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Signs: Vista Series

Thank goodness there are some filmmakers working within the Hollywood studio system who still have a deep respect for the language and craft of cinema. In an era overwrought with high-decibel soundtracks and gooey CGI eye-candy, it's probably not so easy to attract major stars and get funding for a big-ticket picture that's actually going to be interesting and suspenseful, but at the same time filled with subtle details and deliberate pacing. Then again, M. Night Shyamalan can get a budget for just about anything he wants — his breakthrough smash The Sixth Sense secured his rank among the directorial elite, followed by the clever, enigmatic Unbreakable (2000). And with 2002's Signs, Shyamalan once again returns to his fundamental strength as a filmmaker — storytelling. Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a Pennsylvania widower who lives on a corn farm with his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). A former reverend, Graham left the church just six months earlier, after his wife died in a horrific car accident. Still dealing with his grief, it isn't long before Graham and Merrill discover strange things happening on the farm — overly aggressive animals, for starters. And crop circles, which also are appearing around the globe in rapid fashion. Folks in the small community aren't sure what to think, until a series of further events make it appear that the planet soon will be under attack from extraterrestrials. A thoroughly enjoyable, suspenseful film with strong performances all around, Signs is an alien-invasion movie with lofty aspirations. Perhaps at times too lofty — the overriding themes are not always clear, and it's hard to be sure how Graham's crisis of faith can be connected to hostile extraterrestrials. But even if the thematics are stretched a bit thin, at least Signs wants to be something more than a haunted-house story. And in its construction and storytelling, it's simply top-notch filmmaking. Shyamalan is a master of understating material — it's his greatest skill — and every time he sees an opportunity to frighten viewers by throwing something in their faces, he instead opts to make spooky noises around the corner, somewhere in the dark. Compared to Independence Day, it's the difference between a big-top circus and a slight-of-hand card trick. But Shyamalan never wanted to make ID4 anyway — as influences, he cites three films: Night of the Living Dead, The Birds, and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, movies that derive thrills from small communities and claustrophobic locations. The story is well supported by the cast, and in particular Mel Gibson, who communicates an unspeakable pain in his part as the recent widower. Joaquin Phoenix also is well suited for his role as the slightly goofy brother, and once again Shyamalan gets splendid performances from child actors, this time the talented Rory Culkin (You Can Count on Me) and doe-eyed Abigail Breslin. Meanwhile, Shyamalan's many humorous asides, particularly in the film's first half, are pleasant diversions, all rooted in his script's essential humanity. More than a scary movie, Signs ensures we gain a deep affection for one small family before they find themselves facing a final, terrifying night on Earth. Buena Vista's DVD release of Signs, part of their "Vista Series," offers a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in English or French, and English subtitles. Features include an excellent six-part documentary on the making of Signs, which can be viewed sequentially and runs nearly one hour. Also on board are five deleted scenes, two storyboard-to-scene segments, and a clip from Shyamalan's "first alien invasion movie" ("Pictures"), one of many humorous home-videos he made as a teenager. THX optimizer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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