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 ~ Bliss

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mind-bending love story following a recently unemployed divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who is convinced that the polluted, broken world around them is just a computer simulation.

Stars: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson, Madeline Zima, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Joshua Leonard, Ronny Chieng

Director: Mike Cahill

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There really is nothing more depressing than watching two good actors in a mediocre movie.  Not a bad movie, mind you, just a mediocre one.  There’s something to be said about the thrill of a classically trained actor sludging their way through a total turkey of a flick (remember the big screen version of The Avengers?  No, not that one…the one from 1998?) or a bad performance by an actor in a good movie (let’s just go the easy route and say Cameron Diaz in 2002’s Gangs of New York) but I get so uncomfortable watching usually dependable stars turn up in a film that goes nowhere.  I’d rather they fail spectacularly or succeed exuberantly…anything that coasts through the middle isn’t worth the effort – there’s just too much content to warrant mediocrity.

The latest example of this is Bliss, an exquisitely commonplace driller (drama/thriller) that shows the shine of promise early on but gets increasingly duller as time goes by.  Written and directed by popular indie filmmaker Mike Cahill and starring two actors that we don’t see nearly as often as we should, I went into Bliss with no expectations or knowledge of the premise.  This gave me the advantage of being totally at the mercy of Cahill’s storytelling capabilities and his acumen in the creation of a warped quasi-reality always being called into question.  It also let me fully take in the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek without the trailer spoiling key moments of surprise along the way, which it rather rudely does.  The result is a watchable but frustrating bit of hokum that doesn’t sit well with both actors and gets laughably funny at times…for all the wrong reasons.

Holed up in his drab office at Technical Difficulties, Greg Whittle (Wilson, Inherent Vice) is ignoring phone calls from his boss demanding an important meeting, promising his daughter he’ll be there for her graduation ceremony, and spending the morning drawing pictures of a luxury villa he’s never been to and a strikingly beautiful woman he’s never seen.  He’s also run out of his prescription for an undisclosed medication just at the time he seems to need it most.  As he dashes off to a meeting with his boss he wades through a crowd of co-workers all on the phone droning “We’re sorry you’re having Technical Difficulties”, one of the few clever moments Cahill has going for him. The meeting with his boorish boss doesn’t go well…at all.  Hoping to avoid the fallout, he retreats to a bar across the street and meets Isabel Clemens (Hayek, Sausage Party) and it seems like she’s been waiting for him.

Recognizing a kindred soul when she sees one, Isabel brings Greg into her circle of confidence and tells him they are actually part of a computer simulation and nothing around them is real.  The buttoned-up Greg takes one look at the dreadlocked, un-showered, dusty Isabel and can’t make that equation add up in his head…so she’ll have to prove it to him.  That’s just what she does (or does she?) over the course of several days involving various crystals, long talks in shanty towns underneath highway overpasses, and several detours through a strange new world that might be the real reality or just another simulation they need to escape from.  Meanwhile, Greg’s daughter (Nesta Cooper) is looking for her father who has gone missing and clearly needs help.  Can Isabel help Greg back to his true reality or is she just another figurative piece of a puzzle Greg has been trying to assemble for years?

While I don’t write my thoughts down as I’m watching a movie to reference later (I’ve never found notes to be helpful, only confusing me as I try to figure out what I scribbled blindly in the dark) I’m wondering if I should start writing down a number at various intervals to see what I rank the movie at key points.  If I’d have done that with Bliss, I’m sure I would have given the film high marks for its first half hour because Cahill creates a nice sense of disorientation that keeps the viewer just off-balance enough to be intrigued but not confused which leads to frustration.  It’s not hard to dig under the metaphors of what Cahill is laying out nor is it difficult to “get” what is really going on so it becomes a bit mysterious why the film doesn’t understand that we already are aware of where its headed long before it reveals itself to us.  If it had, it could have excised several long (and silly) passages that wind up meaning nothing if you go back and think it over.

That’s the oddest thing about Bliss.  Tracking it back again in my mind so much of the movie becomes almost a pointless exercise that you start to resent the time you spent on it.  Had Cahill moved his film forward with the same kind of mystery and raw energy that was found in the first third of Bliss, he might have had something unique and buzzworthy.  Instead, it’s an overly emotional in theory but emotionless in receipt attempt at a mind meld that gets weaker the longer you turn it over in your fingers.  Add to that the somewhat ridiculous scientific jargon the actors have to say without laughing and you are in for a rough ride.  You haven’t truly begun 2021 until you’ve heard Hayek say “Brain Box” with the same serious conviction as one would say “Heart Transplant”.

Speaking of Hayek, while it’s nice to see her back onscreen (and in a few scenes looking like the glam fabulous trend-setter she is) she seems completely miscast in this role, though it’s an admirable attempt at stretching past the roles she’s played in the past.  She was such a scream in Like a Boss that I wish she’d play more out-there roles like that.  Isabel it out there too, but not in the way we want her to be.  I feel largely the same way about Wilson.  He begins the film as a slightly out of it dweeb that never seems to do anything right…and sort of stays that way for the rest of the movie.  There’s just no challenge or change present in the character so where’s the appeal?  I was far more invested in Cooper’s character and the journey she goes through to follow and find her missing dad, only to see that once again he’s fallen into a pit he can’t escape from.

What little happiness there is to be found in Bliss is that it’s short but even then Cahill’s film feels much longer than that.  A very odd detour halfway through the movie has been spoiled by the trailer and while I’m not going to give that away here in case you haven’t seen it, I will say that though it was a nice reprieve it felt like padding to a tale that was only meant to be a short episode of The Twilight Zone or another anthology project.  Find your bliss somewhere else.