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Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams is both a wonderfully imaginative family film and a perfect example of everything that's wrong with modern

When a guy can make crop circles scary, you know he's a pretty good filmmaker.

From the man who saw dead people and really likes comic books comes this summer's spookiest film featuring agriculture, Signs. M. Night Shyamalan once again brings us a freaky, creepy, spine-tingling tale of stuff we've never taken seriously before.

Mel Gibson stars as a former reverend who lost his faith with the death of his wife. Mel lives with his two darling children in a darling little farmhouse along with his darling brother, Joaquin Phoenix. One day, Mel finds crop circles in his field. Next thing you know, the world is coming to an end.

There are a lot of things to like about this flick. From a purely visceral point of view, it's scary. M. (as a fellow auteur, I feel as if I'm on a first name basis with the man) raises the tension to boiling levels, making you much more afraid of what you don't see than what you do. True, he remains valedictorian of the school of "Go Real Slow And Take Your Time With Everything" film-making, but in this case that just gives you lots more time to squirm deep into your seat, preparing to spit up your jujubes.

Signs is about a global event. Crop circles are showing up everywhere, and the world is turning upside down. However, we rarely even leave the farmhouse. We experience this massive event through the eyes of the Gibson clan, with reports over the TV and radio filling in the rest of the world. It is at once claustrophobic and chilling. M. isn't telling a story, he's bringing you into the story, putting you in that farmhouse, and not letting you up for air.

Big meanie.

Above all, M. is wonderful at giving us moments. When little Haley Joel Osment says "I see dead people", it was a huge friggin' moment. Signs is chock full of great moments. As the world turns upside down, Joaquin gets his (and our) first real look at the beasties via a TV report of a home movie. When he leaps back from the TV, petrified yet glued to the screen, it is a Grade-A moment.

Far be it, however, for M. to just make a movie about crop circles. Any Tom, Dick or Alan Smithee can make a film about some damn crop circles. M., on the other hand, gives us a telling, honest, emotional tale of faith. The crop circles, the alien invasion, Joaquin Phoenix's dusky brooding are all secondary and unimportant next to the central theme of faith. Loss of faith. Search for faith. Need for faith. Faith Hill.

After three films (OK, he's actually done more than three films, but most people don't know or care) we have a sense (insert really obvious joke here) of M.'s style. Kubrick films move along at the speed of an X-Game compared to M.'s films. Everyone moves around the film as if they're in a daze. At some point, we're going to see something interesting reflected in a television set.

He also makes sure nothing goes to waste. Every single scene, no matter how simple or mundane, contributes to the outcome of the movie. Did a character make an unimportant, over the shoulder remark as they walked out the door? Gonna be important. Did we just learn something random about a character's past? Gonna be important. Does a character like to hump water buffalo? Gonna be important.

It makes for a very concise story; everything comes together and connects beautifully. But then, you kinda knew it would. In fact, when you get to the end of one of these films and realize that they still haven't ever brought back the fact that the old woman used to be a championship dart player, you look around for the random dart and wonder who she's gonna throw it at.

On the other hand, with an M. film, you know you're going to see something you probably haven't seen before and it's probably going to give you the willies.

There's also a good chance that there are gonna be kids in the film. Mel's two cherubs are central characters, and as usual, M. gets really great performances from them. Not sure what the guy does to get kids to act so well, maybe free lollipops or something, but don't you wish he could have imparted that talent to George Lucas?

Not to be outshone by their halfling co-stars, Mel and Joaquin act up a storm, M. style. They stare a lot. They look bewildered a lot. They emote a lot. Well done.

For my money, M.'s getting better, and I can't wait to see what he does next. However, I pray to God that whatever he does next, he doesn't put himself in the movie. In each of his films, he's given himself a progressively larger part, and in this film, he's got a couple of scenes, very important, emotional scenes. He's not necessarily a bad actor, but when you see him in the film, you know it's him, and you giggle and smirk, knowingly elbowing the woman next to you. It takes you out of the picture. He needs to stop it.

I'm giving Signs 4 1/3 Babylons. Treat yourself, check into M.'s reality. It's a good yarn, with oodles of jumps and bumps for all to enjoy.

Editor's Note:

Go back up to the first full paragraph--maybe the SMC hasn't taken death that seriously before, but I'm sure most of you have. When I pointed this inconsistency out to him, he paused, then said, "Yeah, but Unbreakable was about comic books." I'm going to go put my head in an oven.

Rated: PG-13
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin and that little gray dude from Close Encounters...all grown up and pissed off.

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