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Monk (2002–2009)
It's not the mystery that matters
24 June 2003
I agree that the mysteries are generally easy to solve (quite often we know who did it from the opening scene and can figure out how it was done without much difficulty), but it's not the mysteries that make this show worth watching. The majority of fans watch it for Tony Shalhoub's masterful performance--he manages to be simultaneously annoying and sympathetic, funny and sad. But Shalhoub is not the only attraction: the other stars deserve more credit than they generally receive, particularly Ted Levine, who is so often overlooked by the critics yet has gained a large personal following from this performance alone. As he noted in a recent interview, Captain Stottlemeyer represents "common sense," the perspective of a successful but ordinary detective, in contrast to Monk's "uncommon sense." He and the other regulars balance the eccentricity of Monk through their more normal but distinctly individual perspectives, and, though they are not as skilled at crime solving as Monk, they are not wholly incompetent. Sharona (Bitty Schram), Stottlemeyer, and Lt. Disher (Jason Stanford-Gray) all occasionally provide Monk with a clue he needs to put everything together--or, more frequently, rescue him from situations in which he'd be helpless if he were alone. The series is funny, touching, and intriguing despite the transparency of some of the mysteries, but it isn't perfect. What we need from the writers in the second season (which began June 20, 2003, in the U.S.) is more consistency in depicting the characters and more development for Stottlemeyer, Sharona, and Disher. Ted Levine in particular needs more onscreen time to use his many talents to best advantage.
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Crime Story (1986–1988)
Whole series is great retro tv
28 January 2001
If you loved the pilot or saw the show in the 80s and would love to see it again, you can now buy the entire series on video (but not DVD) from Columbia House. I've only seen five episodes so far, but I like what I've seen--the blend of suspense, humor, and grace that characterize Michael Mann's productions and an element of surprise in every episode. The Sixties music and the classic cars (especially Frank Holman's Studebaker Hawk) add a nostalgic touch, and the acting is exceptional. As in "Heat," the bad guys, even the cold-blooded Ray Luca (John Anthony Denison), are multi-dimensional human beings. John Santucci as Pauli Taglia provides some comic moments, and the amazing, under-appreciated Ted Levine demonstrates his usual versatility as the "wacked out home invader" Frank Holman. And Dennis Farina simply IS Torello, the sometimes violent cop whose love for his pretty wife borders on obsession. The episodes are linked to one another with no resolution of the intensifying conflict between Torello and Luca. Each one is like a chapter in a novel; you have to keep watching to see what happens next. And I intend to keep watching.
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Wonderland (2000– )
A moving and compassionate series
30 March 2000
I came to "Wonderland" with a combination of high hopes (based on the universally favourable reviews and ABC's intriguing ads) and fears that NAMI's charges of violence and hopelessness might have some basis in fact. Of course "Wonderland" contains moments of violence--the subject matter makes that inevitable. But they are balanced by moments of hope and love, in particular the funny, tender scenes involving Dr. Banger (Ted Levine) and the little sons he loves and fears he'll lose in a custody battle with his soon-to-be ex-wife. Never mind that these two people obviously love each other and ought to stay together--this is just one example of the human element, the blending of work and private life in this marvelously written, beautifully acted, impeccably filmed tv series. I'm judging by one episode, but I have no reason not to expect the same high quality in future episodes that I saw tonight watching "Wonderland" for the first time. Bravo, Peter Berg and ABC and all the marvellous cast, psychiatrists and patients alike.
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an engaging and under-appreciated film
30 March 2000
"You Can Thank Me Later" is not an easy film to describe. Very little actually happens--a mother and her adult children gather in a hospital room to await the outcome of their father's operation, interact with each other, step momentarily into their own private lives, and return to the hospital room--all interspersed with black-and-white flashbacks of the characters' visits to their respective therapists. (The mother, played all too convincingly by Ellen Burstyn, is the exception: she views herself as normal when she is in fact the chief cause of her children's varied neuroses.) What makes the film worth watching is not the plot but the interplay between the characters--the lecherous older brother, Edward (Mark Blum), the gentle and indecisive younger brother, Eli (Ted Levine), and their pathetic waif of a sister, Susan (Amanda Plummer). It's difficult to find much sympathy for the smarmy and arrogant Edward, but decent, patient Eli clearly deserves better than he has received from either fate or his family. Ted Levine, who recently starred as the intense and passionate Starbuck in USA Network's "Moby Dick," shows an entirely different side of himself here, conveying veiled emotions through subtle changes of expression and an uncanny sense of timing that makes even the simple line "Burger King" memorable. There are elements of mystery as well, mostly provided by Genevieve Bujold as the father's former mistress disguised as a nun.

"You Can Thank Me Later" is not for viewers who crave action, though there's a surprising amount of tastefully filmed sex. But thoughtful viewers with a taste for character-driven scripts will appreciate the light irony and the fine acting in this under-appreciated Canadian film.
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heart-warming and heart-breaking
5 March 2000
The target audience for this film is women, and any woman who has ever had a child, wanted a child, or lost a child will cry over it. But men should also give it a chance, not just for the family themes that men in general ought to give more attention to or the aesthetic pleasure of looking at Cheryl Ladd (who is perhaps too beautiful for her part; her friend Ella, played by Polly Draper, is better cast--attractive but not exotically beautiful, and genuinely likeable in her small part). But men and women alike will appreciate the versatile Ted Levine as Gary Ward, Emily's father, who loves his wife and daughter but has just never figured out how to be a productive member of society. Though he has trouble controlling his temper, Gary is not really dangerous, and his vulnerability makes him a sympathetic character. The scene where he coaxes his wife (as undereducated and inept as he is) to come downstairs into his arms has an odd charm combined with pathos. The viewer feels that they belong together and need each other and that Pam (Cheryl Ladd) is wrong to try to keep them apart.

If you care about children and families, watch "Broken Promises" for the bittersweet story. If you don't care about those elements, watch it for Ted Levine's performance. Either way, it's worth your time.
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Love at Large (1990)
Hard to find but worth the trouble
7 November 1999
After reading the reviews, I expected "Love at Large" to be an almost surreal experiment in film noir, heavy on atmosphere and short on plot. It's true that the cars and some of the costumes don't seem to fit the early 1990s setting--Doris's green, full-skirted dress, complete with eight inches of yellow crinoline, is straight out of the 1950s, and the Blue Danube nightclub seems to belong to an even earlier era (pre-World War II). The vampy Miss Dolan exudes a 1940s glamour and mystery, the kind of woman who never existed outside of male fantasies. But much of the action (or conversation) takes place in realistic settings--upper-middle-class suburban houses, airplanes, airports, a ranch in what appears to be Wyoming or Montana.

More to the point, the subplot surrounding the bigamist Frederick King/James McGraw (Ted Levine) is not merely "thrown in," as some critics have suggested. Mistaken identity is a classic comedic device going back at least 2000 years to the New Comedy of Menander in ancient Greece, and it still works. It also adds suspense; both Harry (Tom Berenger) and Stella (Elizabeth Perkins) believe McGraw/King to be Miss Dolan's "charming but dangerous" lover, Rick, and are consequently oblivious to whatever danger the real Rick may present.

The Levine subplot also provides opportunities for variations on the love theme so blatantly emphasized by Stella's omnipresent "Love Manual." Compared with most movies of the 1980s and 90s, this one has relatively little sex but lots of kissing. (Ted Levine gets to kiss two women, unusual for him, but this film predates "Silence of the Lambs," in which his powerful performance as Jame Gumb stereotyped him as a murderer.) There are some genuinely tender moments and a lot of surprises, some of them comic and most of them in some way related either to love or mistaken identity.

The casting is excellent. Both Berenger (despite his gravelly voice) and Perkins are likeable and believable, and Levine is marvelous as a man with two lives and two personalities. (No, he's not schizophrenic; he just likes to go out on a limb because, as he tells Stella, "that's where the fruit is").

To say more would be to spoil the film. Find it and watch it. It will be well worth the trouble of hunting it down.
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Heat (1995)
Worth three hours of your time
11 October 1999
Yes, this movie is long and emotionally exhausting, but it's never boring. The action, when it comes, is well worth waiting for, but the primary reason for watching this movie is the characterization. Most of the reviewers have it wrong--de Niro and Pacino are not "identical twins" who could easily switch places even though both are absorbed in their work (robbery is a "business" for Neil McCauley, de Niro's character) and both have disastrous personal lives. As the Time review correctly points out, Hanna (Pacino) is high-strung and intuitive while McCauley is cool and intelligent, depending on reason rather than instinct. Both are capable of brutality but neither is innately vicious. Most viewers will like them both and have a hard time deciding who to root for.

Much the same can be said of the supporting characters, though the lives and personalities of McCauley's gang (especially Chris, played rather mechanically by Val Kilmer) are somewhat more fully developed than those of Hanna's crew. We're given just enough of a glimpse into the life and character of Bosko (Ted Levine) to wish to know more. (What IS he doing sitting in a bar with a tarty-looking girl on his lap, especially since Hanna is also there with his WIFE? Guess I need to watch it again to find the answer to that one.)

The cinematography is excellent, particularly the night scene where the helicopter flies by the gleaming glass towers of LA's sky scrapers. The bank robbery scene feels so real that your heart is pounding regardless of whom you're rooting for. And of course, Michael Mann deserves credit both for his directing and for his intelligent, mostly realistic, script.

There are a few flaws in the movie, but this movie is worth the nearly three hours of your time that it takes to fully develop the plot and the two main characters. The few predictable places are more than made up for by surprises throughout the movie--few or none of them implausible. There's also the satisfaction of seeing one really despicable character get what he deserves. More important, we see two seemingly hardboiled men, one on each side of the law, reveal their humanity.
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Fargo (1996)
"Fargo" is highly overrated
13 March 1999
"Fargo" is probably the most overrated movie made this half-century. The plot and dialogue are weak, the accents are phony, and the characters, including the kidnapping victim, are unsympathetic. The Mike Yamagita subplot has no connection whatever with the main storyline. If this film represents our society's sense of humor or our understanding of realism, we are in deep trouble.
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