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Flights of Fancy 

Two Oscar-winning actresses take off

Say, is it too late to modify my opinion of Red Eye? August's plucky-woman-in-peril-while-aboard-an-airplane thriller was a nifty "B"-style flick that only went down as it hit its conventional third act. By contrast, Flightplan, September's plucky-woman-in-peril-while-aboard-an-airplane thriller, is an involving "A"-list project that doesn't just go down as it reaches its preposterous third act -- it then proceeds to explode on contact, creating fireballs of flaws so massive they obliterate entire theater auditoriums and even singe the concession stands.

Both films require some suspension of disbelief, but Red Eye at least took care to dot every i, cross every t, and shovel dirt into every gaping plothole. Flightplan has trouble even getting past its basic set-up: Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), a recent widow catching a Berlin-to-New York flight along with her 6-year-old daughter (newcomer Marlene Lawston, a bit too studied for my taste), becomes frantic once the girl disappears during the course of the flight. The entire premise rests on the fact that no one else aboard the plane, from the crew to the passengers, ever once caught a glimpse of the moppet, thereby establishing in their minds Kyle as a woman who's delusional and possibly dangerous. Yet even in these days of disconnectness, the beaming purity of a cute child still has the ability to turn heads and generate affectionate smiles, so the fact that no one -- not even the stewardess (Erika Christensen) boarding the passengers -- notices the little girl taking her seat, wandering the aisles or getting snatched by a stranger isn't just hard to swallow, it practically requires a tracheotomy on our part.

Once Flightplan gets over this expository hump, it begins to work its magic as a competent thriller. Director Robert Schwentke exhibits aptitude in his ability to stage tense confrontations between Kyle and her doubters, while the meticulous recreation of a jumbo airliner, with all its decks and compartments and personnel-only passageways (production designer Alexander Hammond does a bang-up job), provides the film with a setting that feels as expansive and full of mystery as Baskerville Hall. Yet what really sparks this portion is Foster: Glimpsed at the beginning of the film as a lost soul shell-shocked by her husband's death, Kyle springs into action once her daughter goes MIA, scaring passengers, ignoring the flight attendants and berating the pilot (Sean Bean) and air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard). Foster doesn't hold back, and the intensity she brings to her character reminds us that few things are as driven and desperate as a parent seeking to protect its own.

As long as Foster is allowed to tap into the psychological bent of her character, the movie remains compelling enough that we're almost willing to overlook the shabby set-up. But at about the two-thirds mark -- past the point of no return in airline lingo -- the film begins its narrative descent. The identity of the primary villain has been so transparent for so long that we eventually convince ourselves that no movie would be this obvious, that there must be a masterful bait-and-switch going on. Think again. From there, Flightplan deteriorates at a rapid clip, with a ludicrous resolution, several unanswered questions and gargantuan leaps in logic. For starters, this is the sort of film in which there's absolutely no reason for the villains to keep the girl alive except so she can be saved by her mother when the climactic time is right (after all, it'd be a bummer for paying customers if Mom went through all this trouble just to rescue a corpse).

It's a shame, as Foster's performance deserves a better showcase. Instead, she's much like the lone suitcase that finds itself left on the baggage claim belt, circling wearily while surrounded by an atmosphere of indifference.

PROOF IS A MOVIE about two beautiful minds. One has been drained of all creativity and inspiration, with only madness choosing to rent the suddenly available space. The other leads a life of exile, so paralyzed by fear and regret that solitude seems like the best course of action for all concerned. There's no hope for the former, but can the latter be saved?

That's the pressing question at the center of this screen adaptation of David Auburn's acclaimed play, which managed to snag both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. Like Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, the film tries to turns mathematics into a cinematically sexy beast; unfortunately, John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) possesses even less visual flair than Howard, so try as he might, he can never fully disguise this piece's stage roots. Luckily, the scripting and acting exist at such a lofty level that the picture's lack of mobility is never a drawback.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Catherine, the daughter of a math professor named Robert (Anthony Hopkins) who recently passed away. In his prime (which, for mathematicians, is supposed to be in their early to mid-20s), Robert was a genius whose various proofs revolutionized his academic field. But as he grew old, he was gripped by madness, and now his daughter, who took care of him during the waning years of his life, must come to grips with her own talent -- and sanity. Has she inherited her father's astonishing analytical skills? And if so, has she also inherited his madness? No one seems to know -- not Catherine's anal-retentive sister Claire (Hope Davis), not Robert's former student Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), not even Catherine herself.

Eventually, Catherine presents Claire and Hal with a never-before-seen proof, and the film turns into a mystery of the mildest sort: Did Robert experience a moment of lucidity during his infirmity, at which point he was able to produce one final equation, or did Catherine come up with the theorem, proving that she might not be a pale imitation of her father but rather his equal? The answer to that question isn't as compelling as the dynamics that play out between Catherine and the other characters: her strained banter with her pushy sister, her tentative opening up to the boyish Hal, and her borderline masochistic dealings with her father (who appears both in flashbacks and as a ghostly figment of her imagination).

None of this interplay would amount to much if it wasn't for the exemplary performance by Paltrow, whose melancholy descent into possible madness produces a kick that was noticeably absent in her recent Sylvia Plath biopic. More than anyone else connected with Proof, she provides this intelligent film with its winning equation.

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