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Retro Film Review: Hard Eight

[As I mentioned before, I did film reviews for my student newspaper a long time ago. I turned up to volunteer my services and the film editor luckily said I could have a go. I was happy just to be seeing films for free before they came out in the cinema; writing the review was just icing on the cake. For the sake of completeness and historical record, I thought I’d include them as they appeared in print on this blog. This is the first review I wrote for any sort of publication, from 17 October 1997, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut. As you can see, I didn’t particularly like it, and I stick by my opinion. I was happy that the editor not only didn’t change a word, but also liked my weak pun in the final sentence, something I was inordinately happy about at the time. Ah, youth.]

Hard Eight is not, unfortunately, a double entendre. It is gambling parlance for the betting in craps that the dice will come up again as two fours after it has just happened. It is a tough bet, unlikely to come up, and is a metaphor for the lives of the characters in the film. Apparently.

The story begins with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a seasoned old gambler, befriending the out-of-luck John (John C Reilly), for reasons of his own. Sydney teaches him the way around the seedy casinos of Reno, Nevada, until John befriends the rough Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson, in fine twisted form). Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) works in the bars of the casinos, as well as the bedrooms, and falls under the wing of Sydney, only for her and John to fall in love. A meeting with a client for Clementine goes wrong, causing the film to torn towards its violent climax.

The trouble with this film is that this is all that happens. The film is well directed, with first-time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson more than competent in the technical department with good use of steadicam and close-ups. However, since so little happens in the film, the emphasis is on the character interaction and dialogue to move the story forward. While the acting is very good, the conversations are stilted and the ponderous nature of the ‘quiet moments’ means that the only ‘hard eight’ the film title could be referring to is the number of numb buttocks in the cinema.

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