Review of Emperor (2012) – If only Aaron Sorkin had written it

Plot Synopsis (from IMBD)

As the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Gen. Fellers is tasked with deciding if Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Influencing his ruling is his quest to find Aya, an exchange student he met years earlier in the U.S.

Review

Emperor falls into an odd category for a film that is ostensibly based on true events. The more you think about it the less the narrative fits together.

Emperor starts off very strongly before the script loses its way. The premise of Emperor is so fecund with socio-political and historical nuance that setting the scene could be near impossible.

Emperor however, succeeds in doing the near impossible by setting the scene very quickly using historical footage of the dropping of the atomic bombs and maybe a two paragraphs of narration from Matthew Fox.

It then brings in some tension into events with a strong opening scene. Supreme Commander Douglas McArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and a small group of soldiers are flying into Japan to begin the US led occupation. Are they flying into a trap though?

McArthur summons his advisors around him including General Fellers (Matthew Fox’s character) and on Fellers advice decides that they are going to land despite the risk. The scene is dramatic and tense.

It is at this point also that the writers made their last good decision by placing a clock of 10 days on the film. This ticking clock then provides all the impetus to the narrative as the writers abandon the premise of the story for Hollywood cliche.

Trust the audience

Where does Emperor go wrong then? Take your choice it is either that they  didn’t trust the audience and/or understand the material themselves.

You see the premise of the film is both fascinating and complex.  How much was the Emperor responsible for execution of WW2. Theoretically, he was a living God. In practice his advisers ran the show as the Emperor was lived a cloistered existence. But were they still following his orders?

The political machinations that brought such a system about and how it played into the events of Pearl Harbour, the invasion of Manchuria, the rape of Nanking, the treatment of POWs. All this could be fascinating but the film never goes into these details in anything approaching the detail it deserves.

Instead of setting up and examining the key players of pre-war and war Japan the film creates a dull love story and makes General Fellers a traitor in a way that insults the memory of the man.

The love story

In Hollywood nobody could be interested in something because, they find it interesting. No General Fellers (who in real life was about twenty years older and twenty years happily married) only finds himself interested in Japan because, he wants to get into the pants of a hot Japanese woman. Then when she leaves American to return home Fellers chases after her because, love.

This plot line might be forgiven however did the film not decide that the love was so deep as to make General Fellers commit treason. You see it is casually mentioned that in an attempt to protect his love Matthew Fox’s character directed bombing raids away from the area of Japan he believed she was in.

That folks is treason. If that had actually happened (an internet search of the real Fellers finds no evidence that it did) then Fellers would have been responsible for the deaths Allied soldiers.

This a big deal. It’s court-martial and execution stuff. When McArthur finds out about this though he decides to simply ignore it. Why? I can only presume that the tragedy of their unfulfilled love was just too beautiful to him.

Conclusion

I don’t expect historical accuracy from Hollywood. These are the people after all that made the rescue of the enigma codebooks a US operation rather than the British operation it actually was.

However, the problem with Emperor is that they make so many changes that I have no idea if anything they actually depict is true. At least when someone watches U571 you get the basics of the narrative i.e. sinking submarine, codebooks, mission to get codebooks.

In the brief bit about the actual Emperor that is covered the story gives some fascinating details such as an attempted army coup on the throne just before the Japanese surrender is announced. Is it true though? Who knows?

Emporer  is a case of great premise, strong initial setup, weak execution. If only Aaron Sorkin had written it then we could have had a classic because, this story deserves to be told and Sorkin is probably the only writer who could have come to grips with such a huge topic.

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Review of Captain America : The Winter Soldier (Obligatory spoiler klaxon)

Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier_Teaser_poster_2If somebody asked me how to describe and review Captain America : The Winter Soldier probably the first thing I’d do is pause. The second thing I’d probably do would be to go “um”. In many ways I feel this response says everything you need to know about Captain America : The Winter Soldier.

Since I’m bothering to write up a review though I’ll try (and likely fail) to put things more eloquently. So here we go. Watching Captain America I never felt bored but then I never really felt entertained either.

With blockbusters or franchise films the temptation is to describe them as being like empty calories or fast food. You enjoy it at the time but they aren’t really filling. This isn’t the case with Captain America though.

The film didn’t feel like insubstantial fluff but neither did it seem like a proper meal. It was like a heavy pie or cake that hasn’t risen fully in the oven. It was stodgy.

The problem is that there is little in the film to truly anchor you to the action. Captain America isn’t an especially interesting or cool superhero. He is vanilla. This is fine if either you have a great plot or great villain, ideally both, but Captain America doesn’t really have either.

The plot has events but it never really shocks you. Characters drop in and out. They disappear for a time and then reappear. If you have seen actions films previously or really any films these entrances and exits are not in the least bit surprising.

So if the plot isn’t delivering then you look to the bad guys to hold your attention. To bring a sense of threat and charisma to proceedings. To introduce a little anarchy into the system. The villains completely fail to do this.

Robert Redford is doing a great impression of a man scooping up a really big paycheck. Even when he shoots a poor maid who forgot her phone his heart doesn’t seem to really be in it. Or maybe I just can’t find Redford menacing.

The semi-titular “Winter Soldier” is incipiently threatening with his cool robotic arm but then is neutered by the reveal that he is the long lost (brainwashed) best bud of Steve Rodgers. Whilst the traitorous mercenary is so forgettable that I can’t remember his name.

The most interesting villain is the Nazi scientist AI who not only feels genuinely evil but also has a retro “Wargames” style aesthetic which I enjoyed and the film (credit to it) actually calls out. Sadly though he is only there briefly and basically functions as Basil Exposition.

falcon

I’m guessing this was from the comic

As I said though I wasn’t bored. The actions trucks along at a fast enough click to keep you paying attention. Captain America shield smashes and pancakes more disposable bad guys then you can easily count. Plus there is a cool new sidekick with metal wings and a jetpack.

Added to this are Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff. Two genuinely interesting characters who just steal every scene they are in. Not only are Jackson and Johansson great actors but their characters hint at the more nuanced and darker film that I wished this film was. Johansson in particular was mesmeric (and no I’m not being pervy although she is gorgeous). She acts circles around Chris Evans. I haven’t seen such a mismatch of acting talent since I caught an old episode of King of Queens which had Byran Cranston and Kevin James in the same scene.

This of course is part of the problem though. I was more interested in a side character and a supporting character than I was in the main protagonist or antagonist. This then brings me to the end of the film which is of course a huge battle scene.

Like the film it is by the numbers. I only mention it because, something puzzled me. The Winter Soldier is shooting Captain America who looks to be unable to switch out the targeting microchips. It is check and mate.

Except. Wait a minute. One moment the Winter Soldier is slaying a helpless Captain America. The next Captain America is rallying to switch out the microchips and save the day. We cut back and now the Winter Soldier is prostrate under falling debris. WTF?

It’s possible I missed something but if I did so did the person I went with. At worse (and its unlikely) something was missed. At best the editing was shoddy and writing poor. I mean it is never good if your hero is saved by falling rubble. And it is even worse if said lame ending isn’t shown on screen.

So overall it is fair to say I wasn’t wowed. As a Marvel film it was better than Iron Man 2, 3 and Captain America 1 but worse than Thor and Thor 2. It was very average. I should say though that when Nick Fury is dead but (spoiler) not really dead a young eight year old child was sobbing very audibly in my packed screening.

I mention this because, that audience member was obviously really taken with the film. I reckon 7-12 boys would love this film. I know I would have. As a bonus I think that it is pitched at and suitable for that age group as well. The violence is mild, bloodless and (crucially for 7-12 year old boys) frequent.  For parents there is no swearing and I don’t remember there being any porny Michael Bayesque shots of female cast members.

So there you have it average. It does nothing really well and nothing really badly but, for the most part it holds your attention.

Review of Robocop (2014)

robocopRight off the bat I feel I should warn you that there will be spoilers in this review. I’m not going to go out of my way to provide spoilers and I don’t think the plot is one which is going to be ruined by discussion of the plot but if you want to see the film completely fresh don’t read this.

Also I have never seen the original Paul Verhoven Robocop so I am going into this blind without any nostalgia for the franchise. Although I suspect this might work to the film’s advantage.

The start of this film is gripping. The MGM lion appears and instead of the usual thunderous roar you get this weak growl. This certainly got my attention. What was happening? The ‘roar’ becomes vocal exercises and we fade in on Samuel Jackson.

So right off the bat the film has got my attention. I’m watching it in Imax. Middle of the row Friday midday and Samuel Jackson appears on the screen. Things are going great.

Jackson begins doing his Fox News slight parody. I say slight as it is not far out enough to make you laugh but is instead close enough to the truth to make you ever so slightly uncomfortable. Again well done film.

The Novak factor (Sam Jackson’s show) has an exclusive report inside the US Military’s Combat Machine program. Novak gets passionate but not quite ranty (yet) about how great the machines have been in bringing ‘freedom’ to the world and what a shame it is they cannot be used in the USA to increase freedom at home.

Again this is great. It is the kind of provocative stuff you wouldn’t see from a typical Blockbuster. It is at this point you realise that this film is set maybe at most a decade into the future if that. The exact date is never revealed but what you get is our world today but with electronics more interlinked into the home and holograms on TV. This is a smart choice from the film-makers. Given the increasing use of drones and technological surveillance in the world today. Setting the film a few years into the future is a great way to make it seem more believable and relevant.

A special report from downtown Tehran begins where the US military is “bringing unprecedented levels of freedom” to the area. The citizens of Tehran come out onto the street to be scanned by these machines.

Now this is the best scene of the film. Stealth drones rush over head and US military machines pour down the street. It is a scary display of force. Meanwhile the news-reporter talks about how happy the Tehranians are to have this force in their city. How it has increased their freedom. It is obvious 1984 ‘doublespeak’ and you see an attack begin to develop as the terrorists sneak along the roofs.

Their goal is to not kill the reporters but to “die on film”. They attack the machines and are just wiped out. The son of one of the attackers runs out brandishing a knife at the drone. He is just annihilated. It is shocking. It is great film-making. Like Hitchcock in Physco they have got you rooting for the ‘bad’ guy. You don’t typically want terrorists to win but I would have been quite happy to see the machines get blown back to circuit breakers.

This is the high point of the movie. The rest of the film never quite demonstrates just how powerful these machines are. As such it is never that great an action film or that great a film that is trying to make you think about the use of machines.

In large part this is because, the film draws back from the international side and world building to focus on the use of machines for domestic law enforcement. As it does this there is no focus on whether civil liberties and freedom are being crushed and the consequences. The politics is stripped out and we are left with a by the numbers action film.

So just a few thoughts about this. Firstly, Michael K Williams aka Omar from the Wire omarappears in this film as Robocop’s partner. I struggled to believe that Omar would get put in hospital whereas the guy from the Killing, who becomes Robocop, would survive long enough to be blown up. Omar would have been a much more better Robocop.

Secondly, Gary Oldman really does carry the film along and give you a reason to keep interested. His acting is fantastic. His acting is also necessary because after one Robocop action scene its all a case of been there done that.

Robocop fight scenes are essentially just massive amounts of force bullets flying everywhere as Robocop walks through the raining ammo to slay with brutal efficiency. This is all a bit dull after the first time. Plus this film is a bloodless so you don’t even get the pleasure of seeing bit of brain splattered everywhere or ridiculous over the top deaths. One scene in particular is just darkness lit by muzzle flashes. It wasn’t the most exciting.

Lastly, although the film does stray into the cliched man’s wishes versus the programming of the machine it did this better than most other films. Why it happened was explained instead of it just being a triumph of the human spirit; humanus ex machina.

I would give this film three out of five. It is decent but not good.

I wasn’t bored watching it but I was only gripped in the fantastic first scene. That first scene showed me why Robocop was worth remaking. If they have continued to push the boundaries of comfort by making the film explicitly political it could have been a great film. The action would have mattered more as there would have been stakes behind it. It’s hard to care too much about robots or faceless criminals.

It’s worth seeing for that first scene and Samuel Jackson though.

So overall, a missed opportunity. Oh and the Imax gave me a headache.