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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MOVIE REVIEW: Bunraku

Not every cool idea is necessarily a great idea, and that’s never more apparent than in director Guy Moshe’s genre mash-up, “Bunraku.” Set during a post-nuclear future where guns have been banned but swords, knives and pretty much anything else with a sharp edge is still fair game, the film takes place in a neon-drenched city controlled by a warrior named Nicola (Ron Perlman) and his gang of killers. When two drifters (Josh Hartnett and Japanese pop star Gackt) arrive in town with their own reasons for wanting to take down the tyrannical crime boss, they serendipitously cross paths at a local bar and decide to team up to increase their chances. But before they can get their shot at Nicola, the warriors must first face off against all nine of his elite assassins.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Bunraku” is that it has a very distinct visual style that falls somewhere between the graphic novel aesthetic of “Sin City” and a children’s pop-up book; not all that surprising considering the film’s title is a reference to a form of Japanese puppet theater. The action sequences are also fun to watch and benefit from the film’s unique look, but unfortunately, they never amount to more than a series of flashy distractions to hide the fact that there isn’t much of a story. And when Moshe does try to slow things down in order to develop his characters, he’s forced to rely on some dreadful dialogue that not even reliable actors like Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd and Demi Moore can improve. The best you could say about “Bunraku” is that it would make for an entertaining late night movie when nothing else is on TV, because this self-serving piece of fanboy drivel is not even close to being as good as it pretends to be.

  

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Defendor

With Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” due in theaters this Friday, Sony picked the perfect time to release their own movie about a wannabe superhero – only “Defendor” is a little different in that its title character isn’t exactly right in the head. Granted, anyone that decides to get into the vigilante business has to be a little crazy, but Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is also a little slow. Dressed in a black suit with a duct-tape “D” on the chest and boasting an arsenal of weapons ranging from a WWII trench club to marbles and wasps, Defendor roams the city helping those in need. After saving a crack-addicted call girl (Kat Dennings) from a crooked cop (Elias Koteas) one night, Defendor teams up with her to take down a New York City crime boss that he believes to be a fictional villain named Captain Industry. Highlighted by a solid performance by Woody Harrelson, “Defendor” has its moments, but it ultimately falls prey to some shoddy direction from Peter Stebbins, who doesn’t seem to know whether the movie is supposed to be a dark comedy or a gritty crime drama. Koteas has some funny moments as the sleazebag cop who’s constantly harassed by Defendor, but it’s hard to find the humor in a mentally challenged adult who risks his life because he doesn’t think that bullets can harm him. “Defendor” definitely had the potential to be a great addition to the superhero genre, but it’s never better than mediocre.

Click to buy “Defendor”

  

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“Precious” tops the Indie Spirits

Gabourey Sidibe is Precious

This hasn’t been a very good year for people who like awards surprises. And, so, this year’s most high profile indie film, say it with me — “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” —  has won the lion’s share of the more high-profile awards at Film Independent’s Independent Spirit Awards, this year hosted by Eddie Izzard.

To be specific, “Precious” nabbed “Best Feature” from a field that included the very popular “(500) Days of Summer,” Berkeley-bred Cary Joji Fukunaga’s surprisingly assured directorial debut, “Sin Nombre,” and “The Last Station.” Director Lee Daniels, whose work on “Precious” has been the single most criticized aspect of the somewhat controversial film, nevertheless beat the Coen Brothers work on “A Serious Man,” Fukunaga, James Gray of “Two Lovers,” and Michael Hoffman of “The Last Station.” “Precious” also took the Best First Screenplay. The best not-first screenplay went to Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber of “(500) Days.”

In the acting categories, Gabourey Sidibe received the Best Female Lead for playing Precious herself and, naturally, Mo’Nique proved to own her category fully across all award shows and won the Best Supporting Female category. Among the males, Jeff Bridges, took the Best Male Lead award that is deemed pretty much his due this year for the country music drama, “Crazy Heart.”

Since the $40 million dollar budget of “Inglourious Basterds” presumably put it beyond the realm of the Spirits, Christoph Waltz was not nominated for Best Supporting Male. Instead, he cut a deal in which he collected the award anyway in return for helping the show to end early. Just kidding. Woody Harrelson in his non-zombie-thwacking mode took the award for his work in the low-key stateside wartime drama, “The Messenger.” (My sympathies to Christian McKay of “Me and Orson Welles” — so much critical praise and so few awards even when this year’s male 500 pound gorilla is safely out of the room.)

Anvil! The Story of AnvilBest Foreign Film went to a film that doesn’t feel so foreign now that England is our 52nd state, “An Education.”  Best Documentary went to one some of you might actually have seen and found fun rather than upsetting, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” defeated a list that included the highly praised “Food, Inc.” (For whatever reason, “The Cove” was not nominated.) Roger Deakins took the cinematography award for “A Serious Man.”

Among the special awards, the John Cassevettes Award, which goes to a film with a budget of less than $500,000, went to a favorite around these parts, Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday,” edging out another film we’ve kind of taken to our breast here, “Big Fan.” The latter film looked, literally, like a million dollars to me, so kudos to the penny-saving producers on that one. “A Serious Man” won the Robert Altman award for its acting ensemble.

You can see a complete list of nominees and winners here. You can also check and see if Indiewire ever corrects their typos here.

  

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Woody Harrelson is “Defendor”

Mr. Harrelson stars in a superhero comedy that may not be “Kick-Ass” but still looks maybe at least as fun as “Mystery Men.”

  

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