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Archive for the ‘Adam Ferenz’ film reviews’ Category

by Adam Ferenz

Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, Sammy’s duty as writer for this piece was unable to be filled, and I was called in at the last minute to provide the essay. I hope the following will suffice for such a landmark series.

A series that lasted nearly four times as long as the conflict it was set during, this is one of the great works of television because of the way it constantly evolved. When the show began, it was heavy on the humor, and by the time it ended, it was filled with dramatic tension you needed a knife to cut through. A mountain of cast changes could not stop the series from consistently striving for greatness, and indeed, usually resulted in even better material, or at least, very different material, than what came before. Like the later Cheers and Law & Order, the cast changes not only aided the material, but did so by improving overall chemistry.

Series star Alan Alda is rightly credited-and criticized-for his role as Charles “Hawkeye” Pierce, and as a producer, writer and director on the series. Based on the film of the same name, the series began as a version of the movie but quickly dispensed with characters like Spearchucker, who made executives nervous about backlash due to his name, since he was black. The series toned down the cruder humor that was not going to be allowed on television, yet retained a lot of the cynicism and dark humor of the film. As time went on, Alda would be credited with turning the series into a pulpit for his political beliefs, and making the show far more emotionally manipulative than it had once been. The biggest change, however, may have been switching from Lt. Colonel Henry Blake to Colonel Sherman T. Potter, which was accompanied by the exit of Trapper John-Hawkeye’s friend and fellow trouble maker-and his replacement by the much smoother, and married, B.J. Hunnicutt. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

The premise sounds like it should not work. Yet work it does, like a Walter White master plan. A man, dying of cancer, decides to take his skills as a Nobel-winning chemist, and apply them to cooking meth, to leave money for his family after he dies. Oh, and he is also a high school chemistry teacher, with a disabled son, pushy in-laws and a very pregnant wife that is never satisfied with anything or anyone. At least, that is how it appears, on the surface. It seems to be full of clichés. Yet, as the series progresses, those clichés reveal themselves as anything but, and therein lies a fraction, though crucial fraction, of the genius of this series.

Walter White kills his first person at the end of the pilot, gassing a fellow dealer, and then, two episodes later, strangles another, who had survived the same gassing. By the end of the series, he has notched an impressive kill list, including but not limited to, deaths by explosion, vehicle and Ricin. He is directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of deaths, including his brother-in-law and that brother-in-law’s partner, agents of the DEA. He has also alienated everyone he claimed to love, and taken on the literally black-hat persona of Heisenberg, his alias in the drug world. The first time we see Heisenberg, coincidentally, is not the first time Walter puts on his hat, but when he goes home to his wife at the end of the pilot and, energized by the brush with danger he has had, has a forceful bit of sex with his wife, causing her to exclaim “Walt, is that you?” The truth is yes, and he is more himself than he ever has been.

The journey of Walter White is an awakening. This is not an awakening for him, only, but those around him, as Jesse learns to become a better person, his wife learns to accept that she is not so innocent and her brother-in-law that he is not the biggest dog in the yard. It is about chemistry, in the way that things work together or pull apart. It is a story not of redemption but of self awareness. Here is a man that when we meet him, is the butt of many jokes. His wife ignores him and his son, who loves him, is not especially close to him. Neither is Walter, who seems distant from everyone, even a family he claims desperately to love more than anything. Walter’s brother in law, Hank, a macho member of the DEA, who is also a bit of a cowboy, and rather a bully. Hank gains pleasures from those moments in which he emasculates Walter, his partner and others. He does this, supposedly, out of a ritual of male bonding, but it amounts to bullying and is his own way of marking out territory.

That Hank does not realize Walter is unappreciative of the teasing shows his own disconnection from the world. The two men will become adversaries, joined by marriage, separated by outward views and joined again by a drive to prove themselves, as some sort of primal male. This is a dark and difficult journey, anchored by Emmy winning performances throughout. Indeed, just about the entire main cast did or should have, won awards. Not that awards mean much of anything but this was one series which earned the trophies it was given. For a few years, it was the best show on television, and nothing else was really close. Not Game of Thrones, not the final years of Mad Men and not the popular yet overrated House of Cards. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

One of the funniest works of art in history. There are twelve episodes. This is in part because program stars, creators and writers John Cleese and Connie Booth decided to get a divorce between series one and two, but also because both were superb professionals who demanded the absolute best, as close to perfection as was possible. That they achieved it more than not is extraordinary.  The focus was laser tight, and the situations improbable, but the funny was consistent. It was also very racy, both for its time and today. Yet, here we have twelve episodes-approximately six hours-of some of the greatest comedy ever made for broadcast.

Basil Fawlty is the blustery, fussy, imperfect perfectionist of England’s not-so-premiere hotel, and he is joined by a motley crew, including his wife, an old military officer, a cook and a maid. None of these people should work together. In fact, none of these people should know each other, and not because of any class bias-though perhaps the Major or Basil himself might argue otherwise-but because the world would be a safer place if they did not. Each day is not so much an adventure as it is a disaster, whether it is Basil running out of petrol on the road, or a group of Germans visiting the hotel and everyone saying precisely the wrong thing to them, culturally.

That episode, “The Germans”, closed out the first series of Fawlty Towers. It was once ranked # 12, by TV Guide-take that for what you will-on their list of greatest episodes in history.  Throughout the episode, Basil, who is always worried about offending guests and losing money and reputation, keeps telling his staff “Don’t mention the war” but, invariably, something comes up that alludes to the war, to German stereotypes, to warrior culture, to antisemitism, or , well, anything and everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. And it is hilarious. It is one of the most perfect half hours of comedy ever devised for big or small screen. Students of writing and direction should study it, because it is so brilliantly constructed and staged. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

One of the great achievements in German television-others include Heimat and Our Hitler-this work is arguably the best of writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s rich career.  This long series-are German series ever anything but long?-is nevertheless one of the most engaging works in filmed history.  Concerning the release and failure to assimilate back into society, of a convicted killer-the man, a pimp who killed his wife-finds himself struggling to keep himself straight in the era of late-Weimar Germany, the series covers many themes: regret, disappointment, rage, hatred, love and deception are but a few aspects contained within its fourteen chapters.

This is also a brutal series, containing murder, rape, physical and emotional degradation as well as social, economic and psychological brutality, all in intimate detail. Gunter Lamprecht delivers one of television’s best performances in the lead role of the released convict. Gottfried John is chilling as the man he considers his best friend, who, aside from himself, turns out to be his worst enemy. The women are many and each extraordinary, but they are almost secondary, because this is a very masculine story.

This is about the ties that men think bind them, and how the life we live is illusory. When the pimp Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, after four years for killing his lover cum worker, he enters a world that has changed considerably. The year is 1928. Franz finds himself unable to keep a job. He drifts through his life, becoming associated with and then drifting from, a Nazi newspaper, before falling in with a circle of robbers, one of whom, Reinhold, will prove to be a major undoing in his life. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

Cheers, named after the bar where everybody knows your name, is one of those legendary works that crop up from time to time. In terms of reputation and legacy it is, in the annals of US television, right there with works like MASH, Seinfeld, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, to name a few. Yet, Cheers is both unlike and precisely like those series. It is like them in that it is the synthesis of everything that came before, in the sitcom, and unlike them, in that nothing was the same after Diane Chambers walked through the door to that basement bar and met Sam Malone (the great Ted Danson) and the gang.

For starters, Cheers used more serialized moments-references to other episodes, ongoing character situations, and miniature arcs such as Frasier and Dianne’s initial courtship-than had been previously seen among US sitcoms, and it was both bawdier and meaner, yet also sharper, wittier and filled with more fully rounded characters, than those currently airing when it began. It is the cast-and the characters they play-which make the series what it is. Sam, Dianne, Rebecca, Coach, Woody, Frasier, Carla, Norm, Cliff and  recurring supporting players like Lilith, Ma Clavin, Robin (Rebecca’s second boss),  John Allen Hill (owner of the restaurant above Cheers, during the series later seasons)  and Gary, Sam’s rival from a nearby tavern, among others,  made the show what it was. Very quickly, within a season, the series felt like a group of characters you’d know for a while. By the end of its decade-plus long run, you did know them well, and had for years.

What makes this all the more remarkable is how much of the series takes place in the main room of the bar itself, or perhaps Sam’s office or the pool room-more of a nook at the back of the bar, really-and it is an approach that few series, aside from Barney Miller, have ever made work quite as well. Because of this setting limit, the series often took on a theatrical feeling. Yes, this was television, but it had more than a hint of the old boards about it. Of course, there was also Sam’s place, Dianne’s place, Rebecca’s place, Lillith and Frasier’s house, Woody’s in-laws and Carla’s new house, but those were the only sets we saw beyond more than a glancing capacity. The sojourns there made the audience yearn all the more for the comforts of Cheers itself, not because they were poorly designed or boring things happened there, but because Cheers had become our home, and these characters so identified with a single place, that it felt a bit odd seeing them away from the bar. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

Few shows have ever shown us the White House-here occupied by Josiah Bartlett, Democrat from New Hampshire-in quite these colors. Many of the technical innovations, such as walking and talking in coridoors, have become almost a cliché, to the point that an episode of Mom, starring West Wing alum Allison Janney, and guest starring co-alum Richard Schiff, made fun of that. The series was by turns powerful, poignant and hilarious, pious and profane, profound, ludicrous and both overreaching and brilliantly daring. This was also the first series, since Homicide, to cast multiple actors at the same time who were known primarily for movie work, thus paving the way for the slate of network television in which people like Tim Roth, Kevin Bacon and Halle Berry would have regular roles on their own shows. It helped in getting shows like Fargo and True Detective their cast, by proving that television was just as good a medium as the movies, for finding meaningful work.

In its earlier days, the series had focused on mangaging the president and doing damage control, through characters like the harried but nearly indomitable-and always very human-Press Secretary C.J. Cregg and loyal, battle scarred White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGary. They were joined by a memorable group of men and women. These included Donna Moss, who was always just this side of capable, because she was typically too damn nice, and her direct supervisor, Josh, the Deputy Chief of Staff, with whom she has an unrequited, and mostly unstated, entanglement. There is also Abby Bartlett, a doctor who is the First Lady and who loses her license after keeping the truth of her hubsand’s Multiple Sclerosis hidden from public knowledge. Toby Ziegler and Charlie Young are the Communications Director and Personal Aide to the President. Through these characters, and others, we come to see the issues facing the administration. Because we care about these people, the series works. That they did not always get along was a pleasant wrinkle that added a layer of reality to the program.

It was through these characters that we got to deal with such stories as the ghost of McCarthyism, through the figure of Toby’s father. We were witness to the racism that is a built in part of the fabric of American society, in the response of white nationalists to Charlie’s romance with Bartlett’s daughter, Zoe, which results in the President being shot when the attempt on Charlie’s life goes wrong. We see the hypocrisy of Josh Lyman, who finds it hard to work with Republicans when their private lives do not match up with his concept of what a conservative should be like. As an audience, we are privy to the discussions of foreign policy, economics and civil and human rights that daily make up a large portion of the work of the staff in the West Wing of the White House. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

When thirtysomething, because yes, originally, it was not capitalized, made its debut in 1987, the term yuppie was already known. Series such as Only Fools and Horses, and films like Wall Street and The Secret of My Success, both of which had just hit the screen, had been among the many works of fiction to popularize the term. Yet, this series, which ran for four seasons on ABC, from 1987-1991, was, perhaps more than anything, responsible for bringing the term to the forefront of popular culture. It is this fact, among others, which has often precluded it from landing on lists like this one.

Sometimes, the series is viewed as too concerned with the every day, the plots and stories too small, the characters too bound up in their foibles. Yet, it is because of that intense focus on the personal, the mundane, and the every day that the series stands out. In the era of Reagan, Iran Contra and the fading years of Dallas and the classic prime time soaps, here was a series that presented a new type of drama, focused on two advertising executives in Philadelphia, their families and their friends, a close knit circle that laughed, loved, cried, and, yes, whined, about everything from if they would land or keep an account, to what sort of parents they were, to selecting socks or disposable dishware.

Over the series four seasons, we saw people grow up, both together and apart, to learn to become better, more complete human beings, and in some cases, to become more entrenched in their selfishness, because this was a series unafraid to allow their characters to come across negatively. In my book, that is a big plus. This was not just for “villains” like Miles Drentell, the CEO of the company Michael and Elliot go to work for after their startup goes bust during the second season. This was true of every single character, male or female, young and old. This was a series that practically wallowed in their characters hiccups. (more…)

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