Oblivion (1994)

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We love Full Moon Entertainment here at the ISCFC – we’ve reviewed many of their films, and are always happy to point people to http://www.fullmoonstreaming.com where for a low low monthly price you can have access to their entire back catalogue. They’ve been going, under a variety of names, keeping genre fans happy for over 30 years (although I don’t think anyone was happy with “Puppet Master: The Legacy”).

Predating “Firefly” and “Cowboys vs. Aliens” by many years, 1994’s “Oblivion” is a sci-fi-western-comedy. Well, really it’s a Western, with funny bits, set on a far-distant planet, but you get the idea. To those cynics among you wondering if Full Moon got offered a Western movie set and decided to write a film around it, hush because there’s plenty of care taken to incorporate the different elements – the town’s doctor also fixes robots, there’s an ATM next to where the horses are tied up and the alien streetlights dominate the skyline.

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Red-Eye, a lizard-alien, and his gang of goons have murdered the sheriff of Oblivion and are trying to take over. It’s all about a substance which we’ll call, for ease of my typing fingers, X – value demonstrated when a guy looking for it throws a huge hunk of gold away. Super-valuable, and it shorts out electrical circuits, meaning the cyborg Deputy of the town is no use against the gang either. Into this fun comes the Sheriff’s son Zack, bringing with him a “native”, Buteo, who he rescued from being eaten alive by gigantic scorpions. Zack’s a pacifist, but will he be able to put this aside to fight Red-Eye and save the town?

The cast is absolutely packed with genre superstars. Doing double-duty as Red-Eye and crazed prospector Einstein is Andrew Divoff, and he’s great in both roles; ISCFC favourite Musetta Vander is his leather-clad electric whip-wielding sidekick; Isaac Hayes has a cameo as the X buyer; Catwoman herself, Julie Newmar, is “Miss Kitty”; Carel Struycken (whose name you won’t recognise, but whose face you definitely will) is the undertaker; and George Takei is Dr Valentine.

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Of all these, Takei is the biggest name, and this fame allowed him some hefty leeway. He’s drunk almost his entire time on screen, and he’s terrible at acting drunk; plus he ad-libbed an absolute ton of Star Trek-related lines, which scriptwriter Peter David has completely disowned. One Star Trek line, okay, it’s pretty much expected if you hire him, but there were loads of them. It’s not like Isaac Hayes sang “Shaft” during his scenes.

As well as the typical western movie beats, there’s some really funny scenes in “Oblivion”, including the funeral being held in the same building as a game of bingo; and the response to the Undertaker is always good – given how rarely you see Struycken actually talk in his other roles, you’d assume he’s no good at it, but he’s fine in this. There’s a surprisingly good English accent from South African-turned-American Vander, and the two main roles – Zack and Buteo – while being interchangeable at times (they both criticise the other for philosophising too much) are fun and their motivations are clear. Musetta Vander comfortably steals every scene she’s in, as well, absolutely understanding what sort of movie this is.

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This is the sort of film that Full Moon were made to do. Getting every penny from their budget, having a lot of camp fun and doing something the big studios would never even think of, much less spend millions of dollars on. This was filmed back-to-back with its sequel (there’s a “to be continued” at the end, which you don’t often see at the end of movies because, you know, you paid good money to see a complete story, not the first half of one) and was the last movie in the relationship between Full Moon and Paramount, meaning from now on, expect lower star-power and budgets from them (there’s a bit of a gulf between this and, say, 2000’s “The Dead Hate The Living!”) But they’re still doing it and still having fun, so more power to them.

A true clash of genres, made with love and a knowing wink, it’s fallen into a little obscurity compared to some of their other output but it’s absolutely worth watching. And with Full Moon’s streaming service being so comprehensive, you don’t have to hunt it down.

Rating: thumbs up

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

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This franchise has been remarkably durable. After this movie, there’ve been animated movies, animated TV shows, books, a live tour (?), and a recent online TV reboot, “Rebirth”, among other things. My favourite is the live-action TV series, “Mortal Kombat: Konquest”, made in 1998. “Konquest” is fascinating not so much for its story but for the way it ended. They knew they were getting cancelled in time to write an ending, so in the final episode the bad guys won, all the good guys died and the Earth was enslaved forever!

“Rebirth”, which started off as an unofficial pitch video for creator Kevin Tancharoen to get an upcoming Mortal Kombat movie, started pretty well as a reimagining of the “universe” of the show, with appearances from Michael Jai White, Jeri Ryan, Casper Van Dien, Mark Dacascos and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, reprising the role of Chang Tsung from the first movie. But by the end of the two “seasons”, we’d gotten nowhere near actually having the Mortal Kombat tournament, and the repeating of storylines had gotten beyond  tedious. Maybe just watch the first season unless you’re a real glutton for punishment.

But that’s all in the future! This is about the sequel to the 1995 original, which we loved. It starts the instant the first film finished, with the Emperor of Outworld, Shao Khan, breaking the rules of the Elder Gods to invade Earthrealm, despite Liu Kang having won Mortal Kombat and saved the earth. Returning for this movie are Robin Shou (Liu Kang) and Talisa Soto (Princess Kitana), with the rest of the actors being replaced, most notably Raiden going from Christopher Lambert to James Remar. In future “stardom” news, Darth Maul himself Ray Park got his start on this movie, and “Ong-Bak” star Tony Jaa did some stunt-work for Robin Shou.

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The special effects are more obviously cartoony in this movie, with an aggressively fake bluescreen in a lot of scenes; while some effort is made, the reduced budget is fairly obvious. The merging of the realms that comes from Shao Khan’s black magic looks fun, though, so you’ll get the Eiffel Tower start to emerge from the ground in the middle of a big battle scene.

So yes. Black magic involving Princess Kitana and her long-thought-dead mother, Queen Sindel (Musetta Vander, ISCFC favourite) – and no, the black magic isn’t that they’re only 4 years apart in age – which keeps a portal open which allows the merging of the realms and the inevitable destruction of Earthrealm. Raiden goes to visit the Elder Gods but they’re worse than useless; and the rest of the cast splits up on their own little missions, mainly so they can have lots of computer game-style one-on-one fights with a weird and wonderful variety of villains, presumably characters from one of the games. Liu Kang gets the power to turn into a very cheap-looking CGI dragon, Raiden is turned into a mortal, Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess, fresh off “Beastmaster 3” and on her way to “Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD”) goes to find her partner Jax, who’s now got bionic arms, and all roads lead to the final big battle for it all, yet another MORTAL KOMBAT

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It’s not as good as the first one, is the first thing to notice. There’s cheesy one-liners aplenty, but there’s a strong sense that everyone’s taking it more seriously this time. Director Paul WS Anderson, who made the first one so much fun, didn’t return for the second one either, and replacement John Leonetti isn’t at the same level. Also, it’s crammed with characters – so many that there’s no possible way you could give a damn about anyone, or even fully understand who the person kicking ass on screen is all of the time. The use of the Elder Gods is like they were told to put them in but had zero idea what to do with them, and they’re effectively worse than useless.

After a couple of hundred martial arts films in a year, you begin to notice the same moves being used over and over, and “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” has them all. Never approach a downed opponent near their legs, or you’re getting kicked in the guts. Never approach them near the head, or you’re getting a bicycle kick to the face. If you go for a really big dramatic stomp on a downed opponent, they’re moving out of the way, same for if you swing a heavy object at them. That knife-edge clothesline move was super-popular in the 90s as well, as was that thing where you flew through the air doing multiple kicks on the same fella.

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It’s full of fighting, full of odd plot turns and if you see both of the Mortal Kombat movies together, you won’t be disappointed. But this is definitely the weaker of the two, and you need to be feeling generous to get some enjoyment from it.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Mortal Kombat (1995)

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Films based on martial arts computer games have three things in common – cheesiness; starring a teamed-up white guy and an Asian; and (to date, anyway), being surprisingly good. “Street Fighter”, “Double Dragon” and both “Mortal Kombat” movies all pitch themselves at that OTT, self-referential market and while none of them got stellar reviews, they’re all loads of fun.

“Mortal Kombat” also has the added benefit of the TMAMP – the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot (star’s brother is killed by a villain in a different country, star has to move back in order to get revenge on villain in a tournament, taking in a bit of ancient wisdom along the way). There are “Realms” and the Emperor of Outworld has sent Chang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, ISCFC favourite) to Earthworld (our planet, I guess) to get him to open a portal to allow an invasion. For reasons which presumably made sense to the people who closed the portals, Chang Tsung and his Outworld cronies need to win ten fighting tournaments to open it up, and at the beginning of the movie they’ve won nine. EXCITEMENT!

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Lord Rayden, a sort of deity, is protecting Earth, and he’s assembled the world’s best fighters to take on the Outworld crew. We’ve got Liu Kang (the guy whose brother died), Johnny Cage (the world’s greatest martial arts movie star, seeking to regain his honour after some gossip mags say he’s not for real, although why movie fans insist on martial arts stars being real fighters in this world is never mentioned), and Sonya Blade, a cop. On Chang’s side are Kano (with a metal plate sort of welded on to his face, who Sonya is tracking down), a whole army of goons and Goro. Goro is a good 9 feet tall with two sets of arms, and is presumably one of the less nice things in Outworld, but his origin is never brought up. In one of the many similarities between this and “Enter The Dragon”, they’re taken to a mysterious island where the tournament takes place on a battered old boat.

Although I’m a gamer of 30 years standing, I never played any of the Mortal Kombats (apart from a few very occasional goes at a party) so presumably there’s references that went over my head, although I did notice them crowbar in the three most famous catchphrases from the game – “Flawless victory”, “Finish Him” and “Fatality”. So while I recognise the characters, I don’t have any love or deep knowledge of the franchise and have to treat it like any other martial arts movie.

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First thing to notice, this wasn’t cheap. The sets, weirdly gothic and slightly alien, are large and elaborate and aside from some rotten CGI on the part of “Scorpion”, the effects are decent too. The fights are all done well, easily the equal of any of the “proper” martial arts movies of the time, with the fun addition of not having to obey the laws of physics due to nearly everyone having magic powers of some sort. The plot, while being a smidgeon odd, is perfectly understandable and there’s a decent sense of humour running through things as everyone with the exception of Chang Tsung camps it up. Bridgette Wilson, as Sonya Blade, insisted on doing all her own stunts including the fights, which shows a sense of dedication this movie perhaps didn’t deserve.

I haven’t even mentioned Christopher Lambert yet! He’s Lord Rayden, basically playing him as a smirking superpowered version of MacLeod from “Highlander”, and he never takes himself or the movie seriously for one second. His “you have learned all I can teach you” line, when you realise what caused him to say it, is the funniest joke in the entire movie. Lambert was almost joined by Cameron Diaz as Sonya (broke her wrist before filming began) and Brandon Lee (died before filming began). That would have been fascinating.

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This made a ton of money when it first came out, and that got us this movie, a sequel and a TV series (but more on those later). While I guess you’re unlikely to pop on a 20 year old computer game adaptation accidentally, if you see it on TV I’d definitely recommend watching it. It’s fun, fast, and full of good performances.

Rating: thumbs up

Still The Enemy Within (2014)

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The Miners Strike of 1984-1985 changed Britain for the worse. Purely to defeat the organised working class, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced pit closures, being perfectly willing to get rid of an entire industry, judging quite rightly that none of them voted for the Conservatives anyway. The miners, who were pushed and pushed further, finally went on strike when a modern, recently Government-upgraded pit was earmarked for closure – there could have been no other justification for it. And, for a year, the miners fought the Government.

It’s a long story, with moments of joy and laughter, as the miners begin to understand their strength and the power that comes from organising and moving collectively; and lots of moments of misery, as the State uses every tool in its arsenal to beat and humiliate the miners. As one of the strikers says, “imagine taking your wages every month, putting them in a cupboard and not touching them for a year. See how you get on” and we see the soup kitchens that were organised to feed the miners and their families, among many other things.

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Obviously, the miners lost in the end, so it’s a deeply sad story. The rest of the organised working class (and, to their eternal shame, the Labour Party) did too little to support them – money was good, but what they needed was other workers to come out on strike, to open up new fronts and force the government to stop destroying their industry and the thousands of villages and towns that relied on mines and miners for their livelihoods. There are happy moments, such as when Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners made their trip to the tiny South Wales town they’d chosen to support (the story told, with such laughter and tears, in “Pride”); and the ways the miners got round the police blockades stopping them from picketing outside some pits.

The film consists mainly of the story of the strike told by former miners and their supporters. The amazingly named Norman Strike; Paul Symonds, who movingly talks about the death of his friend on the picket line; Joyce Sheppard, who went from “ordinary” housewife to inspiring political activist; among others. Full disclosure: I have chaired meetings featuring several of the people involved in this film, so it’s to be expected I may be slightly biased. But bias is the only real way to respond to this film. If you’re not biased on the side of the miners, then you’ve not opened your eyes in the last 30 years.

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As the ending of the film shows, the legacy of the defeat of the miners strike is felt everywhere in the Britain of today. Privatisation has ended “jobs for life”, given billions of pounds to already wealthy investors, while leaving the actual people who make everything on the scrapheap. Once-proud areas are now little better than ghost towns, families where no-one’s worked for generations are increasingly common, and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow ever wider. Does anyone think, even now, that the Tories did the right thing? Has anyone said “well, the unions needed to be taught a lesson” and not been proved to be either directly profiting from that lesson, or an idiot?

But it’s not just a story of how the State beat one group of workers. It’s hope. The interviewees would do it all again, only with better tactics this time, because they were right! Seeing the stars of the documentary marching on anti-austerity demonstrations in 2014, saying “the future is still up for grabs” demonstrates how we should all be. Fighting the system is bloody difficult but the alternative is way worse, not just for us but for our kids and generations to come. Watch this documentary, be inspired and fight!

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Rating: thumbs up

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

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Directed by: David Lowery

A couple of years ago I saw the trailer for ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’. I remember thinking at the time “That looks good, I’m going to see that”. I never did. This often happens. As an avid trailer watcher I tend to make a mental watch list, but due to my forgetfulness I often can’t recall what is on that list. Movies are missed. Good movies.

The trailer looked gorgeous. A bit Malick like. It looked like a film destined for awards. Aside from a couple of Sundance back slaps ‘Aint Them Bodies Saints’ went under the radar. People seemed to forget about it come Oscar season.

‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is held together by a trio of talented young(ish) actors. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster. Affleck plays small time criminal Bob Muldoon, Mara the Bonnie to Affleck’s Clyde, she plays Ruth Guthrie and Foster is police officer Patrick Wheeler. The three do nothing more than remind us that they can act. They perform solidly, but was this a movie that needed power and panache?

At the beginning of the film we see a young couple in love. Bob and Ruth are separated when Bob is imprisoned, but the possibility of a reunion occurs four or five years later when Bob escapes from prison. As Bob gets closer to returning to his home town, Patrick begins to move in on Ruth. He becomes a confidant of sorts. Bob slowly moves homeward, with the help of old friends but begins to find that the path to Ruth is blocked. He’s also unknowingly being tracked by bounty hunters.

‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a mournful drama, it is a film about loss. Bob loses his wife, and his daughter when he is incarcerated, Ruth loses her husband, Skerrit (played by Keith Carradine) loses his son, who dies in the shootout which sees Bob go to prison. Then there is even more loss at the end of the movie. Even the bounty hunters in the film lose their target. There are few smiles in the movie, and the only light comes from the majestic sun kissed scenery.

Director David Lowery shows great care and restraint in his direction. The film looks glorious, but the pacing struggles to capture the scenic magnificence and fully utilize the supremely talented cast. Essentially ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ is a sad ballad of a movie, the kind of folk tale befitting of a bohemian singer songwriter with a Southern drawl.

– RJW

7/10

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints on IMDB

Fright-Rags’ CHUCKY collection

Fright-Rags’ CHUCKY collection honors one of horror’s most iconic villains
Limited edition box set, shirts and posters up for pre-order: http://bit.ly/chuckyfr

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Wanna play with Chucky? The pint-sized killer has been terrifying and entertaining audiences for more than 25 years. Fright-Rags is excited to honor one of horror’s most iconic villains with the Chucky Collection.

The Chucky box set includes three Chucky shirts – one designed by Justin Osbourn, a second from Abrar Ajmal and a third tee exclusive to the set – as well as an exclusive 18×24 screeprinted poster by artist Matt Ryan Tobin, a prismatic sticker and a full-size Good Guys replica box. This killer set is limited to only 225.

Osbourn and Ajmal’s designs are also available separately, as are additional Chucky shirts from Coki Greenway and Christopher Lovell. Rounding out the Chucky collection is an 18×24 screenprinted poster by Kyle Crawford. Limited to 100, the print features a glow-in-the-dark layer that reveals Charles Lee Ray’s voodoo spell.

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The Chucky collection can be pre-ordered from Fright-Rags. Limited edition items may sell out during the pre-order period, so act fast if you want a friend ’til the end. Orders will ship in late March.

Fright-Rags other new releases include shirts inspired by Freddy Krueger, Castle Freak, Subspecies and Sleepwalkers. Find all these and more at Fright-Rags.com.

Ninja Of The Magnificence (1988)

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What makes a film, really? Obviously, some of the masters have messed with plot, timeline, and narrative structure, but for the purposes of this argument we can safely leave them off to the side, so let’s just say your normal run of the mill films. It’s nice when they make sense, event B following event A. Characters who have a motivation you can understand is good too. It’s always useful to have all the parts of your film be relevant in some way to the overarching story (and, indeed, if you have an overarching story). If you’re doing a period film, it’s handy when all the stuff you use is appropriate to that time.

A very low bar to clear, as I’m sure you’d agree. Yet Godfrey Ho is no normal director; he’s the guy who gave us “Ninja Squad”, a film that produced this response from us:

“What the hell was that? This is perhaps the laziest film I’ve ever seen…has managed to find new ground below the bottom of the barrel”

All without the faintest trace of hyperbole. Even after all that, “Ninja Of The Magnificence” – what an amazing title, though! – is down there with the very worst of Ho’s output, mixing the laziness that’s Ho’s trademark with a hefty dollop of incomprehensibility. There’s one very striking similarity between this and “Ninja Squad” other than them both being terrible – the split storylines, with one half being full of ninjas in brightly coloured, not-terribly-stealthy-looking outfits.

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Looking good in pink is Ross, who is one of the students of the unnamed Ninja master. Because of evil, he decides to kill Master and use his own ninja army to take over…who cares? Ferris, resplendent in yellow, is one of his other students and decides to get his revenge and kill Ross plus a good number of his evil ninjas, most of whom wear white. Simple and completely uninteresting so far, apart from the amazing outfits and headbands that say “Ninja” on them in English.

In footage that looks completely different, though, we meet Lee, who the badly dubbed dialogue tells us was one of the Master’s other students. He’s not, obviously, and his storyline seems to be taking on two villains called Old Fox and Kong. There’s a mine which is apparently producing gold, a lot of ninja guards (who wear sort of similar white outfits to the other ninja, but not similar enough that you could, I don’t know, mistake them as being from the same movie), a woman and a kid to save, and lots of getting captured and escaping again.

I’ve honestly got no idea what the main storyline is supposed to be about. A lot of the scenes are shot horribly and are in almost complete darkness, so the dramatic music appears to be scoring nothing. Lee and the kid he’s helping out appear to get blown up with dynamite at one point, but in the next scene are fine, with zero explanation offered as to their safety. Oh, and someone uses a modern parachute at one point, in this medieval-set movie.

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If you believe the dialogue, then Old Fox and Kong work for Ross, but why he’d want to mine gold with ninja is never adequately explained. Or why two grizzled old Chinese thugs would be working for a white kid who looks all of 18. Things like gold mines would surely interest the government, who while they may not have ninja, do have tens of thousands of soldiers, surely? Ah, I don’t know. I really don’t know, in this instance, rather than me just saying “time to end that paragraph”. If any of you can puzzle it out, please leave a comment.

There’s one fun bit, where two guards are talking after being surprised by some movement in the bushes. “What was that?” “Oh, just a ninja”. Made me smile, anyway. And there were some surprisingly good fights, indicating that the person who choreographed whatever movie Ho cannibalised for the majority of the movie’s running time had more talent than was strictly necessary. But add the solid level of confusion to a distinctly underwhelming final fight (between coloured ninja, so a whole different crew of people) and you’ve got a movie which requires a stiff drink and a group of smart friends to “enjoy”.

Rating: thumbs down

Hard Eight (1996)

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Before Paul Thomas Anderson dared to adapt Pynchon novels he made a lovely sparse seedy neo-noir movie called ‘Hard Eight’ in the mid nineties. The film has a stellar cast including Samuel L. Jackson before he became a parody of himself, Gwyneth Paltrow before Coldplay, John C. Reilly and a cameo from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Such a cast is overshadowed by a perfect performance from Philip Baker Hall who plays wily fixer Sydney.

Sydney reminds me a lot of Harvey Keitel’s character from those Telly adverts, Winston something-or-other. He’s a problem solver, cool in the face of crisis. The film begins when Sydney comes across a beaten and bedraggled John (C. Reilly). John has lost money gambling. He was trying to win money to pay for his Mother’s funeral. Sydney buys John coffee, listens to his tale and then offers to teach him how to make some serious dollar.

Sydney takes John to Vegas and shows him how to hustle the casinos. The film then fast forwards to the next chapter. Two years later John is making good money. John and Sydney come across Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who runs security and Clementine, a wayward cocktail waitress slash prostitute (Paltrow). Like with John, Sydney tries to help out Clementine, at first she misinterprets his acts of kindness. Thinking, like most men that he wants her body.

That’s the set-up, the film ramps up the tension levels with blackmail, hostage situations and stand offs. Paul Thomas Anderson loads his films with talented charismatic actors, unusual off beat dialogue, and we know that this has become a mark of his work, but it’s fascinating to see how minimal the film is. Café-Casino-Motel Room. There’s no need to present the glitz and glamour of Vegas, this is the other reality, the lives in the shadows.

A word or two must go towards the Philip Seymour Hoffman scene, it’s brief, but brilliant, a hint of things to come. Hoffman is at his blustering obnoxious best. A gambler who goes up against Sydney. He taunts Sydney, calling him “old man” and tries to get under his skin. The scene is reminder to any actor who get gifted s a couple of minutes of screen time and a handful of lines early in their career. Give it everything, snatch the opportunity. It could launch a career. You could become an icon. Hoffman would go on to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s fair to say this scene probably convinced Anderson  about what Hoffman was all about.

– RJW

8/10

 

Hard Eight on IMDB