Some of the worst movies have inspired some of the most amusing commentary tracks, while some of the best movies have unspeakably dry commentaries. It's a rare and special DVD that pairs a classic piece of entertainment with a commentary that's an enlightening and enjoyable experience in its own right. In a twist on our regular Commentary Tracks Of The Damned feature, The Onion A.V. Club revisited some of our favorites to consider what makes a great commentary track great.
Commentators: Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier
Commentary Style: Emphatic. Verhoeven's commentaries are always lively, but few movies have been as widely misinterpreted as Starship Troopers, and he's eager to set the record straight. Quoting straight away from a Time magazine review that labeled it "fascist," Verhoeven counters that the film is anti-fascist, telling viewers, "Whenever you see something that you think is fascist, you should know that the filmmakers agree with your opinion."
What's So Special? Arguably the most subversive major studio movie of the '90s, Starship Troopers gets a rigorous defense from Verhoeven and Neumeier, who beat back the critics by interpreting the film for them. Verhoeven feels equal passion for politics and special effects, so when he isn't unpacking the machinations of a fascist state, he's marveling over his beautiful CGI creations. ("There are no politics in this scene. There are just big, ugly bugs.") And when he gets really excited, Verhoeven blows out the speakers.
Choice Lines: With the actors working against blue screens during the action sequences, Verhoeven took it upon himself to stand in for the giant attacking bugs. Verhoeven: "AHHHHHHHHH!!!!"
Commentators: Writer-director George Romero, his wife/actress Christine Forrest Romero, actor/effects-artist Tom Savini, actor John Amplas, and film historian Chris Stavrakis
Commentary Style: Summer-camp reunion. Romero's fanciful meditation on modern chivalry–with Renaissance Fair knights on motorcycles–took 90 days to shoot, and nearly every shot inspires a reverie about hard work, hard play, and friends lost.
What's So Special? Savini gets misty recalling what a special experience it was to work on a movie they all believed in, even though it died at the box office. As the conversation develops, Romero comes to realize that the making of Knightriders and its eventual tepid reception mirror the movie's theme: how integrity and personal passion don't stand a chance in a society where roaring crowds crave violence without meaning.
Choice Lines: Romero: "This came out at the same time as Excalibur, and I still have the review in Newsweek that preferred this." Stavrakis: "I have that one too. Reagan on the cover."
Commentators: Poker pros Phil Hellmuth, Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, and Chris Moneymaker
Commentary Style: Loose and conversational, like a few guys hanging out on the couch. Only these aren't ordinary guys, they're four poker experts with six World Series Of Poker main-event titles between them. At times, the joshing tone resembles the "coffeehousing" that goes on at poker tables, when the players are trying to throw each other off their game. Chan gets teased for a scene in which Matt Damon bluffs him with nothing ("Only in the movies," says Chan), Moneymaker boasts that he doesn't know the sick feeling of busting out of the WSOP (he'd only played once at that point), and they try to one-up each other for the longest session ever played. (Chan easily takes the cake with 120 hours.)
What's So Special? Many movies are made about professional life, but rarely are professionals asked for commentary. During the poker scenes in Rounders, this quartet offers a tutorial on how to think through a hand, but just as good are their observations on the perils and pleasures of the poker lifestyle.
Choice Lines: Ferguson: "I got a joke for you guys. What's the difference between a large cheese pizza and a professional poker player? A large cheese pizza can feed a family of four."
Commentators: Director Cameron Crowe and his mother
Commentary Style: Warm, anecdotal, and, in Crowe's words, "embarrassingly personal," which is appropriate given that Almost Famous tells his own coming-of-age story in scrupulous detail. Crowe's adolescent odyssey through the rock world allows him to reminisce with his mom as if they were watching a $60 million home movie.
What's So Special? Crowe is one of a small handful of gregarious, likable directors who can be counted on for good commentary; his "video commentary" with the stars of Jerry Maguire is particularly innovative. But Crowe's unique connection to the material adds another layer to Almost Famous, allowing him to measure the events on the screen against the vivid memories that informed them. What resonates most strongly are Crowe's conflicted feelings about rock journalism, which can easily seduce young writers into friendships that can compromise their work. Even now, he doesn't sound wholly convinced that he always stayed on the right side of the line.
Choice Lines: Speaking of rock-star persuasion, Crowe credits two of the film's key lines to verbatim quotes taken from image-conscious icons: "Just make us look cool" (The Eagles' Glenn Frey) and "He's our friend. He won't write about it." (Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page).
Commentators: Star Max Julien, director Michael Campus, and actors Don Gordon, Dick Anthony Williams, George Murdock, and Annazette Chase
Commentary Style: Richly evocative, mackadocious, filled with crazy anecdotes, and dripping with sleazy '70s Oakland atmosphere. It's dominated by the silky, laid-back charisma and mild craziness of Max Julien, who states convincingly that he never would have played his signature role if his own mother hadn't died at the time, giving his performance a poignant melancholy quality.
What's So Special? If Baadasssss! hadn't covered the territory so ably, the filming of The Mack would make for a terrific stranger-than-fiction showbiz saga. The Mack's tag-team commentary vividly chronicles the film's surreal genesis, from its beginning as a treatment written on toilet paper in prison through its precarious filming on the mean streets of gang-controlled Oakland, under the protection of the notorious Ward brothers, with a cast filled with real-life pimps.
Choice Lines: "[Richard Pryor] had done a movie with Shelley Winters and he peed on Shelley Winters' head," Julien says of one of the reasons people were reluctant to cast his unpredictable Mack sidekick in movies.
Commentators: Director Michael Sarne, star Raquel Welch
Commentary Styles: Bitchy, gossipy, and relentlessly catty. In his wonderfully paranoid track ("Every day, some new bit of sabotage would be discovered"), Sarne disses stars Raquel Welch and Rex Reed ("Not a very nice person"), novelist Gore Vidal (whom he accuses of trying to turn the film into propaganda for the "gay agenda"), executives, and co-screenwriter David Giler, while defending diva-run-amok Mae West as "everybody's granny." (Surely that was a minority opinion.) On a separate track, Welch matches Sarne's sneering derision with a vitriolic attack on the film and Sarne.
What's So Special? Myra Breckinridge's dueling commentaries deliver everything a commentary track for a notorious disaster should: artistic self-loathing, unrepentant nastiness, vicious insults, and prodigious dirt flying in every direction. Gleefully ripping apart the rules dictating commentary etiquette, industry politics, and plain old common decency, Sarne and Welch confirm everyone's worst suspicions about Hollywood being a complete madhouse. Most commentators for flops act as if they're dissecting a timeless classic. Sarne occasionally indulges this impulse, but Welch lets her disgust with the film permeate every hostile, bitter comment.
Choice Lines: Welch: "Boy, I can't believe how sucky that first line was. I didn't remember I was that bad. I don't know who I was supposed to be impersonating: Gore Vidal? As a girl?"
Commentator: Hong Kong cinema scholar Ric Meyers
Commentary Style: Encyclopedic. Meyers is so ridiculously informed about the history of Hong Kong cinema that he's able to point to minor characters and deliver quick, miniature histories of the actors who played them.
What's So Special? Scholar commentaries can be dicey. The worst ones–like the handful of classic Hollywood movies dissected by Criterion regular Marion Keane–give film-studies programs a bad name. When a track comes along like David Kalat on The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse or Glenn Erickson on Gun Crazy or Meyers here, the conversational enthusiasm can make anyone want to be a cineaste. Meyers acts as a kind of viewer advocate, serving as an intermediary between the audience and the movie, pointing out connotations that might otherwise be missed.
Choice Lines: "I would like to make a plea to all subtitlers in the world to please start translating the Chinese that appears on signs. It would nice to know what they say, or at least get a hint of how it relates to the film."
Commentators: Composer Stephen Sondheim, book writer James Lapine, and co-stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
Commentary Style: Wistful. All involved remember the development and staging of Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical as one of the most creative periods of their lives. The track is a marvelous primer on how a masterpiece gets made, as well a dishy look at the quirks and concerns of New York drama types.
What's So Special? The foursome watched a video of the play with no sound, so the DVD recreates that experience, letting them converse without any muted background music or dialogue. In that hushed environment, they make confessions: Patinkin admits how the multiple meanings of Sunday In The Park With George still haunt him, Peters recalls the stress of doing a role that requires such extremes of comedy and pathos, and Sondheim reflects on his doubts through the long process of workshopping and making last-minute changes. By the end of the show, they're all audibly in tears.
Choice Lines: Patinkin: "This so informed my life and fed my life, in terms of simple things. The words 'to look,' 'to see.' The whole sense of the process that I learned from working on it, from our discussions."
Commentator: Director Steven Soderbergh
Commentary Style: Wry, postmodern, mock self-aggrandizing. A mildly hostile Soderbergh interviews "Steven Soderbergh," a lacerating parody of directorial ego. (At one point, he solemnly intones that Ocean's Eleven profoundly changed the lives of everyone who saw it.) As "Soderbergh" discourses windily on his greatness, the mysteries of the artistic process, and his belief that artists shouldn't be subject to the laws that govern everyone else, the track becomes a satire of the arrogance and self-delusion characterizing most audio commentaries.
What's So Special? Soderbergh throws down the gauntlet early on when he deadpans that Schizopolis was originally developed for David Lean two years after Lean's death. Like Schizopolis itself, the commentary is a loose, irreverent, ramshackle, inventive sustained riff on fame, media, and identity.
Choice Lines: In faux-grand auteur mode, Soderbergh deadpans, "I've always felt that there's kind of a tacit agreement that if someone agrees to work on your film, that you not only own them and everything that they think, but also by extension own everything they own, and that includes their clothes, their car, their house, whatever friends they might have, and whatever cash they might be carrying."