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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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Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

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Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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