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Sinners in need of a ransom

Mel Gibson stars in a Ron Howard film that explores every parent's worst nightmare

Those who would go to see Ron Howard's latest thriller should hire only their most trusted babysitter--or, better yet, fly grandmother in. But it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to see this film for its entertainment value. Ransom is a horror film made more horrible by the fact that it plays on a parent's greatest fear. But what makes this movie bad is what makes it good: Audiences are faced with the big fat reality that people are sinful--even depraved.

Mr. Howard and his screenwriters have consistently presented films that fit the bill for "entertainment value." Not content with cheap thrills, however, Mr. Howard's films (Cocoon, Apollo 13) always attempt to dig a little deeper into the human condition and examine their characters' fears and flaws as well as their triumphs. From "everyone's hero," Tom Mullen, played by Mel Gibson, through the cabal of kidnappers, headed by Gary Sinise as the sinister Jimmy Shaker, Ransom holds the line and no one, least of all the audience, gets off easy.

Mullen is a millionaire-by-his-own-bootstraps owner of a successful airline company. His wife, Kay (Renee Russo), is the perfect corporate wife who knows how to balance small talk with big responsibilities. They adore but occasionally overlook their son, Sean (Brawley Nolte), who is eager to grow up and be like his father. What Sean and Kay don't know is that dad is guilty of a crime that he has publicly denied. The FBI has been investigating him, found nothing, and sent the other party to jail. What dad doesn't know is that Sean has been targeted for kidnapping and himself for extortion.

When the preteen, in an eerie split second, vanishes right out from under his parents' supervision, Tom and Kay are plunged into every parent's worst nightmare. Ironically, it is the FBI to which Tom and Kay must turn for help. Delroy Lindo as Agent Lonnie Hawkins has the job of asking Tom for the whole truth and hearing his confession. Tom has a caustic catharsis when he confronts the jailed man to learn if the kidnapping was arranged for revenge. He comes to a profound conclusion: having ruined one man for financial gain, he himself is the object of another man's same sinful purpose.

Gary Sinise really must be noted for his personification of Tom's antagonist. His cold-blooded renegade policeman is more than an adequate match for Mel Gibson's intense analysis of human nature. The villain manipulates his henchmen to carry out the scheme with vicious intelligence and technical precision. His dialogue reflects a Marxist rage against corporate oppressors and delivers an in-your-face confrontation of Tom's sin: "You paid off to save your airline. Why won't you pay off to save your son?"

Audiences should be aware that this film presents incidents of child abuse, beatings, and violent bloodshed. Nonetheless, the storytelling moves quickly, presents only what is essential, and in the process shatters several Hollywood-isms. Money cannot redeem a life; evil lives within the human heart; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all in need of a ransom.

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Dead letter

Postal workers playing God need a little special delivery

I'm writing to you on behalf of the producers, cast, and crew of the first "holiday film" of the year who are in great need of repentance and a good script. Director Garry Marshall and star Greg Kinnear try to play You through the offices of the U.S. Postal System and end up delivering Santa Claus-by-another-name to their audiences.

Con man Tom Turner (Kinnear) is a decidedly depraved character who makes his living off the ponies and gullible marks. His sins lead him into the presence of a salty magistrate who discerns in Mr. Turner the potential for gainful employment and sentences him to work in the Dead Letter department of the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Postal Service. The bins are filled with undeliverable mail addressed to the likes of the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and You. As the local loonies (played by Mr. Marshall's pantheon of favorite TV performers) point out, even these letters are protected by the iron-clad rule that no postal workers may open mail addressed to someone else.

Just by accident, Tom opens a letter addressed to You and, by mistake, answers the request with hard cash. By coincidence a co-worker, who by happenstance is also an attorney providing pro bono assistance to the randomly oppressed recipient of Tom's generosity, observes his good deed and shortly thereafter presses the entire department into answering Your mail.

You, of course, know the rest of this story. The calculated good deeds of Tom and his dysfunctional co-workers (a sick girl gets to ride a horse, a depressed man's life is saved, a homeless man is helped to earn a living) lead to their "postal resurrection." Tom even contemplates commitment with a nice divorcee and her cute little boy.

Of course, the U.S. Government has no dispensation for good works. The film, like an overbred offspring of It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, takes audiences into yet another confrontation between our good-hearted heroes and the judicial system. Here, Santa's bag of jokes rapidly unravels as Tom receives bad spiritual advice and the courtroom is sent into chaos by poorly applied sub-subplots that spring up only in this final scene.

Everyone knows by now that this film is unredeemable, but the fatal flaws flow from the lips of our hero, Tom, whose confession of faith itemizes that You live in Heaven and in each of us and that his good works have transformed his character into that of a good man. The "God Squad" is supported by an impending postal workers strike, and the judge has no recourse but to declare everyone "Not Guilty!" But they are guilty: guilty of bad theology and of trying to dupe audiences into paying good money for a bad movie.

Please, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

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Rule, Brittania

Film depictions of Brittania show it's still better to be civilized than to be barbarian

Americans tend to be suckers for an English accent. Anglophiles will find something more in four films that run the gamut of the English empire.

The latest of the Jane Austen books translated to film, Emma, is coming to the video stores. Douglas McGrath directed this observant comedy, which, between its rich characterizations, intelligent dialogue, and sublime cinematography, approaches the zenith of Austen-mania. Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems doomed to suffer perpetual pride until she spies her reflection in the mirror of her cruel vanity. Few audiences can resist the girl as she struggles with her sin and in expressing her remorse becomes a woman.

The more questionable legacy of British colonialism is the backdrop for The Ghost and The Darkness, names applied to two man-eating lions that stalked and slaughtered more than 130 men as they laid railroad tracks across the African horizon of Britain's empire at the turn of the century. This is a re-creation of the true story of Col. John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer), whose dream of building a bridge across the Tsavo River turns into a nightmare as his bickering, multicultural workcrew is terrorized by lions.

Professional hunter Charles Remington (played with savage eccentricity by Michael Douglas) is brought in to hunt them down, but even he senses in the animals an eerie presence of evil. Christians will question the talisman-waving superstition and the assumption that evil is some free-floating entity apart from human sin.

Moving forward about 20 years, writer/ director Neil Jordan takes audiences to another tragic corner of the British empire: Ireland in 1916. Opening with Dublin's Easter Rising and the firing-squad executions of those who led the struggle, audiences follow the intertwined lives of title character Michael Collins (passionately portrayed by Liam Neeson), Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), and Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), three founders of the Irish Republican Army.

The intrigue and violence of the IRA's guerrilla-style war against the Crown is presented in the style of a gangster film. But, far from glamorizing violence, Mr. Jordan reveals Michael Collins's heart for freedom and his anguish over the lives lost in the struggle to bring Britain to the negotiation table. As soon as a real opportunity for peace and self-rule is offered, Collins takes it. He is undone, however, by his former friends who remain addicted to terrorism.

Lovers of British humor will prize Cold Comfort Farm. This modestly budgeted but richly satirical comedy, based on the 1932 novel by Stella Gibbons, lampoons the depressing tales of rural primitivism by the likes of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence. The high-spirited young heiress, Flora Poste, lands into the loverly muck of an English country farm where she, not unlike Emma, purposes to create order out of chaos--thereby creating comedic chaos. Through it all, we learn that civilization really is better than barbarism, a bracing message for our relativistic age.

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