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'Missing Person': Lives altered by 9/11

Also reviewed: 'Strongman,' 'The Sun.'

November 27, 2009
  • 'Missing': Michael Shannon plays a private eye.
'Missing': Michael Shannon plays a private eye. (Strand Releasing )

Writer-director Noah Buschel's ambitious, stylish neo-noir "The Missing Person" starts so self-consciously that it verges on parody but impressively gathers steam, gaining depth and breadth as it evokes 9/11 post-traumatic stress. It's a great-looking movie, with an evocative use of music and, in rugged-yet-sensitive Michael Shannon, has an actor whose forceful, focused presence is the film's sturdy linchpin.

Shannon's John Rosow, a martini-loving, hardscrabble Chicago private eye, is awakened in the middle of the night with an offer he can't afford not to take. For $500 a day plus expenses he is to board a train to Los Angeles at 7 a.m. to tail one of its passengers (Frank Wood), who has in tow a little Mexican boy. Rosow is to bring the man, about whom he is initially told nothing, to New York.

In time-honored fashion, Rosow encounters an array of people who are inevitably either comical, ironic or sarcastic -- or all three. Just as the viewer is about to give up on the possibility that anyone will ever give Rosow anything resembling an ordinary, normal response, the film adroitly shifts gears; we gradually realize that Rosow and his target have had their lives transformed by 9/11. In a sense, Rosow is as much a missing man as is his quarry.

Despite honoring noir genre conventions, Buschel also draws upon his fertile imagination in dialogue and in storytelling that allows his film gradually to accrue meaning.

-- Kevin Thomas "The Missing Person." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

The strong, boring type

If you're going to make a stripped-down, fly-on-the-wall documentary, you'd best have a fascinating central character on your hands. Such is not the case with "Strongman," Zachary Levy's tiresome, long-delayed look at Stanley Pleskun, a.k.a. "Stanless Steel," an obtuse, New Jersey scrap metal salvager who can bend steel and lift trucks but can't twist his life into any meaningful form.

Unfortunately, the beefy Stan has all the charisma of one of the horseshoes he struggles to bend. He's also boorish, sexist, childish and inarticulate; often pathetic, but never empathetic. In addition, Stan's "dream," to gain fame and fortune -- or at least make a living -- through his strength, is too unfocused and strategy-free to give the movie any satisfying engine. Forays to Stan's appearances on a U.K. reality TV program and at a Florida strongman show break the monotony but do little to endear us to the big ox.

Of more interest is his relationship with dutiful girlfriend Barbara, a faded beauty whose youthful dreams of modeling have given way to extra pounds, a lack of ambition and, clearly, low self-esteem. How the pair got together, not to mention what Barbara ever saw in Stan, goes sadly unexplored, as does much dissection of Stan's earlier life or insight into his seemingly quirky family.

-- Gary Goldstein "Strongman." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

In the bunker of the emperor

"The Sun," Russian director Alexander Sokurov's stark, deliberately paced look at Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II, is a unique and strangely mesmerizing film, the third in the filmmaker's world dictator "tetrology," which also includes 1999's Hitler portrait, "Moloch," and 2001's "Taurus," a study of Lenin.

Sokurov's latest feature, written by Yuri Arabov, follows several key decisions that Hirohito (fascinatingly played with quirky introspection by Issey Ogata) made for the good of the Japanese people, as well as for his own personal legacy. Although the emperor's declaration of surrender to Allied forces and his later renunciation of his divine status -- as the 124th descendant of the "Goddess of Sun Amaterasu" -- make up much of the film's impressionistic action, it's Hirohito's oblique navigation of these watershed events, replete with his man-child immersion in poetry and science, that's at the heart of Sokurov's often darkly wry film.

The setting, largely confined to the laboratory building and underground bunker of the otherwise bombed-out Imperial Palace, makes for somewhat claustrophobic viewing but effectively enhances the hermetically sealed feeling of Hirohito's royal life.

A couple of culture-clashing meetings between Hirohito and an arrogant Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson) to discuss the American occupation of Japan also have touches of great theater.

-- Gary Goldstein "The Sun." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In Japanese and English with English subtitles. At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

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