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Five Rules for Great DVD Commentaries

Five Rules for Great DVD Commentaries (photo)

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Whenever someone asks me what my favorite DVD special feature is, I always pick audio commentary. But from talking with other cinephiles and casual film fans alike, I’ve begun to feel like I’m in the minority. I hear the same complaints, over and over, about filmmaker tracks: they’re boring, they’re uninformative, and so on. To which I always reply, you don’t like them because you’re not listening to the right ones.

There are plenty of bad commentary tracks out there, but there are plenty of bad movies out there too; the trick is to find the good ones. From my highly subjective perspective, here are the rules that govern all great DVD commentary tracks.

09102009_Conan.jpg1. Don’t Just Tell Us What’s Happening on the Screen

Just about the worst thing you can do on a commentary track is simply reiterate what the audience is seeing. Thankfully, it’s not an especially common phenomenon nowadays, but it was painfully so back in the earliest days of commentaries, when they were still primarily done for laserdiscs. Eventually, filmmakers realized there wasn’t much margin in redundancy: who needs to hear someone narrate the film’s visuals at the cost of its audio? The exception to this all-important rule is the track for 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian,” which consists of 129 minutes of director John Milius and star Arnold Schwarzenegger pointing out all the cool stuff in their movie. “Look at it!” Milius says, in a typical exchange, “What a way to go! Eaten by armored rottweilers,” to which Arnold replies, “That is a wild scene.” So points off for obviousness, but you can’t deny their enthusiasm; on more than one occasion, Milius is so proud of his accomplishments that he’s moved to remark, “God, that’s a good scene.”

The two make a perfect team: Arnold’s lunkheaded amusement (“Look at me sleeping there. That is funny!”), and Milius’ macho pseudophilosophy (“You are free! And you don’t know what freedom is. Freedom is the wolves!”). They’re not trying to be funny — they’re trying to be deadly serious — which, of course, is precisely what makes it funny. For instance, Milius compliments a woman (I think) by saying, “Look at that wonderful Viking face she has.” Schwarzenegger was reportedly paid $50,000 to provide commentary for “Total Recall,” but whatever Universal paid him and Milius for this masterwork of manliness, it was worth it. (Check out the sample dialogue here and tell me I’m wrong.)

09102009_PCU.jpg2. Honesty is the Best Policy

In the world of commentary tracks, everyone gets along. As soon as the microphones go on, all the diva freakouts, creative dust-ups and contract disputes vanish, and in their place appear bland platitudes like “They were a pleasure to work with!” Of course, you can’t really blame someone for choosing not to badmouth someone on the record. It’s spiteful, it’s childish and it’s probably not very good for your career. But it’s so entertaining to watch! For an exception to the rule, check out Jeremy Piven’s astoundingly bitter track for the 1994 cult comedy “PCU.” Piven is still upset that director Hart Bochner, who he derisively refers to as “the director, Hart Bochner,” didn’t let him improvise any of his lines. Though he’s glad the film ultimately found an audience on home video, he thinks the movie could have been much funnier (not to mention more “anarchic”) if he’d been given free rein to improvise.

Piven doesn’t just insult his director, though; he also knocks his own acting a few times, and even makes fun of how much more hair he has now than he did in the mid-1990s (“I take a lot of Chinese herbs,” he says). He goes so far as to take credit for the movie’s most famous line (“Don’t be that guy,'” Piven tells Jon Favreau as he’s about to go to a concert wearing the band’s T-shirt), as the example of the only time Bochner — excuse me, the director, Hart Bochner — gave him the freedom he asked for. The “PCU” track couldn’t have helped Piven’s reputation as a “difficult” actor. But it earned him a new level of respect in my book.

09102009_TropicThunder.jpg3. If You Can’t Be Yourself, Be Someone Else

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Rule #2, the special edition of “This is Spinal Tap” features a terrifically entertaining commentary track from Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer as Spinal Tap, still bitter about their portrayal in this “rockumentary” and still just as hilariously dumb as ever. Their in-character commentary is often as quotable as the actual movie: at one point, David St. Hubbins (McKean) refers to the album “Rock and Roll Creation” as an “underlooked concept album.” Without missing a beat, Nigel Tufnel (Guest) quickly chimes in “…and underbought.”

Arguably even more impressive is Robert Downey Jr.’s contribution to the cast commentary on the film “Tropic Thunder.” Staying true to a joke in the film that his character, crazed method actor Kirk Lazarus, doesn’t break character until after he records the DVD commentary, Downey does the entire track as the dude playing the dude (Lazarus) disguised as another dude (Lincoln Osiris, in his stereotypically African-American voice), despite the fact that he’s recording it alongside co-stars Ben Stiller and Jack Black, who are definitely not in character along with him. As Stiller and Black incredulously laugh along, Downey Jr. comments on the entire film as Lincoln: even more impressively, when his character onscreen assumes Asian or Australian accents, he seamlessly slips into those, and only assumes his real voice for the closing credits. It’s a silly gag and in lesser hands, it could have become awfully tiresome. But Downey Jr. is so good, he turns a dumb joke into a jaw-dropping acting clinic.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.