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It’s been a busy year here at Libertas and we wanted to take a moment to thank all of our readers, contributors, and media colleagues for all their support. We hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas and Hanukkah, and that the New Year brings you all the very best!

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We wanted to thank The Huffington Post and The Atlantic for featuring our work so frequently on their front pages. Jason and Govindini have had twenty-six pieces published at The Huffington Post and nine pieces at The Atlantic in a little over a year. Twenty-five of these pieces have been featured on the front page of these sites, bringing significant exposure to the pro-freedom, pro-democracy message of Libertas.

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We also wanted to thank Indiewire for having Joe Bendel, Jason, and Govindini as part of their Criticwire community and for giving us the chance to contribute our reviews, letter grades, and critic’s picks to their critics’ polls.

We would like to give a very big thank you to Gretchen Brooks and her family for all of their friendship and support. Gretchen has made it possible for us to cover the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, LA Film Festival, AFI Festival, and other major film events this year and we couldn’t be more grateful to her for her graciousness and kindness.

We would also like to thank Lars Larson for having Govindini on his nationally-syndicated radio show weekly to discuss movies. Lars and his whole team are always courteous and professional and we truly appreciate the exposure they have given to our ideas.

A very big thank you as well to Joe Bendel for his extraordinary contributions to Libertas this year. Joe’s knowledge of independent cinema is second to none, and his insightful and witty posts have been a tremendous asset to Libertas. Many thanks as well to Patricia Ducey, David Ross, and all our contributors, readers, and colleagues for everything they have added to Libertas! Best wishes to you all and here’s to a successful and productive 2013!

Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 5:16pm.

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Amanda Seyfried in "Les Misérables."

By Joe Bendel. Even viewers who have not read Victor Hugo’s novel or seen Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical know Jean Valjean spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Such a fate is undeniably unjust, but it is important to keep in mind that it was a very nice sourdough. For years it has defied cinematic adaptation, but now Tom Hooper brings the musical Les Misérables to the big screen, with all its bombast. It opened yesterday nationwide, so Merry Christmas everyone.

Distilled from Hugo’s cinderblock sized novel, Les Mis follows Valjean after he is released from prison. He has been freed from the unyielding Javert’s lash, but the terms of his parole make him a desperate outcast. He finds temporary refuge with the truly pious Monsignor, but he abuses the kindly cleric’s trust. Yet much to his shock, his betrayal is met with forgiveness.

Thanks to the Monsignor, Valjean reinvents himself under an assumed identity. He becomes a factory owner and the mayor of his hardscrabble community. Then Javert is transferred to his jurisdiction. For a while they circle each other warily, until Valjean confirms the copper’s suspicions to save an innocent man arrested in his place. Thus begins his life on the run (albeit a relatively well-heeled one) with Cosette, the daughter of a tragic former employee, in tow.

Russell Crowe in "Les Misérables."

Yes, this is Les Mis, a rather odd combination of Christian fellowship and proletarian solidarity. Barricades will definitely be stormed, but at least the church is not part of the apparatus of oppression. As the film’s publicity campaign is quick to point out, Hooper returned to old school movie musical production techniques, recording the actors in performance live on the set – rather than have them lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks. This allows them more in-the-moment interpretive freedom. However, as your TV talent show judges might say: “it gets a little pitchy, dog.” Frankly, it is hard to understand why they did not clean some of that up with Pro-Tools or a similar program.

Critical reaction to Hooper’s Les Mis is also something of spectacle, ranging from adulation to castigation. Word that Russell Crowe was making a movie musical may have led some to fear the worst. When Les Mis did not completely bite, many evidently concluded it must therefore be awesome. In truth, it falls somewhere in the middle.

To be fair to Crowe, he has been unduly hammered as Javert (a small irony there), but in the story’s abbreviated stage form, his character’s actions during the third act are jarringly problematic. Also: likely Oscar contender Anne Hathaway knocks “I Dreamed a Dream” out of the park, completely reclaiming the signature tune from Susan Boyle, and then promptly exits the narrative. Hugh Jackman has the perfect presence for Valjean and his performances of “Who Am I” and “One Day More” are fairly stirring, but the show definitely peaks in the first act. Frankly, all the third act barricade songs and revolutionary anthems just blend into a faux Internationale blur.

While Jackman, Crowe, and Hathaway meet or exceed expectations, the rest of the supporting cast is a dramatically mixed bag. Eddie Redmayne sorely lacks romantic lead credibility as Marius, but his voice is not bad. The real standout though is British fan favorite Samantha Barks. She is the real deal as lovesick Éponine, probably boasting the finest voice of the ensemble.

In contrast, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter quickly become tiresome as the felonious innkeeper Thénardier and his wife, the show’s ostensive comic relief.  A little of them goes a long, long, long way. You know the Nile River? That long. They must have assumed they were in a Tim Burton movie when they saw the period sets, and started hamming it up accordingly. In fact, the Nineteen Century Paris recreated by the design team often looks like it was the work of the same Neo-gothic architect responsible for The Dark Knight’s Gotham, particularly when Javert compulsively paces about on high ledges.

Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables."

Nonetheless, Les Mis its moments, like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “One Day More,” which might be Hooper’s best staging, utilizing the cross-cutting toolkit of music videos more than traditional movie musical production numbers. Elements of the show, like the touching relationship between Valjean and Cosette, prove to be absolutely bullet-proof.

Hooper and screen-adapter William Nicholson also deserve a lot of credit for not watering down the themes of faith and redemption. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a senior man of the cloth depicted in an unambiguously virtuous manner. Oddly though, when everyone hits the barricades, it becomes something of a bore. Recommended primarily for Les Mis devotees and diehard movie musical fans, Les Misérables opened yesterday (12/25) across the country, including the AMC Empire in New York. Merry Christmas and to all a good night.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 12:05pm.

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Dec 262012

Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel in "Hitchcock."

By Joe Bendel. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, largely self-financed his notorious 1960 classic, Psycho. He picked the right film to literally bet his home on. A spectacular success by any standard, the film that would introduce Norman Bates to the world looked like it might be his swan song during its rocky development and production stages. Dramatizing the behind-the-scenes story of arguably his most iconic work, Sacha Gervasi’s sympathetic but bitingly witty Hitchcock is now in award contention for at least one and possibly two of its accomplished leads.

Hitchcock is not a story Hitch would have made. Since we know Psycho was completed to his satisfaction and became a monster hit at the box office, there is not a lot of suspense to the tale. However, the getting from point A to point B is quite fascinating. As we meet Hitchcock and his patient wife Alma Reville, he is basking in the triumph of North by Northwest, which somewhat bores them both. As a distraction, Reville starts doctoring a new spec script written by Strangers on a Train screenwriter Whitfield Cook, who is hoping she will convince Hitchcock to attach himself to it. Of course, he has his mind set on very different property.

Based on Robert Bloch’s novel, which in turn was inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho is the sort of film no respectable studio director would think of touching. That is exactly why Hitchcock is attracted to it. As the closing titles remind viewers, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award (a fact that could either help or hinder the film’s own Oscar campaign). Throughout Gervasi’s film, Hitchcock is clearly presented as a brilliant but ragingly insecure filmmaker. Resenting his lack of recognition, Psycho is convincingly framed as an effort to make an exploitation horror movie that is vastly superior to the prestige pictures the studios released. And so it was.

Yes, this Hitchcock is somewhat neurotic and there is no denying his eye for blondes. Yet John J. McLaughlin’s screen treatment is refreshingly forgiving of his foibles. He was indeed a man of expensive tastes (taste being the most apt word), but the audience also sees Hitch and Alma puttering about the kitchen in slippers, like relatively down to earth people.

Both Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren are terrific as the first couple of suspense. As the title auteur, Hopkins is Hitchy without getting kitschy or shticky. Likewise, Mirren is the picture of mature sophistication as Reville. Listening to them bantering like an old familiar couple is one of the film’s great pleasures.

Yet the supporting work of Toni Collette and Scarlett Johansson really fleshes out the film, as it were. Collette’s smart, surprisingly attractive turn elevates what could easily have been the thankless role of the Hitchcock’s thankless assistant Peggy Robertson. Beyond being a spooky dead-ringer for Janet Leigh, Johansson also has some wonderful scenes with both principles that really deepen their humanity. While an Oscar campaign on her behalf might be pushing it, Hitchcock should definitely be on the bill for any future Johansson retrospective.

Gervasi commits a few missteps along the way, such as overplaying Hitchcock’s interior dialogues with the convicted and committed Ed Gein, perhaps hoping to throw genre diehards a bone. Still, the film pays off handsomely, especially for Hitchcock fans. In fact, you could say it has a real Hollywood ending. Deserving award consideration for the work of both Hopkins and Mirren, Hitchcock is recommended for the director’s admirers and those who enjoy films about the cinema. It is now playing nationwide, including at the AMC Empire in New York.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 12:02pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Niall Ferguson would say “I told you so.” For centuries, Tibetan Buddhism was largely confined to the Himalayan region. Then China invaded Tibet, precipitating an exodus of refugees. A few decades later, Tibetan Buddhists have earned growing ranks of converts around the world. Arguably, a bit of competition and Westernization has been beneficial. Victress Hitchcock explores the positive implications of their exile in When the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West, which appropriately screens before and after New Year’s at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

It is a rather eerie prophecy in retrospect. In the Eighth Century, Guru Padmasambhava wrote: “When the iron bird flies and horse run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth.” Communist China realized the prediction with the 1959 invasion. In many ways, it was absolutely devastating to Tibetan culture, particularly during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Yet Hitchcock suggests it forced one of the world’s most isolated religions into contact with entirely new nations and peoples during the 1960’s, a period when popular Western culture was widely receptive to Eastern thought.

In Iron, Hitchcock challenges our traditional thinking on the Tibetan exile experience, suggesting it has invigorated, modernized, and spread their religious practice. She has a real point. If one took a survey of most American college dorms and neighborhoods, one would be far more likely to find books about Tibetan Buddhism than Mao’s Little Red Book, even in Berkeley. That is a defendable standard of victory, but it has certainly been costly.

Iron revisits subjects of several documentaries that have played at the Rubin over the last two years, including one covering the late E. Gene Smith’s game-changing campaign to preserve and digitize ancient Tibetan texts (fully documented in Dafna Yachin’s Digital Dharma) and another dealing with Chogyam Trunpa, Rinpoche, a learned teacher who adopted a Western business suit and lifestyle to popularize Tibetan Buddhism with the Western counter-culture (profiled in Crazy Wisdom, directed by Johanna Demetrakas, who served as a consulting editor on Iron).

If the learned Rinpoches became evangelists out of necessity, Iron spreads the Tibetan Buddhist “gospel” with the zeal of a convert. Hitchcock clearly hopes to convince Western audiences this once exotic faith speaks directly to the times in which we live. A little of that is all well and good, but she risks alienating the sympathetic by coming on too strong.

Still, Iron offers a fresh perspective on Tibetan Buddhism, capturing its efforts to shed centuries of male chauvinism. It is very definitely the result of Western contact, but also a reflection of the fundamental humanism of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment in exile. Do not hold your breath waiting for similar soul searching from the Islamic world. The wit, erudition, and humility of many exiled Tibetan leaders also help enrich Hitchcock’s portrait. Educational and surprisingly optimistic, When the Iron Bird Flies is definitely worth checking out when visiting the Rubin, home to the world’s leading collection of Himalayan art. It screens again this Wednesday (12/26), Saturday (12/29), and Sunday (12/30), as well as the 2nd and 23rd of January 2013.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 12:02pm.

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