Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Orion Files: 1979-1980

Seeing as my series on Carolco went over pretty well, I thought I'd look at another film studio, this time the initial iteration of mini-major Orion Pictures from 1979 to 1998. From the early 80's to the early 90's, Orion had a spectacular track record with huge hits, some solid sleepers and in general a fairly high quality of diverse product. In 1991, ironically the same year they released their second consecutive Best Picture winner (The Silence of the Lambs), they went into bankruptcy, delaying several movies until 1993/1994 and finally after merging with a few other smaller companies, fading out in 1999 after being purchased by MGM.

They've recently made a bit of a comeback with some VOD titles and independent releases but let's start at the beginning. Settle in, folks. This series is gonna a long one.*

*As with the Carolco series as well as the other studio bios I plan to do, this will be more of a historical piece, in other words shorter film examinations for time, space and because there is no way in hell I'm watching every single movie they put out for twenty years (though I will try to mention all of them if I can, even if it's a quick blurb). I don't have that much time on my hands.

It began in 1978 when three executives from United Artists decided to break out on their own. Teaming with Warner Brothers, they set about making movies with more of an eye on quality than commerce (a tactic that would reap great rewards but also bite them in the ass rather hard, rather quickly in both cases, oddly enough) with the first coming out in 1979...

The studio's first effort is this mild romantic dramedy starring Laurence Olivier as a sly old fellow who helps a young couple find romance. Directed by George Roy Hill (his best film is still The Sting) the film got a mixed reception though not an entirely bad one.

This is an interesting cult film about teen rebellion in a small town. Matt Dillon makes his film debut as one of the leads and while the poster may make it look like a horror film, it's actually a fairly straightforward dramatic piece.

Another teen-centered film, The Wanderers is a gang film (1979 also saw the release of the much more popular and controversial film The Warriors) starring Ken Wahl, it also gained a cult following.

Though Orion only handled US distribution (the film was made by George Harrison's Handmade Pictures which could warrant a closer look at some point), it would be unconscionable if I didn't mention Life of Brian here. Arguably their best film, LoB is quite hilarious with some wonderful sequences (the Biggus Dickus scene is a showcase for Michael Palin) and a generally fantastic tone. It's not my favorite Monty Python item (the TV show is still at the top for me) but it's still funny as hell.

Malcolm McDowell and David Warner star as H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper, respectively, in this clever science fiction piece that sees Wells pursue Jack in a time machine he invented to 1979. The film benefits from a clever screenplay and a fine cast (Mary Steenburgen is charming as a woman Wells falls in love with and who Jack is planning to kill while Warner and McDowell are fun in their respective roles) though as with most time travel stories, it's a good idea not to think about things too much. The ensuing headaches can be most inconvenient. The fish out of water stuff is handled well (McDowell underplays quite nicely here) and Nicholas (Star Trek II) Meyer does well in his directorial debut.

Dudley Moore is a middle aged man obsessed with a stunningly beautiful mystery woman played by Bo Derek in this Blake Edwards comedy. Moore got stateside recognition thanks to this film (which he would capitalize on the next year with Arthur) and it made a sex symbol out of Derek (though her subsequent movies fell on the low end of the cinematic quality scale). Julie Andrews is also on hand as Moore's girlfriend. I'm not the biggest fan of most of the principle players here (though I do like Julie Andrews quite a bit) but this is definitely one to see just for the Bo Derek stuff.

Robert Duvall stars as a hardass Marine pilot who excels in the corps but falls on his ass when it comes to being a good husband and father. A well reviewed but financially unsuccessful character drama, this netted Duvall one of his many Oscar nominations.

This is a drama about a hardass doctor whose heart softens somewhat while she treats a young cancer patient. I got nothing else on this one, its pretty obscure and we got a lot of films to cover.

Orion kicked off 1980 with this bizarre Alan Arkin comedy that stars the man as a professor brainwashed into thinking he's an alien by an all-powerful group of scientists as a joke. From what I've read and seen, this looks amusing but not essential. The director, Marshall Brickman, collaborated with Woody Allen who we will see in later installments of this series.

When your movie is about a would be musician/cab driver who ends up getting involved with a plot to kidnap a monkey that knows a formula to destroy life as we know it, it's probably not a good idea to give said movie a title that most critics will take as a dare to come up with a worse pun than their nearest local competitor.

This one is about author Jack Kerouac (Nick Nolte) around the time he was writing his book On the Road. The film got okayish reviews and more than likely, Nolte was good.

Now this is more like it! Caddyshack is one of Orion's best releases (though it took time to find an audience, like most of their films that became popular) and in the interest of not blathering on about stuff I've already enthused about, here is a link to my review from a few years ago.

Peter Sellers' last film was this pretty dire spoof of the Fu Manchu stories with Sellers in both the title role and as Nayland Smith, the arch rival to the bad guy. At the cost of coming off as unprofessional, I think I'd rather gnaw my own leg off than watch this. Actually, watching it might result in that very event, come to think of it.

I think I've kissed this movie's ass enough already, so here is my review posted way back in the early days of the blog.

Orion ended 1980 with a splat in the form of this adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars, previously adapted in the 70's as Blood From the Mummy's Tomb by Hammer. Charlton Heston plays an archaeologist whose daughter ends up possessed by an ancient Egyptian queen in a ponderously dull and all too serious attempt at a high class horror film. This was a trend around the time in the wake of The Exorcist's success as other major studios tried to capitalize and while some films like The Omen (which isn't exactly great itself) were successful, most went the way of Paramount's Prophecy (1979) and this snooze fest. When even Heston hamming it up towards the end can't bring the film's energy level up. Damn.

Orion's first two years of operation yielded a few interesting titles but apart from 10, not much in the way of success. 1981 would continue that trend as we will see next time.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Carolco Files Part V: 1992-1995 and Conclusion

In spite of some huge hits and a few other fairly good movies, the end was near for Carolco. They had spent too much and made too little overall and it was all about to come crashing down.

The surprise hit of 1992 is a very good thriller with a heavy film noir influence and a pair of standout performances from Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. Douglas is a cop investigating a murder and Stone is the probable suspect, a sexy author who happens to have written a novel that matches the murder perfectly. It's a sexually charged noir mystery from the beginning to the end as Douglas does his usual solid work and Stone turns in one of the best femme fatales in film history. The film was controversial due to its violence, sex scenes and various other issues but really it's a fast paced blast of a thriller. Paul Verhoeven directed this with his usual energy and managed to make the Joe Eszterhas script work (not something that always happens) by casting actors who can take the rather plain dialogue he tends to write and make it sound like something an actual human would say. For once, his lurid ideas work thanks to a solid director and cast.

Somehow, some way, a third (and later fourth) Iron Eagle movie was crapped out. I rented this one time as a kid and have no memory of it. All I can say is that it's a damn shame that this was one of John Glen's last directorial efforts. He did all of the Bond films in the 80's, most of which were awesome. The partnership with Carolco and New Line/Seven Arts wasn't going well at this point, I think.

One bright moment was this fun flick with Jean-Claude van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as undead soldiers in a top secret special forces program who begin to remember how much they hated each other when they were alive and go nuts. An early film for the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich combo (later they would give us Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla 1998), this is a fast and violent shoot 'em up that is utterly stupid, but you get a fantastic villain in Lundgren and some nice action beats.

Robert Downey Jr. gives a good performance as Charlie Chaplin in this solid biopic directed by Richard Attenborough. Good cast all around as well but Downey is the reason to seek this one out.

1992 was really the last sort of high point for Carolco in 1992 as the rest is... Well, let's just say that now would be a good time to put on "The End" by The Doors while you read the rest of this post. Or "Freebird" if you are so inclined.

Projects were shelved (a failed Spider-Man film directed by James Cameron in '92; an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Paul Verhoeven flick called Crusade in '94) and probably the only reason the company limped on until 1995 was a late 1993 merger with The Vista Organization.

The last film they did with Tri-Star, the distribution deal ended up leaving the company with very little in the way of a profit in spite of the film's success. I've written about the movie elsewhere, (briefly, it's very good) but the way this movie came together played a big part in the studio's demise as they were drowning in debt by this point.

This one is a real bummer as not only is it the last thing John Candy worked on (he died in the middle of filming and body doubles were used for the remaining shots) it's also cripplingly unfunny.

The company's last movie of 1994 is this successful, interesting but finally sort of dull sci-fi action movie from the same team that earlier gave the dumb but fun Universal Soldier. Kurt Russell and James Spader are a soldier and scientist respectively on a team investigating an interstellar travel portal that dumps them on an alien world that may have influenced the ancient Egyptians. Russell and Spader are find but really, the TV series that followed is better if only for that fact whatever episode you're watching takes only a third of the time the movie runs to watch.

1995 was the end for the company. They only had three releases but two out of the three are actually rather notable. The first was a Tom Berenger film called Last of the Dogmen that got decent reviews. The other two... Ugh!

The first and only NC-17 film to get a wide release in the US, Showgirls is one of the great bad movies. A sleazy, tawdry showbiz expose along the lines of the sludge that was en vogue in the sixties and seventies, this killed a few careers and was one of the final bullets for Carolco. Joe Eszterhas wrote the script and Paul Verhoeven directed which means "over the top excess" in the worst possible way. Bad dialogue, bad acting, just bad.

The final nail in the coffin was this mega budget pirate movie that was a last ditch attempt to salvage things. In 1995. Geena Davis is our action hero for the day (the film was directed by then-husband Renny Harlin who also directed her in The Long Kiss Goodnight) along with Matthew Modine as a con man and together they go up against a villainous pirate played by Frank Langella. The budget on this quickly got out of control (which tends to happen when there are multiple shooting delays and script rewrites) and the end result is a rather listless movie that is full of action but low on energy with a cast that, apart from Langella, isn't having a whole lot of fun. It's a real waste of money and I'm not too shocked it bombed. The pirate film had been dead for decades and honestly, the success of Pirates of the Caribbean eight years later is mostly Johnny Depp and his force of will.

The failure of Cutthroat Island was the straw that broke the camel's back (to say nothing of the careers and marriage of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis) and sealed Carolco's doom. They had a hell of a run though with some legit good movies, some fun hits and, as I think I've shown, more than their fair share of mistakes.

Carolco was a prime example of a studio consumed with 80's/90's excess done in by kung-fu treachery...

Uh, I mean greed and lousy financial judgment! Sometimes those two look very similar. If nothing else, they went out with a bang.

They might even be on the road back. A company formerly known as Brick Top Productions has bought the name and logo and hired Mario Kassar to help out with producing films, starting with a remake of the 1999 Japanese horror film Audition.

Hell, anything can happen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Esoterica XV: Ads Galore and a Little More

Before we wrap up Carolco, here's a  bunch of old ads from the 70's, 80's and elsewhere that amuse me plus some other tidbits.

 Forgot to put this in the first part of the Carolco Files series but this is the first film Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna actually produced together. The Silent Partner is a solid Canadian thriller starring Elliot Gould as a banker who gets into a cat and mouse game with a psychotic bank robber played by Christopher Plummer. Aside from some pacing issues, this is an enjoyable watch with good performances and a few surprisingly nasty bits of violence. Very underrated.

Ah, the CB radio craze of the seventies. Without it, Smokey and the Bandit may have been just a dream of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. Not sure how the hell Humphrey Bogart fits but in the 80's Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character was hocking IBM products (that's getting a post all to itself) so what do I know?

This was a donut shop in the 40's and it may make me an immature putz, but that name will never stop being funny. It sounds like a really obscure insult you would yell at a kid in grade school.

Commemorative plates are one of the more bizarre things to come out of the buy by mail industry. Pure late 70's/early to mid 80's cheese.

This is a pretty solid clip reel of popular ghost movies narrated by John Carradine. Some interesting looking films plus some neat stories make this a decent watch. Plus, you can watch it for free on Amazon Prime.

Ah, sometimes irony tastes like a 3x3 from In-N-Out. I love brag ads like this, especially when the bragging party is obscure to the point where you have to Google it.

Life Magazine had a few ads like this. As to the question, I have no idea how accusing a potential reader of being in with the mob is going to get them to read your magazine. It might get them to throw a copy of it at you, though.

To kind of wrap things up, here is something that just makes me smile simply by existing.

In the 70's, Johnny Carson was so damn big he had a line if clothing.

You gotta get your own sidekick though, Ed McMahon not included.

Gotta love the 70's.

The idea of a golfer somehow not wanting to hit the ball as hard as they can amuses me to no end.

One last ad to send us home. RIP, champ.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bay of Blood (1971)

Mario Bava was one of the finest Italian directors ever. A skilled storyteller as well as cameraman, he crafted some amazing looking movies that also told really good stories. He had great success with Black Sunday (1960); delved into the world of fantasy with Hercules in the Haunted World (1964), brought a touch of the surreal in Lisa and the Devil (1976) and inspired the 1980 slasher classic Friday the 13th with our subject today.

Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve and Bloodbath along with several other titles) is a near perfect template for the 80's slasher movie with a plot that ostensibly is about some shady folks trying to get a hold of some very valuable property (the house by the baby which is, to be fair, quite spectacular) but for the most part its about special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi creating as many realistic gore effects as he can, predating Tom Savini by a few years.

Bava provides the viewer with stabbing; shooting, hanging, machetes to the face (used later by Friday the 13th Part 2), a double impalement (also seen in Friday the 13th Part 2) and all of it shot beautifully with a certain amount of dark humor that permeates the entire movie. But for the early 70's touches, it plays out like a slasher from ten years later, right down to the one notable actor hired for potential name value (former Bond Girl Claudine Auger appears in a major role).

It's sort of hard to go too in depth about a film like this, really, as the plot is threadbare as are the characters. There's a damn good reason the only slasher movie I did in full for the My Favorite Era series was Halloween. Things just tend to happen, as tends to be the case in Italian genre movies. The big thing with watching a film like this is to focus not so much on what happens but how it looks while it is happening.  Why do four random teens (played by actors in their late twenties/early thirties, naturally) show up to just get killed? Who knows? Why are there no sympathetic characters in the movie at all? Well, mainly because this is essentially a very dark comedy at its heart (the double murder at the end is the height of this) but still!

Bay of Blood is a gruesome, wonderfully shot bit of slasher fun that takes the giallo thriller (the precursor to the American slasher movie) that Bava helped pioneer (Blood and Black Lace is one of the best) and reduces it to its basest components. People are killed; the murders are gruesome and the plot is merely a simple frame to hang a bunch of gore scenes from. It's quite the fun, sometimes confusing thrill ride.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Carolco Files Part IV: 1990-1991

The most successful period for the company saw a partnership with New Line Cinema through a company called Seven Arts, some of their best movies and the biggest success of 1991. It also saw some cracks beginning to widen. First off, Andrew Vajna left the company in 1989 citing creative differences with Kassar and split off to form Cinergi Pictures (we will look at their output later, it won't take long at all). Top that off with even more ludicrous spending on film budgets while also making low budget independent films that made nothing and you can see that while the company is about to have a ton of profit, its also setting itself up for one hell of a fall.

It's a long road we got ahead of us (in other words, don't look for long reviews), so let's not waste any more time.

This is a Bob Rafelson movie about an 1857 expedition by Sir Richard Burton to discover the source of the Nile River. It sounds pretty interesting and seems to have gotten good reviews from the time it came out. Damn shame I can't get a hold of it cheap (as in free, I try not to make cold purchases unless I'm reasonably sure it's a worthy investment).

One of two movies covered in this post that I've already reviewed on the blog (the other is Terminator 2), this fantastic sc-fi action flick is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's best. Smartly written, wonderfully cast and awesomely violent, this is just plain fun and one of the best action films of the 90's. It ended up being one of their most successful movies.

Mel Gibson's second film in the summer of 1990, (his first was the adequate Bird on a Wire) Air America is a fun, sort of sloppy action comedy about pilots flying for the CIA in Laos, 1969. Mel and Robert Downey Jr. are fun and there is some great stunt flying but the film runs a little too long and the plot is not that compelling.

The first collaboration with Seven Arts is this rather terrible parody of The Exorcist. Leslie Nielsen plays the lead along with Linda Blair more or less reprising her role as the possessed girl. There are some laughs here and there as Nielsen is usually funny and Blair does well enough but for the most part, this is just lame and predictable. Sort of fun to see Ned Beatty doing a televangelist routine though. Sadly, this will prove to be one of the better Carolco/Seven Arts team-ups. In fact, depending on how you feel about some of their other titles, it might be the best. That ain't good, folks.

Los Angeles ADA played by Gene Hackman has to protect a potential witness to a murder played by Anne Archer in this loose remake of a 50's noir film of the same name. Peter Hyams directs with his usual skill (and his usual taste for plunging every scene he shoots into darkness) and as tends to be the case with late 80's/early 90's thrillers, the cast is littered with great character actors. The plot is fairly rote as Hackman and Archer end up on a train followed by the bad guys but what makes it fun is watching Hackman do his thing. He's brash, cocky and energetic and he's always made for an interesting action hero. The film is just dumb fun. Really dumb.

The second joint effort with New Line and Seven Arts, this is a pretty solid gangster thriller directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Christopher Walken. Walken is a big time New York drug lord and the film details his rise and fall. An eclectic cast (in addition to Walken, you also get Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso and Wesley Snipes among others) and solid direction make this a worthwhile viewing, though a grim and violent one as Abel's films tend to be.

As I noted in my Best of 1990 post, it takes a lot to scare me but Jacob's Ladder gets the job done quite efficiently. An utterly creepy psychological horror movie, this is probably the best acting Tim Robbins has ever done and in terms of artistic achievement is high on the list of the best things Carolco ever made.

Not the funniest Steve Martin movie there is (Roxanne is my favorite of his) but this sly romantic comedy is a solid satire of Los Angeles as well as a decent romantic comedy. Martin plays a weatherman who is looking for love which he finds in a few places. First with a goofy wild child played by Sarah Jessica Parker and then with a more mature woman played his then current wife Victoria Tennant. The film is chock full of laughs and no small amount of heart though it feels a bit uneven at times. Still, a solid flick.

Oliver Stone's biopic on Jim Morrison (though it has the band name as the title, it's more focused on Jim Morrison than anything else) has a strong performance from Val Kilmer as Morrison but really not much else as the over the top mythology of the group takes over and leaves the real stuff behind. You get the bread for the sandwich but Stone leaves the actual stuff inside that makes it a good sandwich out. Stone can make good films from time to time but he tends to let things go too far over the top (see Natural Born Killers) and seems to be more interested in making a "statement" than a good movie. Sometimes it works out, here it doesn't.

I'm not the biggest Andrew Dice Clay fan out there (in fact I think a slow death from an incurable disease is funnier than he is, more entertaining and the end is certainly a showstopper, literally) but this concert film warrants mentioning simply because it generated tons of controversy and was probably the final nail in the man's professional coffin after the failure of his film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. One of the most important things in comedy is structuring your material and for some inexplicable reason, this guy found success with an act that was loosely structured in the severest sense of the term. Some of his stuff barely registers as a joke, really. Just childish vulgarity mixed with some rampant bigotry and sexism and an unpleasant delivery topped off with a total lack of self-awareness. He's referred to as being a satirical character but even subtle satire is recognizable as such. Sam Kinison was light years better, and even then I'm not the biggest fan.

The big hit of 1991 represents the true zenith for the company. An all-around awesome action movie, Terminator 2 was a massive success as well as influential in terms of special effects and still holds up today. It would never get this good again for the company, in spite of one or two bright spots. As with Total Recall, I reviewed this a while ago and honestly there isn't a whole lot more I can say about it. It would never get this good again.

Apart from some somewhat obscure titles, Rambling Rose represents the capper to a very good 1991 for Carolco. An Oscar nominated drama (Laura Dern and Diane Lane for their roles) about a young woman in Depression era Alabama who turns the life of a family upside down, this got good notices for its cast and is one of the better things Carolco and Seven Arts did together.

1990 and 1991 were huge years for the company, bringing them their biggest successes. Unfortunately, save for one or two bright spots, it was all downhill from there.

About Me

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