Hidden Netflix Gems – Series 7: The Contenders

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.

Spoofs of reality television have become almost as ubiquitous as reality television itself these days, and fake documentary films are certainly not in short supply, but writer-director Daniel Minahan‘s 2001 dark comedic thriller Series 7: The Contenders is one of the best of both. Released before the rise of Arrested Development star Will Arnett, who provides the voice-over of the film’s fictional reality show, Series 7 benefits from its largely unknown cast in that, as unlikely as its central premise is, it often feels all too real. The film is wickedly funny, but simultaneously disturbing in its depiction of the ruthlessness of human nature, especially when a great deal of money or fame is involved.

Series 7 concerns the familiar idea of a game in which human beings hunt each other for sport. Beginning with Richard Connell’s 1924 story, The Most Dangerous Game, this concept has gone through a number of incarnations, most recently in the Japanese cult favorite Battle Royale and the immensely popular The Hunger Games. What sets Series 7 apart most of all is its relentless dark humor; for example, after blowing away a fellow competitor in a convenience store, the film’s protagonist, Dawn (Brooke Smith, best known as Buffalo Bill’s captive, Catherine Martin, in The Silence of the Lambs), calmly asks the clerk, “Hey, you got any bean dip?”

Dawn is the crowd favorite, having won the two previous seasons in a row (contestants are granted their freedom if they win three in a row) and being eight months pregnant. She is now presumably trying to win her freedom and her life in order to care for her baby once it is born, but the skills she has honed in the previous two seasons show in her apparent relish for the sport. As the film begins, she is seen stalking the other contestants and calling them on the phone in an attempt to psyche them out and make them easier prey. Other contestants include Dawn’s high school boyfriend, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), which indicates that the supposedly random selection process is rigged; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a perky high school student who has just turned 18, making her legal fair game for the show; and Connie (Marylouise Burke), a seemingly sweet, middle-aged nurse who proves to be the most fascinating and terrifying character in the film.

Though Series 7 frustratingly lacks a larger worldview to explain some of its more questionable conceptual leaps of faith – particularly the circumstances that led to the government’s sanctioning of the show’s selection process – its commitment to accurately recreating the look and feel of reality television pays off enormously. The undeniable entertainment value of the series makes for extremely effective satire, especially in the film’s ending, which is too viciously brilliant to spoil here.

  

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It’s 2011 and time for the return of the Friday night news dump

I haven’t done this in awhile and I know I’m missing a bunch of stories from early in the week, but you’ll read this and you’ll like it, damn it!

* Mike Fleming is claiming a “toldja” on the news that Elijah Wood will be appearing in “The Hobbit” as Frodo Baggins who is, I believe, not yet born during the events of Tolkien’s original children book. The rumor from earlier in the week has now been confirmed and nothing will ever be the same.

* Mr. Fleming also has the latest on speed-crazed Hollywood buying the rights to a book that has yet to be published and the remake rights on a documentary almost no one has seen. At least we know what the documentary’s about, and it does sound like material for a good movie — except, of course, it’s already a movie.

* Robert De Niro will be heading the jury at Cannes this year. This will be his third go-round in the gig.

* There’s been a ton of quibbling on why it’s not a sequel and maybe not even a spin-off, but the fact remains that Judd Apatow is building his next film around the terrific characters from “Knocked Up” played by Paul Rudd and Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann. I have to admit I find these kind of fine distinctions to be marketing-driven annoyances. Novelists cast supporting characters from past books in leading roles in newer books all the time and no one calls these books anything other than “novels.” Novelists like Sinclair Lewis and Kurt Vonnegut treat their worlds like the Marvel Universe, so why can’t there be an Apatow-verse?

knocked-up

* Ricky Gervais has apparently signed up to play Mole in an upcoming version of “Wind in the Willows.” Ordinarily, I’d be a little bit excited about this news, but this is a project coming from Ray Griggs, who I frankly wonder about for a number of reasons. I’ve written about him before, at least he had the good sense to hire WETA in on the project. Still, if I were a friend of Gervais’s I advise him to stay away. It has a funny smell about it.

* Oscar winning writer-director Paul Haggis is taking his complaints with the Church of Scientology public in an upcoming book-length expose to be written by Lawrence Wright. Haggis is a former member of the church. I’d tell you what I think of Scientology, but that’s a whole other blog post. I will say I think this will be big.

* Danny Strong played the greatest geek ever on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and went on to become a respected screenwriter with his script for the Jay Roach television movie about the 2000 election, “Recount.” Now he’s back in the genre world with a gig rewriting something called “Earth Defense Force,” which Sam Raimi is producing.

* Stan the Man got his star on Hollywood Blvd. Excelsior!

* Ron Howard wants you to know that the “Arrested Development” movie is really still happening. Sure, why not?

  

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A chat with Joshua Leonard of “Humpday”

Joshua LeonardWhen you’re dealing with the press, what topic could possibly overshadow your new, Indie Spirit award-nominated and generally very well received comedy about two more or less ordinary straight dudes who decide to make a porno of themselves having sex…with each other? Well, “Humpday” star Joshua Leonard has had to deal with one of those “be careful what you wish you” show business situations in that the second film he was in about ten years back was an enormously profitable, zero-budget worldwide hit and horror pop-culture phenomenon – one that happens to be referenced in nearly every review of a certain recent zero-budget DIY horror hit.

Still, as one of the three actors/cum camera people/cum screenwriters who endured a deliberately scary and uncomfortable shoot in “The Blair Witch Project,” Leonard has leveraged his decade old flavor-of-the-month status into a solid career as a working actor with scores of credits ranging from the HBO movie “Live from Baghdad” to recent episodes of the new TV series, “Hung,” also on HBO. He’s also become a director. “Beautiful Losers,” a documentary he co-directed, is just hitting home video after a run on the festival circuit, and he recently completed shooting his dramatic feature debut as a writer-director, “The Lie.”

Still, he’s clearly very proud of his involvement in writer-director Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” alongside costar and previously interviewed fellow film-maker Mark Duplass – now a very close real-life buddy — and happy to have contributed to a new tightly-plotted but improvised movie where there was absolutely no attempt made to convince the world he was dead. His portrayal of Andrew – puppyish Peter Pan, would-be artiste and compulsive traveler/bohemian – remains the extremely funny heart of the film. He’s also, I was happy to find, a really fun guy to talk to. He’s obviously a lot more smarter and 10,000 times more mature than his movie alter-ego, but he’s every bit as easy to hang out with – even on a twenty-minute phone call set up by a publicist.

PH: I don’t always say this, but I really did like “Humpday.” I thought you guys were great.

JL: Thanks, man. What have you hated recently?

PH: [Laughs] I’m a critic, we could blow out entire time talking about that.

JL: [Laughs] That’s what I want to know.

PH: Fortunately, nothing of yours. Okay, so I’m going to ask everyone I talk to on the movie this question….

Just before I saw the movie at the L.A. Film Festival, I had reviewed the DVD for “The Odd Couple.” It was kind of interesting because it was sort of two of the poles of the male bonding thing and of course the whole idea of “bromance” has been  out now. I was just wondering how you thought “Humpday” fit in with all these movies that have been out there on this general topic.

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TV in the 2000s: The Shows that Defined the Decade

A recent issue of Time magazine has the phrase “The Decade from Hell” emblazoned across its front cover. It’s referring to everything America has gone through in the past ten years, and it’s difficult to argue such an assertion: it’s been a shitty decade on a national level. During such times of stress, people inevitably turn to entertainment as a form of release, and although the methods in which we’ve distracted ourselves over the last ten years have unquestionably diversified, television remains the most easily accessible outlet for most Americans.

Within the format itself, the whole concept of reality TV must surely have been the biggest revolution of the decade. It’s really easy to bag on reality TV – mostly because the bulk of it is so damned unreal – but anybody who spends any time in front of the tube has surely had at least a couple of reality series they consider appointment TV. The two concepts that paved the way for everything else are undoubtedly “Survivor” and “American Idol.” The former, of course, opened the floodgates for the genre, and while it’s seen a considerable dip in the ratings department over the years, 12 million viewers isn’t a viewing figure to sneeze at. The latter, despite all the bitching and moaning and cries of “it’s not as good as it used to be” that accompany each new season, remains one of the most watched shows on the tube, likely due to the fact that it’s strictly a talent competition.

On “American Idol,” the only backstabbers are the judges, and since they aren’t part of the competition, their amusing duplicity is championed. The contestants, on the other hand, are innocents, and once the competition is underway, we’re given no peek into any possible backstage drama, which is a good thing, because by the time the audition rounds are over, we’ve had enough drama to last the whole season. Everything that comes after is all about who can best transfix us for three minutes a week via one pop ditty. It actually says something positive about the U.S. that “American Idol” remains our #1 form of reality entertainment, even if the actual reality is that the vast majority of Americans couldn’t care less about buying the winner’s album six months after they’re crowned.

You might think reality TV is a bunch of crap, and in most cases you’d be right, but the whole idea of it, to my mind, led to an important revolution, and that is serialized nighttime television (the classic “soap” formula notwithstanding). Reality shows taught viewers how to become invested in characters, how to be concerned for their eventual fate, and, most importantly, how to pay attention to an ongoing storyline, and the need to tune in every week. It didn’t take long for the networks to figure out that there was an audience for shows that didn’t continually hit the reset button. “24” must have been the first successful show of the decade to embrace the serial formula, and it embraced it whole hog. It required you to tune in for every episode, because each installment was another hour of a single day in the life of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. That “24” premiered less than two months after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was pure happenstance. That it became enormously popular with viewers? Probably not so much. America needed some fictitious reassurance that there were folks on the job who could get shit done, and “24” filled the prescription.

Strangely, “24” didn’t open the network floodgates for more such programming right away. It took a few years, and then “Lost” made its mark. The number of “Lost” episodes I’ve seen could be counted on two hands, but that’s not because I didn’t like it, but because real life got in the way of it being appointment TV. Yet I viewed the pilot for “Lost” several months before its 2004 premiere, and when it ended I was convinced that I’d seen the second best TV pilot ever made. (“Twin Peaks” stills sits at #1.) The fact that a show as intricate as “Lost” still has a hardcore, central audience is perhaps a testament to that pilot. “24” started a new story with each new season; “Lost” required that you tune in for every episode of every season.

Another sci-fi series that did just that was “Battlestar Galactica,” a show that, due it being on a niche network (Syfy), never amassed a huge audience yet snagged boatloads of publicity and awareness nonetheless. It was no small feat to take an utterly laughable short-lived series from the late ‘70s and re-envision it for modern audiences, but Ron Moore and company did just that…and they did it far more successfully that anyone ever guessed possible. Most amazingly, the show taught us a lot about ourselves, by thoroughly defining what it means to be human, and as the damaged ‘00s dragged on, there may not have been a more important lesson to be learned.

On the same day I saw the “Lost” pilot, I saw another pilot for a completely different kind of series. While I didn’t rank it as one of the greats, there was one thing I was sure of: it would be a massive hit…and it was. “Desperate Housewives” was precisely the sort of vapid, soapy fare that had been absent for far too long on American TV. It clued into the seemingly bland suburban construct which surrounds so many Americans, via the Lynchian notion that “all is not what it seems.” Most anyone who lives a suburban life can no doubt relate to that idea, because wherever there are groups of people, there are bound to be some of them that are fucked up. “Housewives” is littered with fucked up suburbanites of all shapes, sizes and types, but they’re kooky and funny and there’s always some twinkly music playing in the background that in the end makes everything OK. It is not great television, but over the years it has, for the most part, been immensely watchable in the most disposable sort of way.

Around the same time period as “Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” made some major waves. It’s a series I have never watched and never plan to, but I’d be foolish to omit it from discussion since it brought two annoyingly obnoxious terms to the TV table: McDreamy and McSteamy. I haven’t heard either in a few years, but there was a time when they seemed to define everything that was wrong with television. I assume “Grey’s” fans have grown out of it…or maybe the show killed one of those guys off? I’ve no idea and can’t be motivated to investigate. Presently, there’s a brand new version of it going around, through cinema, via Camp Edward and Camp Nimrod. People can be so easily distracted it makes you wonder why some shows actually try harder.

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TV in the 2000s: 15 Shows Canceled After Appearing in Bullz-Eye’s TV Power Rankings*

*Probably Coincidentally

Back in 2005, Bullz-Eye kicked off a regularly-recurring feature that’s become a staple of our site: the TV Power Rankings, which gives us a chance to offer up our opinions once every six months on the best that television has to offer. Now that we’re looking back at the entire decade in our TV in the 2000s feature, however, it gave us an opportunity to look back at all of the shows that have appeared within the Rankings over the course of its history, and when we did, it was a little eyebrow-raising to see how many of our favorite programs bit the dust almost immediately after receiving accolades from us. We’re pretty sure their cancellations weren’t our fault…or, at least, not entirely. Anyway, take a look back through the list with us, won’t you? If nothing else, it shows that we’ve got good taste, even if the average viewer doesn’t always share our opinions.

1. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003 – 2006) – “Even if this is indeed the end for one of Fox’s all time greatest shows, it is better to have loved and lost…oh, the hell with that, Fox is freaking nuts if they cancel this show.” So said David Medsker in February 2006. But did they listen to him? They did not. “We’re not ones to buy into the whole dumbing-down-of-society thing,” Medsker added, “but if this show gets canned while ‘According to Jim’ lives on, maybe there’s something to it after all.” Oh, yeah, there’s definitely something to it: “According to Jim” stayed on the air until June 2009.

2. Deadwood (HBO, 2004 – 2006) – When it was announced that Season 3 would be the last for the semi-historical look at the wild west, there was really only one name that John Paulsen could call the folks at HBO. We probably shouldn’t use it here, but if you need a hint, it starts with a “C” and rhymes with “sock pluckers.” “Everything about the show – the language, the acting, the story, the sets and the costumes – is colorful,” Paulsen observed in February 2007, “and whether or not HBO wants to admit it, they’re going to miss ‘Deadwood’ once it’s gone for good.” They must’ve been in some serious denial, then: creator David Milch reportedly agreed to do a proper wrap-up of the series through a pair of “Deadwood” movies” for the network, but things never really got beyond the discussion stage.

3. Invasion (ABC, 2005 – 2006) – The fall of 2005 was a good time in prime time for sci-fi fans, with each of the big three networks offering up an entry from the genre, but by the spring of 2006, their cheers had turned to tears. NBC’s “Surface” was permanently submerged after 15 episodes, while CBS’s “Threshold” crossed the point of no return after only nine episodes had aired. Give ABC some credit, however, for at least sticking with their entry for the full 22. “’Invasion’ started slowly, but has steadily ramped up the creepiness,” said John Paulsen in February ’06, acknowledging that, although it gave its audience lots of questions, at least it was providing them with more answers than “Lost” was. Unfortunately, there was still plenty to be answered when the show was canceled, and things got even more depressing when Tyler Labine talked to Bullz-Eye about what might’ve been. “(Creator Shaun Cassidy) had written this bible for the show, and he had written this amazing five-season arc,” said Labine. “We were just floored. Our jaws were literally on the floor after he explained it to us. We were, like, ‘Wow, we’re on for a really great ride!’” What a shame for us all that the ride ended as quickly as it did.

4. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, 2005 – 2006) – Well, you can’t say that we weren’t honest about offering up both the pros and the cons of Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes look into a late-night comedy series. “The show is pompous, unrealistic and ridiculously left-wing,” admitted Jason Zingale in February 2007, “but it also makes for some damn good television.” Unfortunately, with an awful lead-in – seriously, who thought that pairing the show with “Heroes” was a good idea? – “Studio 60” didn’t develop enough of a following to earn a second season.

5. Rome (HBO, 2005 – 2007) – In its first season, “Rome” turned up at #18 in the Power Rankings, but by the time Season 2 aired, it had leapt to #6. Not that such success earned the show a third season (it was apparently ridiculously expensive to produce, which you can absolutely believe if you’ve ever seen it, but at least the news of its cancellation came in time for John Paulsen to register his annoyance within the February 2007 Rankings. “As it turns out, ‘Rome’ isn’t the heir to the throne of ‘The Sopranos,’” he wrote. “Instead, sadly, it’s a bastard stepchild, just like ‘Deadwood.’” Creator Bruno Heller was probably even more pissed than Paulsen, having mapped out his vision of the series all the way through its fifth season, but as recently as December 2008, Heller was still sounding optimistic about the chances for a “Rome” movie. “I would love to round that show off,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. Hey, we’re behind you 100%, Bruno.

6. Four Kings (NBC, 2006) – If you don’t remember this sitcom, you’re forgiven, as it premiered in January 2006 and was gone by March. Still, it made enough of an impression to earn Honorable Mention status in the February 2006 rankings. “Four Kings” was created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the duo behind “Will and Grace,” and featured Seth Green as one of its cast members, so you might think it surprising that it was off the air within seven episodes (and with a remaining six episodes still unaired). Looking back, however, the fact that the greatest praise Jason Zingale could heap upon the show in his write-up was that “it’s a worthy quick-fix until NBC finds a better alternative” should’ve given us a clue that it wasn’t long for this world.

7. Jericho (CBS, 2006 – 2008) – It was the little show that could, our “Jericho.” It started with an awesomely dark premise – a nuclear bomb goes off in the U.S., and we view the repercussions through the eyes of a small town in Kansas – and, after figuring out its direction (the attempts to meld some “Little House on the Prairie” aspects to the show were soon phased out), the series found its footing, kicked some creative ass, and was promptly canceled. But what’s this…? The show’s diehard fanbase made enough noise (and sent enough nuts) to get the show a 7-episode second season which lived up to everyone’s expectations and then some. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for the ratings, but those who actually tuned in for Season 2 know how many twists, turns, and outright shocks it included. There’s still talk of a possible “Jericho” movie. We can only hope.

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