Hidden Netflix Gems – The Grand

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

While most sports movies tend to take themselves very seriously, with triumphant underdogs and platitude-filled speeches in their third acts, some sports just inherently lend themselves to comedy. Bowling is a great example of this, as evidenced by the success of films like the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Poker is another, though the game itself is so relatively inactive that it’s debatable whether it should even be called a sport, and Zak Penn‘s underrated improvisational comedy The Grand takes full advantage of a poker tournament’s many humorous possibilities.

Similar to the revered work of Christopher Guest and his regular ensemble of actors in films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Penn assembles a talented ensemble cast and gives them direction on who their characters are, then leaves the dialogue and the development of situations largely up to them. In fact, the poker tournament at the center of the film is a real tournament, and its outcome was undetermined in the script; the winner at the end of the film actually just beat the other actors, regardless of narrative expectations. This approach gives the film extra vitality and excitement, and with so much room to breathe, the cast creates lively, hilarious characters that often riff on and expand their real public personae.

Woody Harrelson stars as “One Eyed” Jack Faro, the owner of The Rabbit’s Foot casino, which he hopes to save by winning an annual tournament called The Grand. Of course, it is the drug-addled, 74-time divorcée Jack’s own bad investments and reckless behavior that has jeopardized his ownership of the casino in the first place, but despite his many vices, Jack is a charming and lovable rogue worth rooting for. His main competition in the tournament includes the Schwartzman twins, Larry (David Cross, who had a good real-life run on Celebrity Poker Showdown) and Lainie (Cheryl Hines); the Rain Man-like genius Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell, best known as 30 Rock‘s incompetent Dr. Leo Spaceman); and oblivious newcomer Andy Andrews (Richard Kind).

As funny and well-developed as all these primary characters are, however, it is the bit parts that really shine in The Grand. Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog brings a deadpan menace to his character, “The German,” a ruthless cheat who brings a small menagerie of animals with him to the casino’s hotel because, as he says, “To feel alive and to get this energy, it is essential for me to kill something each day.” Dennis Farina is also particularly memorable as LBJ “Deuce” Fairbanks, a Las Vegas veteran nostalgic for a less family-friendly time in the city’s history; as he fondly remembers it, “It was a place where the Jews and the blacks had to enter the casinos through rear entrances. By the way, on this corner right here, I stabbed a bum.” Though barely released in theaters and largely ignored, The Grand is a consistently funny, anarchistic good time for poker fans and novices alike.

  

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NBC: What’s New for Fall 2010

MONDAY

The Event (Mon., Sept. 20 @ 9:00 PM, NBC)

* The competition: “Dancing with the Stars” (ABC), “Two and a Half Men” and “Mike & Molly” (CBS), “Lone Star” (Fox), “Gossip Girl” (The CW)

Starring: Jason Ritter, Sarah Roemer, Blair Underwood, Laura Innes, Scott Patterson, Ian Anthony Dale, Zeljko Ivanek

Producers: Steve Stark (“Medium”), Evan Katz (“24”), Nick Wauters (“The 4400,” “Eureka”), Jeffrey Reiner (“Friday Night Lights,” “Trauma”)

Network’s Description: an emotional, high-octane conspiracy thriller that follows Sean Walker, an Everyman who investigates the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée, Leila, and unwittingly begins to expose the biggest cover-up in U.S. history. Sean’s quest will send ripples through the lives of an eclectic band of strangers, including: newly elected U.S. President Martinez; Sophia, who is the leader of a mysterious group of detainees; and Sean’s shadowy father-in-law. Their futures are on a collision course in a global conspiracy that could ultimately change the fate of mankind.

The Buzz: NBC ain’t playing around with this one: the big question of the summer for TV fans has been, “What is ‘The Event’?” Most of those who’ve seen the pilot seem to at least be hooked enough to come back for Episode 2, though I’m sure no one is counting on finding out what ‘The Event’ is anytime soon. On a related note, there’s some very reasonable concern from folks about whether they’re going to be let down by a promising sci-fi pilot that starts strong but then either peters out early in the season or never gets properly resolved before it’s canceled. (“FlashForward,” anyone?)

Pilot Highlight: There are several moments which will have you raising your eyebrows both at what you’re seeing and what it means, particularly the final scene, but the most effective sequence begins when Sean – who’s on a cruise with Leila – returns from a solo outing to find things aren’t quite the same as he left them.

Bottom Line: The rapid-fire back and forth between past and present combined with people getting the sensation that NBC’s trying for the next “Lost” is going to make it a tough sell for some, but, damn, the first episode sure intrigued the hell out of me.

Chase (Mon., Sept. 20 @ 10:00 PM, NBC)

* The competition: “Hawaii Five-0” (CBS), “Castle” (ABC)

Starring: Kelli Giddish, Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Rose Rollins, Jesse Metcalfe

Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer (“CSI”), Jonathan Littman and Jennifer Johnson (“Cold Case”), KristieAnne Reed (“The Forgotten,” “Miami Medical”)

Network’s Description: a fast-paced drama that drops viewers smack into the middle of a game of cat-and-mouse as a team of U.S. marshals hunts down America’s most dangerous fugitives. U.S. Marshal Annie Frost is a cowboy boot-wearing deputy whose sharp mind and unique Texas upbringing help her track down the violent criminals on the run. The members of Frost’s elite team are Jimmy Godfrey, an East Texas kid who never grew up and is a true American cowboy; Marco Martinez, a good intelligence guy who loves to talk; and Daisy Ogbaa, a weapons/tactical specialist and a woman of few words. Rounding out the cast is Luke Watson, the fresh-faced newcomer, whose Washington, D.C., upbringing did little to prepare him for the Lone Star State.

The Buzz: It ain’t great. For one thing, Bruckerheimer was nowhere to be seen at the panel for the series (he was apparently on the set of the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, but he somehow managed to make it in for ABC’s panel for “The Whole Truth” a couple of days later), and then the panel itself was notably shorter than the ones for some of the other new entries on the NBC schedule. Maybe we shouldn’t make too much of either of these things, though. It’s more likely that it’s just a case where the show was too pedestrian to inspire much in the way of unique promotion.

Pilot Highlight: Nothing, really, and I can’t help but recall that I had this same problem with one of NBC’s pilots last year, too. (Would you please rise from the grave and take a final bow, “Mercy”?) Sometimes, a show arrives, follows its formula, and departs without leaving much of an impression. “Chase” is one of those shows.

Bottom Line: Don’t let the Bruckheimer name suck you in this time. “Chase” is the most by-the-book, formulaic cops-and-robbers drama I’ve seen in awhile, with no “hook” to make it stand out from the pack. If “Hawaii Five-0” doesn’t blow it out of the water, then I’ll have to echo Alex O’Loughlin’s sentiments and concede that I’m completely bewildered and have no idea how television works at all.

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Old Show, New Season: “Curb Your Enthusiasm”

Fair warning: those of you who have been chomping at the bit to see the much-vaunted “Seinfeld” reunion on this season of “Curb Your Enthusiam” had better cool your jets, at least for this week. Although the press (and I’m including myself in their number) immediately latched onto the season’s major plot arc and ran with it, there’s only the tiniest hint in tonight’s episode about the events to come. What we get instead is something which longtime fans of the series will nonetheless appreciate: a follow-up to the Season 6 finale.

If you were there at the end of Season 6, then you remember that Larry, now separated from Cheryl, had managed to find an unexpected love connection with Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox). Well, they’re still together, amazingly enough, but it’s hard to say how much longer the relationship is going to last. Part of it is because she’s starting to drive him crazy, but the other reason is…well, it’s better that you learn it for yourself. Suffice it to say that it’s a development which will immediately make you go, “Oh, God, this is going to be like Susan on ‘Seinfeld’ all over again…” Maybe it won’t be, but that’s certainly the first thing that leapt to my mind.

The season premiere is entitled “Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister,” and the title character – named Bam-Bam – is played by Catherine O’Hara. I gotta tell ya, it’s always great to see O’Hara, and she hits a home run with her role tonight, particularly after one of the characters makes the very foolish choice of indulging in a liaison with Bam-Bam. We also get a brief appearance from Wanda Sykes, and although she’s definitely not a strong presence within the episode, Cheryl does manage to turn up for a few minutes; it’s a testament to how much Larry has missed her, however, that he doesn’t completely lose it when their paths cross. (She unabashedly uses his name to get a good table at a restaurant.)

There’s one thing that doesn’t work very well in the season premiere: the action performed by Loretta’s doctor which annoys Larry and thereby sets off the episode’s series of intertwined events. I think any “Curb” fan worth his or her salt knows that Larry’s pretty easily annoyed, often by the most ridiculous things, but it just isn’t as funny when Larry does something that you know you’d probably do, too. And, trust me, anyone would stand aghast at the doctor’s action. It’s completely inappropriate.

Then again, when you think about it, there really isn’t that much about “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that is appropriate, so I guess it all works out okay in the end. And, besides, as ever, it’s just nice to have Larry David back for another season.

  

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Labor Pains

After failing to make the jump from kid star to adult actress (not to mention her two-year stint as every gossip magazines’ favorite drunken/slutty/anorexic/lesbian celebrity), “Labor Pains” was supposed to be Lindsay Lohan’s grand return to the big screen. Things didn’t go quite the way they were supposed to, however, and instead of getting a proper theatrical release, the film was dumped onto ABC Family as their movie of the week. Granted, “Labor Pains” is very much movie-of-the-week material, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. Lohan stars as Thea, a twentysomething college drop-up working as a secretary at a small-time publishing company. When her boss (Chris Parnell) threatens to fire her after she accidentally harms his canine companion, Thea pretends to be pregnant in order to keep her job. What follows is exactly the kind of formulaic comedy that you’d expect just from looking at the poster, but despite its shortcomings, it’s still far more entertaining than your average made-for-TV movie. Her messy private life aside, Lohan is always fun to watch, and this time around, she gets invaluable support from comedy vets like Parnell and Cheryl Hines. It might not be for everyone, but “Labor Pains” is sure to find an audience as a great alternative to “America’s Next Top Model” reruns.

Click to buy “Labor Pains”

  

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TCA Jump-Ahead: “Curb Your Enthusiasm”

It occurs to me that, although I’m trying my best to cover the TCA tour in a chronological manner, there are some panels that you’d like to know about more quickly than I might otherwise get to them. As such, I’m instituting a new category called the TCA Jump-Ahead.

First up: “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

It’s kind of a running joke in the entertainment industry about how every season of “Curb” should be considered the last season of “Curb” until Larry David says otherwise…and, generally, Larry David is glad to tell you that he’s done, he has no more ideas, and he can’t be bothered to try and think of any. Thankfully, David announced last year that he would indeed be moving forward with a seventh season of the cringe-worthy comedy (and I mean that in the best possible way), and since then, there have been multiple rumblings about how various members of the cast of “Seinfeld” would be popping up. In the “Curb” panel yesterday, David finally provided some context to exactly how they’d be appearing.

“For years, I’ve been asked about a ‘Seinfeld’ reunion, as has Jerry and the other cast members,” explained David, “and I would always say, ‘No, there’s no reunion. There’s not going to be a reunion show. We would never do that. It’s a lame idea.’ And then I thought, ‘But it might be very funny to do that on ‘Curb.’ And I kept thinking about the idea. I started to think of different scenarios and how we could pull this off. I called Jerry, and Jerry was game. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll call the others,’ and I did. And we did it. So we’re doing a ‘Seinfeld’ reunion show on ‘Curb.’ We’re going to see writing. We’ll see aspects of the read-through, parts of rehearsals. You’ll see the show being filmed. And you’ll see it on TV.

What will you see? You won’t see the entire show; you’ll see parts of the show. You will get an idea of what happened 11 years later. And within the show, it will be incorporated into regular ‘Curb’ episodes. So the cast members will be playing themselves on ‘Curb’ while all this is going on. You’re not going to see a ‘Seinfeld’ show from beginning to end, but you will see parts of the show.”

And will there be any reference to Michael Richards’ sordid post-“Seinfeld” problems?

“It’s possible.”

The reunion is scattered through the season, and by David’s admittedly questionable recollection, the cast will be on five shows, though they won’t all be on the five shows. (“Jerry’s on five shows, I think,” he said. “The others will be on at least four. Maybe one or two of the others will be on five. I’m not sure.”) The season finale will be about the reunion show and will possibly be an hour long, though David admits that he hasn’t finished editing it yet and can’t say for sure.

There’s just one thing, though: anyone who’s been watching “Curb” for the previous six seasons has to figure that the odds look good for Larry – the TV Larry, that is – to somehow screw up this reunion.

“He might,” said David. “Do you need a staff job for next season? My guy might consider wrecking something like that, yeah. We’ll see what happens. My guy could very well wreck it. I’m not saying he did…”

Want a few more tidbits about the upcoming season…?

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