The Last Emperor
Winner of nine Academy Awards, this 1987 epic from Bernardo Bertolucci tells the story of the final Emperor of China. Given the title at an extremely young age, his status dominates his life, yet he remains strangely powerless to the changing cultural and political climate around him. It’s a surprisingly conventional film from Bertolucci, whose films, at least those that I’ve seen (Last Tango In Paris, The Conformist, The Dreamers), are fairly oblique and challenging. The more straightforward presentation of this one was something of a surprise. What wasn’t surprising was just how gorgeous the look of the film is, and there are several moments that are pretty spine-tingling just because of the sheer monumental scope of the production. Equally impressive is the score from Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne. However, there is one aspect of the production that I found continually distracting, which is that all of the actors speak in English. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many subtitled Chinese films, but watching the Chinese actors speaking English the entire time was strangely off-putting. The result was, despite the pedigree of the director, a film that almost felt like a “Hollywood-ized” version of the story. It doesn’t help that there is a supporting performance from Victor Wong, who I’ll always remember from the 3 Ninjas films that pervaded my childhood. I ended up watching the film more for its filmmaking technique and scope, rather than anything related to character or emotion, but I can see it being one of those types of films that reveals more of itself over multiple viewings. 8/10.
There hasn’t been a Studio Ghibli film yet that I’ve been actively disappointed by, and this 1994 film from Isao Takahata is no different. Most Ghibli films tend to contain some kind of environmental message, but usually it’s presented mainly as subtext. This film moves that focus right up to the forefront, as the narrative follows a group of shape-shifting raccoons who decide to fight back against the humans’ plans to destroy their forests. To use a shallow comparison, it’s like a Japanese version of Over The Hedge, without the forced pop culture humor and celebrity voices. That 2006 DreamWorks film also didn’t have anatomically-correct raccoons, who at various times throughout the story use their “raccoon pouches” as parachutes and weapons. Apparently this is a common thing in Japanese folklore, but I would imagine viewers from elsewhere, American viewers especially, getting a juvenile kick out of some of the material. Because of this, out of all of Studio Ghibli’s films, it might be the one most tailored specifically to Japanese audiences. There’s quite a bit of narration, probably more so than what was needed, and the nature of the story means there’s never one central protagonist, which makes keeping track of characters somewhat confusing. Still though, there is plenty here that Ghibli fans will find wonderful. The shape-shifting ability of the raccoons leads to several cleverly-surreal moments, none more spectacular than when the raccoons stage an elaborate parade for the local humans. Despite its quite goofy elements, there is one moment near the end that I found incredibly touching. So, much like every other Ghibli films, it’s the complete package. Maybe not one for the very little ones though. 9/10.
Doug Liman directs this 2010 film about the real-life story of Valerie Plame, who through a series of complicated events was ousted as a CIA agent and forced to resign under pressure from the U.S. government. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn both give strong, understated performances (which for Penn is really saying something) as Plame and her husband Joe Wilson, respectively. The filmmakers make no secret of their feelings towards the Bush administration, with the central thesis being that there was an active attempt to suppress information, or rather lack of information, concerning the presence of WMDs in Iraq. When Joe Wilson’s opinions are twisted into validating the Bush administration’s rationale for war, he speaks out in defense of himself. When this happens, the government leaks out information about his wife’s profession, and she is forced to resign. As a result, the film argues, lives were lost in covert operations around the world. The film does occasionally stumble when tying everything back to the greater picture. Several scenes are almost comically on-the-nose in expressing the film’s point-of-view, particularly a couple early dinner scenes where obnoxious dinner guests rant on about politics, but only on the baseline understanding fed to them by the media. A later scene when Sean Penn has a brief conversation with a cab driver also feels like the filmmakers sledge-hammering the point home. The film is more effective when dealing with the personal relationship between Joe and Valerie, and how the events effect their understanding of each other’s beliefs and values. I’m not sure why the film kind of came and went with so little fanfare; it seems like the kind of film that should have been embraced by Hollywood. I don’t think anyone is going to mistake it for a great political thriller, but even with its particular shortcomings, I’d rather see films like this in the theaters than most of what we see nowadays. 6/10.