Rory Culkin, Mel Gibson, and Abigail Breslin in SignsSIGNS

M. Night Shyamalan is a clever, clever man. I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment, though, as he's clever in a way that's completely vexing to film critics, or at least, to critics who remain underwhelmed by his output.

His three most recent works, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and now Signs, are handsomely designed, staged, and executed, and occasionally - Haley Joel Osment's performance in The Sixth Sense comes to mind - something of brilliance sneaks out of them. But whether it comes at the finale of his movies or in the midst of them, his films are all about The Twist - Bruce Willis is dead, Bruce Willis has super-powers - and if The Twist makes the movie not work for you, it's nearly impossible to explain why without giving away the plot. (And in this era when nearly every detail of a movie is exposed in its theatrical preview, I have too much respect for Shyamalan's "less is more" ad campaigns to reveal the film's secrets.) Ideally, Shyamalan's films should be first discussed a year after their initial release, once everyone who's planning to see them has had the chance; by then, though, it would be too late to explain why some people might be wasting their time on them.

Assuming, then, that everyone knows the gist of Signs's plot - mysterious, hieroglyphic "crop circles" are appearing in fields all over the world, including the cornfield of ex-minister Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, alternately earnest and oddly mannered), and might be a portent of alien invasion or the end of time - let's analyze what's wrong with the film even before the arrival of The Twist. In a recent Newsweek cover story, Shyamalan is heralded as "the next Spielberg," and that might be true, but he's kind of like the Spielberg of Hook or The Lost World: Jurassic Park. He goes for broad, ham-fisted jokes amongst the thrills (Gibson's fallen Father, unaccustomed to cursing, chases an intruder at his house while shouting "I'm on a rampage!" and "I'm out of control!"), his secondary characters are cartoons (an early scene in a military- recruiting office is so atrociously acted you might think it's a joke), and his dialogue is stilted and affected throughout; though Rory Culkin does some wonderful work as Graham's son, none of his lines sounds like anything an actual child would say, and the adults fare no better.

Worst of all, Shyamalan signals the film's future Plot Points - the glasses of water left lying around the house, the one-time minor-league baseball career of Graham's brother (Joaquin Phoenix) - with an obviousness that recalls Spielberg at his worst. (Remember when we were informed that Jeff Goldblum's daughter in The Lost World was a gymnast? Did anyone not assume that those skills would eventually help her kick some dino ass?) Yet even this failing will no doubt be seen by Shyamalan supporters as intentional; "They're signs," you can hear the chorus chanting. "They're supposed to be obvious." And again I'm at an impasse, because they're signs as to how the plot will resolve itself, and that resolution, which I can't discuss, is what's most infuriating about the film. Aaarrrgghh!

Extolling some of the film's merits, let it be said that Tak Fujimoto's cinematography is exquisite, Phoenix and Cherry Jones are beautifully nuanced in underwritten roles, and the film features a well-trained dog and a really well-trained little girl. And Shyamalan's directorial prowess, oftentimes, is certainly evident. He has a knack for anticipation - his scenes of characters approaching things couldn't be bettered - and is capable of true subtlety in his exposition; I loved how smoothly Shyamalan revealed the reasoning for Graham not taking his dog to the vet. There are moments of greatness throughout, yet the crux of my frustration with the movie lies in a single scene roughly two-thirds of the way in, when a television newscaster, reporting on the bizarre goings-on, says "What you are about to see may shock you," which leads to home-movie footage of something otherworldly. If, like me, what you see doesn't shock you so much as make you giggle, you'll begin to approximate my overall disappointment with Signs.


Dana Carney and Jennifer Esposito in The Master of DisguiseTHE MASTER OF DISGUISE

Isn't it time we narrowed the parameters of which films should legitimately be called "kids' movies"? Once upon a time, that phrase referred solely to a movie with a G rating; gradually, as with Spy Kids, Ice Age, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, PG-rated flicks were allowed to carry this label, as long as they extolled proper moral values and the importance of family. But now, the term "kids' movie" seems to encompass any film that your average, reasonable adult would find unbearably stupid. Case in point: The Master of Disguise. In the film, Dana Carvey plays an Italian waiter named Pistachio Disguisey - let me reiterate that: His name is Pistachio Disguisey - who discovers that all of his ancestors, including his father, were secret agents, and who learns to become one himself when his folks get kidnapped. Using his genetic talents for mimicry, Pistachio goes about trying to save them; as the film's trailers indicate, this serves as an excuse for Mr. Carvey to wear a bunch of grotesque outfits, speak in funny voices, and ham it up over the course of 75 minutes. Because The Master of Disguise is rated PG, and because the most offensive moments of its insipid comedy involve Brent Spiner as the film's flatulent villain, some in the press have labeled it a "kids' movie." We had a phrase for movies of this ilk when I was a kid, too. We called them "pieces of shit."

The film is staggeringly unfunny, and wouldn't be worth discussing at all if it weren't also totally depressing. Few sights in entertainment are as grim as watching a once-hot comedian attempt to reclaim former glory by regurgitating jokes he should have retired ages ago, and your heart would bleed for poor Dana Carvey if he weren't so obviously willing to debase himself. Employing all the vocal and facial tricks he presented on Saturday Night Live on a weekly basis, but with even more wretched material than was usual, Carvey's shtick is too familiar to surprise us anymore (which, I suppose, is why young kids might enjoy his work here), and by the time he trots out his George Bush impersonation for what must be the zillionth time, you don't just feel embarrassed for him, you wonder why you ever found him funny in the first place. Carvey is too talented to let The Master of Disguise finish him off, but without a serious re-evaluation of how to present those talents, he could end up starring in asinine "kids' movies" like this for the rest of his career.

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