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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Emperor

 

 

EMPEROR (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Peter Webber, 2013

The filn Emperor is — well, let’s be honest and say Emperor  could have been — the blistering behind-the-scenes tale of General Douglas MacArthur (played 0n all cylinders by Tommy Lee Jones) , the brilliant, charismatic and corncob-pipe-smoking World War 2 American General — the man who said “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away…” It’s about how he was saddled with the responsibility of governing Japan after the war, and what he did with it.  With Jones‘ incredible performance at the center, it’s a movie that tries to make history come alive, and maybe could have, but unfortunately doesn’t quite.

Let’s be honest: This movie is largely a crock. Here’s what really happened, according to at least some of the eye-witnesses and historians. (It’s not necessarily what happens in the movie.) MacArthur decided to keep  Japan, which was a country still worshipful of their shy emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka),  from boiling over during the American occupation by engineering the exoneration of  the emperor. Hirohito indeed, might well have been executed as a war criminal, like Tojo and the rest, but for MacArthur’s “Operation Blacklist.”

Operation Blacklist had nothing to so with Dalton Trumbo and company, but was a clandestine  scheme in which MacArthur’s war attaché General Bonner Fellers  (Matthew Fox), a man sympathetic to the Japanese, interviewed Hirohito’s statesmen and palace people, and got them to co-ordinate their stories, so Hirohito could be saved.  That’s a fascinating yarn. It might have made made a great movie. But it’s not the story that writers David Klass (Kiss the Girls) and Vera Blasi (Woman on Top) and  director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) tell us here.  What we get in this movie, at least according to some histories,  is the cover story, invented to disguise what was really happening.

Jones does dominate the movie, but his role is  a supporting one, and Operation Blacklist is never mentioned, never even hinted at. General Fellers, instead, takes center stage — even though we really don’t want him to, because he’s kind of a bore  —  and he conducts what we’re told is a legitimate investigation. Meanwhile, in a storybook knockoff of James Michener’s Sayonara (or Josh Logan’s), we see a flashback, apparently almost wholly concocted, in which Fellers falls in love with lovely  and oh-so-civilized Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a beautiful Japanese student in American college, and then pursues her to Japan, withstands the rising tide of Japanese anti-Americanism that makes Aya now flee from him, and winds up diverting bombers from her neighborhood  during the war to save her (fiction) and serving as MacArthur‘s clean-up guy for Hirohito (fictionalized fact).

The movie is a deadly bore, even though the filmmakers have decided to design and film it in a languorous, visually stunning manner that sometimes recalls actual postwar Japanese films, especially of the ’50s and ’60s. It didn’t work, I kept wanting to go home and watch an actual film by Kurosawa or Ozu or Mizoguchi on the DVD player. I wish I had.

I liked Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I didn’t have the feeling that its subject, painter Johannes Vermeer, was being travestied — even though that story played the romance card too. But why have Webber and the other moviemakers concocted a historical film that is so stupefying dull — and then tease us every once in a while, with some more of Jones’ MacArthur, and the shot of adrenaline he brings. Do they think that this absurd cross-cultural romance, which makes Sayonara look like Romeo and Juliet, is a reasonable substitute for what many believe actually happened? As Bonner keeps mooning after Aya, who keeps wandering off through picturesque trees, looking grief-stricken, and as we all sadly contemplate the ruins of a love that dare not be (and never was, in the first place), the movie gets duller and duller and duller. For God’s sake, you think, and even Hirohito’s and Gen. Fellers, bring on Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. Bring on Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff. Bring on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Or Bring on Mr. Jones, to goose things up again.

I’m in favor of making films like this one, but I’m not in favor of making them like this —  floating along in a sea of romantic clichés, interrupted by pastiches of history. In real life, or so I read on The Internet, Gen. Fellers was briefly demoted to Colonel, made a serious enemy of General Dwight Eisenhower, and wound up a stalwart member of the ultra-right John Birch Society, whose founder-leader, Robert Welch, once accused Eisenhower of being  a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. Frankly, at the end, General Fellers sounds like a dedicated conscious agent of a conspiracy of idiots. If Aya had been running away from that guy, she probably would have been smart.

The Chicago Tribune’s Mike Phillips suggests that instead of Emperor, you try to watch Russian art film master Akeksandr Sokurov’s 2005 post-war-set Hirohito-meets-MacArthur  drama, The Sun. I admire that film too, though most audiences bred on Hollywood history may find it a little pokey. (The Sun is slow, but it has substance and artistry as compensations.) Meanwhile, thank God for Tommy Lee Jones, an old actor who never dies, and never fades away either. Playing MacArthur, he wins the war that the others lose. And, as Godzilla might have said to the Emperor and his court, before a little green tea over rice: Sayonara, suckers.

 

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“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook