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The Phantom Simon Wincer (12) Michael Nora Ephron (PG) Flirt Hal Hartley (15)
Thursday 20 February 1997
Admittedly, The Phantom himself isn't going to give Superman any sleepless nights. He's renowned throughout the Bengalla jungle as a mysterious and invincible do-gooder, though given that his assets are minimal (a magic ring, a wolf...), you can only assume that his reputation is down to that shocking body-stocking. Add to that the fact that "renowned throughout the Bengalla jungle" wouldn't carry much clout on anyone's CV and you have a fellow who's somewhere between Wonder Woman and Hong Kong Phooey on the super-hero food-chain. The screenwriter Jeffrey Boam has recycled themes from his own script of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and come up with some piffle about three skulls which, when united, can harness an energy source one thousand times greater than anything known to civilised man. If you're already asking yourself "Does the energy source gain in size as civilised man grows in knowledge, so that it will always remain one thousand times greater than what he can perceive?" then you may care to bail out now - The Phantom is no sanctuary for those who crave logic.
But if it's camp adventure you seek, then look no further. The Phantom, aka Kit Walker (Billy Zane), is called upon to stop the evil businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams) from gathering the skulls together and taking over the service stations of north-east England, or whatever it is he wants to do. Naturally, none of this matters. The screenplay could have used a polish - Treat Williams has the right air of psychotic petulance but deserves some sharp one-liners. But it's mostly the dialogue, and some lightly funny performances, that keep you watching. Catherine Zeta- Jones pulls off her Emma Peel-isms with great aplomb, and gets the film's best line in return for her troubles, turning to The Phantom's beloved and snarling: "Admit it. From the moment he came flying down that laundry chute, you were hooked!"
In Michael, John Travolta plays an angel with devilish tendencies. When we first meet him, he's padding around in his underwear, dragging on a cigarette, carrying a beer belly before him and a pair of tatty wings on his back. And still women fall at his feet. He walks out of one bar with a woman under each arm, and uses sex to get himself off the hook in court (the visibly flustered judge - a sparkling cameo from Teri Garr - demands that she and Michael adjourn to her chambers). If Nora Ephron had steered her film further from the straight and narrow, it might have developed into a spicy little comedy. But as Michael plays matchmaker for two reporters (William Hurt and Andie MacDowell) who have come to do a story about him, the picture becomes an unholy mess of front-porch philosophy and fireside romance.
"No matter what they tell you," the archangel claims as he sweetens his cereal, "you can never have too much sugar." This dubious piece of advice has formed the basis for Ephron's career - When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle - and with Michael she continues her one-woman struggle to put romance back into cinema. But she peddles an unenlightened brand of romance, resting as it does on the miraculous transformations from cynicism to sentimentality which her characters undergo. As the hardened disbeliever, William Hurt brings some unearnt dignity to the film. Travolta utilises his penetrating glare and obscenely restless eyebrows to create an oddly exotic creature halfway between irritating slob and unstoppable sex-god, though when you see him leading a singalong "All You Need Is Love", you may feel like snapping his wings off.
The archly funny writer-director Hal Hartley has spent his career trying to be America's answer to a post-Weekend Jean-Luc Godard. He never quite managed it because his films were always a little too warm, interesting and inviting. Until now. With Flirt, he has achieved his ambition. At the screening I attended, grown men in the audience were clawing out their own eyes just so that they wouldn't have to suffer another minute of this cold, calculating pretentious work. And those who weren't had slipped into a coma.
Flirt uses a repetitive three-part structure to comment on relationships, language and finally itself. In three different cities over the course of three years, the same scenario unfolds with the same dialogue but different protagonists and outcomes: a flirt has 90 minutes to decide whether or not to forsake a life of promiscuity and finally commit to a relationship. The first third functions efficiently enough as one of Hartley's characteristically ephemeral vignettes. But when the second part begins, and you realise that an identical script is being used to demonstrate the flexibility of meaning and language, you can feel yourself slump as you are slowly sapped of the will to live. In theory, Flirt could have been a sly, post- modern examination of narrative expectations. In practice, it reduces cinema to algebra.
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