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Something’s Always Wrong / Take Five: The Real Cheating of Slumdog Millionaire

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 10, 2009

Spoilers like the Oakland Raiders


So I finally got around to seeing the inevitable sleeper of the 2008 Oscars last night, and the movie was predictably wonderful. Even if the movie hadn’t been any good, I’d appreciate its existence for catapulting Danny Boyle–easily one of the most brilliant, exciting and versatile directors of the past two decades, and quite arguably the single most underrated–back into the limelight. But the movie was good, quite certainly–epic but charming, gritty but beautiful, the whole deal. But I still have a rather large bone to pick with the movie, and if you have even the most cursory knowledge of this blog, you should have a pretty good idea what it is.

The movie’s framing device–of main character Jamal going on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because he knows that his lost love will be watching, and ending up nearing the maximum winning amount due to all of the questions pertaining to important (and usually tragic) events in his life–is a clever one, for sure, and the movie is undoubtedly richer for it. However, as a game show junkie for the majority of my existence, and as a one-time GS alum myself, I can’t help but be irked at the large number of gigantic suspensions of diseblief the movie requires to buy into it. Admittedly Indian game shows may differ somewhat from their American counterparts, but there are some basic game show rules so universal that I don’t believe for a second that they could even be different halfway around the world. To wit:

  1. There’s no way that Jamal even gets on this show in the first place. Not because he’s a slumdog, or a chaiwala or whatever class denigration the movie gives him, but because the dude has no personality whatsoever. Which isn’t to say that you need to be Eddie Izzard to get on a game show, but the kid’s so moon-faced and emotionally intense that it’s unbelieably unlikely that he’d pass any sort of screening process. Think about it–when was the last time you watched Millionaire, and the contestant just gave expressionless, one-word responses to Regis/Meredith’s bantering, or straight-up, elboration-less answers? No, it’s all “Well, funny story, Reg,” or “Actually, Mer, I think I know this one ‘coz once when I was in third grade…” Plus, what kind of Fastest Finger could Jamal have possibly won? He doesn’t seem to know the answer to anything besides the Q’s he gets right on the show.
  2. In the film’s climax, Jamal’s lost love Latika realizes that he is calling the phone that his brother Salim gave her, because she hears him mention that Salim was his Phone-a-Friend on TV, and manages to get to the phone in time. All well and good, except for one thing–you can probably count the number of game shows in the world that are broadcast live on one hand, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? certainly isn’t one of them, here or in India. My friend who I saw the movie with knew someone who used her as a Phone-a-Friend during an appearance on Millionaire sometime over the summer, and she thinks the show might finally be airing sometime in the next few weeks. In reality, Jamal would probably have to wait at that fucking train station for close to half a year before he could even have hope of Latika coming through.
  3. Particularly insulting to my intelligence was the scene after the show’s host slips an intentionally wrong answer to Jamal out of distrust and jealousy of his oncoming celebrity status. After using the 50/50 to narrow the choices down to the correct answer and the wrong answer fed to him by the host, Jamal either realizes that the host is misdirecting him, doesn’t want to cheat, or realizes that he knows it anyway, and chooses the right answer. And the host, baffled at Jamal’s defiance, keeps needling him–“Are you sure you don’t want to pick [the other answer]?” He even sort of tries to make a case for why Jamal should pick the wrong answer. I’m sorry–there might be game show hosts out there that are that morally shady, but there are none that are so blatantly unprofessional.
  4. Speaking of game show hosts–why are they never presented in a positive light in movies? What kind of phobia are we displaying of these purveyors of good fortune and mirth when the most genteel of them presented on-screen are merely scumbags (Anil Kapoor here, Philip Baker Hall in Magnolia) and the worst are just straight up killers (Sam Rockwell in Confessoins of a Dangerous Mind, Richard Dawson in The Running Man)? I mean some of ’em are a little cheesy, sure, but at least a couple must be decent citizens, right? I think the profession needs a Wrestler-like focus picture to give it a certain dignity. Get Anthony Michael Hall his first Oscar nod, perhaps.
  5. And of course, the worst of all–this is supposed to be a show where even the greatest intellectual minds of India have yet to get to the final stage of the show, right? But when Jamal gets to the final question of the show, it’s just about naming one of the Three Musketeers? No offense, guys, but are the greatest intellectual minds of India the equivalent of vending machine stockers in the United States or something? I mean, the book might not be as popular in India, but Jamal and Salim were reading it in school, so clearly it’s not particularly obscure, either. (Though to be completely honest, I thought the answer was D’Artagnan. And that’s why you’ll never see me on a game show where there’s even a slight possibility I’ll get a question about something besides music, movies or TV).

Also, anyone else think Salim got kind of a bum rap in this movie? I was pulling for him most of the way.

Posted in Something's Always Wrong, Take Five | 5 Comments »

Something’s Always Wrong: Apologies, Paris Hilton

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 8, 2008

House of Wax: Still terrible

Tonight, as many of you may well know, begins the Jewish holiday known as Yom Kippur. As we all spend the day looking back on the year that was and atoning for the sins we have commited over the last 12 months, I figure that now is as good a time as any to make amends for one of the cheap shots this blog has taken over that time period–namely, at socialite/actress/rebel without a pause Paris Hilton. In an article I wrote last August about the five celebrity deaths that I believe would devestate the country, I included Ms. Hilton in the tally, because

she is the one celebrity for which just about anyone in America can feel like a more productive member of society by comparison. If you put stamps and return addresses on your mail today, and put the little mailbox flag up for the postman, you can already feel like you’ve done more than Miss Hilton will do all day. She’s also generous enough not to confuse people (well, most people) by making it seem like she’s trying particularly hard with any of her movies, TV cameos or albums, leaving America to feel as smug and superior as it likes upon the sight of the vacant-eyed starlet. Without her, who do we evaluate ourselves against?

Admittedly, Paris’s inclusion was a bit of a scramble on my part to round out an even five on the list. Nonetheless, it seems fairly unlikely that I ever could have predicted her involvement in anything like the two Paris for Fake President ads that have surfaced in the months since. In case you’ve missed them, the first one was created in response to a John McCain ad portraying Barack Obama as more of a celebrity in the vein of, say, Paris Hilton, than as a deserving presidential candidate. Ms. Hilton, whose family was a contributor to McCain’s campaign, took umbrage at the aspersion, and with help from director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), created an ad of her own. In it, she pretended to take McCain’s (“that wrinkly, white-haired guy”) use of her image in his ads as a personal endorsement for her own presidential campaign, using the opportunity to discuss her own platforms for the position.

The video received the predictable net buzz, a less-predictable amount of response from non-fake politicians (Nancy Pelosi on McCain’s involvement in the brouhaha: “Of course they want to talk about Paris Hilton. Would they want to talk about why they have the worst record of job creation in America?”), and now even a sequel video. Paris’s second campaign ad features President Bartlet himself, Martin Sheen, as an advisor to Paris in the art of fake presidency. Now I’m just sort of hoping that Paris doesn’t string a couple more of these together until she gets enough fake-buzz to launch an actual meta-presidential campaign–I registered as a democrat earlier this week, but if the Internet or Pop Culture parties actually put forth Ms. Hilton as an official candidate, it’d be hard not to be true to my roots.

In any event, I can’t help but be fairly impressed by the inroads Paris has made here towards making herself a useful member of our society. For one thing, these videos are actually pretty fucking funny–the first one especially, as it turns out that Paris actually has a pretty decent knack for political satire. It probably shouldn’t be too surprising, since Paris has spent so much of her time in the public eye seeming to perfect the art of expressing as little emotion as possible (unless boredom counts, I suppose), which tends to hurt her performances in dramatic fare such as The Hottie and the Nottie, but is without a doubt a boon when the key to your performance is your ability to keep a straight face. Still, I thought the temptation to mug for the camera, or the inability to convincingly speak long sentences of thought, would be too great for Paris. My mistake.

Perhaps even more impressive, though, is that Paris has actually managed to sneak a couple legitimate stances on relevant current events in there. In the first, she posits that a compromise between Obama and McCain’s positions on energy (the former wanting to develop new technologies and the latter wanting to drill off-shore) would be the most logical, and in the second, she theorizes that banks might be better served lowering inflated interest rates for economically hurt home owners. Well, “legitimate” might be a stretch–I’m certainly not qualified to probably grade the merits of her arguments, and she isn’t extremely forthcoming with the details of her plans anyway–but they sound surprisingly logical and even somewhat insightful for videos that should be all about yuks and frivolity. Plus, perhaps they’ll have the same galvanizing effect on the Hills-obsessed girls of today that Rage Against the Machine (was supposed to have) had on angsty teen dudes during the Clinton administration.

So, Paris, for my underestimation of your contributions to society, be they comedic or political, I ask for your forgiveness. I’ll dedicate an Al Chet to you tomorrow in services.

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Something’s Always Wrong: Re-Appreciating The Godfather Part III

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 29, 2007

“You people are all right. Godfather…I seen that movie 200 times. Godfather II was definitely the shit. The third one…a lot of people didn’t like it. But I think it was just…misunderstood.” -Massive Genius, The Sopranos

You’re not going to find too many people to disagree with the general statement that in the last few years, AMC has gone to shit. More than any other basic cable channel, with the possible exception of VH-1 and MTV, AMC has completely lost sight of what it was originally supposed to represent, adding in commercials, changing its playlist from golden-age classics to countless re-runing of US Marshalls, and essentially transforming from American Movie Classics to Another Movie Channel. It’s just a good thing the transition happened after I stopped watching Oscar-winners 24 hours a day, the heartbreak would’ve been unimaginable seven or eight years ago.

But there is one good thing about the new AMC: they’ll use any excuse they can come up with to have a Godfather marathon. Robert Duvall’s birthday? Time for a Godfather marathon. Sofia Coppola has a new movie coming out? Time for a Godfather marathon. 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veretans Day, or any other holiday where they can run a series of commercials using the “I believe in America” quote from I in a sardonic, semi-topical ad blitz? Time for a Godfather marathon. And most recently, a new TV show with loose connections to the idea of doing immoral business while wearing a flashy suit?

So, guess what I’ve been watching today. There aren’t many movies that simply don’t get unwatchable with repeated upon repeated viewings, but really, the Godfather trilogy is on an entirely different plane when it comes to that shit. With the constant re-running, I must watch each of the movies at least three or four times a year, and still, when one of them comes on (even w/ censoring and commercials), I know what I’m watching for the next three-four hours. My dream house would have a wall-wide TV that would just constantly be re-running these movies on a loop, and whenever I walked by it, I’d stop in for fifteen minutes or so, quoting along with the dialogue and whistling along to the score.

And as I’m sure you can notice by now, unlike most of the trilogy’s fans, I don’t make exceptions for The Godfather Part III. Doubtful you could find a single person in the world to argue it superior, or even equal, to the other two–like 99.9999% of movies, it’s imperfect, and it just so happens that the other two make up about half of the .00001% of movies that are. But I find it a more than worthy ending to the trilogy, and arguably the best Part III of any film trilogy I can think of (and yes, that includes Back to the Future Part III and Army of Darkness). But before defending this position, I will first get the movie’s gaping faults out of the way (FAIRLY MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS PROCEED HERE, SO STOP READING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE YET BECAUSE REGARDLESS OF WHAT ANYONE SAYS YOU REALLY REALLY SHOULD):

  1. Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen character is badly, badly missed, and the milquetoast lawyer dude they got to make up for it (B.J. Harrison, played by George Hamilton) is definitely no substitute.
  2. The major hit scene–in which the great majority of the Corleone family’s major players and important friends are wiped out by Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) by locking them in a hotel room meeting while a helicopter sprays the room with bullets–is wildly ridiculous and implausible, and is a travesty when compared to the innovatively nuanced direction with which Coppola handled the trilogy’s other hit scenes, including the subsequent one in which Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) takes Zasa out.
  3. Much of the immobiliare subplot, involving the corruption in the highest level of the catholic church, is underdeveloped and largely irrelevant. I get what Coppola was going for–even the most holiest of institutions does not offer the redemption Michael so desparately craves–but he bit off a bit more than he could chew on that one.
  4. I’m sorry, but no henchman in history has ever banked on stabbing a man with his own reading glasses as a reliable method of assassination. An unfortunately LOL-worthy moment in an otherwise brilliant montage.
  5. The final scene–in which a now-elderly, present-day Michael sitting on a bench merely keels over and dies–is possibly the worst final scene in any movie that could otherwise be considered great, or good, or even watchable. It’s pointless, gratuitous, and intelligence-insulting, and it’s a real fucking shame that it’s the scene that caps the greatest film series of all-time.

So now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the good stuff. First and most obviously, Andy Garcia more than deserved the Best Supporting Actor nomination he received for his role as Vincent, the illegitimate kid of I’s Sonny Corleone. He’s the next generation, pure and simple, and you can see how he’s the inevitable successor to Michael–more impulsive, less thoughtful, but capable of the action that Michael can no longer bring himself to make. My favorite Vincent scene, and one of my favorites in the whole movie, is after he finishes screwing the thrillseeking reporter played by Bridget Fonda, and two of Zasa’s thugs break in to wipe him out. He disarms one, kills him in front of the other and promises the other that he’ll live if he releases Fonda and tells Vincent what he knows, then shoots him in the head after getting the necessary information. “C’mon sweetheart, that’s gambling,” he tells a horrified Fonda. “You wanted gambling, that’s gambling.”

And like the first two movies, there are some great villains–not exactly of the James Bond variety, but probably more unsettling. There’s Don Altobello, played by Eli Wallach (yes, the guy who played Tuco in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, and let me tell you how that blew my mind when I found out), Michael’s kindly old mentor, always shown smiling, who is nonetheless orchestrating much of the plot against the Corleone family (old guys really don’t like being displaced in the Godfather trilogy). There’s Joe Mantegna–young, arrogant, amoral and Altobello’s very opposite, who nonetheless is similarly hungry for a taste of the Family’s action. And then there’s Mosca, the nearly mute but eerily proficient old-school assassin sent to take out Michael–watching the incredibly suspenseful final scene at the opera, a finale more than worthy of the climactic scenes of I & II, it’s the only time in the series you believe his life to be legitimately in danger.

You might have noticed that while listing the film’s faults, I did not mention the Sofia Coppola’s infamous last-minute replacement performance as Michael’s daughter Mary. That’s because while I think Coppola’s performance clearly shows her acting inexperience, and while I find her character more than a little grating, I don’t find her performance entirely inapporpriate for the role. Mary should’ve been annoying, and a little bit simpering, because that’s the way spoiled, inarticulate teenage girls generally are, and I didn’t find her character any less compelling for it. She’s a believable daughter to Michael, and that’s all the role really required.

But really, this is Pacino’s movie, through and through. His amount of classic lines is equal to the first two–“Our true enemy has not yet shown his face,” “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” and my personal favorite, his reaction to the news of Joey Zasa’s murder–“It…was not…WHAT I WANTED!!! And it’s just an all-around powerhouse performance–in every action he makes in GIII, in every word and every facial expression, you can see the effect of two decades of cruel business, familial alienation and horrible, horrible deeds. You know that try as he might to find redemption–in his kids, in his ex-wife, and in the church–the man is doomed. Another of my favorite scenes in the movie has Michael confessing his sins to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), including his murder of brother Fredo, breaking into tears for the first time in three movies. “Your sins are indeed terrible,” the Cardinal tells him. “It is just that you suffer.”

And then there’s Michael’s final silent scream, pictured above, when he sees that Mosca’s assassination attempt on him has left him wounded but alive, while fatally catching daughter Mary in the crossfire. Some said this shot was cheesy and excessive, but I think it’s one of the most powerful moments in the entire trilogy–considering Michael has now officially lost his one possibile shot at redemption, in addition to the only thing he really loves in the world, I’d say it was a fair enough reaction. What’s more, if a sign of a true tragic hero is that he needs to have knowledge of how his actions led to his downfall, then the death of Mary as an inevitable result of his decades of misdoings was necessary for such an epiphany.

More importantly, there needed to be a Godfather III. Brilliant as it was, II just didn’t feel like the end to a story, it felt like an epic middle act. But all great stories need a great ending, and even if it was a flawed one, I still believe Godfather fans should feel blessed to get one as inspired as Part III was.

Posted in Charts on Fire, Something's Always Wrong | 8 Comments »

Something’s Always Wrong: The Bravery – “Time Won’t Let Me Go”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 8, 2007

Ashamed of myself for having to Wiki who Cherry Valance was

I was actually having a discussion with a friend of mine a while ago about Bryan Adams’ widely accepted 80s rock classic “Summer of ’69,” a song I defended vehemently, but one that he had little love for. “Come on, haven’t you ever had a summer that made you feel like you were gonna live forever?” I (paraphrasedly) asked him. “Not really,” he answered. The thought–and its enormous relevance to the appreciation of “Summer of ’69“–had never even occured to me. Flash forward to about a year later, and the new single by The Bravery actually has the lyric “I never had a Summer of ’69” in it. Eerie.

Rock songs like this aren’t supposed to exist. Rock is all about remembering the good times, even when they weren’t actually that good–it’s about looking back with rose-tinted glasses, or at least about remembering how you used to or were supposed to look back with rose-tinted glasses. When Bruce Springsteen sang about how his high school friends couldn’t get past their “Glory Days,” at least they had glory days that they could look back on. It’s one of the fundamental principles of Rock & Roll–everything was always better when you were young, even if they weren’t.

To call “Time Won’t Let Me Go” an anti-nostalgia song would be missing the point somewhat. It’s a song made by people who grew up listening to songs like “Summer of ’69” and Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and watching movies like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused and wondering why they don’t remember their youths being that memorable. It’s a song influenced by a culture that puts such a huge emphasis on nostalgia as one of the essential emotions, that if you don’t have anything to really feel nostalgic about, you feel like you’re not even human.

It hits a little close to home for me. That’s not to say I have nothing to feel nostalgic about–I’d say I did have a Summer of ’04, or at least one that’s as close as I could’ve hoped for. But when I heard the song’s first line–“Whenever I look back / On the best days of my life / I think I saw them all on T.V.”–my jaw practically dropped. The further I get from High School, the less I can picture what it was actually like and the more images from American Pie and The O.C. start to fill in the gaps, and when I graduate college, who knows if I’ll remember bar nights with friends and watching Scrubs re-runs or if it’ll just be Road Trip and Undeclared (which I’m actually sort of scared to watch now). When your own experiences don’t compare with those whose lives you watch on a daily basis, defense mechanisms start kicking in left and right. It’s a disturbing and surprisingly honest thing to admit, especially in song.

And especially from The fucking Bravery. When we last left the boys, they were ripping off The Killers and creating elaborate Rube Goldberg devises for their one minor and entirely forgettable hit, “An Honest Mistake.” I wrote ’em off as a joke or worse at the time, and I was nigh on positive that history was going to prove me right. But here we are with a song that, if not exactly musically exceptional (though I kinda dig the bendy synth sounds on the hook), comes from a completely unique and surprisingly resonant perspective in pop music. And how many songs can you say that about these days?

Posted in Something's Always Wrong | 2 Comments »

Something’s Always Wrong: There is At Least One Good Episode of Friends

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 14, 2007

The Good Dr. understands that his opinions, while always correct, are not always correct, and he recognizes the need to rescind certain statements

I have been known to make a series of inflammatory anti-Friends remarks over the years, and I stand by most of them. Largely though, it’s a personality thing–Friends used to remind me of too many annoying people in my life, and just about no one I know whose opinion I respect watches it. But as the years go by, and I’m forced to spend time with less Friendsian people and I get a little bit older (or maybe a little lower in my TV standards), the show gets more bearable, to the point where I can almost enjoy watching it. Almost. There’s still the show’s unfortunate focus around the show’s two least interesting characters (and most grating actors), as well as the largely uninspired plotlines and lack of truly memorable quotes or episodes.

Except for one. I’ve probably only seen under a dozen Friends episodes in my life, but one of them I’ve seen multiple times–“The One With the Embryos,” which was on last night. and remains the only transcendent Friends moment I’ve ever witnessed. The main plot of this episode features Lisa Kudrow trying to get impregnated with her brother and his wife / ex-home ec teacher’s baby, played by Giovanni Ribisi and Kitty from That 70s Show. It’s a relatively boring main plot but does demonstrate one impressive thing about this show, which is how they manage to take the most wholly ridiculous, implausible plots and make them seem like normal occurences.

However, the main draw of this episode is what everyone else is doing that episode, a trivia contest that the Friends play about themselves, moderated by Ross and featuring Rachel and Monica facing off against Chandler and Joey to see which pair knows more about the others. I didn’t realize it until watching it the second time, but almost every Friends trivia question comes directly from this episode, and I was actually doing some WSOPC prep by taking some Friends quizzes online last night when this episode came on, officially marking the most meta episode I’ve ever been involved with.

Anyway, I’d call this the first good Friends episode I’ve ever seen, largley because it’s actually funny–Chandler and Joey knowing that Rachel lying about Dangerous Liasons being her favorite movie when it’s actually Weekend at Bernie’s, and Rachel and Monica being able to get everything about Chandler except the age at which he first touched a breast (19) and what he actually does for a living (not mentioned, but Rachel’s best guess is “transponster”). It does a great job of inadvertently celebrating the cult of Friends by demonstrating that hey, at least the cast share and appreciate the kind of obsessive knowledge that the fans have about their favorite characters (as well as celebrating the huge rush of a good trivia contest–the Friends characters are on the edge of their seat throughout the whole deal, and so probably is the audience).

More importantly, it accentuates the most appealing thing about these characters in general–that regardless of whether you like the characters or not, they really are one of the greatest and most believable group of friends in TV history. Superior show though it is, it’s impossible to imagine the cast of Seinfeld engaging in a contest like this–Jerry would constantly be making belittling comments to George, Elaine would be furious at having been teamed with Kramer, and George would’ve stormed off at his first wrong answer, screaming about the contest being rigged. The Friends cast can make it work because they seem so legitimately close, it seems totally reasonable that they’d know all this stuff about each other and be willing to stake significant ante on them knowing the most–Rachel and Monica eventually lose their apartment to Chandler and Joey, who kick them out unceremoniously and unapolagetically–fair is fair, and they deserve what they have coming to them.

It’s not enough to make me want to re-evaluate the show much more, but it does validate the show’s existence at least a little bit. Almost enough to make up for Joey.

Posted in Something's Always Wrong | 2 Comments »