Moriarty's RUMBLINGS: SPIRITED AWAY, David Twohy's BELOW, and FOUR FEATHERS!!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
These three reviews got steamrolled by the SUPERMAN script review, so Harry's asked me to move them over here so they might actually get read. In particular, I want to make sure you keep your eyes open for BELOW, which is about to get severely shafted by Miramax, even though it doesn't deserve it...
BLOWN AWAY ON A GHIBLI WIND
On my very, very short list of the best working filmmakers, those amazing artists whose work never fails to offer me something of value, I would rank Hayao Miyazaki very near the top. His body of work is so significant, so rewarding, and he continues to offer his audiences something new and genuine each time he makes a film. When I hear people refer to him as “Japan’s Walt Disney,” it annoys me, because I think as a filmmaker, Miyazaki is a thousand times more accomplished and brilliant than Walt was, and his works speak to me in a way that few films do. They work on the level of dreams, feeling as I watch them like they are already familiar, already part of that deep pool of mythology that we all carry around. He just taps into those images in a way that speaks almost primally to an audience. I think that’s why people call his work “children’s films.” They’re not, of course, but maybe children are more open to the experience. They are able to simply follow the film instinctually and understand the direct and emotional journey that Miyazaki has charted for us. There’s things here that we can all benefit from though, ideas rather than morals, offered instead of force-fed, and the resultant mix of all the ideas here is something incredibly satisfying that should reward repeat viewers enormously.
I just spent a few weeks wading through Miyazaki’s past work, not only so that I could rediscover them, but also so I could introduce them to my girlfriend before she went with me to see Miyazaki speak at the special El Capitan event. I wanted to give her a chance to see what she thought of his worlds and his characters, and the first one I showed her was MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, a film I think gets better the more you watch it. Basically, two small girls, Satsuki and Mei, move with their father to a small home in the country as they try to deal with their mother being hospitalized and constantly sick. They meet Totoro, a nature spirit, and adjust to their new home. And that’s pretty much it. The joy of the film is the details, the way Totoro enjoys learning about an umbrella or the way Mei giggles as she climbs up Totoro’s massive furred chest or the way the door to the Catbus opens or the way the dustballs swarm and scatter. KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE was next for us, and I’m a total sucker for the design of this film and the sense of flight. It was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw, and I have a real fondness for it as a result. NAUSICAA IN THE VALLEY OF WINDS left her cold, but it remains my favorite Miyazaki film overall. I think it’s an amazing epic end of the world fantasy, and I’ve been told that the manga version is even more sweeping. All I know is that I get caught up in the film every time I put it on, and I lose track of time. It’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, even in its depiction of the wasteland. PORCO ROSSO was the last one we watched together, and it was the only Miyazaki film I’d never seen before. Glad I finally corrected that, too. It’s a charming, odd little movie about The Crimson Pig, a notorious pilot in post-War Italy, once human but now quite content to live as a pig named Marco. There’s a great scene early on with a whole herd of little girls running roughshod over the pirates who have “kidnapped” them that’s laugh out loud funny, and Miyazaki’s flight fetish has never been more evident than it is here.
By the time we went to the Egyptian on September 10th to see the new English dub of SPIRITED AWAY and to see Miyazaki speak afterwards, I think she was almost as excited as I was. She understood who people were dressed as (there was a Totoro and a Lupin in attendance and seated near us), and when Miyazaki came out onstage afterwards, she seemed just as impressed by him as I was. It’s hard not to be, especially just after SPIRITED AWAY has finished playing.
Miyazaki said he made this film to give ten year old girls a main character they could relate to, and to tell a story they could see themselves in. Chihiro is a fascinating lead character because it doesn’t seem like Miyazaki likes her much at the start of the story. She’s got gangly legs, and she’s sullen, even spoiled. He’s said that he drew her to show a whole class of girls who have grown up without having to work, without ever experiencing any hardship at all. Chihiro and her parents are moving, on their way to the new house, and her father tries a shortcut that gets them lost. They end up at the mouth of a small tunnel, and when they walk through, they find something that her father is sure is an abandoned theme park. “They build a lot of them in the early ‘90s,” he says, “and then they all went bankrupt.” They walk further in, and they find a stall where a huge meal has been set out. Chihiro’s parents begin to dig into the food, but Chihiro refuses, uneasy about the place. She goes exploring, and as she stands on a bridge, the sun low in the sky, she comes face to face with a boy, Haku, who seems startled to see her. He tells her to leave before night falls, but it’s too late. Even as Chihiro runs back the way she came, it’s as if the evening’s long shadows race to get ahead of her. She finds her parents, but they’ve been transformed now into giant pigs, and when she tries to leave, she finds that the quiet field they crossed when they came in is now a river, huge and impassable.
Even worse, she learns that it’s no theme park she’s stumbled into. Instead, it’s a spa, a resort for gods on vacation, a place where they can escape from mankind. Humans, if they’re allowed at all, are relegated to the position of worker, and Chihiro’s survival depends on her coming face to face with Yubaba, the witch who runs the place, and somehow getting Yubaba to agree to give her a job, something she’ll only do in exchange for Chihiro’s name. Much of the middle of the film has to do with Chihiro’s attempts to settle into the routine of life at the spa, and to figure out the many mysteries that seem to make up the place. If Chihiro has a great strength, it appears to be her ability to adapt, to figure out the world around her and make some space for herself in it. Gradually, a real strength of character begins to assert itself, and she becomes a hero, although not the kind we’re used to in typical Western fiction. Instead, hers is the heroism of quiet determination.
The remarkable sights and characters that we are exposed to along the way would be criminal for me to reveal, since that’s what the film is... the journey. Like the best of Miyazaki’s work, SPIRITED AWAY is about the details, the small moments. Miyazaki, like many Japanese directors, makes full use of ma, or emptiness. It’s like the film is so dizzy from its own sense of invention that, from time to time, it simply has to take a moment and catch its breath. Director Kirk Wise (BEAUTY & THE BEAST and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) has risen to the unenviable task of directing the American voice actors, and he’s done a great job with Daveigh Chase, who was also Lilo in LILO & STITCH this year, and who has also been memorable as Donnie Darko’s little sister and as the main figure of fear in Gore Verbinki’s THE RING. She gives Chihiro a very real sense of life, and the rest of the cast (Susan Egan, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden) all do very strong work. This is one of the rare cases where I would recommend seeing the dubbed version first. The American script by Don and Cindy Hewitt (who I should point out share an agent with me, in the interest of full disclosure) manages to introduce some Western phrases and explain things with crystal clarity without disrupting the rhythms of Miyazaki’s work, no simple task. John Lasseter executive produced the American version, and I think it’s safe to say no more care or attention could have been lavished on it. I know it’s popular to beat Disney up about how they’ve handled Miyazaki’s films in America, and I’ll confess... I’m stumped as to why I can’t buy KIKI or CASTLE IN THE SKY on DVD yet... but poor business decisions aren’t the same thing as open disrespect. SPIRITED AWAY is obviously a labor of love for all the American artists involved in bringing it to a Western audience, and it’s my sincerest hope that the audience embraces this special gift as Disney rolls it out in limited release in the weeks ahead.
BELOW IS A CUT ABOVE... SO WHY IS MIRAMAX SCUTTLING THE BOAT?!
Y’know, this mystifies me. BELOW is supposed to be opening in a couple of weeks. Obviously, Miramax would like critics to talk about it when it opens, since they’re screening it now. So why is it that when I talk to people about this film, no one has seen a poster or a trailer or a single commercial of any kind?
I’ve heard rumblings about discontent between director David Twohy and Bob Weinstein, but I don’t know any specifics, and even if that’s true... even if they don’t see eye to eye... what would make a studio completely abandon a film? Even IMPOSTOR got better treatment than this during its obligatory dumping in the marketplace last Christmas. Is BELOW some sort of disaster that Dimension is trying to simply forget so they can move on?
In a word... no.
BELOW is an enjoyable, well-directed ghost story set on a submarine during WWII. Matt Davis, Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Holt McCallany, Scott Foley, Jason Flemyng, and Dexter Fletcher all do good solid work in the film as the crew that finds itself under extreme and unexpected pressure after picking up a few survivors off a hospital boat that was sunk by Germans. The script, by Lucas Sussman & Darren Aronofsky, with rewrites by Twohy, is smart and manages to offer up real visceral scares without ever once becoming just another dumb horror film. Instead, stakes are set high right at the start, and we’re gradually drawn into the mystery that seems to make all the men of the U.S.S. TIGER SHARK so increasingly frightened as events play out in a space that’s tight both physically and psychologically.
What I liked most about the film was the way it’s written so you can argue at the end about what really happened. Is this a supernatural story? Or is it a story of guilt and what happens when men do what they think is right, only to be eaten alive by the gradual realization that it’s wrong? All of the more bizarre occurences could be written off to the mental effects of a lack of oxygen as they stay submerged too long and hydrogen begins to fill the boat. The script only reveals the backstory of things in small bits and pieces, and it works as a result. The film opens with survivors floating on the ocean and the TIGER SHARK being ordered to go pick them up. There’s no setup where we meet the crew under manufactured circumstances. We just get directly into the film, something that is rapidly becoming a trademark of Twohy’s. There’s nothing as immediately eye-popping as the spaceship crash that opened PITCH BLACK with a bang, but visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang has made sure that when Twohy needs to come up with something memorable, he does.
In fact, I’d say one of Twohy’s trademarks is the elegance and sheer taste in composition that he brings to his material. I’m not the biggest fan of THE ARRIVAL (mainly because I don’t picture many radio technicians snorting blow off the crack of a hooker’s ass, meaning Charlie Sheen seemed a wee bit miscast to me), but that opening scene is a stunner. And if you asked me to make a list of the ten things I’m proudest of from my time here at AICN, the theatrical release of PITCH BLACK would be very near the top of that list. When Harry and I first saw the film, Interscope hated it and USA wasn’t sure what to do with it, and we only saw it because a publicist on another unrelated film felt passionately that the movie was getting boned. He set up that screening for us, and after it cleaned our clocks, we started making arrangements for it to play at Butt-Numb-A-Thon’s inaugural outing. Eventually, USA committed to a full theatrical release for the film, and it went on to become their highest-grossing theatrical release. This was a film that was sitting on a shelf when we saw it, before we started getting excited about it, and it’s only because USA actually listened and got wise that they were eventually rewarded.
I wish I could offer BELOW the same sort of support, but it appears to be too late. As a result, all I can do is tell you, the potential audience, that you’re being screwed out of a good time in the theater here. As Warner Bros. pumps money into GHOST SHIP and DreamWorks does their deep-pocketed best to saturate the world with RING ads, do yourself the favor. Search for BELOW. Keep your eyes peeled. And if it plays near you, give it a shot. You’ll be rewarded with a smart, knowing genre film that was made with real wit and respect.
Oh, if only it were being released the same way...
THE FOUR FEATHERS MAY BE ONE VERSION TOO MANY
I’ve been dreading this review for the whole past week.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the film is terrible. Far from it. The problem is that the film is soft, average, entirely okay. It’s the kind of film that inspires no passion in me as a critic either one way or another, and I hardly know where to start.
What did I like? Well, Djimon Hounsou continues to impress me with his sheer magnetism onscreen, even if he is playing a very slight variation on his GLADIATOR character here. And the photography by Robert Richardson is sharp, vivid, and at times, overwhelming. The direction by Shekhar Kapur is at times involving and at other times disinterested, but I think he did about as good a job as anyone could have with this particular script. There’s one breathtaking sequence, involving a trap that’s been set for the British soldiers, that builds to an incredibly intense place. Unfortunately, it fizzles out after that amazing overhead shot you’ve seen in most of the recent ads.
What didn’t I like? Pretty much the rest of the film. Wes Bentley and Heath Ledger both give it their best shot, but the screenplay strands them. Any notion that this is about the definitions of friendship or courage or honor are chucked out the window as the film boils down to a pissing match over the incredibly dull Ethne (Kate Hudson), who demonstrates no charm or talent or character traits that would make her worth fighting over. There’s a ridiculous image that opens the film that was lifted directly from MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE that set the wrong tone for me right off the bat, and in some ways, the film never recovered.
It’s weird, too, because I really like this story. The 1939 version by Zoltan Korda is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons that year is seen as the height of Hollywood’s golden age. It’s sweeping, yet personal, and it’s packed with adventure and drama. This version covers many of the same basic events, but we live in different times, and screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini have utterly failed to acknowledge that in their script. There’s one moment early on where the film almost becomes a Sudanese version of BLACK HAWK DOWN that gets at the idea that heroism isn’t blindly killing someone else just because your government tells you to, but the notion is ast aside as quickly as it’s raised, and for the most part, the enemy in this film is simply a faceless, impersonal mass of black people. Colonialism has proven to be as tricky a foundation for a society as communism, but this film doesn’t seem even slightly concerned with such thoughts.
In the end, FOUR FEATHERS fails to satisfy as a drama, as an adventure, or as a serious film about courage. It wants to be all those things, but manages to be none of them. Here’s hoping that all involved are able to redeem themselves their next time in battle.
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Sept. 24, 2002, 5:10 p.m. CST
by OK Then
...Although at least there were a couple of posters for Iron Giant here and there. I'd like to see Olivia Williams get some more exposure, but this doesn't look like the vehicle.
Sept. 24, 2002, 5:12 p.m. CST
because the (admittedly deserved) plague of negativity on the Superman board was overwhelming...in any case, just as a plea, everyone, do American pop culture a favor...when Disney expands the number of theaters showing Spirited Away, TAKE YOUR KIDS...doesnt necessarily mean the ones from your loins....any kid you're close enough to to take to the movies without the biological parents filing for a restraining order....take 'em....theyll thank you for it later as opposed to the emotionally bankrupt crap being forcefed to them on Saturday mornings. for now, thats all i have to say. Revolution is still my name....whew....good to write positive things after the dual heart attack that was the Superman script and the Emmys.
Sept. 24, 2002, 5:19 p.m. CST
by Radagast T Brown
I mean, every time I've tried to sit a girl down and show her this "really cool piece of Japanese animation you've just gotta see!," she's either rolled her eyes and sulked or run screaming from the house.
Sept. 24, 2002, 5:42 p.m. CST
by Sod Off Baldric
That flick just looks superb. I really hope it opens up in my neck of the woods sometime soon. Also, BELOW sounds interesting, and I really want to see it. I loved PITCH BLACK, and am very interested in Twhohy's follow-up film.
Sept. 24, 2002, 6:21 p.m. CST
...for Spirited Away. Below sounds cool but I'm kind of surprised and not by Four Feathers, because while Elizabeth was beautiful it did seem to have an odd kind of structure thing going on. In any case, I thought Pitch Black was awesome. One of the few cases where that kind of washed-out, glaring light look it had actually worked and served the story. But the girl pretending to a boy was bullshit.
Sept. 24, 2002, 6:43 p.m. CST
i'm a sucker for pretty much anything Aronofsky touches, and Below looks to be no exception. that's why it's terribly depressing to see it locked up in the attic like a retard circa 1952. as for Spirited Away, i can't possibly say how much i'm looking forward to this. only thing is, it'll probably be another six months before it opens anywhere close to where i live.
Sept. 24, 2002, 7:22 p.m. CST
...the Superman talkback was gonna drown everything else in this column. Fortunately, we now have here. ANYWAY...SPIRITED AWAY really grew on me. The first time I saw it, I was cheating (no dubbing or subtitles...long story.) When my (second! The first was screwed) DVD showed up, I knew what the film looked like, but not what was going on. Man, what some context will do for a movie! PRINCESS MONONOKE was great, but basic and straightforward in its narrative. SA is much more symbolic, and as much impact as it had on this white guy in Ohio, I can only imagine how it must have felt to the Japanese as it tapped into their cultural memory of spirits and folklore. Which leads me to...do you think people will have a problem understanding or accepting this? (Minor spoilers) There's an awful lot of vomiting from No Face, and that Stink God is pretty foul. Are Americans gonna accept this in a serious film that many (most) are going to go into expecting a children's film? We're a pretty (snap) judgmental people, and the nasties coupled with the symbol-reliant narrative may leave some poeple wondering just what they're watching. The failure of REIGN OF FIRE (people complained that there weren't enough dragons...it's not ABOUT the damned dragons!) has dulled my faith in American cinematic acceptance somewhat.
Sept. 24, 2002, 7:23 p.m. CST
by The Feral Kid
Go see Wes Bentley's last movie (to the best of my knowledge it was) "The Claim" directed by one of the great film stylists Michael Winterbottom - I haven't see "24 Hour Party People" yet though. But "the Claim" is amazing with a mis-en-scene very much similar to the opressive atmosphere of Presbyterian Church in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" where luck is the furthest thing from everyone's mind and survival is only motivation. The actors do some of the best acting work of 2000/2001, especially Peter McMullen as "the mayor of Casterbridge" character. And also an amazing tribute to "Fitzcarraldo" which uses the themes of that film to further those of "the Claim," but in a different light. Overall, a very overlooked film that many will see as boring and depressing. See it if you love "Chinatown" (and not just the reputation of "Chinatown")
Sept. 24, 2002, 8 p.m. CST
This was my favorite 2001 release with its original version and the English version will probably end up being my favorite 2002 release. It's just an amazing film that screams -- WATCH ME! There's so many beautiful images and it ilicits the entire range of emotions in a person. It's done very successful thus far (a whopping 1,200 avg per theatre on a Monday when the next highest is 400 and most are in the 60-100 range) and with its still perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and near-perfect on Metacritic (98/100), here's hoping Disney keeps it around for awhile instead of ushering it out quickly like Mononoke (8 weeks then gone)
Sept. 24, 2002, 8:31 p.m. CST
and Moriarty is being much to kind to that rank snoozefest. I agree, you'd be much better off renting "The Claim." You've all seen the shot in the commercials of the British square being attacked on all sides by the Mahdi's forces? Well, you've seen the best part of that turkey.
Sept. 24, 2002, 9:46 p.m. CST
I know the Halloween competition is unusually fierce this year (Ring, Ghost Ship, Red Dragon, Rules of Attraction etc. etc.), but my god, show SOMETHING, motherfuckers.
Sept. 24, 2002, 9:51 p.m. CST
by Fred Asparagus
Moriarty has my highest respect, from among those responsible for this page. But every once in a while, he betrays that respect, so to speak. Last time, it was the whole XXX "no, we weren't bribed to give this movie good reviews" item. Today's example is the assertation that Hayao Miyazaki is some one thousand times more talented and/or accomplished than Walt Disney. I enjoy Miyazaki's works, perhaps more than most. Proof lies in my VHS collection of fansubs, the DivX encodes that replaced those, my Princess Mononoke DVD, and a handful of Ghibli-related soundtracks. I won't suggest anything mathematically improbable along the lines that Walt Disney is one thousand times "better" than Miyazaki, but one has a choice: 1) A producer / writer / director of what is ultimately anime, meaning the characters have key design similarities from film to film (tell me they don't), who the majority of the time designs the main protagonist to be a young individual who is atypically capable and determined, and whose personality ultimately defines whether the movie in question will be serious or lighthearted. Padzu from Laputa is essentially a clone of Conan from Future Boy Conan. Also keep your eyes open for what I call the "Miyazaki touch", which entails some sort of BANG within the first five minutes, followed by at least a half-hour of exposition. A tried-and-true formula. 2) The usherer of colored animation and complicated techniques for art's sake. The inventor of the concept of surround sound, in ~1939 in fact, well before stereo was anything more than conceptualized. A man who, when you get right down to it, did not have anything to work from, so invented most of it. At the end of the day, I can say I've watched Fantasia more than any three Miyazaki movies, and I think that's a statistic that counts.
Sept. 25, 2002, 12:19 a.m. CST
Do you not have it? That's my favorite is all.--------How 'bout that $400,000 gross in one weekend from less than 50 screens(I think). I hope that boads well for a wide release or possibly just a good number. Remember, Disney, My Big Fat Greek Wedding built up word of mouth, let this do the same. Don't fret, it will.
Sept. 25, 2002, 1:05 a.m. CST
Hey, someone who is more geeky than I: please ramble off a list of things TWOHY has written/directed. I know he did THE FUGITIVE, PITCH BLACK, ARRIVAL. . .but I know he's done more. Someone help me out here. I want to see everything the guy does. He rocks. And its always a shame to see an Olivia Willams performance get passed over. Almost as much a shame as Gyllenhall's performance as DONNIE DARKO. Man, you want a creepy movie? Go rent that! That demonic bunny gave me nightmares for weeks.
Sept. 25, 2002, 2:16 a.m. CST
Check this list: (http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/sen/theaters.php) It's mostly complete for this Friday (September 27) but more theaters are expected for October 4. They're not listed because, well, theaters don't always plan two weeks in advance.
Sept. 25, 2002, 3:52 a.m. CST
Caught this flick four-five months ago in New Jersey, one of those test nights they do. Was wondering what happened to it. I dug that they never explained too much, that you had to think and figure out shit for yourself. Scarey too, especially when they go out diving in the night water with depth charges going off all round them. Never seen anythign quite like it.
Sept. 25, 2002, 5:16 a.m. CST
by Lance Turk
I'm not going to get into Spirited Away. But I saw it last weekend at my local movie house (great having a ritz here) and there were two comments I heard after the movie that say it all. As soon as the credits started to roll a 6-7 year old child shouted out, "That movie was long!" And on the way to my car I overheard an older husband and wife talking about it saying, "That movie movie felt like 2 and 1/2 hours."
Sept. 25, 2002, 10:16 a.m. CST
From a Miyazaki fan: saw it last weekend, really enjoyed it. Now the movie DID feel long, there were things that could have been cut or moved along faster (OK Miyazaki we are aware you know how to animate a girl walking up or down stairs realistically.) Other than that I was blown away continually by the originality of the character designs. Against my will, I was moved by the ending and wiped a few (well many) tears away. Will probably go see it again. As far as comments after the movie, I heard kids saying only positive things. Advice to fellow geeks: don't feel you have see this on a huge big screen in digital like I did, I have a feeling this looks better on your standard-issue movie screen in ?analog? format.
Sept. 25, 2002, 5:57 p.m. CST
BELOW and THE RING sound like films I want to see in theaters. At my age, that's rare. I usually wait for the video.
Sept. 25, 2002, 8:45 p.m. CST
...but there are some Disney studio films, both old and new, I like just about as much, just in different ways, and I consider comparisons between Disney and Ghibli to be pretty much "RINGO to ORENJI" (apples & oranges). I do agree that it isn't fair to compare Hayao Miyazaki with Walt Disney, but that's because Hayao Miyazaki is an actual director for the full length features (plus producer and/or character designer for a lot of the other Ghibli projects), while Disney was mainly interested in animated shorts, and he only directed shorts in the earliest years of his studio and was only a producer on the feature films and most animated shorts after 1930. Also, excessive adulation of the guy just makes my stomach nervous... I think my favourite piece of video I have ever seen of Miyazaki was giving a speech at Hideki Anno's wedding reception because he seemed like a normal (albeit hard-working) human being, not the god walking the Earth. I just hope I don't find SPIRITED AWAY to be as disappointing (compared to the hype I've heard) as I found MONONOKE to be (good film, but about my least favourite Miyazaki-directed Ghibli film).
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