Hard Eight

on February 28, 1997 by Ed Scheid
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   ³Hard Eight² (aka ³Sydney²) is a very promising debut for American writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film is a well-written character study set in the casino world of Reno. At Cannes, Anderson said that ³Hard Eight² had been influenced by John Cassavetes, Jonathan Demme's ³Melvin and Howard² and the French film noir ³Bob le Flambeur.² Illustrious models, to be sure, but ones the young writer/director very nearly lives up to.
   John (John C. Reilly, who also stars in Anderson's upcoming "Boogie Nights") is sitting forlornly on the curb. He's so broke he even needs money for his mother's funeral. A well-dressed stranger named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall, who played Nixon in Altman's ³Secret Honor²), takes John under his wing. He becomes John's mentor and teaches him about casino gambling. With Sydney's support, John's life improves, but he never learns self-control and is easily manipulated by everyone else.
   Anderson's screenplay is full of superb dialogue and has some unexpected twists. While focusing on the complicated relationships of his characters, Anderson's direction successfully makes a virtue of necessity, conveying a seedy casino atmosphere on the film's small budget. The four main actors (Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson flesh out the cast as other figures in John's life) are impressive, with Hall's performance especially memorable. Starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson. Produced by Robert Jones and John Lyons. A Goldwyn release. Drama. Rated R for strong language, some violence, and sexuality. Running time: 93 min. Screened at Cannes.
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