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HBO presents

John From Cincinnati (2007)

"Some things I know. Some things I don't."- John (Austin Nichols)

Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Austin Nichols, Brian Van Holt
Other Stars: Luke Perry, Greyson Fletcher, Garret Dillahunt, Willie Garson, Luis Guzman, Keala Kennelly, Ed O'Neil, Matt Winston, Emily Rose, Jim Beaver, Chandra West, Paul Ben-Victor, Dayton Callie, Stephen Tobolowsky, Howard Hesseman
Director: Mark Tinker, Gregg Fienberg, John McNaughton, Ed Bianchi, Tom Vaughn, Jeremy Podeswa, Jesse Bochco, Adam Davidson, Daniel Minahan

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, brief nudity, mature themes)
Run Time: 10h:00m:00s
Release Date: 2008-04-01
Genre: television

Image Transfer
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DVD Review

David Milch created the acclaimed Deadwood, and in the process took the western genre into some seriously strange places.

His followup series for HBO was the short-lived John From Cincinnati, in which the surfing community of Imperial Beach, California is the setting for more mondo strangeness and a very large ensemble cast than perhaps the typical viewer could or would tolerate. Whether or not Milch had a plan for where things might eventually go or not matters little now that the series has been canceled, and all we're left with are these ten episodes.

And naturally the question of whether or not they can stand on their own.

Describing the series is a challenge. What it's about and what it's "about" are two very different things. Ostensibly it's about three generations of one of surfing's most legendary families—now horribly dysfunctional and broken—and how the arrival of a mysterious stranger who likes to repeat what has just been said serves as the catalyst for great change for everyone involved. And it's also how that change spreads out in waves (no pun intended) to every corner of the weird and colorful universe of supporting characters that Milch tosses into the fray. A continual and eventually interconnected pile of surreal moments add up to one of the series' real highpoints, an episode six dream sequence where suddenly things move hard and fast into David Lynch overdrive.

That classic trippy Twin Peaks dream sequence—where Agent Cooper meets the backwards-talking The Man From Another Place—will always be the standard, but Milch comes dangerously close here. And if that weren't enough to just have one landmark dream sequence, he lobs yet another fine one on the fire as the series progresses, and it is comical, dark, and well beyond the pale of strange.

And I don't hrow that Lynch/Twin Peaks comparison around lightly, either. The similarities are all here, as both series feature a large cast of the quirky and odd (one levitates) swirling around one another, often more connected than they realize as they move through a smoky storyline that's perfectly fine with not revealing its secrets. Dialogue is rich with lines that often make no sense, yet drip with a kind of lyrical poetic beauty, falling just this side of pretention. Whether Milch is an artiste or wackjob may be up for discussion, but the ebb and flow of all of this layered confusion actually gels. It does, and in a way that puts a grand tilt on things far more important than surfing.

The cast is a big one, and there are some really solid performances, though admittedly a few sketchy ones. But I can overlook those stiff ones on the strength of folks like Rebecca De Mornay, Matt Winston, Dayton Callie, and Ed O'Neill. De Mornay is the "ballbuster" matriarch of the surfing Yost clan, holding a secret that is just plain wrong, and her wild-eyed rants are obscenity-laced hoots. Winston is the owner of the apartment complex that acts as the core of all activity, and while something of a comedic tool, his character is involved in some of the strangest and memorable moments in the entire series. The Callie and O'Neill characters need to have their own show together, and even if they just stood around talking I would watch it. One's a criminal with a bad temper, one's a retired cop who talks to birds, and together they consistently get the best patches of rambling, twisted, and very funny dialogue.

It's the journey, not the destination. And what a wonderful and weird journey this is.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: All ten episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors are generally vivid, though fleshtones come on too warm periodically. There's an inconsistency here, as there are bouts of razor-sharp clarity, and then there are moments where edges become much less defined. Some long patches of recurring grain are quite noticeable.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The main audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Rear channels are hardly used to any measurable excess, but there's a wide and spacious feel across the front three channels. Dialogue—even when you can't understand the meaning—is clear, and the Joe Strummer tune used in the opening credit sequence has a wonderfully full-bodied texture.

French and Spanish 2.0 dubs are also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 60 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring HBO programming
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by David Milch
Packaging: The Godfather-style box
Picture Disc
3 Discs
3-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There are two commentaries from creator David Milch, on the first and last episodes. And much like the series itself, these tracks are bizarre and purposely vague. Both are annoyingly littered with long silent gaps, yet when he speaks, Milch expounds on things that may not be so obvious, and as a result does help clarify a bit of the bigger picture. Milch opens the commentary on the final ep with a great block of "screw you" wishes to the press, and his final five words are as perfectly fitting for the way this show flowed as anything I could have expected to him to say.

Disc 2 carries Decoding John: The Making Of A Dream Sequence (13m:32s), in which Milch explains to the cast the deeper meanings of John's "line and the circle" speech from episode six. Some of the actors look a little dulled as Milch reads the script and then explains what it means, but I appreciated the thimble full of clarity.

Curious packaging for this one, with a slipcase inside of a slipcase, housing three thinpak cases. Each episode runs between 47 and 57 minutes and is cut into six chapters, each available with English, French, or Spanish subtitles.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

A large ensemble cast moves through the normal and the strange, interwoven in some larger tapestry, spouting dialogue that is as brilliant as it is maddening. The lack of what many would consider "proper closure" doesn't necessarily make this ten episode set incomplete or empty, because the situations and the characters are so weirdly commanding. I didn't always know what was going on, but I loved what I saw and heard.

Highly recommended for adventurous viewers only.

Rich Rosell 2008-05-19