Midsummer Movie Mayhem

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Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson confront unsettling "Signs"

There's something spooky in the field next to the farmhouse where Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives with his two kids (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix): gigantic crop circles. Are they an elaborate prank or the harbinger of an alien race's intervention? Given M. Night Shyamalan's earlier hits (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), you can forget prank. The writer-director wants you to believe in signs, from beyond the grave or the solar system, from the Bible or a good man's troubled heart — for Graham is still in mourning for his wife's death.

Shyamalan is a poet of grieving. His movies dwell in bruised hearts and work deftly to find stirrings there. At times he surrenders to a few horror-film tropes (an army of monsters may be chasing us — let's hide in the cellar!). But Signs is, after all, a chamber piece, handsomely acted by its small cast, in which two sets of siblings must learn to be their brother's keepers. This makes the film a sober, superior thriller.
— By Richard Corliss

Spy Kids 2
The spy kids are Carmen (Alexa Vega), who's goodhearted but sort of bossy, in the manner of know-it-all big sisters, and her little brother Juni (Daryl Sabara), who has more gumption than common sense and needs lots of rescuing. To put it simply, their adventures may be fantastic, but they are also real children. It's the same with their parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino). They are legendary superspies, but she has a touch of the anxious soccer mom about her, and he has a bit of the doofus in him. Any kid will recognize them. The whole family works for a federal espionage agency that's smart enough to hire eager kids as spies — hey, this is a fantasy — but mostly stumbles around in a bureaucratic fog. In Spy Kids 2, sequel to his surprise hit of last year, writer-director Robert Rodriguez imagines that a Transmooker has gone missing — that is, a gizmo just a little bigger and blinkier than a VCR remote but able to power down the whole world. The kids have to recover it before it falls into the wrong hands. But this movie's delight is in its homey details, personified by the scary creatures they encounter on their quest. These are retro-hip homages to Ray Harryhausen's charming stop-motion animations of an earlier era. Their presence signals Rodriguez's desire to sustain his innocence — and evoke ours. Be prepared for enchantment.
—By Richard Schickel

Thug chic has come to movies in the extravagantly buff and tattooed torso of Vin Diesel. Looking like the spawn of Otto Preminger and Mike Myers' Dr. Evil, Diesel went from 0 to 60 in last year's cheapie auto-mania epic, The Fast and the Furious. Now he's back in an even more rickety star vehicle. Full of implausible chase scenes (Ever go skateboarding ahead of an avalanche?), director Rob Cohen's epic is pretty inept, while lacking the idiot intensity that makes for a classically bad movie. Basically a butch La Femme Nikita, XXX has extreme-sports star Xander Cage (Diesel) shanghaied into a U.S. government spy unit to buy hot cars from Russian anarchist Yorgi (hyperemoting Marton Csokas). Yorgi is brilliant enough to create a nerve-gas missile system but not quite smart enough to lock the door to his hideout. So Xander struts in for a climactic face-off. "I love anything I can get into and do somethin' stupid," says Xander. Kids will line up to watch that somethin' this weekend. Adults, perplexed at Diesel's surly stardom, need to recall this: Hollywood once made an action hero of a lug named Steven Seagal.
— R.C.