Emperor in August / Emperor

These two movies, one from Japan, one from the US, tell overlapping stories about the end of WWII, so I thought I’d review them together.  Both are available on Netflix, and both are well worth your time if you’re interested in WWII.

Emperor in August

The story begins on August 9, 1945, after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.  The Japanese Cabinet meets to decide whether to surrender to the Americans.  Unbelievably, they deadlock, and Emperor Hirohito casts the deciding vote to end the war.  In order to make the decision more palatable to the public, he decides to record a message telling the Japanese to lay down their arms.

A group of military officers, unsatisfied with this turn of events, tries to engineer a coup.  Well aware of the propaganda effect of the Emperor’s speech, they try to find it before it can be broadcast. That effort, and the coup, fail.

Even though you know the ending, the film is surprisingly gripping.  The failure of the coup was a near thing, ultimately resting on the decision of one senior military officer with no reputation for moderation. The leaders of Japan’s government knew the war was lost, but wanted to avoid the fate of Germany, which had surrendered a few months earlier and had already been carved into bits.  Should they trust the Americans, who said they would preserve the position of the Emperor?  The struggles of Japanese diplomats trying to decide whether the Emperor’s power being “subject to” that of the American military authority meant “subordinate to” or “dependent on” will be familiar to any student of a foreign language.

The movie has some interesting period detail.  The Emperor’s radio broadcast was pre-recorded but, since tape decks hadn’t yet been invented, they actually had to cut a record.  The efforts of the imperial household staff and the employees of the national radio station to safeguard the record until it could be broadcast are unexpectedly poignant.

This film requires close attention, since some of the characters are referred to by both by their names and their titles. And, at 2 1/2 hours, it’s about 20 minutes too long. But it’s a fascinating look at a little-known aspect of the end of the war.


This American film, although it was made independently before the Japanese one, kind of picks up where the other film leaves off.  MacArthur arrives in Japan and is told by Truman he has to make a decision about whether to arrest Hirohito.  Maybe the Japanese shouldn’t have trusted us after all.  MacArthur asks a member of his staff, Bonnar Fellers, who has some experience with Japan, to see what he kind find out about Hirohito’s responsibility for starting the war.  Fellers isn’t able to get much resolution on that question, but he does find out about the deadlocked Cabinet meeting and the coup attempt.

Fellers ultimately concludes that, whatever Hirohito’s role beginning the war (neither film takes a position on this), he had a decisive role in ending it. And he could play a vital role in the successful rebuilding of the country.  MacArthur accepted Fellers’ conclusions (although there is some suggestion that he had already made up his mind in that direction).

Matthew Fox is somewhat tedious in the title role, although the rest of the mostly Japanese cast is pretty good.  Tommy Lee Jones gives an unexpectedly restrained performance as MacArthur.

We justly remember our rebuilding of Japan as one of America’s finest hours.  But this film reminds us that the way things worked out, given the amount of hostility in the US towards the Japanese at that point, was no sure thing.

One of the the other generals on MacArthur’s staff tried to discredit Fellers by pointing out that he had a Japanese girlfriend.  (Fellers did have such a female friend, although the nature of their relationship remains unclear.)  In the movie, Fellers supposedly changed targets to protect his friend, which as far as I can tell is a complete invention.    It’s almost as though the writers felt the modern American audience wouldn’t understand how the mere allegation of a relationship with a Japanese woman might have been enough, in 1945, to discredit someone.  That transition in the American perception of Japan, from horrible foe to respected friend, in a few short decades is a miracle of anti-racism — a victory we don’t celebrate enough.

Bridge of Spies

The story of a negotiated exchange of a Russian spy for a captured US fighter pilot doesn’t sound like a promising topic for a movie, but this is an excellent film.  Spielberg at his best is an outstanding storyteller, and he’s found a good one here.

When Rudolf Abel was arrested for espionage in Brooklyn in 1957, the local Bar Association decided to assign him a lawyer (not a given, pre-Gideon) to demonstrate the moral superiority of The American Way.  They pick a local insurance defense lawyer, James Donovan, whose only criminal experience was at the Nuremberg trials.  Of course, this is all a bit disingenuous — the Bar wants the appearance of a defense, not a real one.  But Donovan doesn’t see it that way — he takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  And doing so doesn’t make him very popular, with the public or his law firm.

He loses, of course.  But along the way, he convinces the judge to give Abel a long prison sentence instead of the death penalty.  What if, suggests Donovan, they capture one of out guys — wouldn’t we like to have one of theirs “on the shelf” to trade?

Four years later, Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 spying over Russia, and the Russians do indeed seek a trade.  Donovan is tapped for the job of negotiating the exchange, on an “unofficial” basis.  Donovan decides to negotiate not just for Powers, but also for an American grad student, Frederick Pryor, who had recently been picked up by the East Germans.  The CIA is apopleptic — they don’t care about Pryor– but Donovan, a sort of genius negotiator, understands that his lack of official status actually gives him a lot of bargaining power.

The exchange on the bridge, shot on the actual bridge where the real-life exchange took place, is unexpectedly moving.

James Donovan is a stand-up guy, and nobody does stand-up guy better than Tom Hanks.  But the truly outstanding performance, in my mind, is that of Mark Rylance as Abel.  Most actors are larger-than-life individuals, and are at their best portraying larger-than-life characters.  But to be a successful spy like Abel, you have to be the kind of individual who totally blends into the scenery, whom nobody notices.  How Rylance accomplishes that feat I don’t know, but there are moments when he seems to totally disappear from the screen — even in courtroom scenes where you know he has to be there.  When he is part of a scene, of course, you can’t take your eyes off him.

The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay — their slice of wry is a good balance to Spielberg’s sometimes schmaltzy tendencies.  And the movie-makers are alert to the ways certain parts of this story resonate with modern concerns, without hitting you over the head with them.

Historical note 1:  The movie begins with the dread “inspired by true events” tagline, which sometimes means they’ve made a total FUBAR out of the facts.  Not here though — after a little research, it appears that the movie sticks pretty close to the facts, and most of the changes (like the circumstances of Pryor’s capture) are peripheral to the main story. But many of the movie’s most surprising facts, like the comically inept FBI search of Abel’s apartment, and the fact the Donovan later negotiated a prisoner exchange following the Bay of Pigs debacle, are absolutely true.

The historical inaccuracies, such as they are, tend to be those are of omission.  Donovan was at Nuremberg in part because of the 3 years he spent at the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII — he wasn’t a total newcomer to the spy business.  And the historically accurate hollowed-out nickels that the Russians used to transmit messages, shown at the beginning of the film, actually contributed to Abel’s capture.  One of Abel’s associates, less careful, accidentally used one of these hollow nickels to buy a newspaper, which led to his arrest; he ultimately ratted out Abel.

Historical note 2:  After Donovan wrote a book about the incident, in 1965, there was some thought about making it into a movie, with Gregory Peck (a previous generation’s stand-up guy) in the lead role.  The studios deemed it not commercially viable, however — Cold War tensions still ran too high.

Fun fact:  The rock band U2 was named after the high-altitude spy plane that figures in this movie.  Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, has a small part in this movie as Donovan’s daughter.

Star Wars — The Force Awakens

First the good news — this is a worthy successor to the original trilogy.  JJ Abrams understood what it was about the original films that made them most broadly appealing — characters you could root for, a story line that was easy to follow, and action sequences in unusual settings.  And robots.

On these metrics, the movie delivers.  Some beloved old characters return, and are joined by (mostly) appealing new ones.  It’s good to see Harrison Ford finding his inner Solo again, instead of playing HARRISON FORD MOVIE STAR.  The newer actors are good, too, especially Daisy Ridley as Rey — a feminist heroine who wears pants, and sometimes the pants).  There’s even a new robot, BB8, who successfully straddles the line between R2D2 dougthiness and terminal Ewok cutesiness.   And there are enough “Easter Egg” references to the prior movies to please everyone from the casual fan to the total geek.

Abrams made a good decision to use hand-built sets and models instead of relying on CG for many of the action sequences.  This helps to keep those action sequences in human scale — they never overwhelm the picture.

My reservations are less about the film that is actually on the screen — a marvelous piece of entertainment — than the better film that might have been.

The plot, for example,  is not so much straightforward as simplistic.   it’s a significant improvement over the hot mess story lines of the prequels, but for a true Star Wars fan, it’s overly predictable.

For me, though, what the film was really missing was — George Lucas.  Creating alien landscapes is more than just designing strange-looking buildings.  Lucas had a gift for inserting the small detail that turned an alien landscape into something both more comprehensible, and yet immeasurably stranger — the  double moons of Tatooine, the ice planet so cold people froze as they walked, the thousand-points-of-holographic-light Parliament of the old republic the underwater cities of Naboo, the diner with the roller-skating robot waiters, the hoverboards in the fire pit where Anakin and Obi-Wan have their fateful encounter.  There’s none of that Lucas genius in the new movie.

This movie can best be seen as high-quality fan fiction.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s already making boatloads of money, and filming on the second installment of the proposed trilogy will begin soon.  But, without Lucas’s mythic imagination,  it lacks the emotional resonance of the first two films.  I wonder if, had these films been first, we would still been talking about “Star Wars” all these many years later.

These quibbles aside, though, I highly recommend seeing the film.  But see it soon.  It’s that rare thing in the modern cinema landscape — a film which which really is better seen with a large and enthusiastic group.  If you wait too long, you might find all the surprises in the film are spoiled by the kids in the audience who have seen it 10 times already.

Weird Fact:  Luke Hamill is now a year older than Alec Guiness was when he appeared in the original Star Wars film.  Sigh.

Poldark (PBS)

I was a little nervous to watch this series, since I had so enjoyed the original adaptation done in the late 1970s.  I needn’t have worried — this series is a worthy successor to, and in some cases better than, the original.

Ross Poldark, son of a (very) minor landowner in Cornwall in the late 18th C, joins the army and ends up on the wrong side of our Revolutionary War.  Worse yet, he is reported dead, and when he finally returns home, he discovers that his house, his tin mine, even his fiancee, have been appropriated by others.  Ross sets about rebuilding his life.  His impetuous decision-making gets him into trouble, but his winning smile (usually) gets him out of it.

The real interest of this story is in its depiction of ordinary life — a sort of rough-and-tumble version of a Jane Austen world.   Ross tries to restart his tin mine by raising money from equity investors; a young banker on the make, engaged in the relatively new practice of commercial lending, has other ideas.  Ross continues to pine after his lost fiancee, now married to someone else; his new wife has other ideas.  Ross’ friend Dwight, a forward-looking doctor, tries to help everyone, but ends up making a muck of things.

The show has its bodice-ripper aspects — Ross even takes off his shirt in one episode.  But unlike the other currently-running 18th C period drama, Outlander, there’s little explicit violence, and no rape.  (The amount of sexual violence in Outlander is actually a sore point with me, which is why I don’t recommend that program.)  Women aren’t equal in Poldark’s world — but they figure out how to get stuff done.

The story lines are straightforward (don’t think too hard), and the acting is generally good.  Robin Ellis, the original Poldark, appears in a couple of episodes as the hangin’ judge, which makes for some amusing Poldark v. Poldark confrontations.  And the scenery (particularly the coastline seen on horseback) is really stunning.

Although Poldark and Indian Summers ran sequentially in the US on PBS, they were head-to-head competitors when they were shown in Britain.  Poldark ate Indian Summers’ lunch, not surprisingly, and will be back again next year.

Indian Summers (PBS)

India, 1932.  As the story begins, the British colonial administrators, along with their families and staff, are beginning their annual trek to the mountain station of Simla to escape the torrid Indian summer.  We are introduced to Ralph, secretary to the Viceroy (a powerful position in an era when the Viceroy was usually an English aristocrat who knew little about the country); Ralph’s sister, Alice, just back from England with a toddler son in tow; and Ralph’s new Indian clerk, Afrin.  Each of them has Secrets.  And, because it’s that kind of program, Alice and Afrin fall in love.  Uh-oh.

It seems as though someone decided to manufacture a successful program by combining the best features of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown.  Unfortunately, they picked the wrong features.  The setting are beautiful, and the period costumes carefully done.  But without good writing, and sympathetic characters, all you’ve got is a bunch of silly twits who seem to do little but drink, party, and gossip, all the while lording it over their Indian servants who do all the work.  The end of the Raj can’t come soon enough.

This show isn’t bad, exactly.  Some of the minor characters and storylines are actually pretty good, although you never get enough of them.  But the series commits the cardinal sin for programs of this type — most of the time, it’s just boring.

The Last Kingdom (BBC America)

The premise of this series, based on novels by the contemporary British novelist Bernard Cornwell, is simple enough.  In 9th C Britain, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, born a Saxon but raised by Danes, ultimately makes common cause with Alfred the Great, who is trying to counter the Viking invasion.  Uhtred, who finds himself far from home with people who mistrust him, is a brave warrior with little sense of how to influence people.  Alfred, who is willing to fight, prefers to negotiate, a real rarity in this darkest of dark ages.  Uhtred learns (slowly) to appreciate Alfred’s ability to think ahead, while Alfred learns (even more slowly) the value of Uhtred’s ability to seize the moment.

It’s like a scaled-down version of Game of Thrones — one plotline at a time instead of 7 or 8, and 20 characters with impossible-to-remember names instead of 200.  The violence, gore and gratuitous nudity is toned down too.  The series is surprisingly good – although Uhtred is fictional, Alfred is very real, and some of his more prominent Viking adversaries (including the wonderfully-named Ubba the Boneless) were real too.  The writing is generally good, the characters are believable, and there’s even a little humor.

Catch it if you can.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

Four episodes in, I’m willing to call this adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel a winner.  In Dick’s dystopian vision, the Nazis develop the bomb first and win the war.  The US is divided up into Nazi territory (basically everything east of the Continental Divide), a Japanese co-prosperity sphere on the West Coast, and a Rocky Mountain “neutral zone,” where refugee Jews, people of color and random malcontents survive as best they can.

As our story begins, it is 1962, and there is about to be a leadership change in Berlin.  The Japanese are worried that the Nazis, having rolled up the rest of the world, will turn to them next, starting with San Francisco.  Most Americans have figured out how to get on with their lives, although there is a low-energy resistance movement on both coast.  Two would-be revolutionaries, however, are heartened by the discovery of a movie showing an alternate history — one where America won the war.  They go in search of the mysterious Man in the High Castle, somewhere in the mountains.

One of the show’s real strengths lies in the visual depictions of the fictional alternate universe.  Nazi America has ultramodern public transportation and supersonic planes, but no interstate highways (no Eisenhower), and no rocket fins on the cars (no Cold War, no Sputnik, no space race).  Family life in uncomfortably close to Leave it to Beaver, except the Beav wears a Hitler Youth armband, and there are no people of any color.  In Japanese America, they have solid state TV, which shows Japanese sumo wrestling, and rich Japanese buy American cultural artifacts to bring home.  Guns and Bibles are, of course, illegal everywhere.

All of this is fun, but the show’s creators didn’t  forget the important stuff.  The writing is pretty good — they’ve made a few changes to the original, but nothing outrageous.  The acting, with a cast of mostly unknown actors, is pretty good too.

Highly recommended.

Quick Picks

Here’s a quick list of interesting smaller movies that I can recommend.



L’Auberge Espagnole: International students in Barcelona; Audrey Tatou has a small role.


To Rome with Love: Three separate stories of life in Rome, with mostly Italian actors and a few American ones (Alec Baldwin); directed by Woody Allen.  (And, of course, there’s also Midnight in Paris, Allen’s ode to Paris which is wonderful.)

The Tourist: Sad sack American teacher (Johnny Depp) falls for Angelina Jolie in Paris, follows her to Venice; supposedly a thriller, but it’s so ridiculous it operates as a comedy; great photography.  Full capsule review here.

Heart-warming RomComs


Chocolat: Single mother with interesting talents opens a chocolate shop in small town in France; with Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin and Johnny Depp; obviously inspired by Like Water for Chocolate.


Bread and Tulips: Italian housewife gets abandoned in restroom on family trip, decides to hitchhike to Venice.

L’Ultimo Bacio (Last Kiss): Young Italian men go for one last fling before they settle down; the American remake with Zach Braff is not bad


Soul Kitchen: Young restaurant owner in Hamburg tries to revamp his restaurant. Full capsule here.

Mostly Martha: Hard-driving German chef suddenly finds herself responsible for her 9-year old niece when her sister, the girl’s mother, is killed in a car accident; don’t get the horrible American remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones, No Reservations.


Bride and Prejudice: Jane Austen meets Bollywood; better than it sounds.


Like Water for Chocolate: Mexican woman discovers her cooking can transmit the emotions she felt while making them


Love Actually: Ensemble comedy about love at Christmastime; has just about every British actor not otherwise occupied in a Harry Potter film (Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, …)

Possession: American literature professor discovers long-lost love letters of supposedly stuffy Victorian poet; the modern love story (Aaron Eckart/Gwyneth Paltrow) plays off nicely against the 19th C one. (Jeremy Northam / Jennifer Ehle)

One Day: Young English couple are drawn to each other, but decide to stay just friends and meet once a year; Anne Hathaway is pretty good, despite her dreadful British accent

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Yemeni prince wants to fish for salmon in the desert; Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor want to help; more of a fable than a real-life story, but charming nevertheless; look for Conleth Hill (GOT’s Varys) as McGregor’s work colleague – with hair.


The Wedding Banquet: When gay Chinese man living in New York learns his parents are coming to visit, he asks a female friend to pose as his fiancée; early Ang Lee

Interesting Foreign Movies


I’ve Loved You So Long: Kristen Scott Thomas as woman released from prison after serving time for murder tries to rebuild her life; more life-affirming than it sounds

My Fathers Glory/My Mother’s Castle: Provencal family saga from the early 20th C to current day; based on stories of Marcel Pagnol; casts Provence in a romantic light

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring: Provencal family saga from the early 20th C to current day; based on stories of Marcel Pagnol; covers similar ground to Fathers Glory/Mothers Castle, but darker view of life

A Very Long Engagement: Audrey Tatou as woman who loses her boyfriend in WWI, but becomes convinced that her fiancé is still alive, suffering from amnesia

Bob le Flambeur: Dapper gambler gathers a group of 11 guys to raid a casino for one last score; if it sounds like Ocean’s 11, that’s because that both US films were based (very loosely) on this 1956 French original; in black-and-white

Persepolis: Animated film about a young girl growing up in Iran during the revolution; she escapes to Paris and tries to rebuild her life; in black-and-white

Ridicule: Brilliant 18th C social satire masquerading as comedy; with Fanny Ardant


Monsieur Lazhar (in French): Algerian refugee in Montreal becomes a substitute teacher for a 4th grade class


The Lives of Others: Stasi agent wiretaps successful East German author, begins to identify with him

Spain (Almodovar)

All About My Mother: Woman wants to meet theater actress she idolizes; wonderful shots of Barcelona

Volver: Woman who discovers her husband is a jerk takes matters into her own hands; with Penelope Cruz

[many more Almodovar if you like these]


Best of Youth: TV miniseries which follows several young Italian men from their college days in the 1960s to the current day; 40 years of Italian social history


Dirty Pretty Things: Strange goings on in London hotel; staff, mostly illegal immigrants, struggle with whether to go to police; Audrey Tatou has a small role


The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Womanizing Czech doctor becomes political dissident after Russian invasion of 1968; Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin before they were famous


Eat Drink Man Woman: Widowered master chef communicates with his three grown daughters by cooking for them; early Ang Lee, with great cooking scenes


Lemon Tree: Palestinian widow on the West Bank makes a modest living selling her lemons until the Israeli defense minister moves in next door and wants to cut down her trees; a metaphor for the last 40 years of Israeli-Palestinian relations


The Namesake: Young Indian-American tried to discover his roots; with Kal Penn

Gritty Foreign Films


Battle of Algiers: Classic film about attempts by the French to fight terrorists in Algeria

Le Prophete: Young Muslim Frenchman in French prison

Widow of St. Pierre: A man commits a murder in a remote French-owned island off the coast of Canada in the mid-19th C; while they’re waiting for a guillotine to be delivered, the townspeople form a relationship with the murderer; based on a true story; with Juliette Binoche


Waltz with Bashir: Animated film about a guy who wants to discover the truth about the Sabra/Shatila refugee camp massacres


An excellent palate cleanser after Tomorrowland, this is that rare fantasy film aimed at children which can be enjoyed by adults as a simple, good-hearted entertainment.  This live-action remake of Disney’s animated version is directed by Kenneth Branagh, and features a number of high-quality actors having a wonderful time chewing scenery.  Standouts include Cate Blanchett, who plays the evil stepmother as a 19th C version of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Helena Bonham-Carter as the wonderfully ditzy fairy godmother, and Derek Jacobi (!) as the king.  Lily James (Rose in Downtown Abbey) and Richard Madden (Robb Stark) have wonderful chemistry together, which I defy you to resist.  (Even Blanchett has a hint of a smile in the ballroom scene.)  Cinderella’s 40-layer dress is a wonder in itself — I understand several copies were made at different lengths, depending on how much running Cinderella had to do in various scenes.  Cinematography is also top-notch — some scenes were shot at Blenheim Palace, home of the Churchill family and one of the grandest country homes in England.  And there’s a minimum of Disney kitsch, although the studio’s considerable experience with animatronic animals is used to good effect.

No violence, but plenty of ugly stepsister cackling and bad guy mustache-twirling.  No sex, unless you count the skintight pants worn by many of the male characters.  No fart jokes.

Fun fact:  Richard Madden and Lily James, this film’s protagonists, are scheduled to play Romeo and Juliet in an upcoming theatrical production directed by Branagh.  Could be good.


I really wanted to like this movie.  Stories with at least notionally positive views of the future are few and far between.  But I didn’t.

The movie starts well with enough, with a prologue at the NY Worlds Fair of 1964-65.  The early scenes of Tomorrowland are quite well done, and there is a wonderful little scene involving the Eiffel Tower (relic of another Worlds Fair) about half way through.  The film is full of visual references to classic fantasy films, like The Wizard of Oz and Field of Dreams, as well as science fiction of all types (Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lost in Space, not to mention the Jetsons).  There’s even a minor character named Hugo Gernsback, a shout-out to the sci-fi editor for whom the Hugo awards are named.  But these isolated vignettes seem to be part of another, much better movie — not the one on the screen.  The actual movie loses its way about half way through — plot threads go nowhere, Checkhovian count-down clocks never get to zero, and the storyline dissolves into a hopeless muddle.  The principal screenwriting credit goes to Damon Lindelof, best known for Lost — I can only conslude that the storytelling murkiness is intentional.  George Clooney, normally an entertaining actor even in substandard films, is unaccountably annoying here, although the irritation factor really goes off the scales whenever Hugh Laurie is on the screen, as the Big Bad Villain who unaccountably speaks Etonian. Even the ending, which I’m sure was intended to be positive, was kind of creepy — more zombie apocalypse than the world reborn.

Save your money.

Fun fact:  The Disney company, which produced this movie, actually worked on several exhibits at the NY Worlds’ Fair.  Some of the rides developed for the Fair later became rides at Disney theme parks, including the one originally designed for Pepsico — “It’s a Small World After All.”  You have been warned.