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I didn't know that Richard Ayoade had this kind of movie in him. The British funnyman made his directing debut in 2010 with "Submarine," a poignant, sweet, occasionally weird coming of age story with some Wes-Anderson-y flourishes. With "The Double," he's gone in a different direction completely. Here we have a dark and paranoid adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Double" that shares similar aesthetics with Roman Polanski's 1970s psychological thrillers, most notably "The Tenant."

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a worker drone for a Kafkaesque data collection company, who lives such an anonymous existence that the security guards at his place of employment don't recognize him even though he's been working there for seven years. He pines after the girl in the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and tries to curry favor with his boss Mr. Papadopolous (Wallace Shawn), with little hope of success. Then one day a new employee, James Simon, shows up at the office. He is everything that Simon is not: affable, charismatic, and confident. He also looks exactly like Simon, down to their wardrobes, though no one else seems to notice. At first James is friendly with Simon, even helpful, but he soon reveals sinister ulterior motives.

It is a little difficult to categorize "The Double," which looks and acts like a thriller, but is not particularly concerned with behaving like one. Instead, it's better to think of it as a very dark, wry, comedy about a hapless loser who inhabits a particularly strange and alienating universe. I love the way the world of "The Double" has been constructed, with its dark, moody atmosphere and endless bureaucratic frustrations. Nearly all the action takes place at night, or within dimly lit interiors. The technology and the television broadcasts we glimpse suggest that we're some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but there's a sense of timelessness to the murky environs, which mix Eastern European utilitarianism with peppy Japanese pop songs. The sound design is wonderful, full of oppressive ambient noises that dog our hero wherever he goes. Are they being magnified by Simon's subconscious?

Jesse Eisenberg delivers two fine performances as Simon James and James Simon with ease. These are familiar types that we've seen him play before, but he does a commendable job of keeping them entirely distinct every moment we see them onscreen, and without leaning on many gimmicks. I liked that there's really no attempt made to explain the presence of James, or delve very deeply into any existential questions about why he exists. Once it's established that no one else takes any notice of the fact that James is a double, his role is to be Simon's antagonist. Larger philosophical questions are not off the table, but they're not the point. "The Double" is primarily concerned with Simon's narrative rather than grappling with metaphysics, as the recent Denis Villeneueve film "Enemy" did.

I think that's why I prefer "The Double" to "Enemy," which is also about a pair of inexplicable doubles who wreak havoc on each other's lives. "Enemy" has more high-minded ambitions, and is full of obtuse symbols that demand dissection and interpretation. "The Double" is a far more straightforward piece of work, but with more nuanced execution. It takes the time to build its characters, acquaint us with their lives, and lets us get deeper into the protagonist's screwed-up head. There's actually a nice little romance that plays out reasonably well, which let me connect emotionally to Simon and Hannah, whereas the characters in "Enemy" came off as utterly cold, flat constructs.

My only quibble with "The Double" is that the story plays out almost entirely as expected, and the stylization makes it feel a little too slick. The movie comes off as slight as a result, a genre exercise that doesn't really pack the kind of punch that it could have. However, it is such a unique bit of filmmaking and Richard Ayoade makes a lot of interesting choices here. When searching for other films to compare it to, I kept pulling up art house obscurities like Kieślowski's "A Short Film About Love" and Scorsese's "After Hours." The aforementioned "The Tenant" is probably the most obvious precursor, with its endless insomniac night scenes and deeply confused hero.

So I suspect that "The Double" is one of those odd little films that only an art house nerd could really love. The subject matter and the style are so far off the beaten path that even with a pair of recognizable young actors like Eisenberg and Wasikowska as the leads, it doesn't have much hope of attracting a larger audience. That's a shame, because Richard Ayoade deserves kudos aplenty for puling this one off. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
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Catching up on some TV here, I recently polished off the most recent season of "Archer," the one where the secret spy agency of ISIS is shuttered and its staff left in limbo with a terrifying amount of cocaine on their hands. So, logically, they decide to form a drug cartel. And the creators renamed the show "Archer Vice," created some nifty new key art, and modified the opening sequence just a bit. According to interviews with "Archer" creator Adam Reed, the only reason the reason they did this is because they were bored. Moderate spoilers for the season ahead, but none of the big reveals from the last few episodes.

So what happens when you take Archer and Lana and the rest of the gang out of their usual roles as ISIS agents and enablers, and introduce them to a life of crime? Well, you get a show that's much more plotty and structured, but that retains its usual level of violent, high octane hijinks and casual obscenity. "Archer Vice" is a more serialized show, with several big storylines driving each episode, and nearly every character dealing with ongoing subplots throughout the season. Most of the year sees them living out of one of the Tunt mansions, coming up with various schemes to sell the cocaine and get rich, ultimately wrapping up with a four-part finale in San Marcos that ties back into the espionage world. Otherwise, they're being the same collection of loons that they always were - just broke, short on resources, and under a lot of new pressures. It's an awful lot of fun.

Without the constraints of the office hierarchy, characters get shifted into new roles and we get to see different sides of them that we haven't before. And surprisingly, it becomes clear as the time goes on that the gang actually does have some attachment to each other beyond the fact that Malory is paying them, or at least promising to pay them eventually. This is not to suggest that the show is getting all mushy on us, but more than any other season we find the ISIS crew banding together in tough times, and that their shared personal history does have an impact on their interactions. Archer has also become less of an irresponsible ass - though he's as thick-headed about some things as ever. It takes a while to notice, though, because "Archer Vice" sees the entire premise of the show rebooted, Carol/Cheryl starts a country music career and renames herself Cherlene, Pam becomes a coke addict, Lana's pregnant, Malory's separated from Ron, and Cyril eventually goes mad with power in circumstances that are far too funny to spoil. Heck, even Krieger gets some pretty compelling new issues to deal with.

I found I didn't miss the spy missions at all, as Archer's cocaine dealing adventures are mostly in the same vein as his work for ISIS, and the new dynamics allow the supporting characters much more of an opportunity to participate in the action. Also, keeping them in close quarters always leads to a lot of good friction. Initially I had my doubts about where the show was going, especially the Cherlene business, which seemed so out of left field that I didn't know how they could integrate it with everything else going on. But integrate it they did, leading to some of the season's funniest scenes with special guest stars Kenny Loggins and Fred Armisen. Now I hope Cherlene sticks around next season in some capacity, because her new schtick is at least as much fun as her old schtick, and there's a lot of mileage left in the concept. In general, it was nice to get a break from the regular "Archer" formula, and I'm a little sorry that the show is going to un-reboot itself for season six and send everybody back to the office.

Of course, there are things that happened this year that can't be un-rebooted, involving Lana and Archer and their relationship. Adam Reed and crew have really set up some promising possibilities for next year. Will Sterling Archer's gradual maturation continue, or will he backslide into his old ways once ISIS is up and running again? What kind of mother will Lana be, and what part is the father going to play in her life? I never thought of "Archer" as having much depth to it, but the hints of growth and change that have popped up in the last few seasons coalesced nicely this year, and I expect we may be moving into ever-so-slightly more serious territory next year.

Well, as serious as you can get on an animated action sitcom where they just devoted a whole season to running a drug cartel, staging coups against foreign governments, and a former HR lady finding ever-more-creative ways to ingest cocaine. Seriously, those cocaine cupcakes looked yummy.
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I never get tired of writing about this show, and as we say goodbye to the fifth season, the big question is, did Dan Harmon and the other creators get away with it? Did they manage to course-correct after that disastrous fourth season and bring back the show that its fans wanted? I'm willing to say yes. Clearly year five was better than year four, and I'd even go as far as saying that it was better than a lot of the third season, when Dan Harmon started getting a little too carried away with the metatextual madness. And yet, despite gaining some vital ground, there are some big problems with Season Five.

The season started out well enough, with Jeff becoming the newest Greendale educator and the whole gang reuniting as the Save Greendale Committee. I thought Troy and Pierce's departures were handled about as well as they possibly could have been, and that the amped up part for John Oliver's Professor Ian Duncan and the introduction of Professor Buzz Hickey, played by Jonathan Banks, were pretty good at helping to fill the void. However, neither are quite fleshed out well enough yet to really be replacements. But then, sadly, nothing was really done with Jeff's new position. We never saw him in a classroom again after the first time and his status as a teacher was never explored at all. More time was devoted to Abed getting a girlfriend and even Hickey's cartooning efforts.

I suspect the limited number of episodes was probably responsible for this. The truncated thirteen episode season meant that there wasn't a lot of space to devote to character development in general. What bits and pieces that we did get just didn't cohere as well as they have in the past. The two-parter ending that explored the possibility of Greendale ceasing to exist felt wholly unconnected to anything that had been set up earlier in the season. Character arcs were set up that didn't really go anywhere, and others have been quietly dropped. At least all the characters feel like themselves again, with the exception of the reformed Jeff, who I'm still not sure about. Annie and Abed benefited the most from this, and Chang has been thankfully de-emphasized. Alas, Britta was sorely underused.

Individual episodes hit some impressive bullseyes. I've already talked about the farewell to Troy in "Geothermal Escapism," that turned the whole school into a post-apocalypse spoof thanks to a game of "The Floor is Lava." However, my favorite of the crazy theme episodes this year was definitely "App Development and Condiments," where a new social netwoking app known as MeowMeowBeenz is tested on the campus, leading to Greendale becoming a '70s sci-fi dystopia spoof with lots of references to "Logan's Run," and Starburns in Sean Connery's outfit from "Zardoz." There was also the entirely animated "G.I. Jeff," that took on Saturday morning cartoons and toy commercials, plus another round of Dungeons and Dragons.

And while they're a little nuttier than they used to be, the regular school life episodes like "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" and "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" also did a good job of establishing new group dynamics and making use of the campus setting. I could easily see "Community" continuing in this vein for another season or two, improving on the groundwork that was laid this year. However, like many other reviewers have pointed out, I'm also starting to feel like "Community" has run its course. This year spent so much time getting us back to the old "Community," and then trying to maintain the status quo that it didn't do enough to push forward into new territory. There's a clear sense of the writers trying to patch too many gaps at once, reacting to format changes by doubling down on the old formulas instead of trying to find new ones.

The goal of six seasons and a movie is in sight, and considering NBC's fortunes, there's a good chance we'll get another thirteen episodes next year. However, all the drama and the cast changes and the shuffled creatives have taken their toll on the show, and will probably continue to. Season Five had some similar problems with Season Four, ironically, which is that it was trying too hard to backpedal to the point where the show was at its best. I'll continue to watch it weekly as long as they keep running it, but my enthusiasm for "Community" is starting to go south. I'm having a hard time seeing where the creators can take things from here, with most of the big arcs from prior seasons wrapped up and the new ones sputtering as they try to get off the ground.

There have been more than a few episodes in the last batch that I loved, but I'm starting to think that it might have been better for everyone involved if the show had just wrapped up after three strong seasons and didn't try to push its luck.
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It’s common for profiles of George Cukor these days to start out by declaring that the director, who was known for "women’s pictures," was not limited to directing films featuring and aimed at women. This is certainly true, but why not celebrate him for directing these films? In the current film landscape, there are scarcely any directors with any particular facility for these types of movies anymore. It's difficult to think of more than a handful working in Hollywood who can turn out a decent romance or romantic comedy regularly. It's rare to find director-actress pairings as fruitful as the ones that Cukor enjoyed with Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holliday.

My favorite of his pictures is his most well known and most celebrated, "My Fair Lady," based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." I don't consider it the best example of Cukor's work - that would probably be "Gaslight" or "Born Yesterday" - but I am unable to resist the combination of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Cecil Beaton's iconic art direction and costumes. To some degree it's a nostalgia pick, because it's the first of his films I saw, but it's stuck with me over the years and my relationship with it has changed as I've gotten older. I knew and liked it primarily for its music as a kid, but I've since reconsidered. As a musical I find it leaves quite a bit to be desired now - the songs are fun and Marni Nixon dubs Hepburn's vocals just fine, but Rex Harrison speak-singing through the whole film strikes me as more peculiar every time I see it. As a film about gender and class relations, though, it's become far more fascinating.

What I really appreciate about Cukor films isn't just that they tend to feature great performances by strong leading ladies, but that they feature them in such interesting relationships. I commonly see "My Fair Lady" categorized as a romance, and always found this misleading. Romance is certainly alluded to between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, but that's not really what their relationship is based on. They're strictly teacher and student for the vast majority of the film. Even at the end, there's nothing really more than the potential for a love match between them. Others may interpret romance as the inevitable outcome of this, but that's not what happens in the Shaw story, and I always preferred to imagine that the two became good friends instead of lovers. Eliza and Freddy's pairing is much more explicitly romantic, but it's really more of a complication to Higgins' and Eliza's relationship than anything else.

And fifty years later, I can't think of another examination of a male-female onscreen relationship quite like this. All the other Pygmalion stories I've seen, like "Educating Rita" and "She's All That" insist on making the romance explicit. As a result, the much more interesting gender and class dynamics have a tendency to get downplayed. In "My Fair Lady," Cukor spends no small amount of time poking fun at the upper classes with the Ascot Racetrack sequence, the embassy ball, and of course the antics of Eliza's father Alfred, who is obliged to get married and become respectable once he has money. And poor Eliza discovers that once she becomes a proper lady, there's no going back.

This is easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn performance, because it gives her a chance to really show off her formidable comedic skills, which too often get short shrift. She's perfectly fine playing the swan when the film calls for it, but it's her gawky ugly duckling moments as Eliza that really won me over. Sadly, her worked was panned at the time of the film's release and she didn't share in the kudos heaped on the film. Rex Harrison is, or course, an utter bastard, but is enjoying it so much that it's impossible not to love him for it. And Harrison and Hepburn together are a joy to watch, as they verbally spar and struggle with each other, and it's with the comedic moments that the movie is at its most surefooted.

Compared to the other big musicals of the time there aren't many big set pieces. Dance sequences are almost entirely absent, and the setting is hardly epic. Edwardian London never looked lovelier, and Eliza Higgins' costume changes provided more than enough eye candy, but you could never call "My Fair Lady" a spectacle in any sense. That's what made it such a good fit for Cukor's sensibilities, which were always centered squarely on the interactions of his characters and the chemistry of his performers. And maybe that's what got him into trouble on the bigger projects like "Gone With the Wind." But when he had the right material, there was no one better.

George Cukor remains one of the classic Hollywood greats. And it wasn't in spite of his work with the genres that have become devalued today, but largely because of them.
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I admit that I wasn't expecting this, and certainly not so soon. CBS only waited a week after Letterman's retirement announcement to name his successor to the "Late Show. The lucky comedian is Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report," whose contract with Comedy Central will be up in 2015. I'd seen various rumor pieces peg Colbert as a frontrunner, but I didn't take any of them seriously.

I mean, I love Colbert's work and I think he's a supremely talented satirist, but he didn't seem to check enough of the right boxes. The network late night shows are helmed by comedians with very broad, mainstream appeal. Colbert always struck me as a bit of an acquired taste, especially when you put him next to some of the guys who have been described as an awkward fit for the job, like Craig Ferguson or Louis CK. Sure, Ferguson and CK are a little more experimental and off-kilter than the average late night host, but they haven't spent the last nine years playing a fake version of themselves lampooning right-wing news pundits.

Speaking of the other Stephen Colbert, it's been announced that the persona that Colbert uses on "The Colbert Report" will be retired when he makes the move to CBS next year. The real Stephen will be back, but good grief, I barely even remember him from his eight-year stint on "The Daily Show" anymore. I know that he filled in for Jon Stewart a few times, but for the most part his hosting and interviewing performances have all been through the filter of this satirical construct, and who knows how he's going to perform without it? Okay, I'm being alarmist here. Stephen Colbert has spent nearly a decade successfully putting out his own award-winning comedy program, and has clearly been honing his skills during that time. There are a few of his excellent non-satirical interviews floating around the web that suggest he'll be find without the egomaniacal blowhard routine.

And as a fan of Colbert, this is a great opportunity for him. As much as I enjoy and admire "The Colbert Report," I don't want to see him doing it forever. In fact, to be quite honest, I'm surprised that he's managed to keep it going for as long as he has. I still tune in occasionally, but I grew weary of the fake right-wing schtick a few years ago and stopped watching regularly. It'll be great to see him pick up and move on to something different, hopefully after ending "The Colbert Report" in a truly glorious fashion. And remember, his departure from Comedy Central opens up the post - "Daily Show" slot for someone new. It'll be interesting to see who comes in next, especially as the network had some trouble keeping anything in that timeslot - I vaguely remember "Insomnia" with Dave Attell being the best of the pre- "Report" shows. Maybe another "Daily Show" alum will be up next?

And what about all the other contenders for "Late Night"? I am a little disappointed that Conan O'Brien's not coming back to network television and I still think he should have stayed the host of "The Tonight Show." Ferguson, Stewart, and Louis CK seem to be perfectly happy doing what they're doing, and good for them. It would have been nice to see a lady invited to the sausage party, but then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have plenty of other opportunities to exercise their talent, and I'm not familiar with Chelsea Handler's work, so I have no real opinion on her. Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have had their day, and wouldn't have brought anything new or interesting to the table. And Arsenio? Better luck next time.

So now it's going to be Fallon versus Colbert, with Kimmel as the third party candidate. I like Stephen Colbert's odds and think he's going to be a real contender. He's the oldest of the bunch at 49, but he's also the one with the most personality and the most range. He can never be David Letterman, but he's already done a very fine job being Stephen Colbert for nearly a decade. I'm also a little apprehensive that the move to a network means that he probably will have to adjust his style for more mainstream viewers. That sharp satiric edge that has served him so well will probably have to be put away, to be brought out only for special occasions. Many members of Congress may be breathing a sigh of relief.

Then again, it's not wise to underestimate Stephen Colbert. This is the man who delivered that devastating takedown of the Bush Administration at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and managed to wrangle himself a cameo in one of the "Hobbit" movies by sheer force of his nerdiness. I'll bet he still has some surprises in store for us.
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I didn't write much about the handover of "The Tonight Show" much, because I didn't have much to say about it. I never watched Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon with any regularity. I never had much of an attachment to "The Tonight Show," only barely remembering the very end of Johnny Carson's legendary tenure. I was a fan of Conan O'Brien and felt he was cheated out of the hosting job, but that was years ago. I really don't watch late night television anymore aside from "The Daily Show" with John Stewart, which I tend to watch the next day in the early evenings when I get home from work.

But then David Letterman announced his retirement, and suddenly I found that I did care. There was a brief period in grad school where I would stay up to watch Letterman, and then Craig Ferguson most nights. But more than that, it's Letterman who I view as a one of my cultural constants, not Leno. I've been hearing about his late night antics with the Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks since the '80s. I know about the Crispin Glover, Madonna, and Drew Barrymore incidents. I remember the year he hosted the Oscars. I actually made a point of tuning in to see the Oprah appearance on his show. The idea that Letterman is retiring hit me much harder than I anticipated, and I realized he's been on television nearly as long as I've been alive. He's outlasted popes and presidents and the Cold War and Andy Rooney.

Moreover, there's the makings of some real drama going on around his departure. The battle over "The Tonight Show" was over in 2010. We knew that Leno was going permanently once he made the announcement, and that he would be succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. The only question was whether the ratings were going to hold up this time, and they did. David Letterman's successor is very much in question. Craig Ferguson is still hosting "The Late, Late Show" and has a small but very dedicated following. However, it's not clear how well his brand of humor would carry over to a bigger and more conventional program. There's also a good chance that Ferguson would turn down the job. That means the door is open for the network to pursue other options, including cable hosts Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien, whose contracts on their current shows will be up in 2015 when Letterman is planning to make his exit.

Or they could go even farther afield. Just about every major comedy star is suddenly a contender - Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Neil Patrick Harris, Drew Carey, and Chris Rock have come up repeatedly in the early speculation. Are late night audiences ready for a woman host like Chelsea Handler or Tina Fey? Would CBS be bold enough to poach someone like Jimmy Kimmel or Ellen Degeneres? Could Jay Leno be lured out of retirement? Or maybe it won't be anyone we know. After all, Conan O'Brien was practically an unknown when he inherited the old post- "Tonight Show" timeslot back in 1992 when Letterman decamped to CBS. There are a lot of up-and-comers who could really make a splash, though it's not going to be like the "Tonight Show" handover. Leno inherited program with a long and storied history. Letterman's show was always Letterman's show.

Whoever gets the job, it's going to really mean the end of an era this time. I still think of the late night hosts as being primarily a brotherhood of older gents, but now Kimmel and Fallon have firmly established themselves, and 60-something Letterman will probably be succeeded by someone a decade or two younger. Will it be enough to lower the ever-advancing average age of the viewing audience again, I wonder? Everybody used to watch Carson, and then everybody watched either Leno or Letterman, but in recent years the audience has fractured thanks to a wave of alternatives, and I expect we're just going to see it fracture further in the years to come.

The late night talk shows, like everything else on network television, is losing ground to cable and the internet. The "Tonight Show" transition garnered a ratings bonanza for NBC, and I expect the last few David Letterman shows in 2015 will do the same for CBS - news of the retirement announcement was enough to boost his numbers earlier this week. But after that's all over, when things settle down and we have a new status quo, what then? I can't see myself changing my current viewing habits no matter who ends up in the Ed Sullivan theater, and I doubt many others will either. Unless something drastic happens, I suspect the end of Letterman will be network late night's last hurrah.
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Funny or Die is not part of my usual media consumption rotation. Sure, I watch their videos occasionally when they go viral and I get linked to one. I've seen a couple of installments of "Between Two Ferns" too, the site's no-budget anti-talk show hosted by comedian Zach Galifianakis where interviewer and interviewee exchange insults with each other in stark contrast to the love-fests that most celebrity interviews have become. Actually, I've seen more memes spawned by the show than the actual show, particularly the one with Jennifer Lawrence mocking Galifianakis's weight.

And then yesterday, President Obama (identified as a "Community Organizer") showed up and took a seat between the ferns and everyone went nuts. He was plugging the Affordable Healthcare Act and Healthcare.gov, of course, and specifically targeting the young internet-loving demographic that comprises Funny Or Die's core audience. And the great thing was, he was in on the joke. He and Galifianakis lobbed some relative softballs at each other, but there were still a few zingers on sore subjects - birth certificates, basketball, and "Hangover 3" among them. The tone was right, the comedy wasn't compromised, and both the site and the president came away from the outing looking great.

Here I should add all the usual disclaimers that though I voted for Obama last time around, I do not agree with all of his positions and policies, the actions of his administration, and certainly not his approach to handling some very serious issues. As a campaigner, however, he's rarely made a wrong step. From a marketing standpoint the "Between Two Ferns" appearance was a shrewd move, right up there with Richard Nixon's cameo on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." There aren't many other politicians I can imagine going toe to toe with Galifianakis. When they do feature in comedy bits like this, it's usually something like Stephen Colbert unleashing absurdity on a member of Congress in a "Better Know a District" segment of "the Colbert Report," where the politician plays the straight man (or woman). Or Ali G. maneuvering poor Pat Buchanan into making an idiot of himself.

This also signals a big moment for new media. Sure, Twitter has become a default talking point, and a Reddit IAMA session has become a regular stop on press tours, but you rarely see the mainstream really participate in the internet culture of viral videos and mash-up parodies made way outside the bounds of the traditional production system except to point it out or comment on it. Funny or Die might be considered a borderline case, as it has many famous contributors and backers, employs a professional writing staff, and recently partnered with HBO briefly to produce a short-lived sketch. However, by and large it has remained largely a web-based phenomenon that follows the anarchic, DIY, bare-bones aesthetic of most user-generated web content. In fact, the last time I checked the site, a good chunk of the Funny or Die website's content was still user submitted.

I'm right at the upper age limit of the intended target audience here, so I can appreciate what Funny or Die is doing while recognizing how alien the approach is to outsiders. The rules and the expectations of web content are very different. The set of "Between Two Ferns" consists of the two ferns, a few chairs, and a table, and the graphics package that looks like a relic of the early '80s, purposefully evoking the feel of an old public access show. The celebrities who appear don't behave they would on a regular talk show, engaging in ironic self-mockery with the understanding that they're playing to a very different audience. We're starting to see the same kind of humor appear on late night talk shows and in commercials, but there's still a significant divide between web culture and the mainstream media. That divide got a whole lot smaller when Obama dropped in for an interview. The President of the United States is about as mainstream as it gets, and exudes legitimacy.

It's been fascinating to look at the reactions to the appearance. Right wing pundits have been predictably outraged, though past presidents have employed similar tactics in the past. Capitol Hill stalwarts have been confused and worried about whether the appearance was appropriate or the best use of Obama's time, considering everything else that's going on in the world right now. The general public doesn't seem to care all that much one way or the other, and many remain completely unaware that the POTUS deigned to grace a lowly comedy website with his presence. However, the results are clear. Healthcare.gov got a healthy boost in traffic thanks to the "Ferns" interview after millions of people watched it on Funny or Die, and some of the visitors signed up for plans.

I have to wonder if a traditional marketing campaign would have been remotely as successful.

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It's hard to get across just how much of a cultural touchstone "Friends" was to my generation. I offer this anecdote: when I was in my mid-20s, while waiting in line at a sandwich shop, I overheard a conversation between two people about my age, discussing how strange it was that they were now the same age as the characters on "Friends" when the show began. I overheard almost the identical exchange multiple times over the next few years as the '90s kids started having their quarter-life crises. "Friends" remains one of the most successful and recognizable sitcoms of all time. So it's about time I wrote a Top Ten for it.

As always, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate. Lots of Chandler and Monica, and not much Joey. Sorry Dr. Ramoray fans.

"The One With the Lesbian Wedding" - In 1996 this episode caused an uproar for its then controversial subject matter, and two NBC affiliates refused to air it. And it's a shame because it is a fun episode, with Joey's first soap opera success, Ross finally getting over his ex-wife, and the wedding itself. I especially enjoy the guest appearance of Marlo Thomas as Rachel's mother, who gets to deliver some of the best lines.

"The One with the Prom Video" - The lobsters, fat Monica, Ross's perm - it's the first of the show's traipses into the past, and the most successful. It so wonderfully captures the embarrassment of early love and adolescence, while showing us a different side of the familiar characters. Ross and Rachel's romance always struck me as a little tedious, but this was one of the few times I found myself rooting for them to get together.

"The One with the Chicken Pox" - It's rare that you get an episode with multiple storylines going on simultaneously where all of them hit the mark. Monica stresses when Richard doesn't have any weird quirks. Joey starts working at Chandler's office and assumes the personality of a raging jerk as acting practice. And, my favorite, Phoebe and a sailor beau played by Charlie Sheen contract chicken pox and have to resist physical contact.

"The One Where No One's Ready" - A great example of a bottle episode, where the gang needs to rush to a museum function, but one calamity after another delays their departure from the apartment. Joey and Chandler have an epic fight over a chair. Phoebe has a wardrobe malfunction. Ross and Rachel have a spat. It's twenty minutes of character interaction and wacky wardrobe changes, resulting in some of the show's best moments.

"The One with the Football" - Thanksgiving was the holiday that "Friends" always had the best handle on, when relationship issues and old history would inevitably rear their heads. This time out it's sibling rivalry, gender relations and a spirited game of touch football that take center stage. Everyone's little disagreements and rivalries get amplified when they have the excuse to get physical, particularly Monica's legendary competitive streak.

"The One with the Embryos" - Phoebe is off contemplating surrogate motherhood, so she misses out on one of the greatest trivia showdowns in television history, with Ross as the inexplicable well prepared quizmaster and everyone's living arrangements at stake. The trivia quiz itself is riot. Weekend at Bernie's. Viva Las Gay-gas. Big Fat Goalie. Miss Chanandler Bong. And did anyone ever figure out what Chandler does for a living?

"The One With Ross's Wedding" - Two parter in London! Another wedding episode and an excuse for lots of mayhem. This one's a lot of fun to revisit now that I recognize more of the guest stars - the cranky passenger on the plane is Hugh Laurie, and Emily's bridesmaid is Olivia Williams. And of course the ending is a killer, where we see the start of the Monica and Chandler relationship, and the worst (or best) mistake that Ross ever makes.

"The One Where Everybody Finds Out" - Monica and Chandler are still trying to keep their couplehood under wraps, but Joey found out a few episodes ago, and now Rachel and Phoebe know too - and are determined to get Monica and Chandler to admit it. Cue the farce, with Joey in the middle, and lines like "They don't know that we know they know we know!" I also like the oft forgotten Ross subplot with the mini-muffins and Ugly Naked Guy's apartment.

"The One with the Cop" - The Joey and Monica subplot is fairly forgettable, but the other two storylines are a lot of fun. Phoebe cracks down on the inconsiderate with the help of a mislaid police badge that she found, eventually attracting the attention of a real cop. Meanwhile, Ross is too cheap to pay the delivery fee for his new couch, so he and Rachel have to move it up the stairs - his howls of "Pivot! Pivot!" still echo in my head to this day.

"The One with the Proposal" - Another two-parter, where the return of Tom Selleck's Richard and screwed up proposal plans put the Chandler and Monica relationship in jeopardy. The second half is what makes this for me, where Chandler is put through the emotional wringer, and when the proposal finally does happen, it feels more than earned. The show could have ended right there and I'd have been happy - and considering how little I remember of the last three seasons, maybe it should have.
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I thought we'd gotten to the point where movie actors taking on television work was no longer something to get worked up about. I mean, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are currently headlining HBO's "True Detective," Kevin Spacey is on his second season of "House of Cards" for Netflix, and even Philip Seymour Hoffman had a pilot in circulation for a Showtime series, one that a lot of the TV critics were buzzing about. Television has gotten a huge boost in artistic credibility in recent years thanks to a flood of highly regarded prestige projects. So it no longer seems like a risky move when you hear that an established movie star has agreed to lead a new cable drama, or a budding young talent is working on a comedy pilot. Everybody wants to be the next Lena Dunham.

But then the news came in this week that Greta Gerwig, veteran independent movie actress and queen of the mumblecore movement, has signed on to star in CBS's new sitcom "How I Met Your Dad," the follow-up/spinoff of their long-running "How I Met Your Mother," which is currently in the middle of its final season. Gerwig is expected to write and produce the series as well as play the lead character, Sally. The role is described as a "female Peter Pan who has never grown up and has no idea of where she’s going in life," which is a description that could apply to most of the characters that Gerwig has played recently in films like "Frances Ha" and "Lola Versus." This could be a great opportunity for a promising young actress who has won a lot of praise this year, snagging her first major awards recognition for "Frances Ha."

What worries me is that "How I Met Your Dad" is not an HBO or FX or Netflix project. It's going to be a pretty typical prime time network sitcom, patterned off of a mostly agreeable, but unambitious hit show that CBS kept going for nine years. Fans of "How I Met Your Mother" tend to have a love-hate relationship with it, and most concede that it probably should have ended a couple of seasons ago. There's certainly room for creativity, but not the kind of bold, boundary-breaking stuff that characterizes a "Girls" or a "Louie." Gerwig's talents are probably not going to be very well served by the constraints of network television, especially on CBS, which is one of the more conservative networks. Occasionally FOX or NBC will turn out something idiosyncratic and unique, but CBS is the home of mostly formulaic meat-and-potatoes stuff like "Two and a Half Men," meant to appeal to very broad audiences. Sure, "How I Met Your Mother" takes place in New York, but it's not the same New York of Hannah Horvath and Frances Halladay.

Of course Gerwig being on a network show doesn't mean that her film career is over, or even on hold. "How I Met Your Mother" stars Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, and Cobie Smulders have both done a ton of film work during their tenures. Radnor has written and directed two films while Segel has worked his way up to comedic leading man status after "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "I Love You, Man." Gerwig's fellow mumblecore alum Mark Duplass also juggles acting duties on FX series "The League" with directing his own films and appearing in others. So there's no reason that Gerwig couldn't keep collaborating with Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman during her breaks, and pursue other projects. Plus, having a higher profile from "How I Met Your Dad" would probably lead to bigger parts. Currently, the most mainstream film she's done has been the Russell Brand remake of "Arthur," where she played the major love interest but was bumped off all the posters by Jennifer Garner.

CBS should get the kudos for pursuing someone like Gerwig for "How I Met Your Dad," and it is heartening to see the ranks of female creatives in television grow. When I first heard about the project, I was expecting that it would be a spinoff starring Cristin Milioti, who plays the titular "Mother" on "How I Met Your Mother." Instead, while the details are still pretty sparse, it looks like we're going to get something much more original, something I might actually want to watch once in a while. Part of me is still expects this will be another "Friends" clone, and we'll only be getting Gerwig-lite, but another part of me wants to hope for the best and root for the show to be a real showcase for her talents. Who knows? Maybe CBS has its eye on capturing a little of the prestige being showered on the cable networks.

And if Greta Gerwig wants to aim for being the next Tina Fey instead of the next Lena Dunham, that's certainly a worthwhile endeavor.
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Yesterday we took a look at the big studio pictures with real box office prospects. Today it's time for the more modest, but probably more rewarding films of 2014 that I'm looking forward to. Movies that were delayed from last year, including Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," are being left off. And here we go:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's latest is so obviously the work of Wes Anderson, there's no point in even pointing out the avalanche of aesthetic quirks or the presence of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson anymore. However, this time around Ralph Fiennes has joined the fun and the tone looks a touch zanier and more broadly comedic, which is hitting all the right buttons for me. There's also something about the color palette with its rich purples and candy pinks that really make the visuals pop. I'm sure the film itself will turn out to be all too familiar, but I can't bring myself to care one bit.

"The Cobbler" - Thomas McCarthy hasn't made a film that I've disliked yet, from "The Station Agent" to "Win Win." And though I dislike Adam Sandler's typical comedies, when he tries something smaller and more heartfelt, the results can be fantastic. These two sound like they would work well together, so I'm looking forward to "The Cobbler," where Sandler will star as a shoe repairman who discovers a magic MacGuffin that literally lets him "walk in another man's shoes." This is a premise that a big studio would happily turn into yet another idiot comedy, but with McCarthy writing and directing, I'm pretty optimistic.

"Ex Machina" - Alex Garland, the screenwriter of "Never Let Me Go" and many of Danny Boyle's films will be making his directorial debut with the science fiction film "Ex Machina," which has some similarities to last year's "Her." This time the AI is a female robot played by Alicia Vikander and the story is a psychological thriller instead of a straight romance. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also star. It's a low budget, small scale film that is being produced in the UK, so it might be a while before we get to see it stateside. The premise and the cast have me excited though, and I'm adding it to this year's ever-growing list of intriguing, ambitious science fiction films.

"Whiplash" and "The Voices" - There are quite a few interesting titles that have emerged from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm keeping an eye out for, including "Skeleton Twins," "Life Itself," and "Dear White People." However, there are two in particular that I want to highlight. First, there's the "Whiplash," the tale of a young drummer played by Miles Teller that took home the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Then there's "The Voices," the latest from "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, where Ryan Reynolds plays a seemingly ordinary man who accidentally kills a woman, and now his benevolent dog and evil cat are both speaking to him, trying to persuade him of what he should do next.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" - Swedish auteur Roy Andersson makes bleak satires with painstakingly composed visuals, many of them incredibly elaborate. He's only released two films over the past fifteen years, but they've both been brilliant. "Pigeon" is expected to complete the trilogy. Production diaries have been slowly appearing on the internet over the past several months, and the project appears to be finally nearing completion. As it's been seven years since the last Andersson film, this is definitely going to be a cinematic event. Not much is known about the story yet, but it apparently involves salesmen, near brushes with death, and explaining why society is the way it is.

"Gone Girl" - David Fincher's been out of the game since his adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I'm glad to see him back on the slate, even if he's decided his latest crime thriller should star Ben Affleck - I'm still not sold on him as an actor. However, the original author of the source novel, Gillian Flynn, is penning the screenplay and has apparently entirely rewritten the third act for the adaptation. This one's already gearing up for an Oscar campaign, with a release date set for October and an unusual bit of early marketing - a provocative "Entertainment" Weekly cover picturing Affleck and co-star Rosamund Pike referencing the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Rolling Stone" portrait.

"Inherent Vice" - Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. That's really all I need to know. Based on the Thomas Pynchon detective novel, this will be another period piece, set at the end of the '60s in Los Angeles. Filming was completed last year, so there's every likelihood that we'll see "Inherent Vice" in theaters by the end of 2014. The novel has been described as noir crossed with psychedelia, which might make me worried if this were any other director. Fortunately Anderson, coming off of "The Master," is more than qualified to handle the notoriously difficult Pynchon material. As the highest profile prestige project of the year so far, this one's going to get a lot more press in the months to come.
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I'm a long time Coen brothers fan. I've seen all their movies, even the obscure ones, even the ones they just wrote for other directors, and I hold them in very high regard. So it bothers me more than it probably should that many critics have been raving about their latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and I came out of it unmoved. Sure, I think it's a very strong film, and after sitting through most of this year's Best Picture nominees I can say with certainty that it's better than at least half of them. However, I didn't connect with it the way I've connected with so many of the Coens' other films, so I find it tough to really champion this one.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer in the early 60s, struggling through a long winter in New York. He's talented, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to make a living as a working musician. Perpetually broke, he stays with one friend after another, ineffectually harassing his agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) for owed payments and more gigs. We watch him bounce from one missed opportunity to the next and the calamities keep piling on. He stays with an older couple, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), accidentally lets out their cat, and ends up having to take it with him for the day. He's friends with a more successful folk duo, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean reveals she's pregnant after a one night stand with Llewyn and demands that he pay for the abortion. A trip to Chicago seeking more work means hitching a ride with hostile jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Fans of this genre of music will adore this movie. "Llewyn Davis" is a love letter to the era, recreating the New York music scene of the '60s and filled with little details and references. I didn't pick up on any of them, unfortunately, even the most obvious ones. Frankly, I respect but don't particularly enjoy folk music, so I didn't get much out of the numerous musical performances scattered throughout the film, and that may have been the fatal problem. Llewyn has a difficult personality and is not a very likeable guy, though he's very sympathetic. Oscar Isaac does a great job bringing across the personal flaws that constantly bring him trouble, which are in many ways are also what is responsible for his talent. The only time he seems truly content is when he's performing, and several of the numbers are used to convey a lot of emotional nuance. Since I wasn't really getting much out of the songs, I could only appreciate most of this on a cerebral level. Oscar Isaac does all his own singing and guitar playing, by the way.

So I was left with a perfectly good character study of a great musician who never made it, and his encounters with the usual Coen brothers parade of colorful characters. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, whose vehement attacks on Llewyn are simultaneously very funny and heartbreaking. John Goodman turns in another good appearance as the verbose Roland, and F. Murray Abraham shows up in the third act to play a legendary manager. I wish we got to spend more time with all of them. However, because I wasn't in tune with the music, which plays such a big part of "Llewyn Davis," I felt out of tune with the whole film. The story has an elliptical structure with some moody, atmospheric flourishes that cultivate an air of mystery - which the Coens have done very well before, but this time out felt a little gimmicky. I don't know why, but I found a lot of the usual bits of business harder to swallow than usual.

Technically the film is impeccable, of course. The bleak cinematography is gorgeous, and I loved seeing the collection of actors and musicians that were assembled for the film. I barely even noticed Justin Timberlake until his third or fourth scene, because everyone else in the cast was just that strong. I certainly didn't need to like the music to know the quality of it was very high in all respects. In fact, I'm surprised that even with all of the Academy's labyrinthine eligibility rules, "Inside Llewyn Davis" failed to secure any nominations in the music categories at all. I know several people who have gotten downright obsessed with the soundtrack, and I don't begrudge them one bit.

So I appreciate "Llewyn Davis." I appreciate the hell out of it. I can't think of many filmmakers aside from the Coens who could have made it. I just wish that I could have liked the movie more than I do.
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Who is Bruce Dern? I recognized the veteran actor's name, but I couldn't put a name to the face. Looking at his list of credits, I'd seen a lot of the films he appeared in, but apparently missed the ones that he won the most acclaim for. So I went into "Nebraska" knowing almost nothing about its most highly lauded actor, who has been enjoying lots of awards attention for this performance, and I think I was better off for it.

"Nebraska" is about Woody Grant (Dern), an elderly former mechanic who lives in Billings, Montana. We first see him making his slow but steady way down the side of a busy street, before he is stopped by a concerned patrolman. When Woody's son David (Will Forte) comes to pick him up at the station, we learn that Woody was trying to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his one million dollar winnings from a marketing company that sent him a letter - clearly just a solicitation for magazine subscriptions, but Woody is convinced it's real. Woody's exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are unsympathetic and discuss putting Woody in a nursing home, but after Woody makes another failed attempt to walk to Nebraska, David decides to drive him there.

I'd initially assumed from the synopses I'd read that this was a father-son road trip movie, but the bulk of the story takes place in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the Grants' original hometown where many of the extended family and Woody's old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) still live. Woody and David stay with relatives there over an eventful weekend, where they reconnect with the past and each other to an extent. But if I've made this sound like a typical feel good movie, this couldn't be further from the truth. "Nebraska" was directed by Alexander Payne, responsible for other painfully human dramedies full of disappointment and heartache like "The Descendants," "Sideways," and "About Schmidt."

Payne's vision of the midwest is a dull, depressing place. The characters inhabit small towns gripped by economic decline. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, capturing the vastness and emptiness of the landscape, and the topography of aging faces. All of it is suffused with an inescapable melancholy. It's this tone that sets "Nebraska" apart. The script is low-key, but punctuated with a lot of humor, occasionally of the ribald variety. The pacing is measured and the story is largely made up of incidental moments, but not to the point where it's off-putting. Once you settle into the rhythm of the film's universe, it doesn't feel slow at all.

I've seen some claim that the film presents an unfair view of its older, Midwestern characters, who are tripped up by simple misunderstandings and seem to conform to common cliches. And yes, some of them are very broadly drawn for comedic purposes. However, I was struck by how well-observed the portrayals were, the way a family reunion ends up centering around a televised sports game and how Woody interacts with a bartender at an old drinking spot. For the most part, the people in "Nebraska" look and behave like real people, and aside from a few obvious bad apples they're decent, well-meaning, and perfectly ordinary. And they have the flaws that ordinary people have.

Woody Grant is similarly ordinary, but a fascinating figure. Everyone offers David different stories about Woody, painting him as an irresponsible alcoholic, a damaged soldier, a bad father, a generous man who couldn't say no to anybody, a fondly remembered old lover, and many other things. Bruce Dern's performance offers clues as to how these different versions can be reconciled. Woody is frequently lost and confused, his expression vacant and his mind perhaps not all there. However, he's still aware of how others view him, remembers certain parts of his past all too clearly, and retains a stubborn pride that drives many of his actions.

For me, Dern disappears into the role fully, helped by the fact that I had no preconceived notions of his work as an actor. It's incredible how expressive he is, his posture and body language alone saying volumes about his state of mind. Part of him, however, remains impenetrable. Does he understand that his letter is a fake? Does he care? Similarly, June Squibb was also a complete unknown to me, and is the film's great comedic force as the family's scolding, worrying, and sometimes inappropriately candid maternal juggernaut. And despite all the difficulties and indignities that they embody, I found I liked them very much.

Of Payne's other films, "About Schmidt" is the one that "Nebraska" reminds me of the most, another story about the odyssey of an older man looking for a little meaning in his life. However, I much prefer "Nebraska" for its tighter focus on familial relationships, it's ensemble, and especially for Bruce Dern's work here. There's also a great sense of nostalgia and affection for the small towns and elderly denizens of "Nebraska," along with the light satiric touches, which I found tremendously affecting.

I always underestimate Alexander Payne and he keeps delivering, time after time. Really, ought to know better by now.
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We are six episodes into the fifth season of low rated but still chugging "Community," which is now on hiatus for the duration of the Sochi Winter Olympics, so I'm taking the opportunity to take stock of how things are going. Yes, showrunner Dan Harmon is back at the helm, and yes, it feels like the show is on track again, not only correcting for the muddle of the Harmon-less fourth season, but also taking a few steps back from the occasional overcomplications of the third season as well. There have been other changes to the status quo that have been handled well so far, but it remains to be seen if the show can sustain them in the long run.

First and foremost, it's clear that this is not going to be the same show going forward that the fans have grown to love. Jeff Winger graduated at the end of last season, so the premiere was dedicated to getting him and the rest of the gang back to Greendale. Jeff is now installed as a teacher, and the study group is now a "Save Greendale" teacher-student committee whose members eventually include Professor Duncan and the reinstated Chang. There's also a new face in the cast, criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by "Breaking Bad" vet Jonathan Banks, the replacement for the not-so-dearly departed Pierce, who bowed out last year. Banks has been pretty good so far, though considerably less prone to absurdity than Pierce.

However, the biggest change to the show's dynamics is that Donald Glover left after the first five episodes of the season, and the character of Troy Barnes was written out - but not without a big, crazy sendoff proportionate to his contributions to "Community." How will the rest of the group, and especially Abed move on from this? We've only had one post-Troy episode so far, but it was a decent one that gave Abed a lot to do, so hope springs eternal. My guess is that the writers will let Abed come out of his autism spectrum informed pop-culture shell a little more and put the bouts of mental instability behind him for good. As entertaining as his afflictions were, they ended up taking "Community" to some odd places I'm not sure it should have gone.

Other characters are also being adjusted. After a string of nutty subplots, Chang is a teacher again, but still the low man on the social totem pole. Jeff is very much a work in progress, adjusting to his role as a new teacher and licking his wounds from another round of recent failures. With their romantic entanglements either resolved or shelved, Britta is back to being the well-meaning meddler and Annie is once again the idealistic overachiever. There's a big emphasis on grounding storylines back in community college life, which I'm very happy about. While it was nice to see the characters outside of Greendale, the school is really the heart of the show, and the characters work best within it.

Individual episodes have had their ups and downs as usual. The premiere was mostly about setting up the rest of the season, and I found the two "normal" episodes so-so, about on par with similar ones from the first season. However the two more conceptual installments, "Cooperative Polygraphy" and "Geothermal Escapism," dealing with Troy's departure, are "Community" at their best. These are episodes that you couldn't have had without Dan Harmon. It's one thing to have everyone at Greendale playing a giant game of "The Floor is Lava," but it's another to use it to turn the school into a surreal post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" version of itself, and also simultaneously have it double as a metaphor for Abed's fears of letting go at the same time.

Best of all, I like that I don't know where the show is going from here. The most damaging of the dangling plot threads left over from seasons past have all been cleared away. Jeff's four-year deadline is gone, and he's essentially starting over from scratch. The rest of the gang hasn't committed to any new recurring storylines yet, though I suspect we'll be seeing some soon. Harmon and company could go anywhere they want, and with ratings holding steady they have the time to get there. Six seasons and a movie is looking like a real possibility since the rest of NBC's Thursday schedule has tanked so badly.

I'm sorry to see Troy gone and I'm not totally onboard with Hickey yet, but the future of "Community" looks pretty good right now. There aren't many television shows that have managed to pull out of a nosedive like this, and the fact that "Community" managed it so well is very heartening. I'm glad I decided to stick with the show through its bumpiest stretch and look forward to even better to come.
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How old is Martin Scorsese again? Just when you thought that the venerable director's tastes had turned to handsome mainstream genre pictures like "Shutter Island" and "Hugo" for good, along comes "The Wolf of Wall Street," which finds him pushing the boundaries of good taste with material so gloriously depraved, you'd swear he never left the '70s. And Leonardo DiCaprio? It feels like he's playing a proper Scorsese anti-hero at last.

You may have heard of Jordan Belfort, the notorious Wall Street broker whose shady financial practices have already inspired one movie, "Boiler Room." This time around, Scorsese and DiCaprio take aim not just at Belfort, but at the entire system and culture that made a monster like him possible - and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. This probably doesn't say anything good about yours truly, but while many audience members have reacted with horror and dismay at the rampant sex and drug use depicted in the film, I loved every second of it, and viewed the most obscene moments with unfettered glee. Finally, after years of intense, scowling, leading men, DiCaprio has been given a role that requires him to be funny. Howlingly, absurdly, shockingly, despicably funny, several orders of magnitude greater than Calvin Candie of "Django Unchained," who now feels like a mere warm-up for this role. He may have been a great Gatsby, but he's a phenomenal Belfort.

The film follows Jordan Belfort from down-on-his-luck New York stock broker in the '80s to the founder of brokerage firm Stratton Oakmount, a fraud-riddled operation that made millions pushing penny stocks. Belfort and his chief cohort Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are thoroughly corrupted by their wealth, indulging in sex, drugs, and hedonism around the clock. Belfort leaves his wife Teresa (Christin Milioti) for the more voracious blonde Naomi (Margot Robbie, who won't want for work after this). The FBI comes investigating, in the form of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and Belfort starts hiding his money overseas, with the help of a courier, Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal), and a Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin). But as Belfort's condition deteriorates, he finds it harder and harder to keep everything from collapsing.

I like to imagine that Martin Scorsese saw the visions of the American Dream run amok in "Spring Breakers" and "Pain & Gain" this year and figured that he could do it bigger and better. And boy did he ever. I have no doubt that it's thanks to Scorsese's involvement that "The Wolf of Wall Street" could be made in such epic fashion with top tier talents. And so we have Rob Reiner playing Jordan Belfort's father, who delivers expletive-filled rants at the drop of a hat. And Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first boss on Wall Street, who extolls the virtues of prostitutes and cocaine. And the gorgeous, loving crane shots of the trading floor of the brokerage, crammed full of so many little details. And visions of Wall Street at the height of its 1990s decadence that are as indelible as the night clubs of "Goodfellas." And the film's massive three hour running time seems to fly by in no time at all.

Not everyone is happy about Scorsese plunging into this kind of material. The content, with its unapologetic raunch and record-setting profanity count, has been simply too much for some audiences to take. There have also been claims that Scorsese is making Jordan Belfort's lifestyle look too appealing, that he and DiCaprio are somehow excusing Belfort's horrendous behavior. I don't agree with this assessment at all. Sure, the brokerage bacchanalias are fun at first, and seeing DiCaprio and Hill cavorting with strippers has a high titillation factor, but the roof comes crashing down on them soon enough. The fact that their descent is really damn entertaining to watch, particularly the notorious Qualuude sequence, doesn't negate that.

I can't help comparing "Wolf of Wall Street" to "American Hustle," which in many ways pays homage to the Scorsese films of the '70s and '80s. But the difference between them is like night and day. Scorsese not only knows how to get great performances out of his actors, but he knows what to do with them. The movie is so beautifully constructed, the story perfectly coherent in spite of all the depicted chaos, and nails every theme and point and underlying message that it sets its sights on. Those who castigate the film for having no moral compass must have completely missed or misread the ending.

This is my favorite Scorsese movie in years, going back to "Casino" at least. And if you're a fan of his earlier work, this movie embodies the spirit of them for a new age like nothing else I've ever seen. Tread with caution, fellow moviegoers, but if this sounds like the kind of movie you might enjoy, go forth and enjoy.
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I didn’t know much about the controversial ABSCAM sting operation run by the FBI in the late ‘70s, and I made the mistake of assuming that “American Hustle” would clue me in on the important details. The movie has been billed as being about ABSCAM and the major players involved, but it’s not really interested in the scam itself. Rather, it’s a character study of con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are busted and then recruited by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him entrap a New Jersey mayor, Carmino Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is trying to raise the funds to rebuild Atlantic City. Rosenfeld’s plan involves a fake sheikh, a mobster played by Robert DeNiro, and the involvement of Rosenfeld’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who he’s been trying to figure out how to divorce without losing custody of his son. I’m not too clear on the details, because director David O’Russell doesn’t concern himself much with how the mechanics of the sting actually work. Instead, it’s all about watching all these big personalities clash, as played by a cast of familiar faces viewers might recognize from his previous films.

I suspect that if you liked O’Russell’s last two films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” you’ll probably like “American Hustle” more than I did. I’ve always found O’Russell hit-or-miss, and his emphasis on high-octane, improv-heavy performances has worked out well for some material but not so well for others. All the screaming and yelling in “The Fighter,” for example, was too shrill for me to take, but I thought the approach worked much better with a different set of actors and a different kind of story in “Silver Linings Playbook.” In the much more stylized ‘70s universe of “American Hustle,” with a mix of the cast from both movies, plus a few newbies like Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s hapless supervisor, I thought the final product split the difference. Individual scenes and smaller moments are wonderful, but it was difficult to track what is going on and what the stakes are in the story. Movies about con games usually depend heavily on the mechanics of the plot, and they’re almost totally missing here, instead putting the focus on the various relationships among these loopy characters. O’Russell’s directing, which felt so loose and free in “Silver Linings,” came across as kind of messy and obvious here, especially when it tried to pay homage to older films and other directors.

The film features some very good performances though, particularly from Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Adams in particular often feels like the voice of sanity in the picture, the one character who feels like a genuine human being in a sea of wackily costumed and coiffed caricatures. Christian Bale, for instance, sports an authentic pot-belly and an alarming comb-over that oversells Irving Rosenberg’s sleaziness. Fortunately, it’s an appealing sleaziness. Jennifer Lawrence is a lot of fun as Rosalyn, though her accent has a tendency to wander all over the place, and she’s a little too young for the role. Initially there are some bumps, but when Lawrence really gets going, she’s the most memorable thing onscreen. I could listen to her talk about her nail polish regimen all day, because she just sells it so well. Rosalyn could have easily just been another forgettable bimbo without Lawrence. Finishing off the main quartet is Bradley Cooper as DiMaso, who is trying as hard as everyone else to sell an image of himself that he feels he can’t quite live up to. I don’t think he manages as well as the others, thanks to a truly inexplicable FBI agent character whose motivations seem to boil down to being a little too eager to prove himself.

The big theme of “American Hustle” appears to be self-delusion, with all these characters chasing after big aspirations and working their own cons against each other, trying to figure out how to get what they really want without becoming a victim. The FBI sting just happens to be the biggest and most grandiose in conception. And from what I could decipher of what was going on, there was clearly the potential for a much more focused and biting piece of work here. There’s some satire that hits the mark, but most of the laughs in the film feel like they happened by accident, and any commentary on the hypocrisy of the law enforcement gets lost amid all the yelling and screaming. I know that David O’Russell’s capable of really black, biting satire, or at least he used to be before his films got taken over by over-the-top performances and big hair. Whatever happened to the guy who made “Three Kings”? I’d have loved to see that David O’Russell’s version of “American Hustle.”

This version? I found it occasionally entertaining, but a missed opportunity to do something much more substantive and interesting. And as good as this cast was, it pales in comparison with what I think they could have been capable of in a better movie.
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People have been complaining about the state of romantic comedies for years, me included, so it's nice to see one come along that happily subverts the status quo while still being, unarguably, a romantic comedy. Written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular ladies man, this film has been billed in some circles as a more realistic story about relationships from the point of view of a typical guy. The main character, Jon Martello, is a modernized version of the famous lover, a nightclub-hopping ladies' man who never gets emotionally involved with his conquests and admits that pornography is better at sexually gratifying him than his flings with actual women. There's a "Jersey Shore" vibe too, since Jon is Italian-American and from what appears to be the New York area. In short, this isn't your typical rom-com hero.

But then into his life comes the girl, the "dime," as Jon refers to her, a rare winner of the top score on the 1-10 scale that he and his buddies use to rate potential hookups. This is Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen), whose sex appeal is so high that she gets Jon to break many of his rules in order to win her over. He finds himself getting into a real relationship with her, and willing to meet her demands, including going back to school. The only real sticking point is Jon's consumption of internet porn, which Barbara has no tolerance for, and Jon finds difficult to give up. Does the real girl win out over the digital ones? Well, it's not as simple as that, and Jon discovers that he's got a few other issues that he needs to work out regarding his love life.

I'm not surprised that this film has gotten some mixed reactions, especially from audiences who traditionally enjoy romantic-comedies. "Don Jon" is so much raunchier and testosterone driven than your typical romance, initially it comes as something of a shock. We see R-rated, but still fairly graphic examples of the porn Jon prefers, and he describes his masturbation practices for us without a hint of shame. He uses pick-up-artist techniques and discusses women as disposable objects without hesitation. Jon is charming enough to get away with it, of course, but it's also clear that he is not bad person. He does nothing out of line with any of the women we see him with, but he's got certain notions about relations with the opposite gender that are troubling.

"Don Jon" offers some interesting commentary on the differing versions of ideal love connections that modern day men and women often subscribe to. Jon may have bought into the player culture to a potentially damaging degree, but Barbara has been similarly conditioned to expect the fairy-tale romance. Of course, she's a fan of more typical romantic comedies. Where did Jon's ideas about gender relations come from? Well, there's his family, headed by his hyper-masculine father, played with delightful brashness by Tony Danza. And then there are Jon's weekly trips to the church confessional, where all his myriad transgressions are easily confessed and absolved.

Jon doesn't interact with women who aren't family or don't score high on his rating scale, so the most important relationship he develops in the film isn't with Barbara, but with an older woman he happens to meet and become friends with at college, Esther (Julianne Moore). Most of the discussions of "Don Jon" I've read don't talk about her much, probably because her role involves a lot of spoilers. That's a shame, because she is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is the one driving the film, of course, but many of his better scenes are with Moore. I'm sorry to say that Scarlett Johanssen feels a little wasted. She looks great, but there's really not much to her character.

As for Gordon-Levitt as a director, this is certainly a promising first film, nice and light without feeling flippant, stylized without feeling overworked. Moreover, I find it encouraging that this is the kind of material he chose to tackle for his debut, a friendly tweak on a masculine ideal that fits right in with Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" and Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." And he got to play a role that I don't think anybody would have thought to cast him as - mind you, I hope this isn't indicative of the role that Gordon-Levitt wants to play from now on. One movie with him as The Situation's stand-in was fun, but it could get old real quick.

"Don Jon" skews more guy-friendly, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated its aims. It should be an entertaining watch for anyone that doesn't mind a little smut and knows what they're getting themselves into. And for those of us tired of the usual rom-com formulas, it's a welcome change of pace.

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I resisted doing a "Simpsons" list for a long time for the usual reasons. It's been too long since I've seen many of the episodes. I quit watching regularly around the ninth or tenth season (though it seems like nearly everyone else did too). And my picks are heavily influenced by nostalgia since I saw most of the early seasons in junior high. However, I don't hesitate to call myself a "Simpsons" fan and we've got history together. So I'm adding the caveat that these are my favorite episodes of "The Simpsons" from the '90s. The 1999-2000 season is when Maude Flanders died and Apu had octuplets, to give you an idea of where the cutoff point is.

As usual, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"The Way We Was" - The story of how Marge and Homer got together is one of the absolute essentials, the bedrock on which so much of their relationship and the show has been built. In the early years "The Simpsons" was still very much about the family's dynamics, and even though it spoofed on the tropes of suburban life sitcoms, it was still part of the category itself. The episode is simple, straightforward, and still mighty heartwarming. It didn't hit me how much until the Carpenters' callback in "The Simpsons Movie," really the only thing I liked about that film.

"Kamp Krusty" - There's always that one episode of a syndicated show that you love, but they only seem to play very rarely. For me it was "Kamp Krusty," the wonderfully twisted tale of Bart and Lisa being sent off to Kamp Krusty, which turns out to be full of death traps and forced labor. I always loved when "The Simpsons" got twisted and outrageous with nostalgic childhood activities, and "Kamp Krusty" is so lovingly detailed in its catalog of horrors that it's still one of my favorites. This was the fourth season premiere, which is by far its greatest year and the most well-represented here.

"A Streetcar Named Marge" - Where do we even start? The "A Streetcar Named Desire" musical with a melancholy solo for Apu as the paperboy? Marge as Blanche DuBois? Ned Flanders as the world's sweetest Stanley Kowalksi? The musical director played by Jonn Lovitz? The Maggie subplot at the Ayn Rand School for Tots? I bought the "Simpsons" album that had all the songs from this episode and can still sing most of them to this day. And I'm willing to bet that most of the former kids of my generation only know "A Streetcar from Desire" because of this episode.

"Marge vs. The Monorail" - The town of Springfield has become as important to the chemistry of "The Simpsons" as the Simpsons family. Mob mentality isn't just a phenomenon here, but practically a way of life. By the time this episode came around we had already seen the town's casual corruption and willingness to embrace the bizarre, but "Monorail" took it to new, wonderful extremes. Also note that while everyone remembers the extended parody of "The Music Man," but this was also the episode that started out with "The Simpsons'" take on the opening of "The Flintstones."

"Selma's Choice" - I honestly felt for Selma and her plight, but it's Duff Gardens that I love this episode for. The theme park experience was spoofed more thoroughly in "Itchy and Scratchy Land," but I thought Duff Gardens did it better with the beer-themed mascots and their alcohol-shilling version of "It's a Small World." Better yet, it gives a much more grounded version of a day at a theme park gone wrong with Bart on a malfunctioning ride and Lisa the Lizard Queen. This also contains one of the greatest "Simpsons" gags ever, Homer's epic relationship with a spoiled hoagie.

"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" - It would have been easy for the show to do a "Behind the Music" style parody, but by specifically mirroring the ups and downs of The Be Sharps on The Beatles gave it so many more dimensions and cultural resonance. In addition the the obvious references like Barney's conceptual artist Japanese girlfriend and the rooftop reunion, the installment is chock full of little details that any Beatlemaniac would appreciate. And then of course, there's "Baby on Board," a legitimately catchy earworm sung in part by Disneyland's Dapper Dans.

"Cape Feare" - The best of the Sideshow Bob episodes, and one of the last to be written by the show's original writing team. Now I've never seen either version of "Cape Fear," but Sideshow Bob makes such a great villain, I found him legitimately threatening (and terribly funny) enough for the plot to work. The show's gags never got better, defusing a lot of the tension with a lot of "Looney Tunes" silliness, including the beloved stepping-on-rakes bit. And the "Pirates of Penzance" ending is one of the most absolutely brilliant moments of time-stalling nonsense I've ever seen.

"Treehouse of Horror V" - Like many viewers, I tuned in for the yearly "Simpsons" Halloween specials long after I stopped watching the other episodes. My favorite of them was the fifth one, which contained "The Shinning," "Time and Punishment," and "Nightmare Cafeteria." So that's a parody of my favorite Stanley Kubrick film, a parody of a short story from one of my favorite science-fiction writers, and possibly the sickest and most gruesome concept the "Simpsons" writers ever came up with. Throw in the running gag with Groundskeeper Willie, and it's a classic.

"And Maggie Makes Three" - "The Simpsons" may be prized for its comedy, but it could also deliver moments of real warmth and poignancy. And even though the creators joked that Homer got dumber year after year, he was often at the center of the show's most heart-tugging episodes. In another of the great "Simpsons" flashback episodes, we get a look at the kind of life that Homer wanted, and learn about the sacrifices that he makes for his kids. It's not an especially funny episode, though I love all the stuff with Mr. Burns, but it's without question one of the very best.

"El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)" - You gotta love a "Simpsons" episode that is essentially one long drug trip, though one brought on by Guatemalan insanity peppers instead of the more traditional mind-altering substances. This has some of the show's most wild and wonderful animation, as Homer journeys through beautifully surreal desert landscapes on a spirit quest. The Space Coyote he meets is voiced by Johnny Cash, of course. "The Simpsons" rarely got so wildly experimental, so it was great to see them really cut loose and break a lot of rules.

Honorable Mentions go to: "Bart the General," "Krusty Gets Busted," "Bart Gets an F," "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish," "Bart the Daredevil," "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," "Brush with Greatness," "Flaming Moe's," "Radio Bart," "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Lisa's First Word," "I Love Lisa," "Whacking Day," "Lemon of Troy," "Bart Sells His Soul," "Treehouse of Horror VI," and "Homer's Enemy."
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It used to be that the start of the TV midseason in January was for the premieres of the second-stringers, new shows that weren't good enough to premiere in the fall, and the return of existing ones that were solid but unspectacular performers. A few familiar titles might be held back to plug in expected holes in a network's schedule, and a few shows might be switched to different time slots, but there was nothing really big to look forward to.

Well, cable content changed all that with its vastly different year-round scheduling, and the rise of foreign television and the web-content have only made the change more pronounced. Now there's a lot of new television to look forward to each January, and this year looks like it's going to get off to a big start. Lots of new shows and lots of returing ones will hit the airwaves soon, giving February's Sochi Winter Olympics some serious competition for eyeballs. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most anticipated shows coming (back) our way.

"Community" and "Hannibal" - Both of these critical darlings were renewed by the skin of their teeth for NBC, and both are coming back shortly after New Years. Original recipe showrunner Dan Harmon is back for a course-correction after the not-entirely-disastrous fourth season of "Community," and there may be hope for a sixth season yet. The really interesting one to keep an eye on will be "Hannibal" though. The buzz for this show has only increased during its hiatus, and hopefully audiences have had a chance to catch up on the first season. It'll be taking over the Friday late night slot from "Dracula" in February.

"Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" - The fourth series of "Downton Abbey" ran from September to November of 2013 in the UK, and will be coming to PBS in January. Viewers regularly complain about the gap in broadcast dates, but that gap keeps getting shorter as the series progresses. "Sherlock" fans will have an even shorter wait. The much anticipated third series premieres on New Years Day in the UK, but will begin airing on PBS on January 19th, and hit DVD and Blu-Ray the week after that. And let's not forget the "Doctor Who" Christmas Special, which BBC America will air on the same day as its premiere in the UK.

"True Detective" and "Black Sails" - One of the most anticipated HBO originals in some time is its upcoming drama series that will star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a pair of detectives on the hunt for a serial killer. Billed as an anthology of crime stories, the cast is expected to change with each season, so its high profile leads aren't locked into a multi-year commitment. It premieres January 12th. Two weeks later over on Starz, we'll see the premiere of "Black Sails," a pirate-themed adventure show following Captain Flint and his crew. This should not be confused with the upcoming NBC series "Crossbones," with John Malkovitch, which has yet to secure a premiere date.

"Flowers in the Attic" and "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" - Lifetime has latched on to event movie after the headline generating buzz of projects like "Liz & Dick." This January we'll be getting a new adaptation of the notorious V.C. Andrew novel "Flowers in the Attic," starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as members of a seriously dysfunctional family. And then comes "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" starring Christina Ricci in the title role. Lifetime isn't exactly known for the quality of their TV films, the descendants of the once-popular network "Movie of the Week" franchises, but these both of these projects feature a lot of good talent and the trailers that have been released certainly make them look like a lot of fun.

"Space Dandy" - Almost entirely under the radar to everyone except us anime fans, "Space Dandy" is the newest series from Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the beloved "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo." The series will actually be premiering first in the US on January 4th, fully dubbed, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and then in Japan a day later. This isn't the first time a US broadcaster has made a deal like this, but I've never seen one for a series so highly anticipated. "Space Dandy" will be a science-fiction adventure comedy, following the adventures of a super-cool and super-perverted alien hunter.

Other January season premieres include "Girls," "Archer," "Justified," "Mythbusters" (which is kicking things off with a "Star Wars" special), "House of Lies," "Banshee," "Shameless," "Episodes," "Teen Wolf," "Pretty Little Liars," "White Collar," and "The Fosters," "The Americans," "Vikings," and "House of Cards" will be back in February.

On the network side, I'm still holding out hope for the Alphonso Cuaron-produced supernatural series "Believe," which is slotted for the mid-season, but had its premiere date pushed back after reports of production troubles. Also keeping an eye on FOX's "Rake" with Greg Kinnear" and the army-themed comedy, "Enlisted."
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Director Noah Baumbach's films tend to be hit or miss for me, and it's often the same with the films Greta Gerwig appears in or contributes to. When I heard that they were collaborating on a new project about the travails of a twenty-something New Yorker in post-grad hell, I was a little skeptical. Their last film together, "Greenberg," was a difficult one to sit through, though I enjoyed Gerwig's performance in it. And between Lena Dunham's "Girls" and Gerwig's previous features like "Lola Versus," wasn't this already pretty well-tread ground? Well, I'm happy to report that "Frances Ha" is one of the hits for both Baumbach and Gerwig, and one of the best films I've seen all year.

Gerwig plays the titular Frances, an optimistic, but naive young woman who is barely getting by. At the age of twenty-seven, five years after graduating from Vassar, she is an apprentice at a dance company that only offers sporadic work. She's a little socially obtuse, with a tendency to overshare and ramble on at length about her personal failings. Her biggest piece of stability is sharing a Brooklyn apartment with her close friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), so when Sophie moves out unexpectedly to live with her boyfriend, Frances is left adrift, forced to figure out how to navigate life on her own. The rest of the film sees her go from one unstable living situation to another, her financial situation always getting more dire, her identity in flux, and her estrangement from Sophie more and more pronounced.

There's something very appealing about Frances, despite the fact that she's immature, self-obsessed, exasperating, and at times shows an alarming lack of self-awareness. Even though she's not getting the financial support that some of her peers are, Frances is an unmistakable child of privilege, chasing fantasies of being an artist that grow more unrealistic by the day. At one point, during a disastrous date, she blurts out "I'm not a real person yet" along with her apology. I like that she's smart enough to know she has a lot of growing up to do, and the fact she's clearly trying very, very hard to make something of herself. She literally fall flat on her face, but gets up and keeps on going. Greta Gerwig's performance is refreshingly sincere and funny, where in other hands Frances might be too aggravating to take.

Aside from some of the cringeworthy situations that Frances gets herself into, this doesn't feel much like any of Noah Baumbach's recent work. There are clear similarities to his 1995 debut, "Kicking and Screaming," but from a very different perspective. And "Frances Ha" certainly doesn't look like one of his films, shot in crisp black and white on digital film, conjuring memories of Woody Allen romancing New York. I think the biggest difference is that the central relationship is neither a romantic or a familial one, but really the friendship between Frances and Sophie. It operates a little like a broken romance one, with Frances in the role of the dumped ex, who hasn't gotten over the split, but this is clearly a platonic female friendship. And those are still rare enough in film that such a candid portrayal of one is a treat.

The film is a series of loosely structured vignettes, following Frances on her often aimless wanderings through various parts of New York, punctuated by trips to see her family and impulse visits to out of state friends. It can be meandering as a result, but the writing is so keenly observed and Gerwig's performance is so good, I never lost interest. There are many other characters in the film, mostly other young adults like Frances, mostly casual acquaintances that drift in and out of her life without really connecting in any meaningful way. From Frances's point of view they all seem to be in far better circumstances, their lives more ordered and meaningful, but we get just enough of her interactions with minor characters like Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) to understand that they're not much more mature than she is.

I also appreciate that unlike "Girls" or much of the other media about twenty-something existential malaise, Frances's limbo is finite. Oh, she's not out of the woods at the end of the movie and there's the all too real possibility that she's get her feet knocked out from under her again soon enough, but there's the sense that she does change and she does grow up a little bit. It makes her adventures far more satisfying to watch. There's hope for her, so there's surely hope for Hannah Horvath and all the others still stuck between jobs or between apartments, waiting to become real people too. I hope Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig will collaborate again soon.

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I can't imagine television without "I Love Lucy." Even after all the other reruns of black and white shows disappeared from the airwaves, there was "Lucy," still playing in the same late morning slot on my local syndicated station the last time I was home sick. CBS will be airing a colorized version of the "I Love Lucy" Christmas special in a few weeks, but I can't wrap my head around the thought of the world's most famous redhead in color. So, this month's list is being dedicated to Lucy and one of TV's most fundamental sitcoms. As always, entries are unranked and presented in order of airdate.

The Diet - Lucy always wants to be part of bandstand leader Ricky's musical shows down at the club. Ricky always says no. However, in this episode Lucy gets awfully close to victory. Ricky makes a deal with her - if she can fit into a size twelve costume, and she can be part of the act. So Lucy crash diets and hits the steam room. The "Cuban Pete" number that they perform together at the finale is still one of my favorites.

The Ballet - Lucy again tries to be part of Ricky's new show, and learning that they're looking for a ballet dancer and burlesque comic, takes lessons for each. The ballet lesson portion of the show is a lot of fun, but the burlesque comedy routine is gold. "Slowly, I turned," existed long before "I Love Lucy," but was it ever deployed so well? The final act where balllet and burlesque clash is among the funniest moments in the show's run.

Lucy Does a TV Commercial - Still hoping to break into show business, Lucy tries a different approach. She wins the part of television pitch girl for a new health tonic called Vitameatavegamin. Of course, the main ingredient is alcohol. When it comes time to shoot the commercial, the tongue-twister name and awful taste cause Lucy to ruin take after take until the inevitable happens. As with the best "Lucy" gags, it's all in the execution.

Job Switching - Possibly the most famous "I Love Lucy" episode of all time. The men and the women clash about who has it harder, prompting Lucy and Ethel to try their hand at breadwinning while Ricky and Fred mind house. The men certainly contribute their share of the laughs with their domestic disasters, but nothing can top the immortal scene where Lucy and Ethel go to work wrapping chocolates at a candy factory.

Lucy Is Enceinte - You couldn't even say the word "pregnant" on television back in 1952, but the decision was made to work Lucille Ball's pregnancy into the show, so "I Love Lucy" broke all kinds of new ground with the Little Ricky storyline. However, the best part is how Lucy decides to break the news to Ricky, after trying and failing several times using more conventional tactics. It's easily my favorite Ricky Ricardo performance.

Lucy's Last Birthday - Lucy feels neglected after it seems that nobody remembered her birthday. Of course, Ricky and all her friends are planning a big surprise, but Lucy is so hurt that she joins up with a bunch of similar mopes called the Friends of the Friendless. The theme song gets lyrics as Ricky serenades his wife, and Lucy learns she's appreciated after all. Like most episodes, the story's simple but full of heart.

Mr. and Mrs. TV Show - Product placement isn't a recent phenomenon, but has been with television since nearly the beginning. In fact, shows created to shill products are satirized mercilessly in this episode, where the Ricardos are recruited to star in their own program, where the content is little more than advertisements for their department store sponsor. Of course, with Lucy being Lucy, that doesn't stay true for very long.

Lucy's Italian Movie - Much of the later seasons of "I Love Lucy" were taken up with trips out to Hollywood to meet famous stars and on the Ricardos' international travels. The most memorable of these was "Lucy's Italian Movie," the famous episode that puts Lucy in a wine makers' grape-stomping vat with a feisty Italian named Teresa during the Italian leg of their European tour. The grape fight always looked like so much fun.

The Ricardos Visit Cuba - We finally get to meet Ricky's family when the Ricardos travel to Cuba, and Lucy's very nervous about making a good impression on her in-laws. In typical Lucy fashion, she gets into some spectacular bungles, my favorite involving cross-dressing and cigar-rolling. In the end, it's Little Ricky who helps to mends fences, thanks to the most adorable musical number that the show ever produced.

Little Ricky's School Pageant - This is one of the show's silliest and most indulgent episodes, pretty much designed to get the cast into ridiculous fairy-tale costumes, but I can't resist. The Ricardos and the Mertzes take part in Little Ricky's school pageant, "The Enchanted Forest" which casts Ethel as a fairy, Fred as a frog, Ricky as a tree, and Lucy as a broomstick-riding witch.


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