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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RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.

During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.

No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”

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Hard days at the office #1: When Hannibal met Clarisse

In celebration of the Labor Day holiday weekend, I thought I’d highlight scenes involving the kind of hard work days that might not be appropriate material for your job interviews, depending on the job. Ironically enough, this is definitely NSFW because of some language and unfortunately aimed genetic material.

Jonathan Demme should try his hand at another horror film and should the young ‘uns how you can tell a good story and evoke many emotions, not just fear and disgust.

  

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