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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.

Review: “An Education” (2009)

The pure miracle of “An Education,” adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by author Nick Hornby, who doesn’t deal in schmaltz, is that there are many missteps the film could make and does not. Thirtysomething David (Peter Sarsgaard),  wooing a teen-age girl, could come off like a leering pedophile, but he doesn’t. Jenny (Carey Mulligan, bursting with promise), the schoolgirl besotted with him, could be oversexed jailbait or a helpless victim, but she isn’t. Their tentative romance could seem indecent, even tawdry, but it doesn’t. Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” is more delicate, more understanding of the intricacies of human wants, than that.

Reflect, for a moment, on one of the film’s earliest scenes, where Jenny and David meet for the first time. An afternoon London shower has soaked her and her cello, and in swoops David, part snake in the grass and part concerned music lover. He’s worried, he quips, about her instrument, even offering to give the cello a ride. Watch her expression in these moments; Mulligan affects a curious smile, a playful but knowing one implying she not only knows David’s game but gets a little thrill from playing along. She knows she won’t be the same girl after meeting this man that she was before. There’s a spark in Mulligan’s eyes, too, that tells us “An Education” won’t be a weepy melodrama about an adult using a child but a story of two people who see in each other opportunities to get what they believe they need, or perhaps merely want.

After that first meeting, David sets about getting what he wants: Jenny. He’s good enough at courtship that there’s a slightly disquieting feeling he’s done this before, perhaps many times. (It can’t be stressed enough how perfect Sarsgaard is for this part; he exudes charm but also finds neediness in David that isn’t off-putting.) First come flowers on the doorstep that anger Jenny’s father Jack (Alfred Molina, perenially enjoyable); the ever-winsome David’s just getting warmed up. Then he shows up in their home, the picture of smoothness, able to quiet their worries about him taking Jenny to a classical concert with disarming politeness and promises his aunt will be there. It’s almost comical that Jack and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) seem less prepared for David’s charm than Jenny is, and it isn’t long before they’re approving school-night dinners in fancy restaurants and weekend jaunts with his glamorous friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike, who deserved a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Academy). They welcome Jenny so readily it almost seems they’re re-enacting a routine. Pike in particular leaves a delicate but lasting impression. For all her furs, French perfumes and twinkling jewels, there’s a wariness in her face every time she looks at Jenny, as though Helen could speak from experience but chokes back her words. Helen might know that Jenny could be her in 15 years, and Jenny’s teacher (Olivia Williams) seems to know the dangers inherent in David’s pursuit.

Delicate, again, is the appropriate word to describe how “An Education” goes about developing Jenny and David’s relationship. Hornby’s screenplay keeps the drama to a minimum until it becomes necessary to the storyline, and even then complications — which might be explosive and messy in lesser films — are handled with care. Behind the camera, Scherfig favors close-up shots of the more serene moments, the little interactions, touches and glances that provide all the meaning we need. The director trains his camera on the actors and more specifically on Mulligan’s face and hands, finding the awkward, swan-like grace in the way she exits a car, steals a sideways glance at David or taps the ashes from her French cigarette. The camera, it’s obvious, has fallen hard for this young woman.

Only the steely-hearted could resist Mulligan’s charms, for their is much to love. Chatter about her Audrey Hepburn-ness abounds, and yet this 24-year-old emerges, at the end of “An Education,” as a true original, someone in full command of her considerable acting gifts. She keeps much to herself, but you won’t soon forget that face and those weary eyes. They’ll keep you wondering and worrying about the real damage done.

Grade: A

One to Watch: “An Education”

I’ve come to believe that movies choose us as much as we choose them. Maybe that makes me a bit of a romantic (which is sort of revolutionary, since I’m a hard-line skeptic about most things), but movies keep finding their way to me when I’m ready to see them. Case in point: “An Education.”

Now don’t start thinking I’m excited about this one because of some beautiful, tawdry affair I had at age 16 with a much-older man who used me for my lithe teenage body but ultimately taught me many a deep life lesson in the process. This is not the case. (I suspect the reason is because in high school I never met any older men as effortlessly handsome as Peter Sarsgaard.) No, I’m eager to see “An Education” because it’s the kind of boundary-pushing, morally complex film I don’t believe I could have appreciated 10, or even five, years ago. Use “Lars and the Real Girl” as a reference point. At age 16, could anyone have grasped the strange beauty of a movie about a damaged touch-me-not who finds true love with a life-sized (and anatomically correct!) sex doll?

These days I like to think I’ve grown enough to appreciate movies that force me to question my beliefs, standards, ideas about the world and the way people interact within that world.

Or maybe I’ve just gotten tired of movies where the guy gets the girl, they roll off into the sunset in their luxury SUV and everything is kittens, sunshine and rainbows.