Sunday, June 29, 2008

Two Hollywood Thrillers

My general aversion to multiplexes (too much commercialism , too many teenagers) means that I sometimes miss watching some good mainstream films on big screen. On the positive side this also means that it is very rare that I am disappointed with a film. In fact I don't remember the last time I saw a film which was either bad or boring and I have been watching way too many films these days. (Not all of this goes here though I do try my best).

Anyway, on to the two films I saw yesterday. When it came last year Michael Clayton looked like one of those awful (in that middling, middle-browish way) "legal thrillers" in the John Grisham mould. My expectations were way-off actually. In fact it has got a real heart and soul and is propelled by a real and sincere sense of outrage at the way things are. The film begins with a bravura monologue by Tom Wilkinson which reminded me of Peter Finch's "I'm not going to take this anymore" in Sidney Lumet's Network. We hear only his voice and on screen see the images of empty, dehumanised, almost abstract, spaces inside a sleek corporate office. This is a fantastic way to open the film, in the way it brilliantly captures the main theme of the film - corporations as instruments of soul-destruction.

As we learn a little later Wilkinson is one of the senior most lawyers of a leading law firm in Manhattan who has been cleaning up the mess created by one of his clients, a multinational agricultural research company (kind of like Monsanto), and has now decided that he just can't take it anymore, and enough is enough. His bosses at the law firm and his clients (played by Tilda Swinton who seems to be following Faye Dunaway from the same film) are of course not very happy about it and George Clooney who is a "fixer" (sort of fire-fighter) is sent to calm him down. He tries to convince everybody that it is "a chemical problem" (that quintessential solution to every modern problem), a result of relapse, since he has a history of mental sickness. Things however soon spiral out of control. I won't reveal what happens but it kept me on edge throughout. Corporations hiring spies, surveillance experts and contract killers again reminded me of those fantastic 70s thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View (two touchstones in my personal canon for these kinds of thrillers) but it falls short in its climax, using that awful formula of "instant redemption" that Hollywood is so fond of. Still it provides enough thrills and food for thought for its preceding two hours.

One of my favourite scenes in the whole film was the Tilda Swinton character rehearsing her lines that she is going to speak in a meeting in front of a mirror. The whole sequence brilliantly captures how life in in these big corporates is just an act, a performance, and also shows the ethical implications when this performance is confused with the real and the authentic self. Also a brief note of remembrance for Sydney Pollack who died a few weeks back. He is one of the producers of the film and plays a secondary role in it.

It is hard to believe Sidney Lumet still making films. This guy made 12 Angry Men in 1957! On top of that Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead doesn't look like a film made by a man in his 80s. I was again somewhat reluctant to watch it when it came last year since I am generally sick of melodramas about dysfunctional families and "sick soul of suburb" that Hollywood continues to churn out on a regular basis. Many of these even go on to win Oscars. It follows the conventions of this genre pretty closely (complete with daddy-issues and stuff) and the backward and forward narrative style feels a little grating initially but soon you are stuck in the whirlpool of the story and the desperateness of the characters. Like all "from bad to worse" crime stories you begin to wonder if there is anything that can still go worse but then they always do. The acting is really top class specially by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Really an excellent piece of film making. Hope Lumet has a few more like this inside him before he decides to call it off.


Kubla Khan said...

unconnected with this post but am writing re your piece on Mary.
am baffled why it is called so, it c'd simply be Mashenka, as you point out.

this novella is not really Nabokovian, as far as word play, self aware cleverness with words etc is usually expected. however, the last few pages convey a certain melancholy, which escapes most of this novel. the characters are not well developed, as if the author is partly interested in them. there is enough scope here for what could be a great novel but somehow, it eludes the writer. the reader has to really struggle to form some empathy with Ganin or for that matter Mary, who exists in shadows. but may be that is what Nabokov intended.
this novel reminded me of Turgenev's Smoke. Have you read it?
Smoke is also based on characters, emigres, all of them, but that work is broader, more political and more is like the really great Russian novels, a novel of ideas. and somehow, even though the comparison is wrong, Mary seems a listless work, for i am still tempted to think of smoke while thinking of Mary.
re your enthusiasm about Speak, memory, i think apart from the 30 odd pages devoted to the subject of lepidoptera, i find it a good read but somehow, there is something missing.

Alok said...

I agree with most of what you say. I would put it down to the fact that it was his first novel, and he was still trying to find his voice and style, even though it is definitely present in bits and pieces throughout the book.

I started reading his long novel The Gift after Mary and have been really very impressed by it. It is extremely complex and very dense and I don't think I will be able to make much progress soon but to me it seems like the novel which was really inside him when he was writing Mary...

It is also set in Berlin in the Russian emigre circles. The initial section in which he describes his poetry and how it is related to events from his childhood is just brilliantly done, even if it was just too dense at places. There are also long stretches of commentary on russian literature, culture and history (it contains a fictionalised biography of radicalist writer Chernyshevsky) which I have been plodding through right now...

Thanks for the Turgenev recommendation. I haven't read it yet but will put it on my list.

Also reg. Speak, Memory.. I really love the chapter in which he writes about his first love (Tamara)... or in which he describes how he came to write his first poems. Even initial sections about his governess for example. In general I love the way he sublimated the feelings of pain, trauma and loss in language. I often feel language as alienating and distancing device... and Nabokov shows how it can be used for artistic effects. There is so much serenity, so much style, so much cool detachment that it makes the hidden pain all the more real.