I’m not sure P.T. Anderson’s debut feature is underrated, but it’s definitely underseen. It’s comparable to another debut by a director named Anderson that year--meaning, of course, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket--in that a voice the world would come to know very well is unmistakably present but not nearly as unmissably loud as it would later become. In other words, as directorial debuts go, it’s neither The 400 Blows nor Piranha II: The Spawning. However, while Bottle Rocket has received the official mark of approval that is a Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, Hard Eight still languishes as an out-of-print DVD. As a fan, what I like best about Anderson’s movies tends to be what most irritates the unconverted, but for anyone who wasn’t down for Magnolia’s rain of frogs or There Will Be Blood’s milkshake, Hard Eight is a far more traditional, neatly structured “little” movie--a very mid-’90s, very David Mamet-influenced neonoir.
Any movie that stars Charlie Sheen as a maverick, frequently shirtless astrophysicist is going to be at least a little silly, but this is also a satisfyingly tight and well-plotted debut from David Twohy, then on the way to bigger things such as Vin Diesel and the Pitch Black movies. It’s a long-standing cliche--maybe ever since Jaws’s opening weekend--that Hollywood’s one-time B-movies have increasingly replaced its A-movies, which makes the true B-movie spirit of this unpretentious, small-scale alien invasion story all the more pleasing.
In a decade not known for its horror movies, this early effort from Alejandro Amenabar stands out as one of the best to me. What seems to make a difference is that Amenabar has otherwise steered a far more mainstream course, including Close Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky), the Oscar-winning Javier Bardem vehicle The Sea Inside, and the retro-style ghost story The Others. Not to say anything against Freddy, Jason, and Michael, but his movie places far more emphasis on story and character than the prior decade’s (knowingly) formulaic hits ever did. Even in a far-fetched plotline about that long-lived urban myth--the snuff movie “industry”--the college-student heroine, played by Spirit of the Beehive’s Ana Torrent, registers as a real person, and the result is that this is a horror movie that can appeal to people who usually only watch “thrillers,” while still being plenty violent and scary enough on its own.
He’s far from a great filmmaker, but I still think it’s a shame that the current movie industry could almost certainly never nurture someone like Kenneth Branagh, someone who primarily focused his directing career on making big-budget, star-filled Shakespeare adaptations. I remember this huge epic, which I suppose could be called “peak Branagh,” being greeted respectfully but also a bit begrudgingly; excesses like a four-hour-plus runtime and celebrity-stuffed cast were wearing thin. And I haven’t heard much mention of it since, until in the last few years, as filmmakers like P.T. Anderson and Tarantino have started to revive the 65mm format that it looked like Branagh might be the last person ever to use for a feature film. Looked at now, though, with the film industry seemingly in its own permanent state of recession and too-big-to-fail, Branagh’s Hamlet has a kind of lunatic grandeur to it. Branagh’s choices as director have always tended toward the unimaginative, but the look of this movie might be his one masterstroke; the opulent, bright, 19th-century setting his production team created cuts directly through the cliched medieval gloominess of previous versions.