Monday, April 11, 2005

Bonus Track!

This little piece was a rejoinder to a column in the local Eureka Reporter, and was published there as a Guest Column. I'd just give you the url except it has an annoying typo that this version doesn't. Discerning readers in this space won't be surprised by the opinions, but I couldn't let a chance go by to say Something Nice about one of the few new things in the world I actually like.

Unlike Wendy Butler, I love the bonus features on DVD. If I didn't, I just wouldn't watch them. Sometimes they are even the main reason I rent or buy a DVD movie, apart from the image quality, especially if I've already got it on tape.

Bonus features typically include short documentaries related to the film, a commentary track for the movie itself, and scenes that weren't in the theatrical release version, either reintegrated into the film, or by themselves. They are all hit or miss, of course, but they often add new layers to the experience of the movie.

The documentaries I often like best are retrospective interviews with directors and actors years after release, when they can put their efforts in perspective, and they can say things that maybe they couldn't before. But I also like to know how movies are made. I enjoy learning about the process.

Commentary tracks can be maddening, especially when the voices don't bother talking about what you're watching, and what you'd like to know. The worst I'm come across recently is "Spiderman II." The director (Sam Raimi) is cueing the star (Tobey Maguire) to talk solemnly about how he learns his lines while I'd like to know why they kept that scene with the neighbor bringing Peter Parker a piece of pie is the movie. It's also nearly impossible to follow both commentary and movie, even when you select for subtitles (which I usually do). But fortunately there's scene selection, pause, review---and fast-forward.

But much of the time, the commentary is enlightening (between descriptions of how effects shots were done, George Lucas describes a surprisingly serious intent for the Star Wars cycle: "how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, and a good person becomes a bad person") or it's just entertaining (counting the number of times that director Roland Emmerich says "this is one of my favorite scenes" during "The Day After Tomorrow.")

Sometimes the commentaries are even better than that. The dialogue between writer/director Nancy Meyers and actor Jack Nicholson on the DVD of "Something's Gotta Give" is hilarious, and a master class in film acting as well. So not only is this movie worth repeating, so is the commentary.

If DVDs have done nothing else, they proven how stupid movie studios can be in editing scenes out of movies just to make them shorter. They leave gaping holes in the story and make the actors look dumb, just so they can have more showings to confuse more people. But without the need to sell more tickets on opening weekend at the multiplex, DVDs can restore the scenes that at least give the movie a chance to make sense. That's more of a restoration than a bonus.

The bonus scenes work best when they actually put them back where they belong in the movie (and the commentary track can tip you off to this). Sometimes when they're offered as "deleted scenes," you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they deleted them. I remember several of the deleted scenes from the second Harry Potter movie better than I do a lot of the scenes that are in it. They tended to be mood pieces, like Harry and his owl sitting on a hill high above the landscape, but the movie needed some quiet moments, some beauty that evokes magic.

Selecting imaginative and high quality bonus features, delivering smart and honest commentaries, are becoming part of the DVD. package. I look forward to more.

Oddly or not, while nursing the cold I thought I'd avoided for this year, I watched a lot of DVD over the weekend, including bonuses. I even played some of the Harry Potter games (scored two goals in Quidditch, too, even in my weakened condition.) After hearing Star Trek's Dan Curry call the 1938 Erroll Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood the best adventure movie of all time, I thought I'd see it again with that in mind. It came with a film scholar's commentary, pretty informative, and a bonus disk, not too impressive except for a terrific long feature on the history of Technicolor (seems the name came from MIT, where the inventor went to school).

What I missed in the commentary but what I saw in the film was historical context: the Depression and already ravaged Europe of 1937-8. The scenes of Robin showing Maid Marion the plight of the poor was reminicent of similiar scenes in Sullivan's Travels and My Man Godfrey. Also, the scholar mentioned that in the earliest Robin Hood legends he was a trickster, and a figure in the May festival. What he failed to note was that in this film, Robin forcing the nobles to exchange clothing with the poor reproduced the Lord of Misrule reversals of those festivals. It was neat to see that the final sword battle between Flynn and Sherlock Holmes was as exciting as I remembered it as a kid, watching it on TV, probably in black and white.

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