Commentary Commentary

Commentary CommentaryOne thing that technology has brought the most dedicated movie fans is the commentary track, introduced with the wave of digital formats, from DVD to Blu-ray. The ability to hear your favorite filmmakers talk about their work while you’re watching their work is something so intensely nerdy that it we can’t help but dedicate some serious time to it. Join our own Jeremy Kirk as he breaks down the most useful lessons from some of the most iconic commentary tracks every week.

Updates Every: Thursday

Darren Aronofsky THE FOUNTAIN

The Fountain and Noah are, in some ways, companion pieces. Director Darren Aronofsky‘s 2006 sci-fi mini epic is a movie about facing death. Its character must accept the singular rule of the universe: everyone dies. Noah focuses on the one man who has to allow almost everyone to perish, but like The Fountain, it still deals with a man accepting his destiny, no mattew how dire it may seem. Some claim Aronofsky’s latest will divide audiences and critics, but it likely won’t match the polarized response The Fountain received, a movie that was downright hated by some. To this day that remains a shame because it’s Aronofsky’s most emotional, complex, and rewarding film. The main problem with Aronofsky’s films in general is that, no matter how good they may be, they’re pretty surface-level dramas. Black Swan, as fun as it is, spells out its themes again and again, never leaving room for much interpretation. The Fountain does that too, but what it says sticks with you in a way his other films don’t. With Aronofsky’s other efforts you get the same film you saw on first viewing, but that’s not the case with The Fountain.  Aronfosky’s commentary for the film validates this belief. He doesn’t breakdown what it all means, but instead chooses to focus on the making-of and the kind of details that make his film grow richer on repeat viewings.

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The Matrix Movie 1999

Want to feel old? Then consider the fact that The Matrix is 15 years old this month. This film was made before the turn of the century, before digital projection, before the 3D craze, and before any of the Star Wars prequels were released. It was a groundbreaking film, not just for its innovative action sequences but also for its brainy nature compared to many contemporary action films. One of the early releases on DVD, The Matrix was loaded with special features, including multiple commentary tracks. The original concept by The Wachowskis was to have two separate commentary tracks: one with philosophers who liked the movie, and one with film critics who did not. After wrangling with Warner Bros. a bit on this decision, those commentaries did not appear on the original release (though they are available on the Blu-ray and more recent DVDs for your listening pleasure). Two commentaries were recorded, including a music-only track commentary by composer Don Davis, and a traditional cast commentary, which has the most production information and trivia rather than analysis. This is what we’ll be covering here. However, I encourage fans of The Matrix to check out the additional commentaries on the Blu-ray for the philosophical and critical analysis that the Wachowskis originally intended.

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The Hunger Games Catching Fire

At the tail end of 2013, Iron Man 3 received one of the biggest bitch-slaps of the year, courtesy of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The teen novel adaptation swooped in and eclipsed the Marvel superhero’s spot as the highest grossing movie of the year, at least in terms of domestic box office. While The Hunger Games: Catching Fire didn’t overcome the worldwide box office of Iron Man 3, it had its own victory by besting the first installment by more than $200m worldwide. As the movie-going audience prepares for the first of two final sequels releasing later this year, they can stave off their hunger by checking out The Hunger Games: Catching Fire on DVD and Blu-ray. Included on the discs is a commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson. Lawrence had already been working on the final two films at the time of recording, so his insight goes beyond the production of this film and extends into the grand finale. Even if you’re not a huge fan of these films, you can take solace in the fact that the filmmakers behind them are striving for something better and deeper than the previous box office champs in terms of young adult fiction. (Yes, I’m talking about the thank-god-it’s-over Twilight films.) Now, with that dig against Stephenie Meyer and all things sparkly out of the way, on to the commentary.

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Bill Murray in GROUNDHOG DAY

I made plans late last week to feature Groundhog Day as my next Commentary Commentary title, and immediately discovered that I didn’t own a copy of the film. A quick trip to a nearby video store graced me with a used Blu-ray which I brought home, watched, and fell in love with all over again. It’s that rare, near-perfect movie where everything seems to fall beautifully in place, a film that never weakens on repeat viewings, and one that says more about humanity than many examples of far more serious cinema. Harold Ramis died this past Monday, and while it’s a tragedy for his wife, children, and friends, it also leaves a void for the millions of fans who’ve loved much of his work over the years. Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, The Ice Harvest… all fantastically fun films that wouldn’t have been the same without his involvement as writer and/or director. Keep reading to see what I heard on Harold Ramis’ commentary for Groundhog Day.

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Thor: The Dark World (2013)

By the end of the year, we will be ten films deep in Marvel Studios mythology, which is quite a feat by any standard. While not every film can be the billion-dollar blockbuster like The Avengers or Iron Man 3, the smaller ones still make plenty of money worldwide and provide a substantial amount of connective tissue in the overall universe. In November 2013, Thor: The Dark World came out, performing about as well as its predecessor (which is to say good, but not great). The film wraps up a lot of Loki’s storyline from Thor and The Avengers, but more importantly, the mid-credits sequence leads into The Guardians of the Galaxy, due out in August 2014. For the DVD and Blu-ray release, director Alan Taylor sits down with Marvel guru Kevin Feige, villainous heartthrob Tom Hiddleston, and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau to talk about the film and reveal the behind-the-scenes process of not just making a superhero film, but making an installment in a much larger franchise.

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cc rushmore

With only a singular exception (The Darjeeling Limited), all of Wes Anderson‘s films have been works of art that are equal parts entertainment and emotion. Everyone will have their own favorite, but for me the top spot is a rotating position alternately occupied by Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Both films are pure perfection, but while the latter satisfies my darker moods, the exploits of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and friends are perfect whenever. It’s beautiful, funny, smart, and loaded with heart courtesy of Bill Murray. The Criterion Collection added Rushmore to their Blu-ray roster in 2011, and among the numerous extras is a commentary track featuring Anderson, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman. Unfortunately, the trio appear to have recorded separately, but they still have a collective wealth of information to share on a movie they still hold dear.

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robocop-commentary1

With the RoboCop remake hitting theaters next week and the recent 4K remastered Blu-ray release of the original film, it’s a good time to look back at the story’s humble beginning. While 1987’s RoboCop launched two lame sequels and a terrible television series, the original was a gas-station-explodingly fun excursion into 80s action excess. A few years ago, MGM released a Blu-ray set of the three films, but the RoboCop disc had no special features. These have been resurrected from the old DVD release and encoded on the new 4K remastered version, including the commentary by the filmmakers. It’s been a few years since this commentary track was recorded, but it still gives a nice retrospective of this action classic, including a look at why the film wouldn’t have made it through the MPAA and studio process now. So whether the remake is good or bad, we will still have the original RoboCop in all of its violent glory. On to the commentary…

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cc young adult

Jason Reitman‘s fifth feature film, Labor Day, hits theaters this Friday, but while I haven’t seen it yet the advance word has been a far cry from the critical acclaim his movies usually receive. To be fair, it’s also by all accounts a different beast from Reitman’s previous films as it concentrates more on the drama than on the acerbic, darkly comedic wit. It’s for this reason that I decided to go back a few years to Reitman’s last film, the blackly comic, emotionally tragic, and sadly under-seen Young Adult, for this week’s commentary listen. Well, that and the fact that one of the best films to play this year’s Sundance, Listen Up Philip, reminded me positively of it. Both movies are excellent entries in the canon of “asshole cinema” in that their lead characters are irredeemable pricks struggling to conceal their humanity and causing all manner of hilarity and emotional distress along the way. Charlize Theron plays a young adult novelist who returns home to her small town to reclaim her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) in the hopes that it will knock her out of the doldrums of both her career and her life. Her efforts don’t quite go according to plan and instead she’s forced face to face with the reality of the person she’s become.

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youngfrankenstein-commentary1

Later this year, Mel Brooks’ brilliant homage to the Universal monster movies Young Frankenstein turns 40. Having spawned a successful Broadway musical and inspired countless other spoofs, this send-up of the original Frankenstein films remains the gold standard against which many comedies are judged. Rightfully so. If only Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer paid more attention to what makes it good, we wouldn’t be plagued by so many terrible spoofs out there now. The Blu-ray of Young Frankenstein features Brooks’ frank commentary of the film, examining the contributions of co-writer Gene Wilder as well as many fond memories of the cast – most of whom are no longer with us. Brooks may have changed direction from filmmaking to work on the Broadway stage in recent years, but his expertise at making a timeless comedy is detailed here.

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Commentary

Actors’ behind-the-camera debuts are rarely great. There’s generally a safeness to those movies, where it feels more like an actor testing the waters than having a story they need to tell. A big exception to that trend: George Clooney. Clooney took a major chance on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Sure, he had a script written by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation), but he made bold choices as a filmmaker. From the film’s complex style, the timeline they have to show in two hours, and the tonally tricky humor, Clooney’s first directorial outing was an ambitious introduction. Since then he’s tried his hand at varying material, constantly pushing himself as a filmmaker. Nothing against his films since 2002, including the overlooked Leatherheads, but Confessions of a Dangerous Mind remains his best picture. This is a film where big choices were made, and every single one of them hit their mark. It’s an emotional dark comedy that not many filmmakers could pull off.

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apes-commentary1

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2014, but the high-budget prequel/sequel would never have been possible without the original film series from the 1960s and 1970s. The Planet of the Apes Blu-ray features multiple commentary options, including a recorded track with actors Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Natalie Trundy, as well as make-up artist John Chambers. Spliced together by existing interviews, this is more of a voice-over through the movie. To augment the commentary, there’s a text commentary provided by Eric Greene, author of the book Planet of the Apes as American Myth. That’s enough to shake a fist at.

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cc the act of killing 1

The Act of Killing is a fascinating piece of cinema that illuminates not only a tragic and disturbing slice of history but also the humanity behind it all. The term is usually used in a positive light, but one of the film’s points is that these aren’t monsters committing such acts of barbarity. They’re people. Director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film is one of the year’s best, and while he received a helping hand from two big names in the documentary field both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris give him full credit for the accomplishment. Drafthouse Films’ upcoming Blu-ray release includes the theatrical cut with some solid special features, but it also comes with a second Blu featuring the 166-minute director’s cut (an additional 44 minutes). Even better? The longer cut includes a commentary track with Oppenheimer and Herzog. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Act of Killing.

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heathers-commentary1

Going to high school in the 1980s, I was the perfect age to connect with a film like Heathers. Knowing a friend who struggled with suicide and together rolling our eyes at the idiotic depiction of it in many films made it hit even closer to home. Extremely daring for its time, Heathers challenged and threatened media stereotypes of teenagers and high school. Long before Diablo Cody gave an edgy pop vocabulary to high schoolers in Juno, Daniel Waters’ script introduced moviegoers to a particularly colorful jargon that we all licked up. The commentary from Waters, director Michael Lehmman and producer Denise Di Novi on the original DVD release was recorded nine years after the film was released, revealing a look at the film only recently after evolving into a full-on cult classic. Fortunately, the hindsight adds to the darkly sardonic experience.

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The Muppets Christmas Carol

Another wonderful moment from the archive to help you celebrate Christmas… Christmas is just around the corner, and you’re probably catching up on some old and new favorite films about the holidays. Among your viewings of A Christmas Story, Die Hard, and Gremlins, maybe you picked up a copy of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which has recently had a 20th anniversary Blu-ray release. This repackaging of the 1992 holiday classic includes a commentary track by Brian Henson as well as a new commentary by the Muppet characters themselves. One is more technical, and the other is more silly, but together they give a nice look at the making of one of the more faithful-yet-original adaptations of the Charles Dickens book. And on to the commentary…

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cc gangs of new york

Gangs of New York was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and yet, I still can’t shake the feeling that Martin Scorsese‘s revenge epic has been overlooked. With a filmograpyy as refined as Scorsese’s, a few gems are bound to go unnoticed, but even at the time of its release many were split by the film. It wasn’t a domestic box-office hit, scored a modest 75% on Rottentomatoes, and, from what I can recall, most people I knew weren’t a fan Scorsese’s impressionistic period piece. That’s a pity, because this fictional tale of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeking revenge on the man who killed his father, Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), is one of Scorsese’s most thrilling and hypnotic films. Even if you found the acclaimed director’s untraditional approach to period distancing, you can’t dismiss it has one of the finest pieces of acting ever put on film courtesy of Day-Lewis. He was so magnificent in a supporting role that the Academy instead nominated him for best actor, but it’s well earned since he is Gangs of New York. Technically speaking the movie is stunning, from the sets to the editing to the you name it, but when Gangs of New York fans start talking, it’s Day-Lewis’ towering performance that usually dominates the conversation.

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furious6-commentary1

After fourteen years, the Fast & Furious franchise has gone through quite a few changes. The first three films struggled with changing casts and somewhat unconnected storylines. However, after Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, director Justin Lin took the series in a very different direction. He brought back the original cast, then morphed the series from some street racing flicks to a bona fide action franchise complete with international villains and bigger-than-life action sequences. This second trilogy (!) in the series culminates with Fast & Furious 6, which was one of the highest grossing movies of 2013. Lin lends his voice to the commentary track on the film, which was recorded before the tragic death of Paul Walker. Similarly, the DVD and Blu-ray of the film were produced before this event, making a lot of the matter-of-fact comments in the film, the bonus features and the commentary naturally bittersweet. Still, there’s a lot to be learned from Lin’s commentary, which serves as a look back not only at the film, but the franchise as a whole with a great emphasis on the dynamic of those involved behind the scenes.

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cc all the boys love mandy lane

Seven years is a long time to wait between a film’s festival premiere and its release, but better late than never I guess. Jonathan Levine is best known for star-studded films like 50/50 and Warm Bodies, but his debut feature, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, has actually become his most recent. It was picked up by the Weinsteins after a successful premiere at TIFF in 2006… and then disappeared. Well, it disappeared from U.S. shores but found minor success overseas and a cult status here in the States. Unless you saw it at a festival appearance (or were savvy enough to import a copy from the UK), 2013 was the first real chance to see Mandy and figure out why all the boys love her. Seven years of hype and expectations are a lot to meet, but the movie remains an attractive and fun little retro slasher that has a surprising amount to say about teenagers, bullying, body issues, and more. Plus, you know, Amber Heard. The film hit Blu-ray/DVD this week, and the only special feature included is a commentary from Levine. The nearly bare-bones nature would normally be something to criticize, but knowing the long, hard road this film had to travel the presence of a newly-recorded commentary is more than enough of a bonus.

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nightmare-commentary1

When it was released twenty years ago, The Nightmare Before Christmas was not an immediate success. However, over the following two decades, it has become one of the most beloved holiday movies, and composer Danny Elfman admits that autograph seekers inevitably have The Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise for him to sign above all other films he has worked on. When the 15th Anniversary 2-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD was released in 2008, Elfman joined in with producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick to record a commentary track. This track, along with many of the other bonus features, is also included on the 3D Blu-ray, which was released in 2011 (and likely all other annual releases as Disney moves forward). Seeing as we’re at the half-way point between Halloween and Christmas, and since it is the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, it seemed appropriate to revisit the film and hear what the filmmakers had to say about the production.

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cc the worlds end

The Cornetto Trilogy is the comedic equivalent of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy for at least two reasons. First, all three films are pretty goddamn fantastic, and second, they’re not even really a trilogy. There’s no actual storyline or characters that repeat across the films, but some common themes (along with the presence of Cornetto ice cream) have turned the trio into an unofficial collective. The World’s End is the latest and last (after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), and there’s a very good chance it’s the best of the three. Edgar Wright directs and co-writes (again) with star Simon Pegg to deliver a smart, very funny, and truly engaging piece of entertainment, and as has continually been the case, they’ve filled it with a brilliant cast. Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan join Pegg as five friends attempting to revisit their youth who find an unexpected surprise instead. All of Wright’s films come loaded with gags and references, but this one beats them all in the sheer detailed genius of its structure and execution. Multiple viewings are required to catch them all, but the Wright and Pegg do a good job of highlighting several moments of foreshadowing and hints at what’s to come on their commentary track.

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THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Shire, Warner Bros. has released the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.The movie, which grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide is getting its second home video release in the course of the year, meant to prime the pump for the upcoming sequel in December. Director and all-around Tolkien movie guru Peter Jackson joins with his production partner Philippa Boyens to dissect the first installment in The Hobbit trilogy. It’s a long one, clocking in at just about three hours, the commentary was recorded in the summer of 2013 while they were in post-production of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This commentary track is exclusive to the extended edition of the film, and there is none available for the theatrical version, which came out in March of 2013.

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