stalking: Gibson in Signs. ©
Touchstone Pictures, All Rights Reserved.
in the Sky
By Ann Morrow
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
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.
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.
by Eric Schaeffer
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.
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.
Ego Has Landed
Lawrence Live: Runteldat
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
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.