Commentary Commentary

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Plot synopsis: Half-naked bodybuilders slash, stab, maim, and dismember a whole lot of people. Oh yeah, and some token speeches about freedom are given. But really, we’re all just here for the carnage.

Voices behind the commentary curtain: director Zach Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad and director of photography Larry Fong.

Summary: Director Zach Snyder and friends take us on an in-depth technical discussion of how the visual magic of 300 was accomplished.

Commentary: Let’s face it – most people probably didn’t go to see 300 for the plot. They went for the amazing visual effects and general testosterone pumping action. And 300 delivers that in spades.

Zach Snyder leads the commentary, with Kurt Johnstad and Larry Fong occasionally contributing. The group focuses almost exclusively on the technical challenges of bringing Frank Miller’s vision to the screen, with little to no discussion of storyline or characters. Normally that would be off-putting, but since a large part of this movie’s appeal revolves around the stunning visual effects it makes sense in this case. The first time I saw this movie, a lot of my comments were “How did they DO that?” so it was certainly interesting to hear which scenes were CGI only, how they accomplished visual tricks like making Xerxes a giant, and so forth.

Snyder does a capable job discussing these matters, though the tone is largely academic. The commentary feels a bit dry, and after 2 hours, it feels a bit repetitive. For example, the director discusses composing the sky in the background on at least 5 different occasions. While they do on occasion mention the historical story that inspired the graphic novel and film, it’s mostly quick comments such as “Oh, that line really was said, according the historians.” I would have like to hear more reflection on where the story deviated from history, especially since the film has a strong sentiment of “Let’s fight for freedom for all men!” which is ironic, given that the criteria for Spartan citizenship meant that most people living had no rights of citizenship (there were 8 slaves for every 1 Spartan man). Overall, the commentary was interesting in spots, but ultimately not riveting.

The Verdict: A decent and informative, if dry, commentary. Recommended only for fans who enjoy learning about the technical aspects of filmmaking. Final Grade: B

Monday, March 20, 2006

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Plot synopsis: The title pretty much says it all. Steve Carrell plays the titular character, a nerdy but cute fellow who’s never had sex. His new friends (Rudd, Rogan and Malco) take it upon themselves to cure him of his virginity. Hilarity ensues. Meanwhile, he must deal with a burgeoning relationship with the always saucy and sexy Catherine Keener.

Voices behind the commentary curtain: director Judd Apatow, stars Steve Carrell, Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, Jane Lynch, Leslie Mann, Romany Malco, Gerry Bednob – pretty much the entire cast and crew. Maybe the cleaning staff and Apatow’s mom too. I’m not sure.

Summary: Apatow, Carrell and company deliver zinger after zinger, along with amusing anecdotes and bizarre non sequiters.

Commentary: One of the best films released in 2005, The 40 Year Old Virgin catapulted Steve Carrell into legitimate leading man standing (of course, those of us who knew him from the equally awesome “The Office” television series were already well aware of Carrell’s comedic talents). The film was written and directed by Judd Apatow, already beloved by hipsters everywhere for his work on shows such as “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” Other indie favorites like Seth Rogen (an Apatow regular), Paul Rudd and Jane Lynch also appear in the film. Actually, almost 80% of the people involved in this movie fell into the “Why the hell aren’t these insanely talented people like a hundred times more famous?” category.

First the good stuff: this commentary is hysterical. Several of the cast are experienced improv veterans (including alums from the famous Second City troupe), and it shows in their razor sharp wit. Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd are particularly amusing – at one point Rogan gives Carrell the following feedback about his scene: “Less semen, more emotion!” Later on, one of the running jokes involves every cast member (including the fabulous Jane Lynch) implying that they made out with with Judd Apatow’s wife. His wife, as it turns out, is Leslie Mann, who played the drunk girl who pukes on Carrell. Very, very funny. And, as you can see, very crude. I’d imagine that if you are fan of the movie this sort of humor isn’t going to bother you. So, enjoy the foul-mouthed goodness.

However, the commentary suffers at times from a lack of focus. With pretty much the entire cast trying to comment or tell a story, the commentary veers all over the place. A lot of film passes by without any direct comment, since someone is usually busy telling an unrelated anecdote or joke. For example, they spend five minutes talking about Gerry Bednob’s stand-up routine (which he then delivers to the listener), which I could have done without. Fortunately, most of the digressions are amusing, so it’s largely forgivable. Still, I wish they had either split the cast into two groups, or kept the commentary to the four primary cast members and the director.

They do manage to address the most infamous scene in the movie – the chest waxing scene. The commentary here is both entertaining and informative. Plus, that scene never gets old, so even if you don’t like the commentary, you can always re-enjoy watching Carrell shriek Kelly Clarkson's name at the top of his lungs.

There’s a patch of dead space towards the end when they seem to run out of steam, but overall, they enterain most of the time. This one is a can’t miss. Definitely cue it up in the DVD player and be prepared to giggle your brains out.

The Verdict: A must-hear commentary that will have you laughing out loud. Though it has minimal educational value (film buffs looking for tips will be disappointed), its awesome-icity level is at the max. Final grade: B+

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Plot synopsis: In the 23rd century, a mysterious (and strangely phallic) probe is headed towards Earth, destorying everything in its path. Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew time travel back to 1986 to rescue two humpback whales, which are the only living beings capable of communicating with the probe. Wackiness and adventure ensue.

Voices behind the commentary curtain: Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner

Summary: Hands down, one of my favorite commentary tracks of all time. The voices of Kirk and Spock treat us to a delightful mix of Trek trivia, behind the scenes tidbits and general wackiness. Among the highlights on this track is a segment where Shatner quotes D.H. Lawrence while croning whale songs. Yeah… if that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

Commentary: Full disclosure here – I’m a Star Trek fan. Not the insane Trekkie type per se (I don’t own my own uniform, I don’t live in my parents’ basement, etc), but I’ve seen all 6 of the original series movies and I’ve watched episodes from all of the various series. And Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is my favorite movie in the Trek movie series. So I was certainly inclined to give this movie a good rating if the commentary was halfway decent.

Anyhoo, the commentary track on this DVD (the special Collector’s Edition, woo!) is provided by William Shatner (a.k.a. Captain Kirk) and Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Spock). Nimoy not only served as an actor in this movie, but also as the director and story co-creator.

Rumors have abounded over the years about the alleged conflict between the Trek stars, especially between Shatner and Nimoy. However, the tone of this commentary is that of two old buddies (or, if that is too strong a word, at least former comrades-in-arms). Both men have a really nice chemistry and they contribute equally to the talking.

I like how they discuss things that fans would – continuity, Trek trivia, etc. Trek fans out there will particularly enjoy the moments where Nimoy and Shatner seem to be commenting not as actors or as a director, but as regular viewers/fans – chuckling at classic character moments such as Bones delivering one of this trademark sarcastic quips. Their knowledge of the history of their show/movie series is solid and they provide a lot of insight into the crafting of the series as a whole, not just this movie. I particularly enjoyed the moments where they reminisce about working with the late DeForest Kelley, affectionately referring to him as “D” and laughing over good old times.

Overall, the commentary is well paced and there is little dead air. The topics run the gamut from highly technical matters such as special effects to more artistic matters such as story telling techniques and acting methods. Nimoy’s age does show now and then with his comments about special effects. He raves about how nifty some of the effects are and how far along they’ve come in the past few decades. It’s sort of like listening to your grandpa talk about technology. Still, he and Shatner do provide a lot of good comments about the history of film making, the process of film making, and the process of acting. You’ll even learn a little something about history and science, as both men discuss the real world plight of whales, the efforts of Greenpeace to protect them and so forth.

As a director, Nimoy is refeshingly frank about what he thinks does and does not work about the movie. For example, he comments that he drops the ball a little on the time travel sequence, admitting that it doesn’t have the impact that he would have liked. There is some discussion about the various special effects and little tricks they used to create different illusions. Mostly Nimoy talks about that – Shatner just raves about how cool it all is. They talk about how budget limited some of the shots they were trying to accomplish, and some of the work-arounds they came up with.

Shatner contributes his own special brand of rambling insanity as well, and it’s his commentary that really makes this track the delicious morsal that it is. He’s a nice mix of pompous, humble and totally delusional. I do appreciate his sense of humor about himself (he admits he hated the idea of time travel, and said so, and was glad that no one listened to him). His moments of self-deprecation are both hilarious and touching. Shockingly enough, every now and then he says something fairly perceptive and/or intelligent. There are some real nuggests of goodness amongst the rambling. His comments about how being on film grants a certain level of immortality to the actors are actually fairly deep and interesting. But such serious moments are balanced out by Shatner’s rambling descriptions of his one man poetry shows (which he re-enacts for listeners, quoting D.H. Lawrence and croning whale songs) and other artistic endeavours.

The Verdict: An almost-perfect commentary track, with something for everyone, from casual fans to the most hardcore Trekkies. If only all commentary tracks were this amusing. Final grade: A

Thursday, February 16, 2006

In the beginning....

Welcome to "Commentary Commentary"!

mission statement: to review DVD commentary tracks

rating system: A+ to F, just like high school, only without all the atomic wedgies

next movie to be reviewed: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

other planned movies: (in no particular order) Aliens, The Office (U.S. version), Sideways, Kissing Jessica Stein, The 40 Year Old Virgin

how it will work: The plan is to rate the commentary based on the following criteria:
  1. informative - Does the commentary teach you anything interesting? Does it further your understanding of the movie making process at all? Do they have nifty facts to share?
  2. entertaining - Pretty self-explanatory. Will it keep you on the edge of your seat or will it put you to sleep?
  3. awesome-icity level - Is it worth listening to? Is it for fanboys only or for the general public?

Okay, that's all. Look for the Star Trek IV review by next week, hopefully. Yes, I do take requests, so if there's a commentary track out there that you're dying to see reviewed, let me know. Mind you, the score of the DVD will be independent of the actual quality of the movie the commentary accompanies. For example, Dungeons and Dragons was a steaming pile of crap that deserves an F rating. However, if the commentary is amusing and/or informative, I might give the DVD an A-. See ya all later.