HBO vs. Roku

Or, why you're probably one of the 70% of people who can't watch HBO Max. Plus! 'The Witches,' reviewed.

You Should Watch HBO Max—But You Probably Can’t

Here’s a thing I absolutely believe: Setting aside the lure of original programming and talking purely in terms of library, HBO Max is, far and away, the best streaming service. Whenever I’m trying to figure out how to kill a night by watching a random movie, HBO Max is the first place I go, and I subscribe to basically everything except Shudder. No matter what I’m in the mood for—comedy, action, classics, horror, whatever—there’s something worth watching. (The originals, anchored by HBO’s legacy of great TV, aren’t bad either.)

And yet it’s hard to convince the world of this basic truth because HBO and its parent company AT&T have gone to war with Roku and Amazon, the services that 70 percent of people who watch apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu use to consume their streaming videos. 

Why can’t you watch HBO Max originals like Raised by Wolves and American Pickle and The Witches (reviewed below!) on your Roku Stick or your Amazon Fire? Well . . . it’s complicated. But, basically, Roku decided that providing a neutral platform, where people could get access to pretty much any streaming service and the services were all treated the same, wasn’t a great way to make money. As Jared Newman explained earlier this year at Tech Hive, Roku wants to ensure that HBO Max subs can be sold through Roku (giving them a cut of the fee and also insight into who is using what, and why) and is trying to get some free content for the “Roku Channel,” whatever that is.

AT&T has refused to budge on this, leading their app to be shut out of a huge portion of the marketplace. Which inherently limits growth. Which keeps the network from serving up viral hits and limits their ability to be part of the conversation. Which keeps talent away. Which could lead to a death spiral. 

Which is why, while people keep their eye on Netflix’s numbers—the service missed new-subscriber projections by a hair this quarter after blowing them away for the previous two as worldwide lockdowns kept people home and watching the tube; it should still be fine given its 193 million worldwide subscribers—I like to pay attention to HBO Max. I want it to win the streaming wars. Or, at least, be a viable alternative to the endless morass of mediocrity that is Netflix and the kiddie offerings of Disney+. 

The good news, as Rich Greenfield notes, is that HBO Max’s activations have doubled quarter-to-quarter, and that the total number of HBO subscribers who have access to Max is up eight percent. Combining HBO and HBO Max, the total number of subscribers is up two million or so in the last quarter.

The bad news? Only 30 percent of those with access to HBO Max, either via an HBO subscription or a bundled deal with AT&T or DirecTV, have actually tried it. 

AT&T CEO John Stankey is understandably frustrated by all this, suggesting that Roku is using its market share unethically. Roku doesn’t seem ripe for antitrust action—there are plenty of other streaming options out there, after all—so it’s probably only a matter of time before AT&T caves in some way or another to ensure access to the entirety of the market. 

Until then, however, allow me to recommend setting aside your Roku and picking up an Apple TV. It’s got a great little interface, access to all your favorite streaming services (including HBO Max), and, as a bonus, a free year of Apple TV+. No, this is neither an ad nor sponcon. I’m just a fan—of Apple TV and HBO Max alike. And I want to make your streaming life a little bit easier.

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Review: The Witches (HBO Max)

For the first time in a long time, it feels like a Real Movie Weekend, even if our nation’s biggest movie chain is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. There’s a movie for young adults (Borat 2: I’m Not Looking Up That Unfunny Hack’s Asinine Subtitle hitting Amazon Prime), a movie for adult adults (Sofia Coppola’s latest collaboration with Bill Murray, On the Rocks, coming to Apple TV+), and a movie for families (The Witches, now playing on HBO Max). 

The Witches is what I settled on to review, and not just because it stars America’s sweetheart, Anne Hathaway, in one of her hammiest performances yet. No, I picked it because the Roald Dahl novel was a childhood favorite and because Nic Roeg’s 30-year-old adaptation still holds up, a pre-CGI relic of a bygone age of kids movies. What does Zemeckis’s adaptation have to offer that Roeg’s didn’t? 

Setting the movie in America was smart, as was changing up the milieu: Zemeckis is a credited writer alongside Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Guillermo del Toro (Crimson PeakThe Shape of Water), and the trio have shifted the action from the British seaside to the Gulf of Mexico. Our protagonists are American, not British (with one exception, a clear nod to the source material). And they’re black. 

But more importantly, our heroes—a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer)—are poor. Lower-middle-class, at best. We see it in his concern over spending an extra 35 cents on galvanized nails. We see it in a flashback to grandma growing up in a dusty little town, children running around with the chickens that provide breakfast. In this flashback, grandma is explaining how witches behave—and whom they target. 

“Witches only prey on the poor. The overlooked. The kids they think no one’s gonna make a fuss about if they go missing,” grandma says, explaining why she and her grandson need to go to the fanciest hotel in town. A hotel that happens to be the gathering point for a coven of witches, who are intent on turning every child in the world into a mouse.

Anne Hathaway is playing the Grand High Witch, and she seems to be having a grand old time while doing so. Sporting a Nordic accent that occasionally drops off a bit and reveling in the exaggerated motions of a vaudevillian brought out of the past and into the present, Hathaway’s CGI-enhanced leer is the stuff of nightmares. She resembles not so much a traditional witch as the vampires from 30 Days of Night: She and her fellow spellcasting crones are incredibly shark-like.

Spencer is great, as always, appropriately comforting one moment and angry the next, eyes bugging just enough to get across the sense of terror that accompanies being the subject of a witch hunt. And Stanley Tucci deserves a brief mention as the put-upon hotel manager forced to play host to the coven; he makes everything 10 percent better. 

The Witches is zany and campy and a little sweet and occasionally doesn’t make a great deal of sense, structurally (grandma has an illness that’s never really explained and has no real payoff; for some reason the story’s framed around narration by Chris Rock, playing the boy all grown who appears to be giving a presentation to some kids or something). It’s a perfectly acceptable option for families looking for some light Halloween entertainment. 

Assigned Viewing: The Bling Ring (Netflix)

Sofia Coppola’s most amusing film, aside from Lost in Translation, is this perfectly decadent 2013 look at an America obsessed with wealth and fame and money and unsure how to go about achieving any of it. The Bling Ring is even decadent in its structure, idly repeating itself as we wallow in the crapulence of the upper-middle-class idiots whose crimes we watch. Well worth revisiting as we ready for another whirl around the dance floor with Coppola and Murray in On the Rocks.