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THAT THING YOU DO!

Director: Tom Hanks. Starring: Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Tom Hanks (PG)

That Thing You Do! is the first film to be written and directed by Tom Hanks, and that seems to be the only reason it got made. It's not a bad work at all; there's really nothing in the film that you could actually disapprove of, or object to. Or get excited about, come to that. The story is slight to say the least. The Wonders, a fictional 1960s band, cut a record which becomes a top-10 Billboard 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), who maintains a cool demeanour as those around him succumb to wealth and narcissism. Faye (Liv Tyler), the girlfriend of the band's singer, Jimmy, also manages to keep her feet on the ground. In fact, the character is so dull that you wonder what 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 kind of vacuous imagery of bubblegum pop - "I've wasted thousands and thousands of kisses on you!" - and invests it with a hurt and anguish rarely found in that musical genre.

Hanks the screenwriter largely fails Hanks the director by neglecting to fill in the parts of the script which aren't devoted to pushing the story forward. We learn that the music industry is precarious. That fame changes you. That promoting records is hard work. This is the stuff of a Boyzone interview, not a 100-minute motion picture.

SET IT OFF

Director: F Gary Gray. Starring: Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah (18)

Set It Off is the story of four black women - a no-nonsense hard-nut, a coarse lesbian, a simpering romantic and a dope - who 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 was as easy as it looks here, we'd all be at it. The simplicity of the operation isn't nearly as disconcerting as the trivial way it's depicted.

The film purports to be about real people and real problems: the challenge of juggling employment and single parenthood, for instance, or the incompatibility, in the eyes of the law, of being black and innocent. 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 than ever.

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER

Director: David O Russell. Starring: Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni (15)

David O Russell is the sharpest new director in America, and he continues the one-man mortar-bomb attack on the family unit which he began with his debut, Spanking the Monkey, in his new movie. We follow Mel (Stiller) as he sets out on a trip to track down his biological parents, accompanied by his wife (Arquette), their baby son, and a flirtatious minx from the adoption agency (Leoni). Mel's adoptive parents (a spicy double-act from George Segal and Mary Tyler-Moore) are a hive of neurosis, but what Mel eventually finds is even weirder than they are.

As it bolts from one botched relationship to another, the movie acquires a more shambolic feel than Spanking the Monkey, and the characters aren't always perfectly integrated with the action. But mostly, this is dazzlingly funny, with fantastic performances (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin appear in the last half as Mel's real parents) and gags executed with killer timing. Whereas Spanking the Monkey wrung desperate comedy from its claustrophobic scenario, Flirting with Disaster goes for belly laughs - with a vicious sting behind each one.

THE FRIGHTENERS

Director: Peter Jackson. Starring: Michael J Fox (15)

After the moving Heavenly Creatures, director Peter Jackson returns to his horror roots with this initially comic but ultimately unsettling ghost story. Frank Bannister (Fox) is a widower living with three spirits, who help him in a regular neighbourhood scam: they go out and do the haunting in local houses, and he shows up to perform fake exorcisms for the troubled tenants. But when a mysterious series of heart attacks strikes down apparently healthy citizens, Frank starts to realise that it's the work of a ghost.

Jackson's most commercial picture is also his most troubling, though there's a biting comic edge to everything here, not least the brilliantly inventive revelation of the killer's identity. The film pulls off a few impressive feats - making the Grim Reaper seem terrifying again, shifting from comedy to horror without appearing to lurch; and, perhaps most startling of all, getting a convincing performance from Michael J Fox.

Anyone expecting Ghostbusters will be in for a very nasty shock.

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE

Director: Todd Solondz. Starring: Heather Matarazzo (15)

This sharply observed black comedy about the ordeal at school of 11- year-old Dawn Wiener is often unrelentingly cruel. And there are times when you can feel that first-time director Solondz is 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 beneath the vicious gags you'll find a disturbingly honest portrait of what it means to be a misfit.

The film is an anthropological study in power games. It suggests that, in some ways, Dawn wills her own humiliation, and concedes that just because she's a victim, it doesn't stop her playing the aggressor once in a while.

YOUR BEATING HEART

Director: Francois Dupeyron. Starring: Dominique Faysse (subtitles) (15)

Two strangers meet on the Paris Metro and begin an ill-advised affair in a nearby hotel in this dreary love story which aspires to be a new Last Tango in Paris, but has nothing like its passion or scope. The photography has an eerie, embalmed feel, but what really sinks the film is the stilted screenplay, which has you cringeing from start to finish.

LIKE A GRAIN OF SAND

Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi (subtitles)

A gay schoolboy whose father dispatches him to a clinic to be "cured" befriends a girl who's undergoing therapy, and an unlikely alliance begins. Another study in doomed love from the director of the excellent Touch of Fever.

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