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 Dec. 6, 2013
For about its first hour, I was fairly on board the new Rust Belt drama "Out of the Furnace." But then I realized where the movie was going. The path - one of cliché and mildly ridiculous revenge thriller pulp - became clear and obvious, and I couldn't have wanted it to stop more. But it didn't. Now, I'm left with a movie that's by no means bad but disappointing, a passable waste of exceptional potential.
Published Dec. 4, 2013
For the second year in a row, the crew down at The Second City in Chicago is coming up to Milwaukee for the holidays to present a holiday comedy special, this time called "The Second City's Nut-Cracking Holiday Revue." OnMilwaukee caught up with one of the stars, Megan Hovde, to ask about the holiday revue, being a part of The Second City and why "The Golden Girls" is one of her comedy icons.
Published Dec. 3, 2013
Stars Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are taking their hit show, "Mythbusters," on the road, and tomorrow night, their "Behind the Myths" tour arrives at the Milwaukee Theater. OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk to Hyneman and ask him about the show's most memorable myths.
Published Dec. 2, 2013
The sun carries almost no heat or warmth. A sharp face-tingling chill greets you as turn every corner on the street. There's not even any wonderful white snow on the ground to make the weather seem any more pleasant. Nope, it's just cold. It's hard to think of a better, more fitting time for Sheryl Crow, the singer-songwriter behind warm, summery hits like "Soak Up the Sun" and "All I Wanna Do," to come to town.
Published Nov. 29, 2013
For those with that built-in affection for the film and the sweet, innocent days of times long gone past, "White Christmas" might be perfect. For me, though, the show - which opened Tuesday night at the Marcus Center - was a whole lot of holly-drenched hokum, as fresh as a Christmas Day snow in the dregs of March.
Published Nov. 28, 2013
"Philomena" may be modest, but that modesty is surprisingly striking and rewarding. After my original screening, I found myself having a hard time putting the movie down in my head. I had to see it a second time, and that second look confirmed my lingering suspicions: It's a damn fine movie.
Published Nov. 27, 2013
Most of the pre-movie Disney or Pixar shorts serve as a nice, tasty appetizer before the main course, but "Get a Horse!" - Mickey Mouse's first theatrical animated short since 1995's nightmare-inducing, childhood-ruining "Runaway Brain" - seems perfect and almost integral for "Frozen." It delightfully sets the stage for what the feature presentation is about to do: take Disney's old traditions and bring them to fresh, blissful new life.
Published Nov. 27, 2013
Christopher Donahue isn't what you'd expect from an actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the famous grumps of stage, screen and literature. He's gracious, soft-spoken and a bit self-depreciating. The only Scroogish thing about him is his fully-grown beard, a mutton chops/mustache combination technically called "a hulihee" (he looked it up).
Published Nov. 25, 2013
When most movie fans hear the phrase "found footage," they normally cringe in fear. It's a gimmick now down to death in Hollywood. The good ones are hard to find; the bad ones are far too easy to find. That's not what the Found Footage Festival, returning to Milwaukee Friday night at the Turner Hall Ballroom, is about at all. Their collection of actual found VHS tapes is bad alright, but the best, most hilarious kind of bad.
Published Nov. 22, 2013
"Delivery Man," the new comedy starring Vince Vaughn, better at being sweet than being funny. Then again, it's hard for a movie to effectively tug at the heartstrings when its own heart clearly isn't in it.