The Missing Person


Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

(2009) Mystery (Strand) Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Linda Emond, Yul Vazquez, Paul Sparks, Paul Adelstein, Kate Arrington, Anthony Esposito, Liza Weil, Daniel Franzese, Merritt Wever, Gary Wilmes, Betsy Hogg, Hailey Wegryn Gross, Coati Mundi, Neisha Butler, Jennie Epland, Abbie Cobb, Sakura Sugihara. Directed by Noah Buschel

There’s something to be said for a good noir film with a rumpled gumshoe on a tarnished quest, beautiful dames in dimly lit bars and plenty of cigarettes and martinis.  Not only is it a throwback to a simpler bygone age but in many ways it’s as American as a cowboy movie – although the Europeans (particularly the French) have proven themselves quite adept at the genre as well.

John Rosow (Shannon) is just such a private detective but Phillip Marlowe he ain’t. He does have rumpled down real good though. Anyway, he’s just kind of squeaking by and he fills his down time which there is plenty of with booze. Then he gets a phone call and a job – to board the California Zephyr train in Chicago and keep tabs on a man named Harold Fullmer (Wood).

The more Rosow follows Fullmer, the more suspicious he becomes – although that suspicion is tempered by frequent trips to the bar car. Fullmer isn’t necessarily who Rosow thinks he is and Rosow realizes that there is a connection between he and Fullmer that is unexpected – but crucial. This will lead Rosow to a moral dilemma that has no real right answer – just choices to be made.

Like any good detective story, the devil is in the details so I’m being a bit vague in my description of the plot. The Missing Person isn’t a traditional noir in the sense that there’s sex and violence a’plenty, but it is more noir in mood and convention. This is a modern noir, very much a product of the last half of the first decade of the 21st century but it has the DNA of a Raymond Chandler novel buried deep within.

Shannon has become one of the better actors in Hollywood; he’s as versatile as they come and while he may have a face only Willem Dafoe could appreciate, it’s an expressive face as well. John Rosow is a lost soul adrift in a post-9/11 world that he doesn’t quite understand. The drinking is to relieve the pain of loss and at unexpected times Shannon allows that pain to come to the surface and it can be devastating when he does.

Buschel doesn’t mind quietly poking holes in the whole noir ethos (tall characters bump their heads on ceilings and other moments of transcendent but very real silliness) but he has enough respect for the genre not to make fun in a snide way, more like the affectionate joshing of old friends. While he chose to make his characters more like kids dressing up in adult costumes and play-acting in many ways, the movie is anything but childish. In fact, it’s more adult than a lot of movies out there in that it carries a moral complexity that requires the viewer to examine his or her own moral compass in regards to Rosow’s conundrum. Sounds like a mathematical formula, doesn’t it?

In any case, this is mighty fine viewing but do be warned – it can meander in places, particularly in the middle third of the film. There were times I got the impression that Buschel himself wasn’t entirely sure how to move the film from point D to point E and the plot flounders when that happens. However lovers of old fashioned detective stories who like their stories hard-bitten with an intelligent chaser will be delighted to discover this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice juxtaposition between noir conventions and modern pop culture. Shannon gives a bravura performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never seems to know what direction its going in.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language, a smidge of violence and sexuality and plenty of scenes of drunkenness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John is seen to emerge from the California Zephyr at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. However, the California Zephyr doesn’t go to Los Angeles; it terminates at Emeryville just outside of Oakland.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,896 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Bang

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

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Dr. No


Dr. No

A debonair James Bond enters M's office for his next assignment.

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Anthony Dawson, Regina Dawson, John Kitzmuller, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell. Directed by Terence Young

There are few characters in the movies more iconic than James Bond. The suave, sophisticated British superspy can karate-chop a bad guy into submission, or kill him in a particularly gruesome fashion and save the day with an urbane quip. He can seduce just about any woman nearly at will. He is the man every guy wants to be and every woman wants to be with, and no actor embodied him as well as Connery, even to this day.

In his first big screen adventure (a television version of Casino Royale had been made some years earlier, but it had been Americanized and has been mercifully lost to the mists of time), Bond is summoned to Jamaica to investigate the murder of an MI6 field agent named Strangways who at the behest of the Americans had been investigating mysterious radio interference of rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral. Bond discovers that Strangways had been looking into a sinister place called Crab Key, an island off the coast of Jamaica that the locals are afraid of visiting because of rumors that a dragon patrols the beach. Bond also discovers that Strangways had submitted some rocks to his bridge partner Professor Dent (Dawson) to examine.

Bond is aided by CIA operative Felix Lieter (Lord) and Quarrel (Kitzmuller), a local boatman who has assisted the CIA in the past. Several attempts are made on 007’s life before he finally heads out to Crab Key along with Quarrel. They meet the fetching Honey Ryder (Andress), a comely but no-nonsense seashell collector who has been taking shells from Crab Key to sell in Jamaica. The three eventually discover that the island’s owner, Dr. No (Wiseman) has an evil plan up his sleeve and is the member of an organization called SPECTRE, bent on the destabilization of the world.

Coming up on its 50th anniversary, the movie holds up surprisingly well in some ways. Yes, it’s hopelessly dated in its attitudes towards women, minorities and politics, but if you can get past some of the special effects (which are admittedly primitive but keep in mind that this was a low-budget production even for its time) and the dialogue which can be laughable, you’re left with some wonderful action sequences, amazing set design and of course Bond.

Here is the first appearance of the James Bond theme, the first time “My name is Bond, James Bond” is uttered. It’s the first appearance of the Walther PPK, the first time we see M (Lee), the head of MI6 and his wonderfully efficient but oversexed secretary Moneypenny (Maxwell).

The Hollywood conceit of a megalomaniac on an island is essentially established here, one that would be followed in many a Bond movie to follow as well as in other spy and action movies over the next half century. The urbane Dr. No would be a model for Bond villains; suave, sophisticated, brilliant and egomaniacal but ultimately done in by his own hubris.

It seems hard to believe now but United Artists was not pleased with the choice of Sean Connery as James Bond (and Ian Fleming apparently wasn’t happy either, at least until he saw the movie for the first time). The rugged Connery was not the picture of a sophisticated upper class Englishman (Connery is a working class Scot) that the books had suggested.

When watching Dr. No, you can’t help but be aware of the times in which the movie existed. John Kennedy was president (and a big fan of the Bond series, which was one of the selling points for the movie) and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full bloom, making nefarious doings in the Caribbean all the more believable for nervous American (and global) audiences. The Second World War was twenty years in the rear-view mirror and the Cold War was at its peak. The space race was just beginning and the New York Worlds Fair was only two years away (the architecture of the fair was foreshadowed by the ultra-sleek lair of Dr. No). It was a time of great optimism yet a time ruled by enormous fear.

James Bond played into both. Yes, there was much evil in the world, and evil geniuses plotting to take over but with Bond on the case, the Free World could rest easy knowing that 007 was laying the smackdown on wannabe world dictators (the memory of Hitler still fresh in the minds of many). He conformed to the ideals of manhood of the time; virile, decisive, rough, smart and sophisticated, able to wear an expensive Saville Row suit at the baccarat table with a stunning sex kitten on one arm, a (shaken, not stirred) martini in one hand, his trusty Walther PPK in his waistband and impeccably coiffed hair barely ruffled after beating the crap out of a thug (and uttering a bon mot over the inert body of his assailant).

Times have changed and feminists no doubt cringe at the attitudes of Bond, but all the same he still holds a fascination that has carried him through nearly five decades of nearly continuous missions that still continue to this day. Bond was, at the time, unlike any other hero that had ever appeared on the silver screen and is unlikely to be duplicated ever again (Indiana Jones comes close). Dr. No stands up today not just because it was first but because it’s actually a very good movie, despite its flaws.

WHY RENT THIS: This is where it all began. Connery is electric as Bond and the action almost never stops.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopelessly dated, some of the dialogue and effects are laugh-inducing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surprising amount of violence, much smoking (remember, that was common for the era) but still pretty tame by modern standards.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ah, where to begin? It’s the only Bond movie in which Bond sings and doesn’t feature a pre-title sequence. Also, Bond’s armorer is known as Major Boothroyd (not Q as in later films) and is named after a reader who wrote Ian Fleming asserting that a true British spy would never use a Beretta as Bond does in the early novels, but a Walther PPK. Fleming concurred and the incident was actually used in a kind of backhanded way in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The new Blu-Ray contains a digitally enhanced print that cleans up some of the graininess of the original and actually looks better than when it was released theatrically. There are a number of contemporaneous features about the premiere, and on-set featurettes. There’s a nice feature on the guns of James Bond and a piece on the restoration of the print.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Goldfinger

Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road

In their latest movie, the only ship that's sinking for di Caprio and Winslet is their marriage.

(Paramount Vantage) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Richard Easton. Directed by Sam Mendes

We are all of us to a certain extent trapped by the circumstances of our lives. Our dreams are often casualties of the pressing immediate needs to make a living and a home. When those dreams die, often so does a part of ourselves.

When Frank Wheeler (di Caprio) sees April (Winslet) across a crowded room at a party, the attraction is immediate and undeniable. These are two young people who embrace life and are filled with it the way endemic to young people. Their futures are limitless, the world their oyster.

Several years later, the two of them are married, living in a Connecticut suburb. April, an aspiring actress, continues to perform on community theater stages, but we’re led to understand her performances are growing less and less outstanding. After such a performance, Frank tries to offer encouragement but in a way that hints at the cruelty that lurks within. We will later learn that the cruelty is the byproduct of his own desperation.

He is trapped in a soul-sucking job that he cannot stand. To make matters worse, he is working for the same firm his father did years before. He has become his father without realizing it. Their lives have become an endless parade of cigarettes and martinis, banal conversation at banal parties in a series of increasingly mind-numbing suburban get-togethers.

In desperation, April suggests they move to Paris. She could get a job as a secretary, or a translator at the U.S. Embassy while Frank took some time off to find out what he really wanted to do. At first, Frank is enthusiastic about the prospect, which elicits quiet scorn from their neighbors. Then he gets the offer of a promotion at work. He’d still be stuck in a soul-sucking job, but he would be getting paid better and isn’t that what the American dream is all about?

Into this mix comes John Givings (Shannon), son of Helen (Bates) their realtor and her husband Howard (Easton), a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life. John has spent some time in a mental institution and Helen thinks he would benefit from being around “normal” people like the Wheelers. It turns out that Givings’ mental illness had to do with speaking his mind, and as he does we discover that he has quite the keen intellect and a very detailed observational sense. He speaks his mind and the truth isn’t always pleasant. This provokes terrible fights between April and Frank and we see the façade slowly crumbling. As it does, the pretenses are stripped away and we see what the American Dream has made of this once-promising couple.

Director Sam Mendes also did American Beauty, a more modern look at the American suburban existence and this makes an excellent bookend to that work. This was based on a novel by Richard Yates, considered one of the leading voices of his generation, one of the few not bound by the conformity of the times. Mendes touches on that a great deal here; everyone is expected to adhere to a certain standard of behavior and any deviation from the norm is met with mistrust and unspoken derision.

Much was made of this being Winslet and di Caprio’s first film together since Titanic and its clear to see that the chemistry they built in that film (which Bates also appeared with them in) has only strengthened in the intervening years. Their performances are scintillating and multi-layered with all sorts of nuances that it will certainly take repeated viewings to uncover completely. There is love between this couple, most certainly; there is also as it turns out much hatred as well. This is the kind of relationship that is prevalent in a lot of marriages (fortunately not mine) in which the passions are so extreme that both emotions are there in nearly equal quantities.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe is so good, I’ve noticed that nearly every review I’ve read on the film (including this one), the reviewer is moved to write in the kind of prose that is meant to show off our abilities as writers. That says a great deal about how well-written this script is, and quite frankly, how good the source novel is.

One of the best features I’ve saved til the end and that’s Michael Shannon. He’s in only three scenes but they are riveting. You watch this man in the rumpled suit that he clearly feels ill-at-ease in steal each scene and with his performance help fuel the engine of the story. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and would have certainly taken it home were it not for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hopefully we’ll see Shannon get more work because of his performance here.

The novel was a child of its times and in some ways that is a criticism; the push for conformity still exists but not nearly at the same level it did in the 1950s and those points seem a bit dated. Still in all, that’s a minor quibble, especially given the overall strength and power of the story.

It is sometimes said that we turn up the music in our heads so that we can’t hear our own screaming, and that is certainly true in this movie. Mendes has come up with one of his best works, a movie that shows the pernicious dream-killing dark side of the suburban experience. As armies of men in grey suits march from Grand Central to their eight hours of meaningless work, we wonder how sane we really are to buy into an American Dream which has, in this case, become the ultimate American nightmare.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Winslet, Shannon and di Caprio. A gripping look at the darkness beneath the suburban façade.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the elements (such as the push for conformity) are from another era and not really relevant now.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language abounds. There is also some nudity and some seriously sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Frank and April’s children are siblings in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 25 minute feature on Richard Yates, author of the novel on which this is based, gives some insight into the themes of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Lovely Bones