31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A distraught woman becomes a nanny to exact revenge for the loss of her baby and husband.

Stars: Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay, Matt McCoy, Ernie Hudson, Madeline Zima, Julianne Moore, John de Lancie

Director: Curtis Hanson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Here it is folks, the halfway point of 31 Days to Scare and you’re getting a real gem as a reward for making it to Day 15.  One of the all-time greats in the realm of the psychological thriller that the 1990’s delivered so very nicely, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a bona fide blockbuster that I can still remember my parents taking me to at a special Saturday night sneak preview.  This is one of those “special previews” that you had to pay for the privilege of seeing and oh boy, was it worth it.  To sit in a packed theater (one of those tiny Har Mar screens for you Minnesotans) and hear the audience react to the suspense generated from this nanny from hell potboiler is something I’ve never forgotten…even as it approaches its 30th anniversary.

In truth, much of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle feels even more slimy than it did back in January of 1992 when it was released and dominated the box office for a surprising four weeks.  The first act of it hinges on a pregnant Seattle woman being sexually molested by her gynecologist, a violation that causes a chain reaction of events which leaves him dead by suicide and, unbeknownst to the woman who has brought a high-profile lawsuit against him, the doctors own pregnant wife losing their unborn child along with her ability to have further children and their entire life savings.  Life goes on for the woman and her family but the broken women who lost everything lives in a darkness she can’t escape from.

Months pass and Claire (Anabella Sciorra, who would star in another less successful thriller, Whispers in the Dark, the next year) is getting ready to go back to work after giving birth and needs live-in help for her baby, young daughter, and other tasks she might not have time for.  They already have handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson, Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters) from a local group home who has helped to build a greenhouse in the back, but Clarie and her husband Michael (Matt McCoy, DeepStar Six) need an experienced professional to watch the baby.  Into their lives comes what appears to be the perfect nanny, Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay, Backdraft) and she checks all the right boxes, is hired, and moves in with the family.  Of course, we know she’s the wife of Claire’s abuser, but the family is blissfully unaware at first, enjoying the friendly caregiver that says all the right things to the wife, flirts just enough with the husband, and mothers the daughter when her own parent is too distracted to be there.  Then there’s her plan to win over the baby…

She doesn’t win over everyone though…and that’s what Peyton doesn’t quite count on.  Solomon sees through the cheery veneer from the start, but Peyton makes it clear he shouldn’t mess with her (in another one of the film’s moments that wouldn’t fly today but still lands with the intended sharp sting) unless he wants his tenure to end prematurely.  Her biggest obstacle is family friend Marlene (a sharp and sly Julianne Moore, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, already showing the potential for the movie star she was poised to become) who feels challenged in some way by Peyton and sets out to get to the bottom of the nanny’s strange behavior…to her own downfall. 

As audience members, we know the solution to the mystery the characters are trying to solve so the suspense on that end is lacking but the tension scores high points for how and when it will come out and what the reaction will be.  The wait is more than worth it – again, I’ll say that I won’t ever forget Sciorra’s way of informing De Mornay her services are no longer needed or the way the audience cheered when she did.  This type of audience together-ness is what I miss about movies such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Sleeping with the Enemy from the year before.  These were movies that were building to a climax the audience was craving and the filmmakers actually followed through and gave them what they wanted.  That’s why audiences stomp their feet and applaud at denouement…because they are so satisfying if a director and cast have set them up right.

While Sciorra is very good here and top billed make no mistake, this is De Mornay’s film all the way.  With her ice blue eyes and Hitchcock blonde hair, De Mornay had a brief career bump thanks to her performance and rightfully so.  It’s not easy playing a villain (it’s fun, not easy) and still giving it human traits but De Mornay makes Peyton a person that experienced a loss first, a vengeance-seeker second.  Winning an MTV Movie Award as Best Villain (naturally), De Mornay turns on a dime from the sweet to a bitter cold that is acutely chilling and it’s terrifying.  Even changing the timbre of her voice gives the character a different kind of depth to her predatory nature is downright frightening.  I’ve always loved what Hudson brings to any movie but it’s admittedly hard to watch him (or any actor, let’s be honest) play someone with intellectual disabilities.  The performance doesn’t age quite as well because of it.  Moore is sublime, whether she’s puffing on a cigarette (which she is frequently during the movie), badgering her assistant, or squaring off with the nanny, she’s a force onscreen.  She’s have to wait a few more years before the A-list came calling but she was about to move up the ranks quickly.

Written by 29-year-old Amanda Silver (who would go on to write the Planet of the Apes movies as well as two other movies I might be doing for this column soon, so I won’t mention them) and directed by future Oscar winner (for L.A. Confidential) Curtis Hanson, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is fortified filmmaking that was built to last.  Even running nearly two hours, there’s barely anything that lags and it just continues to pick up speed as it nears its conclusion.  I’m sure critics at the same longed for something that didn’t get quite so conventional, but it has whipped the audience into such a frenzy that it could only end the way it does.  Highly rewatchable, it’s a film I can watch anytime I see it on TV or someone suggests it.  I mean, I’ll go for De Mornay threatening to beat up grade school bullies on a playground or getting uncomfortably close to Ernie Hudson like a lioness smelling her prey any day of the week. 

Movie Review ~ The Last Duel

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris. Her husband, knight Jean de Carrouges, challenges him to trial by combat, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.

Stars: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the big summer effects bonanzas being on hold for an entire year and the prestigious costume dramas pushed out for better positioning at award chances to later in 2021 or even 2022, audiences have been lacking in the area of the grand epic for going on two years.  Sure, we’ve had the occasional Marvel film here and there to satiate some sense of wonder but I’m talking about those films that make you feel like you’re back in Hollywood’s heyday when everything was made on a studio lot and extras numbered in the thousands.  As recently as a decade ago we were still getting these movies, but they’ve taken a backseat to films that are easier to produce with limited involvement from humans that are added in post-production.  The sets aren’t real, and the overall ambiance feels phony…making the stakes not feel quite as high for historical epics involving swords, sandals, arrows, chainmail, etc.

One director out there hasn’t shied away from continuing on the legacy of the epic and that’s Ridley Scott, a filmmaker often taken a bit for granted in the business for his tendency to lean into fare of the sheer entertainment variety.  Though primarily an action director, he was also behind Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year so he is known to stretch when the mood suits him.  That lighter touch helps a bit in Scott’s newest film, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction novel “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat” which details the final legally recognized duel that was fought in France.  One man is accused by another of the most heinous act of violation against his wife, a charge that leads them to the highest court in the country where they leave it in God’s hands to decide who is telling the truth.  If the defendant dies during the duel, it will prove the woman was telling the truth.  If the accused comes out of the duel alive and kills his accuser, well then, he is telling the truth and the man’s wife will be burned alive for her lie.  Not the soundest execution of justice and back in 2019 when the film was first announced, not the most promising of a plot description for a town just settling into the first wave of post #MeToo productions.

Adapted by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (yes, they did win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting), the two were wise to ask Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to join them in their journey in bringing Jager’s novel to the screen.  This not only brought some needed balance to the screenplay and gave a stronger voice overall to the script but allowed for the central female character to not be written from just one point of view.  The result is a surprisingly swift feature broken into three chapters that tell the same story, just from the perspectives of different characters.  Employing a Rashomon-style technique in storytelling isn’t anything revelatory but in the hands of pros like Scott and his cast, the small similarities and even smaller subtle differences unique to each version of events keeps this one in a gripping space where the edge of your seat moments extend far beyond what happens during the titular duel.

Audiences are wise to buckle up and pay attention for the first thirty minutes which sets the stage for the friendship and eventual rivalry between knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon, The Martian) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Annette).  Though Carrouges has the more noble name and throws himself into harm’s way for the honor of his king, he’s unliked by most that know and fight alongside him because of his selfishness and constant need for recognition.  That’s the opposite of Le Gris who, at least at first, is content to just be welcomed in by people in a higher status and be a trusted confidant.  Over time, this skill with ingratiating himself to nobility pushes Le Gris ahead of Carrouges, a sleight that causes a rift in the friendship that cannot be mended.

While the men are sorting out their business, widower Carrouges meets and marries his second wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) and moves her in with his cruel mother (wickedly nasty Harriet Walter, Herself) who picks away at her while he is away in battle.  Unable to conceive a child during their years together, the two are at odds when he takes a trip to the city the same day his mother decides to leave Marguerite alone for the day.  Of course this is the same day Le Gris, who has been obsessed with Marguerite ever since meeting her when Carrouges decided to bury the hatchet, pays a visit. 

Some version of these events plays out three times until this point and it mostly is the same story with tiny tweaks to attitudes depending on who is telling the tale.  In Carrouges version, Marguerite is much more docile, to hear Le Gris tell it, Marguerite was flirting with him and encouraged his visit, but in Marguerite’s retelling, or ‘The Truth’ as the words linger longer on the screen insinuate, neither man read the signs correctly. Watching different iterations also means audiences have to witness a brutal rape twice so here’s your warning this unpleasant encounter is on display and though absent of nudity or gore, is more gruesome than anything that plays out later in the vicious battle royale between Carrouges and Le Gris.  Can a scene like this be shot with any kind of sensitivity?  I doubt it, but Comer bravely gives it her all and Scott allows her room to breathe.

Speaking of Comer, with the amount of male energy flying around and the dueling taking up such a major piece of the action, it’s saying something the actress is far and away the winner of the evening when the credits roll.  Making a splash on television even before her award-winning run in the acclaimed spy series Killing Eve, Comer graduates to the A-list with a star making (and surely Oscar nominated) turn as a woman unwilling to back down or be intimidated from anyone or anything, even a horrific threat of death.  Already victimized once, she refuses to go through it again via her husband or even the highest court in the land…and believe me, the court sure tries. 

Backing Comer up in the acting department are Damon and Driver who dial back their oft-tendency to grandstand with Driver in particular making a strong case for himself as capable of even more than his most loyal fans have thought.  True, he’s playing a pretty despicable guy but for a while he’s almost endearing and definitely more tolerable than Damon’s character.  I mean, the hair alone on Carrouges is enough to drive you crazy.  In past films, Damon tends to gnaw at the scenery when he gets worked up but anytime Affleck (Live by Night) is onscreen in The Last Duel there’s nothing left to consume because he’s swallowed up the entire caravan of costumes by Janty Yates (Prometheus) and the sumptuous set decorations courtesy of Judy Farr (Rocketman).  Of all the people that were bound to overact, I wasn’t expecting it to be Affleck but with his blond hair and a blond goatee that looks like a tennis ball was just cut in half and stuck on his pointy chin, it’s a performance that treks into high camp.  And he doesn’t even go all the way with it.  There are several scenes where his lothario character is meant to be scampering around chasing after women and they’re all naked and he’s fully clothed – we all know this character would be naked as a jaybird without a care in the world.  It’s a small detail but became a major one in my mind considering what the movie puts the Comer character through.

I initially thought I’d find long jags of the film slow but with Scott at the helm it moves like a locomotive, peppered here and there with his trademark flair for a well-staged battle scene.  With the R-rating firmly in place he’s able to make these incredibly violent and in your face, leading up to and including the final duel between the two men.  It all makes for an experience that has a solid impact with parallels to victim-blaming that resonate even today.  The Last Duel might be about the final official battle over honor in France, but it leaves audiences with the recognition that the war was just beginning.

Movie Review ~ Needle in a Timestack

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A devoted husband will stop at nothing to save his marriage when it’s destroyed by a time-traveling rival.

Stars: Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Freida Pinto, Orlando Bloom, Jadyn Wong

Director: John Ridley

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Is there anything more outright depressing than watching four talented (and, let’s be honest, gorgeous) actors loafing around in a truly ridiculous bit of nonsense filmmaking?  Oh geez, but Needle in a Timestack is as eye-rolling as its title suggests, and despite the presence of those four aforementioned stars, two of which will surely win an Oscar within the next decade, it’s a real effort to get through and even then you feel no sense of accomplishment.  What makes it even more of a depressing miss is that the team involved in front of and behind the camera could have collaborated on something more worthwhile and not wasted the precious time the very plot of the movie is so adamant about protecting.

I can see why rising stars like Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (One Night in Miami…) would be swayed into taking on the leads in this adaptation of a short story written in 1966 by Robert Silverberg.  Directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the project had some relative glitter of attraction with Ridley’s script giving some modernity to Silverberg’s futuristic (for the era) story of a husband and wife torn apart by a fissure in time caused by the wife’s former flame.  For two actors looking to have more dramatic arcs in unconventional stories that didn’t expressly call on their roots in musical theater, this had definite potential to show their clear range.

What they couldn’t have predicted is how much of a goober the story would come across to viewers, or how inconsequential nearly every event would feel when filtered through Ridley’s flat dialogue, his rote direction, and Ramsey Nickell’s solar flare golden hue cinematography which feels like an ad for a Nissan Altima circa 2004.  Patch in an at times overly committed Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) as Erivo’s jealous ex Tommy who literally rewrites her history so she will be with him and Freida Pinto (Hillbilly Elegy) second banana-ing her way through an underwritten female role who exists just to be the fallback girlfriend for whatever man isn’t with Erivo and you have something decidedly uneventful.  And it’s nearly two hours long. 

The strange thing about Ridley’s movie is the way it’s so earnest and forthright about some relationships (i.e. the leads) but so cagey about others.  Take Jadyn Wong’s character Zoe, the sister of Odom Jr.’s Nick who influences much of his decision making about how to fix the problem that Bloom causes.  After Tommy manipulates time to bring Janine (Erivo) back into his life and cut Nick out like he never existed, (it’s more like Total Recall than anyone wants to admit) Nick turns to Zoe for advice concerning her ‘best friend’ Sibila who she has a ‘special relationship’ with and also has a time mishap to solve.  Ridley’s insistence on classifying this Zoe/Sibila relationship as ‘best friends’ throughout is akin to saying two men living together and sleeping in the same bed in the ‘80s were ‘dedicated bachelors’ or ‘special friends’.  If the film weren’t about such honesty in relationships, this severely awkward entanglement between these two women (not to mention Wong’s obsessive need to say ‘Sibila’ in a gravely surfer twang in each line of dialogue) just sticks out more like a sore thumb.  Let lesbians be lesbians, please.

It must also be said that as charming and commanding a presence as both Erivo and Odom Jr. are onstage and onscreen, they lack the necessary chemistry together to provide Needle in a Timestack that earnest edge to give us reason to care about their relationship being restored.  To be clear, the acting isn’t at fault in the least because both are the least embarrassingly bad things about the movie, but they seem to be united in just getting through the film sitting comfortably in the friend zone.  On the plus side, Erivo has just released an EP of original music that’s quite good and is prepping a promising sounding remake of The Rose while Odom Jr. has a nice role in the sequel to Knives Out in 2022 and will star in the intriguing trilogy continuation of The Exorcist.  And check Pinto out in Intrusion on Netflix where she gets to be the star in a creepy home invasion thriller.  Consider this Needle just a tiny prick in the midst of a greater haystack of more fulfilling projects these actors have set into motion.