No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

Downey, Rourke power second “Iron Man” installment

Only a true friend (Don Cheadle) would stick around for an army drone smackdown.

Self-effacing superheroes are so 20th century, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man who belongs firmly to the 21st. The “just doing my job” routine isn’t in his repertoire. Tony’s a megalomaniac who rockets onto the Stark Expo stage with fireworks, blaring arena rock and scantily clad dancers. There’s a dire shortage of superheroes who stare up the skirts of their own cheerleaders, if you ask me. 

The Downey we love does not do humble. He does do cocky, self-destructive and sarcastic. Because he does them better than any actor working today, “Iron Man 2″ soars when it should falter. Downey’s rakish charm has carried smaller ventures than this, but the fact that they can prop up a gigantic comic book franchise movie like this is astounding. Two years after Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” the more fully-rounded film, “Iron Man 2″ falls into the same trap “Spider-Man 3″ did. Think of it as the Lure of Too Muchness: too much plot, too many explosions and villains (note: both are unassailably cool). Any actor could be forgiven for getting lost in the smoke. Downey knows what he’s doing, though, and he’s mostly all the fuel “Iron Man 2″ needs.

Where “Iron Man” ended in 2008 is where “Iron Man 2″ begins. The opening credits belong to Mickey Rourke (terrifying in his “Russian villain suit”) as Ivan Vanko, an ex-con physicist who watches Tony Stark strut like a peacock at the expo. Grief over his father’s death turns to rage as Ivan watches Tony don the suit Ivan believes his father helped create. But Ivan isn’t the only foe Iron Man faces. On his case are the head of a congressional committee (Gary Shandling, funny as ever), who’s pressuring Tony — and confidante Lt. Col. Rhodes 2.0 (Don Cheadle) — to relinquish his Iron Man suit to the government, and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), keen to design a suit to “make Iron Man look like an antique.” There’s a new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), too mysterious to be legit. And there’s something else: The electromagnet in Tony’s chest is poisoning his blood. He tells no one, not even colleague-or-lover? Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), convinced he has to keep up what Rhodey calls his “lone gunslinger act.” It may be this act, not his blood toxicity, that really gets him.

Speaking of “getting,” let’s declare Mickey Rourke’s comeback a flaming success. True, in “Iron Man 2″ Ivan sometimes comes across as a caricature. The Russian accent (it makes Cate Blanchett’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” brogue seem tame), the 44-karat smile, the hair — it all hollers supervillain in Big Capital Letters, the opposite of what Jeff Bridges did with Obadiah Stane. Still, that was another movie, and Rourke puts his own menacing stamp on Ivan (that sinister chuckle was made for supervillainy). His showdown with Iron Man at the Grand Prix in Monaco is thrilling, a superb combination of great CGI and great acting. Another reason this scene resonates is because the parts are tailored for the actors; both have lived the histories, to some extent, that their characters have: beaten down by circumstance or bad choices, then resurrected through sheer force of will. Rourke and Downey bring a raw, bruised humanity to their parts few other actors could. Who better to rise from the ashes than these two?

Remaining cast members are all over the map. Despite Sam Rockwell’s inherent coolness, Hammer is less interesting. He feels thrown in for comic relief. Johansson fills out that zippered bodysuit fetchingly … and that’s all. Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, is suave personified; only a pirate could wear the eye patch better. Paltrow’s part is whittled down to nothing, though her chemistry with Downey doesn’t suffer for it. I was unsure of Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but a rewatch of “Iron Man” sold me. Never showy, the new Rhodey brings a quieter energy to the part that makes the character more nuanced, so some might mistake his performance as bland. And while “Iron Man 2″ as a film has the opposite problem, it’s still the kind of ride you want to take more than once.

Grade: B+

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49″) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

“Iron Man 2″ pumps up star power with Johansson, Rourke

She is not money, she doesn’t know it and neither does Jon Favreau.

What am I ranting about now? Well, I’ll tell you: Favreau, who put his “Swingers” fame to shame and reinvented Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the incredible “Iron Man,” has decided to cast Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. While this news has sent men worldwide into a dizzy, dirty thought montage set to “Cherry Pie,” I am decidedly displeased. Unhappy and unamused while we’re at it.

Why? Well, if there’s one thing Scarlett’s proven over the years it’s that she peaked before puberty. Don’t believe me? Rent “Manny and Lo,” “Ghost World” or “Horse Whisperer.” Then watch, oh, any of the following — “The Prestige,” “Scoop,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Match Point,” etc. etc. What you’ll notice about the latter films is that she plays the same character. Every. Single. Time. She’s the husky-voiced sexpot with hair so frighteningly blond I fear the bleach has leaked into her brain and made her think she must turn every character into a Husky-Voiced Sexpot. (I’m certain that’s why she released that dreadful CD, anyway.) She has no range. She looks and sounds ridiculous in period pieces, so she was awful in “The Other Boleyn,” “The Prestige” and “Black Dahlia.” The worse news is that she’s only marginally talented at playing the only part she knows how to play. (“Lost in Translation,” as far as I’m concerned, was a blip on the radar. ) So I expect with “Iron Man 2″ she revamp her HVS role. Joy.

The news isn’t all bad, though. It seems Rourke, fresh off the Oscar loss, is ready to prove “The Wrestler” was no happy accident. Can he play a villain? If you’re like me and you’ve seen “Spun,” you know that answer — of course he can. The years haven’t been kind to Mickey’s face, but they’ve clearly made him an actor capable of tackling one-note characters and making them amusing, empathetic, even downright creepy. He made my skin crawl as The Cook in “Spun,” the best “meth movie” to date, so I’m not worried. Throw in a little Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes and Tim Robbins, who’s rumored to be set to play Howard Stark, and I’ll overlook that whole ScarJo mishap.

Well, almost.

It’s hard out there … for a sidekick

“I’m here trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime, and I ain’t even got a cent, man.”

Oh, how I do love a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that actor Terrence Howard, who rapped this very line in his Oscar-nominated performance as DJay in “Hustle & Flow,” has been scrapped as Jim Rhodes in the sequel to this summer’s wildly “Iron Man.” The reason? According to Marvel Studios, it’s all about a disagreement over — you guessed it — the Benjamins. Or lack thereof.

But there is a slight glimmer of hope. (Just how slight depends on whether you can appreciate so-understated-they-get-stuck-in-tiny-secondary-parts actors.) Marvel has tapped Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” star Don Cheadle (a.k.a. Basher Tarr in all, oh, 17 “Ocean’s” films) as Howard’s replacement.

Wait. Stop. Rewind. Don CHEADLE? As an ACTION HERO? Have we slipped into a parallel universe? Will Lindsay Lohan portray Madeline Albright in a future biopic?

I thinketh not. I am jumping on the Don Cheadle-as-Jim Rhodes bandwagon. Why? For starters, Cheadle’s an actor who gives performances that are layered, where the meaning is there but viewers have to work to find it. He’s understated, subtle even; he never chews up the scenery. Howard did much the same thing in “Iron Man”; he was yin to Robert Downey Jr.’s yang. The role calls for someone capable of delivering one-liners without stealing the entire spotlight. That’s something Cheadle can do in his sleep. Plus, Cheadle’s done everything from political dramas (“Hotel Rwanda”) to indie flicks (“Manic”) to spy thrillers (the recent “Traitor”). The guy’s got range that’s ridiculous, and he’s got talent to burn.

So here’s to hoping Cheadle lights it up in the sequel. If I’m wrong? Well, everybody’s gotta have a dream, right?

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