Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix

Like its predecessors The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Signs is a psychological thriller steeped in writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's dankly poetic sensibility. His characters move as if underwater, all but stooped by the weight of some pervasive, morbid dread. Abnormal, sickly children figure prominently. Below this heavy current flows something chillier—a mystical-spiritual undertow made explicit in a final twist. Without a doubt, Shyamalan is one of the strangest, most original talents to emerge recently in movies.

What works for a story about seeing dead people, however, doesn't fly for one about seeing UFOs.

In Signs Gibson plays a farmer and former minister in rural Pennsylvania who has lost his faith after his wife's death. One day he awakens to find enormous patches of his corn fields flattened into a pattern of circles and rows. You've seen this before in aerial news photographs—a famous man-made hoax that some interpreted as a sign of alien visitation. This time, though, it's no joke. Similar patterns turn up around the world virtually overnight. Glowing lights converge above Mexico City. Invasion seems imminent. Gibson battens down the homestead hatch with his two children—one asthmatic, the other phobic about water contamination—and his nice but feckless brother (Phoenix), a failed baseball player.

Shyamalan leads us on with a teasing, unsettling creepiness. The first alien is glimpsed at night poised on a roof, like a silhouette in a dream ballet. When we finally see one of the creatures in daylight, it's in video footage that Phoenix watches on TV. He gasps and leaps back from the screen. The moment is both deliciously spooky and dramatically real.

But Shyamalan is interested in the aliens chiefly as a plot device, the crisis that will force Gibson to come to terms with his anger at God. It's as if Graham Greene had written Independence Day. When Gibson, a strong actor who could sometimes benefit from a little restraint, wrestles with his faith, you wonder why someone didn't throw down a mat. Oof! But the aliens could just as well be Martians or killer tomatoes as the ones that finally turn up here. In the end the extraterrestrial loses out to the metaphysical. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Alienating

Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, Catherine Keener, David Duchovny

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Steven Soderbergh takes an A-list cast—the sort you'd command too, if you had directed Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven—and slips them into a shaggy, experimental narrative, shot mostly in single takes on digital video over 18 days. Frontal follows eight or so people in L.A.'s movie industry who have been invited to the 40th-birthday party of a producer (Duchovny). They're also all connected, directly or tangentially, through a new film project, a romantic trifle called Rendezvous.

We see a lot more of this movie-within-a-movie than necessary. (Why? So Soderbergh can show us he can turn out facile slop?) But the performances are rewardingly rich and varied: acidly funny (Nicky Katt as a self-absorbed actor playing Hitler), slickly charming (Julia Roberts as the star of Rendezvous) and searingly sad (Catherine Keener as a personnel executive leaving her husband). Actually, let me step out of parentheses to say that Keener is flat-out great. (R)

Bottom Line: Powerful emotions exposed

Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Antonio Banderas

The new Spy Kids isn't much different from the first: a child's empowerment fantasy tweaked with enough bright pop humor to give adults a lift too. This time young espionage agents Carmen and Juni Cortez (Vega and Sabara) venture to a remote island to prevent some electro-whammo-thingamabob from falling into enemy hands. The island, apparently plopped down in the sea of Spielberg, is inhabited by giant mutant animals (including a catfish that's half cat, half fish). A rival pair of sibling spies, Gary and Gerti Giggles, pose the greater threat. They're smug, sneaky and frostily blond. Well played by Emily Osment (Haley Joel's sister, 10), Gerti looks like the Olsen twins' lost evil triplet. (PG)

Bottom Line: Aye, Spy Kids

Four years after a botched double-bypass heart surgery, "I feel perfect," says Dana Carvey, 47. Now if only people would believe him. "I've got 400-lb. guys eating Philly cheese steaks and chain-smoking, going, 'Mr. Carvey, I'm worried about your heart,'" says the former Saturday Night Live star, who settled a $7.5 million malpractice suit out of court in 2000. At least Hollywood's buying it. "I guess if they see you can do 17 hours a day and dress like a turtle," says Carvey, who works out on a Stairmaster for 45 minutes every day, "you're probably okay."

Not that he's complaining: He cowrote the new comedy The Master of Disguise, in which he plays Pistachio Disguisey, a shape-shifting secret agent with 36 guises (including the aforementioned turtle mail And he adds to his repertoire of impressions—which includes his famous take on President George Bush Sr.—with a take on Bush Jr. "The Senior is all about his hands, and Dubya is all about his eyebrows," Carvey says. "When he thinks he says a big word, like delicious, he has a war with his eyebrows. They vibrate because he's got a secret: 'Can you believe I said that big word?' As for a Wayne's World reunion with his current box office rival Austin Powers in Goldmember's Mike Myers, he says, "It'll be when we're 60 and be all about minoxidil and Viagra."

Carvey, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., with wife Paula, 42, and sons Dex, 10, and Thomas, 8, will next tackle a more personal venture: a road trip through his native Montana with his boys. "I don't want to wake up one day and my kids are going, 'Dad, where are the keys to the car?' he says. I want to see the progress from the sweet kid into disgruntled teenager."

Austin Powers in Goldmember Yeah, baby. In his third Powers play, energetic Mike Myers generates fresh laughs in a quartet of roles: superspy Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard and Goldmember, a disco-crazed baddie. A cameo-crammed opener is the movie's comic high point. (PG-13)

K-19: The Widowmaker Down periscope. Harrison Ford uses a shaky Russian accent as the commander of a malfunctioning Soviet nuclear sub in a competent but unexceptional action thriller. (PG-13)

Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat Owning up to the fact that his much publicized run-ins with the law a few years back were due to his drug use and hard partying, Martin Lawrence wants us to understand that he's "only human and no one is immune to the trials and tribulations of life." But it's only when he is discussing those specific troubles that this filmed version of Lawrence's obscenity-laced, meandering, live stand-up performance rises above the routinely raunchy. (R)

Road to Perdition Dark yet lyrical drama set during the Great Depression about a Mob enforcer (Tom Hanks) seeking revenge and redemption. Hanks and costar Paul Newman shine. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Fleeman.