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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TCA Press Tour, Summer 2010: Day 8

Much as the CBS family of networks split their efforts into two days worth of panels – one for CBS, the other for Showtime and The CW – so did Fox give us some breathing room by placing their presentations for FX’s slate of new programming on a separate day. (I wish to God NBC / Universal would take a cue from their peers. I’m so sick of being rushed through a mishmosh of NBC, USA, Bravo, and SyFy series in one long can’t-stop-won’t-stop day.)

Executive Session

Your personal mileage may vary, but for my money, John Landgraf is one of the nicest network heads currently in the game. He’s very low-key, but he’s always ready to give you a quote when you’re looking for one. Today, he offered up the following bits and pieces about the future of FX.

* “Louie” has been renewed for a second season of 13 episodes.

* Ben Garant and Tom Lennon, late of “Reno 911!,” are going to do a pilot for FX called “The USS Alabama.” It’s another partially-scripted, partially-improvised series, and, according to Landgraf, “It takes place in space on the USS Alabama with a crew of spacefarers who might not be too much brighter than the cops in ‘Reno 911!’”

* There are two other pilots in the works as well, the first being “Outlaw Country,” which will star Mary Steenburgen. “Some really talented young actors have joined that cast,” said Landgraf. “That goes into production in, I think, six weeks. It’s a fantastic script. Something we’re really, really excited about.” The other is “Wilfred,” a comedy pilot based on an Australian comedy series, which completed principal photography last week.

* The “Damages” deal done with DirecTV is different from the one that was done with “Friday Night Lights” in that FX will not be offering up the episodes after they’ve run on DirecTV. “The season that has aired, which was the third season of ‘Damages,’ is the last season it will air on FX,” said Landgraf. “For us, we’re also producers on ‘Damages.’ We’ve been co-owners and co-producers through FX Productions, and DirectTV felt very strongly. They were willing to underwrite it, and to a very substantial amount financially, they enabled it to move forward. That was the deal that Sony worked on very aggressively, but they wanted it exclusively, so this was really the best and only way for ‘Damages’ to move forward. So we stepped aside as a network entity, and we’re still involved as a production entity.”

Sons of Anarchy

I don’t know that there’s any series currently on the air that I feel worse about not watching than “Sons of Anarchy.” Everyone tells me it’s fantastic, I have every reason to believe that those people are right, and yet I just haven’t had the time to go back and revisit the show’s first two seasons. But that won’t stop me from bringing you the info that creator Kurt Sutter and his cast provided to us during the show’s panel, of course.

As far as the “big bad” for Season 3, as it were, Sutter says, “We have a couple dual storylines going in Charming and as well as in Belfast, but I guess if you had to pin it down to one specific adversary, I would say that it’s probably the Titus Welliver character, Jimmy O.”

What of the theme of the new season? “I don’t know if there’s one specific overriding theme,” said Sutter. “I think the theme is always about family and Jax sort of defining his role as a father and as a partner and as a son and as a member of this club, and the Abel storyline drives us through pretty much the entire season, and…I don’t want to give anything away in terms of what that means and where that takes us, but, you know, the thing is our seasons, the actual span of time within our seasons is very short. It’s potentially a couple, two or three weeks. So there isn’t a lot of time that passes where you can have a lot of things unfold organically. So it is a very concentrated period of time which I think helps feed, I think, the sense of urgency for the tasks that they have at hand this season.”

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Greetings to the New Show: “Archer”

archer

FX’s new comedy series, “Archer,” has a decidedly Adult Swim feel to it, and that isn’t at all coincidental. Created by Adam Reed (“Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” “Sealab 2021” and “Frisky Dingo”), “Archer” is everything you’d expect in an Adult Swim series – from its crude animation style to its adult-themed humor. Still, it might be a little too refined for Cartoon Network’s late night line-up, which is why it works so perfectly on a channel like FX. Though the basic cable network has succeeded in making several first-rate dramas over the years, they’ve yet to crack the comedy nut beyond “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” They may have finally found a worthy pairing in “The League,” but if FX hopes to create a Thursday night comedy block to compete with the big boys, “Archer” is exactly what they need.

Set at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), a spy agency where espionage and global crises are merely opportunities for its highly trained employees to confuse, undermine, betray and royally screw each other, the series stars H. Jon Benjamin as Sterling Archer, a 007 wannabe who craves the perks of the job without doing any of the work. Joining Archer at the ISIS office is his domineering mother and boss, Malory (Jessica Walter); ex-girlfriend and fellow field agent Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler); head accountant Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell); lovesick secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer); and human resources director Pam (Amber Nash).

It’s a great cast for an animated series, but despite all the recognizable names, it’s relative unknown H. Jon Benjamin who steals the show. Anyone who’s ever watched cult classics like “Dr. Katz” and “Home Movies” are probably already familiar with Benjamin’s trademark voice, but he’s an absolute riot in “Archer” and the main reason the show works as well as it does. In fact, while I had already seen the pilot episode months before during its top secret preview on FX, it didn’t stop me from watching it again. It’s easily the strongest of the first five episodes, although “Training Day,” where Archer trains Cyril to become a field agent, and “Diversity Hire,” where Malory hires a black-Jewish agent to fill a minority quota, are good as well. There’s also an “Arrested Development” mini-reunion when Jeffrey Tambor guest stars as an U.N. intelligence officer in “Killing Utne.”

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TCA Tour: FX Executive Session

John Landgraf, President of FX, just sat down and gave us his Executive Session, and here’s what came out of it:

* FX pursued six pilots this time around – three dramas, three comedies – and they’ve already picked up two of those. The first is an animated series entitled “Archer,” which stars Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, and H. Jon Benjamin, and is set at ISIS, an international spy agency where global crises are merely opportunities for its highly trained employees to confuse, undermine, betray and royally screw each other. (I’ve seen the first episode and it’s very Adult Swim, but that’s to be expected from a show created by Adam Reed, the man behind “Sealab 2021” and “Frisky Dingo.”)

The second, “Lawman,” was developed by Graham Yost (“Boomtown”) and stars Timothy Olyphant (“Deadwood”) as Raylan Givens, a character created by Elmore Leonard in his short story, “Fire in the Hole.”

* The network is also working with Louis CK, is looking into “Terriers,” created by Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin, and a pilot entitled “Lights Out,” which was written by Justin Zackham (“The Bucket List”) and stars Holt McCallany, Elias Koteas, and Melora Hardin.

* Landgraf was absolutely not surprised about the lack of Emmy nominations for “The Shield.” I find that sad.

* The current “Rescue Me” season,, which Landgraf says they are “unbelievably satisfied” with, will consist of 22 episodes, and FX has picked up 18 more for next season, though they are contemplating expanding that order. When the show returns next summer, it will probably be earlier than it was this year. (The delay was predominantly due to the writer’s strike.)

* “Testees” will not be back for a second season on FX, but it will have a second season…in Canada, where it was apparently more successful.

* Announcements regarding the cast of Season 3 of “Damages” will hopefully be made within the next week or two, and Landgraf says, “I don’t think anyone in this room would guess who they’re going to.” The network was naturally disappointed with the ratings of the series in Season 2, but he admits, “It’s a very demanding show. It’s one where you can’t watch 3, 5, 7 episodes out of 13. You’re either in or you’re out.” This obviously doesn’t fit the current mindset for TV viewers, who he describes as being “more interested in dating than marriage,” but the series is what it is.

“If we came back with ‘Damages’ and it was Patty Hughes as Perry Mason, and every year she broke someone down on the stand and got her man or woman, you guys would literally be eviscerating me,” said Landgraf. “And I would deserve it.”

Lastly, here are the premiere dates for your favorite – and soon-to-be-favorite – FX series:

Sons of Anarchy,” Season 2 premieres on September 8th
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Season 5 premieres on September 17th
Nip/Tuck,” Season 6 premieres on October 14th
Archer,” premieres in the fall
Damages,” Season 3 premieres in January 2010
Lawman,” premieres in the spring of 2010
Rescue Me,” Season 6 premieres in the spring or summer of 2010

  

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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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