Tuesday, September 13, 2005

And now for something completely different:
Gwyneth and I catch a movie together

We're in the the thick of the 30th annual Toronto International Film Festival. (I can't believe I've actually lived here so long that I attended the very first one. I think that may also have been the last one I went to.) The town is positively stinking with stars, and trendy Yorkville is nearly impassable for the fans who wander around looking for ANYBODY, to see them eating at the hottest bistros or coming out of stores with multiple pairs of $800 shoes. ("Wow! She's carrying her own bags! Just like you and me!")

So one of my husband's partners is married to a woman who worked for the Festival for over ten years, and she was offered some tickets, so six of us made an evening of it. Had a nice dinner at a wine bar just a little too far from the action to have attracted much of a crowd on a Monday. (Damn-- I was counting on seeing SOMEBODY.) Then we cabbed it to Roy Thompson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony, but not such a bad place to watch a film as it turned out.

There was a huge line-up because the 6:30 premiere had started late. (The "talent", we were informed, had not been on time: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, and several other people who are probably famous-- hence all the screaming as they departed out the front-- but I never heard of them.) We joined the line of the ticketed at the half-a-block mark (too far from the red carpet to see who was being screamed for), but our hostess was convinced she could find some old associate to get us through the door without the wait. So she walked around, phoned, blackberried in all directions, and eventually an escort arrived to take us to the door.

Just outside the velvet ropes, where the red carpet turned left under the canopy, we were handed over to another escort, who held us back for a moment. Cameras were flashing, groupies were screaming, and there, paused at the door and looking sultry for the hoards of photographers, was Gwyneth Paltrow, a vision in black satin-- some kind of blouse with trailing bits, and two long tubes of pant-leg that would have been skin tight on anyone not quite so anorexic down there. (She actually has arms that don't look like Lara Flynn Boyle's, but her legs are like toothpicks-- she needs to eat a little something.) As soon as she was through the door, the rope was pulled aside and the next people on the carpet were us.

Who the hell?!

Well, our hostess did in fact know people among the paparazzi and there were a few hugs and kisses as we went down the line. (For her, not for us.) Inside we were handed to another handler, and then escorted all around Robin Hood's barn to our spot in the not-so-fashionable section on the far right. (Just one barrier away from the mere public.) The auditorium never did fill up, which made me wonder whether they had been trying to pad the hall when our tickets were offered.

We got started a good 45 minutes late, what with all the intro speeches (one particularly lame money-backer got the hook) and presentation of the cast and director.

The film: PROOF
The story of a sensitive young math wizard, Catherine, (my good friend Gwyneth) who had cared for her genius math-prof father (Anthony Hopkins) through several years of mental illness and dementia until his death. The day before the funeral she lets one of her father's protegés, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, go through some of his many notebooks made during his last years to see if there's anything lucid in them. Then her sister Claire (Hope Davis-- I know I'm out of it, but who is Hope Davis?) arrives, a nattering nagging living proof that insanity might just run in the family. She's all prepped to sell the house, drag the possibly unstable Catherine to live with her in New York (so Claire can "take care of her"), and generally be an annoying drip-torture in pink for the rest of her days.

My review: (IMHO, as the text messagers say)
This was an entertaining yarn. Always refreshing to see a film with a premise built on something different from most other films-- mathematics. We've been there before, with Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind). (I use the term "we" loosely-- I haven't seen either of those films.) Lots of flashbacks, not always perfectly clear when they started (the change of seasons was helpful) but eventually came into focus, and a good technique for stepping inside of a fragile mind (Catherine's).

The film --I think it's supposed to be a "film" rather than a "movie" (an old film-buff friend of ours made this distinction without entirely explaining it, tongue firmly planted in cheek, but making a valid point anyway) -- is based on an American play in which Gwyneth Paltrow also starred in London, where the actress got better reviews than the play.

I would have to agree with that assessment. I know less than nothing about higher mathematics so I have to take it on faith there's any authenticity to the significance of the material which is the catalyst of this whole drama (but I think I heard some math experts chortling at it as we left). There was a time when total fabrication of countries, diseases, and mysterious formulae could pass without anyone caring whether they were real, but that was back when you would watch anything just to see Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman in it. The reviewer in Britain's Independent felt that "the play patronises the audience by running a mile from any real discussion of the eponymous discovery," which is a fair criticism of the film as well.

The London Times went further, calling it "a glib exercise in political correctness, as lacking in depth as in mystery. Still, parts of it might have been composed by Neil Simon in one of his more rueful, less hilarious moods. It's a deftly written, skilfully constructed play, and it contains moments that might catch fire if not exactly blaze. " I think that's a bit harsh, but not totally off the mark.

The reason I think reviews of the play are directly relevant to the film version is that I was painfully aware while watching it that it was an adaptation of something meant for the stage. The dialogue is often anything but naturalistic-- glib indeed, with repartee too clever by half. When it's at its thickest, Gyllenhaal does a slightly better job of delivering it naturally than Paltrow does, but then Anthony Hopkins gets on the screen and you realize how a truly fine actor can work with just about anything and make it believable.

The Times was also harsh about Paltrow, opining that for the play to have "blazed" the actress would have to "expand what, on the evidence here, is her rather limited range..." Well, maybe so. I've only seen about five of her movies, and she certainly has enough magnetism to hold her own on screen with some heavyweights. (She does serious work in A Perfect Murder.) However, I often found her knuckle-nibbling potential Ophelia in "Proof" more stagey than deep, and certainly nothing new -- overall a hot-and-cold performance. Gyllenhaal was very believable and a good face for the dissheveled nerdily hip math geek, although I had trouble seeing him as a professor. He's supposed to have completed the Ph.D. and be on the University of Chicago faculty, but I would have bought him more as a grad student TA.

The London reviewers compared the play Proof to its filmic antecedent A Beautiful Mind ("execrable") and to a British play Copenhagen (all about physicists!), and found it better than the former but paltry next to the latter. Then again, finding things American to be paltry is a big hobby across the pond-- I suppose some of it comes from England having produced so darned many citizens who have a decent basic education in math, science, and the humanities. (They're so annoying that way.) The Independent summed it up as "hokum-on-stilts. Less than the sum of its derivative parts, it is Broadway's mistaken idea of a truly penetrating play." Ouch. But possibly true.

It was a nice evening out. Movies cost $13.50 here. I wouldn't feel cheated to have paid it.

But last night it was free. And I crossed the red-carpet threshhold just behind my good friend Gwyneth. Won't be happening at my local Cineplex anytime soon. So, two thumbs up. (I get to use both of mine.)

Back in the real world

George Will dares to write down a so-far-unmentionable truth about the victims of the floods in New Orleans. Well, I mentioned it-- but only to a friend (David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen etc.) in an email, as follows:

Also a timely piece on illegitimacy at Opinion Journal, a subject on my mind as I watched the hurricane coverage, in which it became ever more clear that most of the women with children had no man around to help them, and didn't appear to be in search of one. There seemed to be thousands of mother-child combinations, sticking together but not apparently missing a specific father component-- not crying for lost husbands or telling that story when interviewed by newsies. I'm thinkin' maybe more of them would have left if they'd been part of a normal family unit, in which a protector would have taken charge and got them moving in time.

George Will takes this phenomenon head-on, as part of a look at the whole question of Louisianna and federal money. Of the well-established link between illegitimacy and poverty, he reminds us of "three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don't have a baby until you are married, don't marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal." Rules, it bears repeating, which do not discriminate on the basis of race.

New Orleans had a lengthy and specific disaster plan in place, which would have eased the crisis in the Big Easy considerably had the mayor held up his end. But New Orleans is not alone as a place that would have benefited had American society in general faced up to the red-alert disaster plan for the disintegrating nuclear family advocated by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in March of 1965. Forty years later we are no further ahead, and the socio-economic profile of New Orleans is the textbook example of how it all turned out.

Not the whole problem, not the whole solution, to the crises of the past few weeks. But a good part of the explanation of what they call the "optics" of the situation.

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