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SIGNS Of A Great Movie


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 stories.

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 role.

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 Studio Orchestra.

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 K-19: 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 like bruises!).

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 Sheen.

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 plus.

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 lead performances.

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 its best.

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 long run.

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 males.

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! Send all comments to and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!

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