Another Summer, another series from HBO to make Mondays go by a little faster. I can’t say this is my favorite collection of docs, as most of them have been only so-so, but it’s nice to know that HBO maintains their commitment to this series.
Americans in Bed…Last night’s addition to the list has an almost too-simple hook: the documentarians filmed ten couples in bed talking about their relationship. I’m not sure that anything said here is particularly interesting or revelatory but it is kind-of fun after a while to rank the couples from worst to best. Ones I don’t think will be together in a year: the “polyamorous” NY dude and his girlfriend who have already broken up 25 times, the ultra-neurotic gay Middle Eastern couple, the delusional black couple where you can tell the woman is way more into him than he’s into her (he’s already cheated on her a couple times, is very guarded, and barely seems to care about anything she says), and the poor bastard dating a woman with dyed red hair (a sure fire sign of crazy) who initially wanted an open relationship and for her ex to come beat this guy to prove that he loved her. What shocks me the most is how even the couples who seem really good kind-of suck: a lesbian couple were both married to men when they went out on a date, an overweight white couple has no sex life and nothing in common while being on their 4th and 3rd marriage, and a Mexican couple only got together because the guy lied about being married in the beginning and eventually cheated on her too (somehow, she seems shocked by this). This doc is less informative about relationships, and more revealing about how unromantic the story of most couples truly is. Grade: B-
Love, Marilyn…I’ve never quite bought into the Marilyn Monroe mythology or shared the fascination with her that seems prevalent in pop culture today (Smash squeezed two seasons out of the staging of a Marilyn Monroe musical…Michelle Williams secured an oscar nomination for My Weekend with Marilyn). That being said, this fine doc greatly explores a fairly limited subject, and even made me see Marilyn in a more complex light. By having Marilyn’s own diary entries read aloud by actresses from Marisa Tomei to Viola Davis we begin to get a better sense of exactly how deep a person she truly was (and how culture then might be shockingly more literate than culture today). It’s true that she wasn’t just a dumb blonde, and hey, she even married arguably the greatest playwright of the last hundred years: Arthur Miller. Now could you imagine a truly world-famous actress doing that today? Even the supposedly “political” or “intellectual” ones like Kerry Washington or Eva Longoria just marry athletes. If you’re not initially interested in Monroe, this might not be for you, but it is probably the best doc I’ve ever seen on her. Grade: B+
Gideon’s Army…This is one of only two docs HBO put on this summer (the other being Gasland part II) that seems to revolve around an actual issue…sort-of. This is a bare-bones, but sturdy doc about public defenders and is sort of the criminal law equivalent to HBO’s excellent civil court documentary Hot Coffee that came out a couple years ago. However, it doesn’t reach the heights that that doc did since the focus seems a little more limited. They don’t really even delve into the privatized prison system and the pressure that DA’s now face to lock up a record number of Americans. People who actually work with Southern criminal law (this doc mostly takes place in Alabama/Georgia) say that all court systems are bursting at the seams to prosecute an absurd number of cases, and it would have been nice to see the larger system addressed a little more and the personal lives of over-stressed public defenders addressed a little less. Grade: B
Gasland Part II…The best of all the documentaries HBO has put on this summer and a sequel to the Oscar-nominated first doc that the filmmakers produced on their own. You can see an immediate difference in production values and scope from this film and the first Gasland (which perhaps relied a bit too heavily on cheap, animated flow charts), and this one delves a little deeper into why politicians on both sides of the aisle are mindlessly backing natural gas drilling. Natural gas drilling is awful, it is so bad for the environment that it actually makes me a fan of coal, and the old line “well, if you’re not for natural gas, then you’re for oil” has me saying “okay, in your lunatic scenario of only having two bad choices, then I’m for oil.” That’s how bad this is for our environment and our health. Ultimately, the best special effect in the movie is one that the filmmakers don’t have to stage. They go to a regular home and film a garden hose being used as a blow torch because gas has seeped into the water lines. Scary, pitiful, informative, and urgent, see this film. Grade: A