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Originally published Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 3:01 PM

Movie review

'Eames: The Architect and the Painter' dazzles

A movie review of "Eames: The Architect and the Painter," an exciting, pleasing documentary that traces the far-reaching influence of designers Charles and Ray Eames on 20th-century life and beyond.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

'Eames: The Architect and the Painter,' a documentary narrated by James Franco. Directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, from a screenplay by Cohn. 84 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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While you're waiting for "Mad Men" to return from its painfully long hiatus, the superb documentary "Eames: The Architect and the Painter" can help fill that hunger for tales of mid-20th century life, identity and design.

The film tells the story of Charles and Bernice Alexandra "Ray" Eames — spouses, complementary creative partners, seminal designers, architects, filmmakers and much more — and in many ways traces the rapid rise of post-World War II modernity up to and including the computer age.

Much like the creations of its subjects, "Eames" is itself a dazzling, sensory adventure. Drawing from an amazing array of source materials (including generous footage from the Eames' own wonderfully primitive short works), the film begins with Charles and Ray's reinvention of the everyday chair as an inexpensive, mass-produced yet chic item made of molded plywood (and later fiberglass, plastic resin and wire mesh).

Similar chairs are now common, but the result won a major prize in the 1940s and brought wealth to the Eames. From there, the story takes us inside their Venice, Calif., company and the memories of numerous designers who worked there from 1943-88 on furnishings, toys, graphics and multimedia exhibits.

With fame and success, the Eames moved into new territory, officially representing the U.S. with a 1959 exhibit in Moscow where then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev got into their famous "Kitchen Debate."

Charles' increasing interest in mathematics, history and computers led to more ambitious and even culturally pivotal exhibitions, including "A Computer Perspective" in 1971, which humanized the very concept of computer use several years before Apple was born.

"Eames" delves into the individual gifts Charles and Ray brought to their partnership. (Ray's work, overlooked by the press in her day and steeped in visual arts, is more easily appreciated seen up-close here.) It also gets into the nuances of a relationship between artists who inevitably focus on different things.

But above all, the film is an extraordinary and enjoyable history of how two people influenced so much of our thinking and surroundings today.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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