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Memphis Flyer Power of Attorney

By Debbie Gilbert and Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Well, here’s a novelty: a movie that’s simply about what’s right and what’s wrong. In Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of John Grisham’s novel The Rainmaker, there’s no sex, no car chases, no violence (except for one beautifully staged fight scene). Nothing, in short, to detract from the story’s focus on a lawyer who tries, against all odds, to maintain the moral high ground.

Matt Damon, in a surprisingly nuanced performance, plays fledgling attorney Rudy Baylor, a modest, polite-spoken young man who has barely graduated from “Memphis State” when he lands a whopper of a case: a family wants to sue the Great Benefit insurance company for denying a bone-marrow transplant to their leukemia-stricken son. Penniless himself, he takes a job with sleazy lawyer Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), whose office is next to a topless club (Danny’s, which is not disguised for the movie). Rudy is homeless, too, so he rents a carriage house on the property of flighty Midtown widow Miss Birdie (79-year-old Teresa Wright), who turns him into her “yard boy.”

Rudy takes everything that’s thrown at him and doesn’t complain. He seems too good to be true. He also seems more than a little wet behind the ears, but we know from his sardonic voiceovers that he’s aware of the absurdity of his situation; he just doesn’t yet have the power to control his own destiny.

With prodding from “paralawyer” Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), Rudy goes into business for himself and sets about confronting Great Benefit’s army of lawyers. When he faces them all across a boardroom table, it truly is a David-and-Goliath scenario, and the kid scores with a verbal slingshot. His nemesis is the insurance company’s chief lawyer Leo Drummond, played with arrogant self-righteousness by Jon Voight. Slick and superior, Drummond can scarcely contain his mirth at Rudy’s ignorance of courtroom procedure. But through some not-quite-illegal maneuvering, Deck and Rudy manage to expose a weakness in the insurance company’s armor.

In the midst of all this, there’s a parallel story in which Rudy plays the gallant hero, rescuing a damsel in distress. He meets Kelly Riker (Claire Danes, who doesn’t have much to do except look hurt), a young woman who has been repeatedly beaten by her husband but who is afraid to leave because he’s threatened to kill her. Instinctively Rudy wants to protect her, and theirs is a sweet little tale of blossoming love, with Rudy as the pure-hearted savior. It’s tangential to the main plot, yet directly connected to the movie’s theme: There’s right and there’s wrong. Domestic violence is wrong, and Rudy won’t stand for it. (The movie might be a bit more interesting if Rudy were ever tempted to the dark side, but on the other hand, it’s refreshing to see someone so steadfast in his principles.)

This all sounds pretty heavy-handed, but it doesn’t play that way. This is by far the funniest Grisham movie ever, thanks in large part to DeVito’s indefatigable antics (as Deck, the unrepentant ambulance-chaser who’s failed the bar exam six times, he hands out business cards to anyone with visible evidence of injury). And Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, inserts a number of witticisms into the script.

As director, Coppola pulls excellent performances from all of his cast members. In contrast to most Grisham adaptations, which are full of stereotyped characters and outlandish plot devices, Coppola makes this one a human story – a collection of quiet moments between people who seem true to life.

For example, Red West, as the brain-addled (“he’s got a plate in his head and he ain’t right”) father of the leukemia patient, could have played his mental deficit for laughs. Instead, he creates what may be the most emotionally powerful moment in the whole film, and he never says a word.

Coppola’s sharp judgment in picking actors extends to his choice of production staff as well. His director of photography is John Toll (Oscar winner for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), who depicts Memphis honestly without glamorizing it (as The Firm tended to do). Memphians will easily recognize many of the sites, from Court Square and the Pinch district to The Med and the Shelby County Courthouse. (And the Las Savell jewelry store gets priceless free advertising.)

But with Coppola’s insistence on using real locations, it’s puzzling why the film refers to the University of Memphis by its old name. Grisham set the novel before the university’s name change took place, but since the film moves the action up to 1996, “Memphis State” is an anachronism.

The other thing that elicits groans from local moviegoers is the reference to “Union Street.” With all the Memphians who were involved with the production, you’d think somebody would have caught this egregious flub. And The Rainmaker, despite its visual authenticity, resembles every other Grisham film in one respect: Its characters speak with syrupy, Hollywoodized Southern accents. I’ve been here all my life and don’t talk that way, nor does anyone else I know. Why didn’t the dialogue coach listen to some actual Memphians?

Nitpicking aside, The Rainmaker is an enjoyable, well-made movie that’s worth a couple hours of your time. It’s no masterpiece, but hey – it’s based on a Grisham book. Get real. – Debbie Gilbert

After four movies, 20 years, and an incalculable body count, two things remain consistent: The aliens will come back meaner than ever, and Lt. Ripley will be there to take them on. It is a reassuring fact about the hugely successful sci-fi-meets-horror Alien series, which in every other respect has changed radically since the first film debuted in 1979.

One of the odd things about the Alien series is how each film has managed to strike its own tone entirely separate from its predecessors. Ridley Scott’s original Alien was a good old-fashioned scare-the-pants-off-you haunted-space-ship movie. James Cameron’s Aliens was more of an action-adventure flick. And David Fincher’s unjustly maligned Alien3 was the most brooding, thoughtful, and bleak film in the series.

If anything, the latest installment in the Alien series, Alien Resurrection, is probably most closely linked with Alien3, in that it builds on plot lines developed in the third film and likewise takes a more leisurely approach to the thrills and chills. But in an important distinction between the two, the newest chapter in the Alien saga brings a touch (warped as it may be) of humanity and optimism to the saga of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), while also striking a surprisingly light-hearted, even humorous tone. (This may come as no surprise when you consider the screenplay is from Joss Whedon, whose previous films include the animated family comedy Toy Story and the tongue-in-cheek Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Two hundred years after Ripley throws herself into a pit of molten metal to kill the alien living inside her, scientists aboard a military medical research ship have gotten hold of Ripley’s DNA and have successfully cloned her and removed the alien “fetus” living inside her. Their plan is to breed and domesticate the aliens for military and scientific use, proof once again that hundreds of years and all the technology in the world haven’t made people one lick smarter.

Into this scenario comes the pirate ship Bette, carrying kidnapped humans who will be used as human incubators for the new aliens. Also on board the Bette is the mysterious Call (Winona Ryder), who takes an unusual interest in Ripley.

Despite the military’s best-laid plans, the aliens soon escape, the carnage begins, and our heroes begin a frantic, Poseidon Adventure-like race to get to the Bette and escape.

With good turns by Ryder and Ron Perlman as the brutish Johner, Weaver’s Ripley is once again firmly at the center of the action of Resurrection. And at age 50, she gives us an action hero who could more than stand up to the likes of Sly, Arnold, Ford, or Costner.

One unexpected side effect of the genetic tinkering is that some characteristics of the alien DNA have mixed with Ripley’s, resulting in her having increased strength, coordination, heightened senses, and, like her otherworld nemeses, acidic blood. In short, Ripley, never a shrinking violet, is now a bad ass. (One of the coolest scenes ends with Weaver making an incredible one-handed, over-the-shoulder three-point basketball shot, and yes, she really did make it.)

But she’s a bad ass with a little bit of an identity problem.

One of the keys to the Alien series’ success – besides the creatures themselves – has been Weaver and the unique perspective of having a female protagonist in an action film, a genre usually dominated by men. The character of Ripley and the nature of the aliens themselves – they plant their young inside “host” organisms until they reach a certain level of maturity, at which time they burst through the host body, killing it – has allowed the Alien series to explore ideas about motherhood and rape while still managing to entertain. It’s what the very best science fiction does: distance sensitive subject matter so that it can be looked at with fresh eyes.

In Resurrection, Ripley continues to struggle with the implications of her rape by the creature in Alien3, but now has the added dilemma of discovering herself after having died and been brought back as the most successful in a series of cloning attempts. The new Ripley is disturbingly detached as she tries to make sense of all this. It is a shaded and subtle performance for Weaver, but a change in the character that distances her from the audience.

With top-notch special effects, production design, and performances, much of Resurrection compares favorably with the previous films. One mistake that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (whose previous films include the well-worth-checking-out Delicatessen and City of Lost Children) makes is that he shows us entirely too much of the aliens, a bad habit of all the post-Scott directors. Maybe after four films it is asking too much for audiences to be frightened every time they see one of these slobbering, fanged monsters, but Jeunet goes too far in the other direction. We become too familiar with the aliens, to the point that they take on personalities, something which does provide some nice comic moments but which also robs the story of some of its dramatic weight.

This habit of identifying with the aliens does work to good advantage, however, in the movie’s final act, when a new alien makes its appearance – one that is, in a way, more frightening than all the others because it is the most human. (The new alien, by the way, makes its appearance by way of the most out-of-left-field plot twist I’ve seen in quite awhile, one which, I’m sorry to say, I’m still struggling to understand.)

It would not be giving away much to say that the aliens come out on the losing end of their latest clash with Ripley and company. In fact, the only real suspense is in discovering who among the cast of supporting players survives and who becomes alien fodder. But as the film ends, you’re not sure if the good guys won or even if humanity has survived intact. The most human member of the cast has turned out to be an android who was programmed that way. And our hero is a laboratory-bred mutant, who is now literally one with the creatures she has fought for so long. And so, having successfully saved Earth from the scourge of the aliens, our heroes literally fly off into the sunset, but the viewer is left with a sense that the real monsters are still very much alive. Oh, well. That’s what sequels are for.

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