Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Orion Files: 1986

1986 was a major step up from the previous year. Financially, the studio did very well but critically, they knocked it out of the park with several award winning movies. They also partnered up with TV production house Metromedia and beefed up their TV division the following year.

Tim Conway and Harvey Korman reunite (along with Jack Weston and Ted Wass) as a quartet of losers who end up in debt to some gangsters after using some of their money to place a bet on a horse race. This was Orion's first release of 1986 and, well, January is generally considered a dump month for movies which should give you an idea of how funny this one is. Tim Conway is a funny guy most of the time but this is just sort of dull. It's the kind of thing your grandmother takes you to when she's got you for the day and there's no way in hell you're talking her into watching Return of the Jedi for the fifteenth time, and she's not sadistic enough to subject you to the Merchant-Ivory film she can't get Gramps to take her to.

I have no idea what that means, but it's about as funny as the movie. Love the poster though. Next!

First off in the cavalcade of quality is this really, really good thriller starring Australian actor Bryan Brown as a special effects artist who is enlisted by shady justice department agent Cliff DeYoung to fake the death of a noted mobster, played by Jerry Orbach. Things get complicated (as in Brown is framed for a real murder and gets big Brian Dennehy up his arse) and the end result is a modestly stunning, twisty, exciting little thriller. I really love this one.

Woody Allen knocked it out of the park creatively with this one. this comedy/drama about three sisters and their family and love lives netted Dianne Weist a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and a Best Supporting Actor one for Michael Caine (Which he was unable to receive in person because he was making Jaws: The Revenge. Well, at least he had a nice house to put the award in afterwards). Allen also snagged a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and I have to say that while I'm not the biggest fan of the film (if not for film school, I probably would never have seen it), it's still a good movie. If I had to take a Woody Allen movie with me to a deserted island, I'd at least consider it.

Another chick flick (let's be honest folks, for all the laughs it has, Hannah and Her Sisters is a frigging chick flick), this drama deals with two friends who have to deal with tragedy. Needless to say, it didn't do so hot and that's really all I got to say about it.

Two classic nutcases (though Walken has the decency to confine those tendencies to when he's on the clock) go at it in this tense crime drama based on a true story. Sean Penn and Christopher Walken play father and son, respectively, with Walken being a crime boss and Penn trying hard to not become like his old man. In spite of good reviews, this didn't make a lot of money.

Orion handled the US distribution for this British musical that flopped quite badly and caused its production company Goldcrest to collapse. It didn't do much better stateside either.

The surprise hit of the year was this funny Rodney Dangerfield film that stars the man as a self-made millionaire who goes back to college to make sure his son doesn't drop out. The expected hijinks ensue but Dangerfield gives the film his own sense of energy and timing while Sam Kinison turns in a funny bit part as a psychotic professor.

Bit of a dry spell here as we move through the middle of the year and there's good stuff to follow so let's plow through the dross.

A divorced couple is having trouble staying the hell away from each other. It's got Teri Garr so chances are if I did see it, I'd be annoyed...

Though not as annoyed as I am when I think that this was one of the first films I saw in a movie theater. Gene Wilder (R.I.P., man. You were awesome.) wrote, directed and starred in this rather bad horror comedy with Gilda Radner as a pair of radio announcers who decide to get married in a spooky old castle/mansion only for the blessed event to be tarnished by a rampaging werewolf and Dom DeLuise in drag. Sadly, this was the last thing Gilda did before she died.

Orion went the Cannon Films route for this exploitation action film. Tom Skerrit and Lisa Eichorn are two of the elite soldiers chosen to do some heavy duty training related to enduring a POW camp. The commander in charge of the camp is played by Anthony Zerbe (slimy as usual) and things quickly take a dark and nasty turn as the training gets a little too real for comfort. This didn't get much of a release and the reviews I've read are mixed. But that is one hell of a poster.

This is a British romantic comedy about a young man from India who comes to England, poses as a doctor and falls in love with a young woman there. Overly long (111 minutes for a romantic comedy?) and fairly drab, this sort of tells you why the British film industry was flailing in the late 80's.

The year for Orion ended with four terrific films, however. Well, three legit ones and one I love, though the critics sure as hell didn't.

First off was this charming comedy starring Jeff Daniels as a banker who falls in with a cute girl played by Melanie Griffith. The film follows their burgeoning romance which is jeopardized by Ray Liotta as Griffith's dangerous ex-con husband. The film got good reviews and has became a cult hit.

Gene Hackman delivers his usual solid performance in this classic sports film, loosely based on a true story. Hackman is the coach of an Indiana high school basketball team looking to win the state championship. This got good reviews and also netted Dennis Hopper a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, sealing the deal on his comeback.

Not too many critics liked this one, but I've always gotten a kick out of this goofy Western comedy from John Landis that sees Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase as silent film action stars who mistakenly end up defending a small Mexican village from real life bandits. Is it dumb? Oh yeah, really dumb! It's also very, very funny with great work from the three leads and Alfonso Arau as the bad guy El Guapo.

Orion ended the year, however, with another eventual Best Picture winner in Platoon. The end result of a good partnership with Hemdale Film Corporation (another studio I'll be checking out at some point, though with the redundancies it might be a one-shot deal), this Oliver Stone war film is a gripping drama about Vietnam, as seen through the eyes of a young soldier played by Charlie Sheen. Featuring a fantastic cast and a distinct lack of fun to the battle scenes (which heightens the reality and horror of war), this still stands as one of the best war movies of all time. It's tough to watch at times, but that's sort of the point.

1986 was probably the best year Orion ever had. When Oscar time came around they scored eighteen nominations with Platoon taking home the Best Picture trophy. It signaled, one would think, good times in the future. To be fair, there were, but I don't think it ever got this good again.

Next up, 1987.

The Orion Files: 1985

1985 was a financially awful year for Orion (hell, even I'm not sitting through all the films they put out for this edition), though the films got decent to great reviews for the most part (good reviews don't pay the bills, though). The company was prepping their home video label and their December release ended up being postponed till 1986, leaving them with the last two months of the year unspoken for. This won;t be one of my longer (or better if we're being honest) pieces but the show must go on.

Based on a true story, this is a pretty well regarded spy thriller about two young men who sell state secrets to the Soviets in the 70's. Good performances abound (as much of a whack job as Sean Penn can be, he does deliver the goods every time) and the film retains its solid reputation.

Kurt Russell stars as a burnt out journalist who ends up going after a killer who sends him taunting messages about his next victims. This was one of the first films released on Orion Home Video and for the most part, it's a well made, if somewhat predictable thriller with a typically good Kurt Russell performance.

The obligatory Woody Allen film for the year is this well received dramedy starring Mia Farrow as a Depression-era housewife whose one joy is going to the movies. She finds romance when one of the characters in the film (played by Jeff Daniels who also appears as the actor playing the character) steps off the screen and into reality.

Orion's lone financial success for the year is this agreeable comedy starring Rosanna Arquette as a housewife who ends up getting mistaken for a kooky local character named Susan, played by Madonna.

I reviewed this decent Chuck Norris film on the blog five years ago and while I still don't really like the more serious cop drama part of it (while it doesn't cripple the movie, it still gets in the way), it's perfectly good when it just decides to be a solid action movie. That being said, I still like Chuck's Cannon output from 1985 better.

Utterly predictable comedy about  young lovers, this one gained a bit of news earlier this year when it turned out that a Puerto Rican film basically ripped the film off completely.

A young man dies in the 50's but must work as a guardian angel before he can be let into heaven. He does so by helping out a kid whose mother turns out to be the guy's former girlfriend. Not much to say on this one, really. Have I mentioned how bad 1985 was for the studio yet?

Now this is more like it! Return of the Living Dead is the best thing Orion put out in 1985 and still holds up today as a fantastic horror comedy. Great script and direction from Dan O'Bannon, some fun f/x and of course, I have to mention Linnea Quigley because... Well, because it's Linnea Quigley! That aside, this is just plain fun.

Set in Italy, circa 1501, this Paul Verhoeven film stars Rutger Hauer in a story about warring groups of mercenaries. In spite of good reviews, Orion gave this one a limited release and it promptly tanked. The film is a pretty grim and realistic depiction of how crappy the Middle Ages were and Hauer gives a typically solid performance. This was Verhoeven's stateside debut and he approaches things with his usual sense of subtlety and tact. Not really surprised this failed but i'm also not surprised the studio didn't have much faith in it.

This satire of the advertising industry was buried at the end of the summer (lot of dump month releases for this company) but it's actually a relatively funny film. Loretta Swit plays an ad executive for a beer company (Kenneth Mars plays the owner and he's the funniest thing about the film) who stumbles upon three average guys who foil a robbery and become local heroes to the point where she decides to use them for her next ad campaign which of course ends up being a series of progressively more outrageous commercials that play up the toughness of said average guys. A good cast with likable characters and some funny bits here and there help make this obscure comedy something worth looking at at least once.

This one is about a woman possessed by a ghost from the 20's who still wants to make it in showbiz. I- I just don't have the energy to sit through something like that. Let's just say that Roger Ebert loathed it and going by the description I've read, the man was probably spot on.

I have a certain fondness for this one as I distinctly remember the poster that was in the theater where I saw Return of the Jedi (the re-release from 1985, natch). Fred Ward plays a New York cop who is enlisted (quite against his will) by a government agency headed by Wilford Brimley to become a super spy. He gets trained by Joel Grey (in really politically incorrect Asian makeup) as a Korean martial arts master and gets caught up in a plot involving a weapons program and the US Army. Grey is fun (though the character really is quite offensive) and the climax on the Statue of Liberty is terrific. The film was supposed to be the start of a series (the character is from a series of pulp novels) but the film didn't do very well (the open ending might have had something to do with it) and nothing ever came of it.

Like I said, 1985 was a rather dismal year for Orion,. A few well reviewed movies, some actually decent ones but for the most part, the year was not a good one. 1986, however, would be a different story.

Esoterica XVI: Unintentional Hilarity and Shameless Opportunism

Given the treasure trove to be found in this post, this will be a longer Esoterica post than usual. It's worth it though, trust me. This time, we're looking at some shameless opportunism at its finest as the 70's series I've been working on intermittently returns.

But first, a brief yet somewhat long missive on an unintentionally hilarious piece of crap (Though some folks feel nostalgic towards it, I've found) I came across one early morning recently. The fact that I didn't watch the entire thing (I do have some standards) is all that kept this from being a separate post.

Full disclosure, I stumbled across this awful bit of maudlin poop at four in the morning and ended up alternating between flipping channels to find something better and quietly screaming with laughter into my hand. I have not seen the entire thing but what I saw was so bad I had to write about it.

Four Friends stars Craig Wasson (one of the many next big things in movies who ended up not being very big at all) who plays a young Yugoslavian immigrant named Danny whose home life can be best described as "The basketball scene in The Great Santini, minus the affection". The other three friends are a jock, the obligatory fat kid and the girl all three of them fall for. She is played (rather poorly) by Jodi Thelan who only did a few other movies after this. There is also a dying crippled kid Danny is friends with whose family plays into the second act of the movie.

His home life is a tepid, unpleasant shambles but his love life is in even worse shape as the girl he has the hots for ends up with two of his other pals before finally getting together with him after the requisite "Oh god, the 70's nearly killed me with the drugs and all" routine these types of movies tend to trot out. He also has a wedding to a rich girl whose father kills her and maims him after the wedding before shooting himself (there are one or two other rather tasteless details I won't go into for the sake of brevity).

Lois Smith plays the mother of the bride (and the crippled dying kid who kicks off while Danny is recuperating after the shooting) and has one moment after the shooting that was supposed to be dramatic but ends up being one of the funniest things I've ever seen in an ostensibly serious movie. Loud wails of grief work just fine when there is a build. When it comes out of left field in an otherwise quiet scene, not so much. I'm also not sure she was supposed to be blind for the entire movie but she sure as hell is in her last scene.

The film is set against the backdrop of the 60's/70's turmoil and there have been many movies that dealt with that era and the troubles between the older and younger generations quite well. This is not one of them (how the hell it got good reviews when it first came out is beyond me). The characters alternate between ridiculous (Wasson's father in this movie comes off like a cross between DeNiro in Raging Bull and Robert Duvall in The Great Santini, hence the reference above) and repulsively unlikable (the audience would feel for Wasson if he wasn't such a mopey bore all the damn time). The fact that the performances are laughably terrible (some of the actors here are good in other things, must have been something in the water) doesn't help matters much.

Four Friends is one of those films that feels content to be a simple series of vignettes that show a tapestry of the lives of its characters which can work under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, nothing good happens to them at any point and the few small rays of light are quickly dimmed by ridiculous circumstances poorly written and played out. The last scene of the movie takes place at a nighttime bonfire on the beach and with the way the film played out to that point, I'm shocked the huge gust of wind that kicks up at the end didn't incinerate the rest of the cast, small children included, as the credits rolled.

Arthur Penn directed this movie and it is a far cry from the quality of Bonnie and Clyde. Hell, the film he did previous to this, The Missouri Breaks worked better and that was a rather tepid western pitting Jack Nicholson against a very bored (but admittedly entertaining) Marlon Brando.

As noted, the film plays out in the early 60's and ends up in the late 70's. For a better microcosm of that period of time, you could just listen to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". It's about 112 minutes shorter and a hell of a lot better written. That's not a perfect analogy, I'll grant you but it makes more sense than most of the film.

 Jeez, that was so bad I need an aspirin...

Funny, Prism Video. Very funny. Going by the tagline, I'd say that four out of five doctors are going to be secretly killed by the AMA once they get to that desert island.  Actually, this is one of the many bizarre short tapes that came out during the big home video boom of the 80's and 90's. This is a bizarre 18 minute relaxation tape intended as a cure for headaches. You know, because Tylenol and Advil are the work of the man-goat or something. It's typically silly self-help crap complete with a cheesy mantra.

And with that prologue done (I know, it's like Lord of the Rings minus the budget, story, and effects but we do have an all-star cast), we can now move onto the main event.

One of the things you acquire being a movie junkie is a certain sixth sense when it comes to certain things. You know that old saying "Never judge a book by its cover"? Same goes for movies. One of the amusing/frustrating things video companies will do (and still do to this day) is take an early film of a well known actor and splash their name on the cover nice and big in order to boost hypothetical sales. Sometimes it turns out to be the actor has a leading role and the film just dropped off the radar, sometimes it's a minor supporting role and sometimes it's just complete crap. What this is a long way of saying is that this may be the most star-studded post I've done in a while.

This oddity is an offbeat sketch comedy film from 1971 presented by Richard Pryor that mainly focuses on the peace movement and other issues of the time with such 70's figures as Pryor (even when not firing on all cylinders, the man had an amazing comic mind), Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and even John Lennon and Yoko Ono among others appearing. It's a pretty solid snapshot of early 70's culture with some interesting bits here and there and the 76 minute running time means it doesn't overstay its welcome. Doesn't make it good or anything, but as a curiosity piece it's okay.

 It wouldn't be a piece on shameless opportunism without a little something from Simitar Video. Known for horrible transfers and cheesy covers, what you see above is a double feature of two early John Candy comedies. It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time is a 1975 Canadian comedy that has Candy in a small role as an inept detective (his partner is played by fellow Canadian Lawrence Dane). He reprises the role in Find the Lady from the following year. They're... Ugh. I pity the poor sucker who bought this. I really do, because both of these are nearly perfect laugh-free zones.

 Shot in 1979 but not released until 1985 when a certain Material Girl hit it big, this is Madonna's first movie. It's a 60 minute indie film about a rape victim who kills her attacker in a Satanic ritual. Madonna isn't a fan of this one, sounds horrible from what I've read anyhow.

This is an obscure mockumentary "hosted" by Tony Randall who relays the history of a bad movie production company that strived for mediocrity. Insert joke about Cannon Films or your B-movie studio of choice here. Couldn't find anything but a trailer but if that's anything to go by, the film title might be a case of truth in advertising. And I'm being very generous with that assessment. Actually, I'd kind of like to see it for myself.

Around the same time she was about to become a moderately big movie star, Goldie Hawn made this little seen comedy in Italy in which she plays an American tourist who falls for her friend's lover who also happens to be married. That's all I got for this one, not really my cup of tea.

 Danny DeVito has a supporting role as the lead character's boss in this 1977 comedy about a young man who gets a van in order to get laid. It was the 70's, folks. What can I say? Lots of crude humor results including some really unfunny rape material (the lead character tries to rape a girl and is raped himself later) as well as a van race between the lead and his rival. DeVito is okay, though not really all that funny.

And now for the Kevin Costner portion of our show. Good old Kev just happened to hit the big time at the same time the VHS boom was really going into overdrive and as a result, his early work ended up being shoved down the throats of the consumers. Much like his contemporary stuff at the time, now that I think about it.

 Wasn't able to find much on this one but at the risk of pulling a wild guess out of my ass, I'd say it's about baseball. The film came out in 1982, six years before Bull Durham. Looks like he's barely in this which more than qualifies it for this post. The next two actually have the man in a significant role, however.

Kevin has a role in this as a poker player helping out the female lead cheat to win. His murder sets the revenge plot in motion as the young woman and a team of players she recruits look to take a ton of money off the casino that had him killed. Yeah. What really sells this for me is the bit at the top of the box touting the film as "from the producers and writers of Dances with Wolves". Now while Michael Blake did write both this and that bastard exercise in vanity that stole the Best Picture Oscar away from Goodfellas*, and Jim Wilson did direct and produce the thing, there is something wonderfully cheesy about throwing that quote up top.

*I like the film and all but Best Picture? Really?

Lastly for Costner is this one. Shot in the late seventies but not released until 1986 by Troma (after another run in 1981, apparently), Sizzle Beach, U.S.A. is about three young woman who move to Malibu in search of guys. Kevin is one of the guys they find and he's not too bad as a cowboy. Lots of nudity in this rather mild, very 70's flick.

To wrap things up, we take a look at two early works with none other than Robert DeNiro.

First off is this dark comedy from 1971 that stars George Segal as a junkie pressured by two cops (one of whom is Bobby) to rat out his fellow junkies. DeNiro is in maybe ten minutes of the film altogether but give the distributor credit, they used a shot of the guy from the 70's. I've seen DVD cases with a still from him in Cape Fear which would come out twenty years after this one. The film itself is just okay, in spite of the good cast.

Lastly is this early... thing from Cannon Films that takes footage from a dull 1969 drama called Sam's Song with DeNiro and edits it into this film, also known as Line of Fire. The end result was released in 1979 and dear lord does it ever fit into this post perfectly. In the original film, DeNiro was a documentary filmmaker who gets drawn into the inner circle of a bunch of shallow rich folks. In this re-cut version, he's a porno filmmaker who gets knocked out during the opening credits and by the time the credits are done, it's ten years later and his brother is looking into the cause of his death after being released from prison while we get flashbacks from the original film as well. Needless to say, DeNiro was less than pleased and Cannon nearly got sued over this. Both versions are pretty dire.

And with that, this epic comes to a close. Catch ya' later!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Orion Files: 1984

1984 was actually a relatively decent year for the company in terms of reviews, though their films were still not making a lot of money. Some hidden gems, one or two legit greats and a lot of stuff in between ranging from Oscar bait to stuff that would be better off as fish bait.

Robert Hays is an investigative reporter in England who is drawn into a farcical web of espionage, lies, murder and deceit with the fun twist being he's aware of the con the entire time even as he's being conned. Hays is fun in the lead and John Gielgud has a great time hamming it up as an old con man. Pamela Stephenson is also good as Gielgud's niece and partner in crime. The plot gets relatively convoluted and loses some of its fun spirit as Hays is accused of his wife's murder but for the most part, this is a light comedy that is quite entertaining and easy on the brain.

Woody Allen directs and stars in this very enjoyable comedy as a hapless talent agent who tries to help a washed up singer he used to represent make a comeback and ends up being targeted by a gangster whose ex-girlfriend (Mia Farrow) is the singer's mistress (the gangster thinks she's with Allen's character though thanks to a funny mix-up). Allen concocts his usual quality script with a good cast (I also like the touch of shooting it in black and white given that the story is told in flashback by a bunch of comics at a deli in New York) and a nice, easygoing pace. I'm not the biggest fan of the guy's films but this one is pretty damn good.

Paul Newman starred in, co-wrote, co-produced and directed this drama about a father and son relationship that got bad reviews.

The poster is probably the best thing about this offbeat comedy/drama based on a novel by John Irving. It tells the tale of an eccentric, dysfunctional family that ends up owning and running a hotel while living through all sorts of personal disasters ranging from rape to sudden death to suicide, told in a very loose fashion. The cast is solid but honestly, when the mere synopsis of the film has me imagining a better movie... Sharp tonal shifts and excessively wacky characters do not make for a good time.

Another entry in the 80's teen comedy sub genre, this stars Tim Matheson as a college student who is in his twelfth year (and he's not a grad student either) who teams with three other misfit students to participatre in a high stakes whitewater rafting competition put on by the obligatory stern dean (John Hillerman in this case, on break from Magnum P.I. for one scene). This film is one of, if not the last production from old school B-movie house Arkoff International Pictures and it is a thoroughly typical snobs vs. slobs comedy with the requisite crass humor; lewd gags and occasional funny moment.

Next up for the company was this fantastic version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Anthony Hopkins gives a richly layered, intelligent reading of Captain Bligh while Mel Gibson makes for a quite good Fletcher Christian. The film is well directed and shot with the entire cast turning in good work (though Hopkins really steals the show, as he tends to) and the end result is one damn fine movie.

Drama about the breakdancing/hip-hop scene in New York that ended up being overshadowed by Cannon's own breakdancing film Breakin'. That was probably a pretty major shot to the collective ego of the studio heads.

Here's an odd one. The director of the second and third Howling films (to be fair, apart from the first film those are the two of the best in that franchise) gives us a drama about protecting the bald eagle starring Rutger Hauer, Donald Pleasence, Kathleen Turner and Powers Boothe.

Cheech and Chong star in this spoof of the Alexandre Dumas novel and it's... Well, the poster kind of says it all. This is pretty much the last thing the duo did together. They tried to move away from pot humor but as it turns out, that was pretty much all they had.

Gene Wilder directs and stars in this comedy about a married man who falls for an incredibly sexy woman played by Kelly LeBrock. A remake of a French comedy (we generally know that's a sign for disaster), this garnered publicity for LeBrock (who is quite easy on the eyes) and little else.

The first of several Best Picture winners from Orion, Amadeus is perfect Oscar bait that also happens to be a legit terrific movie. Tom Hulce is great as Mozart, giving the man a distinct rebel rocker persona (in a way, this plays out like your standard rock and roll biopic except it's set in Vienna in the late 1700's with classical music)and F. Murray Abraham earned a well deserved Best Actor award for his turn as Salieri. The film also benefits from nimble direction from Milos Forman who tells a good dramatic story and also gives the viewer some nicely funny bits to balance out the drama.

This is an obscure drama about a struggling artist, his friend and their romance problems. I think I'd rather watch a blank screen for 98 minutes than this.

What else can one say about this one that hasn't already been covered? One of the best action films of the 80's, this was a sleeper hit for Orion who ended up losing the home video rights to Hemdale in the early 90's and its huge success on home video is another blemish on their record as Thorn EMI/HBO Video ended up getting most of the stateside profits. They probably could have done just fine financially just based on the VHS sales of this alone.

Lastly is this costly Francis Ford Coppola flop that honestly, I'd love to see because it did get some decent notices. A well cast flick about the jazz club in Harlem in the 30's, this was beset by production issues ranging from script rewrites to missed deadlines.

1984 was not the most profitable one for Orion but it did yield some decent to great movies as noted in the intro. The next year, however, would be a near-disaster.

Coming soon: Orion in 1985

About Me

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