The best audio commentaries ever!

List shows. They’re great aren’t they? We love ’em to bits, every single one, don’t we?

No. We don’t. We hate list shows. We hate everything about list shows, except the fact they can fill an entire Sunday evening when you’re too stuffed to find something else to watch.

DVD commentaries. They’re invaluable companion pieces to movies and TV shows, aren’t they?

No. Audio commentaries are just directors and luvvies droning on about camera angles, mise en scene and how it’s really hard gig, acting. Only trainspotting dweebs like me listen to audio commentaries.

Despite these obvious problems, I thought I’d put together a list of audio commentaries anyway. Sue me.

Now there are plenty of rubbish audio commentaries. I’ll never forget Bridget Jones’s Diary‘s, for example, which consisted entirely of the director saying things like, “Ooh. This was a scene with Rene and Colin. We shot it at night. They were very good.”

But what makes a good audio commentary? Here’s a few examples:

1 Fight Club

Not really that different from most audio commentaries, bar one single fact: Brad Pitt is clearly off his head on something. I’d hazard a guess it’s grass, given his previous statements on the subject, but it might be tequilas. Whatever it was, Brad clearly found everything very, very funny indeed as a result. And as a result, it’s very, very funny to listen to.

2 Big Train

A much-neglected sketch show from Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, starring Simon Pegg, Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon and other comedy geniuses. The audio commentaries for the first two episodes are just Mathews and Linehan struggling to recall what they were thinking about when they wrote particular scenes. But then, joy! The entire cast bundles in through the door during episode three and the hilarity begins. They take the piss out of the writers, themselves, audio commentaries, the series. You name it, they rip the piss out of it. Much funnier than the actual episodes they watch, in fact. “It’s called Eaaaaaarth”. Nice one, Kevin.

3 Dodgeball

Practically existential this one. If you don’t listen to the audio commentary, the DVD is just a DVD. Listen to the audio commentary and suddenly it takes on a completely new aspect. Consider: almost every DVD these days has things like deleted scenes, usually with the director explaining why they were deleted. Watch the deleted scenes on Dodgeball and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the terrible studios had forced the writer/director to excise the true ending in favour of the commercially popular ending. Then you listen to the DVD commentary and you realise it’s all lies: the director cannot be trusted. He’s messing with your head.

At first, the commentary starts with the director and Vince Vaughn discussing the movie. But wait! Where’s Ben Stiller? Oh, he’s late, apparently. Vaughn and the director then discuss – for 20 minutes – what a complete jerk-off Stiller is, how full of himself he is and so on. Then Stiller comes in and starts to play along, demanding someone watch his car for him in case it gets stolen. And so on. Basically, the whole DVD commentary has almost nothing to do with the actual movie, but is just a kind of extended audio version of Extras/Curb Your Enthusiasm/The Larry Sanders Show. And then you realise: even the other bits of the DVD are lies as well. Could they really have shot the ten minutes of extra footage necessary for the new ending in just a day? Would they really have ended the movie the way they originally claimed? Will you ever have faith in a DVD commentary again after this one? It’s all deeply disturbing.

4 The Bourne Identity

Not fantastic, although you do find out about Liman’s dad and his involvement in the Oliver North trial. But Liman does point out the extraordinary lengths they went to for one shot that everyone misses (the bit where Bourne disappears right before your eyes once he gets into Marseilles), and you find out that he ended up having to direct most of the movie in French, which is pretty impressive.

5 eXistenZ

A disturbing insight into David Cronenberg’s mind for nearly two hours. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the “gristle gun” – the gun put together from bones and teeth. What kind of warped mind comes up with this stuff? And how? “Well, I just considered the problems of metal detectors and how to smuggle weapons and it occurred to me that since people can go through metal detectors, it was a logical way to overcome the problem” says Cronenberg. Yeah. Anyone could have thought of that. And it just carries on in that vein. You will never be able to analyse a Cronenberg film again, because you’ll realise your brain works on a completely different wavelength to his. Whatever you think he means, he doesn’t. He really doesn’t.

6 Brass Eye

Chris Morris genius, but the man himself doesn’t provide a commentary. Instead, he gets a bunch of homeless guys in to comment on the drugs episode. It’s original at least.

7 Battlestar Galactica

Originally these were podcasts and what’s fun about them is a combination of the lack of production values and exec producer Ronald D Moore’s honesty. For one thing, they’re almost all recorded in his front room, the same week as the episode aired on television in the US. Frequently, the phone starts ringing, someone’s mowing the lawn, dogs start barking, the LAPD fly their helicopters over his house, for which Moore can only apologise profusely. Then he starts a little double act up with his wife, whenever she comes into the room to talk about the kids and the housework. Then the irritation! People have been talking on bulletin boards about the poor sound quality of the podcasts. Well, you’re damn lucky to get the podcasts! Quit whining. And then he’ll actually start explaining why he thought a particular episode was rubbish. It’s all his fault, but the direction was lame, the script was lame, it wasn’t original enough… If only all DVD commentaries were done like that.

So you see, there are a few neglected works on genius lurking in the spare audio tracks of your DVD collections. Turf them out, listen to them and see if you can find some crackers as well.

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UK TV

Weekend tele? Okay. Tele I watched at the weekend

Caught up with some interesting tele at the weekend.

Armando Iannucci

The South Bank Show had a slightly shallow look at Armando Iannucci’s career to date. As is typical with most SBS documentaries, 50% of the interviews were dedicated to Melvyn Bragg rather than the subject, so clearly there wasn’t much time to left for anything but a cursory glance at Iannucci’s radio career: Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World and The Mary Whitehouse Experience got ignored, since presumably they weren’t highbrow enough for Melvyn, while his latest work, Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive, didn’t get a mention either – presumably because Melvyn wanted to dwell on chattering-class fave The Thick of It instead. Notably, Chris Morris didn’t get interviewed, although his notorious reclusiveness is almost certainly to blame for that. Yet their web project Smokehammer could still have been discussed even without Morris’s presence. A bit shallow, but good to see Iannucci getting some justly deserved recognition.

William Petersen from CSI

In contrast to most shows, this season’s CSI had a shaky start but has scaled to new heights ever since. For once, a show that’s been worth sticking with. Amazing. Last Thursday’s CSI was just about the most downright disturbing thing I’ve seen since Requiem for a Dream. Still all a-quiver from it. Makes you realise just how shallow and dull CSI: Miami and CSI: NY are by comparison, and why William Petersen hates them so much as a result. If you’re in the UK, it won’t be on for a while, but when it arrives, you’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about.

Allison Mack, who plays Chloe in Smallville

Smallville had a nice Chloe-oriented episode on Thursday, too. It wasn’t exactly Dostoevsky, but the slightly spooky ep had its moments. Allison Mack got to chew the scenery (and her nails) a lot, for once, while poor old Michael Rosenbaum got to stomp about and sound aggrieved – pretty much all he’s had to do this season. Why keep your best two actors on the sidelines? Don’t know. Best ask the producers. Nevertheless, the show does have one truly realistic theme, I’ve just realised: Clark’s obsession with Lana. Given a choice between Lana and Chloe, any right-thinking person would immediately go for Chloe (the one with the personality). Yet Clark goes for Lana? How can this be? Because he’s an alien, children. His emotions are alien to us and are unfathomable. And that’s the one realistic part of Smallville.

Lucy Lawless in Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica had a pretty stonking episode on Friday. A siege on Cloud 9 run by Dana Delaney, it didn’t quite work, but had enough standout moments and shocks to keep even the most jaded viewer in suspense. After a drawn-out start to the season, it too is starting to pull itself together. It still hasn’t quite hit the initial highs of the mini-series and the first subsequent episodes, but it’s definitely on the right track again.

One worrying trend I’ve noticed though: Starbuck is starting to fall apart. Have you noticed how whenever a show builds a strong woman who’s better than all the men and is proud of this character, they still always end up making her a wreck, giving her dozens of vulnerabilities, etc? While it can be argued that much as Superman needed kryptonite to make him less than unstoppable, so any ‘perfect character’ needs flaws to make them interesting, Starbuck had plenty of flaws to start with. At the moment though, they’re drowning out her strengths.

The reality of the character or a typical male reaction to a strong woman? Don’t know, although if you’ve been listening to the podcasts by exec producer Ronald D Moore, you might err towards the latter. I say this not because he comes across a misogynist – quite the opposite. Just that a certain cluelessness about female emotions seems to be the trend in some of the writing. Exhibit A: his original intention for Gina to kiss Baltar a few episodes back, after he showed her some kindness, even though she’s been gang-raped for months and was almost catatonic when he found her. I’m not claiming any special powers of empathy for myself, but even I know that’s not a happening thing.

As a side note, it’s also good to hear that Lucy Lawless will be back, complete with her undyed blonde hair and natural New Zealand accent, as a regular in season three, since the show is starting to get a little cliquey and could do with some new blood. Plus she’s actually a pretty good actor when she doesn’t have tatty Xena plots to cope with.

Josh Hollway - Sawyer in Lost

Lost had a strong Sawyer episode on Wednesday, explicitly designed to make you hate him again. Tis good, after all this cuddlification of him, to remind everyone how he started off on the island and what he did before he got on it. Tis equally good, after a spell of dull episodes, to have a strong episode again, since the show has been slightly adrift this season. While Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje who plays Mr Eko (or as IMDB would have it Mistereko) is a welcome addition to the cast, which is now gloriously swamped by English actors, the Ana-Lucia character (Michelle Rodriguez) isn’t, particularly since Rodriguez is playing the same role she always plays and most of the regular characters have been shunted to one side to make room for the new arrivals. Particularly noticeable by his absence is Sayid (Naveen Andrews), the coolest Indian-Iraqi the world has yet seen. We’re mid-season so a certain amount of looseness in the scripts is inevitable, but I’m hoping they pull it together again in the next few episodes.

Stargate SG-1 continues. That’s probably all that needs to be said on the subject.