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CINEMA : Surely the Sixties weren't this dull

IN ALLISON Anders's segment of Four Rooms, Madonna's coven of witches attempt to conjure a goddess from a cauldron of frogs, dogs and Tim Roth's sperm. The balance of ingredients couldn't have been right: Amanda de Cadenet rises from the pot. Something similar afflicts the director's latest confection, Grace of My Heart (15), an attempt to relate the history of Sixties pop through the predictably disastrous love life of a singer/songwriter heroine, Denise Waverley (Illeana Douglas).

It starts off as promisingly brassy comedy: Denise begins her career as Edna Buxton, plain girl and Philadelphia heiress, who escapes to New York and is taken up by manager Joel Millner (a pop-eyed, squirreling John Turturro, in the film's most engaging performance). Then things begin a long slide into maudlin introspection. Sent to work in the famous Brill Building hit-factory at 1619 Broadway, Denise endures an unhappy marriage to cynical, self- centred songwriter Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz), has an affair with married, self-centred DJ John Murray (Bruce Davison), and finally gets hitched to paranoid, self-centred record producer Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), who smashes furniture and walks into the sea like the Little Mermaid.

Despite Denise's decade-long progress through the emotional mincer, Grace of My Heart produces few opportunities to break the seal on the Handy Andies. The film's cartoonish period-sense and surfeit of kooky wigs and beards ensure that the heroine's doomed - and uncomfortably sadomasochistic - attraction to the men who done her wrong seems like an extension of the three-minute, repeat-to-fade sentimentalities that she bashes out on her office piano.

And this air of bubblegum unreality is amplified by Anders's all-too- knowing fictionalisations of real Sixties figures. Dillon's doped-up Jay Phillips is a bootlegged Brian Wilson; Denise is a thinly disguised version of Carole King; and clones of Phil Spector, the Everley Brothers and the Shirelles pop up in the studio in the way that Sonny and Cher used to pop up in Scooby Doo. The casting of Patsy Kensit as songwriter Cheryl Steed seems like nothing but a jokey gesture to a real musical world in which she is (more or less) Mrs L Gallagher.

Anders is so busy adding layers of larky self- reference that her emotional climaxes are rendered turgid and ersatz. Dizzyingly, some of the pastiche numbers that punctuate the action are written by lyricists active in the period: Lesley Gore contributes a barnstorming ballad, "My Secret Love", lip-synched by Bridget Fonda as Kelly Porter, a closet lesbian teenypopper who bears more than a passing similarity to, er, Lesley Gore.

The writer-director is also to blame for the broken-backed shortcomings of Flirt (15), Hal Hartley's tripartite rendition of the same cautionary tale with different geographies, genders and sexual orientations. In New York, Berlin and Tokyo, three lovers pop their partner a question: do we have a future? Bill (Bill Sage), Dwight (Dwight Ewell) and Miho (Miho Nikaidoh) have 90 minutes to decide. All three need to consult a second, married lover before responding; all three are censured for their flirtatiousness; all three are hospitalised in a shooting incident involving their married lover's spouse.

In pursuing stylistic experiment, Hartley sacrifices the improvisational quality that gives his better films their dynamism. After the sparse dialogue has been played out once, it becomes a formal straitjacket - as the same lines have to struggle through a further two repetitions. Sometimes the film is obliged to resort to dumb show to escape its own restrictions: this makes for an oddly silent altercation between Dwight and a fast-food vendor, and forces much of the Japanese segment into unsatisfactory kabuki.

Like its drifting protagonists, the film can't reach any firm conclusions. Bill, Dwight and Miho are unable to say anything specific about themselves: Bill looks sulkily picturesque, Dwight flicks through magazines without looking at them, Miho gets morose on stairwells. The results are frustrating: it's not enough for Hartley to re-jig his narrative like Lego bricks, and then conclude with a glum, wordless, Graduate-style epiphany. He should have settled down with one of these scenarios and done the decent thing.

As six of Flirt's characters say of the future, "you don't have to see it if you know it's there". The same is true of Michael (12), an out-of- season Christmas comedy starring John Travolta as a fag-smokin', ass-kickin', beer-drinkin' archangel, who descends to Iowa in order to resurrect a squashed dog and fix up an animal trainer (Andie MacDowell) with a tabloid journalist (William Hurt). He's also there to pull waitresses - in one of the film's many variances from Milton, there is no sex in heaven.

However, it takes Michael a good hour to get round to any of these things. In the meantime, writer-director Nora Ephron clearly thinks that the sight of the guy from Grease and Pulp Fiction - with wings! - is enough to keep her audience engaged. Travolta gets nothing to do but exude his vaguely moronic charm, and the film relies on his familiar repertoire of tricks (giggling fits, goofy dancing, jowly scowling) to get the plot from A to B.

And it would need a miracle to get the cast off their default settings: William Hurt as a reporter for the National Mirror - a supermarket tabloid with a masthead identical to a certain British newspaper - doles out his usual thin-lipped sarcasms, while Andie MacDowell acts with her eyelashes and demonstrates that looking like a slightly glamorous anteater need prevent no one from becoming a B-list movie star.

As the actors drive through John Lindley's weirdly faux-Kieslowskian cinematography, there's only the presence of Robert Pastorelli and a small dog to remind the audience they are meant to be laughing. Otherwise, the plot's genuine comic potential is buried in the same mudslide of downbeat sentiment with which Ephron smothered Sleepless in Seattle.

"Slam Evil!" is the wham-biff-pow publicity strap for The Phantom (12), but I suspect it's the film that'll receive the slamming: it was a critical and box-office disaster in the States, and shows no sign of doing better over here. However, of this week's new releases, this is the movie that best achieves its aims. Any film whose Lycra-clad hero prances around South American jungles on the white horse from the Timotei advert deserves credit. Billy Zane's superhero isn't a part-time journalist and doesn't live with his Aunt May. Instead, he inhabits a skull-shaped library on the rainforested island of Bengalla with his dog, a turbaned houseboy and the ghost of his father (Patrick McGoohan, unaccountably impersonating WC Fields). "I was born right here in this cave and educated in America," explains Zane, whose skull-gripping purple costume reduces him to noddy- dog acting. Enter Treat Williams as Xander Drax, a man so evil his name begins and ends with the letter x, and whose villainy is further illustrated when he pokes a librarian's eyes out. His henchperson Catherine Zeta Jones is dressed to please any Amy Johnson fetishist, and tweedy heroine Kirsty Swanson knees pirates' groins with gay abandon. See it on a Saturday afternoon and steal Opal Fruits from the child next to you.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

Kevin Jackson is away.