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by James Arnold

An Odd Assortment of Heroes

RANSOM
DEAR GOD
A REQUIEM FOR TELEVISION
CHANNEL CHURNING
MICHAEL COLLINS
TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY
GABRIEL AWARDS
CNN Presents

PHOTO 1996 PARAMOUNT PICTURES BY RON BATZDORFF

Greg Kinnear (middle) portrays a postal clerk in Dear God, a Christmas-season parable about the letters people write to God that end up in "dead letter" bins.


RANSOM (A-4, R): A rich man loses his son to a motley group of blue-collar kidnappers. They have one advantage: Their leader is a canny police detective whose inside knowledge of tactics and high-tech devices gives him an edge.

That is the setup in Ransom, which pits likable action-hero Mel Gibson (as the father) against Gary Sinise (as the gang leader), who is shrewd enough to ask a relatively small ransom of $2 million, figuring the pragmatic airline boss will quickly pay off. But the F.B.I. gets involved, the deal is botched and Gibson, fearing his son will now be killed, turns aggressive. In essence, he now offers the money as reward, pledges to track the kidnappers to the ends of the earth and demands safe return of the boy if Sinise hopes to save his own skin.

This remake of a 1955 Glenn Ford movie strains credibility, but viewers will enjoy the fantasy of a macho father fighting back instead of sitting back and paying off. Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) builds tension on both sides. The criminals want only money and resist Sinise when he plans to kill the boy. Rene Russo (as the mother) and the F.B.I. (led by
Delroy Lindo) want to pay the ransom. The New York settings, including Central Park, help keep events grounded in reality. Underlying all is the class conflict between haves and have-nots.

The film is really a thinly disguised power struggle be-tween uncompromising hero and relentless villain, and the body count spirals out of control. The several face-offs on the city's crowded streets may set a record for dispersal of fake blood. The endangered-child theme may also repel sensitive viewers. Satisfactory for mature viewers.

MICHAEL COLLINS (A-3, R): Until now, Irish history has never be-fore been told by an Irish filmmaker. Writer-director Neil
Jordan (Crying Game) provides a smashing movie about the half-dozen crucial years in the life of Collins, a martyred hero of the 1916-22 uprising that led eventually to the Irish republic and the island's current uneasy political division.

The movie has an epic sweep and all the emotions of revolutionary fervor. And Liam Neeson, overheating with charisma, is physically and temperamentally perfect as the young firebrand who finally "got the British out of Ireland."

The bad news is that the portrait is rife with inaccuracies, ranging from historical details on down to whether Collins ever used the now-popular "F-word." (He had a few favorite profanities but not that one.) The good news is that this isn't a documentary, and few outside of Irish historians will know or care. To paraphrase Irish-American filmmaker John Ford, if the choice is between fact and legend, go with the legend.

Jordan prepared the film for 12 years. He catches major events and the essence of the Irish-British and Irish-Irish struggles. In Irish-born Neeson's hands, Collins is boisterous, human, witty--a born leader. His methods are violent--indeed, Collins is the anti-Gandhi. It's no excuse but they were violent times, as the film shows. Collins dreads killing but does it, and blames the British "for making hate necessary."

Americans Aidan Quinn and Julia Roberts, doing some of their best work ever, have key roles as Mick's best friend and beloved, respectively. And Englishman Alan Rickman gives a riveting performance as a somewhat unsympathetic Eamon de Valera (who later becomes first prime minister of Eire). Touched with poignancy and feeling, and vast scenes of action, the film works splendidly as docudrama and displays intense, overpowering artistry. Recommended for mature audiences.

DEAR GOD (A-2, PG) is about people who write letters to God, which in our disciplined society end up in bins in the "dead letter" division at the post office, along with letters to Elvis, the Tooth Fairy, alien civilizations and others. It's not a matter of belief or disbelief; the mail is just (for now) undeliverable.

More precisely, this Garry Marshall-directed comedy is about some fictional characters who work in this office in L.A. They decide to make their lives more interesting and useful by answering the pleas for help sent to God. Well, not all of them, but a few can be answered, like helping a sick child, saving a suicidal man from drowning, cleaning up the flat of a maid who spends her day cleaning other people's houses.

The idea is pure grace and occurs to the improbable hero, a small-time scam artist (Greg Kinnear) who's working as a postal clerk only to avoid going to jail. The dead-letter setting is both real and an apt metaphor, because the workers are a collection of comic oddballs who are in many ways as hopelessly lost as the mail.

What Marshall has in mind is a new Christmas-season parable, a sort of Miracle on 34th Street for the 1990's. The do-gooding hero is taken to court for "opening God's mail without authorization." Among his helpers are Laurie Metcalf as a burned-out lawyer and Tim Conway as a defrocked but dedicated mailman who lost his cool and bit a dog.

It's silly but the very talented cast (add Hector Elizondo, Roscoe Lee Browne, Rue McLanahan and Jack Klugman) make it entertaining and benign. All in all, eight or so "miracles" occur, and while most are on the level of Boy Scout good deeds, frequent use of religious scenes and characters provides grounding and underlines the deeper potential for good in everyday life. Solid seasonal comedy, satisfactory for youth and adults.

TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY (A-3, PG-13): A beautiful wife and mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) dies in a Nantucket boating accident. Her husband (Peter Gallagher) appears to meet and frolic with her on the beach for two years, ignoring his work and upsetting his teenage daughter (Claire Danes). Some relatives intervene before the man accepts his wife's death and "lets her go." This is the major truth: If we do not have each other forever, then life really is unfair. Flawed but thoughtful romance-vs.-reality movie, O.K. for mature youth and adults.


A REQUIEM FOR TELEVISION: The Tube as we know it (and love/hate it) is not long for this world. It and the telephone and the computer and audio-video CD's are already in the process of merging. Somebody who had left the planet in 1970 and came back today would scarcely recognize the medium. (We now have 24-hour programming of breaking news, college basketball and world history.) When we change millennia, this medium will be morphing more rapidly into a shape we can't now totally foresee.

Some of us like to live in the past, just like the early pilots who flew cross- country following the roads laid out for automobiles. Many of us, if we reject or can't afford cable or satellite systems, still use TV as we always have--passively, picking the shows from the networks, interspersed with local news.

That way of using the box has become quaint. Even if our only high-tech addition is a VCR, we can program our own hour or evening, either with rented or borrowed videos, or programs recorded at other times and saved for grumpy periods when "nothing is on TV."

Most American homes have now been upgraded to cable or satellite, and some to computers and the Internet. Not all those 50 to 500 channels are going to offer wonderful selections. But usually we'll find something worth watching, if watching is what we want (as opposed, say, to chatting on the Internet, or reading The New York Times, or surfing Web sites, or looking up something on a CD-ROM on Shakespeare or St. Therese of Lisieux or Sherlock Holmes).

In fact, there's an overload of fun stuff to do, and we're all at risk of disappearing (giant sucking sound!) into cyberspace. It was much easier turning off a sitcom than it is offing the wide-world possibilities of the dawning new age.

The family group that watches TV together, regrettably, has become obsolete. Soccer, piano lessons and part-time jobs have taken their toll, plus the multiplication of channels. How do husband, wife and kids split time among all the available channels? (The answer is with sensitivity and care.)

TV is not to love or hate--it's part of the environment, like freeways or jets tracing contrails in the distant sky, or robots digging in the soil on Mars. We may not drive or fly, but freeways and jets don't go away. The strategy isn't giving up TV and all it's becoming, or turning it off for Lent. The strategy is to use it, and live with it when not using it, with savvy, gusto, taste and common sense. If we're looking for God, that's one of the places God will be.

GABRIEL AWARDS kick in every year to remind us how good and uplifting TV can be. These awards are presented by Unda (a Latin word meaning wave), a national Catholic association for professional communicators. The Gabriels are difficult to cover because there are 27 categories in television and 21 in radio. Most awards are for local shows. Only a few are in "national release," meaning that most of us had a chance personally to see them. For example, one winner we heard of is CBS's Touched by an Angel (also honored by Catholics in Media Associates).

At a recent Chicago banquet, we heard and saw excerpts from the top winners, and the experience provided a definite glow. Lots of people out there are working hard to find stories that reveal the divine spirit moving in us. Those honored as "stations of the year," for doing it consistently, are: KNOM-radio in Nome, Alaska, and WCVB-TV in Boston.

CHANNEL CHURNING: There was an intriguing episode on Chicago Hope (CBS) on the sacredness of life, when a potential organ donor who faced a life in complete paralysis chose to live, surprising and frustrating doctors. A line of waiting organ recipients were put on hold, including a dying young girl. The story posed the dilemma of whose life was worth more. In the end, we realize all are equal.

One of the stirring moments on PBS's The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century was the 23rd Psalm read over the faces of young men killed in the horrific standoff of 1914. Also noteworthy was the story of the "shared Christmas" of 1914, when Germans and Allies made a brief truce and sang carols, "the last noble gesture of the ideals of the 19th century."

CNN Presents (CNN's generally excellent Sunday night documentary series), in its "Shattered" episode, reported on the ordeal of Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was abducted, raped and tortured in Guatemala in 1989. Her case made news again in 1996 with Sister Dianna's vigil at the White House. Welcome attention was given to Su Casa, the Catholic-operated refuge for torture victims and others in Chicago. The word on Sister Dianna was that "she's risen and come back to life again."

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