MOTHER! (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violent Content, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo & Stephen McHattie

Darren Aronofsky is known for artsy psychological headtrips and experimenting with narrative structure. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM put him on the map for moviegoers, whilst THE FOUNTAIN served as an ambitious anthology that split folks down the middle, and BLACK SWAN was a beautiful descent into madness. Also, NOAH saw Aronofsky putting his own fantastical spin on a Bible epic with polarizing reactions as a result. I’ve pretty much loved every Aronofsky film that I’ve seen thus far, so know that’s where I stand when I say that MOTHER! is a brilliant, ballsy piece of cinema that completely blew me away. This is easily one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen in years and is guaranteed to make a lot of people hate it. Those who dig MOTHER! though, will likely love it and not be able to stop thinking about it.

Without giving any spoilers away in my plot synopsis, I’ll say that MOTHER! is about the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s character has renovated her husband’s formerly burned down house from scratch and the end result is beautiful to behold, but Javier’s character still can’t get over a troubling bit of writer’s block. When a mysterious couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up uninvited and make their way into Lawrence’s and Bardem’s home, tensions begin to flare as Lawrence strongly dislikes their imposing presence and Bardem revels in their company. More guests soon arrive and things quickly spiral into morbid metaphorical madness!

MOTHER! is a film that’s bound to polarize viewers. First of all, this is very much an arthouse horror flick. The narrative constantly uses nightmare logic and plot points/characters are clearly meant to represent things outside of this story. Symbolism is strong in this film. Those who don’t enjoy slow burns and artsy flicks will most likely despise this movie from its strange beginning until the deeply disturbing conclusion. Then there’s the actual message (or messages, depending on your interpretation of events) which may turn certain viewers off. Aronofsky isn’t exactly subtle in certain areas, and there’s enough head-fuckery to guarantee multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything in this detailed piece of art.

Jennifer Lawrence deviates from her mainstream dramedies and teeny-bopper roles to play her ballsiest role yet as this film’s titular protagonist. As Lawrence’s character is put through the emotional gauntlet, the viewer is also pushed through the wringer. I felt that her growing frustration, bafflement and devastation were all completely believable as I felt the same emotions whilst experiencing this film (in the best way possible). Javier Bardem has already proven himself to be a phenomenal performer time and time again. I don’t want to say too much about his character here, but he leaves an unforgettable impression and tackles his difficult-to-understand character with bravado.

In a supporting role, Ed Harris is half likable and half creepy as the first unexpected guest. Michelle Pfeiffer is positively hateable as his wife and will make you want to slap her in the face. She’s so good at being bad in this film. Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie also pop in for supporting roles and make the most of the screen time they receive. The other supporting actors, a bunch of random faces, also will gradually piss you off as much as they do Jennifer Lawrence’s character. This film does a fantastic job of making you irritated and uncomfortable towards people simply being assholes. I don’t want to dive deeper into these characters’ actions…because there would definitely be spoilers in those details.

As far as cinematography goes, this movie is incredibly atmospheric and there’s a growing dread that digs inside you as the running time moves forward. Even though this is a slow burn, these two hours rushed by for me and I know that I’ll be rewatching this film many times in the future. It also seems fair to describe MOTHER! as the most unusual home invasion horror flick that you’ll ever see. The film also contains truly disturbing scenes and becomes all-out insanity during its final third. There are genuinely horrific images that you won’t be able to forget after you’ve seen this film and Aronofsky’s demented script puts brilliant spin on centuries-old themes.

If you don’t want to read minor spoilers, skip to the last paragraph. Aronofsky really ticked people off by treating NOAH as a fantasy and though that film wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This taken into consideration, MOTHER! seems to be the exact swtich-up of that formula. Here, Aronofsky is retelling Bible stories in the most fucked up, disturbing way possible and it winds up being one of the ballsiest films that I’ve seen in the 2010s. Though there’s an argument to made about the interpretations of artistry and failing relationships, I totally bought this on the not-so-subtle Biblical ideas and characters’ names seem to really hammer that home for me. I adored this film, but can totally understand why someone wouldn’t be into this sort of thing and not care for it at all.

MOTHER! feels like something that Lynch, Cronenberg, or Kubrick would have directed in their heyday. It’s one of the strangest home invasion horror films you’ll ever see, while also serving as a brilliant slice of metaphorical madness for those who really love this film’s sheer darkness and overall message. This is a strange, rough, and fucked up film…and I loved every single second of it. A movie hasn’t left me pondering over it this much in a long time and I can’t wait to revisit MOTHER! many times in the future. This is not only the best horror film that I’ve seen in years and one of the best films of 2017 (so far), I’d argue that this will go down as one of the best films of the 2010s for me!

Grade: A+

THE WIZARD OF LIES (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Written by: Sam Levinson, Sam Baum & John Burnham Schwartz

(based on the book THE WIZARD OF LIES by Diana B. Henriquez)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria, Nathan Darrow, Sydney Gayle, Lily Rabe & Kristen Connolly

In the span of little over a year, there have been two made-for-TV movies about Bernie Madoff. The first was ABC’s good-but-not-great miniseries MADOFF, which had a great scenery-chewing performance from Richard Dreyfuss and also came with half-assed melodrama. HBO offers a more cinematic glimpse at Madoff’s downfall with bigger talent in Barry Levinson’s THE WIZARD OF LIES. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, WIZARD offers significant improvements over the previous small-screen attempt to tell Madoff’s story.

In December 2008, a bombshell dropped on Wall Street as stockbroker Bernard Madoff (Robert De Niro) was revealed to be a total fraud. 50 billion dollars was lost and a media circus erupted around the largest Ponzi scheme in history. WIZARD OF LIES is told in a non-linear fashion as the narrative follows an incarcerated Madoff recounting his crimes to journalist Diana B. Henriquez (played by the actual Diana B. Henriquez). Throughout his interview, we see the months leading up to Bernie’s confession, his final days of freedom, and the devastating fallout that came after.

In an effort to resist constantly comparing THE WIZARD OF LIES to 2016’s MADOFF, I’m going to straight out recommend watching both of these made-for-TV movies if you’re fascinated with Bernie Madoff’s story. These are two very different takes on the same story that mostly stuck to the facts, but had drastically different executions. THE WIZARD OF LIES is a superior film in my eyes based strictly on performances, emotional depth, and better overall direction.

The shining star of the cast is undoubtedly Robert De Niro as Madoff. Bernie is De Niro’s juiciest role in years and he plays him as a sociopathic son of a bitch. This is a despicable guy who knows that he’s despicable and yet constantly attempts to make excuses for his scumbag behavior. He’s a master manipulator and seems collected on the surface, but also occasionally gets into explosive argumentative blow-outs. These are mainly directed at his put-upon emotional son Mark and an inquisitive 8-year-old granddaughter at a heated Thanksgiving dinner.

The supporting cast is exceptional as well. Though the titular “Wizard of Lies” may be De Niro’s Madoff, the film spends an almost equal amount of screen time focused on the family members who also got screwed over by his crimes. Michelle Pfeiffer garners sympathy as Madoff’s wife Ruth and gives a complicated mix of emotions. She loves her husband, in spite of his crimes, and still wants to hang on to her sons (who want nothing to do with her). Alessandro Nivola delivers one hell of a performance as Mark Madoff, an anxiety-ridden young man being driven to the brink of sanity by the media’s never-ending crucifixion of him. Hank Azaria is also appropriately scummy as Bernie’s main thug in charge of making shit up…er, I mean falsifying company records.

Barry Levinson’s direction of WIZARD OF LIES lends an air of craftsmanship to this retelling of a true crime story that’s nearly a decade old at this point. The film masterfully incorporates news footage from the time and replaces the actual Madoff’s face with De Niro’s mug. There are also refreshing breaks from the events at hand to fill the audience in on details that may not have been focused on in a traditional narrative, complete with voiceover by Henriquez. We learn about a handful of the many victims whose lives shattered because of Bernie. There’s also a nifty sequence that shows his possessions being sold with price tags attached (mostly with six zeros behind them).

While most of WIZARD is compelling and emotionally driven, there’s one moment that seems very out-of-place. This comes in a drawn-out dream sequence. We get CHRISTMAS CAROL references, family flashbacks, and subconscious innerworkings of Bernie’s mind. These are all lit by different colored Christmas lights in a long hallway (of course) and there’s even a “jump scare” that’s so forced it’s laughable. This is a distractingly ham-fisted piece of cheesiness in an otherwise effective drama and the film takes a while to fully recover from this needlessly silly dream sequence.

WIZARD OF LIES has a suffocating sense of hopelessness and bleakness that hovers over damn near every scene. Instead of merely focusing on Bernie’s downfall, we also see the fallout amongst his family members after his confession/sentencing. The scenes featuring his struggling sons and damaged wife are some of the most emotionally resonating bits of the entire film. Confrontations on the street, someone trying to sue a 4-year-old child for their stolen money back, and a hauntingly depressing moment punch the viewer squarely in the gut.

WIZARD OF LIES feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, but these events really happened and stole lots of people’s lives along with their money. The emotional reality of the situation causes the film’s final line (a question asked by Madoff to the reporter) to linger with the viewer long after the credits roll. If you are the least bit interested in the Bernie Madoff case and one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever constructed, then I highly recommend Barry Levinson’s WIZARD OF LIES!

Grade: B+

SCARFACE (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Oliver Stone

Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Paul Shenar, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon, F. Murray Abraham & Harris Yulin

1983’s SCARFACE is one of the most famous gangster films of all-time. Stemming from Al Pacino’s inspiration to remake the 1932 gangster classic of the same name (which was loosely based on Al Capone), this brutal gangster flick delivers a whole lot of well-worn clichés in a shiny cinematic package. However, this three-hour predictable rise and fall of a Cuban “political refugee” turned drug kingpin sticks out for three big reasons: style, violence and an unforgettable character brought to the screen by Al Pacino (who had already left his mark on the crime genre as Michael Corleone in the first two GODFATHER films). SCARFACE is far from the greatest mob epic around, but still holds up as an entertaining gangster flick in spite of its many faults.

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The year is 1980 and the place is Miami, Florida. Antonio Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee who’s been sent to a refugee camp with his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer). Desperate to secure their green cards, Tony and Manny agree to take on a job as hired guns. However, this murderous act is nothing new to Tony. It becomes very clear that he had a checkered past in Cuba and has come to America to get what he believes is coming to him: the world. As Tony becomes involved with shady individuals and sticks his nose (literally) into the cocaine business, he works his way up the ladder for small-time mob boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Soon, Tony’s ambitions force him to go his own way. Along this vicious path of blood and powder, he falls in love with coke-addict Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), partners up with feared kingpin Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) and tries to maintain a skeleton of a moral compass. However, Tony forgets that what goes up must come down.

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The best quality in SCARFACE is Al Pacino as the titular drug kingpin. Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana manages to be over-the-top, comically entertaining, and intensely frightening all at the same time. Many lines of dialogue would not be particularly memorable if not for the thickly-accented, furious way that Pacino delivers them in the film. Regardless of how familiar these gangster tropes may seem (they were already well-worn at the time of this film’s release), Pacino’s captivating portrayal of a fiery-tempered scumbag kept me watching out of sheer fascination with this character. Montana is a hot-headed, loud-mouthed, power-hungry asshole and the audience isn’t necessarily supposed to root for him, but rather watch his rise to and inevitable fall from power.

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In this regard, Oliver Stone’s screenplay feels unbalanced. We are shown far more of Tony’s rise to power as opposed to his bullet-ridden fall from grace. The screenplay goes to the trouble of including two family-oriented scenes purely for a tragic pay-off during the story’s final act. A good scene would have been great if more attention had been paid to this subplot. The film also sets up a defining moral compass for Tony late into the story which feels a tad half-assed in regard to every violent act we have been shown up to that point. In a way, a seemingly out-of-nowhere good deed feels contradictory and cheap, serving only to further his downfall. Finally, two key rules are set up in advance for Tony…which he will obviously break later on. Still, these rule-breaking bits are rushed. At least Stone’s screenplay goes to the trouble of setting up these details up in advance, whereas other lesser gangster films wouldn’t even bother to put that effort in.

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However, SCARFACE really drops the ball when it comes to the side characters. Michelle Pfeiffer was relatively unknown at the time of this movie’s release. Both Pacino and De Palma fought against her starring in the role of Elvira…and this may have contributed to her muted role as a paper-thin love interest. Elvira’s obligatory romantic subplot functions on a surface level of Tony falling head over heels for her and then abusing their relationship. As a result, Pfeiffer doesn’t make much as an impression thanks to her weak character and the romance being mainly reduced to a handful of brief scenes. Steven Bauer’s Manny isn’t much of a character either and comes off like a walking plot device. The same can be said for Tony’s mother and sister. Finally, the other gangsters seem like cardboard cut-outs. The only exception to this is Paul Shenar’s Sosa, an antagonist who seems off like a James Bond villain that specializes in smuggling cocaine and elaborately executing those who screw him over.

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In spite of its many problems, SCARFACE’s sheer style and brutality make it stick out in an overcrowded genre of gangster flicks. You’ve seen money laundering in mob movies before, but have you seen it executed with a cheesy 80’s montage set to the song “Push It to the Limit”? That happens in this film and it’s hilarious. The soundtrack and score add entertainment to the clichéd proceedings, especially when paired with lots of glamour and glitz. Tony’s lavish lifestyle seems great…until you remember how he’s acquired it. The film’s bloody carnage isn’t on display from start to finish, but is executed in brutal spurts of violence. Chainsaws, hangings from helicopters, and an iconic final stand-off stick out as some of this movie’s most memorable moments. Also, the chainsaw scene had a few folks running for the exit upon this film’s premiere.

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SCARFACE has left a legacy for three reasons: style, violence, and Pacino. Style keeps the clichéd proceedings entertaining, in spite of their one-note nature. This film’s violence was shocking at the time of its release and still comes off as pretty damn brutal from a modern stand-point, even lending itself to a very fun video game sequel SCARFACE: THE WORLD IS YOURS (which is basically GRAND THEFT AUTO with Tony Montana). Finally, Pacino is captivating as a loose cannon who rises in the ranks and ultimately keeps you guessing as to when his short fuse will burn out. If you like the crime genre, then you kind of have to see this movie just to say that you’ve seen it. SCARFACE is heavily flawed and has its far share of cardboard-thin clichés, but still holds up as an entertaining iconic gangster film.

Grade: B

SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action, some mild Sensuality and brief Language

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Directed by: Tim Johnson & Patrick Gilmore

Written by: John Logan

Voices of: Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert & Adriano Giannini

Throughout the years, DreamWorks has proven itself to be a nice alternative from the familiar animated Disney fare. DreamWorks Animation cut its teeth with films that were slightly edgier humor than many would initially expect in family movies. They are also notable for taking more risks with original properties (SHREK, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, KUNG FU PANDA) that usually turn out well. When all is said and done, DreamWorks Animation has earned a reputation as (mostly) reliable source of solid entertainment. However, they still have their fair share of duds. 2003’s SINBAD isn’t horrible, but definitely winds up on the lower end of their movie catalog. This film didn’t go as planned for anybody really. Though advertising was everywhere (including kid’s meal toys, action figures, and a bombardment of commercials), SINBAD never really seemed to find its audience. The film was largely ignored in 2003’s summer movie season (with stiff competition from the likes of FINDING NEMO and TERMINATOR 3) and received mixed response from critics. This box office fiasco lost the studio about 125 million (resulting in traditional animation being completely abandoned by DreamWorks). LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS is an okay piece cartoon for kids, but that’s about all it is.

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Sinbad is a heroic pirate sailing the seas, confronting monsters, and going on many perilous adventures. When he runs afoul of Eris, the goddess of Discord, Sinbad finds himself on his most dangerous quest yet. Eris steals the valuable Book of Peace and frames Sinbad for the crime. In order to save his friend’s life as well as his own skin, Sinbad sets out on the wide ocean on a to retrieve the stolen Book of Peace. Along the way, he confronts many obstacles including freaky CGI monsters, dangerous environments and all of the powers of Eris.

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SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS has a pretty basic story that serves as an excuse for a rinse, lather repeat formula. Sinbad sails around, characters bicker amongst themselves and then encounter a monster. This process winds up repeating itself four times before the film is over. This is also a definite instance of traditional animation dying out as CGI has clearly been blended with 2D designs. The effect looks good in some areas, but not so much in others. A giant squid-like monster and a giant bird both have pretty lame designs compared to the rest of the creatures and environments. However, an encounter with sirens is awesome (serving as the best scene of the entire film). Eris is also beautifully animated.

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The biggest problem with SINBAD comes in the voices…mainly Brad Pitt. While Sinbad is typically characterized as a legendary strong-headed hero, there’s definitely less of a timeless feel to DreamWork’s interpretation of the character. Brad Pitt plays Sinbad as Brad Pitt. He’s a smart-ass with a lot of one-liners and a strong appeal to the sole female character. It’s very distracting when you’re watching a scene full of mythical creatures and you here a line like “Pretty cool, right!” or “That’s why you don’t let women drive.” Catherine Zeta-Jones is suitable enough as Marina, but doesn’t serve too much of a purpose other than being a love interest for Sinbad. The best casting decision comes in Michelle Pfeiffer as Eris, who serves as a memorable villainess. Oh, and there’s also Spike, a slobbery dog sidekick that becomes downright insufferable.

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SINBAD has edgy sensibilities (clever adult humor, more risk-taking, etc.) that DreamWorks is known for, but also falters under a scrambled mishmash of ideas that don’t necessarily work. The traditional animation looks stunning, but the CGI is cheap and doesn’t fit well into the film. A couple of the monster encounters are cool, but its by-the-number gets tired before the credits roll. There are good things to appreciate in SINBAD as it’s a slight step above a lot of mediocre garbage that you see passed off for colorful family entertainment, but that’s about the nicest thing that can be said about this film.

Grade: C+

DANGEROUS LIAISONS (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Christopher Hampton

(based on the novel LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos)

Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick & Uma Thurman

Though written more than centuries ago, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s DANGEROUS LIAISONS still holds up as all too relevant in this day and age. Birthing a massive amount of controversy since its release, this scandalous French novel is one of the first instances of sex in literature being turned into a tool for manipulation and power as opposed to an act of the deepest love and affection. The 1988 film adaptation masterfully transports the viewer back into 18th century France and forces them to examine a pair of purposely unlikable characters much to our shock and awe. DANGEROUS LIAISONS is a devilish delight for cinephiles and fans of Laclos’s novel.

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Merteuil and Valmont are two former lovers and aristocrats who consider themselves on a higher intellectual pedestal than the lesser souls around them. Using their cunning wits, the two devise a game in which Valmont will seduce two separate women with the goal of humiliation in mind for the reward of a night alone with Merteuil. Valmont’s first conquest is Cecile, the virginal fiancée of a well-to-do music teacher. The second is a Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament. This game of seduction, double-crossing, and manipulation has unforeseen consequences on everyone involved. Both the players and their victims will suffer dire consequences.

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At its core, DANGEROUS LIAISONS is all about relationships both physical and emotional. As far as the sexual content goes, the viewer is given a couple of sensual moments and nothing overly erotic or cheesy. Most of the sex scenes are left to our imagination with mere suggestive comments and sly innuendos about what acts being performed behind closed bedroom doors. Though there’s plenty of emotion to the proceedings as Valmont actually begins to show real feelings towards one of his would-be victims, it doesn’t stop the film from sprinkling in bits of dark humor. One morning-after moment with Valmont gets some big laughs, but that doesn’t make his actions any less cruel. The movie also manages to take the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster into areas they might not have initially expected upon going in (unless they have read or known the source material).

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Glenn Close gives one of the best performances of her career as Merteuil. She puts on an innocent respectable persona while her noble friends are around, but reveals her darker true self whenever she’s alone with Valmont. John Malkovich is absolutely fantastic as the complicated Valmont. Though he introduces himself as a repulsive individual lacking a basic moral compass, Valmont quickly shows that there could be a genuine good and caring side to him…if things work out in his favor. Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer are solid in their roles of Valmont’s potential victims. However, there’s one performance that sticks out like a sore thumb. Keanu Reeves is wooden as the music teacher. Though he’s barely in the film, Reeves simply doesn’t belong in a cast like this and uses a distractingly wooden delivery that competes with his role in 1992’s DRACULA as the biggest mood-killer in an otherwise amazing film.

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The technical accomplishments in DANGEROUS LIAISONS masterfully bring Pre-Revolution France to the screen. Costumes are elegant. Sets are exquisite and convincing. The classical music is fitting. This is one of those rare period pieces where you actually feel as if you’ve transported back to said time period. Clearly, a lot of attention was paid to the tiniest details, save for Keanu’s unconvincing performance.

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In an emotionally shattering scene near the end of the film, one character states that vanity and happiness are incompatible. Truer words have never been spoken and DANGEROUS LIAISONS has never been more relevant. This is a scary notion that’s beyond anyone’s control, but it’s brought to startling light in this fantastic film that more than does justice to a masterful and hugely influential literary masterpiece.

Grade: A