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

MGM Home Entertainment

There’s something about screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie‘s writing that brings out the best in director Bryan Singer as evidenced by the inarguable fact that The Usual Suspects and Valkryie are easily his finest films. They have a real efficiency to them, both on the page and on the screen. The cleaner the story, the more proficient Singer is behind the camera. (McQuarrie and Singer also collaborated on Jack the Giant Slayer, but let’s just forget about that misstep.) In the next month they both have films coming out, neither of which they collaborated on. Singer returns to the comic book genre with X-Men: Days of Future Past, while McQuarrie worked on the script for Edge of Tomorrow, which, of course, you should all be excited for. It’s been nearly 20 years since The Usual Suspects, and the film holds up incredibly well. What makes the film stand the test of time isn’t its famous twist, but its appealing group of skillful misfits. This is a great ensemble of characters: they’re all distinct, have their own moments to shine and are exceptionally good at their jobs. McQuarrie is a real pro when it comes to writing characters who operate at the top of their game.

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Blazing Saddles

Coming off a successful career in television and two smaller pictures (The Producers in 1968 and The Twelve Chairs in 1970), Mel Brooks took a chance on a western comedy. This was before the days of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, decades before Scary Movie, and a generation of time (and quality) from Meet the Spartans and A Haunted House. Brooks broke all sorts of social and decency taboos with Blazing Saddles, from the subversive racial commentary to the orchestra of cowboy farts around a campfire. Blazing Saddles turns 40 this year, which makes it as good of a time as any to look back on the production with Mel Brooks himself. The commentary on the original Blu-ray release comes from the initial DVD release back in the late 1990s, but it still has a lot to say about this comedy classic.

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MGM

William Friedkin‘s 1977 classic Sorcerer finally hit Blu-ray last week, and it marked my first viewing of the film. Before you give me grief, know that I had seen and loved The Wages of Fear, and I was just holding out on watching the remake until it came in a Friedkin-approved version. It should surprise no one that I found Sorcerer to be as fantastic as the original, but my favorite Friedkin film remains unchanged. Not only did To Live and Die in L.A. introduce the world in 1985 to the bow-legged joy that is William Petersen, but it’s also a remarkably successful mix of dark sensibilities, characters with depth and honest excitement. It’s an intelligent thriller that makes no guarantees as to the morality or life expectancy of its characters, and its pacing and energy help make it eminently re-watchable. The DVD includes a handful of extra features (never ported over to the Blu-ray for some reason) including an alternate ending, a deleted scene, a making-of featurette and a commentary track from the director. He has an interesting approach to recording one, but he’s a fascinating speaker all the same. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

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Random Media

One of the most surprising films to be released in 2013 was not a massive blockbuster. Instead, it was Escape from Tomorrow, an independent film effort, much of which was shot in the Walt Disney parks without permission from the company. Even though it was meant as a parody of the “Happiest Place on Earth,” lots of people thought that Escape from Tomorrow would never get released. However, after being championed by clearance counsel Michael Donaldson, the film was released. Ignored by the Disney company so as to not give additional attention to the movie with the Streisand Effect, Escape from Tomorrow was eventually released to a certain degree of success in theaters and video on demand. Writer/director Randy Moore sat down with his cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham in January of 2014 to record the commentary of the film they had shot in the fall of 2010 (with pick-ups in the spring of 2011), which is included on the DVD release of the film.

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20th Century Fox

This week is the 25th anniversary of Cameron Crowe‘s first feature, Say Anything, and while he went on to direct three more fantastic films (plus one good one and two stinkers) this one holds a special place in many of our hearts. It’s a rare honest look at teenagers in and out of love, is eminently quotable and features a high number of memorable and possibly iconic scenes. A quarter of a century later and the film is more beloved than ever. The anniversary has led to a handful of editorials on the movie — our own Kate Erbland even had the nerve to question whether Lloyd and Diane were still together 25 years later! The responses were varied and highly pessimistic, but the truth is clear in Lloyd’s persistence and optimism and in Diane’s joy and satisfaction. You only have to watch the movie to know that the two are still living it up in London. The commentary on the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray of Say Anything features something I’ve never seen (or heard) before, and that’s a twenty minute introduction set against a slide show of b&w set photos. Crowe, John Cusack and Ione Skye start things off strong with their recollections on what brought each of them to the film. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Say Anything.

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The Goonies

Whether you saw it in the theaters in the 80s, or watching it dozens of times while it played on HBO in the 90s, The Goonies has become an essential part of the childhood movie diet. That’s pretty impressive for a film that includes that many pre-teen curse words, sexual references and dangerous situations. Billed as a collaboration between producer Steven Spielberg and director Richard Donner, it was one of the few hits from the 80s that didn’t get an immediate sequel. Whether you’re still waiting around for that sequel – and whether you think that sequel is a good idea or not – you can still enjoy The Goonies in a variety of home video formats. Back when the DVD was released in the 2001, the cast reunited with Richard Donner to provide a commentary track that has been preserved on subsequent Blu-ray releases. Even though the commentary track is almost as old now as the movie was when the commentary was recorded, it still has some fun insight into the film, including the mysterious message that Sean Astin wanted to share with Cyndi Lauper.

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Chris Evans in CAPTAIN AMERICA THE FIRST AVENGER

Captain America: The First Avenger is probably the best of Marvel’s Phase One films. I say “probably” to allow for nostalgia for Iron Man and the abundance of fun that is The Avengers, but re-watches have shown The First Avenger to be the least problematic and most affecting of the bunch. Its high entertainment value doesn’t hurt either. The sequel, The Winter Soldier, hits theaters this Friday, and according to at least one very reputable source it may just be the best Marvel film yet. We’re spending the week exploring all things Captain America so there’s no better time than now to take a listen to director Joe Johnston‘s commentary for The First Avenger. He’s joined by the film’s editor and director of photography, and together they discuss the production, the cast and crew, and the moments they love as film fans.

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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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