Come back Blofeld, all is forgiven

also showing; POCAHONTAS Mike Gabriel/ Eric Goldberg (U) THE NET Irwin Winkler (12) ASSASSINS Richard Donner (15) MY FAMILY Gregory Nava (15) LE BALLON D'OR Cheik Doukoure (PG)
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The Independent Culture
You will have heard the reports that Disney has played fast and loose with history in Pocahontas, its telling of the love story between an American-Indian princess and an English sailor. And, yes, we can confirm them: Captain John Smith has a faint but unmistakable Aussie twang (he is voiced by Mel Gibson); and unlike her film counterparts, Pocahontas was just 12 when she met Smith, and after he snuck off without her, she sailed away with another man to England, where she died aged 22.

On a more general scale, the film tells a much bigger whopper: that, inspired by the young woman's pleas for tolerance, the natives and colonisers laid aside their weapons. But then, one supposes, it would be hard to make a rousing musical finale out of the true outcome: expropriation of ancestral lands and mass genocide.

Plundering history always carries risks and perhaps in the end it doesn't much matter. The film works as an old-fashioned melodrama, even if it's more likely to appeal to adults, with its abundance of soppy romantic moments of the kind kids abhor. And from the opening, see-what-we-can- do storm sequence, it's certainly impressive in all technical departments.

Disney is proud of its craft, and sells it consciously in a way that's rare with live-action features. The studio's old-style press packs used to list how many pots of paint were consumed in a cartoon's creation. The new ones talk about design concepts (like the vertical motif in Pocahontas, inspired by the tall pine trees of Virginia where the story is set) and musical palettes.

But changes are in train, with the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg, long seen as a prime mover in the cartoons, to set up a competing operation, and the mushrooming of other rival animation studios. As the diaspora of Disney's most gifted artists begins, one hopes there will be enough talent to go round; it would be a shame if animation's new golden age were over before it had scarcely begun.

In cyberspace, nobody can hear you scream, though many of the new information technology thrillers make you feel like doing so. For a start, a computer's digital graphics are just not interesting (and often, not easily readable) on the cinema screen.

For another thing, film-makers seem to think that a shower of special effects and techno-jargon exempts them from needing to show their major characters: it's more sinister to have them hovering invisibly in the mainframe, and so much cheaper. In both The Net and Assassins, the arch baddies are off the film and computer screen for all or most of the time. Truly, they are ghosts in the machine. One mourns the colourful criminal masterminds of yesteryear: come back Ernst Stavro Blofeld, all is forgiven.

The Net is described as "a story virtually torn from today's headlines". Perhaps that should read "a virtual story", because there's not an awful lot of it. The virtual heroine is a systems analyst who fixes computer viruses, and who's such a reclusive geek that nobody notices when she disappears and is assigned a new, criminal identity. In one good strong sequence, the baddies delete her existing life electronically before her eyes, but the film soon relapses into standard woman-in-peril, running and shooting stuff. Sandra Bullock plays this thin character with warmth and credibility.

There's a virtual villain (a Brit again, played by Jeremy Northam as a smooth front man for the unseen eminence grise) and some virtual love interest, played by Dennis Miller with more edge and humour than the role deserves. The man behind it all is Irwin Winkler, who has produced some wonderful movies, and directed some indifferent ones, including this.

The paint was still wet on the prints of Richard Donner's Assassins when it was "world premiered" last Friday, but it turned out to be a slick counterfeit rather than a true original. Julianne Moore plays a surveillance expert and Internet whiz, similar to Bullock's character: no driver's licence, no social security number, no real name and no life. Sylvester Stallone is a disillusioned hitman, his bloodhound face sagging gently into middle age; a campily villainous Antonio Banderas as his arch rival takes up the slack left by Sly's ebbing hunk power.

Jean-Pierre Melville made marvels out of this kind of material, but this is Hollywood, and so we have car chases, we have shoot-outs, we have explosions, we have (Donner must have been watching too many Tony Scott movies) flapping pigeons at every turn. But we don't have characters about whom we give a damn.

Can there be many lamer titles for a movie than My Family, an "epic story" of Hispanic Americans (which means mainly that it's long)? It starts in Mexico in the Twenties, with a cast of gesticulating locals who all talk like Topo Gigio, turns into West Side Story with a clutch of sultry muchachos in ruffled shirts holding knives at each others throats, and ends up in the Eighties with a kind of milksop political activism. You know there will be a few laughs and a few tears; diehard cynics in the front row were laying bets as to which character would be the first to snuff it. In short, a turkey. And it doesn't even have Antonio Banderas.

Much better is Le Ballon d'Or, not because it's a masterpiece, or even interesting as film craft, but for its sheer sweetness and simplicity. Set in Guinea, it's the story of a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a soccer star, and, leaving his village for the city, runs into all kinds of helpers, profiteers and other dodgy customers.

The likeable main character seems, in reality, to be a gifted footballer; his adventures are told with zest, unsentimentality and a lot of local humour - I especially liked the entrepreneur who calls his fishshop-cum- video store "Jaws", the one sign frugally doing duty for both sides of the business. Le Ballon d'Or plays in a two-week season, called variously "Screen Griots" (for intellectuals) and "Comedy Mystery and Melodrama in African Cinema" (for populists) at the Barbican.

n On release from tomorrow

SHEILA JOHNSTON

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