Running Time: 102 minutes
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Main Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson
Click here to view the trailer
PTA'S FIRST AND BEST
Surprise, surprise, the prodigal movie review returns with the second entry in the "Sins of Omission" feature. This feature was originally intended to be a monthly feature, but after debuting with "Shaun of the Dead" (back in October), I kind of crapped out. However, the new year seems to have hit me with the urge to catch up on some old favorites, so expect a lot of these in the coming weeks.
Yes, in my opinion "Hard Eight" is Paul Thomas Anderson's best work, maybe because it's his simplest. The story picks up when we find John (Reilly) sitting outside a little diner, broke and down on his luck. The first words we hear are of those of Sydney (Hall), who offers to buy John a cup of coffee and give him a cigarette. Sydney is an aging, classy, wise, world weary man and John is a simple minded, somewhat dumb guy who is in desperate need of $6000, so he can bury his recently deceased mother. Sydney, telling John right away that he doesn't have $6000 to give him, instead offers him 50 bucks and a ride back to Vegas (where John has just come from losing all of his dough), where he plans to show John how to win back some of his losses. Back in Vegas, Sydney shows John a little trick on how to scam the casino out of a few dollars, but warns him from the get go that he surely won't make enough to bury his mother. John follows Syd's advice and ends up winning about $2000. Later, up in their hotel room, Syd promises to make a phone call to a friend and "work something out" in regards to John's mother. We flash forward two years and Sydney is now a father figure to John, being followed around by John as if he were a little, lost puppy. At a bar, within a casino, Sydney meets Clementine (Paltrow), another girl who Syd thinks could use a helping hand. She's a cocktail waitress at the bar and part-time prostitute and Sydney wants to gussy her up a little bit and take her under his wing (nothing sexual, mind you). John, who is already acquainted with Clementine, takes even more of a liking to her after Syd introduces her to their fold. However, that's just the setup and things take a dangerous turn when Clementine is stiffed by a "john".
I saw this film some time ago, probably after seeing "Boogie Nights", "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love" and needing to find that elusive first feature from PTA, because there was a brief time when I was a big fan of his. I'm still a fan, however I've soured on both "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia", but still find "Hard Eight" to be the true gem of PTA's filmography. It's probably the one seen the fewest by the general public and being the man's first film, we have a very wide eyed and bushy tailed director, ready to show us what he's made of, before being tainted by fame and growing a large head. That's not a knock on the director himself, just an observation and an unavoidable process for anyone in the spotlight. I have nothing against PTA's newer works, as I gave "There Will Be Blood" a TOP 20 spot last year and have yet to see "The Master".
Anyway, this for me is the one that I always get the most enjoyment out of. I think my enjoyment begins and ends with Philip Baker Hall and his portrayal of a complicated, closed book of a man, Sydney. I like the atmosphere, which again almost seems to revolve around the mood and demeanor of the main character. If all you know of Philip Baker Hall is that one Seinfeld episode or the more popular PTA films, where he has smaller roles, then please do yourself a favor, watch "Hard Eight" and really meet an actor who's bound to impress you. What is it about the Sydney character that keeps me wondering though? Why do I want so much to know more about this guy? I'm not sure. Why is he so nice? Of course, of course because he actually killed John's father, which we learn near the end, but to tell the truth, I never liked the revelation. I always liked to pretend one of the following: 1) Sydney misses his own two children (also a boy and a girl) and sort of recruits John and Clementine to take their place. He notes that his real daughter is about Clem's age and that his son is a few years older, which John could be few years older than Clem, meaning he's picked two candidates that are even the appropriate ages. I guess this explanation could still be and hey, maybe that's even why he killed John's father, so that he could (sort of) adopt his son. or 2) Sydney just likes making new friends, people that will do him favors when need be. He mentions to John that his intentions are unselfish and that all he wants in return is to know that John will do the same for him someday. He also talks about a "friend" in L.A., whom he calls to help John with funeral arrangements for his mom. Maybe Syd just likes knowing that help is only ever a phone call away. When you have money and friends, you have power.
Anywhoo, that's about that. I know when I first saw "Hard Eight" it was this hard to find, little hole in the wall picture. I'm not sure if it's still that or if it's gained more of a mainstream acceptance, considering it's the debut feature for a director who would go on to become a powerhouse in Hollywood, someone who always generates a buzz with the announcement of a new film. If it is still hard to find, then it's worth the hunt, although I'm sure places like Netflix and OnDemand have it at your fingertips. I think people who usually end up siding with my opinion are going to find that they love it and even people who disagree with me normally, may find that the top notch acting of both Hall and Reilly and the engaging story, characters and atmosphere are enough to side with me this once.
RATING: 8.5/10 It's not a full blown '10', but it's a solid, steady '8.5' and it holds up every single time I watch it, which has probably been a dozen times now.
January 8, 2014 12:59am