A high-class fairytale in New York

A LITTLE PRINCESS Alfonso Cuaron (U) DESPERADO Robert Rodriguez (18) THE HARVEST David Marconi (no cert) LOCH NESS John Henderson (PG) JOHNNY MNEMONIC Robert Longo (15) RENDEZ-VOUS IN PARIS Eric Rohmer (PG)

Despite a soppy title and a sketchy, uninspired poster, A Little Princess belongs to that elite corps, the really outstanding family movie. Based - like last year's The Secret Garden - on a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett - it begins in India, an exotic fairy-tale paradise for 10-year- old Sara Crewe, from which she is abruptly expelled when the First World War breaks out in Europe. Her widowed father is called to fight in Flanders and she is sent to a snobbish New York boarding school where she escapes from her airless, pea-green prison by regaling classmates with the fantastic stories she learnt at her Indian ayah's knee.

When her father falls in battle and his fortune is impounded, the school's crabbed, envious headmistress (Eleanor Bron) banishes Sara to the attic and forces her to skivvy to pay for her keep. Co-scripted by Richard LaGravenese, who explored the same themes for grown-ups in The Fisher King, and Unstrung Heroes, the film celebrates the power of the imagination to transform a miserable, hopeless world, as the Indian myth of Prince Rama fighting to regain his lost lover becomes an image for Sara's longing for her father (the film dwells lightly on the overheated intensity of their bond). Shot mainly in the studio, A Little Princess is a high-class act in all visual departments. The Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, brings it a spark of magical-realist exuberance, and Liesel Matthews's golden-ringleted Sara (played in a 1939 version of the film by Shirley Temple) has a strong and confident simplicity which keeps the yuk factor at bay.

Two movies to gladden the Mexican tourist authorities. Desperado is set in a one-horse pueblo where nobody opens a book or listens to the strummings of the mariachi who rides into town; the hobby of choice is pumping one's fellow citizens full of bullets or, for novelty, small knives. Robert Rodriguez's sequel to his cheapissimo but highly successful first feature, El Mariachi, finds his wandering minstrel (now played, thanks to an enormously inflated budget, by the Hispanic hunk du jour, Antonio Banderas) out to avenge the killing of his lover which ended the earlier movie. Desperado bursts with energy and humour, but it's unclear what the extra money has brought to the enterprise. El Mariachi had some small character development (the innocent, pacific singer drawn reluctantly through a string of absurd coincidences into murder); the sequel is just a dazzling suite of variations on a zillion ways to blow people away. Among the wasted (in both senses) supporting cast are Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin and Quentin Tarantino.

In The Harvest, a blocked screenwriter travels south of the border to research a film script, falls for a mysterious Sharon Stone clone and returns a man of a missing kidney; this was not - as I had feared - about collective farming in the Soviet Union but the illegal culling of human organs. The film looks handsome; it has the same director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezski, as A Little Princess. And there is a terrific central premise. But it also suffers from chronic overplotting and jigsaw-puzzle editing, combined with a line-up of dull characters, principally the lead, played by Miguel Ferrer, son to Jose and cousin to George Clooney (who has a bizarre cameo as a drag artist).

North of the (Anglo-Scottish) border, Loch Ness is not so much a MacJaws as a slightly watered-down Local Hero. Ted Danson's zoologist visits a hermetic community with an array of gizmos all designed to demonstrate the non-existence of Nessie. It's the familiar play-off of science vs magic, American empiricism versus Celtic myth, with the results telegraphed well in advance. Peppered with many a shot of the brooding loch, the film ambles along amiably, enlivened by a few sharp thrusts of dialogue. The slightly seedy Danson is somehow endearing as a romantic hero for no other reason than that - unlike some stars we could mention - he has scorned to paint over the largish bald spot on the crown of his head.

Johnny Mnemonic kicks off in sleek, futuristic Beijing, which unfortunately looks just what it really is: a handful of extras and a smoke machine on a Toronto sound stage. The cyberguru William Gibson and New York conceptual artist Robert Longo joined forces with an eclectic cast, including Keanu Reeves, Beat Takeshi, Ice-T and Dolph Lundgren to make what should have been the most startlingly original sci-fi thriller for years. But the film, in which Reeves's courier transports data via implants in his brain, has a threadbare, hand-me-down feel.

Johnny Mnemonic was mis-sold in North America as a violent action flick (the copyline, below Reeves brandishing an outsize gun, blared, "meet the ultimate hard drive") and was rewarded with some of the worst reviews and box-office takings of last year. For Britain it appears to have been re-invented as a smart mystery, with a poster featuring Keanu's face over a sort of palimpsest of electronic data, a concept which certainly comes closer to the makers' intentions. By no stretch a successful film, it's still, at moments, amusingly preposterous. Keanu sports a cool haircut and a series of natty virtual-reality helmets, and gets to deliver a stupendously daft monologue on top of an slagheap about wanting room-service, a club sandwich and a $10,000-a-night hooker. But the speech also spotlights what's wrong with Johnny: he's unlikeable and underwritten, a stroke of miscasting for a star whose forte has been sweet, morally steadfast characters.

Eric Rohmer's Rendez-vous in Paris, three loosely linked tales of two- timing and erotic deception, offers a crash course in pick-up techniques, which the French have evidently honed to a fine art, from the faux-timide bumblings of a leather-jacketed pickpocket to a painter who rhapsodises knowledgeably about Picasso in order to seduce the woman of his dreams. Even by Rohmer's spartan standards, the look of the film is basic, with its wobbly hand-held camera and soft focus - indeed, sometimes downright out-of-focus - 16mm photography.

n On release from tomorrow

SHEILA JOHNSTON

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