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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Late Friday movie news dump

It’s been a long four day week, and the hits just keep on coming.

* Even as A-listers are wrapping up George Clooney‘s Haiti telethon, the Sundance Film Festival is now underway in earnest and under new management, although boss Bob abides, naturally. Anne Thompson has a report from the front. Yesterday, she reported on the notable acquisition of the super-fest, director David Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” — which is not about to whole “when will the next Superman movie come out?” thing or even superheroes at all. Sorry.

More Sundance news to come next week, no doubt. Watch this space.

* Movie City News has compiled the results of 225 Top 10 lists and come out with a top 30 of its own. At the top, “The Hurt Locker” far ahead of nearest competitors, “Up in the Air” and “Inglourious Basterds.” At the bottom of the “best of” lists, Lars von Trier’s horror drama “Antichrist,” the most controversial film in a career filled with controversy.

* Speaking of films at the bottom, the Wrap brings us Forbes’ annoyingly hard-to-read list of the biggest fiscal flops of the last five years in more easily digestible form. Topping the list is the recent adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” which went from Oscar hopeful to complete dud in nothing flat when it came out. There are two films I personally like on this list, “Grindhouse” and “Walk Hard.” Anybody else out there have a favorite on the flop list? In any case, I wonder about the accuracy of the list as it doesn’t include DVD figures.

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The Duke and the Dude

An item about a possible casting choice I missed last week, as per Cinematical’s Elisabeth Rappe:

At first glance, [Jeff] Bridges seems a pretty offbeat choice for Rooster Cogburn [in the Coen Brother’s planned remake of 1969’s “True Grit“]. But having just rewatched the John Wayne original last week, I think it might just be casting heaven. Rooster is a killer, but he’s also a fall down drunk, full of sarcastic quips, and surprisingly tender-hearted.

Why not? Bridges is, after all, an actor even if he’s rarely played someone you could call a bad-ass. Below, a comparison –and since the second video is from “The Big Lebowski” you can safely trust that it is NSFW for language, including an ethnic epithet along with a world of painful f-bombs.

  

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Is the “Funny People” box office take half full or half empty?

Like so many things in life, the meaning of the weekend gross for the Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler “serious comedy,” “Funny People,” is a matter of perspective. On the more cheerful side, we have the trades, which typically enough are accentuating the positive, noting that the somewhat risky project, at least by modern mainstream film standards, was actually #1 at the box office, even if the amount it took the lead by was less than mega-spectacular.

The Hollywood Reporter (actually the AP as carried by THR) thinks that Judd Apatow is living in the best of all possible box office worlds:

Movie audiences have taken a liking to Adam Sandler’s more serious side…[“Funny People”] grabbed the top spot at the weekend boxoffice with a $23.4 million debut.

Variety takes a more measured, but still somewhat upbeat, tone:

Adam Sandler’s “Funny People” has topped a moderate weekend box office with $23.4 million at 3,008 playdates.

Nikki Finke, however, has a different way of seeing things. Here’s her headline:

‘Funny People’ No Laughing Matter; Opens To Lousy $8.6M Fri And Worse $7.4M Sat For Disappointing $23.4M Weekend

La Finke goes on to point out that Universal has been lowering expectations from Sandler’s usual $30-$40 million openers to a more modest $25 million, and fell a bit short of that.

Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Adam Sandler kvetch over turkey It really does come down to your frame of reference. In my weekend preview post, I mentioned the Sally Field/Tom Hanks starring “Punchline,” which I think is a better point of comparison than any particular Apatow or Adam Sandler film, including 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” simply because of the subject matter, the more-serious-than-you-might-expect approach, and the level of star power. That movie got similarly mixed reviews but was one of 1988’s lowest grossing films, despite the presence of two bankable stars. Two small differences: one had laughs, the other doesn’t, and Sally Field was not ever thought of as a great comedian, “The Flying Nun” notwithstanding.

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