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HARD EIGHT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson
Director:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  October 5, 1999

Film ***1/2

Paul Thomas Anderson makes a film the way a master chef prepares an extraordinary meal.  While he’s cooking up his secrets in the kitchen, he teases you with the aroma, and while he feeds you the scrumptious appetizers, you know all the while that the main entrée is still to come.  When it comes, its both surprising and savory, and just when you think you’re too full for dessert, he brings it out, and it’s too good to pass up.

Hard Eight, Anderson’s predecessor to his acclaimed and amazing Boogie Nights, is a superb character driven drama, and the only Las Vegas movie I can remember that uses the city strictly as background, rather than letting it dominate certain aspects of the film.  The story centers around an unusual relationship between two men, the older, wiser Sidney (Hall) and the younger, more impetuous John (Reilly).  They meet outside a coffee house, where Sidney senses that John’s is another of the many hard luck stories that make up the painful margins of Vegas life.  He offers him a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and for reasons unexplained (at first), offers to take John back to the city and show him a thing or two about how to work the casino system.

Their friendship grows over a two year period, with John obviously endeavoring to be more and more like Sidney in his own life…he dresses like him, orders the same drink…but unfortunately for him, he cannot master the same kind of coolness Sidney has.  Sidney seems to have fallen into a pattern of rescuing John from his mistakes.  Soon, they face a rather sticky crisis involving waitress/hooker Clementine (Paltrow) and a rather seedy friend of John’s named Jimmy (Jackson).  And given the way Anderson masterfully leads his audience through his story, that’s as much plot information as I can give out.

I have to say that Sidney is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve seen in some time.  There’s an aura of mystery about him, but it’s not overplayed.  He seems to be a class act, a good man, and one can only wonder what his penchant for gambling is all about.  He’s not the typical gambling addict, nor does he seem to make a living at it.  It’s something he does, and understands, and it’s just a part of his life that he just accepts, even though it constantly puts him in the company of characters you’d think he’d rather not be around.  He is a cool head in a crisis, though he lets on that there just might be something more dangerous underneath the surface.  He speaks plainly, and to the point, without playing the kind of word games that those around him constantly seem to engage in.  This is a stellar acting job from Philip Baker Hall.

But all of the cast members rise to the challenge…John C. Reilly is a relaxed natural on screen who helps bring a good sense of give-and-take to his scenes with Hall.  Samuel L. Jackson brings just the right mix of humor and edginess to Jimmy, and Gwyneth Paltrow presents Clementine as a sad and frustrated woman trying to make her life work the best ways she knows how.

And not enough can be said about filmmaker Anderson.  One, he has a great feel for natural dialogue, and as such, his characters are a pleasure to listen to.  When they speak, it’s real talk, about real concerns and real thoughts.  Two, his sense of direction is impeccable.  He brings a wonderful sense of rhythm and timing into his pictures.  He maintains a good sense of energy throughout, rather than spending it all in a few bursts of power and leaving long empty gaps of lifeless celluloid, as some directors can be guilty of.  And he’s a consummate master of the tracking shot.  Not only are they technically well performed, they all serve a purpose, to establish scenes and scenarios, and to create the rhythm he’s looking for.  He’s one of the few directors that can achieve a rhythmic sense with both long shots and careful editing.

Hard Eight was a definite indication of a young, talented filmmaker’s blossoming genius, and this film, together with Boogie Nights, leads me to believe we can expect a lot more cinema magic from Paul Thomas Anderson.

Video ****

Outstanding quality!  This is a triumph for Columbia Tri Star.  Images are perfectly sharp and crisp throughout, and the color rendering is extraordinary, blending the bright, colorful night life scenes of the casinos with the natural presentation of flesh tones and other shades.  Some of the night scenes are breathtaking, with various colored neon signs and flashing chaser lights against the black night, and there are no instances of bleeding or distortion. 

Audio ***

The surround soundtrack is mostly low key, but watch out…Anderson delivers one or two dynamic punches that may just rock you back in your seat.  The rear stage is sparingly but effectively used.

Features ***1/2

Not one, but two commentary tracks are included, as well as two trailers, a deleted scene, and some early Sundance festival test shots for scenes that would eventually appear in Hard Eight.

Summary:

Hard Eight is terrific filmmaking…a little more low key than Boogie Nights, but with great characters, a great script, and wonderful direction by first timer Paul Thomas Anderson, who clearly demonstrates that he has what it takes to make great movies for a long time.  With this quality DVD presentation, this is a can’t miss disc for those who are serious about their cinema.