Movie Commentaries
by Phil Boatwright

DVD audio commentaries are the best thing to happen to movies since Bogey and Bacall. Thus sayyth the movie buff. For a film critic, commentary tracks are a great source of information, with a capacity to generate sensitivity toward those who make movies. But film commentaries can also serve you.

Commentary tracts give insight concerning the social behavior of times gone by, and reveal how movie-going sensibilities have changed throughout the years. Now, I’m not saying all movies were better then than they are now. If you’ve ever suffered through a Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto marathon, you’ll realize that the Golden Age of Movies had its share of stinkers. But, while there have been B, C and F films throughout the decades, during the formative years of movie making, studio heads gleaned material from sources that contained content more in keeping with biblical principles than more recent screen offerings. And in times past, movie moguls were sensitive toward and/or fearful of church goers’ reactions. Not so much, anymore.

I remember how taken I was with George Clooney’s Oscar-nominated film Michael Clayton last year. With its insightful, nonlinear script coupled with trenchant dialogue, engaging directing and masterful performing, Michael Clayton was a throwback to storytelling from days of old. Alas, my appreciation was dampened by yet another “serious” movie crammed with obscenity and profanity. It’s harder to find a biblically respectful movie than a Republican in Vermont.

The films listed below contain bonus materials, such as makings of the movie or bios on the filmmakers and more, along with revealing commentary tracks. Viewing and listening to the extras gives us an appreciation of the films, but also give us an awareness of the medium’s influence on our society over the past 100 years.

Casablanca and Citizen Kane both feature film critic Roger Ebert giving voice-over details about the two best films of all time. Listening to Mr. Ebert, you’ll sense not only his knowledge of medium, but his love of the art form.

The Adventures of Robin Hood. The two-disc set of the 65th anniversary edition is simply stunning. The most colorful film ever, with Errol Flynn the quintessential swashbuckler, Robin Hood sparkles with action, witty dialogue and one of Hollywood’s best musical scores. The packaged set contains vintage shorts, a the making of the film, and two classic cartoons (Merrie Melodies’ Rabbit Hood, starring Bugs Bunny, and Looney Tunes’ Robin Hood Daffy, with Daffy Duck (hysterical).

To Kill A Mockingbird. Horton Foote's winning screenplay of the Harper Lee novel concerns rural life, justice, conviction and bigotry as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl. Universal’s Legacy Series presents a two-disc set containing a commentary tract by the director (Robert Mulligan) and the producer (Alan Pakula). There’s also a moving documentary on the film’s star, Gregory Peck (the AFI named Peck’s character, Atticus Finch, the #1 movie hero). There are only a handful of “perfect” movies. This is one of them.

Laura and All About Eve. Both films contain erudite, --- and witty dialogue and the commentaries remind us of the --- of words. Today, most films use crude or once offensive language to create mood or express anger and frustration. Some of today’s other films don’t even bother with that. They just put a cowl and cape on a angst-ridden main character and have him defeat the --- of the special effects department.

The Searchers. Warner Bros 50th anniversary edition contains two jam-packed discs with a commentary track by perhaps the most savvy film buff around, Peter Bogdanovich (director of What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show). Also included: featurettes on John Wayne, director John Ford, and the making of arguably the best western ever.

In recent years, Universal Studios has remastered the original Dracula, the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi, as well as his buddy, Frankenstein. And most recently, Boris Karloff’s The Mummy has been dug up and given the brush-up. Added to these classic spook fests are commentary tracts and documentaries that not only spotlight the ingenuity of those bringing the then new genre to movie theaters, but also giving a perspective on the culture of the time.

The Sound of Music. 20th Century Fox has a 40th anniversary edition with two commentary tracks, one featuring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the second by the film’s director, Robert Wise. A second disc is loaded with extras, including a conversation with all the kids – now grown up.

Of course, not all commentaries are done with family listening in mind. There are no ratings on DVD bonus features to give you warning. You might want to keep that in mind when selecting films starring Seth Rogen.