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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 37.84%
Average: 5.41%
Pretty Bad: 2.7%
Total Crap: 0%

4 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Hard Eight
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by Chef ADogg

"Paul Thomas Anderson is pure filmmaker, from his teeth to his toes."
5 stars

When "Hard Eight" was released four years ago, the landscape of American cinema was still littered with throwaay Tarantino knockoffs--every film and it's mother wanted to be "Pulp Fiction" x 2. It wasn't enough to simply steal from the house Quentin built; you had to make like Emeril and kick it up a notch. Most directors, though, don't have T's rare skill of creating odd, violent situations and filling them with realistic characters, so their attempts to make the formula happy ended up like so many mud huts with in-ground pools and leaky roofs. That made "Hard Eight" an enormous breath of fresh air, and I'm happy to say that the amount of time since then hasn't diminished it's impact and beauty in the slightest. This is one great film.

The best films are usually the most difficult to describe, and "Hard Eight" is no exception. It's a simple story about a mysterious father figure named Sydney who comes out of nowhere to nurture two rather typical Las Vegas losers--a down-on-his-luck young man trying half-heartedly to win six thousand dollars and a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a hotel-employed prostitute. At the beginning of the film we wait for Sydney's motives to become clear; by the end we're so wrapped up in the characters that we don't care, and even begin to forget. That's the principle pleasure of "Hard Eight"--the way that it drops your guard and then rushes at you with a few sound backhands. It's audience manipulation, sure, but Paul Thomas Anderson is such a gentle, joyful filmmaker that the major slaps of the plot come off like love taps.

But that's only part of it. A lot of this film's success comes from seeing Philip Baker Hall in action--if he was a breakfast cereal, he'd be Rice Krispies. The dude is snap crackle pop, and he owns this movie. If you're watching "Hard Eight" a second or third time and the story's leaving you cold, concentrate on how Hall bites off his lines, issuing everything in the same stone monotone. If the makers of the Bond films ever decide to acknowledge reality and age their main character, this guy's gonna be rockin' a state of the art, gizmofied walker. Guaranteed.

But Hall's only part of it. As cool as it might sound, this movie just wouldn't have worked if it was nothing but Sydney talking to himself. Anderson decided to give the other male lead to John C. Reilly, one of our most beautifully low key actors. With a Medusa-like tangle of springy black curls jumping off his head, this burly, pug-ugly man brings more sensitivity and quiet strength to his role than ten Oscar-winning stars could ever dream of. He plays John, the young man who needs six thousand dollars, and makes a potentially dull character into a vivid portrait of someone we've all been at one time or another--you can see in his eyes that he knows there's no way an amateur gambler is going to win six thousand dollars, but he goes about trying anyway, simply because he has no other ideas, nowhere else to turn.

Reilly is matched, amazingly, by Gwyneth Paltrow, shrugging off the wooden casings that have inhibited her in previous roles. She takes up the part of Clementine, the somewhat dimwitted hooker, and gives a surprisingly decent performance, picking up on little tics and personality traits to make the character flesh and blood. There's a scene early on where she smiles flirtatiously at Reilly, and that one moment is filled with more warmth and intelligence than all her the two hours she spent on screen in "Shakespeare in Love"--she swoons in both films, but does so here with very deep undertones that bring dimension and reality to the screen.

Reilly, Paltrow, and Hall form the principle triangle of "Hard Eight"--three battered souls who have spent their entire lives fucking up on their own and now find peace in the bonds of makeshift family. Sydney looks over the two knockabouts like his own children, teaching them lessons and helping them to navigate through an increasingly complicated set of circumstances. The gentle balance is broken, though, when Jimmy shows up--played by Samuel L. Jackson in typical Bad Muthafucka fashion, he's a brash, unsuccessful hustler who lives in a make believe house constructed of imagined charm. We laugh as he catcalls a waitress in a casino, makes violent threats, and tries to slink through the trap he accidentally sets for himself, but never for a minute do we forget that even idiots are dangerous when they posess the right information and guide it with enough ammunition.

Anderson effortlessly brings the sundry plot threads together, making it all seem very simple when in fact his is one of the most morally complicated pictures in recent years. He paces the film slowly, giving the cast ample space to move around and the viewer plenty of time to absorb the rich details of the story; if "Hard Eight" has a flaw, it's that we're given too many minutes to analyze when we should be rushing ahead on impulse. But that's a minor problem, and easily overlooked once Anderson gets the hooks in you. After watching the film, you'll want to get inside of it tinker with the scenes you wished would have played out differently, but the the concotion is nonetheless magical as it unfurls.

"Hard Eight" ultimately works simply because Anderson grew up loving movies and watched so many of them that his instincts were formed before he even directed his first feature--the deft skill that runs throughout this and his other films ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia") sprang not from years of experience and practice but a genuine passion for his craft. You can tell when a director really enjoys his work and when's he's half assing it; Paul Thomas Anderson is pure filmmaker from his teeth to his toes, and "Hard Eight" serves as a pure, joyful manifestion of his talent and energy.

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originally posted: 02/11/00 16:11:41
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User Comments

3/17/14 jason one word"perfect" 5 stars
1/17/09 Shaun Wallner Awesome Story! 5 stars
12/05/08 K. Sear A movie without a real direction or purpose. 3 stars
4/22/08 Jack Sommersby Starts out wonderfully but soon succumbs to convention. 2 stars
4/18/06 Indrid Cold Juicy acting and dialogue, but a flimsy plot. 4 stars
11/27/02 Zack W. Young Like a well-seasoned steak; left me satisfied and happy 5 stars
3/19/02 R.W. Welch None-too-likely plot, but bonus points for atmosphere. 4 stars
1/10/01 Rob Banfitch Written, directed, acted, and filmed beautifully. 5 stars
2/12/00 Skye Chapman good flick! 5 stars
2/11/00 JonnyAngel Refreshingly brilliant. 5 stars
7/23/99 Goofus Deserves full marks for originality if nothing else. 5 stars
1/11/99 Joe C. slowly simmers to a boil...well acted and superb story telling... 5 stars
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  28-Feb-1997 (R)



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