Heads up! I have been to the 22nd annual Toronto International Film Festival, and I have seen the new Quentin Tarantino. His name is Paul Thomas Anderson, and Boogie Nights, his wild, virtuosic, ecstatically outrageous epic about the hardcore-porn world of the late ’70s and early ’80s, is, in every sense, the most sensational act of moviemaking so far this year. Anderson, who is only 27, gleefully pulls back the curtain on the tawdry erotic spectacle of porn studs, sleaze queens, and scumbucket entrepreneurs who give new meaning to the term money shot. As Dirk Diggler (ne Eddie Adams), a 17-year-old San Fernando Valley busboy who turns into the hottest hunk in the business, Mark Wahlberg comes through with his first full-scale performance: ingenuous, sultry, star-making. As Boogie Nights spirals forward, in a razzmatazz episodic style inspired by Scorsese’s GoodFellas, the disco-dazed, shot-on-film porn of the ’70s gets replaced by the pitiless glare of hardcore video, and Anderson, making an audacious leap into violence and dread, nudges his ticklish portrait of the porn underworld into a head-spinning statement on excess, illusion, and the lost romance of pleasure in American life. It’s a movie that may well leave Quentin and Marty drop-jawed with envy.
Moving from the sleazy to the sublime, The Wings of the Dove, adapted from one of Henry James’ most elusive novels, is the finest Masterpiece Theatre movie since The Remains of the Day. It stars that familiar china doll Helena Bonham Carter, but you’ve never seen her quite like this — she’s more radiant, more womanly, than before, and this new dark-toned shimmer suits her character, a plotting aristocratic scion who risks being cast out of London society if she marries the man she loves (Linus Roache, from Priest). Setting their sights on an ailing American heiress (Alison Elliott), the two embark on a plan whose ”benign” insincerity is destined to be its own undoing. Director Iain Softley, far from the rock & roll alleys of BackBeat, tenderly eroticizes James’ novel, but he also stays true to what makes it great — its filigreed psychology and moral rigor. It’s fascinating, by contrast, to see Washington Square, Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of James. The filmmaking is patchy and somber, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the plain-Jane rich girl, seems anachronistic in her dawdling self-consciousness. Yet James’ story still packs a primal Freudian-gothic kick. Its true subject is the heroine’s discovery not of love but of pride, and that’s an emotion that Leigh, by the end, gets dazzlingly right.
James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy is a true conversation piece: The characters talk and talk and talk, and afterward, you will too. In a SoHo duplex, Robert Downey Jr., as a charming lout, is confronted by the two girlfriends (Heather Graham and Natasha Wagner) with whom he has been pretending to carry on monogamous relationships. Do they want to kill him? Of course. Mostly, though, they want to know why, and the film shares their inquiring fervor. Toback has written a terrific part for Downey, who gets to plumb the inner mysteries of his slippery-glass persona.