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...

About Me

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