Friday, January 6, 2017

From Avco to Dino: A Hint of Class, A Hint of Trash

Note from the author: In prepping this part of the series, I noticed that there are some titles I overlooked for the first part of the series, several in fact along with some titles I just can't find much to write about. Most of the output I skipped and will be overlooking in future segments consists of dubbed foreign films. In total, we'll be covering roughly 168 out of the total 285 films Embassy distributed/produced, give or take or roughly 68 to 69% of their total output. Just for the sake of full disclosure.

After his first two successes, Joseph Levine capitalized on them, entering into a partnership with Warner Brothers and then Paramount which would yield even more success.

Steve Reeves returns as Hercules in this solid if mildly disappointing sequel to the first film. Herc is tasked with solving a family squabble over the leadership of Thebes but is sidetracked by a witch who causes him to forget who he is for three quarters of the film. Like the original, there is some good action and nice scenery with the requisite cheesy English dub. Like the original, this made it onto MST3k as well, along with some other films in this piece.

Italian version of the Biblical tale of King Davis with Orson Welles as King Saul.

Another version of The Thief of Baghdad, this time we get Steve Reeves in the title role. It got good notices and has pretty much nothing in common with the other versions of the film.

Embassy made a leap into more sophisticated fare with distributing this drama based on the Eugene O'Neill play. Katherine Hepburn got an Oscar nomination for her work as a drug addicted matriarch to a dysfunctional family in 1912.

Michael Caine's first big role is as a snobbish upper class soldier in this epic retelling of the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879. Lavishly mounted but riddled with historical inaccuracies, this nevertheless won considerable acclaim as, as noted, gave Michael Caine a big break that he would capitalize on very quickly.

Italian drama directed by the man who would go on to direct Amityville II: The Possession. Needless to say, this is is considerably better than that piece of dreck.

Decades before the trend of young adult fantasy novels being made into films (with varying degrees of success), there was a slough of films based on the works of trash novelist Harold Robbins. Robbins was quite popular with readers though not with critics, writing sordid soapy novels full of sex and sleaze, eventually he would become one of the best selling authors of all time. Several of his books were made into films with The Carpetbaggers being one of the biggest hits (and best in terms of quality). We will cover two more of his adaptations later in the series along with a small detour later.

George Peppard plays a thinly veiled version of Howard Hughes whose ruthless ambition leads him to success in Hollywood while also alienating anyone who might give a damn about him. Western star Alan Ladd is also in the film as a cowboy turned actor and the whole thing is a frankly over the top (for the mid-sixties at least) 150 minute long soap opera that is entertaining trash. Embassy and Paramount did quite well with this one, (it ended up being the fourth highest grossing film of 1964 behind My Fair Lady, Goldfinger and Mary Poppins) to the point where there was even a prequel which we will cover in the next part of this series.

One of the seminal bad Christmas movies, this ended up on MST3K as well as the spin offs from that series-Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax (I could almost subtitle this installment 'MST3K Fodder and More'). Also notable for being the film debut of 80's bad movie staple Pia Zadora (if I feel evil/masochistic someday, I might cover one or two of her films on the blog).

Back to the quality side of things, this one is a French import from Jean-Luc Godard with Jack Palance as a frustrated movie producer and and Brigitte Bardot as the wife of a screenwriter Palance hires to rework his latest project.

One of two films about the short lived star Jean Harlow, this film only uses her name and the name of her husband and nothing else (hooray for authenticity, eh?) and the result is a long, superficial piece of junk. Weirdly enough, it is mirrored somewhat by The Carpetbaggers as the Carroll Baker (she plays the lead here too) character in that film is loosely based on Jean Harlow herself.

Embassy rolled on into 1966 with some Oscar bait and some cheese.

Exactly what it sounds like. Actually, I would give non vital parts of my anatomy to see a couple of Brooklyn wiseguys accidentally walking into this show just for their reaction.

This is a British spy comedy that is one of the many riffs on James Bond from the period. Director Lindsay Shonteff made a few sequels to this as well as a few more racy spy spoofs in the 70's.

We hit the last of our MST3K features with this rather good on its own Russian fantasy film based on a Russian fairy tale. Production design is quite good and overall, its quite the delightful film, even without Mike & the Bots.

Lastly for this installment is this truly awful showbiz flick which combines a Harlan Ellison script; Tony Bennett in his one and only acting gig and a rep that makes the aforementioned Santa Claus Conquers the Martians look good.

That's all for now. Coming up next, things get a hell of a lot better.

Monday, December 12, 2016

From Avco to Dino: Intro and Early Success



This is going to be my biggest deep dive into a studio to date as not only will we be covering the output of Avco/Embassy Pictures, but the ensuing purchase of the company by none other than Dino DeLaurentiis and the brief, sort of crappy yet memorable history of his DEG Productions with some detours here and there because I want to give as full a picture as I can of how consistent and interesting this company's output was. It's actually pretty awesome how much longevity this one independent studio had. I also wanted to look at Dino DeLaurentiis in a little more detail and the two topics flow into each other rather nicely. Buckle up, folks. It's gonna be a long ride.*

*In lieu of this, the amount of films given actual proper reviews (as in more than a few sentences regarding plot and overall quality) will be rather low as the output is such that it would take me forever to finish this project.

It began with producer Joseph E. Levine who made a name for himself with huge, lavish productions mixed with smaller projects that ran the gamut from classy to trashy. Sort of an American Dino DeLaurentiis if you will, fittingly enough. Or Roger Corman if he wasn't cheap.

Levine founded Embassy in 1942, primarily as a means to distribute foreign films but eventually, he began producing original material as well. Some of the films he brought stateside were classics such as Fellini's 8 1/2 as well as our two features for today but we will get to that in a bit.

The ensuing years would see partnerships with various studios; critically acclaimed classics, a few bombs here and there, several changes in ownership and an overall willingness to get behind whatever the hell they were making, more or less. Unlike Orion, Embassy didn't have that weird snooty attitude towards their successes which they tended to embrace openly regardless of the genre or subject matter. They also managed to parlay their success into TV distribution and home video which probably let them exist far past the point where they would have without. We can get to all that in time, though. For now, we got movies to look at.

We begin with the film that made Godzilla into a household name stateside, the American version of the original film. Distributed by Embassy on the East Coast (Transworld put it out in the other half of the country), this version cuts out all the political stuff from the original along with some other stuff totaling 16 minutes and replaces it with footage of Raymond Burr as a journalist caught up in the devastation. Burr's character serves as narrator and he is cut into the original film pretty well, all things considered. The focus ends up being more on the monster stuff (the f/x work is pretty good and considering the time it was made and the budget they had, bordering on brilliant), and while the dramatic, more somber mood of the original is compromised, the end result is still a pretty decent film.

The film's massive success made Godzilla popular in the US and paved the way for a franchise that still roars to this very day.
This brings us to the second big success for Embassy, another import. This time, the first Italian Hercules movie starring American muscle man Steve Reeves. This one made quite the lasting impression as it combines the traditional Hercules myth (the man and his labors) along with the search for the Golden Fleece. While Godzilla made the titular creature popular stateside, Hercules did the same for its title character and practically invented an entire sub genre (the Italian sword and sandal picture, or peplum).

The film itself is a colorful, entertaining adventure with decent action scenes, a thin plot and no shortage of amusing moments (there is a very good reason MST3K did so many of these films during the Comedy Central years). Reeves makes for a good Hercules (even with the dubbed English accent) and Sylvia Koscina is quite easy on the eyes as his love interest. Overall, it's an enjoyable romp, as were most of the Hercules films Italy put out.

The success of this film and its sequel made Levine and Warner Brothers (the main distributor) a tidy profit which would, in turn, lead to more success for Embassy.

Coming soon: A Hint of Class, A Hint of Trash

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Visitor (1979)

As I think I've shown on the blog several times, I love Italian genre films from the 70's and 80's. From oddball sci-fi to cheesy action to gory horror, those wacky Italians just do genre films in a way that makes me smile no matter how crappy the film ends up being. For your enjoyment, here is one of the most bizarre ones you are likely to find.

The Visitor is an utterly bizarre yet fascinatingly bad (in a good way, as opposed to Batman vs. Superman) melange of several other films is one you really have to see to believe. John Huston is a kindly old man with cosmic powers (who is apparently God with Franco Nero in an un-credited role as a Jesus stand-in) who heads up an army of bald kids who can turn into doves in order to fight an evil force in the form of an eight year old girl who has a killer falcon for a pet and is destined to bring about the . Like I said, it's the sort of film you need to see to believe, and even then you might be left wondering what the hell the waitress at the diner put in your coffee.

The rest of the cast (save for Shelly Winters who I've never liked, thankfully she's only in a few scenes) is good too with Lance Henriksen in an early role as a bad guy and the kid playing the little girl is rather awesome in a way. At one point she "innocently" cripples her mother at her birthday party with an errant gunshot (I'd say it makes sense in context but I'm not sure it does) and the reaction shot this kid gives is a priceless mixture of "Whoops!" with a resigned shrug thrown in as well. Come to think of it, every time she ends up killing someone (which tends to be quite often) is darkly hilarious. Glenn Ford is also fun as a hard-boiled cop looking into the wave of violence that seems to follow this kid around and he gets a really good death scene. It happens a little earlier than one would expect, but them's the breaks I guess.

Add to that the bombastic music score that doesn't fit the film at all, a plot that takes Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist and a few others and smashing them together and you get a one of a kind film they just don't make anymore. I'd give more details, but this really is the sort of film you should go into with as little info as you8 can muster. It makes the bizarre stuff a little easier to take.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Orion Files: 1995 and Beyond

The last days of Orion saw them emerge from bankruptcy in 1996 along with being merged with a few other companies by Metromedia before being assimilated into MGM (an ironic fate given what would happen to that company). Not covering all the films from this period as most of them aren't really worth mentioning. I will, however, end things with a bit of a bang.

Sort of.

Actually, it's more like the bang you get from a slightly damp firecracker that you put next to the heater in the bathroom for a few minutes...

No, I'm not stalling!

After two small releases in 1995, Orion started 1996 off with this thriller that somehow has spawned a few direct to video sequels. Tom Berenger plays a former soldier who goes undercover as a substitute teacher as his local inner city high school. As formulaic as you can imagine, this sort of reminds me of a 1987 thriller in a similar vein called The Principal that starred Jim Belushi and Louis Gossett Jr.

An urban action film that reunites a bunch of 70's stars like Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree? Directed by B-movie maven Larry Cohen no less! That made it into freaking theaters! I haven't seen it, it's probably decent enough but the fact that it even exists just makes me smile. I'm also not shocked it didn't do well. It may not be The Expendables 2 but still!

Releases around the same time as Independence Day, this is a more thoughtful, generally better regarded alien invasion film, that stars Charlie Sheen as an astronomer who discovers we are not alone and naturally, there is a conspiracy that comes up.

A somewhat obscure hip-hop reworking of 80's teen sex comedies. The film got middling reviews.

An odd blend of crime thriller, science fiction time travel and black comedy, this has Kylie Travis as a young woman who hitches a ride with an abusive husband (played by Jim Belushi) and his wife. The ride turns violent and she happens upon a man who has invented a time machine. In the process she is sent back in time and tries to stop the wife's murder from happening. I generally enjoy time loop films and this one sounds like it's worth at least one viewing, maybe.

Joe Pesci, in one of his last roles before retiring stars as a mob hitman who has to deliver the severed heads of eight rival mobsters to his boss. A mix-up occurs with some tourists and wackiness ensues. I can totally see why Joe wanted to retire if this is the crap he was being offered.


Formulaic thriller starring Harvey Keitel as a retired thief who comes out of retirement for one last score (see what I mean about formulaic?).

Orion snagged one last Oscar nomination before they bent out. This time, Peter Fonda's performance in this acclaimed drama about a beekeeper raising his two granddaughters and trying to help their drug addicted mother.

Drama starring Vince Vaughn as a a drifter who comes to a small town and gets involved with some of the locals. It was not well received.

Fairly solid thriller featuring Jim Belushi and Tupac Shakur as two dirty cops, one dirtier than the other who are looking for someone to pin a killing they committed on. Belushi is in fine form as the scumbag partner, Shakur is good in his role as the cop with a conscience and any time Dennis Quaid can score a good role, I'm a happy guy.

You know how sometimes you see a film on at about three in the morning and get into it? I mean really into it, to the point where you actively enjoy it and want to seek it out again, maybe buy it? Yeah, this isn't one of those times because this film is one of the few movies so bad that it actively pisses me off. More to the point, it's the kind of movie where you watch it just to see how badly it can piss you off. A bunch of guys on their way to a wedding end up in a bank robbery turned hostage situation, perpetrated by one of the groomsmen. It turns into a standoff with the FBI and the old trope of the Idiot Plot is given a thorough working over here, mainly thanks to an idiotic FBI agent played by Raymond J. Barry (this is no knock on the actor, he was great on Justified). The characters are annoying, Dean Cain is fine on TV but doesn't work on film, ditto for Andy Dick to a lesser degree as I don't really like him anyway, and the film is too violent to be the funny light comedy. it seems to think it is. It's not good as a hostage drama either which makes it a truly pointless waste of time, effort and money.

A romantic comedy nobody really cared about from a year not many cared about.

We end things with the fourth entry in the Phantasm series. Not the best one by a longshot, this is even more surreal than the first three, sometimes not even bothering to have much in the way of a plot. I sort of like it though as Angus Scrimm is great as always as The Tall Man; Reggie Bannister is fun in his role and Michael Baldwin gets some decent screen time in the lead. It's not a great movie and to be honest, you need to have seen the others to even make sense of this one (the same can be said for the recently released fifth entry) but it's not bad.

Aside from one Orion Classics release in 1999, this was the end for the studio until 2013 when they made a surprise return as a division of MGM dedicated to smaller films. The studio now primarily releases lower budgeted genre pictures that have small theatrical releases while also being made available via video on demand services. It's rather amusing to me that a studio that strove to be old school in its mentality towards the product has been given new life by new media. They have an interesting pack of films out now with more on the way.

Told you there would be a happy ending.

Assuming that MGM doesn't get into financial trouble.

Again.

Sort of a pattern with those guys.

Weird, really.

Okay, now I'm stalling. Until next time.

The Orion Files: 1992-1994

The majority of the films the studio put out from 1992 to 1994 were films that had been delayed, mostly from 1991. Lots to cover here, though little in the way of quality. In other words, this will be a quickie.

1992

First off is this poorly reviewed comedy/drama about doctors rebelling against the way war veterans are being treated at a VA hospital. It wants very much to be a Mash for the 90's. It isn't.

Woody Allen's last film for Orion is this black and white comedy that is a tribute to German Expressionist films as well as the works of Franz Kafka. Sporting the usual great cast, this got mediocre reviews and was the last film before Allen's reputation became tarnished by scandal.

From March of 1992, we go right to the end of the year with this drama about life in 1963 right after the JFK assassination. Michelle Pfeiffer scored a Best Actress nomination for this one, funnily enough the studio still managed to get some acclaim, even in bankruptcy.

1993

Initially meant for a 1991 release (as are most of the films in this post), this is a poorly received film about three married couples and their issues.

Not one of George Romero's best films but this Stephen King adaptation is still a pretty solid flick. Timothy Hutton plays an author who kills off his pseudonym that brought him great success, only for the guy to become real and start stalking him. The film is a quite faithful adaptation of the novel and there are some nice f/x bits here and there. I kind of like Needful Things (the other 1993 King adaptation that got a big release which we'll hit when I do New Line) better but this one is just fine with god work from Hutton in the dual role and Michael Rooker as a local sheriff. It is also the last good film you will read about in this post... That I have seen at least.

Comedy drama about two cons who kidnap a kid and the ensuing adventures that follow. It sounds sort of like a reworking of a flick called Cohen and Tate that Hemdale put out in 1989.

Amazingly enough, this manages to be worse than the second film. Robocop is back, (belatedly as this was supposed to be the studio's big summer of 1992 release) this time in a stripped down and kid friendly version (there is even a precocious kid sidekick in this one which I suppose is a step up from the killer kid in the second film) that killed the franchise (to say nothing of director Fred Dekker's career) stone dead. This one is just awful and I hate to say this about any movie, but the world might be a slightly better place if it had never been released.

1994

The tagline at the bottom says it all. An erotic thriller with a killer (as in an obvious twist) ending. It concerns a struggling actress who  is psychologically tortured by her acting coach.

They may have lost the rights to one film based on a 60's sitcom with The Addams Family, but they damn sure kept the one for Car 54, Where are You? Probably because nobody else wanted it. Slated for release in what  would guess was 1991, this was shot in 1990, re-shot a few times and finally crapped into theaters in early 1994. It was originally intended to be a musical but most of the music numbers were cut and in the end, it bombed massively.

Another refugee from 1991, this is an interesting sounding film noir piece with  a solid cast.

No, this isn't about a giant red dog (though it would have been an improvement). Rather, this is a very dark comedy that features Martin Short as a psychotic ten year old who torments his uncle, played by Charles Grodin. Another 1991 postponement, this was just a bizarre, misbegotten fiasco.

This romantic comedy (with an early role for Brad Pitt) was filmed in 1990 but not put out until the spring of 1994. The plot sounds convoluted, the cast is good and the film was ignored.

Coming of age drama set in the 60's (naturally) that was... Well, you can guess.

Lastly is another film that not only scored a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars, but frigging won as Jessica Lange got the nod for her turn as the mentally unbalanced wife of Tommy Lee Jones who plays a nuclear engineer in 1962. The film got some good reviews and Lange was praised. A nice end to a bad time for the company.

Next up, the last years of the studio, plus a happy ending.

The Orion Files: 1991

1991 was the beginning of the end as the studio shut down production and sold several films off to other studios (including one which might have helped a bit if they had been able to keep it which we will cover). They would file for bankruptcy at the end of the year, leaving a stack of films in flux which we will cover next installment.

Oddly enough, out of the seven films they were able to get out in theaters, five (the last one released does count as it was started by them) were more commercial fare than what they tended to put out.

 
The Terminator gets a shot of estrogen in this mild action flick that sees Gregory Hines as a tough Colonel tasked with taking down an out of control female android designed for deep cover work who has gone berserk. Dull and lifeless, even by the standards of dump month releases (though for this studio, every month would soon become a dump month), this did not get the year off to a promising start for the company.

As with the previous year, there was one shining star for the studio and, as with Dances with Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs ended up scoring a ton of Oscars including Best Picture. The studio's last collaboration with Jonathan Demme, this is one of the best movies about a serial killer I have ever seen. Jodie Foster is quietly awesome as the rookie FBI agent but of course, all is overshadowed (even Ted Levine doing some seriously freaky shit as the killer) by Anthony Hopkins and his iconic performance as Hannibal Lecter. Impeccable in all areas, this more than deserved the success it got. To date, it is still the only horror movie to ever win Best Picture. A wonderful, if somewhat bittersweet in hindsight in regards to the studio, success.

And it goes downhill in a big damn hurry with this unnecessary, sort of pointless sequel to the quite good 1986 original. Bryan Brown and Brian Dennehy are back, trying to foil killers once again with a bevy of special effects but what was fresh and fun in 1986 comes off as stale and formulaic here. Just a waste of time.
Even with the fun turn from William Sadler as Death, the sequel to the studio's 1989 hit failed to make much of a dent when released in the summer of 1991. In fairness, Terminator 2 was out at the same time and nothing was going to beat that, especially not an oddball sequel to a surprise success from a few years earlier. Got some decent reviews, though. Scarily enough, it might be the second best reviewed film of the year for the studio, behind The Silence of the Lambs.

This one is a hectic, poorly reviewed comedy about a date that takes a surreal turn as all sorts of wacky things occur. Needless to say, nobody was overly impressed with this one and it died a quick death upon being released.

Jodie Foster makes her directorial debut in this drama about a single mom trying to give her genius son some semblance of a normal life. Yeah, that's about all I got on this. Got okay reviews.

Finally, we have the one that got away. In an effort to save some money, Orion sold off the distribution rights for this one to Paramount. Actually, its even worse than that, Paramount had to step in and complete the film due to the financial issues Orion was going through and as a a result, Orion only got international distribution rights. The end result was a huge success for Paramount as the film is a fun take on the TV series (Raul Julia, Angelica Huston and Christina Ricci are perfect in their roles and Christopher Lloyd makes for a fun Uncle Fester) though it was rather calculating in terms of marketing. An M.C. Hammer song over the end credits? Ah, the early 90's.

1991 was a really bad one for the company, in spite of the success of The Silence of the Lambs. The next three years would see the gradual release of their held back releases as they were mired in bankruptcy. Until then...

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.