Film: NEW FILMS

MICHAEL

Director: Nora Ephron. Starring: John Travolta, Andie MacDowell, William Hurt (PG)

"No matter what they tell you," claims the archangel Michael in Nora Ephron's whimsical comedy, "you can never have too much sugar." This dubious piece of advice has formed the basis for writer-director Ephron's entire career, and with Michael, she continues her one-woman struggle to put romance back into cinema. Unfortunately, she peddles a very enlightened brand of romance, resting as it does on the miraculous transformations from cynicism to sentimentality which her characters undergo.

The hardened disbeliever this time is journalist Frank Quinlan (Hurt), who has no interest in romance until he stumbles upon the story of Michael (Travolta), an angel living with an elderly woman. Frank's editor (Bob Hoskins) sends alleged "angel expert" Dorothy (MacDowell) to accompany Frank on his quest to find Michael, and the friction between the two soon turns to affection. But can Michael's benign influence prevent Frank and Dorothy from messing things up?

Travolta's endearing presence makes this more bearable than it might have been, and Ephron encourages him to explore the more devilish tendencies of this angel. His slobbishness is a neat touch - when we first meet him, he's padding around in his underwear. But when he starts leading a singalong of "All You Need is Love", you may feel like snapping his wings off. William Hurt brings some unearned dignity to the picture, but generally this is insultingly simplistic film-making which makes Ephron's earlier Sleepless in Seattle look like the work of Tarkovsky.

THE PHANTOM

Director: Simon Wincer. Starring: Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Patrick McGoohan (12)

Inspired by a 1930s comic-strip, this swashbuckler follows the exploits of The Phantom (Billy Zane), a superhero renowned throughout the world as a mysterious and invincible do-gooder, though given that his powers are minimal, and dependent on behind-the-scenes helpers, it may be more likely that his notoriety has sprung instead from the hideous purple body stocking and Lone Ranger style mask that he chooses to wear atop his white charger.

Opting for much the same balance of straight-faced adventure and self- reflexive camp as The Shadow, this is an enjoyable ride for the first 40 minutes, at which point the script (by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade writer Jeffrey Boam), loses its sly sense of humour and seems to be asking us to take it seriously. Until then, there are some lovely flashes of off-kilter comedy, in Treat Williams's dapper turn as the villainous Xander Drax, and the hilarious Emma Peel-isms of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who also gets one of the film's best lines, turning to The Phantom's beloved and snarling, "Admit it. From the moment he came flying down that laundry chute, you were hooked."

You'll also find Patrick McGoohan in a good-humoured cameo as The Phantom's father, greeting the news that his son has romance in his life with the sort of exasperated relief more suited to an uptight parent in a Seventies sitcom. "Saints be praised, it's about time!" he roars, his concern at having a son galloping around the jungle in a purple leotard at last extinguished.

GRACE OF MY HEART

Director: Allison Anders. Starring: Illeana Douglas, Matt Dillon, John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Patsy Kensit (15)

Denise Waverley (Illeana Douglas) is a struggling singer-songwriter in Fifties America, whose talent is nurtured by the fast-talking impresario, Joel Millner (John Turturro). Millner signs her up and soon has her writing hits for the most popular groups of the day. And though her career snowballs, attracting plaudits and controversy in equal measure after a collaboration with her husband-to-be, Howard Cazsatt (Eric Stoltz), Denise aches to have a singing career of her own. But as she falls pregnant twice in quick succession, and becomes involved with the demanding Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), her own chances of stepping into the spotlight start to dwindle.

Allison Anders's delightful and intelligent drama brushes up against plenty of genuine musical history, from its portrait of life in the revered Brill Building to the parallels with the likes of Carole King and Brian Wilson, but refuses to be constrained by biographical detail. It's a film as much about personal as cultural shifts, focusing on the ways in which Denise's apparent success traps her, although the film's early parts glimmer with nostalgia.

The musical scenes linger most hauntingly, combining intimate but unobtrusive camera work with sharp editing and sensitive direction, particularly in the scenes where we trace a song from conception to recording. And there are wonderful songs, too, specially composed by Joni Mitchell, J Mascis and Los Lobos, among others (the sumptuous "God Give Me Strength", by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, manages to deliberately ape the Beach Boys while transcending its own brief).

When the film begins to lurch from one melodramatic episode to another in its final stages, the excellent performances keep it together. Bridget Fonda is touching as a singer whose guilty secrets can only be expressed through song, while Douglas suggests both naivety and cool-headed determination.

Turturro is dangerously charismatic as her mentor, and there are times when his dynamic presence threatens to steal the movie; he has energy fizzing out of him even when he is required to do nothing more than listen blankly to a song, his reaction masked by shades. But he brings warmth to Grace of My Heart whenever Anders's screenplay seems over-anxious to bury Denise beneath her misfortunes.

FLIRT

Director: Hal Hartley. Starring: Bill Sage, Martin Donovan (15)

The archly funny writer-director Hal Hartley has long betrayed a desire to be America's answer to Jean-Luc Godard, a wish that you could stomach, and even understand, when it was matched by brittle dialogue and succinct characterisation. But his latest and most pretentious work, Flirt, is an unbearable indulgence which uses an experimental 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. Each involves a man or woman forced to forsake their promiscuity and finally commit to a relationship.

In theory, this could have been a sly, postmodern examination of audience expectations. In practice, it's a cold, calculating experience which reduces cinema to algebra.

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