“American Hustle”:—Everyone Hustles To Survive

13_2654_Sony_Form3_AdamsBanner_R9With its ensemble cast, this film has received almost unanimous accolades for the universally stunning performances, under the direction of David O. Russell. Still at the top of his game (after “I Heart Huckabees”, “The Fighter”, and “Silver Linings Playbook”).   All of Russell’s movies, intentionally or not, are the embodiment of a certain malaise, the sense that we have lost our community spirit, and everyone is on his or her own.  It is a war of all against all, or at least a cold indifference of all to all.

“American Hustle” is about the ultimate con game, of which there have been many in US history involving financial get-quick schemes.  (“Hustle” is purportedly based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970’s).  How far are people willing to go to grasp the golden ring, to try to capture the American Dream:  namely, wealth as synonymous with identity and happiness?  “American Hustle” goes even further, digging deeper into how much we lie to ourselves, in order to believe what we want to believe.

But on a more personal level, this film is also about human relationships:  who can be trusted and who can’t.  That is the nature of a con game:  building trust only to deceive and swindle.  In “Hustle” we see the main character, Irving Rosenfeld (another riveting performance by Christian Bale), a vain and insecure man obsessed with combing over his bald spot, try to build a successful business presence in New Jersey through a small dry-cleaning chain.  Enter Amy Adams, also a mover and shaker, as the beautiful Sydney Prosser,  who wants to badly leave her personal history behind and who quickly becomes Rosenfeld’s astute business partner and lover.  Irving and Sydney soon discover how a con game can connect them to greater financial opportunities. Together they meet Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, again surprising  with a winning interpretation of human vanity, ambition, and vulnerability), a mafia kingpin (Robert DeNiro), and the Camden, New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner).  (A small part by  Louis CK as the FBI supervisor is exceptionally well-played too.)  Rosenfeld’s dealings  with these characters hinges on a masterful scheme that will scandalize and destroy all its participants.

The small part played by Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the wife and mother of Irving’s child, is virtuoso acting that startles at times.  Lawrence is almost unrecognizable in body, facial expressions, and voice.  When she is on screen, my eyes could rest on no one else.  Each slither and flirtatious gesture is both brassy and calculated, suggesting an intelligence beneath the bleached blond hair of a bimbo.  As Rosalyn, Lawrence eliminates the stereotypes of what intelligence should look like and be like.  Amy Adams is the perfect counterpoint:  both are exceptionally beautiful sexy women,  in love with the same man, in a zero sum game.

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“American Hustle” boasts a combination of craftsmanship and delectable moviegoing pleasure set in a time period of disco, that holds a nostalgic if discomforting appeal to baby boomers.  The hustle to survive is just that:  all are wounded and no one heals.  Run to see it so you can enjoy it for its own value and then wait to see if it wins Best Picture from the Academy Awards!

 

The Hunger Games Revisited: Part 2– “Catching Fire”

Catching FireIn what has to be the biggest blockbuster franchise since Twilight and Harry Potter, in this sequel to the first Hunger Games film (see my April 8, 2012 review–“The Hunger Games”–Our “Harry Potter”), the post-apocalyptic Panem is still a hell on earth.   Former victors are forced to participate in a Quarter Quell, marking the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games.

Survival through fake social relationships which the victors all know will end in death is still the tense spine of the narrative.  In “Catching Fire” the means to survival grows darker and more intense. Explicit scenes of Katniss in flashback (to the murders she had to commit and to the death of the little girl Rue) are riveting, with stellar acting by Jennifer Lawrence once again, the camera steadily zooming in on  her eyes for emotional response.  All game “victors” have been radically changed:  Katniss is cynical and guilt-ridden; Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is even more of an alcoholic, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is numb.  “Nobody ever wins the Games,” declares Haymitch and “Catching Fire”, true to Suzanne Collins’ book, underscores that sentiment in the final scenes.

All the performances are spectacular including the over-the-top Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz. Donald Sutherland’s sinister character becomes even more ominous as President Snow, the smarmy ruler who has to destroy his nemesis, Katniss Everdeen, whom we never get tired of watching.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright are new additions who provide dramatic surprises.

Sequels are notorious for being a disappointment but this series…so far…belongs in the same category as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”.  It just seems to get better and better!

“Time of Death”—Not for the Faint-Hearted

Time of Death

Not since Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” with its study of the five stages of grief or Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, has there been such a tour-de-force depiction of the process of dying and the way that death impacts  those who are left behind.  This groundbreaking documentary series reminds me that many of us still have forgotten how to say goodbye and how to die. But some of us have figured out how.  “Time of Death”, a six-part miniseries produced by Showtime,   follows three  men and five women ranging in age from nineteen to seventy-seven years.  In six emotionally jarring episodes we are introduced to the final weeks, days and private last moments  in a remarkably unflinching, intimate, and brutally honest  way. These remarkable people face their own mortality with as much drama as a novel.

“Time of Death” also focuses on the caregivers—family, friends, hospice and other medical personnel—who understand and give of their hearts. At the end of this series many viewers will wish that they could have these supportive, brave friends and family at their deathbed.  To have them be there to give a needed hug. While some viewers may be too depressed to watch the inevitability of death, and the finite nature of our lives, to me it was a hopeful and insightful portrait of the natural as well as the inevitable process of the end of life. Some of the dying are sweet and eccentric, others closed and struggling to come to terms with their end.   Nicolle, a 19-year-old dying of melanoma, perhaps is the most gut-wrenching: a teenager who cannot believe—like anyone so young—that she is at the end of an all-too-brief life.  Her parents and little sisters, especially the six-year old, are heroic in their understanding of what Nicolle is going through.

The series, most of all,  reveals how aware children and teens can be when it comes to death.  Witnessing these vulnerable moments, we watch as the dying learn to keep on loving when they are afraid, to keep on making it through another day,  to forgive themselves and others as they surrender to the inevitable, and to let go.  The miniseries is compelling and haunting, even harrowing at times,  especially since we know each of these eight people’s lives are coming to an end.  Yet “Time of Death”  is also surprising.  It made me feel like a privileged guest with something to learn from each scene.  A gift.

 

[“Time of Death” will be available soon on Netflix and is downloadable from the Showtime website.]

 

Engrenages (“Spiral”)–A Vortex of Thrills

EngrenagesInternet streaming and cable/satellite TV have opened the door to some superb international films and television series formerly nearly unknown to the average American viewer.  Think “Borgen”.  It’s not just Denmark, however.  “Spiral” (the English translation of the  French crime series) has been a blockbuster hit not only in France but also throughout Europe (resulting in BBC co-producing for the international market.) As of last month “Spiral” has now found a devout American following through distribution by Netflix, which offers all forty episodes in four seasons (starting production date 2005) .  Season Five will be available in January 2014 and season Six is under contract.  In addition, an English adaptation of “Engrenages” is in development.

“Spiral” is “The Wire” on steroids, with “Homeland” thrown into the mix in Season Four. This police drama centers on the competing strategies of a policewoman and her two lieutenants, as well as a primary judge, a prosecutor and a lawyer. But “Law and Order” this is not.  A sometimes over-the-top violent depiction of the crime (far different from “American” style depiction of corpses), with very little forensic CSI-style technology, “Spiral” captures what real-life criminal police work must be like in Paris.  Similar in this respect to “The Wire”, the gritty, incompetent but far-too-human police officers pursue the culprit, resisted at every turn by  political corruption.  Each season follows the characters as they investigate a central murder case and unveil malfeasance at the highest levels.

Like “The Killing” (also an American adaptation of a foreign television series), the maniacally dedicated heroine, homicide detective Laure Berthaud (the magnificent stage actress Caroline Proust), has no social life and almost no social skills. There is no glamour to the job and Lieutenant Berthaud is far from glamorous.  Her main antagonist, however, is: the beautiful attorney Josephine Karlsson (played superbly by Audrey Fleurot), who seems to embody evil, but in an extremely complex way. You simply cannot take your eyes off her because she is  hypnotically sinister, cynical,  and coldblooded. She is also vulnerable. The investigating magistrate, Judge Roban (played by Philippe Duclos), the brilliant and highly principled outsider, sometimes dominates the story and  mesmerizes as we watch him choose between two equally devastating  decisions, almost inevitably intensifying the personal dilemma for himself. 

The main investigating prosecutor (Gregory Fitoussi) is a handsome lawyer who often seems exasperatingly clueless but is essential to the story’s forward movement.  In addition, a cast of  riveting supporting characters who comprise the  police force, judicial office, and local government as well as the highly original portrayals of psychopaths  are no less spellbinding with their unexpected tactics.

What is so remarkable about this series is the extraordinary storytelling: vivid narrative arcs surprising the viewer at every turn.  Overlaid upon a superb story, full of suspense with a labyrinth of clues, are both the unfamiliar French judicial system and the cultural differences in the depiction of physical combat and sexuality.  This contrast in cultures contributed to my fascination with “Spiral”.

The subtext appears to be  all rules exist to be broken, or at least bent, and so the wheels of justice spiral in a highly charged vortex where the outcome is never predictable.  “Spiral”, available only on Netflix, is a must-see!

Facebook and the Internet–Let’s Face It

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A lot of online social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter in particular, rest on the human need for connection. For letting people into your life, no matter how insignificant the post may be.  Still,   regardless of how inane the post may be, it’s still not the same as being there.  There is no intimacy or sensory experience involved.  Only reading.  There is FaceTime,  a more intimate connection than the  phone time. And why is that? FaceTime provides hearing and visual pleasure at the same time. It is because, since we were babes in arms, the face and the  sensory experiences of taste, smell, touch, and hearing come in to play for a  primal sense of intimacy we all cannot live without.

For some Facebook and Twitter users I feel there is a  kind of a loneliness in which we post our lives in hopes that others will “like” or respond in kind. In which the “Friends” validate one’s existence.  Or at least, relieve the boredom of daily life.   To some users Facebook can be like a drug–heightening a need that is never completely fulfilled, requiring more “likes”, more “friends”, more comments.  Is that why I have to set the timer to make sure I don’t spend the entire day on Internet in a virtual time suck?

In a time when even the smallest thought or feeling must be shouted out and displayed to the world, the idea of what constitutes a friend has been dramatically changed.  How can one have 1000 friends?  Don’t we mean “followers”, and even that  has a marketing or self-promoting connotation.  No wonder every business has to have a Facebook “presence”.

The Internet doesn’t actually offer any of us  a true sense of friendship–but more a  pamphleteering of events for the community.  In this sense Facebook, Twitter, blogging and other social media are phenomenal means to getting the word out about news, great and small, in an individual’s life.  Maybe reading that post will result in a phone call or even something as extraordinary as a visit. Let’s just remember that the more we rely on social media as a substitute for human connection, the more we are actually doing the opposite:  isolating ourselves from the very thing we want. Friendship still has to be cultivated the old-fashioned way and by definition, no one has one thousand friends.  I’m waiting to be the exception.  Where are my thousand true FB friends?

 

“Ruby Sparks”– A Spark of Creativity”

Ruby SparksIf you could create the partner of your dreams, would you be happy with him or her?  Would that relationship be all about you, completely one-sided, and therefore unsatisfying? What makes “Ruby Sparks” so funny, but also harsh and uncomfortable, are answers to those questions given throughout this quirky film. Written by and starring Zoe Kazan as well as the exceptional Paul Dano (also in “Prisoners”, see last week’s movie review), “Ruby Sparks” is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame).

Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young novelist  whose reputation ranks just below that of “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Now, a decade later, he is  struggling with both writer’s block and a void in his romantic life.  Like all writers of fiction who have strong feelings for the characters they write about, as well as an ability to make the character real and worth being interesting, Calvin creates the character of Ruby (Zoe Kazan), his ideal girlfriend, and soon she is no longer a figment of his imagination but created in the flesh, sitting in his apartment.  Each time he writes about Ruby, the embodied Ruby has those attributes and behavior, including fluency in French.

The transitions in both Calvin and Ruby’s characters are expertly handled. Mr. Dano’s Calvin combines Woody Allen’s schlemiel and intellect.  But as Calvin’s manipulative experiments continue, the film abruptly turns down a dark road:  Ruby becomes alternatively manic, needy, independent, masochistically submissive and depressed.

The games reach a feverish pitch when Ruby watches Calvin sitting at his desk, frantically typing instructions about her, which she tries to resist but can’t.   Although he is either the Professor to Pygmalion or Geppetto to Pinocchio, Dano’s interpretation of Calvin results in a compelling and riveting performance.  He is as much a neurotic, self-absorbed victim as his fictive creation, Ruby, is.  The difference is that he is also incredibly amoral and capable of inflicting severe humiliation on Ruby.

“Ruby Sparks” (2012) cannot be easily categorized as comedy or drama, nor is it a rom-com although critics have called this unique movie all of the above.  It is, first and foremost, a film about creativity.   As in another brilliant movie, “Stranger than Fiction”  (2006) (starring Emma Thompson and Will Farrell), the writer of a novel is consumed by the characters he or she creates and they do take on a life of their own.  My novel, “Unhealed Wound”, will soon have a life of its own too.  I’ll keep you posted as the manuscript goes through its final polishing.

“Prisoners”: Kidnapping Your Mind

 

PrisonersThis provocative film opens with a father and son hunting in the woods, the Lord’s Prayer recited in voiceover.  The viewer sees the father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) as a deeply religious man, a carpenter who believes in family values and the safety of his community.  When his little girl and her friend go missing on Thanksgiving Day, the world he has believed in is destroyed. “Prisoners” is a powerful tale of human nature gone awry.  What are parents capable of in their darkest moment, when their worst nightmare happens?

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put in charge of the investigation and immediately arrests a mentally compromised driver of an RV, Alex Jones (the mesmerizing Paul Dano), because his vehicle had been parked nearby.   However, due to a lack of physical evidence, Jones is released.

“Prisoners” is not for the fainthearted.  Although violent and disturbing, the twists in the multiple crimes are riveting and the clues are tautly woven together.  Detective Loki pursues different leads while both girls’ families begin to unravel.  Keller’s wife (Maria Bello) is seen mostly in fetal position, sedated and semi-comatose from the loss.  The other parents in grief and desperation (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) raise serious moral issues but the viewer is left with questions unanswered.  In some ways, the extreme suspense of “Prisoners” contributes to an equally disturbing portrait of characters who are convinced they have morality on their side.Hugh Jackman

 

 

Although an unusually long film (153 minutes), “Prisoners” sucks the viewer in from the first frame.  Its portrayal of the  desperate nature of people who believe they are good, righteous God-fearing people with strong moral convictions is nothing short of dazzling.   When their view of the world turns upside down, all hell breaks loose. No more can be said about the plot, without giving away too much.  That being said,  this film is a model for screenplays, with unexpected tensions in almost every scene.  While some threads of the plot are not neatly tied together (perhaps edited out), the substance of this thriller with its astounding cast will kidnap your mind.

 

Mezcla–Mixing It Up South American Style

Mezcla

We had the pleasure of discovering this Nuevo Latino fusion restaurant on a recent trip to Montreal.  A mixture of Latino cultures, mainly Peruvian but even a dash of Chinese, made for an unforgettable experience:  a delight both visual and palatable.  Located off St. Catherine Street in what is called Gay Village or simply Le Village, this unassuming restaurant is a wonderful culinary experiment in originality.A  small bistro with no more than 20 small tables and  a lively bar in the middle, Mezcla caters to a late evening clientele. We arrived late but the dishes on the blackboard– the specials for the evening–were still mostly available. Even at 9:30  Mezcla was almost full.

The amuse bouche was a delightful small bit of duck liver in an aioli that was tinged with jalapeno and a slightly sweet aftertaste, perhaps maple syrup.  Quite an excellent start to a superb meal, a surprise little fugue before the main concert.Mezcla2

 

The first dish came sizzling hot: octopus served in a small cast iron pan,  placed on top of carmelized yucca with a splash of maple syrup, something we found rather unique not only to Montreal cuisine but also Vermont.

Our entrees were the braised bison short ribs served with parsnips and mushrooms in a demiglaze and crispy duck with foie gras (arepitos de pato y foie gras) with a soy glaze topped with  a sprinkle of watercress sprouts on Chinese steamed buns.

All wines were reasonably priced, including a rose cava, which is rather difficult to find in the States. This menu takes the imagination to new heights making the Nuevo Latino more accentuated on the “Nuevo” for its unbelievably  unique experimentation of flavors, mixing up the cuisines south of the border with those from around the globe.  Hope you get to try Mezcla in the future, a delightful gourmet adventure!

 

Inuit Art: Fusion of the Arctic and the Pacific

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Inuit art has always had a profound impact on my aesthetics, almost as much as Japanese art.  The humor, minimalism, and abstraction in form combine in an original way.  On a recent visit to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal, I had the memorable experience of viewing perhaps the best collection of Inuit art in the world.

What is not well known is that the Canadian printmaker, James Houston, who had trained in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock printing, brought his technical skills to Cape Dorset in 1957 to encourage local Inuit stone carvers to learn etching, engraving, lithography and silkscreen printing to support their poverty-stricken communities.  Although the Inuit adopted the techniques from the Japanese, they radically transformed the art by capturing shamanistic rituals and cultural myths. The adaptation of technique with Inuit imagery renders the source of the techniques virtually unrecognizable.  Inuit art and ukiyo-e, to this viewer, seem as far apart as two artistic styles can be yet they intersected through the mid-century efforts and importation of knowledge from Houston.

Inuit sculpture, commonly made of whalebone, serpentine or soapstone, has deep levels of symbolism derived from shamanistic rituals.  One of my favorite sculptures in the gallery,  “Drum Beater”, is carved by the male sculptor, Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974), from whalebone and suggests a fascination with rituals of death.  Shamans guide the departed spirit to a new life, through dance, beating the drum, and often while wearing masks.  The face on the figure is not a human face, but suggestive of a skull or spirit straddling between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the world of humans and the world of animals. Transfixed by the departed’s spirit or perhaps in a trance, the shaman is calling upon the forces of nature to hear the community. The execution of this whalebone sculpture reveals not only a master of the macabre, as in much of Inuit art, but also a humorist’s bold and confident flourish.

And perhaps the most fascinating printmaker among the Inuit is the illustrious woman printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013).  Part of Houston’s Cape Dorset guild, these printmakers became world renowned for their vivid, modernistic prints of extraordinary form and composition.  Kenojuak Ashevak  “Illustrious Owl,” selected as a symbol for Canada and memorialized on a postage stamp, epitomizes the extraordinary line and imagery of the Inuit.  More attention to this sensational art is needed! Inuit Owl

 

Michael’s on the Hill–A Green Restaurant in the Green Mountain State

Michaels

We were delighted to dine at Michael’s on the Hill last week while we were on the East Coast.  Located in Waterbury (on the Stowe, Vermont border), this small restaurant in a charming turn-of-the-19th century farmhouse captivated us from the moment we sat down.  Their vegetable garden provides some of the produce for the menu, emphasizing the farmer-chef connection, aka farm-to-table.

The ambience is eclectic:  New England antiques with bold black and white woodcuts (3’x 4′ prints) on several walls in a dining room with  dark wood beams and molding. The menu changes seasonally as expected from a restaurant that was the first certified Green restaurant in the Green Mountain state.

I started with the crispy Rhode Island calamari with frisée, reggiano and capers, which was a knockout.  The calamari were sautéed–not until crispy– in a very light batter, more like a dusting of color than anything else.  What made this salad so unusual is that the olive oil from the calamari was the only oil provided for the salad.  A strong zesty lemon and light touch of balsamic completed the dressing, making the salad light and extraordinary. Next was a Maine crab cake with fennel, basil and roasted corn purée.  We have had lots of crab cakes in our foodie years, but this one was original .

For our main courses I had the herb butter poached Maine lobster with celery root gratin, braised leeks and truffles.  It was served in a small cast iron skillet, piping hot.  The syrupy vegetables, cooked until carmelized, made the lobster an incredible dish, not the usual drawn lemon and butter.  I suspected that there was a dash of the maple syrup Vermont is famous for splashed on the vegetables. I shared this dish with my husband’s cornmeal crusted Mountain Foot farm trout with herbed polenta and apples meunière.  The trout had a lovely crispy skin but I felt the apples detracted from the richness of the polenta and the unique delicate taste of the trout.  I still would order the dish, just putting the apples to the side.

And for dessert we had an incredible selection of artisanal cheeses, fruit preserves and slices of apple, melon, and champagne grapes to finish the perfect introduction to the best Vermont has to offer.   The wine list had wines we had not heard of and the local bread was so delicious I wanted to take some home.  Chef Michael Kloeti, Swiss-born and trained, and his wife Laura knock it out of the park with this superb Wine Spectator award-winning restaurant!

 

“Mud”– Channeling “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

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With its meandering pace, Mud embodies a Southern culture known for doing things slowly, drifting along the bayou languorously like “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” John Nichols, the director and an Arkansas native, grounds his film in authenticity through superb casting (including local teenagers), location, and a script centered on a believable coming-of-age story.

From gravel to mud to the swampy river, this feature film reminded me not only of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” but also of the Mark Twain novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  And that is probably why I couldn’t really give it an unqualified rave review.  Despite Matthew McConaughey’s endearing performance as Mud, a rogue of undeniable charisma and talent, along with superb performances by all the other actors, the story devolved from a neatly meshed puzzle to a predictable, almost laughable ending even with the excellent acting talent of Sam Shepard as a key figure at the end of “Mud”.

McConaughey’s magnetic, enigmatic star turn  as a drifter who knows how to charm his way through almost any disaster, drives the film but is not enough to make it a winner in the current Southern and Ozark genre trending in indie films today.  Only “Winter’s Bone”, for me, has that kind of storytelling virtuosity to become a classic.  Nonetheless, “Mud” is worth seeing for the actors’ performances, particularly that of McConaughey, who owns any role involving an effortlessly charming  rogue with a hint of danger underneath.

 

“In the Moment”–Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection

 

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The current exhibit (June 28-September 22) at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco  introduces sixty-four exceptional art treasures, mostly screens and paintings by acclaimed artists from the Momoyama through the Taisho periods (roughly sixteenth through early twentieth centuries).  All of the artwork is from Ellison’s Japanese architecturally designed estate in Woodside.

With a retired museum curator as his advisor,  Ellison’s collection is extraordinary in vision.  The artwork includes Buddhist religious art, humorous illustrations of folk tales, and floral  and animal images on screens and in sculpture.  Some of the art is being exhibited outside of temples for the first time.

Shotoku
Shotoku

The collection is a rare opportunity to gaze at symbols for immortality (the crane), powerful energy (dragon),   enlightenment (elephant), and the ephemeral world (almost any floral image).  Some of the paintings and hanging scrolls depict endearing images of animals and insects, representing the belief that rebirth takes many forms: a parade of crickets, ravens who symbolize death, cats and dogs as protective spirits.Kuan yin2

I was enchanted by the collection’s freshness and originality. One of my favorites is a six-panel silver screen by Usumi Kiho depicting a single peacock feather and one blue-black raven, simply entitled “Peacock and Raven”.  Another painting, by Maruyama Okyo,  of a young cat has white and grey fur that almost looks soft enough to touch.cat2

 

For those interested in early Japanese Buddhism, the ethereal wooden statue of a two-year old Prince Shotoku, is a rare find.  Shotoku Taishi is well-known as the first to introduce the religion to a woman–his aunt Empress Suiko–and therefore, considered a supporter of women’s Buddhist practice. This is an extremely unusual and stunning portrait–a young toddler who is not yet a Buddhist leader and almost certainly a sculpture originally belonging to a temple.

This is an exhibit not to be missed.  Go see it before it closes on Sunday, September 22.