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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“The most important documentary of our time is Norwegian”

I really don’t know what to say about this, but this teaser trailer for “The Trollhunter” made me laugh and the movie looks like fun. H/t from earlier this week at Bloody Disgusting which reveals it is, of course, a mock-doc. I’m personally not at all sure if this is more like “Cloverfield” or Zak Penn’s very funny “Incident at Loch Ness,” however.

  

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Joss Whedon is (probably) the Avengers’ master now

I personally won’t be utterly sure it’s real until the man himself writes about it over at Whedonesque, but news today came via both Mike Fleming and (unlinkable/unreadable w/o subscription) Variety that mega-culty writer-producer-director Joss Whedon will be directing “The Avengers” as well as reworking the screenplay already written by Zak Penn.

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It’s important to note that no one’s saying it’s yet a 100% done deal, just that Whedon and Marvel Studios are in “final negotiations.” I imagine that could mean anything from lawyerly due diligence, to the movieland equivalent of leaving a real estate transaction in escrow, to quibbling over whether craft services on the film will provide marshmallows along with the hot chocolate. Still, there is certainly some truth to the story, and not only because Fleming and Variety are highly reliable sources, but also that, if there were not, Whedon himself would almost certainly have piped up about it by now. He’s known for staying in touch with his fans and has quickly squelched many a baseless, “squee!”-generating rumor.

As a confessed Whedonite, I’m sure I’m biased, but I love this idea. When I first got seriously hooked on Whedon’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” TV series, it was because I felt something of the same sense of involvement in the characters and backstory I had when I had become involved in the often soapy plot complications of Silver Age Marvel comics. When Whedon cites Charles Dickens and Stan Lee as his two favorite authors, it makes perfect sense to me.

More objectively, I’m not really that surprised that Marvel choose him and I think he’s a shrewd pick from their point of view. Some commenters have argued that Whedon is not an experienced action film-maker. I don’t think they’ve been paying attention. He’s supervised four action-heavy television series (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” and “Dollhouse“) and has directed one very strong action-packed movie space opera (“Serenity“) complete with space-car chases, martial arts, and even a bit of sword play mixed with down-and-dirty street fighting. I think he’s got that ground covered.

Joss WhedonMoreover, he brought the film in with what is, by current standards, an impossibly tiny budget for a movie with copious effects and action ($40 million) and, in my book at least, he did so with plenty of cinematic style. That has to please the notoriously tight-fisted Marvel Studio heads and probably puts them somewhat in mind of their other “risky” choice of “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, who prior to making “Zathura” had pretty much no experience with action or effects. More or less like “Serenity,” that film garnered good reviews but did kind of badly at the box office.  At $65 million, it was a somewhat higher budgeted box office disappointment, however.

“Serenity” fared poorly because it was a based on a TV show (“Firefly”) that most people had never seen, and was cursed with a premise and background that was very difficult to explain. Moreover, the title reminded people of very non-action-movie things like meditation, spas, and adult diapers. Worse, Universal was not really prepared to risk extra money on a months-long publicity campaign to try and bring the audience up to speed on what Whedon’s “verse” was all about. “”The Avengers” will not have that problem. It’s about a group of superheros doing superheroic stuff together. People will get it.

As a fan, I do have one concern — well, not a concern, but more a point of curiosity. Whedon has had, for the most part, rather fabulous luck with acting ensembles comprised mostly of unknowns, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do with actual superstars like Robert Downey, Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson. This is, however, also the first time he’s not chosen his own cast but been given a ready-made ensemble, and it’s not like he can really make any major changes if he’s not happy with the way things are jelling. It’s just one of many aspects of this production that should be interesting to follow.

  

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No fooling, it’s Thor’s-day at the movies

I don’t usually do these kind of posts on Thursdays, and it’s April Fools’ Day. However, there’s simply too much apparently non-joking, actual movie news to leave for Friday. So, here we go.

* Of course, in Hollywood, it’s not always easy to spot the April Fool’s story from the real thing. That’s why IESB frontloads their big possible, eventual scoop today with all sorts of promises that they’re not joking. Anyhow, it appears that #1 cult creator Joss Whedon, most recently of “Dollhouse” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” fame, is supposedly on the short list to direct “The Avengers,” currently being penned by Zak Penn.

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If you’re skeptical about this, you’re far from alone. Just check out the slightly quizzical reaction from Whedon’s robotic and slavishly devoted cult — of which I am a known member — over at Whedonesque. (I’ve even forgiven Whedon for listening too much to Rahm Emmanuel and selling out to big pharma and not fighting hard enough to keep the public option in the health care bill….Oh, wait, wrong blog.) Still, Whedon’s known for staying in touch with his fans. I strongly suspect that, if the story were completely unfounded, he’d have posted something about it by now.

One creative point. Some fans seem skeptical that a collaboration between Penn and Whedon could work. Well, of course, Whedon has actually done any number of rewrites and polishes on other people’s scripts — a lot of folks give him credit for most of the wittier portions of “Speed” — and though Penn has been involved with some pretty conventionally dull flicks in his day, he’s not completely lacking imagination and humor. His little seen 2004 comedy-thriller mock-documentary, “Incident at Loch Ness,” has some remarkably hilarious moments,  most of them courtesy of Werner Herzog, playing himself and also taking a cowriting credit. If Penn’s good enough for Herr Herzog, he’s perhaps good enough for Joss Whedon.

* Speaking of “The Avengers,” the movie about the only actual deity in the group, “Thor,” is currently in production and director Kenneth Branagh talked about the film and his affection for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/et al comic books in today’s L.A. Times. This was not some random publicity glad-handing but a deliberate effort to squelch some unpleasant — and, to my ear, unlikely — rumors being reported in the tabloid press which allege open on-set criticism/anger directed at newcomer-lead Chris Hemsworth from venerable master thespian Anthony Hopkins, presumably relating to the 26 year-old star’s relative lack of experience, at least compared to Hopkins.  Hopkins, who’ll be playing Thor’s even more venerable dad, Odin, and Branagh have strongly denied the rumors and painted a picture of a happy set.

I was fairly impressed with Hemsworth’s work in the opening of “Star Trek,” so I tend to lean towards the official story here. He’s also a veteran of an Aussie soap, “Home and Away,” and history teaches us that soap vets tend to become pretty good actors when actually allowed time to learn their lines properly and develop characters. I don’t know much about Hopkins on a personal level except that he’s gotten this far in his career without these kind of incidents being an issue that I can think of. I suspect it would take a titanic lack of talent/ability to visibly annoy him at this point.

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