Thursday, April 25, 2013

Culture Shock 04.25.13: 'Skinemax' takes a stab at prestige

There came a fateful day — I think it was in 1986 — when the local cable-TV monopoly added Cinemax to its pay-television subscription offerings.

For the first month, every household that subscribed to basic cable got Cinemax free of charge. The first taste is always free. But as it turned out, one weekend would have been enough.

The following Monday at school, every boy in class knew. So did quite a few girls, too, if memory serves. We all knew there was a reason why Cinemax was nicknamed "Skinemax."

So it began: our torrid teenage love affair with clandestine, sound-turned-down, soft-focus sex. Mustn't wake mom. Earlier generations had "dirty magazines" by flashlight. We had Cinemax After Dark.

That was a long time ago, before the Internet. Now, "the good parts" of just about any movie you can name are just a click away, if that's all you really want. So, how does a premium cable channel remake itself for a brave new world where Skinemax is merely the bare Skinimum?

Answer: The same way HBO and Showtime did, shifting focus away from movies and onto original and exclusive programming.

I mention HBO, and you think "Game of Thrones" or "Boardwalk Empire." I say Showtime, and you think "Homeland" or "Dexter." These are prestige shows. Audiences love them. Critics love them. They get people talking, and if you spoil an episode, you risk grievous bodily harm. It's that serious.

Cinemax has nothing in that league yet. Of its three original prime-time series, one is a British import ("Strike Back") and one has already been canceled after one season ("Hunted"), leaving only "Banshee," which has been renewed for a second season to air next year, to generate something of a cult following. As of now, onetime also-ran Starz reaches more viewers and generates more buzz with its lineup of shows like "Magic City" and the recently concluded "Spartacus."

Still, Cinemax hasn't forgotten its target demographic. Cinemax After Dark remains, but equally retooled for the new TV landscape.

The new After Dark is filled with original series, from "Chemistry" to "Co-Ed Confidential." And if HBO can bolster its reputation with shows with a literary pedigree, like "Game of Thrones" and the upcoming "American Gods," based on Neil Gaiman's novel, then so can Cinemax, after a fashion.

Cinemax's "Zane's Sex Chronicles" is based on the works of erotica writer Zane. And "The Girl's Guide to Depravity" is based on producer Heather Rutman's blog and book about her dating experiences in Hollywood.

But the crown jewel of the Cinemax After Dark lineup is "Femme Fatales."

Taking its title from a long-running entertainment magazine that focused mostly on B-movie actresses and "scream queens," "Femme Fatales" is an anthology series that blends film noir plots and O. Henry twist endings with the maximum skin After Dark is known for.

Given that film noir typically involves poor saps falling for deadly dames, scorned women and murderous love triangles where three adds up to a shallow grave, at least the sex scenes are somewhat related to the plots — both story and burial.

The first season of "Femme Fatales" has been released on DVD and includes all 14 episodes over three discs, with deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and audio commentaries for every episode. The second season is set for release July 16.

As yet, there's no announcement of a third season, so "Femme Fatales" may have run its course.

Sex sells, but in a buyer's market, Cinemax is still trying to differentiate itself. But when MTV no longer plays music videos, it's somehow reassuring that Skinemax still tries to live up to its name.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Culture Shock 04.18.13: It's Earth Day, and nature hates you

In the decade following the first Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, 1970, filmmakers embraced environmental themes in many ways.

Hollywood's newfound eco-awareness led to "serious" films like "The China Syndrome," which was nominated for four Oscars, and sci-fi thrillers like "Soylent Green" and "Silent Running," in which a psychopath, played by psychopath specialist Bruce Dern, kills his shipmates in order to save Earth's last forest, which, as the credits roll, floats off into deep space to the strains of a Joan Baez song.

Some consider "Silent Running" a classic.

Yet by far the dominant genre of ecological cinema in the 1970s was the "nature strikes back" movie.

Iron Eyes Cody might shed a tear at the sight of trash on the roadside, but Mother Nature wasn't having any of it. She was ticked off, she was going to make sure everyone knew it, and she had an army — basically the entire animal kingdom — at her command.

Whether spawned by pollution, genetic experimentation or just plain old revenge, these animals were out for blood.

Insects and spiders posed the greatest threat. Michael Caine and an all-star cast faced off against killer bees in "The Swarm." Ants became super-intelligent and threatened to overrun the planet in the head-trippy sci-fi flick "Phase IV." And William Shatner had to Shatner his way through a town infested with deadly tarantulas in "Kingdom of the Spiders."

Shatner's "Star Trek" co-star DeForest Kelley arguably had an even worse time of it, trying to avoid being trampled by stampeding rabbits the size of Volkswagens in the infamous B-movie "Night of the Lepus."

The 1950s had its own menacing animals, often giant bugs created by atomic testing and communism. Director Bert I. Gordon made his name unleashing irradiated terrors like "Earth vs. the Spider" and "The Amazing Colossal Man." When the 1970s rolled around, Gordon returned, first with 1976's "The Food of the Gods."

Based on an H.G. Wells story, "The Food of the Gods" gave us giant rats and even a giant, killer chicken. But that was just the warm-up. For an encore, Gordon set loose giant ants on the Everglades and leading lady Joan Collins in "Empire of the Ants."

But some animals didn't need a boost from mankind's folly to get their revenge. They simply took matters into their own claws.

1972's "Frogs" finds Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark and a bunch of disposable character actors under assault by — wait for it — frogs. Very ticked-off frogs. And snakes. As well as a few other critters, all fed up with Milland's character killing them for no good reason.

By 1978, Australian filmmakers were joining in, and in "Long Weekend," we meet a bickering married couple who are so annoying every creature in the Outback decides to kill them. And we cheer.

The decade closed with director John Sayles' "Alligator," which turned the urban legend about alligators living in the sewers into a B-grade horror flick.

In "Alligator," a the baby alligator flushed into the sewer grows to monstrous proportions by feasting on discarded lab rats injected with growth hormones.

That was just about the last gasp of the genre. Moviegoers' tastes were changing, and Hollywood assembled a new army to take on a new menace.

As the 1980s got underway, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger would slice up the new threat: teenagers having sex.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Culture Shock 04.04.13: Jess Franco leaves polarizing legacy

The first time I saw "Vampyros Lesbos," I fell asleep, which is surprising on two counts.

Jess Franco
First, as the title indicates, this is a movie about lesbian vampires, and normally I never fall asleep during movies about lesbian vampires. Second, "Vampyros Lesbos" is a film by Jess Franco, and Franco's films are usually, if nothing else, interesting.

Franco, a Spanish filmmaker who directed, by some counts, more than 180 films, died early Tuesday. He was 82.

In America, Franco enjoys little name recognition outside the circle of cult cinema aficionados. Unfortunately, one of his worst major films is probably his most widely seen: 1969's "The Castle of Fu Manchu" became fodder for the third season of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

It's hard to keep up with all the films Franco made because he made so many, often issued under multiple titles, and he directed many of them under pseudonyms. But his better-known films have made him a polarizing figure. Almost no one who has seen Franco's movies is neutral about him. They love him, or they hate him. The closest thing to a middle ground where Franco is concerned comes from those critics who divide his films into two groups: the ones they love and the ones they hate.

And Franco never made it easy. Even his most ardent fans admit he could go a little too far with his mania for zoom shots.

At best, Franco was an uneven filmmaker, but he was almost never boring. Except for "Vampyros Lesbos," but here I'm in the minority; most Franco fans regard it as one of his best films. You definitely have a polarizing filmmaker when even his fans disagree about which are his best and worst films.

Franco burst onto the horror and exploitation scene with "The Awful Dr. Orlof" in 1962. "Orlof" — sometimes spelled "Orloff" — was Franco's answer to Georges Franju's classic "Eyes Without a Face," released two years earlier. Franco would return to the character many times throughout his career, culminating in what was Franco's last good film, 1987's "Faceless" featuring Telly Savalas, Caroline Munro and Brigitte Lahaie.

For a director who seemed bent on erasing the line between art house and schlock, Franco collaborated with a lot of talented performers. He directed Herbert Lom in 1969's "99 Women," the prototype for the women-in-prison genre; elicited the most bizarre, over-the-top performance of Jack Palance's career in "Deadly Sanctuary" (aka "The Marquis de Sade's Justine"); and teamed with Christopher Lee on numerous occasions, including 1970's "Count Dracula," a tedious but unusually faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

Franco also may be the only director who claimed to have had no difficulty working with Klaus Kinski, whom Franco cast in "Deadly Sanctuary" (as the Marquis de Sade) and in his surreal thriller "Venus in Furs," which, despite the name, has nothing to do with book.

In one interview, I recall, Franco said he simply shot take after take until Kinski, exhausted, gave the performance Franco wanted. Who knew the trick to dealing with Kinski was so simple?

Most of what I think are Franco's best films are the ones he made with producer Harry Alan Towers. They include "Venus in Furs," "99 Women," and 1970's "Eugenie."

Those three starred Towers' wife, Maria Rohm, but Franco's two muses were Soledad Miranda, star of "Vampyros Lesbos," who died in a car wreck in 1970 when she was just 27, and the woman who would become his longtime companion, Lina Romay, who starred most memorably in 1973's "Female Vampire." They eventually married and stayed together until her death early last year.

For Franco there was no stopping. He kept making movies until the end.

His last film, "Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies," opened in Spain last month.