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Hard Eight (or Sydney, as was the intended title before the studio got their way) is the first film from Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. While not as ambitious as either of these films, Hard Eight is a well-crafted tale of the relationship between aging gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), and an unlucky young man named John (John C. Reilly), who Sydney takes under his wing.

Hard Eight
John (John C. Reilly) needs to raise $6,000 in order to pay for his mother’s funeral, but has managed to lose every penny in Las Vegas. It is at a truck stop that John meets Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an aging gambler who offers to show John a way to make the money he needs, and together they head off back to Vegas to begin the process. Two years on, John and Sydney find themselves in Reno, Nevada, where John meets and falls for waitress and part-time hooker Clementine (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). When their honeymoon turns into a desperate hostage situation Sydney has to step in to sort matters out. To make things worse, John’s friend, Jimmy (played with usual brilliance by Samuel L. Jackson), threatens to reveal a dark secret from Sydney’s past that could jeopardise his relationship with John.

All of the actors give fantastic performances, especially Philip baker Hall who commands enormous respect as Sydney. Hall has such a great voice; you could sit and listen to him talk for hours without getting bored. John C. Reilly plays his character with a certain naive charm, he spends a lot of the film following Hall's character around like a little lost puppy. As usual, Samuel L. Jackson gives a solid performance as John’s low-life friend Jimmy, in fact he’s not that far removed from his character in Pulp Fiction. Gwyneth Paltrow gives what I consider to be her best performance (but then I’m not a huge fan), her character is really very sweet, vulnerable and misguided. She and Reilly’s characters are perfectly matched.

Hard Eight
This European R2 disc is excellent. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the video quality is great and the bright lights and colourful neon signs of Las Vegas and Reno look wonderful. Black levels are good and there are no signs of any digital artefacts. Director Anderson also employs some beautiful camera angles; check out the long Steadycam shot of Sydney walking through the casino at the start of chapter 10 for example.

Sound is also good, with surround tracks in a variety of languages. The film, like most of Anderson’s work, is very dialogue intensive. One of the best examples of which is the opening exchange between John and Sydney in the diner. The centre channel is very clear and the surrounds are used to create atmosphere when needed, but obviously a film such as this doesn’t need an explosive 5.1 mix. Music is good, as is usual for an Anderson film. Aimee Mann shows up on the soundtrack in a couple of places and her music just seems to fit the tone of Anderson’s work perfectly.

Hard Eight
This is a great disc for extras too. We are treated to three deleted scenes, three Sundance Institute Filmmaker’s scenes, two theatrical trailers, cast & crew bios and most interesting of all, two commentary tracks. The commentaries both feature Anderson who, as usual, gives a lot of insight into the creative process. The first commentary also features one of Anderson’s idols, Philip Baker Hall (who has a perfect voice for a commentary track). The second commentary features Michelle Satter from Sundance Film, various crew, some isolated score and an alternative Aimee Mann track over the end credits.

For fans of P T Anderson this disc is an essential purchase. Even if you’ve never seen Boogie Nights or Magnolia (if not, why not!), Hard Eight is a charming film with some fine performances and it can be purchased for around fourteen pounds from some European retailers. It may not be as polished or convoluted as Anderson’s most recent work, but it is a charming little film and I can promise that you will not be disappointed.