Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay

This is not a movie for mothers of young children or for couples with pretty, live-in nannies. It's not for people with a low threshold for silliness, for those who expect a thriller to pack at least one wallop or for those who can suspend disbelief for only so long.

Does that cover everyone? The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, though it positions itself as chilling suspense, is not even mildly scary; it's just offensive. This "natal attraction" centers on Peyton Flanders (De Mornay), a beautiful young woman who poses as a nanny to exact revenge on Claire Bartel (Sciorra), a woman she blames (for reasons too involved to explain here) for the suicide of her husband and for her own resulting miscarriage and hysterectomy. She moves into the lovely, tranquil Seattle home where Claire lives with her husband, Michael, her adolescent daughter, Emma, and new-born son, Joe, and quickly takes over, seemingly a combination of Mary Poppins, Julia Child and Heloise.

In fact she's an Iago in tight skirts who turns young Emma (charmingly played by Madeline Zima) against her mother, tries to seduce Michael (Matt McCoy), tries to frame him for adultery and successfully frames the Bartels' retarded black handyman for child molestation.

And, folks, she is just warming up. Not that audiences will be surprised by a single plot turn; the screenplay signifies its intentions with the subtlety of a blowtorch. Worse, it unleashes every stereotype about black men, gynecologists, the easy susceptibility of long-married men whose wives have just given birth, and female competitiveness.

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, which bears a rather striking resemblance to The Baby Sitter, a 1980 TV movie, does offer one welcome innovation: When a principal character is killed, she stays down for the count, rather than springing back to life like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Patrick Bergin in Sleeping with the Enemy. You decide if that's worth seven bucks. (R)

Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril

With High Heels, Spanish bad-boy filmmaker Pedro (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) Almodóvar again reveals his unique gift for making films so twisted and yet so funny that you're almost too busy laughing to be shocked.

This time he's written and directed a scabrously amusing tale of mother love gone wrong. Becky Del Paramo (Paredes), a singing movie star who dresses only in Armani, returns home to Spain after a 15-year absence to discover that her daughter, Rebecca (Abril), a Chanel-clad TV newscaster, has married one of Del Paramo's ex-lovers. Mom and hubby quickly get back to making the earth move, while Rebecca seeks solace with a female impersonator (Miguel Bosé) who specializes in lip-synching Rebecca's mother's hits. When the husband turns up dead, both women are accused of murdering him. Clearly, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Sure, this is melodrama—but carried out at warp speed, and in a wickedly warped way. Almodóvar's films may not be for everyone, but those in step with his camp humor and sophisticated satire will want to sign up for this latest fun-house ride. (R)

Tom Hulce, Lolita Davidovich

Ivan Sanshin (Hulce), a film projectionist in Russia in 1939, is a happy innocent who considers himself rich beyond measure when he gets a room in a basement apartment. "It's a first-rate basement," he boasts, "warm and dry." This room of his own is a reward for his services to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (Alexandre Zbruev), for whom Ivan screens movies ranging from footage of new tractors coming off assembly lines to Hollywood westerns.

Stalin is a regular Joe as far as loyal Ivan is concerned. "There's probably no one kinder in the whole world," he says. Based on a true story, this film uses Ivan to show how the willfully naive, quick to obey as long as their meager needs are filled, allow tyrants to rule. It does so with much charm and humor, affecting performances by Hulce and by Davidovich as his wife, and with an emotional wallop at the end. For Ivan, in loving Stalin, loses the love of his wife, who, unlike her husband, can see the duplicity and brutality of Stalin and his inner circle.

Shot on location within the Kremlin by Russian émigré director Andrei (Tango & Cash) Konchalovsky, The Inner Circle is a moving lesson in not-so-distant Soviet history. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Leah Rozen.