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13 February 2009

Movie Review: Polanski Unauthorized Is Uninspired

You know how people say a movie is dream-like? Polanski Unauthorized is dream-like in the sense that it is a disjointed sequence of events, jumping from decade to decade. You might come out of it with nothing more than a general feeling: that the infamous director and sometime actor Roman Polanski is a oily creature, slimier than a salamander and more distasteful than a mouthful of caster oil.

You can make some sense of it if you know something of his history--something more than he is a fugitive from the U.S. legal system. He was found guilty of having sexual relations with a minor--a 13-year-old girl whom he supplied with alcohol before having sexual relations with her. He was in his forties.

Sounds like something out of American Beauty, but his excuse, in this movie, is that she was not a virgin. If you recall, the character played by Kevin Spacey recoiled from accomplishing the seduction of the young girl because she was inexperienced.

How does one measure the ick factor here? After all, Woodie Allen had a young girl in bed in his Manhattan. Is genius an excuse?

Yet I digress and that's easy to do. This film was directed by its star, Damian Chapa. Chapa doesn't look like Roman Polanski. He is physically doughy where Polanski seems thin. He does project a discomforting sort of playboy charm, one cultivated by men in search of women willing to take the casting couch route to fame.

The fractured segments touch on the Nazis in Poland, his mother's death in a concentration camp, his meeting with Sharon Tate, her tragic and horrific death and his filming of Rosemary's Baby. If you aren't familiar with the details of Polanski's story, you might be easily confused although long before the middle of the film, you'll be too bored to care.

Polanski Unauthorized is an uninspired impressionistic docudrama that is more vanity production than anything else.

01 February 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Fate Brings The Betrayal

Looking for a Laotian tutor, Ellen Kuras found a friend and an epic story, one that she could not have planned. That story, the documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), must have been hard to make sense of at first, not knowing how it would unfold over the decades, but Kuras has made it a cohesive bittersweet tale.

This is not the the 1983 Jeremy Irons movie, Betrayal, based on the late Harold Pinter's play about Pinter's real life love affair. This documentary is a more devastating and universal tale about immigration.

The Laotian tutor was Thavisouk Phrasavath, the eldest son of a family whose American dream turned out to be a nightmare of sorts, one that stretches out over two decades.

"A time will come when the universe will break, piece by piece and the world will change beyond what we know," is a Laotian saying. In the beginning, Thavi's father, a former officer in the Laotian army, is recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War and became part of the United States covert operations in Laos. When the American forces evacuated from Laos and Vietnam, Thavi's father, like many former allies, became the enemy. With his father sent to a communist re-education camp, the 12-year-old Thavi was harassed and arrested because of his father's political status. Fearing for his life, Thavi escaped by swimming across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand.

Two years later, his mother and siblings follow. Then in 1981, with no word from his father, Thavi, his mother and siblings, immigrate to the United States. Yet there, they find their sponsors leave them in a Brooklyn slum next to a crack house.

Four years later, in 1985, Thavi meets Kuras and she soon begins filming this story about hope, hardship and betrayal, when cultural values clash and a happy ending seems unimaginable, even when the unimaginable comes true.

As one would expect from a cinematographer, Kuras supplies beautiful imagery--pastoral scenes from Asia and grittier scenes in the U.S., in some ways transforming our ideas of the war-torn country of Laos with the land of plenty America.

Sometimes we fall into important things when we are looking for something else. In the case of Kuras, one is sure she had no idea how the story would develop or end 23 years ago, but this story, slow in developing and followed up through friendship and cultural respect is one worth telling.

In English and Laotian, this documentary is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary and was nominated for the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

16 January 2009

Book Review: A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene

I love books, especially art books and reviewing the book A New and Native Beauty: The art and Craft of Greene & Greene is both a pleasure and a disappointment. The book is almost too lovely.

The book accompanies the Huntington Library's exhibit of the same title that closed on 26 January 2009 in Pasadena to travel on to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. (March 13– June 7, 2009), and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (July 14–Oct. 18, 2009).

The Huntington Library exhibit was one of several that helped commemorate the centennial of the Gamble House, a work of Charles and Henry Greene that is one of the jewels of Pasadena's crown. Most of the other exhibits closed on 4 January 2009. All showed different aspects of the Gamble House and led me to finally visit this National Historic Landmark.

I wish I had read the many essays collected in this book before I had seen any of them. Living in Pasadena, I'll have the opportunity to visit the Gamble House again as well as the permanent exhibit at the Huntington Library in its Dorothy Collins Brown Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. For those who aren't lucky enough to live in Pasadena, the books many photographs will give you an idea of how beautiful the Gamble House is and the exhibit will leave you wistfully wishing we hadn't allowed the Bandini House to be destroyed, like many architectural treasures.

The title of the book and the exhibit comes from the 1952 citation the Greenes were given by the American Institute of Architects although they had ceased being partners by that time. The Greenes were honored as "formulators of a new and native architecture" and Greene & Greene, who were based in Pasadena, strongly influenced California's architectural heritage and the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Edited by Edward R. Bosley, James N. Gamble Director of the Gamble House (University of Southern California, School of Architecture) and Anne E. Mallek, curator of the Gamble House, this book includes a brief forward by Frank Gehry and 11 essays.

The Greenes were influenced by the Morris Movement ("The Beauty of a House: Charles Greene, the Morris Movement and James Culbertson" by Mallek), Japonism (The Spell of Japan: Japonism and the Metalwork of Greene and Greene" by Nina Gray) even though neither ever traveled to Japan, and the very sunny nature that attracted winter birds to Pasadena ("Sunlight and Elsewhere: Finding California in the Work of Greene and Greene" by Bruce Smith.

Charles was married to an English woman and the influence of England can also be seen in their work ("Charles Greene and Englishness" by Alan Crawford). The Morris Movement was named for the Englishman William Morris but by the time of the Gamble House's construction the English Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was only two years away from being declared dead. Morris' successor in England, Robert Ashbee watched his own business enterprise die in 1907 yet on the West Coast of America, the Arts and Crafts Movement was still viable. Yet the concept or public perception of the English house was also a part of Greene & Greene's work.

The English manor house required servants and the English aristocracy had cultivated a culture of its own. None of the women who commissioned the Greenes were from an aristocratic background. According to Ann Scheid in her essay "Independent Women, Widows and Heiresses: Greene and Greene's Women Clients," they are often better educated than their fathers and even their husbands. What happens when a woman makes decisions in the making of a house? They make life easier for themselves.

Unlike many architects, the Greenes offered a full package. They designed the furniture by working with furniture makers ("An International Studio: The Furniture Collaborations of the Greens and the Halls" by Edward S. Cooke, Jr.) and they designed stained glass windows ("A Glimmer of Vivid Light: The Stained Glass of Greene and Greene" by Julie L. Sloan." One of the Japanese influences was the appreciation of natural wood and the book includes an essay on this including "Out of the Woods" by Edward R. Bosley. The Gamble House docent who gave the tour I was on said Pasadena received the Gamble House as a gift after the owners heard the prospective buyers wanted to cover all the lovely wood with paint! Sometimes bad taste is a good thing.

If you missed the Greene & Greene exhibits in Pasadena, get this book for an idea of what you missed and make an appointment to see the Gamble House. If you live in Boton or Washington, D.C., get this book before you see the exhibit and you won't be disappointed although you might wish you had known about the centennial celebration. I wish I had read this book before instead of after seeing all the exhibit and even between seeing each one.