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Two movies came out this week, Signs and Full Frontal -
but only one of them had a climax.

Mel Gibson Graham Hess
Joaquin Phoenix Merrill Hess
Michael Showalter Lionel
Cherry Jones
Patricia Kalember
M Night Shyamalan Director/Screenplay

Signs – directed by M. Night Shlayman the director of the brilliant ‘Sixth Sense’ has all the look of a 10 million dollar budget been given to an off-off Broadway producer for his first movie. What he has produced is good and tight but he just can’t get away from the cramped four wall basement he’s used to.

Nevertheless this is a good drama, more original Twilight Zone than contemporary material and he uses that good old movie trick of not showing us everything to build up our fear of the unknown. There are few special effects at all and that’s just fine.

Crops circles are appearing in the remote corn farm of Father Graham’s farm played with restraint by Mel Gibson. Are they a hoax or could they be the other thing? Trouble is, Father Graham has given up the faith when his wife was killed, entirely by chance, when out walking one night. The tragedy stalks his family’s life. Now he’s left to raise his two kids and the farm with the help of Joaquin Phoenix, his brother Merrill.

Signs are everywhere, dogs going crazy, a kid who hates water. Father Graham isn’t perhaps upset enough considering his crop loss, nevertheless, when the crop circles begin to appear all over the planet – the threat of an alien invasion suddenly becomes a lot more real.

Of course this is a Mel Gibson movie, he’s a hero right? But a hero without faith is what? Ambivalent at best. He knows he’s got to protect the kids, but this isn’t the sort of movie where the FBI turn up, or indeed anyone, aside from the local sympathetic cop and the guy who ran over his wife. They can’t fight the crop circles; it’s too big. Are their aliens in the crops? The kids think so, they have the baby-minder emitting clicking sounds. The kids are great, little Bo is amazing and M Night Shyamalan really know how to get the best out of children.

The film works but it’s not scary, the alien looks a lot like Jim Carrey in The Mask and never really persuades you of its veracity. Joaquin Phoenix is good but you can see both he and Mel were there for the Bruce Willis magic. Sure the movie is already a big success and maybe it is just me who expected more, but this is no ‘Sixth Sense’. The ending is weak, the pace is very slow and somehow they just aren't scared enough. It is good that the Director hasn't shown us expensive shots of people panicking all over the world, it is good that we are just seeing this event through the TV and their eyes. But if the world really was being invaded I am not convinced the electricy would hold out so long.

The New York Times loves it. I found myself undisturbed and that is not something that happened with Unbreakable or Sixth Sense.

Cast: Julia Roberts (Catherine/Francesca), Blair Underwood (Nicholas/Calvin), David Alan Basche, David Duchovny (Bill/Gus), David Fincher (himself), January Jones, Nicky Katt (Hitler), Catherine Keener (Lee), Eddie McClintock, Mary McCormack (Linda), David Hyde Pierce (Carl), Brad Pitt (cameo as himself), Brad Rowe, Terence Stamp (Wilson), Jerry Weintraub (Jerry), Erika Alexander (Lucy), Enrico Colantoni (Arty/Ed), Justina Machado (Mavis), Rainn Wilson (Brian)
Director: Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ocean's 11, Out of Sight, Traffic.
Screenwriter: Coleman Hough (feature film debut)

Full Frontal is no sex movie, although David Duchovny does get his kit off.
This is Russian Doll filmmaking. A film within a film within a film. Pretentious, absolutely.
Brad Pitt is there for fun, Julia Roberts is either an entertainment journalist falling for Blair Underwood, an upcoming black action actor, or she’s an actress making a film about a journalist making a movie about being a journalist. It could be that the movie is really about Cathine Keener, whose an HR exec who plays games with people lives and is having an affair with Blair Underwood and is simultaneously married to David Hyde Pierce a magazine writer who has just lost his job. Add to this Catherine’s sister mary McCormick, who can’t keep a relationship going. She met a man on the internet who she thinks is a painter in Tucson, aged 22, but is in reality an indie theatre director with a show about a louche and camp Adolf Hitler.

Complex yes, Funny, ironic, playful, definitely. There’s lots of in-jokes and references. Watch out for Terrance Stamp – The Limey on his way to destiny (a nice little Keslowski’s moment) and Julia Roberts falling for a lighting guy…

David Hyde Pierce gets a chance to be more than a buffoon and he's a lot more interesting this way. Cathine Keener takes risks, as ever and she really is very watchable and edgy. Duchony is still trying to persuade us he isn't an FBI agent and he's also taking risks here. Mary McCormick is excellent and is this real or yet another movie with a movie, the last shot will tell you. Julia Roberts is sort of irritating, Blair Underwood proves he is totally underused and everyone seems to have enjoyed their moments here. If you follow the insider gossip from Hollywood you will too.
Critical reception has been cruel, but in reality here is a filmmaker having fun with his friends and if it looks like a home movie, so what. It's amusing and that's OK isn't it?

Full Frontal is directed by Steven Soderbergh and he’s back to his Sex,Lies and Videotape roots. He likes these complicated overlapping lives stories and you do have to concentrate. Clever, self-referential, impossilby inward and incestuous but yeah, that's they way it is supposed to be, isn't it?
As for the climax? Now that would be telling.

*Soderbergh's next film will be 'Solaris'. Time to dig out the Russian movie from the video vault so you can campare. A warning, it’s slow, slow, but generally a better move than 2001: A Space Odyssey which it is always compared with.

© Sam North August 8th 2002

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