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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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A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Zhang Yimou is perhaps one of the most well-respected directors in international cinema, and yet you wouldn’t know it from the amount of flack he’s received for his Chinese-language remake of “Blood Simple.” I don’t count myself among the many admirers of the Coen brothers’ 1984 neo-noir – it’s a great debut film, though hardly one of their best – but Yimou obviously does, so it’s strange that his love letter to the film has been met with so much hostility. With the exception of a few tonal changes, his version remains surprisingly faithful, with the story transported to 19th century China and revolving around a noodle shop owner who hires a policeman to kill his cheating wife and her lover when he learns of the affair, only for things go horribly wrong for everyone involved.

Though Yimou’s attempts at including a little screwball comedy to the proceedings fails miserably, the film still works as a slow-burning crime thriller, with Sun Honglei delivering a killer performance (no pun intended) as the quiet assassin. The movie also looks incredible (from the colorful costumes to the gorgeous cinematography), and though it’s never going to replace the original, “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” is still a mostly interesting interpretation that I’d actually like to see done more often.

Click to buy “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop”

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Remakes going forward to yesterday

Remakes are in the movie news as usual. There’s not much more to say than a new iteration of John Woo’s classic international breakthrough, “The Killer,” and the fun but entirely non-classic caper flick “Gambit” are on the way.

The news on the latter is that this time the players are, in a switch from usual remake practice, a bit more mature than in the original. Cameron Diaz, who really needs to shine in something, and habitual award nominee Colin Firth, who’s doing just fine, will star. The twisty-turny tale is going forward with a years-old screenplay by the Coen Brothers, no less.

Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine in The setting has also been switched from Hong Kong to Texas and everyone will presumably be playing more or less their own ethnicity. The original had the very Anglo Shirley MacLaine playing a Eurasian woman of mystery and even more Anglo, as in actually British, character actor Herbert Lom as an Indian gazillionaire; Michael Caine who gets mentioned here on what seems like a daily basis, actually played an Englishman in it.

Regarding “The Killer,” before you Woo fans (and I’m certainly one) decry a crime against cinema, be aware that Woo himself is producing with his usual partner, Terrance Chang. Korean superstar Jung-Woo Sung will be making his English language debut with Korean-American helmer John H. Lee (the Korean-language love story, “A Moment to Remember”) directing and a screenplay by the previously unknown Josh Campbell. Oh, it’ll be in 3D.

I’ve written many times that I think complaints about remakes of classics are somewhat silly. If they’re bad or mediocre, they’ll be quickly forgotten. If they’re good, someone will complain about the remake of that one. Regardless, the originals aren’t going away any time soon. Below the flip are two samples of those originals. Try to see them both before the new versions come out for maximum compare-and-contrast fun.

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Weekend box office: “True Grit” tops slow weekend

There’s really not all that much to say about the box office this weekend other than that it was down a worrisome 29% over last year, so I’ll keep things brief as we peruse the Box Office Mojo weekend chart together. No huge surprises, though fans of westerns have a reason to celebrate.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in

As seemed likely back on Thursday night, the Coen Brothers “True Grit” edged out the star-laden filmed deal, “Little Fockers,” earning an estimate $15 million for Paramount as opposed to $13.7 for the Universal comedy. That makes for a total of roughly $110 million in three weeks for the western as opposed to $123 for “Fockers.” However, considering that the budget for “True Grit” was more than 60% lower and with a probable buoyant life on DVD, I think it may be the likely profitability winner over the long haul. In any case, this is good news for the Coen’s fans, which includes myself, as it means that they’ll have greater latitude to do something really weird next time, if that’s what they feel like doing.

Nicolas Cage contemplates the eternal box office void in This week’s unloved new releases managed to avoid complete disaster. The lackluster and horribly reviewed action-horror flick, “Season of the Witch,” underperformed even modest expectations that it might hit $12 million. However, it managed to earn double-digits for Relativity Media, newcomers to the releasing game, and didn’t come in too shy of the lowered mark. The Nicolas Cage/Ron Perlman swash-chiller earned what may be approximately $10.7 million in third place.

Released in only 1,400 theaters or so, the musical drama for country fans, “Country Strong,” managed to earn a reasonable per-screen average of $5,126 for an estimated total of $7.3 million in 7th place. It follows “Tron: Legacy” and the sleeper-esque “Black Swan.”

Oscar contenders “The Fighter” from Paramount and “The King’s Speech” from the Weinstein Company remain strong several weeks into their release. The two films, about very different personal battles, made estimates of $7 million and $6.8 million in 7th and 8th place, respectively.

Colin Firth & Helana Bonham Carter contemplate a sticky wicket in

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Weekend box office: “Little Fockers” and “True Grit” face off as the movies have a worrisome New Year’s (updated)

It’s hard to know what Marshall Rooster Cogburn and stern young Mattie Ross would make of a little or big Focker. However, this weekend turned out to be a surprisingly close competition over a weekend that won’t be giving studio executives any particular excuses to party like it’s 2009 and they’ve just released “Avatar“.

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in

As Anne Thompson reminds us, this is a weekend when, unlike the usual rather steep decline of ongoing films, we’ll see very small drops or, especially for family films, significant increases. The Box Office Mojo weekend chart, bears that out.

With no major new releases, “Little Fockers” suffered a 14.7% decline, which would be fantastic almost any other weekend, netting an estimated $26.3 million for Universal. That would be somewhat more impressive had the film not cost a ridiculous $100 million. On the other hand, after two weeks, it’s earned back that amount plus some change. Not bad for a movie that probably has the worst reviews of any recent major hit. (Among “top critics,” only funny guy Glenn Kenny failed to drub the movie with a review that double-damns with the faintest possible praise.)

Nipping at its heels, and perhaps very likely to be the more profitable film over time, was the Coen Brothers’ typically excellent first true-western, “True Grit.” Nikki Finke points out that Friday, New Year’s Eve, “Grit” actually earned a bit more than “Fockers.” I guess we can attribute that to the superior movie-going taste of the nation’s wallflowers. (What night did we see this again?) Still, the total estimated take was $24.5 million for Paramount. On the other hand, the price tag was a mere $38 million.Add to all of that a probable slate of Oscar nominations (though I doubt more than one or two wins) good word of mouth — the second week drop was a beyond miniscule 1.7% — and the proven ability of the Coens’ to make films that people continue watching decades later, and you’ve got one case of a studio being amply rewarded for taking a chance on an old school western. Westerns are, of course, deader than a doornail. The exception is when somebody makes a good one.

UPDATE: I failed to mention previously that, at over $86 million already generated by “True Grit,” this is also apparently by far the most successful Coen Brothers films so far by quite a lot. For comparison, “No Country for Old Men” made $76 million and change for its entire run, including a “Best Picture” Oscar win. Better yet, “True Grit” has an ending that won’t leave a significant portion of the audience angry or dissatisfied, so this film should have really significant legs. I doubt they’ll make another western any time soon, but if the Coens want to make “Truly Grittier,” no studio head would stop them.

Jeff Bridges with CGI botox and some new guy in Another Jeff Bridges showpiece, “Tron: Legacy,” held on fairly well in week 3 with a small 4.4% drop and a weekend estimated total of $18.3 million for Disney. It’s still about $30 million shy of making back its $170 budget, though I’m sure that’s just a week or two away. Still, this is no unalloyed coup. Guess I’m not the only person who wonders why the original “Tron” is even discussed today as anything other than a technological advance.

The New Year’s weekend was an overall bummer. It was down 26% compared to New Year’s 20010, and the year as a whole saw movie receipts declining very slightly. Anne Thompson says it went from $10.6 million to $10.5 million. She added that the real issue is not that seemingly tiny increase. It’s obscured by increasing ticket prices for 3D and other films, but that overall attendance declined by a “whopping” 5%, according to Thompson. I think we can attribute that to a stagnant economy, improving home entertainment options, and the inability of the industry to bring back the long-lost ability to turn movies into events worth getting out of the house for. Call me a complete and utter lunatic, but avoiding the insanely obviously cookie-cutter storylines and characterizations of most movies today might also help slightly.

Still, there was good news this week for a number of family films and Oscar hopefuls too numerous to mention. It also wasn’t bad for the two limited releases which came out last Wednesday. Both were rather downbeat films dealing with relationships unhappy, happy, and non-existent. “Blue Valentine,” with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple on their way to a break-up, emerged victorious from it’s battle to avoid a bookings-killing NC-17 with an R-rating and scored the best per-screen average of the holiday weekend, $45,000 in four theaters for a weekend estimated total of $180,000.

Meanwhile, “Another Year,” which I’ve been covering, started the New Year in, I’m guessing, reasonably OK fashion with $20,000 in six theaters for a total of $120,000. A film about a happy couple and they’re incredibly miserable friends and family members, a likely and definitely well-deserved Oscar nomination for Lesley Manville is the very low budget’s film’s hope for real profitability.

anotheryear-14

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