguish causes our own hearts to break on his behalf. Rating: ***1/2

FIREWALL If ever there existed a compelling argument as to why Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford should not proceed with their long-marinating plan to make a fourth Indiana Jones movie, here it is in the form of Firewall. At 63, Ford is looking his age; by the time the Indy flick rolls, he'll be more at ease cracking arthritic joints than cracking that whip. Here, his upstanding character is a computer wiz who must save his wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids from a Eurotrash bandit (Paul Bettany) blackmailing him into ripping off the bank at which he works. Joe Forte's screenplay grows exceedingly ludicrous, and a wasted Madsen doesn't even warrant an Anne Archer moment to call her own. As for Ford, the twinkle of mischievousness and sprinkle of levity that he brought to his most memorable films are missing here, replaced by a cranky fatigue that's difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy. Indiana Jones 4 is a terrible idea, but might we suggest a remake of On Golden Pond as an alternate? Rating: **

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