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That Thing You Do! Tom Hanks (12)

Flirting with Disaster David O Russell (15)

Welcome to the Dollhouse Todd Solondz (15)

Set It Off F Gary Gray (18)

Your Beating Heart Francois Dupeyron (15)

That Thing You Do is the first film to be written and directed by Tom Hanks, and that appears to be the only reason it got made. It's not a bad work at all - there's really nothing in it that you could actually disapprove of, or object to. Or get excited about, come to that.

The story is Levinson-Lite. The Wonders, a fictional 1960s band, cut a record (the irritating but oddly forgettable title song) which becomes a Top 10 hit, propelling them into the spotlight for a sojourn with fame, before they split and the words "one hit" are added to their name in the history books. The film is told from the perspective of the drummer, Guy (Hanks lookalike Tom Everett Scott). Only he and Faye (Liv Tyler), the girlfriend of the band's singer, manage to keep their feet on the ground.

In fact, Faye is so dull that you wonder what Liv Tyler's purpose in the film is until she suddenly becomes responsible for its finest scene: a moving attack on her arrogant beau, in which she employs the vacuous language of bubblegum pop - "I've wasted thousands and thousands of kisses on you!" - and invests it with a hurt rarely found in that musical genre.

But this is an exceptional moment in an unexceptional film. Hanks the screenwriter largely fails Hanks the director by neglecting to fill in the parts of the script that aren't devoted to pushing the story forward. We learn that the music industry is precarious. That fame changes you. That promoting records is a slog. This is the stuff of a Boyzone interview, not a 100-minute movie.

Now and then, Hanks throws in rich details that suggest more about minor characters than we ever discover about the band. Only here does the film deliver authenticity and bite: in the uptight high school MC who breaks off from a gag to harangue hecklers, a vein as thick as a bass string rising in his forehead. Or the teenage groupie who, having deceived her mother in order to be at a Wonders gig, squeezes the word "subterfuge" into a conversation with Guy, thus transforming her inconsequential lie into a recklessly devotional act of espionage.

David O Russell is the sharpest new director in America. That's a bold statement, isn't it? Not quite as bold as offering to reimburse the cost of your ticket if you don't like his latest film Flirting with Disaster, of course. But you don't need that kind of enticement: you'll love it anyway. In many ways, it continues the one-man mortar-bomb attack on the family unit that Russell began with his debut Spanking the Monkey. The new movie follows Mel (Ben Stiller) as he embarks on a trip to track down his biological parents, accompanied by his wife (Patricia Arquette), their baby son, and a flirtatious minx from the adoption agency (Tea Leoni).

If this is essentially a road movie, then the pedal is pressed firmly to the metal throughout: from the snappy opening montage in which Mel tries to imagine his parents by conducting a mental mix-and-match game, the picture moves very quickly, ploughing toward a tautly farcical climax. Sharply drawn misfits troop in and out of the action at great speed as Mel makes a couple of chillingly funny false starts, prematurely playing the long-lost son to people who turn out to have had nothing whatsoever to do with his conception.

Two spicy double-acts bookend the movie - George Segal and Mary Tyler- Moore as Mel's neurotic adoptive parents, Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda as his LSD-fried real ones who prove that solutions bring their own problems. Russell seeks out the anguish in every situation, ensuring that there's a nasty sting behind each belly-laugh; you may not have felt so uncomfortable and so entertained at the movies for a very long time.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is also a black comedy which dares to indict the family, though its concerns lie primarily with the horror of school. Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is a goofy, bespectacled 11-year-old who lacks confidence, guile and friends. She's the class punchbag, and her life doesn't really improve during the course of the film, though she earns a friend of sorts - a local roughneck who wins her heart by threatening to rape her. It's the closest thing to attention she's ever had.

Todd Solondz's unrelentingly cruel first feature seems at first to comprise little more than an inventory of humiliations. And there are times when you can feel that he's pushing you too far - particularly when he seems to be encouraging us to mock the grief of a woman whose daughter has been abducted. But the impassive tone adds potency to the picture's anthropological study in power games: it's like a nature documentary examining the emotional exchanges between hunter and prey. And it can be surprisingly challenging and sophisticated, subtly suggesting that Dawn may in some way have willed her own ordeal, and conceding that just because she's a victim, it doesn't stop her playing aggressor once in a while.

In Set It Off, four black women decide that the quickest way out of the poverty trap is armed robbery. I suppose it is, in theory, though if holding up a bank were as easy as it looks here, we'd all be at it. The simplicity of the operation isn't nearly as disconcerting as the frivolous, casually brutal way it's depicted. The film purports to be about real problems: the challenge of juggling employment and single parenthood, or the incompatibility of the words "black" and "innocent" in the eyes of the law. And yet it abandons these ideals whenever it's time for another heist, eventually descending into an extended car-chase, that archaic phenomenon which is now characterised by more noise, more destruction and less ingenuity then ever.

Your Beating Heart is a tedious love story that has been hanging around waiting for a release since 1991. So why now? Or rather - why ever? Two strangers meet on the Paris metro and begin a stuttering, ill-advised affair which seems vaguely based on Last Tango in Paris; only with bad dialogue replacing passion and recklessness. Her: "You talk too much." Him: "I'm emptying myself. It's a way of still making love. Love is drunkenness, the poets say." It's enough to make you boycott Valentine's Day.

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