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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (15)

Oscar's "Best Picture" of the year is the most self-congratulatory romantic comedy in ages. The conceit - a blocked Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) discovers his muse in the form of Gwyneth Paltrow, has a passionate affair, writes Romeo and Juliet - is throwaway at best. But the film never seems less than extremely pleased with itself. (Tom Stoppard was called in to dress up Marc Norman's original script with precious literary frills.) Judi Dench's Oscar-winning cameo as Elizabeth is the most enjoyable element; Fiennes is a hopelessly unconvincing romantic lead, and a visibly struggling Paltrow turns in yet another poor performance.

YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS (18)

Few directors are as keen to scandalise as Neil LaBute, who doesn't seem to make films so much as inflammatory conversation pieces. LaBute's follow-up to his sadistic stunt of a debut, In the Company of Men, is every bit as bilious, claustrophobic, and eager to shock. The writer-director has assembled a group of hateful, self-absorbed Manhattanites and thrust them into a crudely structured La Ronde. There are three male friends: a dull, pathetic married man (Aaron Eckhart), a wormy drama professor (Ben Stiller), and an abusive misogynist (Jason Patric). The women fare only marginally better: Catherine Keener as Stiller's acid-tongued partner and Amy Brennenman as Eckhart's miserable wife; Natassja Kinski doesn't make much of an impression. Characters betray each other, screw around and get screwed over; not much else happens. The film is overbearingly misanthropic and very little rings true.

DARK CITY (15)

This stylish time-warp thriller - a crackpot pastiche of Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys and Invasion of the Body Snatchers - pauses occasionally to ruminate on what makes humans human. But director Alex Proyas knows better than to dwell on the Big Themes. His achievement is chiefly aesthetic. Like the plot, the look of the film is less strictly original than boldly referential, suggesting Tim Burton in Fritz Lang mode, with a dash of the Coen brothers at their most baroque.

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