Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, Spanish, double side-single layer, 27 chapters, rated R, 101 min., $27.95, street date 10/5/99.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, F. William Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is a poker-faced professional gambler with a soft heart for a hard luck story. He plays guardian angel to unlucky John (John C. Reilly) and a hooker, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he grows to love like family. When John’s and Clementine’s honeymoon night leads to a disastrous hostage situation, Sydney takes care of it, as usual. But when slick casino pro Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens to reveal a secret from Sydney’s past that could destroy his relationship with the newlyweds, Sydney decides to hedge his bets and not leave anything to chance.
Although many people assumed that 1997's cult hit Boogie Nights was Paul Thomas Anderson's first film, that wasn't the case; a few years earlier, he produced another film, Hard Eight (also known as Sydney), with many of the same actors and crew.
HE doesn't attempt the same kind of epic feel found in BN, but it shares some similarities, especially in the way the film focusses on the idea of family and the need to belong. Anderson actually makes this area less obvious in HE but no less important; that desire largely motivates the participants, for good or for ill.
HE is a very well-acted affair with not a weak performance to be found. Especially compelling is Gwyneth Paltrow just because this role seems to suit her talents better than some later performances. As in Seven, Paltrow's character displays a heavy component of vague sadness, and for some reason, Paltrow appears ideal for those parts.
HE isn't exactly heavy on plot and it can seem a bit slow at times, but Anderson manages to make it a pretty compelling affair. It's not quite up to the standard set by Boogie Nights but it manages to stand up on its own without trouble.
(By the way, although I know Anderson preferred the title Sydney and fought hard against the studio's insistence to use Hard Eight, I never heard an explanation as to why both sides so preferred the titles. Oh well!)
Hard Eight appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen rendition has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not completely perfect, the image of HE looks quite good.
Sharpness seems consistently strong, though occasional wide shots betray a slight amount of softness. Moire effects or jagged edges weren't really an issue, but my 4X3 TV showed a few problems with the anamorphic downconversion that mainly appeared in shots where the camera moved a lot. The print itself seemed free of grain or other flaws such as marks, spots or speckles; I detected exactly one small scratch during the film.
As was the case with Boogie Nights, Anderson often fills the screen with some wonderfully vivid and saturated colors during HE, and the DVD brings them to life nicely. The casino scenes are especially lively, with some beautifully bold and vibrant hues. Black levels appear appropriately deep and rich, and shadow detail always seemed spot-on; shaded scenes consistently appeared accurately dark but not overly opaque. All in all, it's a fine-looking picture, just the kind we've come to expect from Columbia-Tristar (CTS).
More surprising was the very good Dolby Surround 2.0 mix of Hard Eight. Initially I was dismayed that such a recent film didn't offer a 5.1 track, but this one sounds good enough that I didn't really miss it. The soundstage seemed appropriately broad but not tremendously involving; it doesn't immerse you completely but it appears about right for the material. Dialogue stuck pretty closely to the center channel, but effects and music spread nicely to the side speakers. Both music and effects also sprung to life nicely from the surround channels; despite the Pro Logic encoding, the rear audio sounded quite good and didn't betray the hollow tone I often detect from 2.0 mixes.
Overall audio quality seemed very strong. Dialogue appeared dubbed but not distractingly so; the tone remained natural enough that I found it integrated into the film well. Speech always sounded clear and precise and was easily intelligible. Effects came across as realistic and clean, with no signs of distortion even during more problematic portions (such as gunfire or breaking glass). The music sounded very good throughout the film and displayed terrific range, with crisp and clear highs and some well-defined bass. It's not quite demo quality, but the audio seems much more than satisfactory and suits the film well.
Hard Eight provides some good supplements. Two full audio commentaries appear. The first comes from Anderson and actor Philip Baker Hall, while the second again offers Anderson along with Michelle Satter of Sundance and more of Hall; this section also seems to be an isolated score, since the participants never talk over the music (as far as I could tell) and all dialogue and effects were removed. Early reports indicate that Anderson doesn't want to do a commentary for Magnolia apparently because he's tired of talking about it. Yeah, right! This guy is so friggin' chatty that his mouth'll keep going for months after he dies.
Anderson turned off a lot of people with his Boogie Nights track due to his manic energy and his profane language. Well, if those aspects of his commentary bothered you, don't listen to him here; he remains as frank and foul-mouthed as ever. The language doesn't trouble me in the least, and I find his commentaries very entertaining and compelling. Anderson really delves into the nuances of his techniques and his motivations and provides a tremendous amount of information. He and Hall generally share the first commentary, though Anderson (naturally) dominates.
The second features more of traditional track from Anderson, Satter and Hall but also goes "on set" on Magnolia where Anderson pesters crew members into talking about HE; this happens about halfway through the money, and also features more traditional comments from various crew. I liked the first commentary better, but this one also provides some good details about the movie.
A number of other supplements also appear on this DVD. We get one Deleted scene called "The Kiss". This piece lasts about three minutes and features John C. Reilly and Paltrow. It's nothing great but I found it interesting.
More video material can be found in the "Sundance Lab" section. Basically, Anderson did some work on the film through Sundance in 1993, and these are videotape "tryouts" of three scenes. It's pretty cool little piece of historical data.
The DVD features two theatrical trailers plus talent files for Anderson, Paltrow, Reilly, Jackson and Hall. These aren't great but they're a step up from the usual CTS biographies, most of which are pretty useless. I'd assume that the also includes a booklet with text production notes, but since I rented this title from Netflix - which does not forward anything other than the disc itself - I can't say for certain.
Although I didn't care for Hard Eight nearly as much as I liked Anderson's followup, Boogie Nights, but his first effort stands as a decent little movie that works well on its own. CTS have produced a DVD that offers very good sound, picture and extras. Hard Eight definitely is worth a rental, and would probably make a nice permanent addition to your collection as well.
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