Vantage Point

In Vantage Point, there’s an assassination attempt on the life of the President of the United States whilst he’s attending a big anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. This chaotic exposition of bullet and bomb unfolds piece-by-piece, via six separate points-of-view, culminating in a car chase that features some of the best stunt driving action you’ll see in a movie this year.

Hallalujah for the producers decision to portray the Babel-esque linguistic confusion of a foreign attack (rather than yet another East Coast location). However, having settled for the elegance of Salamanca, there was a significant problem with actually blowing up a historic plaza. Therefore, the decision was made to build the famous plaza from scratch, in the suburbs of Mexico City. It took ten weeks, working seven days each week, with over three hundred workers to construct the set.

Executive Producer Callum Greene explains, “We found an abandoned four-story mall which became a perfect area for us. We built our construction, carpentry, metal work, and plastic shops in the abandoned mall. Next to it was a pit where we built our Plaza Mayor….. We were able to go back to Salamanca and shoot certain scenes there; the two blended together seamlessly. You really can’t tell what was shot in Spain and what was shot on our set.”

And as Emmanuel Levy notes; the key advantage to building your own set is that everyone is excited when it’s time to blow it up. 
From a film-making perspective, Vantage Point is rather classily handled. The six sections sit together well; each witness to the assassination provides important fragments of information so that the pennies drop exactly as they should. It’s well acted too, with the Hollywood grandees of Hurt, Weaver and Quaid doing particularly good stuff. But having said all that, there’s something flawed about the film – perhaps the film makers were so focussed on creating an intelligently constructed film that they forgot to develop the characters in any significant detail.

And ultimately, the carefully-honed plot is sunk by the insipid movie-cliche of the stupid little girl who blunders her way into the path of danger. (As Time Magazine’s reviewer so wryly puts it: It’s as if Dakota Fanning had wandered onto the streets of Ronin.) Given that the terrorists had just both killed AND kidnapped the American president, blown up a historic city killing and maiming hundreds of innocents AND suicide-bombed a hotel lobby, d’ya really think they would have braked to avoid a dumb-ass kid crossing the road?

Batman, The Dark Knight

OK, let me start by saying; 1) Heath Ledger is as good as the hype and 2) the latest three hour Batman movie isn’t – at least not quite.

Batman may have hoped to inspire goodness in mankind, but at the start of Christopher Nolan’s latest saga, it’s kind of backfired. Vigilantes and bad guys alike have taken to dressing up in tights and mouseketeer hats and are collectively confusing the hell out of the GPD (that’s Gotham Police Department to you). And worse still, the successful crack-down on organised crime has brought the city’s mobsters into the collective thrall of an appalling, a-moral, dysfunctional villain – Heath Ledger’s now-notorious Joker. Up against this anarchistic and chaotic force of un-nature is gloomy-two-shoes Batman and his cohorts – Bale, Caine, Oldman, Freeman again – joined by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) a golden-boy District Attorney with really nice hair.

Batman, The Dark Knight looks great, and I was interested to read somewhere that 1995’s Heat was one of the inspirations for some of the Dark Knight’s relentless criminal set-pieces – it’s got the guns and that breathy sense of inexorable movement. And (plot spoilers from here on in) if it had all ended with the final show-down between Batman and the Joker, it would have been a truly well rounded movie-going experience. But Harvey Dent going bad? It just didn’t make sense. And on a separate but related whinge, am I the only one who thinks Maggie Gyllenhaal is hardly worth the bother of a run to Woolies, let alone a killing spree?   

Anyway, one thing I did admire about the movie was the refreshing up-dating of the aura of Gotham; no more dark and dirty alleys, but a grand, modern, thriving city. It’s Chicago that gets to play host to the production and according to Wikipedia, the movie generated $45 million in Chicago’s economy, creating thousands of jobs in the process. There’s a cute little website called Chicago.Everyblock that lists every location the movie used in the city and links it to a little map. Nice. And of course you can always check out Emmanuel Levy’s in depth comment.

Ever the art director, it was the Redhead who noticed that many of the movie’s locations looked out onto the same street, and as it turns out he was right (again, dammit) The IBM Building was the site of the Wayne Enterprises Boardroom, Harvey Dent’s office, the Mayor’s office and the Police Commissioner’s office. (And Di, Bruce’s bedroom was built separately on the 39th floor of Hotel 71 on East Wacker Drive……)

Having scouted extensively all over the world Chicago was ultimately chosen as the main location for Batman because director Christopher Nolan had a “truly remarkable” experience there filming Batman Begins – a great advert for the benefits that come from rolling out the carpet for filmmakers. Somehow though, I doubt he’ll be rushing back to Hong Kong. The shoot there was plagued by unhelpful city officials expressing concern over possible noise pollution and traffic. Like flipping an 18-wheeler on Chicago’s La Salle street wasn’t potentially problematic??? I guess it’s all about attitude.

At the end of the day, jurisdictions all need to consider: do you want an extra $45 million kicking around your economy or don’t you? (and that is NOT a trick question.) 

Blood Diamond

Maybe it’s Leonardo month on DSTV, but this week’s Sunday Night Movie was Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. Set in the shocking chaos of a West African civil war, a poor fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) is enslaved by rebel forces and made to pan for the diamonds that essentially are funding the insurrection. Having found a diamond the size of a bird’s egg, he is thrown a lifeline by a cunning ex-Rhodesian (Leonardo di Caprio) who offers to help him reunite his family and escape from the war.

Blood Diamond is an interesting movie; its portrayal of the pandemonium of anarchy is startling, and it inspires genuine horror and dismay. It’s also a pretty thrilling roller coaster ride, as the pair race to retrieve the diamond and rescue the family.

 

Although there was an attempt to film in Sierra Leone, there isn’t sufficient film-making infrastructure to support a project of this size. Therefore the producers turned South, with South Africa and Mozambique (serviced from KZN) doing the honours. As usual, Emmanuel Levy records the choices and impacts of filming quite beautifully; I love his thorough and insightful reports on on-location filming.

The city of Maputo doubled for Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. Filming the explosive fall of Freetown presented a range of logistical challenges to the entire production team. The director points out that it took careful coordination to achieve utter turmoil. He explains, “It had to appear chaotic, but you cannot do that chaotically. It required extensive planning and focus. I can’t remember how many times we walked those streets, discussing the exact positioning of the cameras, the cast, the stunt people, the extras…”

On a smaller scale – though perhaps of greater importance to Film Commissioners trying to justify their efforts based on economic impacts – the biggest South African beneficiary, according to Cape Town Magazine, was the sleepy KZN town of Port Edward:

Gary Bentley of Margate resort Surfspray Cottages, who has not only secured a role in the movie, but has scored with his business, too.

It was a bumper season for Bentley last Christmas when the production team rented his resort for the first three months of pre-production. Bentley cashed in on his famous guests by advertising their stay on his website, attracting several others to the resort….

…..The Port Edward hardware store has improved its turnover by 15% since the crew arrived. Local electricians, plumbers and builders are also reaping the economic benefits.

Anyway, that was Blood Diamond. My only real complaint: I just couldn’t get beyond Leonardo di Caprio’s appalling mashing of the white African accent. It’s not that difficult, honestly, so how come the stars always get it so badly wrong? (Michael Caine once played FW de Klerk in a cockney drawl, having given up on even trying to get it right.)

But there is one more thing. As if by magic, Andrew Sullivan linked this morning to a story by Edward Jay Epstein in the February 1982 edition of The Atlantic – it’s called Have You Ever Tried To Sell A Diamond? and it is a truly outrageous account of the total and utter manipulation of the international diamond trade over the last half century by the South African corporation De Beers. It’s a must read.