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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American Idol: 5 of 24 revealed

This is when it must really be hard to be Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez or Steven Tyler. The talent pool for this season’s “American Idol” is one of the best ever, thanks in part (sorry, I’m going to say it) to Simon Cowell not being there to choose good looks over vocal talent. So now, when you get 61 very talented singers and have to pare that down to 24, it’s a difficult task.

Anyway, last night’s episode began with the contestants being bused to Las Vegas to the Mirage, where a running of a Beatles show is behind shown. They were given 24 hours to learn a song and working with AI vocal coaches before performing in front of the judges. But first, they had to sing in front of industry veteran and AI exec this season, Jimmy Iovine. Iovine and his producer friends were brutally honest with the singers, which is something some of them really needed. They also were “encouraged” by “vocal coach from hell” Peggy. Ha!

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Hell’s Kitchen: one crazy left

“Hell’s Kitchen” is barreling toward the finale already, but wait….now there will be a 2-3 week break for playoff baseball. Anyway, when they resume in early November there will be 8 contestants left and they will probably keep up with the two-episodes-in-one thing until just after Thanksgiving. Either way, here is our rapid-fire recap of last night’s doubleheader:

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It’s your post MTV Movie Awards debacle movie news

Yes, isn’t it?

* Okay, so as I wrote in the post below, I felt slightly ill-used by the MTV Movie Awards PR apparatus. However, the question they asked Mrs. Lincoln remains: what did I think of the show? Well, when I finally watched it at home after a long drive home and an only-at-Universal-City-Walk possibility of following up a Pink’s chili dog w/sauerkruat with a Tommy’s Chili burger, I found it…okay. It was loud, vulgar — and not always in a good way — and it had excellent production values that the Oscars could learn from. I think I was as moved as everyone else by Dr. Ken Jeong’s speech about his wife’s former illness.

On the other hand, I could have done with less of the Tom Cruise dancing with Jennifer Lopez thing. The Les Grossman character was very funny, and definitely reminiscent of some real Hollywood characters, in the context of “Tropic Thunder,” but now it seems to have taken on an unneeded life of its own that is starting to creep me out and not in a funny way. But, once again, no one is listening to me and Cruise is talking about, Lord helps us, a Grossman movie. I’m starting to think he should talk more about Scientology.

Tom Cruise,Jennifer Lopez

As far as I what I felt about the actual awards and the movies and performances that were recognized…is there even the slightest point in complaining? I don’t think there’s any pretense that these awards are intended to honor good movies. Of course the “Twilight” movie was going to win. And I guess it’s somehow appropriate to know there’s at least one award Christoph Waltz just can’t get for playing Col. Hans Landa.

One thing that irked me slightly and then later amused me greatly, but not for the reason the MTV producers would have liked, was the much remarked upon proliferation of swear words. I use relatively few curse words for a modern-day American, but I’m not particularly opposed to them, especially when used in a clever or entertaining fashion. In the context of a show where the curses are to go out bleeped, however, more than one or two in a sentence can be a real problem for the audience at home that doesn’t hear it, and it really did bury many of the jokes in a volley of random silence.

Still, one comic highlight was Peter Facinelli’s acceptance speech on behalf of the rest of the “Twilight: New Moon” cast in which he apparently simply overwhelmed the person on the kill-switch with his deliberate carpet F-bombing, and several fuck-words made it through. It was a really funny moment that did not go on unnoticed by society’s killjoys who, just this once, weren’t completely in the wrong, I suppose.  I nevertheless believe that the religious fundamentalist-driven PTC should get a fucking life.

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Movie news night notes

The lesson for tonight is never rely on the “save and quit” feature of Mozilla to actually, you know, save your tabs. Here’s what I’ve been able to salvage.

* Probably the biggest geek movie news of today was word via Mike Fleming that “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” director Peter Sollett, also of the critically acclaimed “Raising Victor Vargas,” may helm the upcoming comic book adaptation, “Runaways.” Created by Brian K. Vaughn for Marvel, the book deals with the teenage angst of a group of kids who find out that their parents are supervillians and, of course, like all of us, they have some genetic baggage to deal with. Vaughn is also reportedly working on a script.

Another frequently mentioned name in connection with this project, who may or may not still be in the directorial running, is Joss Whedon, perhaps the cultiest of cult creators these days. Whedon is a natural thought given that he’s an accomplished film-maker comfortable with both relationships and action, made his name dealing with teen-angst on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and, much more recently, wrote several issues of “Runaways.”

On the other hand, “Playlist” has a bit of a cult following of its own though Sollett hasn’t had to deal with action yet. Christopher Campbell notes that Sollett “did make an indie romantic film, so like Marc Webb he gets a Marvel superhero movie” and gathers the predictably diverse reaction.

* This may not be the most thoughtful reaction, and it sure does sound like some funny people are involved with it, but the news of the animated “Star Wars” sitcom brings one response to mind: “Noooooooooo!!!”‘

* Another item from AICN’s Hercules, much more to my liking — it’s about the latest restoration of what has to be one of the most often restored movies in film history and certainly one of the most important science fiction films ever made, Fritz Lang’s enormously influential silent film, “Metropolis.” The latest version actually brings the film to its original roughly 2.5 hour running time — the 90 minute version of my youth was more recently brought up to about 2 hours — and will be getting a theatrical run before the inevitable Blu-Ray/DVD release.

metropolis

Better yet,  for me anyway, is that opening night will be at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater as part of the festival sponsored by my favorite movie cable channel by far, the great and glorious TCM.

Do I sound like I’ve been bought off ? That’s because I have been. Specifically, my press credential has just cleared and it looks like I’ll be at that premiere with a live musical accompaniment, come heck or high water. But why does it have to be running opposite Tony Curtis hosting a showing of probably the best sex farce ever made, “Some Like it Hot“?

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