Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why I wish I had HBO...

In the summer drought of TV, cable still offers some high-quality programming. Unfortunately, I still don't have cable...yet. But thanks to Netflix and my friend Dave, I've been able to catch up on what I've missed by not having access to HBO.

When Michael Moore touched upon the fiasco that was the 2000 election in his film Fahrenheit 9/11, I felt the same sinking pit in my stomach that I had back then. Although those of us who decried the results back then have been morally vindicated by the idiocy that has been the Bush administration, it's a small comfort.

They say those who do not learn the lessons from history are doomed to repeat it--as the voting irregularities that caused popular vote winner Gore to concede the election in 2000 have never been adequately dealt with, similar issues occurred again in 2004 giving Bush the election over Kerry. Hopefully, films like Recount will illuminate the problems inherent in our electoral system and get people motivated to demand changes. With a stellar cast of character actor stalwarts like Kevin Spacey in non-snark mode as Ron Klain, Denis Leary using that native Boston accent to full effect as Michael Whouley, the always magnificent Tom Wilkinson as James Baker, Laura Dern putting a more human face on the overly made-up face of Katherine Harris and John Hurt delivering a stately Warren Christopher, Recount not only demystifies the story of the 2000 battle for Florida, but crackles and sizzles with drama. Although the actual event dragged on for over a month, the HBO film zips along at a brisk pace never ceasing to be completely engrossing.

The script was written by Danny Strong, who also served as co-producer on the project and for whom this is the first and only produced writing credit. With numerous acting credits, Strong deftly juggles the juxtaposition of the Gore vs. Bush camps and a plethora of personalities. Obviously his acting skills informed his ability to create compelling characters with unique voices; the script is as exceptional as the cast. Jay Roach produced and directed the two hour drama. He also producedCharlie Bartlett. Thanks to Recount, I completely absolve him of that derivative dreck.

I was looking forward to watching this after reading Tom Shales rave review in the Washington Post. His cohort, Howard Kurtz, nitpicks at some of the dramatic license taken with the facts--but no doubt he is a Republican. Truth be told, the film attempts to strike a balance but leans a bit more to the left. Even if you're not into politics or history, it's a tense and gripping drama and well worth watching. It will be released on DVD on August 19th. Definitely check it out!

Available now at Netflix is the HBO mini-series John Adams which also got rave reviews. My feelings after watching the seven hour depiction of the life of our second president and the first fifty years of the United States were a bit mixed. On the positive side, the acting is top-notch with some stand out performances: David Morse disappears into the stately persona of George Washington, Tom Wilkinson offers a slyly superb Benjamin Franklin and Stephen Dillane is understated as the philosophical Thomas Jefferson.

The costumes and settings look authentic and we get much insight into the time period--from the historic speeches and battles to gruesome details like seeing a tarring and feathering, an amputation, the ravages of smallpox, bloodletting, a primitive mastectomy and really, really bad dental care. So we can not only be thankful for our freedom and independence, but for modern medicine which is decidedly less brutal that in the 1700 and 1800s.

What I was not enthralled with was the camera work of Tak Fujimoto which employed jarringly artsy camera angles to the detriment of the historical epic, the clumsy scene transitions and the sound mix which, despite my excellent hearing abilities and jacked up volume, had me straining to make out what was being said much of the time. In a dialogue heavy production, not being able to hear said dialogue is a definite problem. In addition, the actors had a tendency to speak in muted tones--sometimes hushed whispers, sometimes muddled mumbles. It was frustrating trying to make out what was being said.

The other problem I had was the casting of Paul Giamatti in the title role. Giamatti is a formidable actor and to his credit he did not shy away from portraying Adams' vanity and pettiness as well as his passion and intellect. But physically he often resembled the lead character of Ratatouille than our second president. Not only did Giamatti's physical characterization not have me convinced, he was the world champion mumbler of the entire cast. There was genuine chemistry between Giamatti and Linney (playing Abigail to flinty perfection), however, and the relationship between Adams and his steadfast wife was effectively portrayed showing both the tough and tender sides of their partnership.

My memory of Revolutionary War history being limited to viewings of Johnny Tremain in grade school and the musical 1776 (William Daniels making a much more believable John Adams in my opinion...), John Adams provided a thorough and insightful look at the creation the United States of America out of 13 ragtag colonies.


  1. I'm with you on the Netflix. I live on the 5th floor of my building and haven't mustered the ambition to carry a television up all those flights of stairs. I've been watching the rented dvds from my itty-bitty iBook. It's saved me money, so all in all it isn't such a bad thing.

    Talk about being out of the loop with HBO, though. Recently I started Six Feet Under. I'm on the third season now and I'm trying to pace myself because it's so damn good that thought of it ending-- well, it's just not something I want to consider!

  2. I've heard great things about Six Feet Under. Not to mention it was created by the writer of one of my all time favorite movies...

    If it's any consolation, I hear the ending of Six Feet Under is brilliant.

  3. I have HBO but I keep thinking that I should drop it. All of their original programming comes out on dvd so quickly now, what's the point? And I've already rented most of the movies from Netflix by the time they come out on HBO.

    Plus, I like marathoning tv series. I watched the first four seasons of The Sopranos and all of Sex and the City on dvd. I may start Six Feet Under.

  4. Very true about DVDs and marathoning. I've done that with Entourage and am currently getting into Dexter. Netflix rocks, don't they?