31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

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. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

The Facts:

Synopsis: The definitive Ghostbusters documentary charts the making of the greatest supernatural comedy of all time.

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, Jennifer Runyon, Ivan Reitman, Alice Drummond, Timothy Carhart, Jason Reitman, Catherine Reitman, Kurt Fuller, David Margulies, Joe Medjuck, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Steve Johnson, Randall William Cook, Michael C. Gross, John Bruno, Ray Parker, Jr., Randy Edelman, Steven Tash, Michael Ensign, Bill Murray

Director: Anthony Bueno

Rated: NR

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s easy to look back at a perennial favorite like Ghostbusters and conclude it was a no-brainer from the start it would be the monster hit it became upon its release in June of 1984.  The director was on a hot streak coming off of three consecutive box office winners, the cast was made-up of proven talent from the worlds of comedy in television and film, and audiences were promised the kind of special effects spectacle that had become a staple of the summer blockbuster.  Collectively, this was the kind of ‘nothing but net’ slam-dunk that comes along once in a ghoulishly blue moon, and to hear the cast and crew in an extended version of the 2019 documentary Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters tell it, the making of this landmark film wasn’t a rough ride for many. Met with enthusiasm and golden dollar signs, it’s gone on to weather a sequel that greatly divides it fans even to this day and a reboot that only deepens the chasm between supporters and those…otherwise inclined. 

With a Jason Reitman-directed follow-up feature arriving in November (don’t forget, Jason is the son of Ivan who sat in the chair for the 1984 original and its sequel in 1989) I figured it was a good time to take in this newly released extended edition of this extensive making-of documentary which has been bouncing around for a few years.  You can see a version that’s nearly a half hour shorter on Crackle, but this lengthier look at how a film originally conceived to be about a crew of janitors in the year 2010 who join a league of ghost hunters became what we know it as today is the more rewarding experience.

Director Anthony Bueno goes big and bold, christening this as the “definitive Ghostbusters documentary” and with the fine amount of detail covered in over two hours of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, I’m inclined to believe him.  Of course, can anything about Ghostbusters be truly definitive without the participation of Bill Murray or Rick Moranis, neither of whom turn up in interviews here?  Probably not, but taking that out of consideration Bueno sure has rounded up a bevy of production designers, producers, and actors, from the stars all the way down to a red-headed extra that’s seen in one of the final shots of the film.  All speak fondly of their experiences on the film, with only Ernie Hudson continuing to go on the record with his justified disappointment over his character’s clear tokenism, a fact that’s basically acknowledged by several of the actors/writers. 

Going all the way back to Dan Aykroyd’s family history that led him to come up with the basic concept of the film and then gathering the core team of creatives together, Bueno smoothly moves through each element of the production as it builds the movie from the ground up.  Rarely are there any sources of conflict and from what we can assume, despite some pressure from the studio to make their deadline, the shooting and production went off without a hitch.  So many of these documentaries feel like they’re put together to show what a terrible trial it was to produce such a classic but in Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters you get the impression the goal is more to show that Ghostbusters was the result of multiple creative minds working cohesively from the same page.  If there were problems, they’re not mentioned here.

I wish Bueno would have gone the extra mile and covered the sequel because I don’t think we’ll ever get an exhaustive dissection of that interesting misfire, which has its definite pros and cons.  Perhaps in keeping with the positive spin the doc maintains throughout to examine the less successful follow-up would re-open a sore spot no one was in the mood to revisit.  Instead, Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters busies itself probing the great minds that thought alike for that magical stretch of time for their memories of their involvement, whether they were the actor inside The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the actress playing the librarian at the beginning of the movie, or the puppeteer responsible for moving the tongue of one of the ghosts.  For movie nerds, this is a heaven-sent doc that touches on multiple elements involved in the creation of Ghostbusters and a must watch to see how it all came together.

Movie Review ~ Redemption Day

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A decorated U.S. Marine captain embarks on a daring mission to save his kidnapped wife from terrorists in Morocco.

Stars: Gary Dourdan, Serinda Swan, Ernie Hudson, Martin Donovan, Andy Garcia, Samy Naceri, Robert Knepper, Lilia Hajji

Director: Hicham Hajji

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s an occupational hazard that with the number of films I see over the course of a month, they begin to blend together.  That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I have this outlet to get my thoughts in order so I can reflect back on a movie later if I need a reference point for a future work for an actor, director, or project from a similar genre.  Too often, though, it must be said that the finer details of plot and character fade from memory just as soon as the publish button is clicked and all the social media posts have been shared.  Only the most memorable manage to lodge into my noggin and not always for the right reasons.

I can’t say that Redemption Day is going to fare well if my recall skills are tested because not only did I barely make it through the film grasping to its dangling thread of a plot but it also felt like the film itself didn’t even remember where it was going when it started.  I half expected this warzone action pic to be a rugged indie variation of a standard one-man-against-the-world sort of international rescue operation, something Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson, or even late-stage Kevin Bacon would have a stateside gruff field day with.  Instead, it’s a slickly made but grossly unfocused bit of grandstanding for a writer and director that doesn’t know where the meat of the story is and a cast that mostly gets an acquittal for instilling some realistic drama into situations that are set-up for histrionics.  Worst of all, it’s just a poorly timed release seeing that these types of war films are just going the way of the dodo, especially if you can’t rationalize a need for it with a compelling plot.

Haunted by an deadly ambush while on a humanitarian mission several years ago in Syria, U.S. Marine captain Brad Paxton (Gary Dourdan) has returned home a decorated war hero with PTSD battle scars he can’t shake.  (A quick side note, I have nothing but huge respect for the men and women that serve but do films always have to portray them as damaged goods when they return?  Maybe writers feel like they are paying respect to the military but continuing to show every vet welcomed home as broken does an overall disservice to their service.  Not saying there isn’t a certain price paid in battle that stays with someone who’s lived it or that I don’t find it realistic, I’m just a little weary of some over-victimization of these honorable vets.  Anyway…)  Though working through his vivid dreams of the attack, he’s one of the lucky ones, though, being able to be embraced by his young daughter and archaeologist wife Sarah (Serinda Swan) who are exceedingly patient and understanding with his recovery.  While he takes on the role of stay-at-home-dad, Sarah embarks on trip to Morocco, leading a team of her own as they are granted an opportunity to explore an ancient city that’s been uncovered beneath the sun scorched desert.

Though she’s supposedly in good hands both with the security detail that accompanies her with and a few overseas contacts Brad has called in, her caravan of high-profile international assets is unsurprisingly (to us) intercepted and taken hostage.  Held for ransom by terrorists (who could not be any more stereotypical if the cast of SNL portrayed them reading cue cards) that demand money and are willing to spill innocent blood to get it, the time is ticking on Sarah’s life and Brad knows it.  Discouraged by his government from getting involved and knowing the policy on negotiation with terrorists, Brad uses his curated military skills and knowledge of private global network dealings to get into the country where his wife and others are being held before its too late for all.  Disobeying direct orders, going against his country’s own policies, Brad calls in a number of favors from previous informants and spies to get him closer to his wife.

I wish I could tell you all of this generates some sort of excitement but honestly the biggest thrill the movie offers is the potential that Sarah could take viewers into a city lost to the sands of time, Indiana Jones style.  Why co-writer and first-time director Hicham Hajji chooses to make that Sarah’s mission that takes her overseas is a bit of a mystery, if only because that key discovery stuck in my mind for most of the movie. “What happened to the city?”  “Was there a city at all?” “Will we ever see the city and does a monster live there?”  You almost wish Hajji and his co-writers had the wherewithal to have their evil doers abscond with their hostages into this mysterious undiscovered land because that would have added some spice to what is a flavorless concoction.  Once the kidnapping takes place the film is just a series of back and forth conversations between increasingly unpredictable men with guns…and the terrorists they are hunting.

There are few long-running TV shows I can say I stuck with through thick and thin but CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was one of them so I’m familiar with star Dourdan’s work from his time on that crime drama.  He’s an unexpected choice for the lead of a feature so while he does serviceable work, there’s a particular spark missing that can’t be totally ignored.  Still, he gets the job done in more ways than one and is convincing as the character, though he fares better in the tactical sequences than he does with the overly dramatic ones.  There’s little time to establish a chemistry with Swan so the connection between them isn’t ever so strongly felt, but it doesn’t matter much because Swan has such pluck that you’d be rooting for her survival if her significant other was a rocking chair.  She’s arguably the best actor in the film, certainly better that the absolutely jaw-droppingly terrible second level supporting cast.  It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed the kind of terrible line readings that you’ll see here, especially from the actor that played the President.

With little to recommend in Redemption Day, it’s hard to put together what you should do with it should you come across it.  Is it a good time waster?  I mean, maybe?  It’s not the kind of film you can put on as background noise because for as convoluted and confusing as the plot gets at times it does require a certain amount of focus if you want scenes to hold together at all.  Then again, when the most interesting part of the plot involves a MacGuffin that reminds you of Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe you’re better off revisiting that Best Picture nominated classic instead of this which won’t garner a nomination for anything.  Best to just let night fall on this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters

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Synopsis: Three unemployed parapsychology professors set up shop as a unique ghost removal service.

Release Date:  August 29, 2014 (30th Anniversary Release)

Thoughts: I wouldn’t normally feature a trailer for an older film so prominently on this site, but seeing that said film is 1984’s Ghostbusters and that the re-release is set to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the 80s hit comedy I decided to make an exception.  There’s not a lot particularly special about this trailer, and anyone that’s remotely familiar with the movie may feel it comes off as more of an ad for the upcoming BluRay release than anything else…but my nostalgia meter went off the charts the moment Ray Parker Jr.’s Oscar nominated theme song started up.  Playing for only one week in theaters (though these limited runs often turn into two weeks at least), I ain’t afraid of no ticket prices and will happily see this one on the big screen again.