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By Susan Ellis

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  In the Nora Ephron-directed and written (along with sister Delia) You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox and Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly. Joe is the owner of a huge chain of bookstores, with one just opening around the corner from Kathleen’s tiny children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner, thereby threatening its existence with its bulk-bought and marked-down selection, not to mention its cappuccino.

You’ve Got Mail is hardly a film with a message. It is by all measures a romantic comedy. But it does dabble in trying to say something, which is that the big guys (Fox Books) squashing the little guys (Shop Around the Corner) is not sporting at all. Trouble is, the filmmakers start the argument and then walk away, since it really doesn’t conveniently fit with the prescribed happy ending. And, in a way, this film parallels what big chain bookstores or any big discount store does. Because, as much as you can moan about how impersonal those chains are or how unknowledgeable the staff is, these places give the people what they want by giving them a bargain. Likewise, You’ve Got Mail is also a bargain. The Ephron-Hanks-Ryan collaboration proved successful with Sleepless in Seattle (and to think Gus Van Sant got grief for remaking Psycho; at least he didn’t remake his own movie as Ephron has here). The formula is set so that Hanks and Ryan could stand in a ditch and still draw them in. This is what the people want.

By the time that Fox Books has opened its doors, Joe and Kathleen have already met, though they don’t know it. They’ve been carrying on a friendly relationship via e-mail. No names or occupations are traded, just daily musings on the pleasures of living in New York and how good Scotch Tape smells. It’s a clandestine affair. Each of the parties sneak time at their computers, hiding the friendship from their significant others (Joe’s wired book-editor girlfriend, played by Parker Posey, and Kathleen’s luddite newspaper columnist, played by Greg Kinnear). At one point, Joe and Kathleen do meet face to face. They flirt, but Joe doesn’t let on that he’s the one threatening her livelihood. When that realization hits, war is declared and they begin to torment each other – all the while returning home and confiding to their e-mail friend the problems they’re having with the other and giving advice about what to do.

Finally, Joe discovers that Kathleen is his computer buddy and then his plan of attack changes. He works to endear himself to her, so that she can see beyond the fact that his business is shutting her business down and recognize that Joe is a truly good guy.

The theme the Ephron sisters stick into You’ve Got Mail is progress, and not so much progress in a good way (though it can be that, too) but that of the inevitable. Using the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner as a template, they throw in modern-day concerns. Those big, roomy bookstores mean more distance between people, and e-mail provides one of the more isolated forms of communication (one of Kathleen’s employees, played by Jean Stapleton, jokes, “I tried cybersex once, but I kept getting a busy signal”). The rallying cry that Joe suggests to Kathleen while they’re still strangers e-mailing, is “It’s not personal; it’s business.” This is a world in which people are defined by their coffee orders, where they’re more concerned about the cost than what something is worth. And, in one scene, Joe and his father and grandfather discuss the smaller bookstores’ customers. Joe slips out the word “readers,” to which his father replies, “Don’t romanticize them.”

So, on the one hand, we’re all just numbers to be counted. Yet, on the other – to paraphrase Barbra Streisand – people need people. That impersonal e-mail was the conduit by which Joe and Kathleen really got to know each other. It’s meant to be. It’s especially meant to be that Hanks and Ryan end up together. How can she resist his boyish charm? How can he not fall for her shaggy ’do and her endless supply of sweater sets? You’ve Got Mail takes a while to establish itself, carefully doling out the small (and certainly not original) conflicts until it’s appropriate for the heroes to join together. The best part of the film is the latter third, when Joe and Kathleen start hanging out, and it’s probably the laziest, since it is simply scene after scene of the pair being awfully cute. There’s no use in fighting it – they are just so darn watchable. – Susan Ellis


On the surface, Down in the Delta is a variation of an old storyline: a dissolute character goes on a journey to mend his ways and find his voice. Down in the Delta has a twist not often seen in theatres: The main character is a poor African-American woman.

Loretta (Alfre Woodard) pays more attention to drugs on the street than her two kids. Her mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) pawns the family’s most valuable and prized family heirloom, a candelabra known as “Nathan,” in order to buy bus tickets and ship the family from a Chicago housing project to their ancestral Mississippi home.

The candelabra “Nathan” is talked of and handled like a human being, which is strange to see until you hear the story: The master of Nathan, a great-grandfather of the family, swapped him for a silver candelabra. During the Civil War, Jesse, Nathan’s son who was just a child when his father was sold off and his family broken, stole the piece from the mantel of the white family that split his family. Since then, the silver piece and the story have been handed down to the generations.

Loretta protests when the candelabra is pawned for a mere $350, but her mother tells Loretta if she doesn’t straighten her ways, the next generation will be lost to the streets as she is.

So all aboard Greyhound and down to Mississippi go Loretta, her son Thomas, and her autistic daughter Tracy. (If you’re expecting to see a bit of Mississippi in the movie, don’t get your hopes up. The plantation scenes were filmed 40 miles north of Toronto, Canada.)

Uncle Earl puts Loretta up in his home and sets her to work stuffing sausages in his restaurant. Off the drugs and booze, Loretta grows: Her son teaches her basic math so she can become a waitress and run the cash register; she offers ideas to improve the menu and service at the restaurant. Wesley Snipes plays cousin Will, a hot-shot Atlanta lawyer who quietly encourages Loretta, helps to build her confidence. Inspired, confident, and dried out, Loretta and Will eventually lead the community in a fight to keep the major employer, a chicken packing plant, from leaving town.

Under the direction of Maya Angelou, noted author and frequent Oprah guest, and written by Myron Goble, a white male from Georgia, Down in the Delta has become what one critic called a compressed Roots for ordinary people.

“Down in the Delta is a story about women,” Snipes, the film’s producer, says in a press release, “and the experiences on a black women in particular. If there is anybody who has an understanding of what the experience is to be both a woman and black, it is Maya Angelou.”

Angelou doesn’t see her directorial debut as a narrow story of the experiences of black women.

“Everyone in the world want a good job, to be paid a little more than they’re worth, to be loved and to accept love in return. Everyone wants safe streets and family.” Angelou says in a press release. “It is a story to remind us that, as human beings, we are all more alike than different.”

While the story touches those universals and I’m happy to see that films about black women are being made, the film’s plot is so clichéd it’s impossible not to know what comes next. The only exception is the story of the candelabra, which is unveiled piece-by-piece through the film. Hearing the story of why the heirloom is so special is the only element of the movie that keeps the audience enthralled. – Carey Checca


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