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By Joe Bendel. In the 1930’s, Japan was gobbling up Manchuria, but Shanghai’s privileged class refused to let it spoil the party. Violence and foreboding hang in the air, but the cruel emotional games played by a merry widow and her dissolute ex will be more treacherous in the short term. This is indeed Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous Eighteenth Century novel adapted to Republican era China. It makes the transition rather well in Hur Jin-ho’s Dangerous Liaisons, which opens this Friday in New York.

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This time around, the Marquise de Merteuil is Mo Jieyu, the widowed chairwoman of a major banking concern and all around hedonist. She is slightly out of sorts after reading in the newspaper that her industrialist lover has dropped her in favor of his new sixteen year old fiancée, Beibei (the Cécile de Volanges). Seeking revenge, she turns to her former lover turned torch-carrying friend, playboy Xie Yifan, to corrupt her innocent rival. However, he has become preoccupied with the virtuous widow Du Fenyu (a.k.a. Madame de Tourvel). As most viewers will know, this leads to a fateful bet. If Xie cannot seduce and discard Du in reasonable period of time, he will do Mo’s bidding – whereas if he meets his challenge, she will finally yield to his advances.

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Granted, the French tale of scandal has been told and retold many times in the past, but probably never with such an attractive ensemble cast (sure they are good actors, but Malkovich and Close as predatory seducers?). The chemistry between Xie/Valmont and Mo/Merteuil has rarely been as scorching either. Whenever Dong-gun Jang and Cecilia Cheung are on-screen together, it seems like they can barely resist ripping off each others’ clothes. It almost throws off the necessary dramatic dynamic between them, but it is certainly entertaining to watch. In contrast, Zhang Ziyi, somewhat playing against type, plays the indrawn Du/Tourvel with subtle power and genuine sensitivity. Not all the supporters players fare as well, but most eyes will squarely focused on Cheung and Zhang.

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In fact, resetting Liaisons in Shanghai works quite well, because it establishes a fittingly dangerous backdrop, thereby raising the stakes. It also gives rise to an enjoyably era-appropriate big band jazz soundtrack, somewhat following in the tradition of Roger Vadim’s 1960 film adaptation, which featured the music of Thelonius Monk and Art Blakey.

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There is truly nothing new under the sun. Hur Jin-ho’s Korean and Chinese cast and crew were not the first to produce an Asian Dangerous Liaisons. That distinction probably belongs to Lee Je-yong’s Untold Scandal. The real story of this Liaison is Cheung’s diva turn as the scheming but endlessly complex Mo/Merteuil. She is worth the price of admission in Manhattan by herself. Unapologetically melodramatic, Hur Jin-ho’s Dangerous Liaisons is recommended for fans of tragic Chinese and Korean period cinema when it opens this Friday (11/9) at the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on November 6th, 2012 at 9:42am.

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By Joe Bendel. Don’t call her “notorious.” Bettie Mae Page was a good Christian and the ultimate girl next door. She just happened to have had a pin-up and fetish modeling career. Gone but never forgotten, the late cult icon tells her story for posterity, serving as the de-facto narrator of Mark Mori’s Bettie Page Reveals All, which screens as part of the new Midnight section of the 2012 DOC NYC at the IFC Center.

Who doesn’t recognize those trademark bangs? The rest of her was pretty distinctive, too. Mori illustrates the film with plenty of Page’s risqué-for-the-time and still somewhat naughty photos. In fact, as per Ms. Page’s wishes, he almost exclusively shows her as she wished to be remembered. In the opening minutes, Page relates several incidents from her early life that could have permanently scarred her and left her completely incapable of intimacy. Yet, Page was always comfortable with such matters, particularly when it came to a little topless posing.

Through Page’s reminiscences, viewers get a peek into a bygone era, when the salaciousness was more innocent. Page often worked for “camera clubs,” groups of earnest and impeccably behaved photography enthusiasts who would slink off on weekends to shoot live (and usually topless) models. As one might suspect, Page was one of their favorites, but evidently no funny business ever happened on a shoot. Yet, it was Irving Klaw’s specialized mail order photos that made Page’s fame.

Unfortunately, Page’s second and third acts were characterized by a series of divorces and a persistent struggle with mental illness. Having dropped out of the pin-up world soon after Estes Kefauver’s grandstanding Senate hearings on pornography, Page’s fate was the subject of wild speculation amongst her fans. She does indeed deliver, revealing all, but it is often rather sad. Still, Mori deals with it forthrightly, warts and all, to his credit.

Indeed, Mori’s overall approach is right on target, giving viewers a good eyeful of what they want to see. He also puts Page in proper cultural context, tracing her influence on second rate imitators like Madonna and Katy Perry—make that third rate imitators—and explaining her role as graphic novelist Dave “Rocketeer” Stevens’ muse.

Mori makes it clear that Page truly represents Americana at its hottest. It is surprising but fascinating how much seemingly unrelated cultural history finds its way into her story. Lovingly assembled, Bettie Page Reveals All should definitely hold the attention of non-fans nearly as well as that of devotees, which is the real test for documentary profiles. Recommended with affection, it screens late night this Friday (11/9) as a midnight selection of DOC NYC ’12. For obvious reasons, it is hard to see it getting much airtime on PBS, so Page admirers should probably see it now.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on November 6th, 2012 at 9:40am.

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By Joe Bendel. They are not merely the misunderstood and marginalized. The hellions inhabiting a shunned Irish housing project thrive on fear. In fact, they can literally see it. Whether they are truly supernatural creatures or not is left rather ambiguous, but their feral savagery is beyond doubt throughout writer-director Ciarán Foy’s Citadel, which opens this Friday in New York.

Tommy Cowley and his pregnant wife were the last decent people to move out of their ominous looking housing project. Unfortunately, they waited too long. While trapped in the typically malfunctioning elevator, Cowley witnesses the fatal assault on his wife. However, their infant daughter Elsa survives. The incident deeply scars Cowley. An agoraphobic basket case, he becomes convinced that the hoodie shrouded thugs are after Elsa. He might be a nervous wreck, but he is not paranoid.

During several harrowing nighttime home invasions, Cowley barricades himself and Elsa in the bathroom as the hooded hooligans rampage through their flat. Cowley finds a sympathetic ear and temporary shelter with Marie, a kindly nurse. She insists that the delinquents living in the title high rise are just disadvantaged youths, who lash out to vent their frustration with the system. Unfortunately, she will be proved dead wrong. However, the misanthropic parish priest understands what they are only too well.

Aneurin Barnard is almost too convincing as Cowley. Every twitch of his body language screams victim. To see him is to want to mug him. He is so put-upon, viewers almost, but don’t quite lose patience with him. Conversely, James Cosmo tears into the scenery and everything not nailed down with rip-roaring relish as the caustic priest.

While Foy eventually drops some pretty clear hints regarding the nature of the Citadel dwellers, it hardly matters. They are simply mindless tormentors. As anyone who has watched Room 237 (the cinematic deconstruction of Kubrick’s The Shining) understands, authorial intent is irrelevant to critical theory. With that in mind, Citadel can clearly be interpreted as an allegory for the War on Terror, regardless of Foy’s conscious intent. Clearly.

So let’s have a little fun with this, shall we? Like al-Qaeda and their ilk, the hooded ones spread terror for its own sake. There is no reasoning with them. The West can lock itself in the bathroom and hope they go away, but that strategy is obviously doomed to failure over time. Marie is attractive and conciliatory, like a classic appeaser, but her course only leads to death. So to protect the future of liberal democracy for Elsa and the rest of our children, we need to follow the advice of the priest – call him the Dick Cheney figure – and hook up the plastic explosives to the car battery.

Right … or possibly not. Who’s to say? The point is that Citadel taps into some profound fears, burrowing under the skin like a bionic tick. It has to be the grittiest, grimiest, grimmest horror film you are likely to see in a good long time. Cinematographer Tim Fleming’s oppressively grey look sets the mood of foreboding right from the start, while Foy steadily builds the tension as he repeatedly cranks Cowley through the wringer. Despite the absence of a strong focal villain, it is a chillingly effective horror film. Highly recommended for genre fans, Citadel opens this Friday (11/9) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on November 6th, 2012 at 9:39am.

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