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The Hollywood of Texas


Just outside the window of Pocket’s Grille, a large, rustic water tower announces the name of the small Texas town of Smithville much like the giant HOLLYWOOD sign does in California. Inside the restaurant, people sit around enjoying their meals and conversation amid large signs and props from the 1997 movie Hope Floats. One might think that the owner, Troy Streuer, has a mere obsession with the film, but the truth goes deeper than that; the movie saved his business. “I was literally about to close my door. I’d been open like 8 months or so and I wasn’t making it. And all the sudden, Hope Floats starts filming and everything turns around. I have this deep love for [the film] because it somehow got me over the hump.”

The movie, starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. was the first of more than 80 movies, television shows, and commercials that have filmed in Smithville, bringing in a significant revenue stream and putting the town on the tourist map.

It is All in the Name

Adena Lewis, Director of Tourism and Economic Development for Bastrop County and former President of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, credits the town’s mayor for putting Smithville in the limelight. “Because of the smart thinking of Vernon Richards, our mayor at the time, the name of the town, Smithville, was used in the film. [The producers] came to him and asked him if they could repaint the name on the water tower to match the name of the town in Arkansas that was in the script. Vernon said ‘that’s kind of an expensive thing to do. Why don’t you just use the name of our town?’ The location guy said that was entirely too complicated a process. Vernon said ‘why don’t you just give me a dollar.’ The guy reached into his billfold and gave him a dollar and Vernon said ‘you’ve just bought the rights to use the name of the town Smithville in your movie.'”

That thinking became a tradition as more films came to Smithville. “If you walk in the Hall of City Hall, you’ll see framed dollar bills or dollar checks from lots of production companies that have come to Smithville,” Lewis added. “It’s become a tradition to collect a dollar from them in order for them to be in Smithville.”

A Location Destination

Many big productions have since been filmed within the few city blocks of Main Street including Doonby starring John Schneider, Beneath the Darkness with Dennis Quaid, Lost in the Sun featuring Josh Duhamel, and Oscar Winner The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt. More recently, the pilot for the television show Kevin (Probably) Saves The World was filmed in town.

Filmmaker Peter Mackenzie wrote and directed the 2013 movie Doonby and had planned on shooting at Spiderwood studios in nearby Elgin, Texas, when a producer recommended Smithville for location shooting. “I drove down and it was incredible. It was exactly what I’d written. ‘Oh yea, there’s the police station. Oh yeah, there’s the bar.’ It was absolutely perfect as a film set. I knew I was in good company because on the other corner the Coen brothers were doing scouting.” Mackenzie sees the value of the town as a shooting location. “You’ve got this little town itself which is a dream to film in with locations everywhere you look. You have this wonderful countryside all around it.”

April Daniels, the Executive Director of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, echoes Mackenzie’s thoughts. “Mostly people come here because they want to shoot onsite. They want to shoot our beautiful old main street buildings. They’ll put up new awnings for us or they’ll paint the side of our buildings or paint signs. For Kevin (Probably) Saves The World, they dressed up the windows up and down the street.”

Smithville has a film commission that interfaces with the production companies before and during the filming process. Skeeter Sewart, the film commission’s chairman, volunteers his time to help producers find locations. “What we try to do is when the movie contacts me, I show them around and show them what [the] locations are and then give the heads up as to what fees and permits and everything else is required.”

When a film is on location, it brings in a lot of traffic and business for the town. Sallie Blalock owned the Katy House Bed and Breakfast for 20 years. She recalls when The Tree of Life was shooting, the producers went out of their way to minimize the disturbance of bringing in trailers and finding places to park them. “Terrence Malick did not want to disrupt the town at all so he rented every property that was for sale or rent so they didn’t have to bring in trailers and a lot of equipment.” She appreciates the business that production companies bring. “Valero came and did three or four commercials in town and filled up the bed and breakfast for three days in the middle of the week. You can’t beat that.”

If You Film It, They Will Come

While many of the residents appreciate the film industry for the revenue it brings directly, there is another benefit to having movies shot in town. Lewis recalls when she first joined the Chamber of Commerce she noticed that a lot of people coming into town were coming because of Hope Floats. “I don’t think any film has been as popular in bringing tourists to us as that original [film]. People still come here to get married, see the house.”

Sewart also sees the benefit tourism brings to the town. “They come in, they eat at Pockets, they buy gas. If their car breaks down, they get it fixed. It brings in revenue.”

A True Love Story

To say the town has a love affair with the movies is not just an understatement; the movies have a love affair with the town as well. Streuer has made lasting friendships with many of the production crews, many of whom return for new projects. “I think once you get that reputation of being easy to work with from the government standpoint all the way down to the people, I think that really carries.” When the crew members move on to become producers and directors later in their careers, Streuer states that “they remember Smithville and they come back.”

Peter Mackenzie calls Smithville home as well. “These are close family friends, not just acquaintances. All the actors who were on Doonby have all stayed very close to the people of Smithville. They all consider it as a place where they have a bunch of friends. John Schneider is in love with the place and is always around. Several of the other actors become very much a part of the world in that little town in Texas.”

Sallie Blalock recalls Dennis Quaid helping out the town in its time of need as it recovered from the wildfires of 2011. “Dennis Quaid was in the police station to shoot a scene for Beneath the Darkness when he noticed a barrel in the hall and asked what it was for. The Sherriff said it was for Blue Santa and it was usually full of toys for kids. This was right after we had the wildfires and everybody was tapped out and the barrel was empty.” Quaid brought his band in and held a sold out concert and the proceeds went to help the town with the Blue Santa.

The Challenge for the Future

Unfortunately, the love affair has been a bit strained lately as production companies have begun to opt for locations in other states. Lewis explains that it all comes down to money. “Every year at the legislature, we have to fight to get funding for the Texas Film Commission,” she said. “Texas was a leader for a long time, and now we get competition from Georgia and Louisiana. We’d never paid money to get people to come, we’d just given them a percentage back on what they spent in Texas as an incentive. We used to be the leaders on that and now we’re not.”

Sewart sees the changes as well. “The pilot [for Kevin (Probably) Saves The World] was filmed here. Now they film it in Georgia because the incentives are better. If Kevin was being filmed here, because it’s a series, they’d be here every day. Now I hear they’re just outside of Atlanta.”

Despite the legislative woes, Smithville’s old water tower stands like a beacon, bringing a bit of Hollywood to Texas. Movie makers and lovers from all over the country visit Smithville to catch a bit of Hollywood magic. Working amid the props from that first film, Streuer recognizes the magic of the movie making in his restaurant. Even after 20 years since the film’s debut, Streuer still sees the residual impact from Hope Floats in Smithville. “People still come to see the town and they still come in here.”

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of TexasLiving.

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The Black Panther Claws the Box Office

A second super hero movie has the internet all atwitter this week with accolades such as “historic” and “triumphant” pretty much for the same reasons.  Last year’s Wonder Woman was the first female super hero movie and the first directed by a woman.  This year, “The Black Panther” is touted as the first super hero movie with a Black protagonist and directed by a black director.  Now the veracity of that claim can be and has been debated, but that is irrelevant to the quality of the film.  The Black Panther is a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not the only black one) that interacts with the Avengers.  His character was introduced in 2016’s Captain America Civil War and played a major role in the events of that film.  In this movie, we learn more about the Black Panther and his alter ego, King T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda, but the focus of this movie is not really T’Challa or the Black Panther.  One could argue the movie is actually about Wakanda.  As Wakanda is in Africa, it follows that this movie will feature predominately black characters.  In fact, the only principle characters that are not black is Andy Serkis’s Klaw and Martin Freeman’s Ross.  Given the setting of the movie and the characters, one would expect certain social commentary about race relations.  This film does not shirk in this regard, and in fact, is a bit “in your face” about it, almost too much so, which is the only problem I have with this otherwise enjoyable action movie.

One observation that bears notice is that story told in “The Black Panther”, while set within the MCU, has absolutely no bearing on the greater MCU story arcs. There is no mention of the Infinity Stones, the Avengers or any other heroes at all.  In fact, it almost seems as though Freeman’s Ross was tacked on just to tie it in, as his presence really doesn’t move the plot much.  Having said that, he does offer a bit of humor.

The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.  Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as King T’Challa and brings the same brooding strength to this performance.  His likeable naiveté dares the viewer not to like him.  His skills as the Black Panther, while impressive, are still developing and he finds himself in dire straits on more than one occasion.  Boseman conveys this and portrays T’Challa’s learning process convincingly.

Angela Basset stars as T’Challa’s mother and brings out his humanity along with Letitia Wrght’s performance as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  We also meet his ex-girlfriend and the general of the king’s guard, who all serve to help T’Challa face his first major challenge as king: A literal challenge for the throne from his American cousin, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

The story is full of intrigue and more than one plot twist and if the writers and producers had left it at that, it would have made for an outstanding movie.  But with the current social climate, they couldn’t resist attacking the perceived “white-dominated” power structure in the world that was only serving to keep down “those who look like us,” as Killmonger says.

Of course, the film will win the box office.  It is an MCU film, after all, and opening on a weekend bereft of any real box office competition.  The movie was enjoyable, but it doesn’t rank as high as Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, and while it is good, it is not quite historic or triumphant.  Movies should earn those accolades with plot, character and message, not by the gender or the color of the skin of the actor or director.  I still give it a thumbs up.

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For Want Of A One-Liner

If the World Series has taught anything it is that it is impossible to carry momentum indefinitely.  Marvel is about to discover that axiom this weekend with their release of the third Thor movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor Ragnarok.  The MCU now features seventeen films that have enjoyed almost universal success.  They have all made huge box office and generated a great fan following, but as with any franchise, there are those who rank the films from best to worse and the two previous Thor movies almost always rank toward the bottom of the list.  Ragnarok will premier below even them.

One of the things that has endeared the MCU movies to the fans is a tangible sense of humor.  None of the films, even the most dramatic of them, takes itself too seriously and all have been peppered with more than a few snappy one liners that have become the hallmark of the MCU and something the DCEU has been lacking.  But as with anything good, someone will always ask for too much of a good thing.

No spoilers here, but the term Ragnarok refers to the destruction of Asgard and Thor spends the film trying to avert that destruction, which seems assured as Hela, played by Cate Blanchet, lays waste to the Asgardian defenders and casts Thor out.  Our hero must rally a team to defeat Hela and save Asgard, so he happens upon the Hulk and a disgraced Asgardian Valkyrie to enlist their help.

Ragnarok has a lot going for it.  It features not only Thor and Loki, but also the Hulk engaging in a battle royal with nothing less than the future of Asgard in the balance.  But with all the action, the studio went overboard with the one liners.  Thor has not one whit of his serious, responsible attitude so often displayed in both his previous films but also in the Avengers movies.  This Thor spends most of this film wise cracking and making poor jokes.  Even the Hulk, who talks more in this movie than in all other MCU films combined, if full of wise cracks.  Add Jeff Goldblum as the near maniacal Game Master and the silliness reaches nauseating levels.  The teaser trailer should have been an indication of the level of silliness when Thor turns to the Game Master and says of Hulk “We know each other!  He’s a friend from work.”

With all the wanton destruction (and there is plenty) it is difficult to feel the sense of loss that by all rights should have the audience near tears when the cast is so busy whipping out one liners.  I found it difficult to enjoy this film and found myself sighing a lot during the two-and-a-half hour show, wishing it would wrap up.  That is not an indication of a good movie.  Thor Ragnarok is the worst film of the Thor films, which are the worst films of the MCU.  It is a shame.  It is also a shame that the next entry to have to swing the momentum back is a movie featuring the little known Black Panther in February before the next Avengers movie.

 

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Ghost Busted in the Shell

Science fiction is a large genre, so large, in fact, that there are sub genres within it. One such niche enjoys a nearly rabid fan base and those devotees refuse to brook any content not in keeping with a narrowly defined parameter for the niche, and that is cyberpunk. In the late 80’s and 90’s, cyberpunk was a growing segment of the Sci Fi phenomenon with its dystopian view of a future where people are fully integrated with technology so that entertainment is had by plugging one’s brain directly into the network. Many cyberpunk movies have enjoyed widespread appeal, such as the Matrix series, while others have fallen flat. One of the more eagerly awaited cinema treatments of a cyberpunk classic is The Ghost in the Shell, and the cyberpunk faithful have resoundingly decried the movie as a failure. Their beef with the film centers more around the casting of Scarlet Johansen as the protagonist, because Johansen is white and the story features an Asian in the role, rather than discussing the real problems with the film, and there are many.

The story centers around a cyborg referred to as “Major” who works for the ministry of security, section 9 in an unnamed future metropolis that looks like a concatenation of Hong Kong, San Francisco,Beijing, New York and any number of other large cities. Major is hot on the trail of a cyber terrorist whom she believes is responsible for the death of her parents and her current condition as a cyborg. During the course of the story, she uncovers a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of her understanding of her identity.

The contrived plot is not a new one and it has been depicted in TV shows and other films several times. The characters are flat and unworthy of empathy and the cinematography is a cacophony of color and light that hurts the eyes and disorients the viewer. The action seems disconnected from the plot and is used just to distract from the otherwise boring and uninspired story.

The one redeeming aspect of this film is Scarlett Johansson, but not for her performance. Johansson’s characterization of Major doesn’t let the viewer into her personal struggle, despite scenes written just for that purpose. She coasts through those scenes, looking confused and detached where one would expect a sharp focus. Her performance was less “Natalia Romanov” and more “Lucy,” with a lot of jumping, running and shooting. The only thing about her performance, and the film in general, that could be construed as positive is the skin tight body suit she wear during combat scenes. The effects of peeling her artificial skin, or detaching her face are interesting, but they’ve been done before. Her nearly perfect physical form, however, is unique and is the only reason to sit through this dismal failure of story telling.

Major’s partner in the film, Batou played by Pilou Asbæk, is the only character that creates a connection with the viewer, but the writers don’t give him enough story. For those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he could be excellent casting for Cable in any upcoming X-Men film.

If you are a fan of Scarlett, see it at the matinee, otherwise, wait for cable. It is not worth full admission price at a mainstream theater.

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The Fantastic Failure

Reading audiences have been fascinated by fantastic flights of fancy since the beginnings of literature. Jules Verne gave the world the adventures of Captain Nemo on the Nautilus and H.G. Wells produced amazing journeys that took heroes to unimaginable lands far away. For younger audiences, comic books brought forth heroes who were set apart from normal people by extraordinary abilities of super strength or flight or invulnerability. These comic heroes have been part of pop culture for more than 50 years. The abilities of these heroes have been so fantastic that the technology to depict them visually has only recently been developed. This is why the super hero has become the big box office draw for the past 20 years or so. With every new movie, the public’s appetite for fantastic visual effect-laden comic based movies has only grown and every movie has satisfied that appetite. Until now.

The Fantastic Four opened Friday to tepid public response. Expected to fetch $50 million on its opening weekend, the film barely made half that, only garnering $26 million. Public reviews have given the film a low C, the lowest score for a major Hollywood backed superhero film franchise. Even the dismal Green Lantern scored higher.

While many “experts” will offer their ideas on why this latest reboot of the Fantastic Four, one of Marvel Comics’ most famous titles, I doubt anyone will lay the blame where it really belongs: squarely on the shoulders of those who think that by reimagining the franchise, it will increase its appeal. This is sorely incorrect thinking.

The story of any of these heroes is one that was born on the pages of the comic book. Writers labored over the back story, the origin of the hero, the birth of the super to make them engaging to the audiences. They succeeded. Not every time, though. Garbage piles are full of failed comic book titles that didn’t connect with audiences, much the same way that, over in the next garbage heap, is a pile of celluloid from bad movies. No, the titles that have lasted for decades work for the audience. Now, if you have a successful franchise, why mess with it? Why try to fix that which is not broken? Why reimagine it?

Some have said that the first two Fantastic Four films were not as successful as they could have been, so the studio felt a change was needed. They probably went to their consultants, people who probably never opened a Fantastic Four comic book in their lives, and asked them how could they make a more successful film. These consultants probably opened an issue of the comic and said “Oh! Look! There are no black people in the team! You can’t have that. Statistics have shown that X number of audience members self-identify with being African American. You should really have one person on the team represent that demographic.”

They probably followed that up with, “Oh, look! These characters are too old! You can’t appeal to the younger audiences by having heroes in their 30’s and 40’s (Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, has always had graying temples). No, these heroes need to be high school aged. Yes! That’s the ticket. Make them younger.”

So what we end up with is a movie based on a successful story that was consulted to death. In defense, the movie was purportedly based not on the original Stan Lee comic book, but on the revamped title “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” part of the Ultimate series that Marvel foisted on the public in 2004. But then again, the ultimate series was a mistake for the same reasons.

The original story of these heroes begins with Reed Richards, one of the most respected and established scientists on Earth, building a rocket ship to explore space. Along with his crew, Sue Storm and her biological brother Johnny, and Ben Grimm, a mechanical engineer, they are accidently subjected to cosmic radiation that alters their bodies, imbuing them with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. They are all adults. They are all capable of rational thought, and they are all respected professionals. Not kids. Sue and Johnny are brother and sister. There is no need to create some convoluted back story of how a black man adopted a girl from Kosovo just to explain how Johnny Storm is black. Johnny Storm doesn’t need to be black. The character was introduced in 1961 as white. Even in the Ultimate series, he is white. Why change it? Unfortunately, this isn’t the only super hero character getting a historical makeover either. The comics have introduced other racial identities for some heroes, but those heroes are different people. While the new comic version of Captain America may be black, Steve Rogers is still white. While Spiderman may be Hispanic, Peter Parker is white. While Green Lantern may be any number of races, Hal Jordan is white. This is consistent.

Marvel’s hands are not entirely clean in this debacle either. Several years ago, Marvel needed cash so they sold the rights to some of their most famous titles to other studios. Spiderman went to Sony, X-Men and the Fantastic Four went to 20-Century Fox and the Hulk went to Universal. Because of these deals, multiple studios can develop multiple production teams to develop any number of movies based on the characters involved in the deal. Disney bought Marvel outright in 2009 and set to developing what has become known as the Marvel cinematic universe. This has led to the highly successful series of films with the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Marvel got the rights to the character of the Hulk back in 2008, and Spiderman is now a shared property with Sony, so both of those characters can also appear in the Marvel universe. 20-Century Fox has decided that they don’t need to play nice, however. Since their X-Men films have been so wildly successful, they don’t see a need to work with Marvel in developing their properties. This is why none of the Marvel studios movies mention mutants, X-men or the Fantastic Four.

Marvel has developed their titles using material developed from the original comic books. Stan Lee, the progenitor of almost every title in print, had a hand in the development of the cinematic universe and more to the point, the creative people he hired at Marvel are working on these movies. This is the biggest reason why they are so successful. Even a little known minor character in the comic books, Ant-man, had a successful movie. I don’t even want to think of how Fox would have tried to make that one work.

So, Fox, listen up: Sell the Fantastic Four back to Marvel, or at least partner with them. You don’t know how to make that movie. They do. Besides, those characters can be important to the upcoming Infinity War series of movies and you know you will want a piece of that action.

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Rewriting History X-Men Style

In this age of comic-book-based movies ruling the multiplex, it is little wonder that the reigning box office champ is X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest in the 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise. The movie effectively wraps up the last four X-men movies in a nice little package, incorporating the actors from the first three X-Men movies and the actors who played the younger versions of them in the last one. It is all very neat and tidy, except for two glaring discrepancies that just about every fan noticed: the claws and Professor X.

Continuity is that aspect of storytelling in which facts and events set up in early stories are accounted for in later stories using the same characters. It is essential in soap operas and movies sequels and to a slightly lesser extent in TV series (of course the TV serial has made a resurgence, hence the “previously on [insert show title here]). When something significant happens to a major character, the viewer has to accept it as a fact of life for the character. This is why writers rarely kill off a principal character: the viewers then expect not to see them again (exception for Southpark’s Kenny).

The character Wolverine, played in all movies by Hugh Jackman, has two spinoff movies of his own, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. In the latter film, Wolverine’s adamantium claws are severed (an impossibility, by the way) by the Silver Samurai, to be regenerated as bone claws by his mutant healing ability. At the end of that film, in a post-credits scene, Wolverine is approached by Professor X and Magneto asking for his help.

Jump ahead to X-Men: Days of Future Passed and Wolverine is helping the X-Men fight a losing war against mutant hunting robots called Sentinels. The problem is that Wolverine has his adamantium claws back. This begs the question of how that happened. The movie says nothing of it, he is just happily shredding away as if he never lost the metal claws.

Of course, the plot of the film involves Wolverine sending his consciousness back in time to take over his younger body to prevent the advent of the Sentinels in the first place, and in this younger body, he had not yet acquired the adamantium in his bones. But the future self has the metal claws. Brian Singer, the director of the X-Men films offered a half-hearted possibility: perhaps Magneto helped restore his claws. He did not say this definitively what happened. He said nothing definitive.

The other issue is Professor X. He was killed by the Phoenix in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Although in the end, we hear some other person speaking in his voice; we saw the Professor’s body disintegrate, so it cannot be his body the voice is coming from. Yet at the end of The Wolverine, Professor X is back in his body—complete with wheel chair—asking Wolverine for help. Now, comic book characters have an affinity for coming back from the dead. Barry Allen’s Flash was killed in the 90’s and he got better. Superman was killed by Doomsday and he got better. But in every one of those cases, the resurrection was explained (albeit sometimes very flimsily) by some plot device like time travel or alternate realities or parallel universes or cloning or something. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, there is no explanation of how this happened. Perhaps Brian Singer will suggest that Professor X is related to Kenny.

So, while Days of Future Passed is a very enjoyable film, it leaves two unresolved plot holes that the viewer will have to fill in on their own.

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From Comic Books to Cinema

This summer brings an opportunity to enjoy many relaxing pastimes from hiking to fishing to swimming and camping. Many people who don’t want to spend that much time outside in the heat might opt, instead, to take in a movie or two and Hollywood has plenty of blockbuster hits lined up for those cinemaphiles. Thor thundered into a huge box office and Pirates of the Carribean has plundered a heafty treasure as well. But along with Harry Potter and The Smurfs, the biggest blockbusters are predicted to be films based on comic books or sequels to established movie franchises.

There have been many movies the past few years based on comic books. Spiderman, Batman, and X-men have been hugely successful in terms of box office returns, but also as fan favorites. My wife and I were talking about why so many comic books are being adapted to film and the answer was so obvious that it is easily overlooked. The people making movies in Hollywood are my generation: raised on comic books and cartoons. Our adolescence has been peppered with the super acts of our heroes and depicted in the pages of comics and on the Saturday morning TV screens for years. This was the only way we could see these impossible feats of superhuman strength, since live actors could not do it and Hollywood did not possess the technology to create the effects.

Now, thanks to John Dykstra and John Lassiter and some serious computing power, we can have a man fly, shoot friggin lazers out of his friggin eyes, change into a snake, have razor sharp blades emerge from his hands, climb walls, and levitate a bus and have it all look as real as if he was putting on a jacket. Now we can enjoy the exploits of Superman, Batman, The Hulk, and this year, Green Lantern, and Captain America and watch the scenes that we used to see in pen and ink drawings years ago. Graphic novels are also getting the big screen treatment with films like Priest and there are nerd-as-hero movies like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World that are clearly inspired by comics and video games.

Of course, the other side of the issue is that Hollywood doesn’t have to wrack its collective brain to come up with anything truly original is they can mine 30 years of comic books for plotlines and characters and then create movie franchises based on those stories. This also accounts for the reboots of movies like last year’s Star Trek and this year’s Conan and adaptations of TV shows like last year’s A-Team.

But since I love comic books and love these adaptations, I will happily shell out the inflated ticket price as I enjoy watching my imagination come to life before my eyes. I have loved the Iron Man movies and the latest Hulk was even good. Bring on X-Men : First Class and Green Lantern!

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