Bone Tomahawk (2015) - poster

Bone Tomahawk (2015) - poster

I suspect I watch “gritty” Westerns for different reasons than many others do. What can I say? I am just a dismal sonofabitch. I like bleak, plodding, bare-ass noir featuring a ragged heroism laid bare in a brief, tiny glory (my Netflix queue occasionally offers up a pop-up window asking, “Are you OK? You seem a little dark!”).

So given that dark neo-noir Westerns are my flavor, in that vein Tomahawk hits the mark – perfectly. It is my jam: almost agonizingly slow for at least an hour, to wallop us with a horror ending that is genuinely creepy AF. Throw in a little absolutely heartbreaking scenes and some great acting talent and hey – you’ve got my money!

If you liked the film, great. You might not want to read on.

Because here’s the thing: this film wants to be considered on its merits. This film wants to be considered as different, special – one that deserves critical claim and a place in cinematic history. “Shockingly Brutal!” – “Brace Yourselves!” – and “Something Different” shout the film’s own PR, and many male critics.

So let’s talk about the film – on its own merits, as a serious project in the history of Westerns. Let’s talk about how “different” it really is.

Briefly, and without spoilers: Tomahawk is a contemporary upgrade to its most obvious spiritual antecedent, 1956’s The Searchers, a real game-changer Western that has influenced many if not most American Westerns since. Searchers and 1992’s The Unforgiven were great milestone in dark Westernry, and I love them both. Searchers is a great film, but we need to acknowledge racial and sexual overtones that were regressive and gross. Or so everyone says, now. So if that’s what we believe – have we evolved much since?

Because in my opinion Tomahawk isn’t much of an upgrade, besides some rated R content. The film echoes other “serious” recent Westerns with similar themes: Slow West (2015), The Homesman (2014), andThe Salvation (2014): gorgeous production values, wonderful acting talent, exciting scores, and good writing – but ultimately a White Dude Vanity Project. I think we have long past the tipping point of needing diversity in our writing and directing teams, and so far these updates are rare as hen’s teeth (see “Strange Empire”, a short-lived but fascinating Canadian venture I call “‘Deadwood’ – if women were permitted to write and direct, and women of color permitted to star”).

Acting talent is lovely: the cast is (mostly) a delight, especially Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins as sheriff and deputy and best friends (I’ve always enjoyed the latter actor and I was glad to see him get such a great part). Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox are less charismatic as two members of the main party, the latter an unrepentant Indian-killer portrayed if not in a heroic light, definitely in a “Welp, Agree to Disagree” one. That said, Russell and Jenkins alone are wonderful to watch, and their relationship is strong and sweet, bordering on saccharine at times. Writing is a strong suit here – even a brief appearance of the sole Native American speaking role (Zahn McClarnon) delivers a good punch. A clever cameo by Sid Haig and small role by the often-creepy David Arquette provide surprisingly delicious morsels in this cannibal fare. (OK. Tiny spoiler, there)

There are just a couple women in the film, and they are simply: adoring wives. That’s it. We also get a brief shot of some maimed rape victims in final scenes. Women are plot points to the men’s stories. <yawn> because I’ve seen it a thousand times but still – come on.

And yes, Indians. The treatment of Native Americans is even worse. When your film’s “monster” natives are very, very reminiscent of 1999’s The Thirteenth Warrior – you might think of a re-do.

Because when all is said and done this is just another flavor in hundreds of films that somehow justify, incredibly, the “civilized” man’s law and (gun-based) order, the “rescue” of helpless women, and the brutal slaughter of Indians (although the film is careful to say these are DIFFERENT Indians, not the REGULAR Indians we like to slaughter. These Indians really deserve it! Trust me! Look what they DO! SO MEAN!).

And as an interesting side note: the film is brutal and scary, yes, and I loved that about it. But the “shocking” brutality the fans speak of is, I suspect, more about a few key scenes and less about a specific quantity of gore. I think what makes audiences uncomfortable are a couple scenes we don’t typically see – one, notably, where a man is stripped nude (full frontal), and then tortured in a way involving his bare genitals, while another scene tortures a man including threatening his genitals with annihilation by shotgun.

Turns out male viewers don’t like sexualized violence levied against their person – gee, I wonder how that feels?

As I was careful to make clear, I enjoyed Bone Tomahawk. There’s a lot to like and I’d watch it again for Russell and Jenkins alone.

But I suspect I will enjoy, even more, the trickle of more diverse writing, producing, and directing teams in the genre. You know, the genre of, “Westerns so upsetting you have to watch them in the daytime”. Because hey – that, I can get behind!

Watch if: you like the same upsetting, violent grit I do.

Bone Tomahawk (2015) - still

“Sean Young, you can have two lines. OK. Maybe three.”


Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - poster

Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - poster

What starts out as a fishing trip for Angelino family Harry, Ann, Rick and Karen Baldwin (Ray MillandJean HagenFrankie Avalon, and Mary Mitchell) quickly becomes a fight for survival. A few hours into their trip, they discover via radio broadcast that they have narrowly escaped a seeming nuclear attack on Los Angeles. Their instinct is to turn back to help, but this decision increasingly seems an unwise one. As the family makes their way back into the hills under the leadership of Harry, they search for food, weaponry, and safe haven amongst an increasingly diverse series of dangers in the form of other desperate human beings.

What a confusing film! While in so many ways the drama is pretty fantastic – and certainly better than the glut of disaster films we’ve been treated to in the last fifteen years – there are some serious and fatal drawbacks. The way women are treated in this film is – and I don’t use this term lightly – simply reprehensible. And the character development of main-man Harry is muddled at best.

But let’s talk about the good stuff. The survival vignettes are well-done. Especially the relatively organic way news travelled before the internet-age. The Baldwins have a little time to scour the rural merchantiles for supplies, before canny shopkeeps start charging ridiculous prices for gas and food. Harry is a practical hero: he is immediately focussed on planning for short-term safety for the family, in hopes that when some semblance of order is restored they will still be in one piece. Anyone watching is bound to feel the tension of such an uncertain scenario. Is it just L.A. that’s been bombed? Did any of our friends survive? What happens when our supplies run out?

But it’s hard to know who you’re supposed to be rooting for. Our “hero” Harry is at first an insufferable know-it-all, spending the first forty percent of the film telling his family what to do, what to think, and how to feel. He and his son Rick, incredibly, keep calling Ann and Karen “the women”, and ordering them to stay quiet in the trailer. But Rick doesn’t get much more an esteemed place than “the women”, either.  “We need to have a little family discussion,” Harry intones after he says grace at their first meal in hiding – and then proceeds to lecture them about what they’re going to do in this survival situation without allowing one word in edgewise.


Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - still 1

“Shut up because I’m more important than you”

From “just a huge windbag jerk” things get a little complicated where Harry is concerned, as he becomes a selfish, fear-driven megalomaniac. He ends up brazenly putting his family first without a single thought of anyone else’s welfare, most notably in a scene where he throws flaming gasoline out on a highway crammed with speeding cars. He won’t help anyone besides the family, which likely results in a few deaths. While the film explores a bit of his emotional conflict, this character development doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There is no retribution or denoument – the film kind of putters out with a, “Well I guess our heroes are all okay! (except for all the Rape which you’re not allowed to talk about)!”
Panic at Year Zero! (1962) - still 2

White Man’s Burden

And then, the gender roles. #yikes! Women are portrayed as hysterical, helpless, and clumsy. Not content to threaten the women with rape, the film gets down to it in the third act, raping three of four women onscreen. And of course, it isn’t the event of rape that’s objectionable, but rather the way the filmwriters handle it. For instance: after daughter Karen’s rape she apologizes for her assault to her father. He responds by storming off in a predictable Virgin Spring-esque retribution, natch. Then steadfastly ignores her trauma or any responsibilities he has as a father – because he “can’t face her”.


A few minutes later recently-orphaned and gang-raped Marilyn (Joan Freeman) is rescued – albeit in a most cruel fashion. They take her back to the camp whereby young Rick responds by – flirting with her?

The goggles they do nothing!

I don’t mean to belabor the way women are treated in the screenplay but: 1. Hello, We Are Half of the Population so it’s Kinda Relevant; and 2. It Really Is Very, Very Egregiously Gross.

Moving on.

The film is paced well, and if you can ignore all the previously-mentioned Ick there is a lot of good stuff here. Today’s disaster films spend oodles of cash on special effects; a more chilling effect here is carried off by good writing. Soundtrack buffs will enjoy the Beatnik-y, edgy score by Les Baxter. B-movie fans will enjoy a small but memorable performance of Richard Garland (one-time husband to actress Beverly Garland), and the sneer of “juvenile delinquent” character actor Richard Bakalyan.

A must-see for fans of disaster films – and fans of Milland, of which I am most ardent.

Tangerine (2015) - poster

Tangerine (2015) - poster

One of the funniest, most warm-hearted, joyful comedies I’ve experienced, Tangerine is the best surprise I’ve had this year. Somewhat incredible praise considering the film is rife with “adult” language and situations, all kinds of IRL-nudity, and a host of rather horrid physical and verbal assaults.

Still? Movie, you complete me!

Tangerine (2015) - still

It’s best to know nothing about the movie whatsoever before watching it – so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading, and watch it.

Our leads – Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee Rella and Mya Taylor as Alexandra, both women without previous film experience – absolutely make the film. And this ends up being literally true, as their life stories and the stories of their friends were the genesis for the narrative. In fact, the background of how Tangerine was made – and how the filmmakers developed the story, found the actors and cameos, and sourced the score – is both exciting and fascinating. This backstory is still not as good as the film itself – so go see it.


The Big Clock (1948) - poster 1

The Big Clock (1948) - poster 1

In this underrated crime thriller Ray Milland plays George Stroud, a hardworking magazine editor who after seven hard years laboring under media mogul Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) is starting to feel a bit resentful. The night before his vacation with his long-suffering wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) and their young son, he quarrels with the tyrannical Janoth, quits his job, and goes on a platonic all-night bender with Janoth’s similarly-disenfranchised mistress Pauline (Rita Johnson). Later that evening Janoth, in a fit of fragile masculinity, commits a capital crime. Janoth puts his powerful machinations to work on a coverup, inadvertently implicating Stroud (who can’t account for his whereabouts the night before). Stroud abandons his family to engage in a harrowing mental chess match, putting his failing marriage under further strain.
The Big Clock (1948) - still


A smart, tight little drama populated by charismatic actors and pleasing themes, The Big Clock is a satisfying thriller. Janoth’s massive power as an institution is a fearsome foe for our hero, who is clever but simply out-manned. The film is superbly cast; all players flesh out their characters well with York as a standout, and Laughton wonderfully repellant. Elsa Lanchester (best known as the Bride in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein) plays a fecund, silly, yet talented artist whose painting is brought into the plot. George Macready and Harry Morgan (of “M.A.S.H.” fame) adroitly play Janoth’s creepy lieutenant and #1 thug, respectively.Sadly, the film’s sexism is not only irritating, it provides massive plot holes in what would otherwise a perfectly-written piece. To wit: Janoth’s sizable foot soldier army leaves no stone unturned and no lead cold as they search for clues about their mystery man (Milland). But they ignore entirely the role of the man’s companion (Pauline), merely referring to her as “the blonde” involved and showing no interest in her as a lead. O’Sullivan’s role and talents are also wasted; she is merely a pretty Caspar Milquetoast who fussily endures great personal distress and danger while – well all know the tune by heart – having no other role than “wife”. We know she’ll instantly absolve her husband as the credits roll, and forgive him for a series of deplorable, confusing behaviors.

A great entry for any crime drama connoisseur, and of course – any Ray Milland fan.

The Big Clock (1948) - poster 2

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) - poster

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) - poster

In mankind’s first mission to the moon, five astronauts (Sonny TuftsVictor Jory, “Queen of the ‘B’s” Marie WindsorDouglas Fowley, and William Phipps) wake out of their space-sleep to run into some technical problems. One chemical fire later, and after some awkward astronaut-on-astronaut amorous confessions, the plot (thin as it is) thickens a bit. Into a lukewarm gruel. To everyone’s surprise, the sole woman on board (Helen) seems to be prone to some kind of psychic connection informing her of conditions on the moonscape, and the existence of possible inhabitants. The men on the crew kind of bicker and shake her by the arms and stuff for a bit, as they make their way on a rather vague mission.

Yes as is often the case in these sci-fi films, we have a token lady astronaut. Helen is so full of ladyness, the first thing she does after she wakes from cyber sleep is take out a comb and powder her nose. And, surprise surprise, she’s also also involved a love triangle. With two lumpy geezers (Tufts and Jory) wearing high-waisted pants unsuccessfully obfuscating their paunches. This kind of thing is so common in these films they all kinda blur together.

Once the group has landed on the dark side of the moon at a launch location Helen directs them to, they muddle through a tunnel for a bit. The group removes their helmets, is attacked by a couple spiders (one monster-spider puppet filmed twice), then stumbles upon a palatial manse housing an all-female group of sinister sexy ladies (the eponymous Cat-Women). The Cat-Women have a plot but being helpless ladies they need to resort to subterfuge and feminine wiles to make a play for world domination. Yadda yadda.

The film provides a meager body count, to try to raise the stakes. The final, climactic scene takes place offscreen.

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) - publicity still

I was surprised the movie struggled so much. It has many charms: beautiful women (the aforementioned Windsor and the “The Hollywood Cover Girls” playing the seven Cat-Women), 3D composition, some great matte paintings for moonscape, and hey – a pretty good monster-spider puppet. That said, the plot is plodding, the love triangle tepid, any 3D entirely wasted, the special effects underwhelming, and the obligatory “exotic dance” number decidedly unsexy. It’s a good popcorn flick or perhaps a cure for insomnia.

And of course, if you’re a black-and-white sci-fi bro like me, you’ve gotta watch it. Because it’s there.

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) - still