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. Scripter Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning genius behind Chinatown in the 1970s and the gun-for-hire behind Days of Thunder in the 1990s, leans on his LA-period vibes to add shape to his adaptation of John Fante's novel. Directed and scripted by Towne, Ask the Dust (a terrible title whatever its pedigree; it sounds like those faux art-house movies spoofed in those Energizer Bunny commercials) casts Colin Farrell as Arturo Bandini, an Italian writer struggling to come up with meaningful prose while sweating it out in a shabby LA hotel. Down at the corner diner, he meets Camilla (Salma Hayek), a Mexican waitress forced to contend with prejudice on a daily basis. Arturo and Camilla verbally spar almost from the start, but over time they struggle to overcome their own fears and biases to form a meaningful bond. The love-hate relationship between Arturo and Camilla 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 (an earthquake, an out-of-left-field fatal illness) that dominate the film's second half. **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 its mysteries three 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 -- and recording -- 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, in the same manner as 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. ***1/2
CAPOTE Anyone heading into Capote expecting an exhaustive expose on the literary lion and social raconteur might be disappointed to learn that this focuses exclusively on the period when he researched and wrote his nonfiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. In a way, it is an odd choice for a film: Almost everything you need to know about this incident -- and, therefore, Capote's viewpoint -- can be found in Richard Brooks' superb 1967 screen version of In Cold Blood. But the selling point is the excellent, Oscar-winning performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman: As much as Jamie Foxx channeled Ray Charles to such a degree that it was impossible to tell where the spirits of the two men separated, likewise does Hoffman tackle the persona of Truman Capote and make it his own. Constantly punctuating the air with his whispery wit and entertaining other people as if to the (diva) manner born, Capote is as original on screen as he was in real life. ***
DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY It's a behind-the-scenes documentary, a concert and a stand-up act all rolled into one. Comedian Dave Chappelle heads to his Dayton, OH, hometown to hand out golden tickets (similar to those given out by "wee Willy Wonka," as he calls him) to attend his block party in Brooklyn. Chappelle invites everyone from young black dudes to elderly white women to attend his shindig, which turns out to be a celebration of hip-hop: Among those taking part in the musical mirth are Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu and the reunited Fugees. Dave Chappelle's Block Party, not so much directed as observed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is unique in the manner in which it salutes Afro-American culture and unity while at the same time exhibiting an exalted openness that makes it clear everyone's invited to take part in the merriment. The comic material is spotty, but the sizzling concert performances are the primary attraction anyway. ***
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. **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. **
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? **
THE LIBERTINE Bawdy period sex comedies hearken back at least to Tom Jones, and at first glance, The Libertine appears to be an attempt to jump-start the sub-genre, to steer the costume epic back to a sensibility that owes as much to Benny Hill as to any literary tome. The film tells the story of John Wilmot (aka the second Earl of Rochester), the 17th century poet, playwright and sex fiend who spends the film's running time cruelly berating nearly everyone who enters his atmosphere. In casting the role of Rochester, the filmmakers had the right idea by turning to the fearless Depp, but ultimately, he's not required to do more than mix profanity with profundity and allow himself to be subjected to lengthy sessions in the makeup artist's chair. For all its attempts to startle us with its vulgarity, this underdeveloped movie never locates a defining method to its messiness; ultimately, it possesses all the shock value of a toddler yelling, "Poopy!" **1/2
THE PINK PANTHER Despite his own comic credentials, Steve Martin is playing a dead man's hand here. Peter Sellers' particular brand of comic genius was evident in his recurring portrayal of bumbling Inspector Clouseau, and try as he might, Martin is never able to make the role his own. Were the movie surrounding him a top-flight comedy, it might be easier to let him slide, but this picture is as clumsy as its leading figure, an uncomfortable attempt to tap into the essence of the classic Panther films while updating it for modern audiences who might not know Inspector Clouseau from Inspector Javert. There are a few bright moments, but for the most part, the gags aren't particularly fresh, mildly amusing bits are repeated until they lose every ounce of appeal, and Martin unwisely softens the character's hard edges. *1/2
THE SHAGGY DOG Borrowing elements from 1959's The Shaggy Dog and 1976's The Shaggy D.A. but mostly wandering off in its own direction, this turkey -- excuse me, dog -- casts Tim Allen as a lawyer who periodically turns into a canine after being bitten by a 300-year-old sheepdog. Allen is given far too many opportunities to grotesquely ham it up -- for his next film, how about a nice, quiet role as a corpse? -- while Spencer Breslin adds to our misery as Allen's son, a dweeb with a jones for all things Grease (his rendition of "You're the One That I Want" sounds like a cat being shoved tail-first into a blender). In between Allen's mugging and the lame slapstick sequences, we're treated to a parade of creepy CGI effects; still, even these aren't as disturbing as the sight of Allen lifting his leg while using a urinal, or a shaggy Allen telling another dog that "maybe later" he'll sniff his butt. *
16 BLOCKS This action flick stars Bruce Willis as a detective whose seemingly simple task of transporting a petty criminal (Mos Def) from the jailhouse to the courthouse is hindered by corrupt cops. 16 Blocks works as a throwback to the "B" flicks of yore, when an unflagging pace, a few dollops of humor and a couple of sharply etched characterizations were enough to justify a matinee ticket. Willis is solid, yet it's his co-star who really shines. Mos Def's part could have been a rehash of the sorts of characters we always see in this type of yarn -- Eddie Murphy by way of Samuel L. Jackson. Yet, given a leg up by Richard Wenk's scripting, he heads off in a different direction, portraying his character not as an impertinent braggart held prisoner by his own inflated sense of macho posturing but as a sensitive, soft-spoken guy whose eternal optimism allows him to remain grounded by his faith in his own abilities. ***
OPENS FRIDAY, MARCH 24:
ASK THE DUST: Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek.
CSA: CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA: Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson.
INSIDE MAN: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen.
TRISTAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY: Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson.
TSOTSI: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto.
WHY WE FIGHT: Documentary.