Series 7: the Contenders Review

The Film
My penchant for Black comedy and my intense dislike of reality TV lead me to see this film at the cinema on release. The end result was that it was the first film I saw at the cinema where I was the only person in the auditorium. Despite some critical acclaim this small budget film hardly made a splash at the box office grossing £200,000 in the UK and even less ($200,000) in the US. Maybe the average moviegoer wasn’t ready for a satirical swipe at their beloved reality TV shows?

As you can probably guess Series 7: The Contenders is about a near-future reality TV show (called The Contenders), where a group of ordinary folks (picked by a “lottery”) have to try and kill each other for live TV. Now before anyone starts quoting Arnie lines (“he had to split”) this is nothing to do with the Running Man. The difference here is that the film is presented as an episode of the TV show, or more precisely a marathon of all the shows in series 7. The whole thing is presented like a U.S. TV show with intros and outros to each segment. The only difference is that here we don’t get adverts we just get the intros to the commercial breaks.

The show follows 6 contestants in their quest to survive. Dawn Legarto (Smith) is the pregnant previous series winner and has been pitted against five new contestants in her hometown (can you say rigged). The rest of the contestants are Lindsay (Wever) a teenage girl, Franklin (Venture) a weird loner, Connie (Burke) a nurse, Tony (Kaycheck) an unemployed family man and Jeffrey (Fitzgerald) an artist suffering from cancer.

Given the fact the film wasn’t too popular I’m going to assume that not many reading this will know the twists and turns. There will be no spoilers here. The rest of the film is a whole host of incidents between the contenders, their relatives and the intrusive TV crews. The climax is unexpected and very funny.

The premise of this film is a good one and Reality TV deserves everything it gets as far as I’m concerned. The comedy is as black as anything I’ve seen, which suits me down to the ground. The footage is stark and sometimes difficult to watch. Whilst the onscreen violence is not graphic, it is disturbing when filmed in such a voyeuristic way. There are numerous amusing touches throughout the film and plenty of points where you aren’t sure if the TV company are manipulating the contenders or whether they are manipulating each other.

Overall the plot and concept hang together well with just a couple of faults. It is never truly explained how any democratic society could choose people at random to participate in a deadly game show. The Running Man got around this by using prisoners whereas here it is ordinary members of the public. Secondly the format of showing the programme as it would appear on TV is slightly flawed. The problem is that by the last third of the film the presentation method wears a little thin. Whilst I realise they had to stick to their guns concept-wise I found the style tiring towards the end. Also if this is meant to be a TV show why didn’t the director shoot it in 4:3? The style and composition of the picture sometimes looks too cinematic to be a reality TV show and therefore it loses some credibility. Admittedly Minahan addresses these points in his commentary, but I still feel these flaws weaken the impact of the film.

The performances are strong throughout with some very funny performances from Merritt Wever (Lindsay) and Marylouise Burke (Connie). The main kudos has to go to Brooke Smith and Glenn Fitzgerald as Dawn and Jeffrey respectively. If these two weren’t believable as general members of the public then the whole project would have gone down the tubes. They both put in top-notch performances and make the whole concept believable despite its flaws.

The direction and camerawork is accomplished throughout. Apart from my disagreement with the aspect ratio used, the film is very well shot. It is hand-held for about 90% of the film and is shot on digital video using roughly the same cameras the reality TV shows use. This works especially well at the cinema as the whole effect disorientated the audience because the picture bounced around so much. Whilst obviously not as impressive on DVD the effect is still there.

This is a great film that was overlooked by too many people. Anyone who hates Reality TV, or loves good black comedy, or indeed if they love to see something a little bit subversive should watch this film. It’s funny and horrific in equal parts and if it weren’t for a handful of niggly flaws this would be a classic black comedy.

The Disc
Well this disc from Alliance Atlantis is actually a very good package given the less than successful film. Sometimes if a film performs badly at the box office it can be neglected on disc. Not in this case though as you will see. The menus are very swish and the 15 chapter stops are just enough for the 86-minute running time

The film is presented in its correct ratio of 1.78:1 and is anamorphic. The film was presented theatrically at 1.85:1 but Minahan shot in 1.78:1 and wanted the DVD to reflect that. Now I rarely give out perfect marks and wasn’t expecting to give them out for such a low budget film. However, this gets a 10 simply because I cannot see any flaws in the picture. The film was shot on digital videotape and has been transferred direct from the digital source. Therefore there is obviously no print damage and the picture is crystal clear with a pin sharp image. The colours are bright and solid and the limited night scenes are handled well. I saw no artifacting on my screen and no grain was visible either (Despite an average bitrate of 6.21). Any over exposed shots or odd bleached out shots are intentionally shot that way to give it a reality TV look (Minahan talks about this extensively on the commentary). This film doesn’t really challenge the weak points of DVD (few night scenes, no fog or mist) so it may not be a reference quality transfer but it is perfect for me. Given its origins this picture is as good as it could be.

The soundtrack is a DD 5.1 mix and has a good rounded soundstage with dialogue clear and audible. The rears are used well but subtly and the whole track suits the film. I’m no audiophile, but this sounds pretty good to me.

The extras on this disc are an unusual mix and complement the film very well. Rather than 74 tiny promotional puff pieces we have some interesting features and some departures from normal expectations. Anything that tries to break the mould is fine by me.

A director’s commentary is the first extra I always look for and this one is better than most. Daniel Minahan is very softly spoken and is very talkative. As a new director his enthusiasm is obvious, you can tell he has lived with this film for five years. He imparts a lot of information about the films genesis and its evolution through different drafts. His delivery maybe a little dry, but for those looking for an intelligent thoughtful commentary on movie making techniques and technicalities I thoroughly recommend it.

Next up are 9 deleted scenes which total about 10-minutes. Some of these are extended or alternate scenes. They are certainly more interesting than normal deleted scenes as a couple of them show how differently the film could have been interpreted with a few minor changes. It always bothered me why Franklin wasn’t explored more as a character as he seemed to be skated over in the final cut. Well the explanation is that his establishing footage ended up on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately there is no director’s commentary to explain why these scenes are removed.

The Sundance Director’s Lab is footage that Minahan shot when he visited the Sundance studio. Sundance has a scheme whereby new directors get to shoot some of their script using their facilities. Here we have about 12-minutes worth of footage and it shows that the project evolved quite a lot between these shoots and the actual film shoots. Minahan provides some voiceover explanation of how the Lab works and also how he got financing for the final film.

Extreme Promotion. This is a sub-section that covers the promotional trailers and TV/Radio spots etc. Before you skip to the next paragraph be prepared for a pleasant surprise. Whilst there are the usual trailers (3) and a TV and radio spot we also get a nice little oddity. There is a 3-minute piece of video footage showing the Director, Brooke Smith and another crewmember distributing flyers to the general public on the streets. This is a nice little added extra to have and certainly puts a new slant on promotion.

Stills Gallery. No surprises here, there are 24 production stills along with a short piece of text describing each still. There is nothing outstanding here of note.

Finally we get cast and crew filmographies. And again, before you skip this section you should know that these are filmographies with a difference. Instead of the usual text lists we are presented with an audio interview with each member of the cast and crew (18 in total). In this they discuss their influences, what movies they’ve done, why they got into movies and a whole host of other information. Each one runs between 3 and 9-minutes and the average is around 6. So we have well over an hour of audio interviews here. Admittedly the cast are mostly unknown but even so this is an unusual and welcome extra.

This film deserves a larger audience. If you like black comedy, satire or if you just hate reality TV then give it a try. The disc itself is accomplished with a fantastic picture and excellent sound. The extras package is different and well thought out with little or no filler. So hats off to Alliance Atlantis for giving this film the attention it deserves. After this you’ll be hoping the contestants in Big Brother 3 are all given a 9mm automatic before entering the house.

7 out of 10
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out of 10

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