New reviews: ‘The Grand,’ ‘Under the Same Moon’ and ‘The Unforeseen’

grandposter1.jpgThe comic mockumentary has become a full-fledged genre, thanks to the consistent efforts of Christopher Guest (from Waiting For Guffman to For Your Consideration) and the decidedly inconsistent efforts of numerous others. And why not? It’s a familiar form, it can be inexpensive to produce, and the cast is brought in to the creative process in a much more active way. The problem is finding the internal balance that give audiences a reason to stick with the story through all the lampooning.

Zak Penn’s first mockumentary, the often hilarious “making of” spoof Incident at Loch Ness, nails the format and hits the punchlines with perfect timing, but never shakes its acute self-awareness. The Grand, his portrait of the “second most famous” poker tournament in America, eases into the candid documentary style and subdued rhythms that Guest perfected in his films with more confidence.

Penn follows the most unlikely cast of poker champions from their personal lives of the outside world to the winner’s circle of a Texas Hold-Em winner-take-all showdown. Woody Harrelson narrates the opening and takes the center of the narrative as a casino owner on the verge of losing his father’s legacy who leaves his cozy rehab home to play for $10 million pot that could save his fortunes. His competitors include:

– Obsessive compulsive social robot Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), who verbalizes his calculations and nerdish insults in a nasally drone;

– Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), a veteran poker champ and blithe bigot who pines for the good old days of knee-capping and segregation;

Woody Harrelson and Dennis Farina– Lainie Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines), married mother of two and sassy, tough-minded player with a mouth like a sailor and a sensitive heart, and her brother Larry Schwartzman (David Cross) whose key talents are obnoxiousness and distraction;

– Andy Andrews (Richard Kind), the goofy online champ and naïve amateur who wanders his way through the competition like a lucky tourist;

– and a bizarre competition junkie known as “The German” (Werner Herzog, who has a great time playing against his reputation as an eccentric) who has a strange obsession with bunny rabbits.

I reviewed the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

There are no real surprises on the way to the $10 million winner-take-all showdown and Penn plays down the conventional cliches of staredowns and psych-outs over betting build-ups. He’s less concerned with big dramatic tension than the deadpan eruptions of minor conflicts, favoring sly over slapstick.

As the outsized personalities settle into the fabric of the film, the chemistry of the cast clicks in and Penn finds the middle ground between the absurd and the authentic.

Read the complete review here.

Also reviewed in the P-I this week:

Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon, a road movie about the treacherous backroads to the American dream for illegal immigrants as seen through the journey of a plucky little boy (Adrian Alonso) who smuggles Under the Same Moon: Adrian Alonso and Eugenio Derbezhimself over the border from Mexico to Texas and hits the road to find his mother (Kate del Castillo) working under the radar in Los Angeles. Riggen wants to reveal the gritty reality of hard day work and living in constant fear of discovery. But the boy’s journey is also a kind of modern fairly tale. Getting by on little more than goodwill and wide-eyed trust, this preternaturally optimistic cherub charms everyone he meets, even his reluctant guardian Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), a cynic whose looking-out-for-number-one ethos softens in the glow of Carlitos’ innocence.

For all the clumsy scenes and cloying performances, director Patricia Riggen puts her adults through tough choices and hard consequences. At its best, “Under the Same Moon” is driven by the yearning for a better life and the sacrifices made to get it while living in a state of disconnection, under the constant fear of discovery, powerless to escape the margins of a culture of promise.

Read the complete review here.

The Unforseen: The blue waters of the Edwards AquiferThere are a lot of documentaries taking the global perspective of on the environmental impact of expanding communities and expanding industries on a finite planet. The Unforeseen, a documentary by director Laura Dunn, takes the microcosm of Austin, Texas, and how the unregulated expansion of housing developments (riding roughshod over community restrictions that state law overrode) is putting strains on the Edwards Aquifer (which is what makes this part of West Texas a kind of oasis in the desert) and its surrounding ecosystem.

At heart, “The Unforeseen” is about the conflict between two fervently defended American values: the near sovereign right of private property that bestows an owner unrestricted right of use and the communal right to protect the environment and community values by restricting land use. Dunn has her perspective but gives voice to both sides of the issue, which boldly illustrates just how deep and passionate this conflict goes. Along the way, she reminds us that “value” should be not gauged solely in terms of individual monetary profit and loss, and that growth, while healthy for economies, can devastate the natural resources that sustain our lives.

Read the complete review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

One thought on “New reviews: ‘The Grand,’ ‘Under the Same Moon’ and ‘The Unforeseen’”

  1. The mockumentary has been a full-fledged genre for some time now. The Library of Congress established a subject heading for “Documentary-style Films” about 6 years ago. Considering how long it took them to get around to establishing “Hip-Hop”, they’re right on top of this one (even if they won’t deign to call it by its popular name), apparently considering it something that’s here to stay.

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