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Larry Flynt vs. God

In this latest Oliver Stone fantasy flick, guess who wins?

The People vs. Larry Flynt is producer Oliver Stone's retort to critics of his pornographic, violent, and historically distorted films. Painting pornographer Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, as a hero and defender of the First Amendment, Mr. Stone campaigns for a lopsided form of freedom of speech while sticking it to conservative citizens, officers of the law, judges, ministers, and anyone who draws the line at obscenity and libel.

The film--worth discussing because it is receiving rave reviews and awards from liberal critics and movie industry stalwarts--purports to tell the life story of Mr. Flynt. The pornographer is played with gusto by Woody Harrelson, from his moonshining childhood to his career as a proud and self-acknowledged smut peddler. Filmgoers are subjected to scenes of drunkenness, child abuse, sexual exploitation, nudity, group fornication, drug abuse, cursing, and liberal proselytizing against traditional marriage, community moral standards, and the application of religion in the social arena--particularly "the reign of Christian terror," as Althea Flynt (Courtney Love) labels her husband's brief dalliance with "Christianity."

Director Milos Forman, responsible for the film version of Amadeus, noted for its altered account of Mozart, uses all his talents to glamorize a significantly less talented individual. He tries to ennoble Mr. Flynt with the prosthetics of colorful cinematography, technically precise period settings and costuming, and swelling classical music at crucial plot points. All of this only underscores the tastelessness and lack of character that Flynt personifies.

The movie centers around Mr. Flynt's hearing before the Supreme Court--not for pornography, but for a libel suit by Jerry Falwell, subject of a filthy satire in Hustler. Another Christian connection is the portrayal of Mr. Flynt's "born again" experience through the ministry of President Jimmy Carter's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton. Her bad theology--that "God is [only] love" and does not require obedience to the moral law--is at least a reminder that attempts to devise a "kinder, gentler" gospel apart from Scripture not only do not change lives, but have a messy way of backfiring.

One segment has Mr. Flynt contrasting his sex pictures with photos of graphic violence, asking, "Which is more obscene?" Ironically, the director could have gathered his grisly snapshots of death from another Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers, which does for violence what Larry Flynt does for pornography.

After Killers (also starring Mr. Harrelson) was cited as the inspiration for four copy-cat murders, Mr. Stone was confronted in the press last spring by popular author, lawyer, and Southern Baptist John Grisham, who argued that filmmakers should be subject to product-liability statutes. Mr. Stone's response at the time was, "I'm sorry about the deaths of these people, but I don't feel in any way accountable.... People who commit crimes and are under the influence of drugs or alcohol are deeply disturbed people."

So why does Mr. Stone use his freedom of speech to glorify drugs, alcohol, crime, and the kind of behavior that undermines the value of the human being? Why does he treat the people who engage in these activities as celebrities and heroes?

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Another Xmas movie Xtravaganza

Puppies, toys, basketball, and Borgs--but Christ is X'd out of these Christmas-season films

Studios have rolled out no less than 40 eXtravagant, eXtraordinary, eXcessive Xmas-season films this year, and every one of them misses the Messiah.

Perhaps the worst among the bunch is Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest, Jingle All the Way, in which Arnold competes for the affection of his family with a philandering neighbor (Phil Hartman) by seeking to purchase the one and only thing his child desires for Xmas: a Turbo Man action doll. This story slugs along through the first hour dragging Dad through agonizing troubles, including fist-to-fist contact with Santas, shoppers, and Sinbad, the over-the-top mailman. The second half picks up the pace but delivers the same dull-minded message that the Christmas holiday exists to glorify materialism and that toys and "quality time" constitute a child's foundation for life. Parents need to be aware of sexually suggestive and violent confrontations which push the limits of the PG rating this film received.

Assuming that audiences cannot get enough of maximum action, Walt Disney Pictures offered Thanksgiving weekend the heavily camp, live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians. The film broke all records for a Thanksgiving release; more jaded critics have praised the animals but panned the players. The storyline follows the familiar path of the animated version with satisfying personifications carried out by Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, and the politically incorrect and fiendish Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil ("I love the smell of near extinction!") Also like the original, the message delivers lots of warm fuzzies, but like the other cinematic offerings of the season that's about all.

Even though director Stephen Herek delivers a warm, approving look at traditional values, he takes his aesthetic cue from writer-producer John Hughes (Home Alone) and applies a cartoon sensibility to the performances of his real-world cast. Thus, when the quartet of villains begin their journey to the "doghouse," they encounter some cruelties and disconcerting images that sensitive children and adults may wish to avoid.

Going where nearly everyone has gone before, those who cannot get enough of creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of the humanistic future can dream on about "making it so" in the current release, Star Trek: First Contact. The trouble with an overexposed concept and cast is that the filmmakers need to add an extra quotient of excitement and exotic situations to justify a multi-million-dollar budget and to ensure good box office returns. The producers of this film did not spare a penny or a precious piece of celluloid in their exploration of the strangest--and scariest--of new worlds: the man-machine civilization of the Borgs. Even the MPAA Board has employed their "parents are strongly cautioned" label and audiences should take heed.

Captain Kirk and the original crew are history, so this story blasts off with the crew of the Next Generation: Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and all his familiar faces. The story employs the sure-fire elements of an invincible enemy, time travel, and a visit with poor, backward Earthlings of the 21st century.

Star Trek, like all science fiction, is a vehicle to deliver a philosophical message about the human condition. During the '60s and '70s, when Americans tended to believe in utopian social programs, the concept of an intergalactic Federation seemed charming and possible. Now that everyone has learned better the hard way, Picard's "profound" dialogue with 21st centurian Alfrie Woodard, in which he informs her that money is nonexistent and unnecessary in the future since people work solely to improve themselves, is a real comic counterpoint to the ugly war with the uglier Borg.

Those who say "lighten up" to Trekkie philosophers might enjoy Space Jam, the hottest thing in elementary schools this side of Power Rangers. Stuffing perennial favorite Bugs Bunny and cartoon crew into the same stocking as basketball star Michael Jordan and topping it off with the threat of alien conquest, Warner Brothers has plotted out a presentation sure to please many.

Parents might rightly suspect that both Space Jam and 101 Dalmatians really serve as promotional vehicles for the showcased paraphernalia: television series, books, videos, computer games, artwork, fast food , furniture, household appliances, quilts, calendars, clothing, shoes, luggage, amusement park rides, and (who would've thought?) toys!

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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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