Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Junius Ponds ""

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Junius Ponds

Junius Ponds is a scientist by trade, who likes any type of movie that isn't a coming-of-age story, but only likes books about wild animals or detectives. He writes at The Ascetic Sensualists ( ) and can be found on twitter as @beautybancroft.

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (John D. Hancock, 1971)
There's a reason that websites have been set up in earnest tribute to this melancholy hippie-era love-triangle ghost story. And it's not a kitschy reason. One of the most affecting moments in any scary movie is early in this one, when the woman just let out of the mental hospital sees a mysterious figure flit by in her new house, turns to her companion, and her fear of the apparition is overwhelmed by her relief that he saw it too.

FRIDAY FOSTER (Arthur Marks, 1975)
One of the least violent and crude movies to be deemed "blaxploitation", this is from that genre's optimistic sub-school that posits an America where, far from being ground down by daily racism, the heroine generally encounters nothing but other black people in her daily life, from politicians to tycoons to fashion designers to detectives to airport security guards. The plot inevitably involves a conspiracy by the distant white elite to dispossess the powerful blacks, but even that is largely planned and carried out by black catspaws. Anyway, Friday Foster was based on a comic strip, it's nothing but fun, and Friday's little brother is one of the best kid actors you'll see.

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (Ken Russell, 1968)
The third excellent movie in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine as the pointedly glamorless, bespectacled, working-class, reluctant international spy. Ken Russell, director for hire? Indeed, and we start with ... an extended Bond-like opening credits sequence, turning the iconography of Palmer's glasses into a silhouetted trademark that might as well be a gun-toting dolly bird. With the gritty groundedness of The Ipcress File no longer a priority, at least the camera is always doing something interesting. Focusing on any modernist or brightly colored object, including a cannon pointed at apartment blocks, Karl Malden's tiny white fur hat juxtaposed with the huge black fur hats of others, a red spherical chair (and plenty of other objets d'art) in Karl Malden's swanky pad, a super-cool thermos, a tiny playground ferris wheel, a pontoon helicopter, a crazy red and green station wagon heralding the jump from snowy Baltic Soviet locations (where most of the story is set) to a Texas barbecue, et al. Amazing scenes of ice cracking on a grand scale. And if you're like me, you want to see any 1960s movie that centers around a superintelligent computer that talks like a man.

RHINO! (Ivan Tors, 1964)
Rhino! functions best as a showcase for ecological and anthropological footage, as it was hard at the time to get backing for a pure documentary without fictional elements. We see not just the activities of tusked ungulates and other beasts [albeit many of them dead, suiting the poaching plot and convenient for the camera crew], but an interesting and scary village ceremony. We also see a delightfully roguish performance from Harry Guardino as a poacher/guide, a delightfully high-spirited performance from Shirley Eaton [the girl ensconced in gold in Goldfinger] as his resourceful gal pal, and a subdued and squinty performance from Robert Culp as a holier-than-thou academic type.

ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (James William Guercio, 1973)
A valuable calibrator for your pretentious-BS detector. At some point, after any number of odd framing choices, odd pacing choices, odd casting choices, and odd line readings from actors unclear what they've been asked to do, any viewer will thinks "Does this director actually know what he's doing, or does he just think he's a genius?" As it turned out, James William Guercio, a respected and well-connected record producer whose directorial debut was massively hyped by Rolling Stone among other outlets, did not know what he was doing, and returned to the music business. Still, there are plenty of memorable scenes here, and some of the weirdly long-held shots are incredibly visually stimulating.

NORTHERN PURSUIT (Raoul Walsh, 1943)
Unambitious Errol Flynn adventure. He's an RMCP officer who speaks German, discovers a Nazi airman, and tries to win his trust to uncover his secrets, during a cross-Canada trek. Weirdly I responded to this almost like a latter-day Bond movie, in which the hard-as-nails insubordinate agent is told that he's become a security risk, and goes off on his own to complete his mission without authorization, and it almost seems like he's betrayed his country, but then he fixes everything. At the time people were pretty sick of Errol Flynn, but without any Flynn stereotypes in mind I thought he maintained an expert balance between hero and antihero.

THE BLACK CAT (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
Not exactly an obscurity, but I never thought such a well-known movie would veer so madly away from the Universal monster blueprint. This movie is Absolutely Bananacrazlebeans. It's wacked out, man. And about such serious matters!

LOLA (Carl Bessai, 2001)
Unusual Canadian indie about an unhappy mousy woman who befriends a vibrant bohemian (maybe a hooker), then adopts her identity for a little while. But doesn't do anything sexy. The acting is mostly short exchanges, gestures and emotions on faces. Semi-famous actor Colm Feore plays her jerk of a husband, and has trouble with the amateurish script's only real monologue. A nice moody piece, with kind of a Roger Dodger vibe, especially good over the journey from Vancouver to the desert region near Kamloops. Who knew that was the hottest place in Canada?
Watch LOLA on Fandor: 

UNMASKING THE IDOL (Worth Keeter, 1986) / ORDER OF THE BLACK EAGLE (Worth Keeter, 1987)
Usually a "good bad movie" fits into two categories. Either it was filmed in a warehouse and the forest behind the warehouse and it stars nobody you've ever heard of, or it was filmed with workmanlike craft by bored professionals and it stars Hollywood C-listers who have had at least had small roles in big movies.

But these two chapters in the saga of Duncan Jax, baboon-befriending secret agent (who seems to switch profession from ninja superspy in Unmasking to non-ninja commando in Black Eagle), are something else. The sets, costumes, and storyboarding put the work of Andy Sidaris and Charles Band to shame. So much planning and work went into this! The producers found a whole globetrotting adventure's worth of locations in the coastal Carolinas! The script is hokey, but it's not boring for a second. But... who are these people? Where did these actors come from? Not the most assiduous bad movie lover recognizes these people. Unmasking is less than a joy to watch because the ninja stuff is embarrassing and the Bond quips are just atrocious. But Black Eagle, which drops the Roger Moore act in favor of a throng of wacky mercenaries and a barrage of explosions, is a minor classic from a parallel universe.


Anonymous said...

Folks think I'm just being obscure when I say that Zohra Lampert's performance in LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is the best in horror film history - but, I don't care! She's one of the most underrated talents of the past few decades. Recently, I saw her in her big screen debut in Robert Wise's ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (a bit part with Wayne Rogers and Robert Ryan).

George White said...

I saw RHino a long time ago on Irish TV, when I was 8.

George White said...

I remember watching Rhino, thinking "this is such a Daktari ripoff", not realising it was Ivan Tors.