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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 »

Take Five: Students That Coach Taylor Would Have to Deal With in Friday Night Lights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 5, 2009

“Every man at some point in his life is going to lose a battle. He is going to fight and he is going to lose.”


Friday Night Lights is the best show on television. Dexter rivalled it occasionally this season but now appears largely out of the running, and Mad Men is on pace to be a title contender by next season, but after finally catching up on season three over the weekend, I now consider this point to be basically inarguable. Most great teen dramas (and really, most non-HBO dramas of any stripe) start to decline rapidly in their third season–by then everyone’s gotten with everyone, plots start getting repetitive, and as is unavoidable in the genre, college becomes an unavoidable issue. But while the show may never be able to recapture the magic and freshness of that first season, if there’s a significant lag to be found in FNL’s third season, I’m not feeling it–the show still crackles with the urgency, humor, and emotional honesty that made it such a bright spot on NBC for its last two seasons. And what’s more, it’s even possible that the show could keep it up for four or five seasons to come, assuming two things:

  1. It can manage to keep itself on the air, even with the reduced expectations of DirecTV
  2. It can continue to develop new characters

Riggins, Lyla, Saracen, Landry, Tyra, Julie–all great, great characters. But aside from Julie (and possibly Landry, I dunno what his deal is), all of ’em are of to Uni next year, and if the show doesn’t want to become Saved By the Blitz: The College Years, it has to start the regenerating process. I’ve been fairly impressed with their ability to say goodbye this season, as two of the show’s previous core characters (Smash Williams and Jason Street, both of whom had since left Dillon High) were given four-episode arcs to wrap up their stories this season and sent on their way. That’s half of the equation, but even more important is their ability to bring on new talent to fill the voids their characters left. So far, all we’ve really been introduced to this season is J.D. McCoy–the adorable, all-american rich kid with a cannon of an arm and a mercenary of a father, tabbed by the Dillon Powers That Be as the school’s QB1 of the future (and possibly the present). His character started as a caricature, but quickly became as vivid as any of the show’s regulars, demonstrating the show’s continual ability to somehow make any walking cliche three-dimensional.

But still, even if JD is the show’s franchise star in waiting, the rebuilding process on Friday Night Lights has to run a lot deeper. The way this show would work best in the years to come were if the show’s producers treated the cast like the team’s starting lineup–giving most of the playing time to its seasoned vets, but still giving limited minutes to the up-and-comers, so they can take the reins when the oldsters move on to greener pastures. Similarly, we should be seeing characters in minor spots this season–perhaps like  that of JaMarcus Hall, the fullback whose parents disapproved of his being on the team until they saw him play this season–who will be given increasingly expanded roles as the seasons progress. Consequently, here are my suggestions of types of future Panthers the show would be wise to start developing now, so that they can emerge as the centerpieces of the main story lines two or three seasons down the road.

  • The Celebrity Kid RB: Let’s say the son of a universally beloved and admired football player–a Jr. Manning, Tomlinson, Strahan, what have you–comes to Dillon, wanting to play. The pressure on Coach Taylor to play him immediately–from the fans who want to witness flashes of his father, the boosters who want the national exposure the kid would bring, and maybe even the parents, who want their son to have everything that daddy did. But let’s say the kid really, really sucks–has some natural athleticism, perhaps, but no mind for even the most simple mechanics of the game,  and no heart to make up for it. Maybe the kid doesn’t even really want to be there–maybe he’d rather be in a band, or on the Mathletes–but his parents and friends won’t let him quit, and Coach can’t just bench him without pissing off the entire town. So the two have to figure out a way to work on his skills, play to his strengths, and somehow fit him into the team. Maybe he becomes the long snapper or something, angering fans and parents alitke, until he makes one key tackle on a punt return in an important game, and the whole town learns an important lesson on how every position is essential to the game.
  • The Gay LB: A show as good as FNL can’t avoid homosexuality in the locker room forever, even after they sort of copped out with Landry’s lesbian bandmate. It’s a chance for a very honest show to get a little uncomfortable in its realism. Say one of the team’s better linebackers is discovered outside a gay club by a bunch of his teammates driving by. Most of the team wants him booted, aside from a couple of the Landry/Matt-type players quietly voicing their opinions that it isn’t that big a deal, and Coach Taylor has no idea what to do, not wanting to part with one of his best defensive players, but faced with enormal pressure from inside and outside the team, and a little uncomfortable and outraged with the kid himself. Coach decides to ignore the issue, but the situation is quickly proven untenable, and he decides that has to get rid of the kid. He calls the kid into his office and fabricates some excuse as to why he has to be cut, which the kid quickly sees through, silently tearing up as he leaves the locker room. Coach ends up unable to shake the feeling that he did the wrong thing, but even Tammy agrees that he had no choice. He isn’t seen on the team again, but eventually becomes a good friend of Julie’s, making for a couple extremely awkward dinners at the Taylor household.
  • The Raging DT: Making things similarly uncomfortable, a kid joins the team with serious, destructive anger issues. It makes him one of the team’s defensive stars on the field, but he seems to get called for Personal Fouls a whole lot, and eventually a locker room scene where he ends up getting into a fight with one of his teammates shows the kid to have an inner rage that goes far beyond his desire to pancake offensive linemen. Coach Taylor tries to talk to him and mentor him a little, but that just angers him further, and maybe he even tries to take a swing at him at one point. Coach tries to get him booted from the team but is talked down by Tammy (who sees the kid as troubled and crying for help) and by Buddy (who sees the kid as the anchor of a weak defensive front four)  and persuaded to give him a second chance. Eventually, the kid turns out to have been abused and/or neglected by his parents, Coach gives him some speech about how he has the strength to become his own man, he gets involved with one of the new recurring female characters, and he mellows out a little.
  • The Lonesome PK: Isn’t it a little miraculous that on a show featuring a team that seems to have every game come down to a final drive, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a single field goal attempt? Maybe we just need a good kicker character–someone who reflects the culture of tragedy associated with the position, of course. Let’s say there’s a kicker on the team that’s always been sort of a loner, acknowledged but not really accepted by the team, who just floats along in the periphery of a bunch of episodes until there’s a big game that comes down to a final field goal (or even worse, an extra point) that the kid just shanks, resulting in him getting shunned by team and coach alike. Then a few days or weeks later, the kid tries to kill himself in the locker room bathroom, and suddenly, everyone on the team–especially Coach Taylor–is forced to confront the fact that they never took the kid even remotely seriously, and that they’re all at least partly responsible for giving him such shit for the one time all year he didn’t come through for them, despite the fact that he had been the model of quiet efficiency prior to that. In time the kid recovers, comes back to a standing ovation from the team, kicks a game winner, and gets a private lap dance at the Landing Strip that night, paid for by his teammates. Watching at home, Bill and Martin Grammatica embrace and sob wildly.
  • The Narcissistic WR: Coach has never really had to deal with a real instigator on the team–Smash had an ego but was basically a good kid, and “Voodoo” Tatum only stuck around with Dillon for a few weeks before leaving, but what if there was some receiver type that had a good sense of the game, was immeasurably talented, but always thought he knew better? He constantly disrupts the team chemistry, gives press conferences where he badmouths his teammates and staff for not playing the game right (i.e. getting him the ball) and takes practices off when he feels like it, but is far too brilliant on the field for anyone to question him as a starter. Coach Taylor tries to get him to fall in line but can’t get through to him, and eventually the other players start to complain that he’s hogging the spotlight too much. Coach tries to bench him, but the Panthers’ passing game goes stagnant, Dillon loses an important game, and the entire town starts calling for his job. Eventually, maybe the kid gets into some kind of trouble off the field–he pissess off the wrong people, or owes someone some money, or maybe has some secret he can’t go to his parents with. With no one else to turn to, he goes to Coach Taylor for assistance, who reluctantly agrees to help the kid. Touched, the kid humbles himself a little, and though he still can’t hide his egomania, he apologizes to a couple of his teammates, shows up for practices, and helps Dillon get back to state contention. After the title game, coach meets his father for the first time, played in a wink-wink cameo–of course–by Terrell Owens.

Posted in Take Five | 1 Comment »

Take Five: Pictures of Samantha Ronson Wearing a Stupid Hat and Flashing a Peace Sign

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 24, 2008

Does this look like a woman you’d flip your sexuality for?

Posted in Take Five | 14 Comments »

Take Five: Celebs Only Remembered By Their Simpsons References

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 18, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins: Still technically too relevant to qualify

Long before Family Guy was noting their own obscure Karen Black references, The Simpsons was rejuvenating the careers of ancient celebs left and right with their tossed-off allusions. Given that The Simpsons is one of the few shows–maybe the only show–that just about anyone (any white males, certainly) currently between the ages of 20 and 35 can be expected to be able to quote just about every line from every episode, a mention in the show gives you a certain newfound cultural capital not experienced anywhere else outside of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Consequently, there are many pop culture figures of yesteryear remembered by a new generation not for their myriads of artistic accomplishments, but because they were mentioned once in a cartoon. So let’s take a look at what five of these lost souls were actually once famous for:

Rory Calhoun

A Hollywood Walk-of-Fame recipient for his decades of roles in Westerns and Musicals, as well as a notable story for his rags-to-riches rise (he was a juvenile thief, spending three years in prison before meeting Alan “Shane” Ladd and being introduced to film). He starred with Shirley Temple, dated Lana Turner, and was sold out by his agent to the press to help protect the career-wrecking secret of fellow client Rock Hudson. Yet for those of us not around for the 40s and 50s, we can only assume that Calhoun was famous solely for his standing and walking, a perception held by Mr. Burns and understood at least by Smithers in the episode Two Dozen and One Greyhounds. From what I can tell, Calhoun was not especially known as a celebrity who is “always standing up and walking,” but I guess he wasn’t particularly famous for sitting down, either, so who knows.

Joey Heatherton

Back in the 60s, Joey Heatherton appears to have been a legitimate star of sorts, hanging with both the Rat Pack and Bob Hope, starring in countless potboiler dramas and nearly getting cast as the title character in Lolita, and even earning a rep with Northern Soul collectors for her limited musical releases. Nonetheless, the only times I’ve ever heard of her are the triple whammy of references she gets on The Simpsons–losing out to an ironed shirt as Moe’s ultimate fantasy, being begged to put some pants on by a square Sgt. Skinner, and being compared to a recently buffed-out Marge by a dismayed Homer. To current hotties like Jessica Biel and Megan Fox, there’s a lesson to be learned here–if you don’t make at least one half-decent movie worth remembering, the only people who’ll remember you past your prime are nerdy, middle-aged cartoon writers.

Gabby Hayes

“That Milhouse is going to be big! Gabby Hayes big!” This one actually makes a little bit of sense, since as the Fallout Boy to Rainier Wolfcastle’s Radioactive Man, Milhouse was placing himself in the sidekick paradigm that Mr. hayes apparently owned for he first half of the 20th century. He was cast as John Wayne’s sidekick in 20 different movies, was Hopalong Cassidy’s second banana for five years, and did dozens of movies with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Perhaps even more strikingly, he has a Memorial Fishing Tournament named after and/or dedicated to him every year in Philadelphia. But when “Radioactive Man” appears in reruns from now until forever, that line is going to continue to inspire a whole lot of confused looks.

Bill “Ray J. Johnson” Saluga

Of all the outdated references on the show, this is probably the one I’m most glad I never really got–it sounds like Ray J. Johnson (alternate identity of Cosby regular Bill Saluga) really was just famous based on this one lousy, annoying “You can call me…” routine. Still, it apparently stuck in the craws of Simpsons writers enough for him to also join the exclusive Simpsons triple-reference club, with Krusty complaining about having him for a guest, Homer explaining his schtick to an unimpressed Lisa, and with Saluga himself appearing as a washed-up performer in Branson. Nonetheless, this time at least the Simpsons aren’t alone in this department–a singer/songwriter you might’ve heard of named Bob Dylan included a reference to RJJ in “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the only well-remembered song from Zimmy’s ill-fated gospel period.

Eudora Welty

An esteemed photographer for the Works Progress Administration, an acclaimed short story writer, and of course, a Nobel Prize winner for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, I can’t help but wonder what Eudora Welty thought of the fact that in the last few years of her life, most people probably knew her just for her legendary belching abilities. At the ripe age of 86 when “A Star is Burns” first aired, Welty probably had at least six years to enjoy people coming up to her on the street and asking her to confirm Jay Sherman’s proclomations about her burping superiority. She doesn’t really look like a person who’d have a sense of humor about these things–in fact, maybe it’s a long-belated revenge from one of the Simpsons writers for having to read one of her books in American Lit II or something. Or maybe “Why I Live at the P.O.” just has some gas-passing subplot that’s not mentioned on her Wiki page.

Posted in Take Five, Underrated Simpsons Moment | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Take Five: Pop Culture Celeb Deaths That Would Bring Our Country To Its Knees

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 6, 2008

Woo-oo-oo now baby please don’t go

Ever since the invention of Facebook group The Celebrity Death Pun & Conundrum Society, celebrity death has always been a great cause for joy amongst my college friends. Some wait by the internet all day, constantly refreshing newswire sites, in order to get the drop on the rest by making bad jokes about the noteworthy recently deceased. A positive fury was caused by the passing of Estelle Getty a few weeks ago, for being the first of the four Golden Girls to die–a tontine that, by all rights, seemed like it should’ve started slimming down years ago. Even the death of someone like Heath Ledger, as shocking and tragic a celebrity death as we’ve had in recent years, still attracted a number of groan-worthy responses (“Croakback Mountain,” “Why So Dead Serious?”).

Still, when I first heard about Morgan Freeman’s recent car accident–leaving him in serious, if not critical, condition–I had to wonder if anyone would be able to make light of the situation had Freeman not survived. For Freeman belongs to a class of celebrity that the public simply needs–not necessarily because they love them and enjoy their work so much, but because they just need to know that they’re out there to feel safe at night. Freeman has, over the course of the last ten years or so, become our nation’s surrogate grandfather, teaching us about religion (Bruce Almighty), guiding us through disaster (Deep Impact), keeping our deepest, darkest secrets (Batman Begins) and telling us plenty of nighttime stories (March of the Penguins). To have lost him at this point would have been like a national death in the family.

So I started to think–what other celebrity deaths would our nation simply be unable to weather? Here’s what I came up with:

  • Dick Clark. We’ve already had a close call or two here, especially with the stroke that Dick suffered in 2005, threatening to prevent Clark from hosting New Year’s Rockin’ Eve for the first time since he started in 1972. Sure enough, the evergreen Clark rebounded enough to at least appear on the special, once again leaving back-up host Ryan Seacrest–promised the host spot once Clark is finished–relegated to being the Aaron Rodgers of New Years’ telecasting. I’m not sure if any replacement would do, however, since Clark has become so firmly intertwined with the prospect of turning over a new calendar to this nation that without the sight of him on Dec. 31st, we might not be capable of moving into the new year at all.
  • Paris Hilton. This might have been truer a couple years ago–especially for the paparazzi / tabloid industry, which would’ve been a ghost town without her–but I still believe that the existence of Paris Hilton is about as important to this country’s mental health as anyone. Basically, 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 upong the sight of the vacant-eyed starlet. Without her, who do we evaluate ourselves against? Even Tara Reid had The Big Lebowski to justify her existence.
  • Keith Richards. OK, so most people reading this blog have probably, at some point in their life, faced up to the fact that we’re all going to die some day. But admit it, there’s a part of you–small, maybe, but it’s definitely there–that secretly suspects that this is all just a myth. True for most, perhaps, but not for a select few, possibly including yourself. And you know why it is that you hold on to this sliver of hope for immortality? That’s right–Keith Richards. The man seems like he should’ve died at at least seven or eight different points in his career–especially considering how many of his peers, including fellow Stone Brian Jones, did end up checking out on schedule. But Richards continues to truck on, falling out of trees, snorting the ashes of his relatives (maybe), and living to tell about it. It’s hard not to think that if he were ever going to die, he certainly would have by now. His death would confirm all our worst fears about man in fact being decidedly mortal, and collectively send the nation straight under their covers and crying for their mommies.
  • Dennis Haysbert. As with Hilton, this might’ve been truer a few years ago, when Haysbert was still playing the national voice of reason as President David Palmer on 24. But the man still commands authority like no other, especially as exemplified by his seirous of All-State ads that make the Above the Influence and dudes seem like a bunch of pussies. If Morgan Freeman is the nation’s surrogate grandpappy, then Haysbert is the nation’s surrogate elementary school principal–stern, strict, and a little bit intimidating, but fair, idealistic, and positively necessary for preventing the entire system from breaking into anarchy.
  • Josh Hamilton. I’m sure that the MLB’s golden boy, the veritable phoenix rising from the ashes, had enough pressures of expectaiton in his life before this year’s Home Run derby. But then the ex-junkie turned revitalized baseball superstar hit 28 home runs in the first round of the competition, prompting sportscaster/writer/asshole Rick Reilly to comment, “It’s a bad night to be an atheist.” It seemed like a relatively innocuous (if somewhat boneheaded) comment at first, but then the implications of it became clear–Josh Hamilton’s success must continue for God to exist. If the man should suddenly die in a car crash, get struck by lightning, or far worse, suffer a drug relapse and OD, ESPN losing its most uplifting story of the year would be the least of it–the athiests would have finally won. And Rick Reilly would almost certainly be out of a job.

Posted in Take Five | 4 Comments »

Take Five: Underappreciated Aspects of “Hey Jude”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 8, 2008

Take a boring children’s song and make it better

Unlike most of my favorite bands, I have no strong, obvious candidate as a choice for my favorite Beatles song. This is, I imagine, true for many, however, I’m generally the sort of person that rolls my eyes so hard I give myself migraines when people say “Oh, I couldn’t choose just one” about pretty much anything. But I’m definitely a hypocrite for this one, because when discussing the best Beatles song, I never know quite where to turn. The visceral chug of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? The loopy psychedelia of “Tomorrow Never Knows”? The rock-operatic ambitions of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? The tearjerking, gutteral emotion of “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)“? There are probably at least a dozen Beatles songs I’ve referred to as my favorite at one point in my life, and considering the Beatles’ songbook is at least twice as wide as 95% of my other favorite artists, I’d say it’s safe to predict I’ll have another dozen to call best before I’m through.

One song that has absolutely never been my favorite, however, and in all likelihood never will be, is “Hey Jude.” Groundbreaking upon its 1967 release for its seven-minute length, the majority of which is just a one-line chant, the song has gone on to be arguably the band’s most famous and well-loved song, thus automatically qualifying it for the shortlist of the most famous and well-loved songs of the rock era. And though I’ve always begrudgingly acknowledged its deserved status as one of rock’s great anthems, the song has been a reflexive channel-flipper for me for quite some time–it’s amazing how anthemic can transform to unbearably dull after the first 200 listens to a song. Plus, the single’s b-side (“Revolution”)  was way more exciting, and sonically, the song never really grabbed me the way some of the headier stuff they were doing around this time (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” even the super-underrated “Blue Jay Way“) did.

All that said, I heard the song yesterday (on a “Magical Mystery Tour” of Liverpool, appropriately), and it was one of those all-too-rare moments in music listening where you hear a song that you’ve heard countless times before, but it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. The song begins to feel strangely context-less, as you shed all of the associations and memories you have tied to the song, and you’re able to notice nooks and crannies that you never had before. And while I still don’t consider “Jude” among my Fab Four favs, and I’ll probably still change the channel next time it’s on the radio, I do have a certain newfound appreciation for its subtleties:

  • The First Few Seconds. Something to be said for a song that announces its arrival instantly, and there’s probably not a serious music listener in the world that couldn’t identify “Hey Jude” within about two milliseconds (even if it wasn’t the title that McCartney was singing, nautrally). Macca’s voice is one of the most recognizable, comfortable and reassuring in rock, and though I generally prefer songs that don’t waste their title so early in the lyrics, I’m aware that playing games isn’t  something a song as universal as “Hey Jude” has on its agenda, and rightly so. Even before the song’s thundering piano riff–the real hook to the song’s first verse–kicks in, it’s already a lighter-waver.
  • Ringo’s Drum Fills. Ringo doesn’t get a whole lot of opportunities to really shine over the course of the Beatles’ catalogue, but outside of Abbey Road‘s “The End,” his best chance to really get loose is probably in “Hey Jude.” His numerous fills here are the glue that ties the song’s verses and choruses together, ensuring the listener that, despite the numerous times when “Jude” sounds like it might be winding to an early close, it actually isn’t anywhere near to losing steam. I kind of wish he had gotten as wild as Paul does in the outro too–wouldn’t it be awesome to hear the Stark One unleashing his inner Gene Krupa under Paul’s senseless caterwauling?
  • TAMBOURINE. OK, it might not have the ironist cachet that the cowbell does, and that’s fair enough, but you still really can’t undervalue the power of a good tambourine part. The key to the pre-“na” section of “Jude” is the way the song keeps steadily building without being too obvious about it, so that by the time it explodes into full-on pub chant, you’re primed, but still unexpecting. By adding a few sparse on-beat tambourine hits in the second half of the song’s first verse, and then evolving it into a proper regular shake in the second, the song is able to achieve that under-the-radar upping of the ante. One person who took this lesson perhaps too much to heart would be John Lennon, whose own “Give Peace a Chance” surely must rank on any list of the All-Time Top Over-Uses of Tambourine in Rock.
  • Third-Verse Harmonies. By the time of the song’s third verse, you know something’s up. The song’s stopped and started a handful of times, it’s started to repeat verses, and now both John and Paul are singing on the verse. I don’t know how rare this is exactly, but I feel like around this time,  the two weren’t singing nearly as much together as they had in the early days–possibly because the individual Beatles’ ideologies had started to diverge so much that no two could agree on a song being good enough for both to lend their voices to it. Once they lock horns vocally in “Jude,” though, the song’s epicness practically becomes an inevitability. Unless, of course, it’s actually just a double-tracked Paul singing with himself, in which case forget I said anything. (By the way, did anyone know that John says “fucking hell” at 2:58 in the song? Never would’ve noticed, but it’s there, sure enough. Thanks, Wikipedia!)
  • Horns in the Outro. Once you’ve reached the fourth or fifth section of “Na”s in the “Jude” outro (I tried to count how many there were total in the song’s full edit, but I lost count–think it was around 15 or 16), there are no real surprises to be had. All you really have keeping your interest is wondering what madman exhortations Macca’s going to pull out of his bag of tricks, and listening to the increasing majesty of those blaring horns. After all, it’s not a true epic until you get the orchestra involved, and though it sounds like all the strings were in the studio over working on “I Am the Walrus” or something, you’ve still got the horns to signify the importance of the “Jude” outro–blessedly low-key enough not to overpower the song, but just enough to add that touch of class guaranteed to send the song into classic territory.

Maybe up next, why it turns out that “Like a Rolling Stone” is actually worth listening to past the organ intro?

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Take Five: 100 Years, 100 Less Mind-Numbing Lists

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 19, 2008

Sing the sorrow

So AFI had their yearly 100 Years, 100 _____s presentations on TV last night, for those of us too depressed by the NBA finals to watch the whole thing. Except this year, it wasn’t 100 ___s, it was 10 different sets of 10 ____s–in one breath, Animation, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Sports, Western, Gangster, Mystery, Romantic Comedy, Courtroom Drama and Epic. Among these lists, there were a couple choices that haven’t appeared on AFI lists too much (The Usual Suspects, Harold and Maude, the original Scarface), a couple surprising orderings (City Lights as the #1 Romantic Comedy of all time? Kramer Vs. Kramer considerable as a courtroom drama, let alone the third best ever?), and a whole, whole lotta nothin’. Pretty much what you’ve come to expect from these AFI shows.

When the first AFI list came out over a decade ago, I don’t know if there had been a previously published list of any sort of authority of the 100 Best American Movies ever made, but it was certainly the first that ever showed up on my radar. When I first seriously got into movies back in the 7th grade, I made all sorts of checklists of flicks to see, but the only one I ever actually checked off all the way through was that first AFI Top 100–even though it meant sitting through Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dances With Wolves, and nearly all of Birth of a Nation, among others. Even then I probably knew the list was mostly playing it safe, relying too much on crowd-pleasers and giving the short shift to just about any movie from the lasat two decades of the century. But when I catalogue in my head the most acclaimed movies of all-time, that’s still the list I most commonly refer back to.

But of course, AFI couldn’t leave well enough alone, so they started doing other lists. 100 Years, 100 Stars (Best Actors/Actresses), 100 Years, 100 Laughs (Best Comedies) and 100 Years, 100 Thrills (Most Suspenseful Movies) all followed, and were still considerably fun to watch–I even remember giving my family hell making sure we taped the Laughs one and all watched it together, my top priority even though I think I graduated middle school that week or something. But then they started to really get unexciting–100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains (Top 50 of each), 100 Years, 100 Songs (“Fight the Power” was the only one I cared about) and most lamely, 100 Years, 100 Cheers (The most inspiring movies). The lists started to overlap more and more with one another, like they were only drawing from a pool of 500 movies or so to begin with (which, in reality, isn’t even too far off).

This new batch, unsurprisingly, is the worst yet. At least with 100 of something, you get a little depth, and there’s always a small chance of getting something legitimately unexpected. But the top ten Mysteries of all-time? You’re probably not going to get Out of the Past and Sneakers, you’re just going to get The Maltese Falcon and a whole bunch of Hitchcock. We’ve seen all these movies before, and what’s more, we’ve heard about all of ’em at least once (and probably two or three times) on these shows already. So let’s start thinking outside the box a little, get some new blood in there, huh? Here’s some ideas:

  1. 100 Years, 100 Underappreciations. The AFI guys’ll probably think of a better title, but these seems pretty obvious to me–just have another Top 100 vote on a group of 500 movies, none of which were eligible for the original or new AFI Top 100 Movies lists. You probably won’t get anything particularly revelatory, but you’ll automatically get a relatively new pool of movies, and maybe unearth a couple relatively forgotten gems in the process.
  2. 100 Years, 100 Indies. Don’t have to be too stringent on the terms here–everything from Russ Meyer to Quentin Tarantino can count. But the AFI is notoriously unfriendly to the small movie, generally prefering big emotion and big Oscar wins instead. There’s only so many of these I can watch before the across-the-board absence of Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson becomes too egregious to tolerate.
  3. 100 Years, 100 Explosions: OK, they already had the thriller one, so maybe an action movie one would be a little redundant. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, though, given the obvious dirth of Sly, Arnie, Bruce, Charlie, Jackie, Steven, Jason and Jean-Claude on all of these lists to date. Knowing the AFI, they’d find a way to stuff it with lame “classic” Westerns, claim that JFK counts as an action movie, and stick Chinatown in the top five. Still, how else are you gonna get The Fast and the Furious on an AFI list?
  4. 100 Years, 100 Flops: I guess I don’t know if the AFI is allowed to acknowledge the fact that sub-par movies exist, but if they’re feeling cynical one of these years, it’d be extremely refreshing to see Leonard Maltin and Steven Spielberg on these things talking about just how much Hudson Hawk and Leonard Part VI fucking blew. It’d be a little hard to come up with a list of nominations, I suppose–especially if you tried to make sure at least half the movies didn’t have Eddie Murphy in them– but there’s enough consensus shit out there to make it happen. Plus, would it kill these guys to show a little sense of humor every now and then?
  5. 100 Years, 100 Imports. All right, so I know what you’re going to say: “This is the American Film Institute, you fuckin’ commie.” Right you are, comrade, but I don’t think it’d be such a bad idea to take one out of every dozen years or so to acknowledge that there are in fact movies made in other parts of the world. Plus, would you be able to resist watching Jessica Alba talk about how much the work of Abbas Kiarostami has meant to her, or how much Penny Marshall borrowed from the work of Leni Riefenstahl for A League of Their Own?

Got other, superior, better-named ideas? Lemme hear ’em.

Posted in Take Five | 3 Comments »

Take Five: Wyclef Jean Loving Them Old White Guys

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 8, 2008

Lauryn Hill: Less equivocal in her affections

I’m not sure why exactly, but sometime around the recording of his 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, Wyclef Jean decided that he was going to be hip-hop’s patron saint of old white dudes. I can probably count the number of Wyclef songs I know that don’t feature, quote or in some way give props to caucasian fogies on one hand. Of course at the time this was probably considered a career booster for these guys–lest we forget, it was not all that long ago that Wyclef Jean was considered a serious and relevant recording artist–and as his career has regressed, it’s possible that the whities are giving Mr. Jean a bigger lift than he is them. In any event, the culture clash is never less than fascinating, and here are five of the better/funnier/less seamless examples.

  • We Trying to Stay Alive” (Bee Gees). For Wyclef’s very first solo hit, he opted to update The Bee-Boys’ 1977 classic “Staying Alive” for the post-Fugee era. He even got his Saturday Night Fever on in the video, though the turn it takes into “Beat It” territory half-way through I never quite understood. Song has actually held up pretty well, and set a worthwhile precedent later to be followed by Snoop Dogg (“Ups and Downs” samples the Gees’ “Love You Inside Out”) and DJ Khaled (“Brown Paper Bag” works the string break from “If I Can’t Have You”–technically Yvonne Elliman, but close enough)
  • Gone Till November” (Bob Dylan). Ordinarily, a simple lyrical reference to an old white guy (“So I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door, like I’m Bob Dylan”) wouldn’t be enough to be included on this list, but somehow Wyclef convinced Dylan to make an appearance in the song’s video as well, pictured above. The truly amazing thing is that Dylan’s cameo is literally just the duration of that line–most of the time, you figure if you’ve got one of rock music’s all-time legends for your video, you might want to get a little more mileage out of it than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-on. I guess Dylan had some time on his hands after winning all those Time Out of Mind Grammys, and it would probably take a couple more years for his PR people realize what a joke Wyclef was. (For some reason, I can’t find the video version of this on mp3–surely it must be out there somewhere?)
  • “To All the Girls” (Willie Nelson). The completely forgotten final single from The Carnival–I didn’t remember a thing about it aside from the title–is a very half-hearted spin off of Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson’s 1983 duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” with that rascally Wyclef hipping it up by making it “to all the girls I’ve cheated on” instead. You could argue it’s more of an Iglesias tribute–it’s his voice that Wyclef mimmicks early in the song, after all–but it’s Willie who gets the shoutout by name, and no doubt Willie for whom Wyclef has the deeper appreciation. By the way, the original was one of those songs I’d always heard about but never actually heard, and after listening, I know why–kinda sucks, doesn’t it?
  • Kenny Rogers – Pharoahe Monch Dub” (Rogers, Obv.) Wyclef had actually already done a mini “Gambler” tribute when he sang a few bars of it in The Fugees’ excellent “Cowboys,” but I suppose it was only a matter of time before he went the distance with a full-song revision. He even gets The Gambler himself to sing the chorus, changing the gambling metaphor to be something nonsensical about turntables or some such. Also co-opting parts of Monch’s “Simon Says,” the song is really a  pretty big mess–maybe Wyclef should have just left the Rogers quotes to brother-in-arms Pras, whose sole hit “Ghetto Superstar” ripped the chorus to Kenny and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” and far more successfully.
  • Fast Car” (Paul Simon). The most recent example, and the one that inspired this thread. It’s great to hear Simon’s voice on a pop song again–no one else sounds quite like him, for better or worse–and the song itself is actually far less embarrassing than you’d expect from Wyclef in 2008. Still, you gotta wonder how these collabs even get started, exactly–do Simon and Wyclef have mutual friends? Did they meet at a Gordon Lightfoot concert? Do they belong to the same country club? Meanwhile, what about all the old black guys out there that could use a leg up from Wyclef–what are they, chopped liver? How long do you think Al Green waited for Wyclef to call before he settled for ?uestlove to engineer his comeback? Joe Tex? El DeBarge? C’mon, ‘Clef–diversify a little.

Posted in Take Five | 4 Comments »

Take Five: Brit Lit I in Pop Culture

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 12, 2008

Had we but channels enough, and time

So, the day is finally upon us–that of my all-time last final as an undergraduate. I stressed out about it enough that I had to call in sick to my internship this morning, but ultimately I gave it the same ol’ Unterberger college try–good enough to pass, at least. So before I file all the info I spent the last 24 hours forcing into my brain against its will into the deepest recesses of my subconscious, as is standard practice once I put a class to bed for good, I thought I’d give what in all likelihood will be the last class I ever take at NYU a little tribute, IITS-style.

Now, as any decent dilligent pop culture scribe leading a double life as an English major (/ Journalism major) would, I survived the deadliest of my English classes through relating to what few links there were to be had to modern day PC. And British Literature I, while not quite as mind-numbing as American Lit I, was still pretty fucking dry. Nonetheless, a handful of quality touchstones emerged, enough to give me the necessary chuckle to keep me stuffing poems, tragedies and essays into my head for the next two hours.

  • John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate. Skimming through parts of Paradise Lost, I came across the line “Better to reign in hell / than to serve in heaven.” Instantly I was transported to the climactic scene between Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, the all-time apex of Shouty Al Pacino and one of the quintessential basic cable O-Watchers, where His Woahness quotes the line. Then it occured to me–hey, isn’t the name of SAP’s character in that movie John Milton? Taylor Hackford, you sly dog.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Not exactly the poppiest of PC, but I couldn’t read through Sir Raleigh’s first-person account of “The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guiana” without thinking of the only watchable scene in Elizabeth: The Golden Age–where Clive Owen, hamming it up as the legendary explorer, presents his recent imports to Elizabeth. “POTATO! You eat it…very nourishing! TOBACCO! You smoke it….very STIMULATING!” Although, according to my book, Raleigh was “known for his violent temper, his dramatic sense of life, his extravagant dress…” so perhaps Owen wasn’t so far off.
  • “Was This the Face That Launched a Thousand Ships..?” in Shakespeare in Love. When Joseph Fiennes (who, by the way,  is almost interchangable with Clive Owen when both are in 16th century English garb) as William Shakespeare hears dozens of auditioners try out for Romeo & Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter with this Marlowe monologue. Watching the movie I always figured it was from some lousy, badly dated comedy that was entirely devoted to Helen of Troy, much to my surprise, it’s actually some near-throwaway speech from the second to last scene in Dr. Faustus. I guess that makes this monologue the 17th century equivalent to “Seasons of Love” from RENT, then.
  • “No Man is an Island” in About a Boy. I can’t believe anyone read through enough of John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” to get to the unremarkable section of Meditation 4, in which Donne’s famous quote appears. It was worth it, however, if for no other reason than the opening scene in About a Boy where Hugh Grant’s character watches a question about the speaker of the quote appear on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (His guess: The joke “D” answer, Jon Bon Jovi). Of course, the quote goes on to be one of the central themes of the movie, as Grant initially believes the quote to be untrue but through the power of paternal affection turns out to need people after all. Hey, the song is “It’s My Life,” not “It’s Me and This Weirdo Kid’s Life,” right?
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in My So-Called Life. Also known as “the one that starts My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” the one all about how Shakespeare’s love isn’t particularly beautiful, nice-sounding or sweet-smelling, but he digs her anyway, much like Dave Clark Five’s backwardly complimentary “You Got What it Takes.” The awkward, gay English teacher is leading a discussion on this in the show when both Brian Krakow and Jordan Catelano both immediately understand the poem, relating it to their respective infatuations with Angela. Now c’mon–sure, she looked a lot better in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (ironically enough), but Claire Danes was never really that much of a dog, was she? Plus, she looks like she smells just fine.

Posted in Take Five | 3 Comments »

Take Five / Commercial Break: That Song From That Commercial

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 8, 2008

Come on come on come on come on come on come on check it out

If there’s one musical quest I find more satisfying than scavenging for the original versions of songs that get sampled by more prominent hip-hop and dance tunes, it’s finding the full-length versions of songs I hear snippets of approximately 45 times a day in TV commercials. A good use of a song in a commercial should imbue the song deeply into your subconscious to the point where you know the words better than some of your favorite songs, but don’t ever think of it unless the commercial is on or has been on in the last 15 minutes (at which point, of course, you reflexively sing along). Chevy did its best to try to permanently spoil the practice with its “Our Country” series, and tried to play their own game, leaving me scrambling for the mute button every time, but a handful of expertly-soundtracked ads keep the torch burning.

  • Benjamin Pacheco – “Falling AwayThe rare commercial song that actually sounds better in its full-length form–sweet drum production, some minorly soulful vocals, all-around class act– “Falling Away” nonetheless will forever conjure the images of ballers jumping into a basketball court pool, which somehow describes the exact sensation of drinking a cold Sprite on a hot day. Speaking of which, how can you get away with a commercial like that without some kind of special Don’t Dry This At Home warning? When the first ten-year-old breaks his legs dropping from a basketball net expecting the concrete beneath him to provide a perfect cannon-ball landing, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Chris Knox – “It’s Love Honestly, I didn’t even remember what this one was a commercial for (beer, apparently, non-Red Stripe). It’s all about that song, written by New Zealand royalty Chris Knox (“Not Given Lightly,” apparently once voted as the 13th best New Zealand-written song of all-time, is also pretty quality), a lithe little love song that makes for the most endearing commercial since that Levi’s one that used Madness’s “It Must Be Love” a little while back.
  • Greenskeepers – “Vagabond This one’s actually pretty exciting. Dunno who these guys are (from Chicago, apparently), but it sounds like a DFA’d-out TV on the Radio song, which is a pretty good thing to aspire to. And it fits the ad–the most prominent commercial for Grand Theft Auto IV, which I guess is the best video game of all-time or something–pretty perfectly. Nothing will ever match the beauty of those Vice City ads with “Easy Lover,” though–can’t believe how long it took me to realize what a classic song that was.
  • Amos Lee – “Sweet Pea This one’s a little bit old, but it’s deifnitely a guaranteed entry into the Commercial Gold playlist. Short, sweet, probably annoying in a context-free environment–about as ideal as it gets. And it’s a terrible ad, too–cell phone commercials don’t have the best strike record, don’t you know–but goddamn is that song purty. Dude’s from Philly, too, apparently.
  • Apples in Stereo – “The Sun Is Out Best known as being part of the Elephant 6 collective and doing a song for the Powerpuff Girls sountrack (likely the only band that can boast those dual-resume stats), I couldn’t believe that Apples in Stereo was the act behind this one–it sounded like one of those sultry-er T. Rex songs from their Slider era, with the thick, loping bass lines, tambourine and reverb-heavy percussion and fireside chant-like vocals. The rest of the song doesn’t really venture too far from the chorus, but it’s a simple sentiment that’s exactly what I want to hear at the crest of a season where I actually want to be outside occasionally, maybe.

And if anyone has an mp3 of Joe Prudy’s “Can’t Get it Right Today” to share, do let me know.

Posted in Commercial Break, Take Five | Leave a Comment »