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» » Signs of Life (1989)

Short summary

A touching story of life in rural Maine, and the changes brought about by the closing of a town's small boat-building company -- on which many of the residents depended upon for a living.

Arthur Kennedy had been retired and living in Savannah, Georgia. During a dinner with his daughter and her agent, he asked if there was anything out there for him and the result was his role in this film.

User reviews


  • comment
    • Author: Reggy
    It's not real flashy, but this movie does a great job of developing a large cast of characters, and letting you know their hopes and desires, while still managing to be both funny and bittersweet. A very sweet movie. Fun, also, to see Vincent D'Onofrio and Mary-Louise Parker so early in their careers.
  • comment
    • Author: Kare
    I first saw "Signs of Life" on PBS as an American Playhouse presentation. It's a wonderfully written, ensemble production with terrific performances by Michael Lewis as Joey and Vincent D'Onofrio as his brother, Daryl. Arthur Kennedy, in one of his last roles, is also excellent as an aging shipbuilder whose family business is about to close. The rest of the cast which includes Beau Bridges, Kathy Bates and Mary-Louise Parker give remarkable clarity and substance to their characters.

    The direction is subtle and effective. I've watched this movie several times over the years and would very much recommend it. A beautiful piece of filmmaking.
  • comment
    • Author: Otiel
    I saw this movie on PBS the first time. Then I bought the video and watched it countless times. Every time I watch it, I can get something else out of it. It's a real testament to wanting to hold onto a life that was good, but now the world is changing. But you don't have to be older to hold onto the past, even the young characters, like Charlotte don't want things to change. The overall tone and mood is excellent. The cast is outstanding with all-stars like Kathy Bates, Beau Bridges and Arthur Kennedy. And its fun to see the upcoming stars before they hit more recognizable feature films, like Kevin J. O'Connor (The Mummy) and Vincent D'Onofrio (Men in Black and Law & Order: Criminal Intent-one of my favorite shows). Its just one of those movies that stays with you.
  • comment
    • Author: Tat
    As with so many modern US films, there has to be a supernatural element to the plot, but if you just let that go, this is a tale with heaps of charm and a kindly heart cased in a crab shell.

    We are presented with a scene of a town in an economically depressed area struggling to find anything to be happy about. Beau Bridges' character is really up against it with a family on the increase, a nil bank balance and a brother-in-law who's sold out to a big business chain which he secretly hates, but in which he is willing to rub Beau's nose. D'Onofrio finds his rather surface Bubba lifestyle cramped by having to look after his 'blessed' baby brother, Joey, and is itching to escape the shackles of this dead hick town. Their boss's business is closing down (much against his will) because of a lack of new customers and he is haunted by memories of his father as he builds up the tension towards his own attempt at self-destruction.

    Joey, who had seemed to personify the curse on their lives, is lost at sea - believed drowned - in a freak accident. His miraculous restoration to them by the Portuguese trawlermen whose boat they had just built and launched (perhaps symbolic of an angelic crew), is the sign they've been waiting for and they all decide to give life one last throw of the dice.

    There is a beautiful brooding mood throughout this work which excelled in holding our attention as brilliantly as 'The Shipping News'. There are other parallels with the later work, too, which lead one to suspect a touch of a remake. I like 'Signs of Life' for its simpler, less contrived story and star performances from actors working at their craft rather than to be noticed as stars.
  • comment
    • Author: Prorahun
    This unassuming sleeper is being sold as an inspirational 'feel good' movie because of a minor miracle tacked awkwardly onto the final scenes, but the film is more about those moments of transition in our lives when anything can happen, tracing 24 fateful hours in the life (and death) of an old New England shipyard facing imminent closure. It's the sort of small town, ensemble character drama where the writing and acting are more than usually critical, and (fortunately) this one has both: an original, unpredictable script and a strong cast led by veteran Arthur Kennedy, still a tough bird at age 75. Under John David Coles' direction the film is delicate but never fragile, sensitive but never sentimental, and whimsical without ever losing its grip on reality. Because it doesn't call much attention to itself some word of mouth would clearly have helped the film reach an audience but, considering the throwaway release it received, viewers today will have a difficult time tracking it down
  • comment
    • Author: Gaudiker
    In one sense, "Signs of Life" is a fantasy, full of vibrant photography and off-center characterizations. But it is also grounded in a dramatic sense, with a collection of fantastic actors all providing convincing performances. Aging shipbuilder Owen Coughlin (Arthur Kennedy) is the central focus of the ensemble cast. Every character, regardless of minimal screen-time, feels perfectly fleshed out. It was a real pleasure to watch Vincent D'Onofrio, Beau Bridges and Mary-Louise Parker especially.

    "Signs of Life" is a collection of individual short stories, all weaving together to make a surprisingly coherent whole. Mark Malone's script is brilliant in how it manages this without losing interest. But it's entirely possible that an even better film could exist based solely around the Kennedy character. The dialogue really lets you get under the skin to the real human sides of these people. Two elements of the production stand out specifically well. The soundtrack by Howard Shore is understated and engaging. Elliot Davis photographs the film perfectly, using color and light in fascinating and revelatory ways scene after scene. And the direction by John David Coles is also good, giving the right balance to both fantasy and reality.

    There's always more than enough to keep the viewer interested, fascinating, and entertained. Something about "Signs of Life" really moved me. I hope it will do the same for you.
  • comment
    • Author: invasion
    A boat builder in a sleepy town in Maine is going out of business, and the lives of all of the (soon to be ex-)workers and families are disrupted. The biggest disappointment is that the two stars--Bates and Bridges--have only bit parts.

    Interesting, but not something you would see twice.
  • Cast overview, first billed only:
    Beau Bridges Beau Bridges - John Alder
    Vincent D'Onofrio Vincent D'Onofrio - Daryl Monahan (as Vincent Phillip D'Onofrio)
    Arthur Kennedy Arthur Kennedy - Owen Coughlin
    Kevin J. O'Connor Kevin J. O'Connor - Eddie Johnson
    Will Patton Will Patton - Owen's Father
    Kate Reid Kate Reid - Mrs. Wrangway
    Georgia Engel Georgia Engel - Betty
    Kathy Bates Kathy Bates - Mary Beth Alder
    Mary-Louise Parker Mary-Louise Parker - Charlotte (as Mary Louise Parker)
    Michael Lewis Michael Lewis - Joey Monahan
    Martin Shakar Martin Shakar - Mr. Castanho
    Matthew Cowles Matthew Cowles - Gasoline Attendant
    Don Saunders Don Saunders - Radio Announcer
    Keith Reddin Keith Reddin - Dr. Pound
    Brad Sullivan Brad Sullivan - Lobsterman
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