September 28, 2013

Esther Williams in "Million Dollar Mermaid", Part Two: The Swimming Numbers

As I mentioned, Million Dollar Mermaid, which was one of champion swimmer/diver/star Esther William's MGM vehicles, is a real clunker. But the swimming numbers, which were directed by famed choreographer Busby Berkeley, are in a league of their own. It's almost astonishing how much the film suffers in quality without his touch.

All of the swimming sequences are set at the New York Hippodrome, a large scale theater that existed from 1905 to 1939 in the Midtown area. One of the first chuckles of the 1952 film comes from its treatment of the early 1900s as an almost nostalgic era -- rightfully so, but in a few decades the 1950s would also be depicted as a bygone era.

The first number, where she wore an almost painfully skintight suit that had 50,000 gold sequins. The golden crown was made of actual metal, and when she wore it to make her 50-foot dive, she broke her back. Stories like that make you see how much Hollywood regulations have improved, but they also make it clear why a movie such as this could never be made today.

Williams dives off a huge fountain.

In the second, she does an underwater ballet routine to The Nutcracker. Perhaps I am uncultured, but this reminded me more of a stripper move than anything else.

The third swimming sequence is the extravaganza we have been waiting for. All the hallmarks of a Busby Berkeley-directed number are there: dizzying formations, eye-popping athleticism, high camp, and surrealism.

I like the slight whiff of indecency in his work.

The video quality was so low, the images practically looked like paintings.

With Busby Berkeley, more is more, and the highs keep building to the point where you're practically delirious. Imagine seeing this on the big screen!

Berkeley served in the army during World War I, and he conducted parade drills with over 1,000 men and also trained as an aerial observer. The influence on his work is more than obvious, and perhaps even explains the relentless cheer and workmanlike movements of the swimmers. (Williams smile is plastered on in these scenes, but her eyes look frightened.)

It ends with sparklers that light up as they come up out of the water. 

The number can be seen here:

Esther Williams in "Million Dollar Mermaid" (1952), Part One

Esther Williams, who passed away this past June at the age of 91, was a dancing, diving, choreographed-swimming star in Hollywood's Golden Age. You'd think she would be a once-in-a-lifetime figure, but she wasn't. Esther Williams may have called herself the Million Dollar Mermaid in her autobiography, but the film Million Dollar Mermaid, which she starred in, was actually a biopic based on another dancing, diving, champion-swimming star -- the Australian Annette Kellerman, who was a generation older than her.

As biopics go, Million Dollar Mermaid is incredibly clunky, often to unintentionally hilarious effect.

The film starts near Sydney, Australia in 1900, "the home of the bush and the boomerang." You'd never be able to tell Annette was Australian, based on the resolute American accents of the actors.

Some signs of the times: a boxing kangaroo is part of a running gag...

 ...and a Caucasian actor paints his face dark for some Native American-face. (Though to be fair, was that not this summer's The Lone Ranger?)

Similar to her earlier On an Island with You, Williams' love interest is played by an actor (Victor Mature this time) who is more creepy than attractive.

Annette swims down the Thames as part of a stunt promotion, which is occasion not only for some piss-poor backdrops of the Palace of Westminster, but also what looks like fake-swimming by Williams.

As Annette grows fatigued, obvious gray makeup is slapped onto Williams' cheeks. She does quite a terrible job spouting out lines while swimming, but then who else could have pulled it off?

Appropriate swimwear for ladies in 1900s New York.

Annette is put on trial for public indecency.

And yet, this is also the film that brought us some glorious swimming numbers such as this...

 ...and this, which was choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

More images of the swimming numbers will be featured in the following post.

Miyazaki Hayao's 「風立ちぬ」 (The Wind Rises)

I was a child in the early 90s, and as far as Japan was concerned, animator Miyazaki Hayao was already an institution unto himself. When his films began to receive international acclaim starting 2001's Spirited Away, we proudly anointed him a national treasure. Therefore, when news of his retirement broke in early September, it seemed practically a patriotic duty to go see his latest (and last) film, Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises).
The film is set against the backdrop of WWII, and our protagonist is Jiro, a university student who aspires to be an aeroplane engineer -- something the impending war will only need too much of. I fear a too-simple summary of the film will only serve to put international audiences off the film. Yet war is not depicted in the way they may expect; we see how it was an unavoidable part of their life that they had no way of influencing. That, combined with the love story that anchors the film, may unfortunately lead some to see it as a cop out. Yet, it is a remarkably honest view of a situation that was not blessed with hindsight. Although we do not know whether any of the major characters were for or against the war, in the end, Miyazaki subtly indicates his stance through -- what else? -- the animation. One shot in particular struck me: a sky full of war planes viewed from far away, white and bird-like and calling to mind a thousand paper cranes.

Considering that this may be his last film, it makes me think of what I appreciate most about Miyazaki's works. I like that in Japan, kids can go see the latest Miyazaki film and encounter a world where good and evil are often ambiguous, the images can be surreal, and the endings are not always happy. They may not like it; it may go over their heads, it may frighten them (this was my experience) but that they are exposed to those worlds and left to make up their own minds is essential. I grew up just when Miyazaki was hitting his stride, and his films exist parallel to Disney animation, which are hopelessly conformist in comparison. Miyazaki’s films are so free of what “should” be depicted, particularly in the world of children’s animation, and we’re all the better for it.

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 「そして父になる」(Like Father, Like Son)

I generally only watch 2-3 Japanese films per year (something I’m not particularly proud of), but Kore-eda is one of the handful of Japanese directors whose works are so consistently acclaimed overseas, I wanted to see how someone who is part of the culture would respond to it. 

The story, where a family learns that their 6-year-old son was switched with another family’s son at birth, sounds like it could be a schmaltzy, made-for-TV mess, but director/writer/editor Kore-eda uses it as a backdrop to explore notions of family, fatherhood vs motherhood, social class, and city life vs suburban life in Japan. It is an astoundingly rich portrait thanks to the incredibly naturalistic filmmaking. Every detail and piece of dialogue has been carefully considered, yet the result seems unforced and natural. The performances, led by singer/actor Fukuyama Masaharu, are also impeccable – each character is perfectly realized, down to their speech, comportment, and clothing. (Also, I see now why Kore-eda is so lauded for getting great performances out of children.) I recognized 100% the Japan depicted in the movie; it is an extremely precise encapsulation of the way we live now.

The relatively linear flow of the first half gives way to more fragmented scenes in the second half as the story takes a devastating turn. This film will make you cry, so my advice is to pace yourself. I couldn’t tell where the story was heading so I ended up absolutely bawling from the first third onwards. 

The film opens throughout Japan today, after three days of advance screenings to build word of mouth. It opens with a newsreel of the film's success at this year's Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize.

P.S. To all of the non Japanese-speaking critics who will describe Ono Machiko's character (wife to the protagonist) as "passive": I wish there was a way to translate the amazing work that Ono is doing with her voice. When she speaks to her husband, there is a slightly mocking, performative element to her tone that suggests that she is speaking in a way that a loving wife should. But beneath the pretty petulance, there is a hint of snideness. She may be restricting herself when it comes to her actions, but she is not entirely the gently suffering wife either.

September 24, 2013

Doctoring My Marimo, Part 3

My marimo had recovered quite well after I stopped placing it in direct sunlight, but it was split in two and looked quite unattractive.

Therefore, I took some thread and am trying to shape it back together into a ball. 

It looks a bit ragged, and I would like to clean out the stray bits of algae at the bottom of the bottle but it seems a shame to throw them away, considering how long it takes for marimo to grow.

 I plan to leave it like this for a year or so and see where it ends up.

Kichijoji Walk

 One backyard, a trio of pretty flowers.

 Woven waiting seat in front of a beauty salon.

 Rings and stopped animals.

A branch extending across the window, but from inside the atelier. 

 Anime-inspired art gallery exhibition.

A pretty tree in someone's yard.

Kids in Inokashira Park.

 They were watching this guy.

 Inokashira Park was so filled with people, it took away from the level of comfort.

 Huge collection of booze bottles and plants inside.

 Poor tree growing despite the house.

 Cute owl.