31 January 2011

Virtual Assassin

Yay, It's a screener!

AKA – Cyberjack
United States – 1995
Director – Robert Lee
Turner Home Entertainment, 1995, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 39 minutes

Michael Dudikoff. Oh how the never that mighty have fallen into a pit of groaning serpents. Once the compressed essence of pure American everything-awesomeness in heart-throbbing, tendon strung Sgt. Armstrong; the unadulterated leathernecky can-do integrity in Lt. Knight, and now this desperate low of bitter and recalcitrant computer lab janitor? Were he to look forward a decade from those halcyon days of yore to the far distant future, what would Dudikiff think? What would he do differently?

The truth is, Michael Dudikoff is sorely misinterpreted, his detractors leaping to conclusions without really analyzing the facts. Is there really that much difference in the quality of American Ninja and Virtual Assassin? Let us see. The former has to its credit the undeniable presence of the late Steve James rugged and chiseled jawline and retina assaulting smile, surely not a thing to be taken lightly. It also has the contextually powerful and perennially effective catchword “ninja” in the title. Virtual Assassin, while not the recipient of that lofty and prestigious honor of franchisedom which blessed its predecessor, can still boast of a number of dubiously impressive merits of its own. First of course is the terminally sinister visage of the also late Brion James, his unmistakable dental arcade and remarkably-versatile-despite-its-severity widow’s peak (here miraculously styled into an attractive Euro-fro) which never fail to elicit a shudder of wary recognition. Like American Ninja it also sports an equally impressive and  contemporary moniker featuring the buzzword “virtual” And in case that didn’t impress you enough (perhaps you recently saw Lawnmower Man and are suspicious of the theme) it proffers a second, equally compelling alternate title prominently featuring the hip word “cyber”.

So I ask, is it really fair to heirarchically compare one period in Michael Dudikoff’s career to any other period? I would argue that he warrants a great deal of respect for having maintained a consistent quality, something many actors seem all to frequently to foul up. Mr. Dudikoff has not fallen, for never did he rise too high. His only misfortune has been merely to attract detractors, those slithering anklebiters whose ninja fogged optimism obscured their long-haul vision. No I say, Dudikoff never fell, for if his Nick James (whoa, creepy) character in Virtual Assassin tells us anything about his career, he has had the presence of mind to place himself always near the crest of popular trends, and in the company of equally persistent fellows. I urge you then to see this film as yet another manifestation of this cinematic Clydesdale, his proverbial cabled muscles steaming with effort as he consistently and tirelessly ploughs the infinite and fickle furrow of the popular consciousness.

26 January 2011

Mutant Hunt Promo Art

Thanks to an extra wide reproduction of the poster artwork for Mutant Hunt in the new book Destroy All Movies, I finally noticed the signature of C. W. Taylor on this amazing piece of video history. It also led me to Tim Kinkaid's other Charles Band produced sci-fi gem Robot Holocaust which, sure enough, features poster art by Taylor. Jeeze, how did I miss this?
Follow the link HERE to my old post about the artist, and HERE to my post about Mutant Hunt, a film that has haunted me for over a decade.

24 January 2011


United States - 1935
Director - Oscar Micheaux
Starring - Bee Freeman, Sol Johnson and Oscar Polk

Director Micheaux is something of a US film hero, being the first Black man to direct a feature film. It does not however stop there, in his films he actively and deliberately challenged Black stereotypes that were popular in film and elsewhere at the time. As a child of the VHS era, movies of this early age are sometimes difficult to stick through. As a true historian of film however, Micheaux's films are fascinating studies in social context.
In 2010 the United States Postal Service issued an Oscar Micheaux stamp as part of the Black Heritage Series. If you missed it (I did), you can see the home page while it lasts. As a widely respected film maker, there is quite a Micheaux following out there, if you find yourself inclined, you can start here.
Many of Micheaux's films are available on DVD from a popular online movie service, many others can be had for a song online.
In his fantastic study of Black cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, film historian Donald Bogle describes Micheaux (among other iconic Black film personalities) with his own chapter. Micheaux was something of a renaissance man, writing, publishing and distributing his own books, one of which, The Homesteader became his first film, and the first feature film directed by a Black American.

Godzilla vs. Monster Zero

Original Title - Great Monster War (怪獣大戦争, Kaijū Daisensō?)
Japan - 1966
Director - Ishiro Honda
Paramount Home Video, 1983, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 33 minutes

Until this last week, I probably hadn't seen a Godzilla movie in 10 or 12 years. I was at my favorite bar and the bartender Danny was playing old VHS tapes on the TV, one of which was this kaiju classic. It may be old news to a number of you, but even without the dialogue I was totally thrilled with this movie and had a hard time focusing on the conversation I was supposed to be having. Consider me a born again Godzilla fan.

These two beautiful posters come from Space Monster.

This poster for the double bill comes courtesy of Emovieposter.

 These two come courtesy of Wrong Side of the Art. I would be willing to eat a small horse for a copy of that long format one. Damn that's awesome.

German poster courtesy of Tomb It May Concern

21 January 2011

Rental Store - Video Plus

This label was on my copy of Games of Survival and should not be confused with this other Video Plus in Oklahoma, or this Home Video Plus in Santa Rosa, California.

17 January 2011

Hamburger Hill

While archiving my old video tapes, I sometimes come across a film which while not exactly "lost" to the post-DVD age (this one in particular can be watched in its entirety online), still elicits some visceral reaction for me when I re-watch it. I'll justify this post by saying the film may not be lost, but its contextual message has been.
United States – 1987
Director – John Irvin
Artisan Home Entertainment, 1999, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 34 minutes

Hamburger Hill was released hot on the heels of Platoon, and together I would say they are the core of one particular tributary of the United States’ post-Vietnam catharsis. While Platoon was written and directed by a Vietnam veteran, Hamburger Hill was written and produced by one, James Carabatsos, so both films carry the tangible weight of authenticity. Hamburger Hill has an advantage when it comes to history because it is based on an actual battle that took place in 1969, but as we should know, a basis in history doesn’t necessarily equate to “truth” because historical memory is individual.

Both films are the cornerstones of a cynical individualist reappraisal of the war. Their primary concern is with the lives of a small unit of men, a platoon, a company, or in this case a squad whom they take great pains to humanize and package as a representative cross-section of U.S. society. In Platoon, director/writer Oliver Stone shows that war amplifies human emotion and can lead to discoveries about what it means to be human. Without analyzing Platoon too much I will say that Hamburger Hill diverges in a very important way in its treatment of the affects of war on its protagonists. Both films point out the tremendous waste of life and ability, the “human capital” that comprises the protagonist group, but Hamburger Hill makes an entirely different claim about how it affects them.

In Hamburger Hill, the characters are subject to assault from several directions. First the internal differences of their group results in frequent hostility and tension when they are out of combat. Second, the pointlessness and futility of the war they are compelled to fight by The State leaves them powerless over their own lives. Finally, they are subject to very real physical violence from an enemy they don’t really know and rarely see. Importantly it is their common identity as victims of the second two that enables the group to pull together and overcome their internal conflicts when in combat. Unlike Platoon which still maintains a diversity of sympathies among the main characters, some of them empathetic and others not, Hamburger Hill’s characters are universally “good guys.”

It should not be forgotten that people who are otherwise dissimilar or disassociated can in fact pull together when faced with a crisis or threat to a broader shared identity. This is the type of group identity used to fuel nationalistic and imperialistic endeavors like the Vietnam War. But Hamburger Hill’s demographic is too carefully constructed and when threatened, too cohesive to be taken merely at face value. In that case, the emphasis on unity in the teeth of threat suggests something more. It asserts that violence enables camaraderie and group harmony for the men of the film, our representative sample of society. It is only through the experience and expression of violence that they come together. Because we typically see cooperation as a natural social good, the message implicit in Hamburger Hill’s narrative is that violence in the name of nationalism is beneficial for the cohesion and unity of the group. Thus by bringing men together, violence performs a “good” for society and is a natural expression of identity rather than the creation of political ambition.

This isn’t terribly out of the ordinary, such messages are an often used, and frequently successful political tool as evidenced by the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (The latter of which now holds the distinction of having lasted longer than Vietnam). What is out of the ordinary about Hamburger Hill’s assertion of it is that it comes over ten years after the Vietnam War caused a tremendous rift rather than a fuzzy national unity in U.S. culture and society.

While Hamburger Hill remains one of the better films about the war largely due to its carefully constructed “authenticity”, it is an even better example of how bias and subjective experience inform historical memory.

 Poster or VHS box from Movie Poster Database which does not offer high resolution images for free.

  Poster from MovieGoods which does.

Japanese and Thai posters from IMPAwards and MovieGoods respectively.

10 January 2011

Raw Deal

United States - 1948
Director Anthony Mann
Starring - Dennis O'Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt and John Ireland
Film Noir Photos has a nice photo gallery of Claire Trevor 

An alternate version of the poster from Noir Style

Every time I see a poster for this movie I can't help but say it in a Charles Bronson voice. Sounds so good that way.


United Kingdom - 1986
Director - Clive Barker
Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1996, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour 26 minutes (film), 22 minutes (spec. features)

A great example of the wastefulness of the consumerist precept wherein bigger and more equals better. Less than two hours of video is split onto two VHS tapes for no apparent reason except that the consumer could be charged more for the hollow satisfaction of having purchased this visually imposing but pointless box.
Lacking the knowledge of Barker and England that would make for some kind of moderately clever observation about the film, I will use it as an excuse to share some contextual media in the form of some contemporary articles in Fangoria:

 Hellraiser Issue 67
September, 1987
A really good interview with one of the stars of Hellraiser, Andrew Robinson, also of Charlie Varrick and Dirty Harry. This is an article that I have always remembered because Robinson has some great reflections on the  industry from an indie perspective. This issue has already appeared here at LVA with articles on The Lamp, also known as The Outing, and an article on Evil Dead II special effects.

Hellraiser Issue 65
July, 1987
An here's another one from a little earlier in the year. Actually, to be honest, there was a third issue, #66 which had yet another article about the film. You can see that the folks at Starlog got a little geeky about a big movie when it was coming out. Either that or they inflated the articles to take up more space and keep us in suspense until the next issue. Whatever the case, these were the more interesting of the three articles, this second being something of a report-from-the-set with Clive Barker.

07 January 2011

Rental Store - Astro Zombies

I actually worked at this one for a year or so. While there was a decent viewership for cult films in the area, there was a lot more money to be made by filling the rental space with action figures. Cha-ching. When the owner decided to jettison the movies he gave me first crack at buying the ones I wanted and I spent more than I could reasonably afford at the time. Most of it now is long gone... Ass-Zom is still there though, just a few doors down.

03 January 2011

Driven to Kill

United States – 1990
Director – John Gazarian
PM Home Video, 1992, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 30ish minutes

No matter how you slice it, the title for John Gazarian’s only film Driven To Kill (okay, he did write one other) is heavily laden with meaning. The plot concerns a husband and wife, Harry and Vivian with the full range of marital problems. After sleeping with another man in large part due to Harry’s alcoholic inattentiveness, Vivian has decided to take Harry to Vegas and get him laid. I guess the plan was to assuage her guilt and his anger, to try and wipe the slate clean, or at the very least level the playing field. It is here, during the happy couple’s drive across the Nevada desert in a wood paneled station wagon that the metaphorical layers, both explicit and implicit in the films title, begin to peel away.

The term “driven” holds both literal and metaphorical significance of course, not the least in the fact that Harry and Vivian are actually driving a car for most of the movie. But both are being psychologically driven as well. Of course, that was Gazarian’s intention in naming the film; “Look, they’re actually driving, and being driven! Get it? Eh, do ya?” But the real significance of this brilliant double-entendre comes when we ask what, or who is doing the second type of driving?

In the first case, Harry is literally driving the station wagon, but Vivian is psychologically driving him through sheer guilt and nagging. Of course after stealing some mob money from a bunch of drunken bikers who stole the money from the mob (who stole it from some gangstaz in the opening minutes of the film, this is all deeply metaphorical but I’m getting to that), you could say that the bikers and ultimately the mob are “driving” both Harry and Vivian like prey before the predator.
But it gets even better. As a white heterosexual middle-class male, Harry is the real victim. Not only is he captured, threatened with death, beaten and shot at after escaping, but he also suffers under the unceasing and emasculating attack of Vivian’s rebellion, he is literally the paradigm of U.S. American normalcy persecuted from all sides. Making Harry a dentist offers more than an opportunity to write a few shitty jokes, it puts him in a respectable but potentially vulnerable social niche. His status is one from which he has been symbolically driven (his alcoholism is a loss of dignity and self-responsibility) by “Others” and from whom he must seek to reclaim it for rest of the film.

Consider that by the end of the 80’s, the consolidation (see also bureaucratization or ossification) of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements had robbed a great deal of thunder from the straight white man’s formerly unassailable position at the top of the socio-economic heap. No matter how you dissect it, from the gangstaz in the opening scene to the mulleted bikers in all the rest, from any angle Harry’s rivals are clearly outside his singular sacrosanct demographic. Nor should we forget the final revolt from the woman whose proper role is that of docile and sexually available wife. Vivian’s self-awareness and fledgling self sufficiency are thoroughly transgressive. Little wonder that the white male is the victim of all these social upheavals, and is forced to redeem himself; to claw his way back to righteous indignation. Thus we have Harry, driven by the very forces of cultural progress to reclaim his birthright. By now it should be obvious that Harry is only doing what he had to do to re-establish the status quo. He was driven to kill for the very identity and manhood of all (white) men, profoundly represented by an Uzi, a duffel bag full of cash and a cowed, repentant woman. Driven To Kill is truly a balmy salve, a commiserating cry in the PC wilderness to the weary and besieged WASP male for whom, as we now know, life just isn’t fair.

A shorter version of this review appeared in Paracinema Magazine # 10.