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The clumsy Signs and the experimental Full Frontal.


Remember the scariest scene in E.T.? I don't mean at the end when the government shows up and wants to take E.T. away or the part where the brother finds E.T. all sick and pale by the creek. I mean the suspenseful moment at the very beginning, before the Reeses Pieces exchange, where young Elliot is out in the cornfield with his flashlight, investigating the weird noises he's heard. As Elliot proceeds, the fog shifts a little, the corn leaves crackle, the flashlight darts hither and thither. Finally, its beam lands on the face of E.T., who makes that odd caterwauling sound -- long, weird fingers waving about -- and both boy and alien run in different directions. Elliot reaches his porch freaked out and out of breath, and 8-year-old me in the audience was just as freaked, breathing just as heavily. That scene gave me nightmares for weeks. Twenty years later, much of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (which is CHOCK-FULL of crackling-cornfield suspense) made me want to sleep with the lights on the night I saw it. The rest of Signs is corny in a less appreciable way. Think Children Of the Corn corny.

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), an Episcopalian priest, has had a rough six months. His beloved wife was killed in a terrible car accident (more terrible than just about any in all of moviedom, it turns out), and his faith in God is so shaken that he gives up his ministry and collar for a simpler, less contemplative life with his two young children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). His brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) moves in to help out and to work through some of his own losses. Suddenly, the family farm is marked by huge crop circles -- the variety known to us humans as A) signs of extraterrestrial communication, B) a huge, international hoax carried out by several clever pranksters about 10 years ago, or C) the image on the cover of the Led Zeppelin CD box set. Before long, the nature and purpose of the circles are revealed (it's not good) and the family (slowly) realizes the intentions of the visitors (bad things).

Fans of Gibson at his quirkiest (see Conspiracy Theory) will enjoy his work in Signs, where he manages to be both embarrassingly funny and miserably haunted almost at the same time. There is a scene at the dinner table, for example, where he is fed up with his scared family and proceeds to eat everything on the table to spite them. This tactic is absurd and funny, but as his family cries, he is overcome by stress and grief, and his anger dissolves into, perhaps, his first real breakdown since the death of his wife. He hugs his children, which is touching and then funny again when his brother is reluctantly dragged into the hug. Gibson manages this shift very well, but the whole movie turns as quickly as this -- and that just doesn't always work. Humor and suspense are so interchangeable here that one wishes Shyamalan would just let his moments wind down before switching gears.

Signs lacks the patience of Shyamalan's previous, better work, and it is that sense of calm, savory, invested timing that I admire most in his films. The Sixth Sense reinvented the contemporary notion of cinematic suspense and showed that a movie can be simultaneously quiet, scary, touching, profound, and weird, and it did so verrry slowly, so that we didn't miss anything along the way. His follow-up, Unbreakable, covered all that ground again -- too similarly -- and, consequently, gave signs that this Hot New Director had a smaller bag of tricks than his stunning directorial debut had suggested. He seems rushed here -- to do something new or say something different. And while Signs has terrific pacing and, therefore, suspense, the narrative is too jumbled for its own good and is in need of another Shyamalan talent: skillfully withholding information until just the right moment. That was key to the captivating mysteries of both prior efforts, but it works clumsily here.

In Signs, there is supposed to be a parallel between Hess' loss of his wife and his present dilemma -- aliens -- but the connections are so hackneyed and the tone of the film so inconsistent that when we finally "get it," we don't know if it's supposed to be funny, triumphant, poignant, or what. Gibson and Phoenix's brothers are so bizarre that by the time we care about them and relate to their respective demons, it's too late: There's an alien in the house, and it's clobberin' time. Shyamalan, unfortunately, withholds too much too soon and not enough too late. And his third great talent -- making us wholeheartedly believe the unbelievable (ghosts, clairvoyance, superheroes, and so on) -- is unfortunately traded for laughs instead of allowing us to care. -- Bo List

Director Steven Soderbergh is in the midst of a historic run. With Out Of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean's Eleven, he has delivered a series of sharp, smart, and visually rich mainstream entertainments in an era and milieu in which aesthetic quality and commercial accessibility rarely match up. Soderbergh has accomplished this by taking a French new-wave interest in spontaneity, naturalism, and audacious editing and combining it with a very classic Hollywood commitment to star power, storytelling, and entertainment for entertainment's sake. The result is a series of common genre movies suffused with a blast of fresh air. It's hard to imagine any other current American director taking escapist schlock like Ocean's Eleven and making it so utterly charming.

In his new film, Full Frontal, Soderbergh takes his French aesthetics to the extreme in the service of investigating life in Hollywood. Soderbergh mixes digital video with 35-millimeter film, gathers actors from many of his previous films (most notably Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt), seemingly improvises scenes, and shoots it all himself. The whole thing has the indulgent air of a post-wrap home movie, and even if it holds up better in your head afterward than it does while you're watching it, it's still a wearying failure. Soderbergh has taken this kind of detour before, with the surreal (and far more engaging) Schizopolis, a 1997 film that seemed to clear his mind for the extraordinary commercial run that followed. So perhaps Soderbergh needs to indulge himself every few years to keep the juices flowing. If that means more movies like Out Of Sight and Erin Brockovich, it'll be time well spent.

As experimental as Full Frontal means to be, all of the elements here are pretty familiar: There's the behind-the-scenes look at life in Hollywood and the cameo appearances from stars as themselves (see Robert Altman's The Player), the interlocking series of related characters (see Altman's Short Cuts), the depiction of on-set action and a movie within the movie (see Truffaut's Day For Night), and the digitally shot series of workshop-style improv scenes (see Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh's The Anniversary Party).

Full Frontal follows a series of unhappy Hollywood types over the course of a day that culminates in the 40th birthday party for a producer, Gus (David Duchovny), to whom they're all connected. Two of the characters (Roberts and Blair Underwood) are actors in a film, Rendezvous, being produced by Gus. Rendezvous is the 35-millimeter movie within the movie (which Soderbergh uses to satirize Hollywood romantic comedies) interspersed with the digitally shot "real" scenes. Full Frontal's final shot implies, correctly and perhaps righteously, that the visual connection of film to fiction and video to "reality" is a sham, but if Soderbergh's been dragging us through all this just to make that salient point, it hardly seems worth the trouble. Instead, what juice the film has comes from its fabulous actors, some of whom, particularly Catherine Keener, David Hyde Pierce, and Mary McCormack, are able to sketch characters that will stay with you long after the film's self-referential puzzles have dissolved. -- Chris Herrington

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