Zak Penn’s Double-Mockery

Anchor Bay/Starz’ release of The Grand marks Zak Penn’s second directorial effort, wherein the filmmaker shifts into Christopher Guest terrain and has a large cast improvising characters and scenes in a fairly straightforward narrative about six finalists in a wealthy Las Vegas poker tournament.

Does it work? That depends on one’s love of poker, improv comedy, and interest in very idiosyncratic characters. The toughest test for any filmmaker exploiting a very specific sport or activity or discipline is whether non-fans can get into the drama; pleasing all fans is an impossible goal, but crafting a film that anyone who knows zilch about poker can enjoy is the big question.

The same could also be said of Incident at Loch Ness (Twentieth Century-Fox), Penn’s satire of Hollywood egos (and his directorial debut). If you know zilch about filmmaking, will a mockumentary about capturing a quest to catch Nessie the Loch Ness monster on film entice?

Both films are steeped with nuances and very annoying characters whose quirks have the potential to turn off viewers, or grab them because of the mounting idiocies, although in the case of The Grand, it all ends well for every one simply because of good sportsmanship and the support network each character maintains.

They’re also grounded in some way, which is a marked contrast to the characters in Loch Ness who pretty much experience the opposite journey: instead of combatants walking away with a sense of self pride and accomplishment, it’s the supportive family atmosphere that brings together similarly disparate, passionate souls, but is totally lost by the final reel, leaving director Werner Herzog dismayed, and befuddled (although hardly broken in spirit).

Penn’s collaboration with Herzog on Loch Ness paid off extremely well, but it’s also a movie about a fake movie within a fake movie, and few straight dramas about moviemaking work because they’re often saccharine and forced to rely on painful melodrama. I know some are citing Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night as the high point, but it’s manipulative and very reverent towards the bonding and mini-dramas on a film set.

Perhaps that’s why satires can dig so deep and feel more real: sometimes the passion is too grandiose; instead of actors doing the honorable thing and sacrificing everything for the Film, it’s more about honoring the contract so a nightmare production is over and done with.

In The Grand, it’s about what the actors brought to their characters than any insight about poker, whereas Incident at Loch Ness contains a lot of subtext about the filmmaking process, and how, when in the hands of commercial makers, the documentary genre is more about entertaining than informing – particularly when it involves some snouted monster called Nessie.

Coming next: more soundtracks, reviews of more early Michael Powell from MPI.

And imminent: Paul Jones on film – The Committee (MVD Visual) and Peter Watkins’ Privilege (Project X / New Yorker Films) - and the paparazzi under the microscope in Diana: The Witness in the Tunnel (Anchor Bay/Starz).


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