The Periphery Project, and six more movies

The Periphery Project (2012)

This is an interesting idea for a film, and it's also a very good film, made without a studio or a big budget.

The idea: Show a bunch of short films, with an overarching narrative that ties them together. The short films are all fantasy/horror/sci-fi stories, and the whole movie plays like an especially strong episode of the 1970s Night Gallery, only each vignette is introduced by a cable access conspiracy freak instead of Rod Serling walking through a darkened museum.

So there's a conspiracy theory here, but The Periphery Project is from the pre-Trump era, an ancient time when conspiracists might seem semi-coherent, even intelligent, and might make you say, Hmmm. This is not QAnon bullshit.

Four of the five shorts, all made by different directors and casts, are quite good, the fifth is even better. The cable TV show that weaves around 'em is thoughtful and interesting enough that I'd like to see more episodes.

"We're watching because they are watching. Thank you for being awake."

The host is convinced that the government is running something called The Periphery Project, keeping a list of troublesome filmmakers who make movies the jackbooted thugs would rather you never saw. What the authorities might do to the filmmakers on the list is never specified, but it won't involve crumpets and tea.

Verdict: BIG YES.

Since the shorts are all separate projects, I'll also rate them individually:

All the Time in the World (2010) — YES
Bottles (2011) — YES
Noirville (2010) — YES
The Unnatural (2010) — YES
Voodoo (2010), which is based on a short story by Fredric Brown — BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Air Force One (1997)

I'll bet Columbia Pictures spent twice as much on the opening logo for Air Force One than the entire budget for The Periphery Project.

Tough guy President of the United Stated (Harrison Ford) single-handedly fights off a terrorist attack on the Presidential 747.

The set-up is something about dratted Russkies, and Gary Oldman plays a Russian operative who's obviously trouble from the git-go — everyone watching the movie can see it, but the Secret Service can't.

This was my family's get-together movie last month, because with the family we vote. I would've chosen something else, or more accurately, anything else. Not a single thread of Air Force One holds up to common sense, but if you unplug most of your IQ or roll your eyes at the nonsense, it's a good time.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Mad Max Fury Road (2015)

Now that Mel Gibson's not so marketable, Max has been wisely recast for this recent sequel. He's Tom Hardy, and there's no difference, because it's not about acting — it's about action. 

This has lots, and a recurring habit of meddling with the camera speed to suggest even more action. That's a trick I've never found anything but annoying, and it's annoying here.

The endless screaming and screeching and blowing stuff up almost never stops for even a moment, which is tiresome — unless you're in an action-movie frame of mind, which it so happens I was when I watched this.

You wouldn't want popcorn and ice cream for dinner, but sometimes that's exactly what you want, and when you want it, this is it. Boom!

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place (2011)

Once upon a time, writer and LSD explorer Ken Kesey wanted to take a cross-country trip on the highway, and so many of his friends wanted to ride along that Kesey decided to buy a 1939 International Harvester school bus, name it Further, and invite them all.

They brought lots of drugs, a change of clothes, and a Super-8 camera to make a movie of their adventures. Almost fifty years later, the footage has been spliced to feature length, a rock'n'roll soundtrack added, and a few people who'd been on the bus but weren't yet dead have something to say.

There were so many people on the bus — some for a short while, some for longer — that the movie can't really let you know most of them. Kesey and beat icon Neal Cassady come across clearly, but the rest of the crowd is a blur. Special guests include Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Barry Goldwater, and the Grateful Dead.

Tom Wolfe wrote about the bus ride in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but he never set foot on the bus, so he's absent here. 

It was 1964, and with Cassady's presence you could plausibly argue that this was when and where the beatnik era begat the time of hippies.

"Kesey lit the fuse for the explosion of the '60s," the film says, and their road trip is presented as the psychological equivalent of Lewis and Clark's expedition. There's even a scene caught on film where a few of the passengers accidentally invent a tie-dyed t-shirt.

Everywhere these merry pranksters went, nobody'd seen anything like them before. The bus was routinely pulled over by police, but the word 'hippie' hadn't been coined yet so the cops didn't know enough to hate them.

Kesey, of course, used and advocated acid, but nobody much outside the bus knew what that was, so he was jailed instead for possession of marijuana.

"You make these forays, you write these books and you perform this music; but the big juggernaut of civilization continues, and you get kind of brushed to the side. But, I think all through history there's been these kind of divine losers that just take a deep breath and go ahead, knowing that society's not going to understand it. Not even caring, 'cause they're having a good time."

Kesey hated the movie of his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, so it seems unfair and unkind that when he reads a passage from that book, the film illustrates it with clips from the movie.

Other than that, I have no complaints about Magic Trip. Some of the movie's a blast and some is boring, probably like the bus ride. Maybe that's why so few people rode all the way.

If you missed the bus and wish you hadn't, this is the next best thing. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Murders in the Zoo (1933)

"You'll never kiss another man's wife again," says brilliant but deranged zoologist Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) while he's sewing his wife's lover's lips shut forever. Then he rides off on an elephant, and leaves the now-silenced man as dinner for the lions.

Gorman is jealous of any man who notices his lovely but rather promiscuous wife, so he kills them one after another if they do, but he stages the crimes so it looks like his victims have been killed by the wild animals at the zoo.

The movie is pre-code, and thus impressively gruesome. Charlie Ruggles adds some laughs, and there's even Randolph Scott (Randolph Scott!). 

"Surely you’re not suggesting that I kept an eight-foot-long snake in my trousers during dinner."

This is a very enjoyable murder-comedy. I wish there were a few more murders and a few less laughs, but the movie is fun, and it deserves to be more widely-known than it is.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

This is an average 1950s monster movie, with no big stars and minimal effects. There's a human-shaped fish-thing that can come out of the water and hates humans, perhaps because it's been tortured by its human captors at a Sea World-type hellhole.

The monster's suit is pleasantly scaly, and the leading lady hits the high notes when she screams.

If you've never seen a '50s monster movie you really ought to, but this one's probably not the one. 

Watch closely and you'll catch Clint Eastwood's first on-screen role.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦   

...Tick... Tick... Tick... (1970)

George Kennedy is the sheriff, but he's lost his run for re-election, and the new sheriff is Jim Brown. Brown is black, and the movie is set in the South, so there's your drama.

It's not blaxploitation — there's no ass-whupping' here, it's a serious drama. The Southern racism is a bit soft-pedaled — Brown would be in lots more danger than he is here, especially in 1970 — but for a movie from back then, it's ferocious.

"If they let me, I'm gonna be a good sheriff."

Brown and Kennedy are both terrific, though the very earnest script gives neither man much backstory. It's a political movie, the likes of which are rarely made any more — a film with good intentions and something to say, and it's well worth watching. The story's resolution seems overly optimistic to me, but you'll wish it was true.

Odd musical choices — "Gentle on my Mind" as background music for a chase scene?

Written by James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah, Smokey and the Bandit). Directed by Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Wilby Conspiracy). Fredric March gets one of his last roles, as the town's mayor.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Life moves pretty fast, as Ferris Bueller deduced, so I've increased my decision-making speed on shitty movies. Here are a few of those BIG NO snap decisions — movies so instantly, obviously hopeless that I turned them off within the first ten minutes:

The Wizard of Speed and Time (1988)
The Woman in Red

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

Beer League (2006)
Quatermass and the Pit
Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie (2010)
The Silent Partner (1978)
Something Evil (1972)
V for Vendetta (2006)
The Wizard of Mars (1965)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. Did I recommend The Wizard of Speed and Time? I might have. If not, I'll say this - give it another chance if you can stand it.

    1. I don't remember how it ended up on my watchlist. You're telling me it's not as awful as it seemed at the start? Jeez, that's surprising...

  2. Thought that occurred to me while reading your review of "Tick Tick Tick": what was the last new-ish movie you saw that you could call "brave"? I don't see a whole lot of new movies but I don't think I can recall a recent one. The Iraq War movies were all made long after the public put down its pom poms and turned against it. Movies about gay people getting gay married or interracial couples coupling aren't really "brave" when more than 50% of the population supports those things. I'm sure there are movies tackling courageous subjects but I can't think of too many. Maybe it's just my taste?

    I mean, when was the last time you saw anything about the Dalai Lama? He's been virtually unpersoned simply because nobody wants to upset their shareholders with a Chinese boycott. I would guess he's more or less the same person he was in the 1990s, when you couldn't escape the coverage of him. Not too many "Free Tibet" concerts these days, huh?

    Though I wasn't alive a the time, a movie like that or In The Heat of the Night seem like pretty courageous things to do, when you might be literally assassinated or have an entire half of the country boycott you or firebomb your theaters. Did artists lose their nerve? Or is it just impossible to make a controversial film with anything like decent distribution anymore?

    1. Deserves a long and thoughtful answer — tonight, I hope.

    2. TAR was about as brave and challenging as modern films with big stars get. Total masterpiece from Todd Field.

    3. Despite having heard nothing about that movie, I've somehow seen a clip of Cate Blanchett feverishly directing an orchestra. Looks pretty good.

      The only films I can think of from recent years that had something to say were all independents. As studio films of the modern era that might be called "brave" I am coming up blank. Brave doesn't make money, and making money is the only message to be found in films from the big studios.

      Sorry, Granville — I promised "thoughtful" but came up blank.

  3. RE: Magic Trip . . .

    Dr Hunter Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is underappreciated in the pantheon of American literature (and maybe it was overappreciated in the counterculture community but that's a different problem). In any case, he left behind his take on that Bus Trip and the larger bus trip happening on the San Francisco peninsula and surrounding environs in the 60s. Here's his take, right from the book (if it's too long, I'll be wrestling with The Googs, but I'll get there eventually) . . .

    more . . .

    1. “Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

      History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

      My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

      There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

      And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

      So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

  4. It doesn't matter -- it can't possibly matter -- what that book meant to me then, and how little currency it musters on its best day now. Except for the drugs -- and I was almost done taking them when the book splashed -- FALILV had little to do with me except in my Walter Mitty memories of laughter-fueled mescaline excursions come and gone and my belief (and the belief of many around me) that the Peace and Love crowd had really changed something in Amerika.

    But HST managed to capture the hope associated with the youth culture of the 60s in that damn book, then lost his way as we all do. "The Curse of Lono"? Not hardly. But for a brief moment, we were all on the same page, Page 1 . . .

    We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ``I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive....'' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ``Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?''

    Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ``What the hell are you yelling about?'' he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ``Never mind,'' I said. ``It's your turn to drive.'' I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.


    1. I was driving to Las Vegas to tell my sister that I’d had Mother’s respirator unplugged. Four bald men in the convertible in front of me were picking the scabs off their sunburnt heads and flicking them onto the road. I had to swerve to avoid riding over one of the oozy crusts of blood and going into an uncontrollable skid. I maneuvered the best I could in my boxy Korean import but my mind was elsewhere. I hadn’t eaten for days. I was famished. Suddenly as I reached the crest of a hill, emerging from the fog, there was...

    2. I've read some Thompson, but it's been a very long time and perhaps I was too young to appreciate it. Never read any Leyner. Both seem brilliant excerpted...

      So many books I should've read and still might but probably won't find the time...

    3. Thompson has to be excerpted. FALILV holds up, but later he was too drunk to make sense. Occasionally, though, he pokes one out of the park. A good paragraph or page or chapter. As a journalist, he was a hustler.


    4. Thompson goes on the list, thanks.

      I've always had so little interest in booze, I'm not sure I've ever really been drunk, but I've often been too drunk to make sense.


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