Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Greatest DVD Commentaries Ever (In My Humble Opinion) - Part the Second

Well here we are again with part two of my scholarly analysis of that long-overlooked part of the whole DVD/Blu Ray experience: the audio commentary. Or to be more precise, welcome back as I take a frivolous look back at those particular audio commentaries that for one reason or another have permanently imprinted themselves on my consciousness. So having already covered 'The Thing', 'Capricorn One', 'The Limey' and 'Tropic Thunder' in my previous post, let's move right on to my final four choices - beginning with the Coen Brothers' awesome debut feature...

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) - Commentary by (ahem) Kenneth Loring, artistic director for Forever Young Film Restoration


Over their three-decade-long careers it's become increasingly obvious that the Coen Brothers don't really enjoy talking about their own movies too much, in most cases simply content to let the work speak for itself. And even when they do grant interviews - admittedly something they've done a lot more of in recent years - they don't seem to give a whole lot away. And so with that in mind it should come as no surprise to learn that they haven't exactly embraced the audio commentary with open arms either - or DVD supplementary features in general, for that matter. No, all that self-analytical navel-gazing clearly isn't their scene, and I'm totally cool with that - especially as so many of my favourite directors (Lynch, Tarantino, Jarmusch, etc) also share the same attitude. 

But the Coens wouldn't be the Coens if they simply left it that and didn't try to take the piss somehow. It's simply not in their DNA. So when it came time for the 20th anniversary DVD release of their bloody neo-noir 'Blood Simple', they decided to really let rip by writing a completely fake audio commentary for the movie, even going as far as hiring the British actor Jim Piddock to read it under the guise of so-called movie historian, Kenneth Loring (of Forever Young Film Restoration - a fictional organization apparently dedicated to preserving 'classic' movies). And a bigger buffoon you will not find anywhere else on the planet.

Which, of course, is the whole point.

The film itself is an ingeniously plotted and remarkably assured debut in which a sleazy bar owner hires a sleazy hitman (see pic above) to murder his cheating wife and her lover, and finds most of the typical Coens' cinematic trademarks and motifs already present and correct (blackmail, black humour, obligatory dream sequence, shoes, hats, etc). But you won't learn any of that from 'Loring', who instead gives us a whole slew of wrong-headed observations, spurious facts and outright lies about the making of the film - such as how Marty's dog isn't real but actually animatronic, or how a fly that that constantly buzzes around one of the characters throughout the film was actually added digitally long after filming was finished. Or how during the planning stages, Fred Astaire and Rosemary Clooney were originally planned to be cast in major roles. That kind of thing.

Since there's no clue on the DVD cover that the commentary is anything but genuine, you do kind of wonder how long it might have taken some listeners to get the joke. Although, to be fair, it does become kind of obvious something's amiss early on when Loring informs us that the opening driving scene was actually flipped and shot in reverse, as well as upside down, 'with the actors securely strapped in so they wouldn't fall up into the roof,' and how all the dialogue was spoken backwards - and that's all within the first couple of minutes. In fact this is one commentary that's probably best listened to without watching the film - otherwise you'll never be able to take it seriously ever again.

'This fellow in the interesting wardrobe is on his way, leaving us with the sad man... leaving him to his thoughts. More chortling as he goes, from the first fellow. Rather a lot of chairs piled up there.'

'And this is the musical moment in the film - un moment musicale - and several shots had to be made so the screen wouldn't go blank while the music played. And these are the shots, so let's admire them.'

'There's the dog again. Wonderful natural motion. You really would never know, would you? Remarkable.'

'More sweat here, very artfully applied. Movie sweat, of course. Not the real thing. Especially gathered from the flanks of Palamino horses.'

'Do watch these footsteps, because these are not the actor's feet. Or rather, it was the actor's feet, but it wasn't, in fact, the floor. The actor was suffering from gout on the day of tournage, and was unable to support his own weight. So the flooring was ripped out and tacked up against the ceiling, then they inverted the actor, hoisted him up and traced his footsteps across the ceiling.'

KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) - Commentary by Director Shane Black and Actors Val Kilmer & Robert Downey Jr


There he is again. Not content with hogging the first part of this list with his semi-legendary 'Tropic Thunder' commentary, Robert Downey Jr. has the gall to show up for the second part with 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' - but at least for this one he manages to give his ego a rest in order to allow the other two to get their fair share of talk-time. And for that we should be properly thankful, else we'd never get to experience the full Val Kilmer experience.

The film - a great little low-budget action comedy with noir sensibilities - follows petty thief Harry Lockhart (RDJ) after he's mistaken for a jobbing actor and brought to LA for an unlikely audition, only to find himself caught up in a murder investigation with his high-school dream girl (Michelle Monaghan) and 'Gay' Perry (Kilmer), a hotshot PI who's supposed to be training him for this upcoming role that will never happen. As you'd expect from Black, the script is fast and funny and absolutely chock-full of interesting supporting characters, all of whom get their moment in the sun. Oddly enough, at the time of release this was publicised as a kind of 'arthouse' thriller, and as it turns out that's exactly where I saw it. In a tiny cinema in my local arts centre. I remember it got great reviews at the time, but it kind of sunk without trace at the US box office (Black: 'Are you kidding? It made a buck-fifty'), and as a result it kind of slipped in and out of UK multiplexes like a thief in the night. (On the plus side however, it got Shane Black the director's gig for Iron Man 3 after Downey put in a good word with Disney. So, swings and roundabouts, yeah?) 

But one thing I do remember is that upon leaving the cinema, I consciously thought to myself (and no word of a lie here): 'Man, wouldn't it be cool if they got Downey and Kilmer and Black to do a commentary for the DVD when it comes out? I'd love that.' So imagine my joy six months later when I found out that's exactly what they'd done for the DVD release - at least for the region-one version - and even better, that the resulting track more than lived up to my expectations.*

And that's mainly down to Val Kilmer, who lives up to his eccentric reputation by coming out with a whole stream of mostly random non-sequiturs at every opportunity. Things get off to a good start when he decides during the opening credits that he's going to run a name-dropping competition throughout the track with a possible prize of five-hundred bucks to whomever gets them all (RDJ: 'Meanwhile some of the most important contributors to the film's title cards have gone by while you're jacking off over there'), and things kind of devolve from that point onward. All in all, it's an extremely laid-back and good-natured track from three pals who clearly all had a great time shooting the thing, and who thoroughly enjoy taking the piss out of each other for the whole duration of the movie. Also, it's funny.

Black: 'This kid was actually a stunt kid. You have to be in a union to use a chainsaw if you're a kid.'
RDJ: 'Jesus...'
Kilmer: 'And you're so by the book. That's beautiful, that you made that choice.'

Kilmer: 'Frankly, Shane, whenever you dropped the ball Robert picked it up. Never complained, he was always there for you, filling in the blanks. He's like cork to your tile. He's your grout, baby.'

Black informs us that the CG bear in the Genaros Beer ad was voiced by Laurence Fishburne.

During the Hollywood party scene where Downey is getting thoroughly beaten up by an obnoxious guy who almost raped the (unconscious) Michelle Monaghan character, Kilmer asks Black if that was based on a real-life incident. 'Did you threaten a guy once, and then, suddenly, you woke up in an alley?'
Black: 'Not in an alley...' (huge guffaws of laughter)
Kilmer: 'In Denny's.'

(during the electrocution torture scene)
RDJ: 'Whose legs are those?'
Black: 'Those are yours, aren't they?'
RDJ: 'Hell, no.'
Kilmer: 'They're Shane's.'
Black: 'Aren't mine.'
Kilmer: 'You insisted. Admit it. (laughter) I've got an uncropped photograph of you with the electrodes.'

Black: 'For the life of me, I didn't think that people would be able to decipher the geography of this scene.'
Kilmer: 'Who says they did?' (laughter)

RDJ: 'I could cry now because it's almost over. Oh wait, we've got four endings.' (laughter)

* The only other time this has ever happened was when a friend and I went to the flicks to see the terrific Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon comedy, A Cock and Bull Story. Even before the thing was finished we were both thinking ahead to the eventual DVD release & musing on how awesome it would be if Coogan and Brydon got together to do an audio commentary for it. No prizes for guessing how that turned out.

TRUE ROMANCE (1993) - Commentary by Writer Quentin Tarantino


It's a fact that Quentin Tarantino won't do commentaries for any movie that he himself directed, but he will occasionally do them for those movies in which he either has a vested interest or that he simply likes as a fan. For instance, he and Robert Rodriguez sat down for a terrific track for 'From Dusk Til Dawn', a movie Rodriguez directed and Tarantino wrote (and co-starred in, but let's not go there), and he also got together with his friend Edgar Wright to do a cool 'film-geek' track for one of the Hot Fuzz special edition DVDs (and which can actually be found on Youtube). And in addition, he also recorded a track for this: the film version of the first script he ever completed, and directed by none other than his long-time hero, the late Tony Scott.

You've seen the film already so you don't need a detailed plot summary here. Nerd marries hooker and steals coke from her pimp and they go to Hollywood to try to sell it, closely followed by the pimp's employers who want their product back. You know the deal. Except of course it's really the script that matters here, and even in these early stages of QT's career it's clear he was on a roll right from the start. It's a great romance-cum-comedy-cum-thriller that still holds up to repeated viewings today, filled to the brim with so much memorable dialogue and so many meaty supporting roles that major actors of the time were practically lining up to do bit parts (such as Brad Pitt as the unforgettable stoner, Floyd, and who's only actually onscreen for about three or four minutes). 

As for the QT commentary track in question (which is actually only one of four on the disc - and that's not mentioning the additional scene-specific commentaries from most of the actors involved as they discuss their own specific contributions), there's not much to say about it other than it's pretty much what you'd hope a solo QT commentary track would be. That is, the guy starts talking right from the first moment in his trademarked quickfire delivery, and he barely lets five seconds of dead air pass until the end credits. Actually, that's not entirely true. Tarantino makes it clear that he's a huge admirer of how Scott's presented his now infamous 'Sicilian Scene' near the start of the movie ('This scene is one of the proudest moments of my entire career'), and so gives it the respect it deserves by shutting up for a minute and just letting it play out. But that's the only time he does. The rest he's his usual chatterbox self, which is exactly what you want for something like this.

The real shame of it is it's such a great commentary track, you just wish he'd do more.

'When they were making the movie, they had the marquee and everything and they had some weird posters in the display, and some film geek friends of mine were driving by and they went, 'Oh my God, a Streetfighter triple-feature!' And they came in and were told, 'No no we're not showing it, we're making a movie,' and they went, 'Oh, this Quentin's goddamn movie, oh goddamnit.' So they walked away.'

We learn that the 'I'd fuck Elvis' monologue that opens the film was ripped straight from QT's unreleased first movie, 'My Best Friend's Birthday.'

'It's kind of great to see my world in this style, because I don't shoot the way Tony does at all, alright. And I've never in any movie used smoke in a scene, and I don't like it when other people do it, but I love it when Tony does it.'

'When I look at True Romance now, I'm... incredibly moved by my perception of myself, of Clarence, because that was kind of me at twenty-five. While none of this crap ever happened to me it's still very autobiographical nevertheless.'

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998) - Commentary by Author Hunter S. Thompson and Producer Laila Nabulsi


'Eeeeeeek! Whoooop, yaaaaarrgh, hahrnhaaaaaaa! Where in the FUCK is that remote?'

That's right, you guessed it - it's just another normal evening with the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. Except due to the great foresight of Criterion this one just happens to have been laid down onto disc for posterity. And thank the heavens for that. One of three commentaries on the wonderful Criterion DVD of Terry Gilliam's darkly humourous adaptation of Hunter's 1972 cult 'novel' - wherein a semi-fictional journalist and his large Samoan lawyer take a road trip across the southwest in order to locate 'The American Dream', whilst consuming vast quantities of drugs - this may just go down as the weirdest commentary ever recorded. And for fans of Hunter like myself, it's completely essential listening.

According to the recording engineer, Michael Wiese, (from an email message reproduced on the Criterion website) the track was recorded in Hunter's tiny kitchen one night at his Aspen, Colorado compound: 'The session started about 7.30pm as Hunter was finishing breakfast and I ended up turning off the tape recorders around 2.30am. Very smart and funny man, constantly in motion but never leaving his chair. Cigarette holder and all, he opens his mouth and those words just spill out... I have bite marks on my arm from trying to keep from laughing (I think). It was a sound person's nightmare/fantasy: squawking peacocks, refrigerator motors, thunderstorms, bug zappers, ice machines, phone calls from people in prison, seemingly random bloodcurdling screams, and the general din of vice.'

So as you might imagine this is far from your average DVD commentary track, which is only one of the reasons why I love it so much. The author is also joined by the movie's producer, Laila Nabulsi, who continually attempts to keep Hunter on track, prodding him every now and then to steer the conversation towards topics actually relevant to the movie they're watching. In this she's not always successful, but that's all right. After all, if you really want to know details about the production you can always listen to the other two commentaries (the first is by Gilliam, the other is by the two leads, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro); they're both pretty good. Hunter's wife/assistant, Anita, can also be heard in the background over the sound of clinking ice cubes or other random noises, occasionally correcting Hunter or adding a detail he neglected to mention.

The most surprising thing to me is that once or twice Hunter makes it clear he actually likes the movie (and even admits to watching it every month), which, given his contrary and generally combative nature towards pretty much everything in life, must be a constant source of amazement to Terry Gilliam. But for the most part he's not afraid to go on tirades about a whole variety of subjects, taking jabs at all and sundry including Gilliam himself (mainly for allowing his onscreen character to make fun of a midget waiter - something that wasn't in the book and that he'd never do in real life), but reserving most of his ire for the late Timothy Leary, whom he absolutely loathes.

Hunter's mumbled speech sometimes makes it hard to decipher what he's saying, and then there are those blood-curdling screams and yelps he makes just to keep everyone on their toes, which makes listening to the track on headphones an almost psychedelic experience in itself. But to be honest, this is a little similar to 'The Limey' DVD track, in that there's so much good stuff here that I could quote lines from it all day, but I'm not going to do that. This post is already getting out of hand as it is. So just buy the Criterion DVD or Bluray instead and experience the glory of Hunter S. Thompson yourself. 

And then mourn the fact that there'll never be another like him.

Nabulsi: 'What about this angel Terry threw in? I've always wanted to know what you thought about the angel with the flaming sword.'
Thompson: 'I never noticed it before.' (laughter) 'Eeeeeeeeeeeh!'

Thompson (chomping on something): 'These radishes are arousing strange instincts in me.' (laughter)

Nabulsi: 'Okay. Circus Circus. What do you think of this scene?'
Thompson: 'That scene sucks.' (laughter) 'Overall. Since you asked.'

Thompson: 'It's a wonderful film. I'd buy two copies of it. And if you're really gonzo you'll buy three.'*

* I believe I did buy three copies, if you include the original cinema ticket along with the video version and then the DVD. So colour me gonzo.


Friday, July 1, 2016

The Greatest DVD Commentaries Ever (In My Humble Opinion) - Part the 1st

Well, it certainly feels as though a few months have passed by since my last blog post, doesn't it... Eh? What's that? Two whole years, you say? No, that can't possibly be right - you're obviously exaggerating, and how many times have I warned you about that? Anyway, pointless dwelling on the past. It's gone. Done. Over with. And I'm here now. Let's move on.

So. Recently I've been listening to a lot of DVD commentaries on my iPod. Not sure why exactly, other than to say I seem to go through these obsessive phases every now and then. For example, a short while back I was listening to a newly-remastered Beach Boys song I'd downloaded from itunes - it was the new crisp, stereo version of the previously muddy-sounding 'Do It Again', where you could finally hear the instruments and heavenly vocals - and the moment it was over I had to listen to it again. And again. And again. God knows how many times I played the damn thing, but it was like a switch had been pressed at the back of my brain, and from that moment on I found myself compelled to listen to the rest of the Beach Boys' back catalogue every spare moment I could get. Hell, I know what I'm like, and so I simply gave in and enjoyed it while it lasted. Of course, after a while this mild compulsion waned enough that I was able to move onto other things, like reading books, eating, sleeping, etc. That is, until my next little fixation inevitably came along and took hold.

And so we come to DVD commentaries, my current preoccupation. Now, being a certified movie buff, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love audio commentaries. I mean, how could I not? They're such a great concept, and so simple too (originally created by Criterion back in 1984 for their King Kong laserdisc, fact fans). In fact, they're the main reason I invested in my very first Cyberhome DVD player all those years ago. ('Whoa. You mean I can actually switch audio tracks and listen to John Carpenter describing in great detail how he directed 'Assault on Precinct 13' while I'm actually watching the film? As though he's in the same room with me? Like we're two buddies shooting the shit? Say no more, my good man. Here, take my money.') And through the years, as I've assembled a sizeable collection of my favourite movies on shiny disc format, the one special feature I always hope for whenever an old - or new - fave of mine gets a release is an audio commentary. Hopefully a decent one, because believe me, there are a lot of bad ones out there - featuring disinterested participants who'd rather be anywhere else than in a stuffy recording studio, or directors/stars/production-crew-members who still haven't cottoned on that listeners don't really want to hear them describe exactly what's happening on the screen for ninety goddamn minutes. That's what the 'visually-impaired' track is for, forchrissakes. Or worst of all, participants who are either deathly dull (hello, Tim Burton) or those who say so little over the course of the film that you wonder why they bothered showing up at all (I'm speaking to you, Rob Reiner).

But the good commentary tracks? Ah, they're to be prized. And to be listened to more than once. In fact the really good ones can almost be treated like entities unto themselves - you know, like an audiobook - where you don't even need to be watching the movie to enjoy it. And these are the ones I've been listening to on my iPod lately. The good ones. Such as...

THE THING (1982) - Commentary by Director John Carpenter & Actor Kurt Russell


Ah, 'The Thing' - one of my very favourite movies from one my very favourite genre directors. I was fortunate enough to see this at the flicks when it first came out - with my best friend at the time - and I recall us both emerging exhausted from the cinema two hours later, completely blown away at how good the film was. It's only gotten better with time. Made over thirty-five years ago, the movie's barely aged a day and I find I can still rewatch it every few years without getting bored. From the smooth, unhurried direction to the great special effects (which still hold up) to the ensemble acting, to the wonderfully atmospheric Ennio Morricone score, everything about the film works.

Unless you've been hiding in a cave you probably know the story already. It's an old one, based on the classic Ten Little Indians premise (see also 'Alien'). This time, a ragtag group of misfits working in a remote Antarctic scientific base find themselves infiltrated by a parasitic alien lifeform that's able to assimilate other organisms and imitate them perfectly (see dog above). Or almost perfectly. As the body count rises, so does the paranoia amongst the remaining survivors. Much blood is spilled. Things don't end well.

Now 'The Thing' was one of the very first DVDs I ever bought - if not the very first - and I still consider it one of the best in my collection. And it's not hard to see why. I mean, not content with including an excellent documentary ('Terror Takes Shape') that's almost as long as the movie itself, the makers go one better by chucking in a fantastic commentary track that's since become a mainstay in every one of those 'DVD Commentaries You Must Hear' lists. Like this one. And the reason for that is ridiculously simple. Want to know what it is? It's this:

John Carpenter. And Kurt Russell. In a room together.

That's it. That simple formula is all you need to make a great commentary track. The two had already proved it once before this with the 'Escape From New York' laserdisc (since transported to the DVD version), and they also proved it again a couple of years after this when they reunited for the hilarious 'Big Trouble in Little China' DVD commentary. But the track for 'The Thing' is still the tops in my book, and most everybody else's, it seems. Right from the start it's obvious that the two are friends of long standing who thoroughly enjoy getting together again to reminisce over old times, and they enjoy a great rapport throughout. It also helps that neither man is afraid to take the piss out of the other at the slightest opportunity, and the good-natured ribbing is often accompanied by Russell's distinctive, and highly infectious, laughter. No other way to put it, this often hilarious yet hugely informative track is simply a joy to listen to. For example:

(During the autopsy scene)
Carpenter: 'We're about to cut to one of the delicious shots that the audience was repulsed by. Basically what you have is a kind of rubber creature where Brimley reaches in and pulls out some fresh liver (laughs). Brimley, having been a real cowboy, had no problem and was trying to tell us what it's like to...
Russell: 'He's just skinning a deer there.' (laughs)
Carpenter: 'That's it.' (laughs) 'That's basically all there is. Look at how he sells it, he kind of squishes it around (raucous laughter) brings it out...'
Russell: 'Attaboy, Will!'

Carpenter: 'One of the reviews at the time called me a 'Pornographer of Violence' (laughter from both) which really made me have second thoughts about my career.'

Carpenter: 'We're really going to blow this whole place to smithereens now. And now, in comes a tractor, with someone who looks a lot like you driving it (laughter from Russell) Kaboom! as it goes through the stage floor...'

We learn that not only was it an all-male cast, but an all-male crew too. There was a female script supervisor for awhile, but she was heavily pregnant at the time and had to return home partway into the shoot. (Although not mentioned on the commentary there is a very brief female presence in the movie: the voice of MacReady's chess computer at the start - supplied by Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's wife at the time. She wins, by the way.)

A beautiful half-wolf/half-husky named Jed plays The Thing in its early stages (again, see photo above) and Carpenter and Russell are still in awe at how great he is during the scene where he strolls along an empty corridor calmly checking rooms as he seeks out his next victim, without once looking at the camera. And all in one continuous thirty-second take too. Carpenter: 'Here comes the dog, this is quite an amazing shot. He's doing this all by himself. The dog hesitates at the door... he looks in... he stops... he checks out somebody in the other room. He pauses... then moves, doesn't look at us, as we pull back... Then he stops and stares... and goes in. Amazing work for an animal.'

We also learn that not only did they make up the ambiguous ending pretty much on the day, but Kurt Russell himself came up with the perfect last line. Nice one, Kurt.

CAPRICORN ONE (1977) - Commentary by Director Peter Hyams


Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way first. Capricorn One is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, and Peter Hyams sure ain't no Kubrick, but who cares? The movie's been a fave of mine since I first saw it on VHS (remember VHS?) back in '80 or '81, when I was but a callow youth of indeterminate age. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. Except I never feel guilty about liking something, so scratch that. No, what we have here is a cracking little 'seventies conspiracy thriller about a faked mission to Mars, featuring Elliot Gould in his prime as a tenacious reporter trying to get to the truth, while evil NASA agents in helicopters chase after the three escaped astronauts in question (James Brolin, Sam Waterson, OJ Simpson) before they can reach civilization and spill the beans. Let's face it, you've probably seen it on TV so you know the story already. And while the film doesn't have the most believable of plots, it still moves along at a great pace, is accompanied by an awesome Jerry Goldsmith score, and the script is smart and funny, and the cast (including small supporting roles for the lovely Karen Black as a rival reporter, and Telly Savalas as an ill-tempered crop-duster pilot) are great value.

So when I learned a while back that Hyams had provided a commentary for the US Special Edition DVD of the movie (Region 1 only, folks), I felt compelled to go online immediately and snap up a copy for myself. And I'm so glad I did. The erudite and droll Hyams is a pleasure to listen to, and somehow manages to keep talking for almost the entire film, only occasionally lapsing into silence if a particular scene takes him by surprise by being better than he remembered. He's also surprisingly self-deprecating ('I'm somebody who doesn't think he's the best director even on my street, much less the world.'), engagingly honest ('It's kind of impossible to look at this and see O.J. and not get a certain amount of chills, knowing what he did later') and supplies a plethora of behind-the-scenes info that even I'd never heard before, such as the fact that the rattler Brolin kills and eats in the movie was a prepared carcass that had been cleaned and filled with the rawest of raw fish, then sewn up again so Brolin could cut it open on camera ('No snake was killed in the making of this film,' Hyams assures us. 'That snake was already dead, I promise you.'). And the blood was honey with red dye. Jesus. One can't help thinking that eating actual dead snake might have been tastier.

He also finds time to disclose one or two amusing factoids that had never occurred to me at all, such as: 'Some directors have won lifetime achievement awards. Some have won multiple Oscars. But I think I'm the only director who had two leading men formally charged with the first-degree murder of their wives.' (The other one's Robert Blake, in case you're wondering). Later, he confesses that he also holds the dubious honour of being the only director to make a movie - this one - where the two lead roles are played by Barbara Streisand's husbands. Bet you didn't know that, huh?

But the absolute best quote on the track comes when a parched OJ Simpson's in the desert looking desperately for water while the bad guys close in. After describing how he applied spots of glue to Simpson's face to double as sun blisters while also restricting his facial movements - and thus preventing any possibility of overacting in the scene - Hyams ends with the immortal words, 'Amazing how a little glue can sometimes make an actor better.'

Words to live by, Peter. Words to live by.

TROPIC THUNDER (2009) - Commentary by Director/Actor Ben Stiller & Actors Robert Downey Jr and Jack Black


When you think of in-character commentaries (assuming you think about them at all, that is, which seems unlikely), the track that immediately springs to mind has to be the one on 'This is Spinal Tap' featuring the three main cast members as the Tap, still as gloriously dumb as ever, and mostly bemoaning how bad Marty di Bergi made them look in the 'rockumentary' ('All the times that we found the stage with no problem - why show this one?'). And, yes, it's a delicious side-dish to one of the funniest films ever made. But in my opinion there's another in-character track that tops even that for laughs, and that's the one for the recent comedy, Tropic Thunder, starring Stiller, Black and Downey Jr. Except in truth, it only partly qualifies, as Stiller and Black are most definitely not in character during the track... um...

See, in the movie, which purports to recount the filming of a hugely expensive Vietnam War epic that goes terribly wrong, one of the main characters is a ridiculously talented Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr) who's playing a black character named Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the film-within-the-film, even going to the lengths of undergoing pigmentation surgery to darken his skin, and adopting a gravelly bass African-American voice at all times. Known for being deadly serious about his craft, Lazarus even says at one point, 'I don't break character til I done the DVD commentary.' Now Downey Jr obviously thought that was too good an opportunity to ignore when it came time to record the actual commentary track for the Thunder DVD, and so does the whole thing as 'the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude'. Throughout, Ben Stiller does his best to provide us with some genuine info regarding the actual making of the movie, while Jack Black constantly apologises for being late and chips in whenever he can with some cool character stuff, but this is essentially 'The Robert Downey Jr. Show' and they all know it. And so they quite wisely just sit back and let him roll with it for the rest of the movie.

Humour's totally subjective, of course, and the listener's enjoyment of the track will kind of depend on a) how much he/she liked the movie, and b) how funny he/she finds Downey Jr's improvisational skills. But as far as I'm concerned, what could have been a tiresome one-joke gag ends up as an absolute riot and often had me laughing more than the film itself. Even better, when the Osiris character switches back to Lazarus later in the movie, Downey Jr switches to that character's Australian voice in the commentary, only giving in and switching back to his own voice during the end credits.

Now that's meta.

Stiller: 'This scene actually went really smoothly, I thought, when we shot it. You guys had a really good rhythm going with each other.'
RDJ: 'Yeah, and we only did like sixty, seventy, ninety takes o' this. Fuck! (laughter) 'Member when you had him smack me all goddamn day, Ben? I 'member like it was fuckin' yesterday.'

Stiller: 'This was a fun scene to shoot.'
RDJ: 'Was it? (laughter) I was there, and I don't remember it as such.'
Stiller: 'How do you remember it?'
RDJ: 'As unadulterated torture. (more laughter) Oh, here I come, though. Everybody shut up.'

Stiller: 'I love that that we've actually accepted Robert in this voice for the whole commentary. And again, I find myself strangely liking this guy more than the real Robert.'

RDJ: 'You was all over him about the knittin' and how to make the knittin' look a certain way. You were fuckin' up his head that day, man. I don't know how he made it. You toxic motherfucker. (laughter) Damn, you wouldn't let it go. 'Cut. Back to one. Get the thread up. Doesn't look like you're threadin' the needle'. And, like, you don't even give a fuck in this scene. Man, you was trippin' on him.'

Black: 'One time I heard the commentary for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Did you ever listen to that? With Ang Lee and, like, the head writer or...?'
RDJ: Hold on, man. You show up here tardy, and now you're talkin' about another fuckin' commentary?' (laughter)

THE LIMEY (1999) - Commentary by Director Steven Soderbergh & Writer Lem Dobbs


Oh, I do love this movie. In fact I think it might be Soderbergh's best, which is really saying something. Granted, the basic revenge plot (Brit gangster, fresh from long prison term, goes to America to get to the bottom of his estranged daughter's death) is about as thin as a bible page, and on the surface the low-budget film seems like an excuse for the filmmakers to play a modern-day riff on such classic crime movies like 'Get Carter' and 'Point Blank'. But there's so much more to it than that. With its heavy nods to the sixties, and its fractured non-linear narrative and wickedly witty script, Soderbergh instead gives us an almost touching meditation on regret and loss and bad choices and missed chances, all wrapped up in a gorgeous modern-day sun-drenched noir package. In this, he's aided greatly by Terence Stamp, who gives a fantastic performance as the single-minded Wilson, and there's some sterling support from other '60s icons such as Peter Fonda, Barry Newman and Lesley Ann Warren, amongst others.

Similar to other modern auteur directors, such as David Fincher and David Cronenberg, Soderbergh chose to embrace DVD commentaries from the very beginning and has not only provided comprehensive tracks for many of his own movies, but has even appeared on tracks for films by other directors (such as John Boorman's 'Point Blank'). As Soderbergh said in one interview: 'The key is to never do them alone.' And so for this one he takes his own advice and gets together with his primary collaborator on the movie, cranky screenwriter Lem Dobbs - who, it quickly becomes apparent, is not afraid to speak his mind ('I'll say, in your defence and mine, that screenwriting is a hopeless profession') and berate Soderbergh for some of the directorial choices he made. It's sometimes a testy affair, to be sure, but it's also obvious that this isn't a new experience for them and they clearly both enjoy needling each other whenever possible. It's that kind of relationship. But as far as I'm concerned, honesty is always preferable to false pats on the back, and it's clear that Soderbergh (who remains fairly good-humoured and unruffled for the most part) feels the same way.

But not content with that, Soderbergh then decided to take things that little bit further by editing the track until it matched the fragmentary nature of the film itself, in order to throw the listener off his/her guard whenever he/she least expects it. So, like the movie itself, the first minute of the commentary becomes a fragmented preview of what we can expect over the course of the next ninety minutes. 'We are rolling,' a sound engineer says, which is then followed by seemingly random snippets of heated dialogue between director and writer. Finally, the recording shuts off and then we start again, for real this time. But later on there are still instances where the audio is double-tracked, then sped up, and snippets are edited back and forth to mimic the fractured narrative of the movie. It's really well done, and it quickly becomes clear that Soderbergh has put a lot of thought into making the track as interesting as possible, and that's something I really appreciate.

Soderbergh: 'Now here's a scene a lot of people have commented upon, which you indicated very clearly in the script, that the camera stays outside as Wilson goes in. Because this is so much more interesting, to see him come out with the blood on his face.'
Dobbs: 'Well, yeah, tell me about it. I've read enough reviews that have praised the bravura direction - most notably that motherfucker in Variety - yeah, the brilliant direction of Steven Soderbergh. But that was one of the examples of a detail in the script that you actually directed that way. Thank you very much.'

Dobbs: 'When I read reviews that say 'style over substance' I blame you. I can't actually say they're wrong.'

Dobbs: 'It's your fetishist nature, and you want it to be very clear that there's a side street there, but you don't want any back-story for the human relationships or characters, but - goddammit - people are going to know there's a second way down that hill.'
Soderbergh: 'Yeah, I like knowing where people are. I don't care who they are. I just want to know where they are.'

Dobbs: 'I should say I hate this scene too. This Tarantino/Barry Levinson 'Whaddaya mean? I don't... What's a sliding scale?' I don't get it.
Soderbergh: 'I'm trying to develop character here.'
Dobbs: 'Ha! I can certainly do without that scene. Which I didn't write... Did I?'

Soderbergh remarks that the movie is 'a series of duos. Everyone has their sidekick. Terence Stamp has Luis Guzman, and Peter Fonda has Barry Newman. And then there are these two goonish hitmen.'

Dobbs: 'David Lean once said, "Never pop out the same hole twice."'
Soderbergh: 'Yeah, he was noted for his short films.'

To be honest it would be easy to carry on quoting gems like this, but since it's all like this I'd only end up transcribing the entire commentary and I have to end this somewhere.

On a related note, I should add that this is actually only the first of two commentaries on the DVD. The second one - featuring Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman and Joe Dallesandro, all seemingly pieced together from interview segments, plus further comments by Soderbergh and Dobbs - is actually labelled a '60s docu-commentary' and rarely touches on scenes in the film at all. Instead the actors - and Stamp and Fonda, in particular - give us some insight into their lives and careers during the sixties and how much of themselves they put into their onscreen personae, while touching on the actual culture of the decade as they remember it. It's one of those rare commentaries that seems to have been purposely designed to be listened to on its own, and is really fascinating stuff. All in all, a highly recommended disc.

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Okay. Now I had about eight or nine commentary tracks I wanted to discuss, and while I originally planned to cover them all in a single blog post I can see that was nothing but wishful thinking on my part. As usual things got a little out of hand and what was intended to have been a simple, one-paragraph, capsule review for each commentary turned into something a little more in-depth and convoluted. So I think what I'll do is cut this short right here and then cover the rest of my choices in part two, which should be ready in a week or two. 

So do check back, and I'll see y'all soon.