With bands you love, it can be a thrill to go back and peruse their early albums to hear who they were as they started out. Did they explode onto the scene with that distinctive sound or grow into it? Did they change band members or lead singers or lean more heavily on influences? You can hear the tinkering. You can see how the world impacted them and how their sound matured. You can get a sense about what molded them and what made them the band that made you feel something.
It’s no different for cinephiles.
It can be such a rewarding journey to go back and track the early work of the artists that shaped you and made you see the world in a different way. Where did they come from? How did they grow and change? How did their cinematic vision mature with them? Today we’ll take a look at the early works of three Hollywood legends to get a tiny glimpse into how they became who they became.
1. Hard Eight
– The debut movie from Paul Thomas Anderson
“I’ll tell you what, you come with me back to Vegas, I’ll loan you $50, I’ll show you what you did wrong.”
This is one hell of a movie.
Paul Thomas Anderson is widely regarded as a master of the medium, but how, you wonder, was he so good, so early in his career. He reportedly had the kernel of an idea for Hard Eight, original titled Sydney, when he saw Philip Baker Hall in the film Midnight Run as a level-headed consigliere named Sydney, trying to talk down a rabid Dennis Farina. Anderson famously dropped out of NYU film school after two days, and set about using his returned deposit to make the films he wanted to make.
His first feature, Hard Eight, doesn’t feel like a first feature at all. Using techniques that would come to be known as his unique style: long takes, deliberate pacing, stylized shots that assist the story rather than replacing it, and leaning heavily on performance, Hard Eight is a tour de force.
I watched this movie in a sort of quasi-shock at how skilled it was. At how remarkable the performances were. At how much I was invested in such a minimalist story.
Philip Baker Hall commands all the attention as Sydney, a sharp, put-together guardian angel of sorts who takes John, played by the amazing John C. Reilly, under his wing. John C. Reilly is so damn good. I was trying to think of a performance – in any movie – I didn’t love from him and couldn’t think of a single one. He’s just always rock solid, even with far weaker scripts than this one.
We know not why, only that Sydney seems intent on doing a good turn for the lost, confused John. As the story progresses, we see the men grow closer, into a real mentorship-type-of-relationship, and then Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clementine, a Reno waitress and sometimes call girl gets involved with John.
We also get a brief, albeit memorable, visit from the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, as… a sort of mouthy, gambler d-bag.
The noir elements of this film, especially the familiar trope of a character trapped by an inescapable fate, are bountiful, and add texture to the simple story. When we finally realize why Sydney has helped John all these years, it informs our impression of the man, and we see to what lengths he’ll go to protect and shield John from harm.
Hard Eight makes me want to watch every film in the PTA library right now. His films can feel like an intoxicant that you never want to wake up from. Someday, we’re going to find out that the voodoo he creates with his pacing and camera work and amazing lighting is actually on the hypnosis spectrum. If you’re ready to feel that magic and watch some high quality noir with a heart, Hard Eight is a great way to spend your time.
– The Wachowskis feature film debut
“For me, stealing’s always been a lot like sex.”
Bound is something of a manifesto from the Wachowskis, who would, a mere thirty-six months later, bring you an itsy-bitsy film called The Matrix. You may have heard of it. Right away, the amped up visuals and hyper-focused camera moves that would later frame characters like Neo, Morpheus and Trinity, were on display in Bound.
But Bound doesn’t take place in another world. It’s more like an organized crime Thelma and Louise and ends up being fairly cutting edge and empowering for its time. Violet, played by the voice and body of Jennifer Tilly, is the kept woman of a mid level thug. Corky, an ex-con played by Gina Gershon, moves in next door. That’s right. Corky. I don’t know who picked the names but damn, son. Rough.
Anyhoo, the two women see each other on the elevator and sparks fly. Right away, she’s gotta have it. The dynamic is super intense with Violet trapped in a gilded cage and Corky having just been released from five years in a prison cage. It gets muy up close and personal between the two beauties and the feeling makes Violet realize there’s more to life than being trapped. She wants out.
But Caesar, played by Joe Pantoliano, isn’t the kind of man you can just walk away from.
At first I thought Bound was going to be just another soft core girl-escape-porn flick, but it blooms into something better when an opportunity arises and Violet and Corky hatch a high-stakes plan that will get them both free and clear forever. That is, if they can pull it off.
Bound is a deeply uneven movie, mostly hindered by some limitations with the casting. For example, I know this is my own thing, but I couldn’t take Christopher Meloni seriously as the heir to the mafia throne. It’s not that he’s not a good actor. I love Christopher Meloni. If you haven’t seen him in season one of Happy!, run don’t walk to see it. He’s amazing. But something about the part was so… off. You could see the puppeteer’s strings.
Despite some hiccups, the young Wachowskis show a keen knack for building tension. Although the dialogue fluctuates between sharp and cringey, the rudder of the ship sails us intentionally between Scylla and Charybdis, making us sit up in anticipation. A thriller isn’t a thriller unless you think “Oh my god! How are they ever going to get out of this?”
Bound does just that. It’s a women-led film that doesn’t pull any punches and establishes that when it comes to a complex plan and the ability to be nimble when things go sideways, women can hang with men any day.
3. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
– Leonardo DiCaprio’s first major role
“God, Arnie, you’re getting so big. Pretty soon I ain’t gonna be able to carry you no more.”
It’s a daunting task to capture what a lovely, unique film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is. First of all, there’s so much going on. Thank goodness for independent films that have the funding, the script and the courage to tackle so many complex issues at once. This one addresses poverty, obesity, orphans, the rise of big box stores, the death of the American community, stagnation, PTSD, suicide and raising a special needs child.
Gilbert Grape, played by Johnny Depp, is the man of the house after his father commits suicide and his older brother “gets away.” You follow him through his daily routine as he cares for his special needs brother, Artie, played by a young Leonardo DiCaprio in one of the most impressive performances you’ll ever see from a young actor. I’m a father of a son on the spectrum and I can tell you, the dysregulation, the requirement of constant attention, the monotonous safety of routines? It’s all there, spot-on. Gilbert’s life would be hard for anyone, and the audience can feel him losing patience as he’s trapped in a never-ending cycle of caring for everyone but himself.
What’s remarkable about the Lasse Hallström directed film is how much we as the viewer, feel trapped along with Gilbert. Between caring for his housebound mother and his special needs brother, Gilbert has no real future to look forward to.
The script is stellar, written by Peter Hedges, based on his book, and the cast is borderline extraordinary. Johnny Depp, DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, and Kevin Tighe lead the way until you realize you get bonus fantastic performances from (huzzah, again!) a young John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover.
How is John C. Reilly so damn good in everything? I was just thinking about him nailing these roles, and how he can also kill comedy roles like when he played Cal Naughton, Jr. in Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby. I think I’m realizing that he’s one of my favorite actors and he’s so low key that I never realized it.
So, what is eating Gilbert Grape, after all? Basically, everything. And it would eat you too if you had to walk a day in his shoes. It’s a film that is utterly realistic in its portrayal of a family in crisis, what it takes to be on duty 24/7 for a special needs child, and how easily the fabric of the American family can tear around the edges. I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s a beaut.
How did these films work for you? Did they grab you? Did they move you? Can you see the raw artistry? I always love to talk with people after they’ve seen a movie, and in the absence of that, please feel free to post your thoughts! Jump in below and let us know what you think of these films in the comments.