SIGNS Of A Great Movie
Plus: DEUCES WILD, HOT SHOTS!, and SUPER TROOPERS arrive
An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin
M. Night Shyamalan's latest effort, SIGNS (****), is very much
like a personalized version of "War of the Worlds."
That it confirms the promise of Shyamalan as one of the most talented
cinematic storytellers of today is somewhat of a surprise, since SIGNS
shows the filmmaker to have more than a few new tricks up his sleeve --
this isn't another "Sixth Sense" with a huge twist ending. What it is is
a science fiction story from a uniquely human perspective, a highly entertaining
and sometimes thrilling work that more than makes amends for the plodding
misfire that was "Unbreakable."
In Shyamalan's script, aliens descend upon Earth, leaving symbols around
the globe and encircling major cities with ships hovering in the sky. Once
such sign is ingrained in the crops of Pennsylvania farmer -- and former
minister -- Mel Gibson, who lives with his young children and brother Joaquin
Phoenix. Gibson is battling his own demons -- a tragic personal loss and
loss of faith in general -- to say nothing of the spooky noises his family
hears on a baby monitor and the possible presence of extraterrestrial creatures
outside their home.
I wouldn't give any more of Shyamalan's plot away except to say that
SIGNS isn't a movie about cities collapsing and armies of creatures battling
with the military -- for that, watch George Pal's classic film of "War
of the Worlds." Rather, it's an examination of a broken family trying to
hold themselves together and move on following a tragic loss, and having
to do so in the face of an unknown, possibly evil enemy.
Shyamalan's usual bag of tricks that served "The Sixth Sense" so well
but failed in "Unbreakable" are in evidence again, but have been tempered:
Shyamalan again paces the film leisurely, frequently cutting away from
showing us TOO much at once, instead allowing suspense and anxiety to build
as the film progresses. The sound design again plays a major role -- people
creep around fields, footsteps on creaky stairs and strange clicking sounds
can be heard, standing out from the silence contained in so many unnerving
scenes in the picture.
However, in SIGNS Shyamalan has written a collection of characters with
far more warmth and emotion than the sleepy protagonist Bruce Willis played,
for example, in "Unbreakable": there are moments of sadness, tenderness,
and humor (I kid you not) in the film that makes the family far more identifiable
and believable than the sometimes- robotic characters in Shyamalan's previous
Of course, it helps that the cast is so strong: Gibson anchors the film
with a marvelous lead performance, complimented by Phoenix's equally fine
work as his younger brother. The work of the two children (Rory Culkin
and Abigail Breslin) is also terrific, with neither juvenile performer
offering the typical cute-kid cliché so prevalent in Hollywood today.
Also worth noting is the performance of Cherry Jones as the local cop that
also avoids the standard movie cliches inherent in that type of supporting
What makes SIGNS so entertaining is that Shyamalan's story works both
as a piece of sci-fi entertainment (not unlike a good, intimate "Twilight
Zone" episode) and a human story of rediscovering one's faith. The latter
element is convincingly discussed in a series of well-written scenes involving
Gibson and Phoenix, as well as a powerful and yet understated reconciliation
between the family during what might be their own "last supper." One of
the greatest accomplishments in Shyamalan's script is that the family's
problems are so great that the extraterrestrial backdrop seems secondary
to the grief that Gibson's character is going through -- something that
becomes evident as the resolution approaches and Shyamalan deftly wraps
up both storylines.
The appearance of signs around the globe is shown in fleeting shots
of TV coverage, but this isn't a movie about the first appearance of aliens
on Earth -- it's a film that event from the point of view of a family living
on a rural farm, taking on the possible threat on their own. Shyamalan
understandably keeps the unknown beings under wraps, but just when you
think he's going to cheat us of ever seeing what's running amok -- or go
in a pseudo- mystical "Field of Dreams and Aliens" direction -- SIGNS comes
up with a sensational climax that's going to surprise a few viewers who
think the director is all about smoke and mirrors.
SIGNS is part Val Lewton, part H.G. Wells, but the way in which the
characters relate to one another and the appearance of aliens from above
is distinctly Shyamalan, whose unique visual vocabulary and storytelling
makes SIGNS one of the year's few must-see films to date. (PG-13)
Soundtrack Corner: More SIGNS
Part of SIGNS' success rests unquestionably on the outstanding
score by James Newton Howard. Howard, who scored Shyamalan's last
two films, has written a powerful, haunting and eloquent score that's easily
one of the finest film scores I've heard in the last ten years.
Hollywood's soundtrack runs a hair over 45 minutes and this is a case
of an album working tremendously on its own. Newton Howard's approach is
mostly subtle -- well supporting the family drama of SIGNS -- but there
are moments of great power and tension akin to Bernard Herrmann. The lilting,
otherworldly strings at times recall outer- space music in Goldsmith's
"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and passages of "The Final Conflict," but
Howard's own voice can be heard throughout.
In short, this is a spellbinding score that never calls attention to
itself, instead supporting the movie with its own character and distinction.
A fantastic recording as well, with Pete Anthony conducting the Hollywood
Needless to say, SIGNS is my favorite work of 2002 and well worth a
purchase at a time when so few new scores are worth taking a risk on.
Also new and less effective is Klaus Badelt's score for the under-performing
THE WIDOWMAKER, a critically lambasted film that has failed to find
much of an audience this summer.
Badelt, one of the Zimmer Media Ventures team, struck out with his derivative
score from last spring's "The Time Machine," but K-19 is easily a step
up from that -- despite its obvious Zimmer-ish passages that sound like
"Crimson Tide" meets "Hunt For Red October."
Thematically the score is not especially memorable, though the performance
of the Soviet Kirov Orchestra and Chorus is noteworthy, mainly due to the
controversy surrounding their non-union recording in Washington, D.C. (check
out the new FSM for more on that). The Hollywood Records album includes
a full 70+ minutes of music, with selections from Richard Einhorn's "Voices
of Light" as arranged by film editor Walter Murch.
New This Week On DVD
DEUCES WILD (*1/2, 97 mins., 2000, R; MGM): On the shelf for
two years and then dumped out during the onslaught of "Spider-Man" and
"Episode II" last May, DEUCES WILD is a head-scratching, "what were they
thinking?" teen drama that tries to be "The Outsiders" but only ends up
rolling snake eyes.
Stephen Dorff plays a Brooklyn guy who starts up a gang called the Deuces
in order to keep drugs -- being provided by shady Norman Reedus under the
auspices of mob man Matt Dillon -- off his block. Life is all about hanging
on the corner, watching all the girls go by -- set to the strains of your
generic '50s song soundtrack -- at least until Reedus springs from prison
and the Deuces (who also include Brad Renfro as Dorff's younger brother)
end up in some rumbles. Tragedy and tedium quickly ensue.
An independent co-production between United Artists, an Italian company,
and a stable of production houses, DEUCES WILD is an amateurish, badly-written
melodrama filled with overwrought dialogue and laughable dramatic situations.
Nearly every cliché established in youth gang movies and '50s nostalgia
pieces is reprised as if we've never seen them before, while Stewart Copeland
receives two demerits for his atrocious score which buries nearly every
scene it appears in with loud electric guitars and drum machines!
DEUCES WILD also manages to waste a good cast and the involvement of
veteran production designer David L. Synder ("Blade Runner") and cinematographer
John A. Alonzo. This is one of those movies where you end up looking at
minute details because the story itself is so dull -- like, for example,
female lead Fairuza Balk's arms and noticing that the make-up department
didn't do an entirely successful job covering up her tattoos (which look
MGM's DVD offers an acceptable 2.35 transfer (a standard full-frame
version is also included) and 5.1 soundtrack, along with the trailer and
a commentary track from director Scott Kalvert and the film editor.
SUPER TROOPERS (**, 103 mins., 2002, R; Fox): There
seems to be two ingredients involved in making a successful comedy. First,
you have to have an amusing script, or at least, enough of one that the
performers can make something out of it. That raises the issue of the second
ingredient: you have to have funny performers. I'm sure the script for
a few of Jim Carrey's early efforts were pathetic, but Carrey's antics
carried those brainless movies to the point of being watchable, to say
nothing of being successful at the box-office.
What all of that has to do with SUPER TROOPERS is simple: some of the
gags in this tale of goofy Vermont State Troopers are indeed amusing, but
the actors who also wrote the film (under the comedic troupe name "Broken
Lizard") aren't funny at all playing the leads. It's one thing to have
members of Monty Python writing and performing their own material, but
the Broken Lizard boys (director Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve
Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske) have a real problem pulling off
the frantic comic pitch the material badly needs. At times I almost thought
the movie would have worked better with Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith,
and George Gaynes in the cast!
SUPER TROOPERS has a simple plot: a group of crazy Vermont Highway Patrolmen
pull off a collection of pranks on the road while fighting with the local
cops (including Daniel Von Bargen and Marisa Coughlan) over their territory.
The gags are ridiculous -- including a memorable bit involving a group
of stoners in the opening scene -- and pretty much are a cross between
"Animal House" and "Police Academy."
As I said before, however, the problem with SUPER TROOPERS is that the
movie isn't played on a high level of ridiculous, frenetic energy it needs
to put it over the top. The direction displays little comedic flair, the
music is overbearing, and the Broken Lizard performers often resemble ordinary
guys trying too hard to act crazy. It also doesn't help that the movie
overstays its welcome with the best gags coming early on, the movie stalling
out as it reaches the 100+ minute mark.
Fox's DVD is a solid Special Edition of the film, offering a handful
of outtakes, extended scenes and even an alternate ending. The commentary
track by the troupe is fairly interesting while the theatrical trailer
and featurette round out the supplements. The 1.85 transfer is fine though
the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is marred by low-volume dialogue and overpowering,
headache-inducing rock songs that will force you to be tinkering with the
remote for the entire duration of the film.
HOT SHOTS! (***, 1991, 85 mins., PG-13; Fox)
HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX (**1/2, 1993, 88 mins., PG-13; Fox)
One third of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio hit a couple of base hits
on his own with these two, very-"Airplane!" like spoofs starring Charlie
The first HOT SHOTS!, released in the summer of 1991, spoofed "Top Gun"
and countless films of the moment ("Dances With Wolves," etc). Sheen stars
as the Tom Cruise character, Valeria Golino (whatever happened to her?)
plays the Kelly McGillis part, and Lloyd Bridges is back fulfilling the
same function he did in "Airplane!" The movie consists entirely of rapid-fire
jokes and gags -- some of which work better than others -- but the film
is fast-paced enough and scores enough direct hits to work. The supporting
cast (including Jon Cryer, Cary Elwes, and Kristy Swanson) is also better-
than-average, and Sylvester Levay's surprisingly robust score is another
The success of the original lead to an inevitably watered-down sequel,
HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX, in 1993. This time, Abrahams and co-writer Pat Proft
turned their attention to the "Rambo" films for a belated parody of the
Stallone pictures, though at least it's a savvy spoof, with Richard Crenna
essentially playing Col. Trautman yet again. This time, though, the jokes
aren't quite as fresh and Basil Poledouris' straight- faced score gives
the movie a kind of generic feel. It's still watchable and amusing, just
not as much as its predecessor.
Fox's two DVD releases feature excellent 1.85 transfers and 2.0 stereo
soundtracks, along with trailers and quite amusing featurettes on each.
THE JEFFERSONS and SANFORD AND SON (Complete
First Season Box-Sets; Columbia TriStar): One of the great things about
the breakout success of DVD is that it has enabled studios to really reach
back into their catalogues and release all kinds of titles that may never
have gotten the exposure had the format not taken off.
The release of complete TV series seasons on video is a relatively new
phenomenon but a happy new development -- enabling viewers to catch up
on classic tube they may have missed, relive their own memories, and doing
so at their own time and leisure.
Case in point is Columbia's release this week of the complete first
seasons (13/14 episodes each) of the classic CBS sitcom THE JEFFERSONS
as well as the NBC smash SANFORD AND SON. Both programs are similar in
that they were two of the first to star African-American actors, were both
produced by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, and each shot into the ratings
stratosphere, appealing to all viewers with their ribald comedy and perfect
SANFORD AND SON debuted in 1972 and ran for five seasons -- taking off
early on before contractual problems and other difficulties behind the
scenes took their toll on the show.
Still, at least for a few years, SANFORD AND SON was a ratings powerhouse,
an urban American riff on a UK sitcom ("Steptoe and Son") starring Redd
Foxx as irascible Fred Sanford, who maintains a junkyard business with
son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Their bickering and chemistry formed the basis
for this program's huge success, which began to run out when Foxx left
the show in a dispute over his contract and -- soon after he returned --
Wilson walked out in the show's final season. The first 14 episodes contained
in Columbia's DVD set, however, are all terrific, showing the program at
While "Sanford" was a little before my time, I definitely grew up watching
THE JEFFERSONS, which launched in 1975 and had one of TV's most successful
runs ever to 1985.
This sitcom chronicling dry-cleaning king George Jefferson (Sherman
Hemsley) and his wife Weezy (Isabel Sanford) movin' on up to a posh NYC
high-rise contained classic episodes and unforgettable chemistry between
the two often-bickering leads, as well as maid Florence, son Lionel, and
George's not-so-sweet elderly mother. Their interaction, as well as the
relationship between the Jeffersons and their wacky (mainly white) neighbors
formed the basis for this hit show, which remains a favorite of many viewers
(myself included) and is still shown every day on Nick at Nite. Unlike
"Sanford and Son," THE JEFFERSONS displayed incredible longevity, remaining
funny even into its later seasons. The DVD Collection includes the first
season's 13 episodes, all of them laying the groundwork for the show's
Both DVD collections from Columbia include brief episode guides, fine
transfers and mono sound. Hopefully they'll both sell well enough to warrant
future volumes and the appearance of other great shows on DVD.
THE NEW GUY (**1/2, 88 mins., 2002, PG-13; Columbia
TriStar; available August 13): Absolutely cracked teen comedy stars DJ
Qualls ("Road Trip") as a high school nerd who decides to get expelled,
spend time in prison, and then surface at his cross-town rival school as
a bad-ass rebel.
Yes, it's the high school movie formula turned upside down, and THE
NEW GUY has some choice moments, many of them provided by Eddie Griffin
as the deranged, hardened con who helps Qualls find his groove in prison,
as well as amusing cameos by the likes of Tony Hawk, David Hasselhoff,
and Jerry O'Connell. On the eye-candy side, Eliza Dushku (of "Buffy" and
"Bring It On" fame) also gets to play a cheerleader again, and provides
an entertaining bathing suit montage for all red-blooded young American
The movie, directed by Ed Decter (one of the "There's Something About
Mary" writers), certainly has some big laughs and the benefit of an unconventional
storyline that keeps things relatively fresh. Unfortunately, it sputters
down the stretch, ending without a climax and padding its running time
with eight minutes of credits and outtakes. Too bad, because up until that
point, THE NEW GUY was certainly a cut above for this genre, though it
may still be worth a view for teen movie fans looking for something with
a little originality.
Columbia's DVD offers pristine 1.85 and full-screen formats, along with
a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that's too heavy on the songs. Supplements
are limited to trailers and a music video.
It should be mentioned that while Decter directed the film, it was actually
written by David Kendall -- known to a few as the writer and producer of
the sitcom Growing Pains (but not Where the River Runs Black --
that was another David Kendall) but mostly noteworthy as being the cousin
of our fearless publisher, Lukas. (I should also add that absolutely NO
promotional consideration or compensation was provided to me by Lukas in
the writing of this review!)
ROUGH MAGIC (**, 104 mins., 1997, PG-13; Columbia
TriStar; available August 13): A barely-released 1997 flick starring Bridget
Fonda as a magician's apprentice who hightails it to Mexico after an apparent
murder is mainly noteworthy now for Russell Crowe's early performance as
a reporter chasing after her.
Clare Peploe's film is an uneasy mesh of romantic comedy and thriller,
but is at least easy-going enough to make for an OK time-killer -- thanks
mainly to the performances of Fonda and Crowe, who star in this '50s-set
effort. The Robert Mundy- William Brookfield-Peploe script (based on a
James Hadley Chase novel) tries to create an air of fantasy but there's
too much grounding in reality in Peploe's direction -- and some of the
performances -- for the story to really click.
Still, ROUGH MAGIC is an admirable little film that Columbia has released
on DVD in a very basic package: full-screen transfer, 2.0 sound, and bonus
trailers is all you get on this disc. Fortunately, the movie looks OK here,
and Richard Hartley's score sounds fine, working hard to sustain an air
of enchantment that the movie struggles to find.
NEXT TIME: Multi-Region DVD madness FINALLY revealed!
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and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!