Tag Archives: C

EMPEROR

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C

An intriguing historical episode is treated tepidly in Peter Webber’s misshapen docu-drama about the American decision about how to deal with Emperor Hirohito in the aftermath of Japan’s surrender in 1945. The question was whether Hirohito, who in the minds of many Americans was seen as no better than Hitler, should be dealt with as a war criminal, stripped of his power and put on trial along with the members of his government. And the answer was to be determined—quickly—by General Douglas MacArthur, who had been appointed to oversee Japan’s postwar reconstruction armed with virtually dictatorial powers. He appointed Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, who had some acquaintance with the country, to investigate whether the Emperor had played an active role in the war effort or simply acquiesced in it more as a passive observer.

So long as “Emperor” sticks to the diplomacy at work in this business—made difficult because the Emperor was traditionally thought to possess divine status, and any effort to depose him could set off a popular uprising—it’s a solid if rather stolid piece of work, necessarily embellished for dramatic effect. It’s helped immeasurably by Tommy Lee Jones’s colorful turn as MacArthur. He brings the same tone of gruff cantankerousness to the General that he did to Thaddeus Stevens in “Lincoln,” as well as a similar measure of self-serving manipulation and charm, and he’s great fun to watch, particularly in the final sequence when the General meets Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) and blatantly violates all the expected diplomatic niceties, but to good effect.

But MacArthur is really a supporting character here. The bulk of screen time goes to Matthew Fox as Fellers, and to his backstory romance with Aya (Eriko Halsune), a Japanese girl he met in college and followed to Japan when she returned there. There are tons of flashbacks to their doomed relationship, and they’re played like mawkish melodrama. It’s doesn’t help that he’s compelled to play much younger than his real age in the college scenes—unconvincingly (this is an instance when another actor should have been substituted)—but throughout he’s little more than a bland lovesick swain, totally outclassed by Jones in their scenes together, and by the fine Japanese performers he appears with elsewhere. (like Masayoshi Haneda as his driver Takahashi, who creates a sympathetic figure even though the script employs him merely as someone who can teach Fellers a lesson about how much more the Japanese have lost than he has.

It’s too bad that “Emperor” devotes so much time to Fellers, because the episode it focuses on not only possess inherent interest, but can serve as a reminder of the benefit that can come from treating a defeated enemy with respect rather than contempt and taking risks for future gain. And though much of the picture is shot in relatively drab offices and only slightly more opulent living accommodations for the Army brass, it does boast some impressive visuals—the opening images of the country ravaged by Allied bombing and a few exteriors of the Imperial Palace stand out in Stuart Dryburgh’s excellent widescreen cinematography. The other technical aspects of the production are adequate but hardly sufficient to endow it with real epic sweep.

“Emperor” winds up as a decent history lesson—even if one told with a major dose of dramatic license—that’s dragged down by a sappy, clumsily played romantic subplot. Still, Jones is on hand often enough to make it palatable, though not much more than that.

PHANTOM

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Reports about a Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific during the Cold War and rumors that one of its ballistic missiles was later recovered on the ocean floor—matters that, we’re told, both Russian and American governments have kept classified—are worked up into a “Bedford Incident”-style would-be nail-biter by writer-director Todd Robinson. Despite the efforts of a game cast, who could easily have managed the Russian accents that for some reason Robinson didn’t ask them to attempt, “Phantom” comes across as somewhat less credible than “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”

Ed Harris stars as Demi, a gruff Soviet sub captain haunted by memories of a tragedy when many of the men under his command perished—something suggested in ham-fisted flashback montages. He’s assigned by old rival Markov (Lance Henrikson) to oversee the last mission of an aging ship about to be decommissioned and sold to China. What he doesn’t know is that one of his passengers, the mysterious Bruni (David Duchovny) is a fanatical KGB agent who intends using a new cloaking device—the eponymous Phantom—to launch a nuclear attack on the American Pacific fleet that will be blamed on the Chinese and initiate a war from which the Soviet Union will, as a neutral, remain relatively unscathed while seeing the US destroyed.

Frankly this scenario seems pretty farfetched, given that the Chinese nuclear arsenal was paltry, compared to that of the US, in the late sixties, when the tale is supposedly set. But for Robinson the doomsday plot, and the nonexistent Phantom device, are but pretexts for a test of wills between Demi, the old-style, by-the-book, ultra-competent though flawed patriot, and Bruni, the steely fanatic who, like General Jack D. Ripper, believes that war is now too important to be left to the politicians. (Surely his speech on this score is intended as a homage to Kubrick’s creation.) Demi and his loyal subordinates—led by his second-in-command Alex (William Fichtner) must resort to all sorts of feints and tricks, as well as direct action—dismantling missiles, sending out a message to other Russian ships, engaging in gun battles—to try to prevent Bruni and his band of henchmen from succeeding in their nefarious plot. In the middle is the irresolute ship’s poliical officer, Pavlov (Jhonathon Schaech, who’s compelled to wear one of the most unflattering moustaches in recent film but, to compensate, is given a self-sacrificing death scene).

The basic arc of the script is clear enough, but frankly some of the episodes seem rather ill-explained, and at one point Robinson has to drop in an absurd twist (a sub crew member is incapacitated by claustrophobia, of all things, forcing a less experienced hand to attempt the missile dismantling). He also tries to cover his tracks by having the characters toss around an incredible amount of technical gobbledegook designed, it appears, simply to drown us in a sea of non-meaning. No amount of verbiage, however, could justify a coda as goofy as the one in “Safe Haven.” Since when have ghosts become the go-to plot mechanism to add a schmaltzy finale to a dour story?

Despite all this, Harris and Fichtner remain fun to watch, even when they’re expending their intensity on such threadbare material. Duchovny is much less interesting, delivering what’s essentially a one-note turn. Nor is the movie helped by a physical production that’s very short in the effects department. The underwater sequences of the sub and the other ships it comes into contact with look exactly like the mediocre model work they are.

“Das Boot” set an extremely high standard for high-tension submarine pictures. By contrast “Phantom” comes across as dramatically waterlogged and, despite the efforts of a strong cast, more than a little silly.