Thursday, 23 July 2009

Vantage Point Review

Bored in my room one night, I decided to vent my frustrations on a movie that I had seen recently: Vantage Point, a political thriller from the dark ages (2008). And thus The Crusades of a Critic was born.

Vantage Point is a by the numbers, join the dots exercise (if 90% of the dots had already been connected). Comparable to Hitler, the film gets the job done well enough. It is annoyingly pretentious, however, and seems to think it's achieved some great feat when there are countless other political thrillers that share similar ideas. American traitors, plots to assassinate the President, blah, blah. These sort of films are not even that difficult to create. You take the enemy of the day - whether it be Muslims, the Chinese, or Communists - and dump them in a 'complex' plot which involves a traitor linked highly to the American government. It's for this reason that I have chosen this film for my first review.

Director Pete Travis created Vantage Point in an experiment when he inserted a copy of Groundhog Day, a book on the conspiracies surrounding JFK’s assassination, and examples of Islamist propaganda into the generic American political thriller generator. In Salamanca, Spain, an anti-terror conference attended by the World’s leaders is taking place. Typically, terrorists attack the conference, and President Ashton (William Hurt) is gunned down by a marksman. Gold star if you saw that coming.

Moments later a bomb goes off at the plaza where the conference is taking place, which effectively scatters human limbs and causes trepidation among the masses. The attack is revealed to be part of a much larger plot masterminded rather publicly at the plaza. For instance, the terrorists quote their plans and motivations in public like they are suffering from plot element Tourette’s Syndrome. The type which effects pantomime characters.

It seems the terrorists’ leader is some trendy hipster, as he's always using his iphone which is synchronised to various devices round the plaza. These are vital to the group's plot; such as a fan (you’ll get why if you watch the film), and the bomb itself. I was unaware an iphone could be used to carry out a devastating terrorist attack in such a way: "Do you want to assassinate the American President? There’s an app for that".

In a plot twist that surprised no one, it turns out the President was actually a decoy, a look-alike, with the actual President situated at a luxurious hotel. The terrorists apparently knew this, as they shot the decoy to cause a distraction while they snatch the real McCoy. As I was watching the film, I began to wonder how looking just like the President would affect your life; imagining it to be like a 70’s sitcom filled with mishap for the protagonist due to mistaken identity. Then I realised I missed a good ten minutes so I had to re-wind, doubting very much I had missed anything. Which turned out to be the case.

The rest of the plot unfolds how you would expect. There’s a high-ranking American traitor - if you didn’t guess who, then you deserve to be slapped around the face by Sloth from The Goonies. The terrorists turn out to be linked to a Muslim extremist group, naturally. And I’m going to shock you here, so hold onto your socks - the President is saved and the bad guys lose. For a similar experience try dressing up as Uncle Sam and kiss an American flag for 90 minutes.

Okay so maybe the plot has been used more times than Jezebel, and is now painfully bleeding from every possible orifice, but the film’s strength is in its framing device. We see events 15 minutes preceding and proceeding the attack from the perspective of several individuals, unveiling more of the plot each time; hence the back of the box tagline - ‘Can you solve the puzzle?’ Though, as we discover over the course of the film who the would be assassins are and what motivated them, it's as much of a challenge as solving an all purple jigsaw, made up of pieces exactly the same shape. It's merely time-consuming.

The way Vantage Point has been directed makes it one of the more original political thrillers, which is up there with beating a deaf, dumb and blind guy at chess. On the negative side this does essentially mean we just get to watch the President get shot over and over from various angles, like a John Wilkes Booth fantasy directed by J. J. Abrams.

The casting department did a tolerable job, hiring several impressive actors; Dennis Quad, Matthew Fox, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, and Sigourney Weaver. Like the illegal foreign labourers in my basement, they get the job done cheaply and decently enough: especially considering the script they had to work with. As good as the actors may be, the dreadful writing and lack of real screen time for the majority of the characters means they aren’t amply developed, not unlike a 13 year old girl.

Take William Hurt for example. He is supposed to be the American President but he has all the appeal of a mould smoothie. Who was he running against for office - Josef Fritzl and Megatron? You know he shouldn’t be the President when he reminds you of his role in Mr Brooks (as the representative of a serial killer’s psychotic alter ego).

Maybe I’m being unfair, but in my eyes after real life Presidents like the unintentionally comedic Bush and the down to Earth Obama, the standards for on-screen Presidents have risen. No longer are grumpy but painfully patriotic Presidents sufficient, I want to see some personality.

Forest Whitaker, meanwhile, plays Howard Lewis, your typical American tourist – which means he is fat, obnoxious, and believes he is more capable than the authorities in catching the marksman. Cue him running around filming everything in sight; because you know, that worked so well for the clueless berks in Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead didn’t it? Fortunately there are only short, infrequent moments of ‘first person camera view’, presumably because Pete Travis realised that overusing the technique is as smart as fellating the barrel of a .44 magnum wielded by Harry Callahan.

Speaking of stereotypes - Enrique (Eduardo Noriega) is a Spanish cop dedicated to protecting the Mayor of Salamanca. A duty Enrique attempts to fulfil after the decoy President is shot, but is opposed by Agent Barnes (Dennis Quad), possibly out of fear that Enrique’s effectiveness could put the Secret Service to shame. As the SS (not that one) question the Spaniard as to why he was running towards the President moments after the shooting, Enrique realises he is out of his depth and proceeds to do what is known as a ‘Charles de Menezes’ – and runs away from armed authorities who believe he is a terrorist. Perhaps for his next smart move he’ll shave his balls with a rusty chainsaw.

As I mentioned previously, there is a traitor - one Agent Taylor, graciously played by Matthew Fox for all of ten minutes in total, before disappearing as quickly as the invisible man’s morals for most of the film. He vanishes after investigating a possible sniper position, demanding that he should go on his own because if he is wrong then he will take the blame and not his fellow agents.

He returns near the end as the ‘surprise’ traitor, which would have had a greater impact if he had enough screen time that we remembered who he was, and if it wasn’t required for a movie of this nature to have an American traitor. Logic indicates that he is the traitor, as he ticks all the boxes on the gratuitous betrayal application form (created by Albert Wesker), including the ‘prone to long disappearances with a dodgy excuse for leaving in the first place’ requirement.

The only two characters that I thought were written to a decent standard were Agent Barnes, and Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) an American TV news producer. Firstly, Barnes (Quad) gets the most screen time, which gives him a more rounded personality. He's also made more identifiable as he reacts how you would expect – trying to protect the President against the odds on account of him being in the secret service. He's even given a relevant back-story and a reasonable weakness - shot during his last assignment and lost his confidence.

Sigourney Weaver’s character is also convincing, because she's a complete turd. How you'd imagine a TV news producer to be. The role of the turd is portrayed so well, you increasingly hate her during her limited screen time; wanting to carve her into small pieces and serve the remains as Chow Mein in your local Chinese take-away. This is a perfectly realistic depiction, as reporters are supposed to be hated more than Gary Glitter at Butlins during the summer holidays.

Lastly, we have the terrorists themselves, who are Muslims - because children’s tears power the Islamic faith. If you judge them by the way they're represented in the entertainment industry that is. One of the terrorists, Javier (Edgar Ramirez), is motivated to save his brother held captive by the rest of the group, but one can assume his character is intended to add a sympathetic element simply to make the situation seem less black and white - it totally still is, mind.

The balanced cast deceives you into believing the movie may actually be written by someone who knew what they were doing, and not by a brain dead monkey. Picture this; you are given a basket that is said to be full of kittens. Happily you open what you think is a basket full of cuteness and joy, only to find they are all dead and putrid. That is basically Vantage Point’s script in a nutshell.

To conclude I would like to point out the main reason why this film made me throw a fit: the conclusion. Everything up to this point I could take, and of course I knew that America was going to prevail. But the way this played out was astonishing.

* Readers wishing to keep their sanity please look away now * 

The little Spanish girl Anna, to whom Forest Whitaker forms a rather creepy attachment, is searching for her mum in the aftermath of the explosion. She inadvertently runs out into the middle of the road and in the path of the ambulance the two remaining terrorists are using to escape. The driver swerves out of the way, does a barrel roll, and crashes straight into oncoming traffic. The terrorists are fatally injured, allowing agent Barnes to rescue the President and save the day.

But why would they swerve out the way? They were winning, they had the advantage. They were responsible for killing many government officials and innocents that day, not to mention abducting the most important man on the planet; but at a vital moment gain compassion for a girl who, frankly, was lucky to survive the blast from the bomb that they planted. It kills all sense of logic with a potato masher. The director should have just recorded 90 minutes of him bludgeoning goats to death, it would have been a movie that was less painful to watch and arguably made more sense.

"...The fuck is this shit?"