also showing; It's a wonderful life, on the face of it

MR HOLLAND'S OPUS Stephen Herek (PG) WHITE SQUALL Ridley Scott (12) EXECUTIVE DECISION Stuart Baird (15)
The sentimental new films Mr Holland's Opus and White Squall show little people doing big things and coming out glowing like Hallowe'en pumpkins. This is cinema as laxative, designed to chase the cynicism out of your system and convince you of mankind's utter splendidness. In fact, they have the opposite effect. You leave the cinema itching to wring the neck of the nearest bob-a- jobbing boy scout.

Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a budding composer who drifts into teaching music appreciation because his own musical career has stalled. His teaching methods are mercenary at first; he gives his classes short shrift, and only shows enthusiasm when he's making for his car at the end of the day. Patrick Sheane Duncan's screenplay is structured as a learning curve, but Dreyfuss bravely plays against the script's crass sense of motion. The few glimpses of honesty in Mr Holland's Opus are all his - the struggle between vanity and guilt when a student invites him to desert his humdrum life; or the impotent anger he hurls at his deaf son (Joseph Anderson), the one soul that he finds it impossible to breathe music into.

After a painful argument, Dreyfuss turns his back on the child, who is tinkering under the bonnet of a car. What Dreyfuss doesn't see is the lad resting his face on a screwdriver that's pressed against the revving engine - he is feeling its vibrations. By denying the father that instant of sight, in which the son is ingeniously absorbing sound the way a musician might, the director Stephen Herek colludes with Dreyfuss in undermining the script's sense of its hero's unblighted goodness. (He's so holy at times, there should be stained glass in his octagonal spectacles.) But before you know it, Dreyfuss is singing "Beautiful Boy" to his son, and you're praying for someone to drive knitting needles into your ears.

Despite the screenplay's hymns to the glory of music, the soundtrack is awfully staid. Mr Holland passionately endorses John Coltrane, but Herek can't even find room on the soundtrack for a toot of sax. That's typical. The movie gives the illusion of encouraging spontaneity, but when an opportunity for topical commentary arises in the last reel, it bolts, ending on a bum note.

The film climaxes with a hoe-down when there should have been a show- down. Herek and Duncan invoke Capra here, but they're frightened to tease out what's implicit in their film - that it may not be such a wonderful life after all.

Ridley Scott's White Squall, with Jeff Bridges as the presiding patriarch, is laced with Robert Bly; think Iron Jeff and you're there. That still doesn't take into account the picture's fervent homoeroticism. You could carve through the testosterone with a bowie knife - the parade of well- oiled, immaculately-toned teenage torsos jostling together on the high seas makes the film resemble Bruce Weber with a Freeman's catalogue gloss.

Bridges plays Chris "Skipper" Sheldon, the captain of the Albatross, a brigantine which serves as a mobile academy to a crew of lads eager to make the transition from adolescence to maturity with as much sweat and tears as possible. But it's not all bond, bond, bond. Just when you've settled into the film's ebbing rhythms, disaster strikes in the form of a freak storm in which six of the crew are killed (including the fey kid who you know has it coming from the moment he wets himself). Scott has a sharp eye for spectacle, and for the little buds of emotion which can thrive in the midst of chaos: the long, helpless look Bridges exchanges with a doomed crew-member, who's about to be sealed in an ocean grave, comes back to haunt you long after you've forgotten the rest of this shapeless tosh.

After all that triumph of the spirit nonsense, you'd have thought that a spot of mindless brutality would have gone down a treat. No such luck. Executive Decision is as unwieldy as its title. It's a plodding thriller that wants to be a classic disaster movie but is torn between the 1970s (Airport) and the 1990s model (Die Hard). In the role of the hero, Kurt Russell is, rather agreeably, a bit of a jessie. And at least Steven Seagal gets bumped off in the first half-hour - the sort of thing that can really make your week.

n All films on general release from tomorrow