Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vantage Point

From time to time a Japanese movie will be so important that it is referred back to again and again and again. One obvious example would be The Seven Samurai (1954), a movie so influential it spawned the four Magnificent Seven movies and a host of others. You will still hear it referred to from time to time as an influence on various action/adventure type movies and occasionally other genres as well.

Even more influential was an early silent, Rashomon (1911), a story that was told multiple times from multiple points of view that each put vastly different spins on it. The concept has been done numerous times with varying levels of success, from the slightly shifted take on it in Run Lola Run (1998) to the animated Little Red Riding Hood riff Hoodwinked (2005) and now the latest entry in the genre, Vantage Point (2008).

Vantage Point is the story of an attempted assassination/kidnapping/assassination of the U.S. President by an unnamed dissident group during an anti-terrorism conference in Spain. 1 20 or 30 minute sequence of events is told repeatedly from a variety of angles...Secret Service Agent, President, media hack, various conspirators...and each time the story is told a bit more is revealed and often from an angle that shifts the meaning of events, sometimes subtlety and sometimes quite seriously.

This is particularly used to make the Spanish cop look by turns guilty, innocent, more innocent, guilty, and dead...which reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Rashomon type films. On the one hand the various viewpoints provide a refreshing way of viewing a story...the non-linear development allows an otherwise basic, by the numbers spy thriller to become a fascinating story, though the repetitiveness can wear on you after a while. It also allows you to spot clues if you are paying attention and allows the director some freedom to hide the good guy or bad guy nature of particular characters until the last possible second. That tension adds to the enjoyment of the movie. At the same time, the weakness would be in the dreaded loose thread. If you are the type of moviegoer who wants to know what happened to Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) at the end of Heat (1995) then things such as the ultimate decision on this character...Javier? (Edgar Ramirez) he a good guy or bad guy? When that is left hanging, you might not like it. And that is one weakness of these stories for some viewers as many threads simply cannot be carried through to the conclusion. On the other hand, if you do not mind loose threads then that can be a strength. You can choose to regard Javier as a hero who was betrayed by his girlfriend and martyred at the end or you can see him as a villain who participated in the plot and got his just due at the end.

Overall the acting was pretty solid with one interesting exception. Forest Whitaker plays Howard Lewis, an estranged husband touring Europe who is videotaping the speech of the President. I have seen Whitaker in a lot of movies and he is, as a general rule, a really solid actor. For whatever reason in Vantage Point director Pete Travis elects to have him portray a childlike buffoon who drools in delight over the most mundane things...his facial expressions and verbal cues sound like a 4 year old receiving a helium balloon. His sense of childlike wonder at everything he sees would be well understood if he were 12 and scoping out the Grand Canyon...but on a middle age man it was so out of place. The internal mood of the movie was dark and gritty with bombs, blood, carnage...and mixed in with that you have a guy in a Disney feel good setting doing the Jim Carrey Overactors Anonymous recovery session. Again, I have seen Whitaker often enough to know this was on the director, not the actor.

Be that as it may, Vantage Point was an interesting flick. The clues were there early as to who the turncoat was...I actually had him pegged from his first line as a suspect and was sure about him before the first run-through...but not everyone picked up on those clues. Some of the other good/bad guys were less obvious and the political commentary was pretty heavy without always being heavy handed.

Best of all, the movie delivered what it should even with the ham-handed acting and entertained from beginning to end including a spectacular car chase that would make a lot of top car chase of all time lists if not for the insipid ending to the Goose pointed out it is a bit unbelievable that terrorists who would bomb and kill thousands of people, shoot others at will, and just generally show little to no regard for human life would swerve so hard that they roll their rig because a little girl stood in the road. No, they would have pile driven her and kept on going. So there could have been a better end to the car chase, but for all that it was a fun, entertaining movie.

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