There are several interesting elements tucked away inside "Emperor." Most prominently, there is America’s post-WWII occupation of Japan, which involved investigating the role of the country’s emperor in Pearl Harbor and determining his future. There is also the presence of General Douglas MacArthur, played with showy bravado by recent Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones. These are potent, dynamic stories and characters that could make for a fascinating film.
Unfortunately, director Peter Webber’s war drama doesn't have much interest in these elements. Instead, "Emperor" hitches its wagon to Matthew Fox from "Lost" and his bland historical romance. Sure, the drama of holding the fate of a country’s leader (and an entire country for that matter) plays a role in "Emperor," but it feels shockingly slight considering how much time we spend with Fox’s droopy love story.
Fox plays Bonner Fellers, a U.S. General heading off to post-WWII Japan. The country is reeling from the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now America – led by General MacArthur – is coming in to rebuild, as well as to investigate whether Emperor Hirohito deserves blame and punishment for his role in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the fighting in the Pacific.
MacArthur selects Fellers to lead the investigation, mainly because of his knowledge and understanding of Japan, its people and its culture. The young military man has his hands full, however, with another, more personal goal: finding an old flame (Eriko Hatsune) from his college days who may have perished in the numerous bombing raids on the country.
You’d think the moral dilemma of determining whether or not a ruler deserves to hang would merit the most screen time, but apparently writers Vera Blasi and David Klass disagree. Audiences are instead treated to an extended look at Fellers’s relationship, ranging from their time at school to their courting in Japan to his desperate search for her current whereabouts.
True, the subplot does add to Fellers as a character, but it draws more of the film’s attention than the complex real-life wartime drama, and worst of all, it’s just not all that interesting. Their love story is a standard-issue romance – cue the happy couple running through a field, or bamboo forest in this case – with an equally dull actor in the lead. Fox may look the part of a square-jawed all-American soldier, but it’s not a particularly captivating performance.
It looks even more tepid next to Tommy Lee Jones’s lively portrayal of General MacArthur. When we first meet the legendary general, he’s landing in Japan, putting on a show of American swagger with his corncob pipe and boisterous demeanor. As "Emperor" goes on, we’re not even sure how much we can trust him, as his decision about the emperor may be just as motivated by his lofty political aspirations as Fellers’s final report.
It’s a complicated character (made even more entertaining by Jones’s typically grumpy snap) that makes you wonder why we couldn’t be following him instead of our milquetoast hero and his mopey romantic dramas, both past and present.
When "Emperor" decides to put the focus on the history rather than Fox’s love story, it struggles to bring it to life. Webber has a gorgeous eye – one shot of a house’s yellow windows against the purple sky at dusk is breathtaking – but when it comes to creating something equally compelling for the brain or heart, he has little inspiration.
The investigation is fairly dreary, moving with very little momentum or excitement. The long breaks for the romance don’t help, and neither do Fellers’s multiple voiceover monologues that excessively holds the audience's hand through the story without actually involving anyone in the process. An additional hint of drama comes in the form of a rival officer, but the subplot comes out of nowhere and goes just as far.
During one early meeting with a Japanese government official, Fox declares, "I don't need a history lesson." Thanks to its lifeless and distracted storytelling, that’s unfortunately all "Emperor" can really provide.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Sept. 1, 2014
Butch Vig has a lot on his plate. He just finished wrapping up a new nation-spanning Foo Fighters album, and he's heading back into the studio to start recording a new Garbage album. However, tucked away in that packed schedule is just enough time to head back to Milwaukee for the upcoming Yellow Phone Music Conference.
Published Aug. 31, 2014
That's it. I've had it. I've had enough. Game over, man, game over. Sure, there was a time when found footage was a fun novelty, back in the original days of "Cloverfield" and the first couple of "Paranormal Activity" films. But now, movies like "As Above, So Below" just show what a waste the gimmick truly is.
Published Aug. 29, 2014
The dynamic duo is returning to its home away from home next weekend, with a show on Friday, Sept. 5 at The Pabst Theater (moved from its original location at the Cactus Club after it sold out). And they're coming back with gallons of deservedly good press, an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" and the deafening buzz of a band obviously on the rise.
Published Aug. 29, 2014
"The Doyle & Debbie Show," the season opener for the Milwaukee Rep, is making history. "Is this the first time a toilet's been on the Stackner stage? Probably," said JC Clementz, the show's director. The prop potty, however, nicely sets the tone for "The Doyle & Debbie Show," a goofy Christopher Guest-esque parody about a washed-up country duo.
Published Aug. 27, 2014
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" - Robert Rodriguez's hyper-stylized and hyper-violent hyper-noir - has many, many sins of its own to contemplate and consider, the most glaring of which perhaps being a severe case of tardiness. Then again, even if it was perfectly on time, "A Dame to Kill For" would still feel just as relentlessly grim, one-note and pointless.
Published Aug. 26, 2014
For about half of the year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band calls its New Orleans namesake home, playing bright brassy jazz to the residents of the Big Easy. For the other half of the year, however, the legendary jazz band brings that cajun flavor and music across the country to cities needing a little extra kick.
Published Aug. 25, 2014
Yes, the expected dopey melodrama finds its way into "If I Stay," but it mostly plays second fiddle to an above average relationship drama, one with seemingly real characters (well, real for a teen romance) coping with seemingly real issues and problems. I didn't mind having to spend time with these dreamy young people, which is a lot more than I can say about anything Nicholas Sparks has done lately.
Published Aug. 23, 2014
There is good news for guitarist/vocalist Andrew Foys and Milwaukee music fans who landed squarely on "hated it" when it came to his band's previous name, Elusive Parallelograms: the name has run its course. The multi-genre spanning psychedelic rock band recently underwent a "reboot," kicking the old moniker to the curb and reintroducing themselves as Tapebenders - complete with an upcoming new album.
Published Aug. 21, 2014
Late night is looking bright, as the Milwaukee Film Festival announced its 2014 selections for its Cinema Hooligante program, a midnight mix for fans of all things cult, crazed and - considering the after bedtime showings - caffeinated.
Published Aug. 21, 2014
About 20 years later, Jeff Bridges has finally gotten "The Giver" to the big screen, and for a project with clearly some passion behind it, the final result is bafflingly inert, as though the film itself has been sampling the characters' daily emotional sedation.