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Night stalking: Gibson in Signs. © Touchstone Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

Spirit in the Sky
By Ann Morrow

Signs
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe that “someone” is watching out for them, and those who believe they are on their own. That’s the philosophy of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a pastor who renounced his calling after the death of his wife in a random accident. It’s also the deftly rewarding premise for Signs, the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, auteur of The Sixth Sense. For his third somber thriller, Shyamalan inverts the plot of The War of the Worlds by distilling mass hysteria to one man’s religious dread. The signs begin as eerie crop symbols in a Pennsylvania cornfield, but by the end of this heartfelt meditation on existence, the “signs” are far more spiritual in nature.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have the Shyamalan fright factor—it does. Menacing figures stalk the farmstead and scaly, bony fingers claw at the undersides of doors. Shyamalan is one of the most talented and sincere filmmakers working today, and he can do more with a bang on the wall than anyone since Hitchcock. The film begins with a long, indrawn breath of premonition, as Graham and his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), both wake with a start and find Graham’s two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), out in the cornfield, staring at a mysterious circle of flattened cornstalks. That night, Graham and Merrill chase a fleet-footed intruder off the roof. The local sheriff (theater legend Cherry Jones) stops by and reports other strange goings-on around town.

Within days, crop symbols crop up in India, England, and other countries. The entire world is transfixed by the “hoax” until an alien (apparently from the same planet as Predator) is caught on tape in Mexico. Signs resembles many spooky films with inexplicable setups, from The Birds to The Mothman Prophecies. But despite the surface similarities, Shyamalan isn’t interested in terrifying plotting; the aliens are mostly a device, allowing the director to expose the dynamics of fear in a family still reeling from tragedy. Both Graham, a successful farmer, and Merrill, a washed-up baseball player, have been subdued by misfortune (much like Bruce Willis’ doctor in The Sixth Sense), and instead of red herrings, Shyamalan plants a trail of hints as to their submerged strengths. A quick pan of a plaque commemorating one of Merrill’s prodigious home runs—570 feet, about the length of the crop circles—comes at exactly the right moment.

Because the director likes to approach his material from odd angles (with enjoyably odd moments of humor), the family tension isn’t between the two brothers—it’s between father and son. Morgan, who may be more intelligent than Graham, has lost confidence in his father, and compensates by being protective of his little sister. While the film catches the audience by surprise by underplaying its inherent creepiness, Shyamalan plumbs the same themes as in his first two films: namely, the devastation of loss, the protective paternal instinct, and ordinary-man heroism.

Signs is not as ambitious as the underappreciated Unbreakable, nor does it have the drop-your-popcorn snap of The Sixth Sense. What it does have is the director’s preternatural sensitivity, and what’s most intriguing in all three of his films is how grief itself seems to be the conduit between the supernatural (whether dead people or aliens) and the natural world. Graham’s flashbacks to the death of his wife keep pace with the massing of UFOs on the horizon, while the blurring between real and unreal is achieved through Shyamalan’s extraordinary visual style: He accentuates the town’s ordinariness to its outer limits of believability.

By keeping the corn-flattening UFO invasion to a bare (but effective) minimum, Signs may disappoint those viewers looking for a sci-fi brain tease. And in trying to please his audience, Shyamalan closes the circle on Graham’s crisis of faith a little too cleverly. Still, this straight-ahead mix of flying saucers and secular humanism does have something different about it: A purposefulness that’s about as close to grace as a movie can get.

A Perfect Couple

Never Again
Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Never Again is a very funny film about middle-age romance. It avoids the cliché of making its romantic leads cute, primarily by generously loading the script with sexually frank dialogue. The real surprise is that the film gets the emotional aspects of the relationship right, too.

Grace (Jill Clayburgh) hasn’t had sex in seven years. As a social worker in a Big Brothers/Big Sisters-type agency, she’s not meeting any prospects either. Christopher (Jeffrey Tambor) is an exterminator who moonlights as a jazz musician. His piano playing regularly leads to one-night stands (with much younger women), but he’s bored with that routine. Grace and Christopher meet under truly absurd circumstances, and hit it off. Romance follows.

Aspects of Never Again’s story deliberately echo Clayburgh’s breakthrough film from 1978, An Unmarried Woman. As in the earlier film, Clayburgh plays a woman whose ex-husband has moved in with a younger woman; this time, however, her character has a more acid sense of humor. With icy condescension, she addresses a “This is the most wonderful time of your life” speech, meant for her college-bound daughter, to the second wife. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says with mock embarrassment at her phony mistake. She then turns to her daughter, standing directly behind her, and repeats the speech.

Tambor has his moments as well, playing Christopher’s self-centeredness as a kind of charm. (Uncomfortable at meeting Grace’s friends, he jokes, “Maybe I’ll go hang myself in the closet.” They think he’s cute.) Christopher is a man who, in many ways, never grew up. His prickly devotion to his mother and affection for peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches are intended as a dead giveaway; this is the kind of film in which tastes and habits are heavily relied upon to delineate the characters.

Never Again has some of the funniest lines spoken on screen this year. On their first date, Grace shocks Christopher with her repeated use of a familiar four letter word. She explains, with some exasperation: “I like the word fuck. It keeps me in touch with my sexuality, in lieu of the actual act.” Later, a woman in her early 20s expresses dismay at hearing Grace and her pals talk frankly about their sexual experiences. Grace’s friend Elaine (Caroline Aaron) shoots back, “If you stopped watching The Real World and started living, maybe you’d have something to talk about. We invented feminism. What’s your legacy gonna be—Jell-O shots?”

The film does overreach, trying to incorporate melodramatic twists alongside boisterous sexual slapstick. This takes a lighter touch than director Eric Schaeffer currently possesses. The drawbacks do not damage the film much, however. The straightforward approach to sexuality and emotion is winning. Never Again offers hope that lovers of “a certain age” need not completely vanish from the screen.

—Shawn Stone

The Ego Has Landed

Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat
Directed by David Raynr

The ad copy promises that come-dian Martin Lawrence will deliver a “piercing look at his life” in this, his latest concert film. Obviously, this is a reference to his well-publicized health problems and notorious run-ins with co-stars and cops. When, in the last half-hour of the picture, Lawrence finally gets around to the topic of his life and its uncomfortable resemblance to a train wreck, his candor is hilarious and refreshing. The first hour is so thoroughly dismal, however, and weighed down with self-aggrandizement and weary routines, that the good material arrives almost too late.

The fun begins with a short film-within-the-film reviewing Lawrence’s life. Real footage from his stand-up appearances, TV show and movies is interspersed with clearly phony “news clips” of smarmy reporters saying unflattering things about Lawrence. This introduction glorifies the comedian’s genius, and mourns his crucifixion by the media. As an example of raging ego and embarrassing self-pity, it rivals the worst behavior of the king of comic egocentrics, Jerry Lewis.

Then Lawrence takes the stage like a rock star, as a burst of laser beams cuts through the copious, billowing smoke. He rattles off some lame 9/11 jokes. He tells some tired sex jokes. He talks about patriotism and racism, without enthusiasm or insight. He does a really lame Martin Luther King Jr. bit. Sensibly prepared for the worst, he addresses a sincere “fuck you” to any critics who may be in the audience. All through this, Lawrence jogs back and forth across the stage constantly, as if trying to outrun the bad material.

It’s a complete surprise, then, when he riffs about three particularly disastrous life experiences with humility, humor and sincerity. Lawrence doesn’t shy away from highlighting his failings, self-absorption, and inability to deal with the pressures brought on by fame. The routine is focused and structured. His gift for physical and vocal mimicry, underused for much of the performance, comes through. The change is so total, and the material so funny, it’s like watching a different film.

Then, just as he finally gets going, he’s finished. Another painful, self-glorifying film montage ends the picture on a sour note. It’s hard to figure out which is the “real” Martin Lawrence, the self-pitying clown or the sharp-edged comedian. But it’s easy to decide which one to like.

—S.S.


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