Saturday, October 01, 2005

I was lucky enough to see the Broadway production of David Auburn's Proof starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Josh Hamilton, though not lucky enough to catch it when Mary Louise Parker starred. I had serious doubts about John (Shakespeare in Love) Madden's casting of Gwyneth Paltrow, even though she'd starred in a London production of the play, which he also directed. Much as I like Paltrow, I was afraid it just wouldn't compare to the theater experience. Boy, was I wrong. Unglamorous (as opposed to deglamorized, like Charlize Theron in her serious mode), Paltrow's Catherine is completely lived in from her very first couch potato depression intro. Her performance is a powerful emotional experience of deceptive subtlety, superbly modulated between the present and the flashback storylines, paying off in the very end when the subtlest note of comfort registers on her face as Jake Gyllenhaal's Hal reassures her that heredity isn't destiny. The theme of the tightrope walk between genius and madness is well-trodden ground, but the intelligent script (thank goodness, well-adapted!) keeps the story fresh by dealing with mathematics--not music or literature as usual--and by making one of the geniuses an underdog, a young woman in a field utterly dominated by men. (Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia is another excellent but completely different treatment of this idea.) Think A Beautiful Mind with roles reversed, and without the cheesy thriller plot. The story is also a powerful romance and family drama. Anthony Hopkins is excellent, and there's a plausibility to the whole story which I never expected to survive a translation to the big screen. It was also exciting, as it was in such a different way in this year's Batman Begins, to see genuine Chicago locations. Hope Davis, as one should almost expect, is outstanding and perfectly cast as Paltrow's older sister, a type A personality with good intentions, and Gyllenhaal is charming, compelling as Paltrow's sympathetic love interest. But Paltrow is unexpectedly good, even for so likable an actress, certainly earning her 1999 Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love. Her character's stifled pride and self doubt, her frustration and inspiration all convince. Her moment of mathematical epiphany avoids any hint of showiness. She may very well win a second statue, and is sure to be nominated.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Corpse Bride was a pure joy for me, especially as it signalled Tim Burton's return to form. It's been 11 years since his true masterpiece, Ed Wood, one of the very finest Hollywood films of the 90s, followed by the delightfully dopey satire Mars Attacks in 1996. His Sleepy Hollow (1999) wasn't perfect, but there was no doubt it was a Tim Burton movie. In fact, it seemed to signal a restlessness on Burton's part with his own signature style: the Elfman score, the Depp collaboration, Winona Ryder protege Christina Ricci and the Halloween elements somehow weren't quite enough to capture the old magic. He wandered in the woods for a while, turning out the execrable Planet of the Apes remake (2001), followed by the big schmaltz of Big Fish (2003). Earlier this year, the strong but uneven Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (another remake?!) hinted that he was on the comeback trail, but Corpse Bride, which he co-directed, confirms it, a big improvement over even his A Nightmare Before Christmas (which he produced but didn't direct). The dream cast are delightful, and his Victorian Victor and Victoria story is an original mishmash of the zombie and romantic comedy genres. Like his best work, it's fluff, but enjoyably subversive. I had no idea how it was going to end (and I still wonder if a twist on the Persephone myth might have resolved the plot better), but the ending satisfied, and the twisted imagery was pure Burtonian magic.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Katha Pollitt, always a great columnist, outdid herself recently. It's a bit of a depressing read, but right on target.

Song: Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." (Check out this funny article on its overuse in recent films and tv shows. One the author missed: The Edukators, which plays big chunks of the song at least three times, to the point where you get sick of hearing it.)



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