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Hard Eight: Special Edition

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly,
Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is a gambler, living well, though not extravagantly, on carefully considered odds in the many casinos of Reno and Las Vegas. His quiet, inconspicuous demeanor is in direct contrast to his garish environs and the belligerent tourists who frequent them. An older man settled in to a comfortable existence, Sydney's only nod to impetuousness is his weakness at the craps table for betting on the hard eight.

A hard eight is two fours (whereas a soft eight would be a three and a five, or a six and a two) and Sydney acknowledges it's a foolish bet. But when emotion gets the best of him, he follows his heart.

It's this same emotional tendency that draws Sydney to John (John C. Reilly). Sydney finds him broken down, penniless and hungry outside a road-stop cafe. Sydney offers the young man a cup of coffee, and over coffee offers him $50 and a lesson in success within the Vegas system. John is suspicious of this distinguished gentleman's motives, but in his circumstances has little choice but to accept.

Two years down the road and Sydney has become like a father to John, who has learned to live comfortably within the less aggressive atmosphere of Reno. Sydney is content to play Keno while John pursues more exciting times, buddying around with crude Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). In an effort to secure John more agreeable companionship, Sydney takes another roll of the dice — this time on Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow), an aimless but sweet cocktail waitress who offers extra services for bigger tips.

Hard Eight (also known as Sydney) is the first feature from skilled writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who established himself as an incredible talent with his subsequent retro-porn epic Boogie Nights. But Anderson wasn't holding anything back in his debut and, though quite different in tone, Hard Eight is likewise a compelling character study set against a traditionally seedy backdrop.

Anderson directs his camera with rare assurance, creating a palpable kinetic energy with his choice of movement and framing, but, like Sydney, never conspicuously. First and foremost for Anderson is character, and he has a dumbfounding knack for spinning rich, diverse people, life-like but never stooping into the annoying, cloying quirkiness that too many writers mistake for personality. There is a riveting reality to Anderson's textures and rhythms, but, even better, his characters suggest what real people would be like if they were more engaging.

This first-timer has an unconventional approach to narrative, and, while admirable and refreshing, it's here that Hard Eight encounters its only sign of turbulence. Half-way into the movie, the plot turns from casual character study to an event-driven scenario, and while this doesn't exactly derail the picture, it does jarringly disrupt the mesmerizing, enigmatic vibe established so far. Of course, this is by design, as the characters lose control of their lives, but it feels that for a moment Anderson does too. However, it doesn't take long for everything to come back into focus, and Anderson's climax is as terrific as his final moment is gentle and priceless.

Listen to any Anderson commentary track and you'll know immediately how highly he regards his actors, and none of them let him down. Hall is reserved, yet commanding, Reilly desperately vulnerable, and Paltrow lost and confused. It's a terrific, albeit slightly difficult, film, despite Anderson's reservations over studio interference with the final cut.

That hasn't stopped Columbia TriStar from releasing a great DVD. Hard Eight is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (with a full-frame 1.33:1 option), in Dolby Surround 2.0. Includes two commentary tracks, one with Anderson and cast members, and another with Anderson and crew, as well as deleted scene "The Kiss" and three scenes from the Sundance Screenwriters Workshop. Keep case

— Gregory P. Dorr

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