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.


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  2. I think it’s the laserdisc copy only, but I know one of the versions the commentary on Dusk till Dawn goes well past the credits. And I know this is an old article, but I’d love to hear the lost audio commentary on “Eyes Wide Shut” that was announced and then mysteriously removed right before release from actor “Sydney Pollack”. Another novel but great track is on Tim Burton’s - “Mars Attacks” A kind of Easter Egg commentary where an Alien from the film does an entire commentary on the film in, “bap! Blap! Blah Blap!” You can’t talk novel commentaries with out bringing up one the biggest? Which is the second Spinal Tap commentary done completely in character by Guest, McKean and Shearer. (Replacing the original commentary they did out of character when Criterion lost the rights to the movie.) But honestly? I’d say as far as the BEST in-character audio commentaries ever recorded? Would have to be on Garth Marenghi's Darkplace - Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade and Matt Holness commentate the entire 6 episodes hilariously in character. Unfortunately you’ll need a region free DVD player to hear that one, as it was only released in the UK. One of the most informative commentaries I’ve ever heard is on Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno. It’s jaw dropping in some of the behind the scenes details. And I’d be remiss not bringing up the two I was involved with? Trey Parker’s live action “Cannibal the Musical” and “Orgazmo.” I will say Universal kind of screwed us with the audio mix on the second audio commentary, the “Wild Commentary” we recorded with multiple friends of Matt and Trey. They would not let us do it and it’s levels are so off in places it’s unlistenable. When we started working on that DVD it was with USA Films and they gave us all the support in the world, until they were bought out by Universal. So don’t blame me on that! I get so much crap for that and that’s what happened. It would have been great.

  3. And this is why people should continue to support physical media. Sure they could do this as a stream but so far they haven't.

  4. You left out one of my favorites, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, where he barely every pauses, covers all these details how he made the film so cheaply, and really, it's like getting a quick 90-minute master class in low-budget film making.