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a first-time filmmaker very well on his way...
Quinoa198423 August 2005
Paul Thomas Anderson's first film, Sydney (titled 'Hard Eight' by the distributors), has a story, but its more concerned about the characters, and how these actors play them. Like its inspiration, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur, understanding who these people are in this seedy, desperate environment, is the key. The script is intelligent, and contains a truth that isn't found in most "off-beat" crime films. In fact, the crimes in the film, while not without the importance to the story, is secondary to how these people are around one another, the courtesy, the un-said things, the mishaps, and the truths. In tune with Melville, the film is decidedly European- the story is quite leisurely, almost too much so, but in the characters Anderson has created and fleshed out he has people we can care about.

Philip Baker Hall, in a towering performance of professionalism (he's one of those great character actors who practically wears the years of his life on his face, not to sound pretentious about it), is the title character of Sydney. He offers Jimmy (John C. Reilly, believable in a role seemingly more like himself than his Reed Rothchild in Anderson's Boogie Nights) a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and then finds out through the conversation his mother's passed on. He offers up an intricate, but rewarding, way of making money in a casino without laying down a card (the slots, and a different scheme). Flash ahead two years later (awesome transition, by the way) where Jimmy is with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow, a good performance). Things seem to be going alright all around, except that Jimmy has a violent (shown off-screen, of course) run-in, and needs Sydney's help. But there's another secret that has yet to be told.

All the little details of the story are accentuated by a directorial style that is usually peerless, and the tracking shots that have become paramount in Anderson's films (i.e. opening of Boogie Nights, walking through TV studio in Magnolia) are as smooth and interesting as anything from Scorsese. The Vegas Muzak is a touch that adds, like with Melville, a cool kind of touch not at all un-like film-noir. It's actually a thin line that Anderson is walking; how to make the Melville story's elements (an aging gambler past his prime, watching over the young people in their own messes, seeing the old turn to new) as one's own. I think he's achieved that in the film with a sense of sincerity with the characters dialog with each other. Perhaps Sydney has a different agenda than just being friendly. But Anderson wisely allows Hall to make the right choices with just certain facial expressions, what isn't said that counts. And the scenes with Samuel L. Jackson bring out the kind of intensity, sometimes quiet sometimes not, that hallmark his best performances. Maybe not a masterpiece, but it certainly isn't the work of an amateur, assured in his own script as a director, and in the strengths of his four key players.
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Very intimate and compelling - a splendid debut for PT Anderson
MaxBorg8920 June 2007
Though he is best known for two ambitious ensemble pieces such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was first noticed thanks to a low-key, unpretentious character study, a gem called Sydney.

The film takes its title from the main character, a lonely elder man played by Philip Baker Hall. At a diner he runs into John (John C. Reilly), a poor fella who has just lost all his money. Sydney buys him coffee, and after a little chat he persuades him to come to Reno. Once there, they manage to get a free room and under Sydney's tutelage John quickly becomes a successful gambler. All's well until he falls in love with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a waitress and part-time prostitute, and trouble ensues with a gangster named Jimmy, meaning Sydney will have to come up with something extreme to save his protégé.

For a first-time director Anderson shows great skills and confidence: even though he doesn't do much but follow four characters, he frames each shot to perfection and proves he is every bit as good as Scorsese at staging tracking shots (a thing he perfected on his next two features). But style doesn't really matter here: the important thing is that the audience cares for the story, and this essentially happens courtesy of sublime dialogue and great acting.

Anderson fought really hard to keep the movie's original title (and partially failed, which is why the film is known as Hard Eight in some countries), and the reason is clear from the beginning: the picture rests entirely on Hall's shoulders, and he carries it admirably. His performance is nuanced and genuine, and he manages to ensnare the viewer even when we are not sure what his motives are (and once they are revealed, it is not that important). Reilly is equally good, in a turn that opened his way to becoming one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood, and the same intensity emerges from Paltrow and Jackson, the latter in particular adding extra dramatic flesh to what could have been a rehash of his more famous roles (Pulp Fiction etc.). Even Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a brief but memorable role as a cocky gambler, gets his opportunity to shine, showing beyond any doubt that Anderson has a great eye for casting. He also knows how to write: the dialogue flows freely and seamlessly between the players, spawning some of the most affecting, realistic conversations ever heard in a movie, although the director can't resist the temptation to insert a couple of in-jokes as well (in one scene, Hall mentions two characters he wound up playing in Boogie Nights and Magnolia).

Overall, a very good film, and a must-see for PT Anderson fans: like many other directors who rose to fame in the '90s (Tarantino, Rodriguez, Bryan Singer) he proved right from the start what he was capable of, and has never disappointed the audience since that.
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A low key but effective film that is effortlessly carried by great performances
bob the moo13 March 2004
Sydney is an old gambler who shows kindness to a man he meets outside a diner. He helps out John by lending him £50 and then teaching him enough about gambling to make his way. Two years later finds John loyally sticking with John and adoring him. However, their relationship is put under pressure when John hooks up with Clementine, a cocktail waitress who also turns tricks and Jimmy, a low life with no respect for Sydney.

Although it was pretty badly treated in the UK and mostly ignored and overlooked, the success of Anderson's films since has given many a reason to look back on Hard Eight (the much better but less meaningful title given it for the UK release) and `discover' it. It certainly is an impressive film and it is difficult to see why it received neither financial or critic success when it was released. The plot is deceptive - starting as a character piece, changing violently with a series of twists and then reverting back to the character piece we started with.

The film is totally driven by it's characters and they are very well written to the point that we care about them even before we really know all about them. The title `Sydney' is more meaningful simply because the film is pretty much all about Sydney himself. He is a kind man and we wonder why but are gradually won over his gentle nature. This makes the second half of the film more thrilling simply because we think we know Sydney but then he has to do things we think are not in him. Anderson directs with a remarkable assurance; he has style and a real sense of framing. He mixes close ups with wider shots using the fluorescent lighting of the gambling joints to good effect - his direction is as good here as it was in his other, more acclaimed films.

The main thing that makes this film so good though, is the cast. Hall is excellent; I cannot stress how good he is here - his character is well written but it is Hall that makes it work so well with a performance that is subtle and controlled. Reilly is a great character actor and he does the same here with a hangdog expression and put upon attitude. Paltrow is very good for someone whom people seem to have forgotten can actually act. Her Clementine is more complex that first appears. However despite her good work, I think that Paltrow's limited screen time actually helps the film - she is not the focus here. Jackson is his usual cool self and turns in a memorable performance while Anderson even has a part for Hoffman.

I can imagine some people will not like this film: it is talky for long sections and it ends with questions to be answered - this may frustrate some people but for me I felt it allowed me to think for myself and use what I had learnt about Sydney. This is a surprisingly mature film from such a young director and one that you owe it to yourself to undercover in retrospect.
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Promising debut from Anderson
SKG-222 February 1999
This first film from Paul Thomas Anderson shows the promise he would later fulfill with BOOGIE NIGHTS. The writing here is as sharp as it was in the later film, but it must be said as a director, he sometimes lets scenes go on too long (ironic that BOOGIE NIGHTS, which is a longer film, is also a tighter one). The main connection between both films is Anderson's obvious affection for his characters. Also the relationship between Sydney and John doesn't turn out the way you'd expect. And Anderson is to be commended for avoiding melodrama.

Philip Baker Hall is one of those actors who you may not know by name, but when you see him you instinctively feel he's right for the part, no matter how small. This is one of his rare leading roles, and he's perfect, showing the character's success and also his loneliness, without sentimentalizing it. John C. Reilly is properly eager and naive as John. Samuel L. Jackson is dependable here, and Gwyneth Paltrow proves she doesn't need a British accent to give a good performance. She and Jackson should also be commended for backing Anderson when he had problems with the studio.
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A Calm and Collected Character Study
FranktheRabbit19 January 2004
Hard Eight (1996/Paul Thomas Anderson) ***1/2 out of ****

The camera opens to a diner called "Jack's Coffee Shop". A semi is pulling out of the parking lot. After it pulls away, two people are revealed. A young man sitting by the door with his face to the ground, and an older man who is walking towards him. Even though we can't see his face, we know he is old, just by the way he moves. He asks the young man if he would like some coffee and cigarettes. And this is how Paul Thomas Anderson's first film begins.

"Hard Eight" is about a down and out loser named John (John C. Reilly), who sits outside a diner, until he is encountered by a mysterious old man named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall). Sydney offers him $50, and a lesson in gambling. Before to long, they are in Reno, making lots of money. Then two people get in the way of their friendship: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a hooker/waitress; and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a mischievous security guard who seems to be hiding something.

I never thought that Paul Thomas Anderson could make such a grounded film with substance. His usual films are flashy ensembles, and they move fast. But "Hard Eight" is a different story. It is a slow paced Film Noir, that is both quiet and observant. The cinematography is drab, and the direction is tranquil. Philip Baker Hall and Paltrow turn in good performances. But it is Jackson who really shines. The twist could have been over done, but instead, it is handled nicely and effectively.

"Hard Eight" is by far one of the most interesting character studies of the 90's. I like this cool side of Anderson, and I wish he would use it more often than his usual over the top formula (although I like both). This is no classic, but I found it worth buying.

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Off-beat casino drama
DennisLittrell25 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This is also known as "Sydney" (director Paul Thomas Anderson's original title) after the name of the movie's central character, a somewhat mysterious casino gambler (and murderer, by the way) played by veteran Philip Baker Hall. The new and more commercially-viable title comes from the game of craps in which the dice player can roll an eight with a six and a two or with a five and a three or with two fours. Since probabilistically the hardest way to roll an eight is with two fours, that's called a "hard eight." Such a choice occurs twice in the movie, and symbolically a "hard eight" may represent the gambler's psychology.

Co-starring as Sydney's protégé is John C. Reilly as John Finnegan, a kind of lovable schmuck who falls in love with a Reno waitress/prostitute named Clementine, played quirkily by Gwyneth Paltrow. Samuel L. Jackson has a modest but very convincing part as a casino security sleaze.

Anderson's direction of these very talented actors was excellent. I wish I could say the same for his script. Most viewers I suspect will find this a bit dull; and, as it unfolds and we find out why Sydney is playing guardian angel to John, viewers may even be disappointed. I know I was. I had expected something original as Sydney's motivation, but what we learn in the last reel is quite ordinary (as movie motivations go).

What kept me watching was of course trying to figure out what makes Sydney tick and why and how he can spend his time so aimlessly gambling (and almost always losing), and where his money comes from. I also was intrigued by the originality of Anderson's treatment as opposed to his story per se. The stylized, slightly "off" dialogue, especially well-suited to Reilly's studied interpretation and Philip Baker Hall's inscrutability, reminded me of something that might have been written by David Mamet or even Quentin Taratino. Finally I was interested in seeing how Paltrow would play a role seemingly quite removed from her screen persona. I thought the delicate and very winning star of Shakespeare in Love (1998), etc., worked hard to create the sort of lower-class, uneducated, "victim" of the Las Vegas/ Reno casino culture that Anderson had in mind, and I thought she did it well. However, hers was not a sympathetic role and it did not test Paltrow's range as a actress, although playing a prostitute is something many actresses find interesting. I am thinking of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990) and Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) or even Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour (1967).

Bottom line here is that this is a studied, "arty" movie well worth seeing because of the performances and as an example of Anderson's unique style, but not something for a mass audience or for those viewers looking for a diverting thriller.

But see this for Philip Baker Hall, one of those rare actors to actually find his best roles and do his best work in his sixties. Indeed, his performance here revitalized a career that had long languished. In this regard I am reminded of the Swedish actor Victor Sjostrom who gave perhaps his greatest performance in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) when he was 80 years old. Although I have seen little of Hall's work, I am willing to bet that this was one of his greatest performances.

(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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The promising debut of Paul Thomas Anderson
TheLittleSongbird2 July 2016
'Hard Eight' may not be one of Paul Thomas Anderson's best, his later films being more complex and more refined, but even when Anderson was not at his best he was much better than most directors in that position.

For a feature film debut, 'Hard Eight' is still very promising. It does have moments of lethargic moments, the odd clunkiness and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic, but the potential seen throughout the film is enormous and from the start it is obvious that 'Hard Eight' knows its own strengths and makes the most out of them.

It looks impeccable, even when not very experienced in directing at this particular point Anderson's distinctive style is evident here with the long takes and tracking shots that suggest a Martin Scorsese influence. It's a beautifully shot film, and even if not as refined as his later films Anderson shows great promise as a director, showing a knack for visual style and excellent direction of actors. The music is suitably atmospheric, sometimes quirky, sometimes ominous and sometimes elegant.

Much of the script is very naturalistic and remarkably feels like the characters are talking like real people. It's tautly structured and thought-provoking too. 'Hard Eight' is a film quite light on plot, but rich in characterisation, not a bad thing considering that it is essentially a character study. The storytelling is still quite nicely done though, and while the characters are not the easiest to like there is a compelling realism about them and they're interesting.

Phillip Baker-Hall is magnetic in the lead role, in a performance of towering sincerity, while John C. Reilly matches him very well with an appealing gawky charm, Gwyneth Paltrow is charming and moving and Samuel L. Jackson brings plenty of flesh and succeeds in making the character too much of a retread of previous characters. Philip Seymour Hoffmann makes a very entertaining if somewhat too brief appearance.

Overall, very promising debut from Anderson though he went on to even better things with meatier material and an even more refined style. As is evident from the superb 'Boogie Nights'. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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Julia226 August 2002
Philip Baker Hall's Sidney kept me riveted from the first scene to the last. He play the mesmerizing, enigmatic title character with rare mastery and grace. The supporting characters are no slouches either. John C. Reilly is marvelous as Sidney's sweet, if somewhat slow witted protege. Samuel Jackson could have easily coasted on this one, simply repeating a performance from any of a number of previous tough guy types. Instead he creates an entirely new character, one with a reptilian quality not seen in his usual thugs. Even Gwenyth Paltrow is unusually strong as Clem, the waitress who wants it understood that, even if she sometimes sleeps with men for money, she is definitely NOT a prostitute.

I've been a fan of PT Anderson for a while now, and this film gave me new insight into why it is I like him so much. Anderson is that great rarity in modern filmmaking, an actor's director. He gathers terrific actors and inspires them to career-topping performances. There's no fiendishly complex plot here, no nailbiting suspense, no big payoff at the end. Just marvelous actors making the most of an excellent script.
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understated, calm and brilliant
nout12 November 2004
Excellent movie. Excellent actors. I like the calm flow of the movie. Dialogs are strong: very realistic, not cultivated in a predictable and

understandable main stream drama form. The hostage scene is brilliant. In many movies the characters

react in a movie-like way, shaped in how the characters would

react if...too cultivated, mostly showcases for actors to show how

emotional and brilliant they can play their roles. In this movie the characters many times don't know what to say or

how to react and that's brilliant in my opinion. In real life you don't have strong and powerful one-liners at hand. But still it is a movie and put into a form, a calm and understated,

but brilliant form.
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Sydney or Hard Eight Excellent movie 10/10
NeilCHughes5 March 2001
Paul Thomas Anderson's first movie and wow what an entrance to make. Its refreshing to see a film maker making films with characters that you care about and fine dialogue. Why dont people talk in movies any more? If you think the same watch this film. This film is an absolute treat right from the opening scene, a true hidden gem which didnt even get a release in the UK!!! You will see some of the finest performances in film and be warned you will remember these characters for the rest of your life. 10/10 awsome!
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Haunting, Poignant & Tense
seymourblack-17 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The unusual circumstances in which two men meet before going on to become good friends, provides "Hard Eight" with an intriguing opening to a story which also features kidnapping, blackmail and a brutal killing. First-time director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson takes time and care to develop his characters and this approach pays off handsomely, as it's the strength of these characters and the relationships between them that ultimately make this movie so interesting and memorable.

The tense atmosphere and deliberate pacing, which are established right from the start, create a closeness between the two men and also add emphasis to the anxieties and suspicions that are present between them, especially during their first meeting.

As he approaches a roadside diner somewhere in Nevada, Sydney Brown (Philip Baker Hall), a professional gambler in his sixties, sees a young man who's clearly down-on-his-luck sitting on the ground close to the entrance of the building. He offers to buy him a cup of coffee and give him a cigarette. Sydney soon learns that John (John C Reilly) has lost all his money whilst gambling in an attempt to raise enough cash to pay for his mother's funeral. Sydney offers to show the young man how to be successful in the casinos and despite his understandable scepticism, John agrees.

A couple of years later, John has prospered as Sydney's protégé and after having paid off his mother's funeral costs, gets married to an attractive cocktail waitress called Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). John has also become friendly with Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) who's a security officer and a man that Sydney dislikes and really doesn't trust.

Clementine's part-time work as a hooker leads to trouble when one of her clients refuses to pay and she and John keep the man hostage in their motel room. Sydney is called to help them out and soon takes control of the situation but also runs into bigger trouble shortly after, when Jimmy threatens and blackmails him.

Philip Baker Hall gives a top class performance as the lonely, well dressed, experienced gambler with a face that's filled with sadness and lines. He's dignified and shrewd and looks as if he's been through some tough experiences but also finds it gratifying to help John out. John is another lonely person who appreciates the progress he's made under Sydney's guidance but his poor judgement and gullibility will clearly make it impossible for him to ever fully emulate his mentor's success. John C Reilly, in a consistently strong performance, is very natural and convincing in the way that he portrays John's naivety and impetuosity.

Clementine is not as streetwise as she needs to be and Gwyneth Paltrow conveys her character's underlying sadness very effectively. Samuel L Jackson is also on great form as the violent thug who totally underestimates Sydney.

"Hard Eight" is haunting and poignant and its overall tone and tempo is perfect for a movie in which a dark secret, hidden motives and a need for redemption affect so much of what takes place.
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Paul Thomas Anderson clearly knows how to make a film, but has absolutely no clue how to tell a story (MAJOR SPOILERS)
jimbo-53-1865111 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Veteran gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) stumbles across John (John C Reilly) sat outside a diner. The two men strike up a conversation and Sydney quickly learns that John has tried his hand at gambling in order to pay for his mother's funeral. Sydney offers to help John out and gives him a crash-course in how to hustle the casino out of a fortune. Although Sydney seems to be helping John out, is there more to what he's doing than meets the eye?

This is Paul Thomas Anderson's debut picture (both as writer and director) and under normal circumstances I would normally go easy on a debutant's picture. Unfortunately, I've seen a few of PTA's films such as Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood and Punch Drunk Love and therefore I can't really be that charitable and sadly all of these films suffer the same problems as Hard Eight (albeit to varying degrees). Anyway let's try and evaluate this film.

Well I have to admit that it started well and seemed to tell the tale of a young man called John who needed a bit of a direction in life. John then stumbles across Sydney who teaches him how to hustle the casino and teaches him a bit of self-respect and how to value himself as a person. OK so far so good, but what happens beyond this point is almost beyond a travesty....

The film then skips by two years and we now find ourselves in Reno, Nevada. Sydney is in a casino there and John is in there too with his new friend Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson). It's clear from this point that we're lead to assume that Jimmy has lead John astray, but is this actually true? From this point on the film goes from telling an interesting story about John (a misguided individual) getting some direction in life (from Syndey) to a stupid story about his shotgun wedding to casino waitress and prostitute on the side Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow)and them keeping a guy hostage because he didn't pay Clementine for sex - I get what Anderson was getting at here, but it's so badly handled that it becomes laughable.

The film takes a turn for the worst when Jimmy and Sydney meet and we learn that Sydney killed John's father. I suspect Anderson intended this to be a plot twist that got the 'Wow' factor from the audience, but it's one that's so ludicrous and jars against the narrative so much that it's almost too ridiculous to believe. Yes it at least explains why Sydney wanted to bond with John at the start, but I felt a bit cheated when this was revealed. The story struggles more under scrutiny when you realise that Jimmy and Sydney were both in Atlantic City when Jimmy saw Sydney murder John's father, but then the two just happen to both meet a few years later 2,500 miles away from the crime scene with the son of the dead dad just happening to be there as well. I'm all for trying to suspend disbelief, but this was just too much.

The ending is even worse when we see Jimmy get killed by the very guy that killed John's father; yes Jimmy was wrong to blackmail Sydney, but it's clear that Sydney was the worst of the two. This aspect of the film is even worse when you consider that Anderson offers no real commentary on anything that's happened and ends the film in a lazy way whereby you don't know whether or not Syndey gets away with his crimes. Even if this aspect of the plot didn't bother you the fact that Anderson didn't even bother to make Jimmy's assassination surprising or suspenseful just showed a real lack of care.

The only positive I can take from this film is that it is very well-made. Anderson's direction is stylish and the performances from the likes of Baker-Hall, Jackson & Reilly were all good (the first two gave rather stock performances, but Reilly really excelled in giving his character a gawky nervous charm). I like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor, but he was actually really annoying in the 5 minutes or so that he was in this film.

Ultimately, the big problem with Hard Eight is that it's really badly-written and whilst I got the feeling that Anderson was attempting to make this an insightful character study he doesn't give this film or his characters anywhere near the required depth to make these aspects work as well as they should do.
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Somewhere between Casino and Swingers lies "Sydney"
srbelden19 June 2000
"Sydney" is the first film from director Paul Thomas Anderson better known as the director of "Boogie Nights", this years loathed and loved "Magnolia" and several Fiona Apple videos. This film is essentially about a man who seems to pick up kids off the street (John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow) and teach them the ways of the casino and gambling and helps them out. Sydney knows everything about everything, the man is flawless, or is he? Paltrow is good as a waitress who just can't stop prostituing herself. Reilly is funny and sweet as John the serrogant son of Sydney. Jackson is slimey, sleazy and somehow likeable as only Jackson can be. And of course Philip Baker Hall as Sydney is amazing. "Sydney" is merely a taste of what was to come from this young director. There are some long steadicam shots and there is the funny, Tarantinoish (minus much of the swearing and less pop culture references) dialogue. Anderson knows how to use a camera and editing to their full effect and make a scene that could be boring if directed by anyone else, exciting. Look for cameos from many future Andersonites (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely) The film is a cut above most crime thrillers, this one is more light hearted (for a crime movie, it's not light hearted for say a romantic comedy, no no :), funny and even touching in some parts. If you are a fan of Anderson rent this, see how he has increased his creativity and grown on his talents since this film. If you are not a fan of Anderson rent this, cause if the things you didn't like about Magnolia were the long running time and some pointless steadicam shots, you'll be happy to see this one is little over 1 hour 40 min and only has several long steadicam shots that are used for a reason. Listen for the great score by "Boogie Nights" composer Michael Penn and "Magnolia" composer Jon Brion and a Christmas song at the end credits by Penn and his wife, "Magnolia" soundtrack star Aimee Mann.
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I don't know...
KimRoseBoe124 August 2021
Warning: Spoilers
I don't know what this movie was about. I only watched it because it had a great cast and director. I went into it knowing nothing of the plot or story.

From the opening scene, I knew pretty much where the story was going. Older, more savvy gambler takes young guy under his wing and teaches him the "tricks of the trade". At some point there's going to be a double cross and things go south. It was all there. Only, it wasn't, and it didn't.

What followed was a slow burn character study in which every one of my assumptions slowly fell apart.

I will be honest, I still do not know what the movie is about. In the opening scene the maverick gambler mentions having two adult children he "hasn't seen in years". This is a passing remark not related to the story in any way. However, I couldn't help but get the feeling that he was trying to atone for missing out on their lives. What I initially perceived as manipulation on his part-he seemed far to nice to not have altererior motives-in the end turns out to be, though imperfect, simply fatherly love.

The movie intentionally doesn't spell ANYTHING out for the audience. It's all up to you to figure out. By the end of the movie I was honestly wondering, "what's the point?" But I think THATS the point. You don't walk away NOT THINKING. To me it's a story of imperfect individuals atoning for iniquities-perceived or otherwise- that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Maybe I'm wrong and I missed the point completely. But I think, somewhere deep in the subtext of this often restrained scrip is the message of a man looking for forgiveness. I won't spoil anything more but I highly recommend the movie. Enjoy!
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A less than impressive debut for a spectacular filmmaker.
lewiskendell4 February 2011
"Bottom line, Sydney. No matter how hard you try...you're not his father."

I consider myself to be a die-hard Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I love the guys work, I think he's a brilliant writer and director, and There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love, and Magnolia are all among my favorite movies (Boogie Nights is up there, too).

With that said, Hard Eight didn't do much for me.

I just didn't find it interesting. Maybe it was the characters, or maybe the casino setting (which always has a hard time interesting me in any movie). Maybe his writing skills just weren't fully developed, yet. Whatever the reason, despite great actors like Philip Baker Hall, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reilly, Hard Eight is the only P.T.A. movie that I haven't enjoyed. I didn't hate it, but I probably won't be watching it again any time soon.
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Soft Eight
surenm15 July 2007
I really enjoyed Boogie Nights, as it seems most people have, and I totally hated Magnolia. I feel asleep twice trying to watch Punch Drink Love and have since given up. So the other night I thought it was finally time to watch Hard Eight and see what all the fuss was about.

Throughout the entire film I was left waiting for some real character development, or maybe some characters with an IQ greater than 35. Yes, Sydney seems cool and really deep, but in fact we never get to know anything more about him, what makes him tick, or how he actually makes his money. Who is this guy? Who are any of these people? Why do I care? Characters don't have to be super smart or crafty or ultra deep to be likable or interesting, but when all they add up to at the end of the day are a bunch of sketches about as thin as playing cards, it really makes you realize you're watching a very amateur or at least poorly written film. Such great acting talent is wasted here on performances that look and feel right out of a theatrical stage play or a student film trying to play on the level of Pulp Fiction, but with massively undeveloped characters, motivations, and plot turns that are totally arbitrary or just downright illogical. We never get any real back-story about anyone until almost the end of the film and many of the most interesting questions about what motivates these people are never answered. Instead we are left with what amounts to a collection of scenes that fail to tell a compelling or evolved story with only one major twist that comes out way too late.

Hard Eight is essentially a great short film or one act play with enough character development appropriate for those formats, but as a feature it simply lacks enough subject matter and overall development to be anything more than a sketch of a film with a threadbare storyline and one-sided, unidentifiable characters who end up reacting more like animals than humans.

Philip Seymour Hoffman despite having only one scene still manages to steal the show.
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Beautifully shot, with a major flaw
hewlett612 September 2021
I found this movie to be very well directed, edited, and acted. I loved the look of the whole movie. But what was missing was a coherent plot. Too many ridiculous coincidences that make no sense. Worth a watch, as plenty of people seem not too disappointed in the story, but it could have, and should have had a more logical plot. PS Hoffman does his usual scene stealing stuff, and that 5 minutes may be enough reason to watch it.
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aciessi3 February 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Sydney is a high-rolling loner in Reno, NV. He meets a stranger named John, invites him to have coffee and cigarettes at a diner and then takes him to the casino to teach him how to win big money in a pinch. Fast forward to two years later, Sydney and John are both high rollers and are introduced to a prostitute named Clementine. Instead of paying for her services, Sydney introduces her to John and gives her shelter in his hotel room. How can one man be this charitable? Is his lonely? Is he a saint? Not even the obnoxious taunting of a gambler at the craps table can break his composure. So where is this going? John and Clementine get into a "really effed up situation" involving $300 dollars and a hostage. Sydney comes to their inexplicable aid and in the process we realize that Sydney is not the man we thought he was. He's not above the fray. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty. To make matters worse, he has an even dirtier past.

Hard Eight is a quiet crime thriller and yes, it has everything you'd expect Paul Thomas Anderson to offer in his feature debut. Like the great auteurs before him, he entered the industry with a lot to say, even with a film like this. He had all the energy, urgency and talent of a young John Cassavetes. Hard Eight, to use a gambling term, is a royal flush. The characters come alive and feel authentically real. When a scene calls for suspense, it delivers. It's funny. It's haunting. By the closing, everything comes together beautifully. From the jump, PTA was a master. A director for all time. Thank God he's still young and working.
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An incredible film from the maker of "Boogie Nights"
cinefan10 December 1998
Most people didn't catch this movie when it was released (in the cinema or on video), but did discover Paul Thomas Anderson's work with the phenomenal "Boogie Nights." Make no mistake: this film is every bit as good, perhaps better, than "Boogie." It's a small film whereas "Boogie" is a huge film, but it's packed with outstanding performances (many from actors and actresses who would go on to appear in "Boogie"), a great script (and a tighter story than "Boogie"), and the same fantastic direction. Everyone who loved "Boogie," and even those who didn't, should go back and rent this film. A very stylish, moody drama/mystery.
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Perfect Gritty Love Story
gavin694211 July 2017
Professional gambler Sydney teaches John the tricks of the trade. John does well until he falls for cocktail waitress Clementine.

Paul Thomas Anderson consistently makes good movies. And, as this film reveals, he always has. This is a debut feature film that comes across like the work of a seasoned professional. Great casting, great plot, and perfect pacing that keeps everything moving forward. It is not a crime story so much as a love story, but hides it so well in the world of crime that you never even notice.

Credit must really go to John C. Reilly. Although his role (John) was not necessarily the strongest character in the film, Reilly does a great job with him. Although he is mostly known these days for his comedy work, this is proof that he is far more than just a comedian.
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If you liked 'Atlantic City', you'll love this one.
timfkj25 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Caught it last night on Belgian TV. A little gem. An old guy, superbly played by Baker Hall, trying to relive his youth by helping two young losers (O'Reilly and Paltrow) get their lives back together. Of course they'll never make it: once a loser, always a loser. But Sydney still has to try. The claustrophobic, rip-off world of casinos, anonymous 'luxury' hotels, sleazy motels, is superbly portrayed. Surely, after watching this film, nobody would ever want to visit Vegas. Paltrow is brilliant as the whore with zero self-esteem, ready to destroy her chance of a new start for the sake of 300 bucks; money is the only way of validating her self-destructive promiscuity. Samuel Jackson swaggers through the role of Satan as if born to it. The only jarring note, preventing this one getting a 9/10, is the stuff about Sydney wanting to atone for shooting the young guy's father. This feels like it was written in as an afterthought, by some dumb studio exec who'd missed the film's whole point: 'The tragedy of youth is old age' (Oscar Wilde).
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Hard to Watch, but...
dansview21 January 2013
I adore and respect the opening scene. All stories need to start somewhere, and this one started with style, in a setting that most of us have frequented...a Denny's Restaurant basically.

Throughout the film, we are made acutely aware of the precious value of food, a bed, coffee, cigarettes, cable movies, and companionship, for someone who has been deprived these things before. Most of us probably take them for granted,unless we have been down-and-out like one of the film's protagonists.

But think about how relieved you feel on a long road trip, when you stop at a motel, and partake of these things, after being trapped in your car for hours. They satiate us and bring a sense of domestic tranquility.

I needed more character development. Sorry, to those who loved this film. I get the fact that it was a portrayal of "outsider" life and the casino-bubble, but I still needed to know a bit more about how these people became who they are. The plot device of not knowing why the hell Hall is being a caretaker, worked for a while, but eventually I became annoyed with guessing.

The final explanation was anti-climatic and cheap. Come on, you can do better than that.

Hoffman stole the show with his very brief cameo. Jackson was his usual profane loudmouth stereotype. Hall and Reilly did not have to stretch much, but they were still quite adept at portraying unspoken sadness. I'm not a fan of Paltrow, but she conveyed the torn nature of her character quite well.

One other reviewer mentioned the fact that sometimes the characters don't know what to say, but that made it realistic. I totally agree. Real people rarely speak like movie characters. But in this one, the characters did speak like real people. Great job with that.

There were enough good aspects to this film, to make it worth seeing. But it is a labor to watch after a while, because not much happens, and not much is said. If you like art films, you will probably like this one. It reminded me of the work of Jim Jarmusch.
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Cozy Scoped; Rich Characters
iquine8 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
(Flash Review)

PT Anderson carefully directed an interesting story with strongly developed characters that progressed calmly and confidently. The film opens just outside Vegas with an older gentleman helping a younger guy down on his luck and decides to help him earn some money by exploiting a small casino loophole; nothing to get wealthy from but enough to make ends meet. Why help and befriend this guy is a lingering question. Later on and after he helps him out of a sticky situation the film reveals his connection to the man. The film has a quiet and immersive atmosphere with careful shot framing, color pallet and interesting music moments that drives the atmosphere of the moment. PS Hoffman only has about 3-4 minutes screen time but comes in at a pivotal moment and adds a jolt (as only Hoffman can) as he goads the older guy into a hard eight bet and the film changes direction for characters. If you appreciate acting and good directing, this film is worth your time.
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Precisely done drama.
rmax30482318 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
You get the impression that this inexpensive film turned out just about the way the director, P. T. Anderson, wanted it to. It was shot among the neon casinos, shadowy parking lots, and motel and hotel rooms in Reno, Nevada, "The Biggest Little City in the World" as the sign over the highway used to read. The photography and lighting are hypnotically low, though nothing is obscured. The direction is straightforward without being headlong. There is no directorial razzle dazzle. Events take place in real time. No car pursuits, no exploding fireballs, no shoot outs, no ugly guns. The performances are about as good as they get for this type of smallish film. Not that the actors necessarily have a good deal of range, but that they fit their parts well.

Philip Baker Hall is the central figure, an ex hood who hangs in a hotel apartment, dresses in inconspicuous suits and ties, has a little money stashed away from previous enterprises "back East", and adds to it by a little well-calculated gambling. Hall's character is polite but inexpressive, and he doesn't like profane language used around women. You may recognize him from currently running TV commercials of a comic nature for a product whose name I never cared to remember. He runs across John C. Reilly, a young guy who is down and out, and more or less adopts him. He also takes under his wing a cocktail waitress, Gwyneth Paltrow, who adds to HER income by hooking on the side. The two young folks get along well under his avuncular tutelage.

Enter Samual L. Jackson in essentially the same role he played in "Jackie Brown," the savvy and self-interested dude who sees through all the rhetoric and hears all kinds of stories about all kinds of goings on. Nobody could do it better than Jackson. He smiles readily, extends a friendly, reassuring pat on the back, and projects an attitude of "You and I are men of the world and we both know what's really happening." The self interest is never too well hidden though and it proves his undoing.

John C. Reilly looks and acts a little dumb, as he should, but he doesn't bring any poetry to the part and gives the weakest performance. Gwyneth Paltrow is a little hard to believe as the put-upon, reluctant whore, but she brings it off by investing the role with a winsome quality, as if she'd just been snatched off an Iowa farm and sold into white slavery racket.

There is no musical score as such, no thumping electronic percussion to pump up the adrenalin and damage the inner ear, but there is source music. A trio plays in one of the lounges -- vibes, bass, and guitar -- quietly reproducing the kind of modestly jazzed-up old standards that Frank Sinatra would have eaten alive.

It's an unpretentious movie about affection, love, greed, and murder in Reno. Nicely done. But one carp. Philip Baker Hall stars. And there is a small scene with early Philip Seymour Hoffman rolling the dice against a "hard eight." Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I only mention the director, Philip Thomas Anderson, in passing. I won't mention the name of the writer -- Philip Thomas Anderson -- at all. That's enough of that stuff. No more three names. It's an affectation that's pompous enough for women like Jennifer Jason Leigh but it's inexcusable in men. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, okay. That's history. But what's next? Ernest Miller Hemingway? I'm warning you guys -- cut it out.
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An often overlooked yet enjoyable first effort.
Pjtaylor-96-1380449 September 2019
Perhaps it's unsurprising that Paul Thomas Anderson's often overlooked first film is a meandering, coincidence-conscious neo-noir. 'Hard Eight (1996)' clearly shares the same DNA as much of the now well-renowned director's work, particularly 'Magnolia (1999)' and 'Boogie Nights (1997)'. In some ways, the piece doesn't really seem to be about anything. However, it's primarily a character-study of Philip Baker Hall's somewhat enigmatic Sydney and, as such, has more than enough substance to keep you engaged throughout. The plot does come in distinct chunks but it's delivered at a decent pace and it's never predictable. The chemistry between the two leads makes for some endearingly entertaining sequences, with the 'fun' of the duo's gambling cheats being aptly conveyed. Things do begin to feel a little stale, but a twist shakes things up right when they're at their least interesting. After this, the flick piles subtle revelation on subtle revelation to make for an unconventionally exciting final act. It all gets a bit mysterious, in a way. You can't quite put your finger on what the climax is supposed to be saying; then again, it may not be saying anything at all. Overall, this is a solid first effort. It's not conventional or exactly enthralling, but it's well-conceived and enjoyable nevertheless. 7/10
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