J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

True Grit (2010)

Posted by J on December 24, 2010

This is a Western where the women are tough and the men are tougher.  True Grit honors the time and place of post-Civil War Arkansas.    It takes on the spirit of the 1969 original and, assuming you prefer a degree of realism, trumps it.

The story is probably familiar.  A 14-year old woman, Mattie Cole, hires a U.S. Marshall to track down her father’s killer.  This Marshall is Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a man that other people say have “true grit.”  Mattie has to talk Cogburn into taking on the job, which is to bring the killer back to court, to be tried and executed under Arkansas law.  Cogburn agrees, but leaves Mattie behind as he heads into Choctaw country.  Bold, but also concerned about Rooster running off with her money, Mattie follows him.  The two are accompanied by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, who doesn’t always get along with either Rooster or Mattie.

There is some gunplay here, of course, and an inevitable showdown.  But the most important feature for all the characters in the movie is their ability to talk.  Because the Coens wrote the movie in a high, mid-nineteenth century dialect, it’ll take a trained ear and a decent vocabulary to watch this movie.  I’ve seen elsewhere that other people have dubbed the movie’s dialogue as “Western Shakespeare,” which is an insult to Shakespeare and to the Coens.  Instead, of all the characters seem to be highly educated Mark Twain characters.  It is even a bit much; read Twain and you’ll see that different degrees of education and experience call for different ways of talking.  It’s a little frustrating that everyone in True Grit talks like the The King but not really anyone talks like Huck Finn. Yet this emphasis on talking is smart.  Tall tales were a primary feature of the Southwest and West, thanks to the locals’ ability to tell a good yarn.  Cogburn seems like not just a character from a tall tale, but someone who could make up one.

The characters talk well and use wit to improve their situations.  The movie’s opens with Mattie bargaining with a horse trader.  The next scene features Rooster testifying in court.  These are long scenes–slow ones to the modern moviegoer–but they establish the necessity in this world of speaking well and bargaining well.  This becomes useful when, late in the movie, Mattie tries to bargain with Ned Pepper.  The nice thing about the movie is that no one is out to harmfully deceive, ala the King and the Duke.  LaBoeuf is a bit of a braggart, but seems to believe what he’s saying about the honor of Texas Rangers.  There’s not a dishonorable character here, including the villains.

Unexpectedly, Mattie is the star.  In a movie with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, her character outshines them all.  You will wonder why there can’t be more young women like her today.  You will in fact long for the increased frequency of this type of woman.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9

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Posted in Great, Western | 1 Comment »

Appaloosa

Posted by J on December 23, 2010

Appaloosa is standard Western fare, except for its assault against certain elements of political correctness.  Viewers of this film will be reminded of Lonesome Dove, My Darling Clementine, and John Ford’s entire career.  Its likeness to Lonesome Dove — the epitome of the Western bond between two males — is striking.

So here’s the story.  The town of Appaloosa needs a bit of law.  A sheriff has been shot by a scalawag named Bragg, only Bragg can’t be brought to justice, because no one will testify against him.  The businessmen of Appaloosa hire two men, Virgil and Everett, cool and experienced gunmen.  These two men are intimate friends.  Virgil is the alpha dog of the relationship, the head sheriff who reads Emerson but gets frustrated when he can’t remember certain vocabulary words.  Everett is content to be Virgil’s sidekick.  The two are willing to take on Bragg and his men.

A woman named Allison French nearly interrupts Virgil and Everett.   She arrives by train in Appaloosa and takes to Virgil.  They move into together, but shortly after that Allison tries to seduce Everett.  Love triangle alert!  Meanwhile, Virgil and Everett capture Bragg and get someone to testify for him.

Not much more needs to be said.  The plot is quickly guessed knowing the above information.  The big surprise here is how lowly the character of Allison French is portrayed.  She’s an elegant woman, yes, but she also sleeps with four different men.  Around our parts, she’d be labeled with words that begin with ‘s’ and ‘w’.  Virgil and Everett agree, yet Virgil can’t help loving her, even though he tells Everett that, to become a better gunmen, Everett must eschew feelings.  Virgil and Everett decide that Allison is a frontrunner.  She will mate with the alpha male — that is, whichever male is on top in any given situation.  This is exactly what the movie shows.  It’s as if we’re watching primates on Animal Planet.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 2

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Posted by J on August 20, 2009

Don’t be fooled by the title. This movie sounds as if it’s going to model one of those wild and cool dime novels of the late 5463919th century.  You know the ones with elaborate treasure hunts, train robberies, and escapes — the kind of thing Tom Sawyer suckered Huck Finn into at the end of Huckleberry Finn.

No, none of that.  Instead, this is a meandering, weenie psychodrama of a movie.  Which is a heckuva feat, because any Jesse James story ought to be far from meandering.

But first, we’ll give some due credit to the movie for the sake of our film-loving friends.  This movie is nicely shot — good cinematography and lighting — and they get the sets and costumes perfect for the period.  And then there’s the language, which is marvelous.  You don’t hear too many people calling the outhouse “the privy” these days, nor a playboy an “inamorato.”   Lots of good 19th century jargon in this one, so watch it with the subtitles.

Unfortunately the movie focuses far too closely on its two main guys, James and Robert Ford.  James’ character, played by Brad Pitt, is never consistent.  He seems to change personalities every ten minutes — gregarious, gloomy, playful, sadistic, all of these and more.  Pitt didn’t even follow the movie’s opening description of James, who, we are told, had a physical condition that made him constantly blink his eyes. Pitt instead plays James like a movie star would, with eyelids glued open.

Ford, on the other hand, is well acted by modern standards.  A young pup with a James’ obsession, because he’s read the zany dime novels about James, Ford has self-esteem issues related to being the lowest member in the James’ gang’s hierarchy.  Still, Ford doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d boldly rob trains and kill someone if need be.   He has more in common with a brooding Gen. X, Ethan Hawke character, which means he ‘s pretty much a weenie throughout.

Both James and Ford here seem to have a celebrity/fan relationship, as well as a mafioso/underling one.  Ford is obsessed with James’ famous name, so much so that the movie suggests he killed James in order to become a celebrity like James.  More bizarrely, the movie’s ending suggests that James groomed Ford into killing him.  For no good reason, James wants to be killed by Ford, as if to win some kind of psychological wrestling match.  There’s no way the real James would even do such a thing.  Only a therapeutic culture doped up on psychotropic meds could dream up something this weird.

Yeah, the movie is really slow.  It’s got an Andrei Tarkovsky-like pace, only with the bad habits of Terrance Malick.  It makes us ponder the looks on people’s faces for what seems like forever.  In one extended scene, we have to dwell on the petty infidelity of a young wife and a member of the James’ gang, which is totally pointless.

This is a travesty to the historical accounts of James, which are quite exciting.  If you don’t believe us read the Wikipedia article on him.    Even stranger is that James and post-Civil War Missouri are morally and politically complex subjects.  That’s just the kind of subject Hollywood loves to explore, but for some reason we get none of that here.  James and his gang had political motivations for their deeds, as well as personal ones, since James’ own house was firebombed.  The movie relates none of this, except to show that the governor of Missouri (played by James Carville) is out to get James.

Probably this all means skip the movie, save yourself three hours of your life, and stick to reading about James if you’re at all interested.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 3 (yes, the movie shows us that we are all sinful — well duh!)

Posted in Poignant but Boring, Western | Leave a Comment »

Open Range

Posted by J on June 13, 2009

Open Range is Kevin Costner’s tone poem to “freegrazers,” or cowboys who once could graze cattle freely where theyopen_range_verdvd pleased.  If you’re a Western buff like us, you’ve already figured out without watching the movie that there will be trouble between the freegrazers and the cattle ranchers.  Definitely a gun fight at the end.  Probably a cowboy or two with a mysterious past.  Definitely an outlaw with a fast draw.

Yep, these are all here.  It’s as if Costner decided to do everything that’s standard Western fare, only he got Robert Duvall to spice up the cliches.

Costner’s added twist is the romance between his character and a middle-age nurse.  Everybody knows that cowboys — at least the stars of the show — don’t need romance.  Yet here is romance, one where the cowboy says he’s going to give his bride-to-be “a thousand kisses” not once but twice.  Bleeeeech.  The Western has long been the vehicle for extreme male independence.  Do you not know that, Kevin?

Yes, he does apparently, because the two cowboys go off in the end to rustle up their cattle.  The bride-to-be is left waiting for her beloved.  The cowboy remains hanging in a state of independence at the end of this movie.  So Open Range has it both ways — romance, but independence — yet, practically speaking, the romance aspect is totally unnecessary because females won’t be hanging around for the love relationships to develop after Duvall hits a few guys in the head with the butt of his gun.  The nurse could have been left out, and it still would’ve been the same movie.

What contemporary political issue do the freegrazers in this movie signify?  Free trade, perhaps?  Open immigration?  It’s never quite clear.  It is true that the cattle ranchers have bought and paid for “the law” — that is, the sheriff is working for the rancher.  Thus it’s up to the freegrazers to provide true, natural justice and return the world to its natural order.  This includes killing those who have murdered the innocent.  With lots of bullets.  There’s probably some theological analogy in here, but ultimately it doesn’t matter that much.  This is one of those movies — like 99.5% of all those you’ve ever seen — that you’ll forget about two hours later.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: 4

Morality:

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »

Bad Day at Black Rock

Posted by J on November 13, 2008

Bad Day at Black Rock will strike you in different ways, depending on how you watch it.  On the one hand, in200px-bad_day_at_black_rock a formal sense it is a “supreme work of craftsmanship,” as Pauline Kael says about it.  John Sturges, the director, uses the whole screen to set the mood well.  We’re in a Western (circa 1945 mind you) and the town of Black Rock is a haunted, isolated place.

On the other hand, the movie’s plot wants something more.  Essentially Bad Day at Black Rock plays with the contract between author and reader/viewer.  In almost all plots, there is a known problem or set of problems.  The author makes an unstated contract with a reader/viewer to solve that problem by the end of the work.  With this movie, the plot problem is that we don’t know what the problem is.  We know there’s a problem, but the movie asks us to wait through two-thirds of the movie to find it out.  This kind of plot setup doesn’t have many variations, so there can’t be too many stories with its premises.

The story is that a man (Spencer Tracy) shows up in the tiny town of Black Rock on a hot summer’s day.  Immediately we realize that, as a stranger, Black Rock’s citizens don’t like him too much.  They’re all standing outside the train station, astonished that anyone actually showed up in town.  What’s he here for anyway?  Well, that’s the plot problem we don’t know about, and neither do we know why Black Rock’s citizens do not want strangers to pass through.

The movie is essentially a Western, (SPOILER ALERT) with a lone hero matching muscles and wits against a band of thugs who plot to kill him.  Heck, when Walter Brennan shows up, you know we’re in a Western.  Once we learn exactly why the hero’s in town, the movie sort of deflates.  It hits its climax and only needs to resolve from that point.

We might ask key questions that explode the premise — like why do Black Rock’s citizens sit around all day waiting to exterminate anybody who passes through?  Don’t they have jobs?  Why keep worrying about retribution for a four-year-old event?  More importantly, though, the movie addresses and seeks to amend historical guilt over the United States’ internment of the Japanese in World War II.  This is a fine subject to bring up, though notice that once again Hollywood turns rural backwater places into seedbeds of hidden evil.  Hicks are always easy targets.  It’s not like urban Americans and Hollywood liberals weren’t complacent in the internment of the Japanese either, though the movie gives them a free pass.

Personally, we’re not into historical guilt trips that don’t involve breaking covenant with God.  We feel badly for Japanese Americans circa 1942. But there is no such thing as national sin against the Declaration of Independence, or sin against abstract notions of the rights of man.  It’s arguable whether the movie engages in such guilt trips, but given today’s P.C. environment, it’s easy to interpret the movie that way now.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 6

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »

Rio Grande (1950)

Posted by J on November 8, 2008

The third movie in John Ford’s loosely connected Cavalry Trilogy, Rio Grande is the worst of the lot.  It’s 200px-riograndeprobably best reserved for movie historians and John Wayne lovers, so casual moviegoers can skip right by it.

This time, Wayne’s cavalry troop have to stop the Apache.  But that’s the second half of the movie.  The first half is mostly family melodrama, in which Wayne’s estranged son joins the cavalry and Wayne’s ex-wife shows up on his son’s heels.  In Rio Grande, you can see why rugged individualism seems to work better for Americans.  The movie drags along because of Wayne’s family difficulties, whereas in the other two cavalry movies (Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) Wayne’s character has no family associations and thus can be even more heroic.

There’s lots of singing in this movie, and singing is even used as a weapon.  Wayne’s troop is filled with crooners who have perfect pitch.  So they serenade Wayne and his lost love, they sing cowboy songs at night, and marching songs on the march.  Then the movie cuts immediately to the next scene, and we watch and hear Apache tribal songs.  These — all the characters agree — are harsh and unmusical, so the United States cavalry forces the Apaches to shut up.  This seems to be the cause of the Apaches’ beef, and so they start attacking anybody and everybody.

The climax of the movie has the cavalry troop defending a small town in an old Spanish parish.  The U.S. soldiers are literally shooting at the Apache through a cross in the parish door.   So much for the separation of church and state.

Nothing unexpected happens in the movie, except for the cavalry troop’s cordial relationship with the Mexican army (for uncordiality, to say the least, see Red River).    There are some amazing horse stunts by men whose shoelaces we are not worthy to tie.  However, the other two cavalry movies have these horse stunts too.  Fort Apache uses black-and-white film magnificently, while She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was filmed in a vibrant technicolor.  Rio Grande returns to black-and-white but doesn’t use it effectively, so again, it’s the worst of the three.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 5

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Posted by J on November 1, 2008

Just sixty years old, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks ridiculously old-fashioned now.  The entire movie is about a U.S. Cavalry troop escorting one female across dangerous territory so that she can make the stagecoach.  That’s right, a hundred soldiers on horseback for one female.  These days, they’d just give her a gun and tell her to join the army instead.  Be all that you can be.  Forget Deuteronomy 20, Numbers 1, et cetera.

But there is a bit of historical foreshadowing.  This female, the one who wears the yellow ribbon, does dress up in military garb and is officially addressed by the troop’s commanding officer, Mr. John Wayne.  So that’s progressive.  Of course, she has two different soldiers after her — not for gambling debts or anything like that, but purely for procreative purposes.  Boys will be boys.  But this is the 1950s and we’re in the movies, so honor and heroism is the order of the day.  Expect all of the soldiers — even the two going after the lady — to act like gentlemen, mostly.

This is Wayne’s movie.  He is everywhere, in charge of everyone, on top of everything.  If you’re a global superpower, you want a guy like this as hero exemplar.  It helps Wayne’s persona that he’s in the foreground of many shots that have a spectacular background.  He dominates the wonders of the West as much as he dominates the U.S. cavalry troop he commands.

As the second movie in John Ford’s so-called “Cavalry trilogy”, though it’s a loose trilogy since what holds them together is only the fact that they are all about the U.S. Cavalry, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is markedly different from its predecessor, Fort Apache.  There is tension through most of this movie, whereas there was no tension in Fort Apache for the first hour-and-a-half.  The Indians in Yellow Ribbon aren’t treated as nicely either.  Here the aggressive Cheyenne, Apache, and other tribes form a pan-Indian union which prepares to attack, attack, attack!  Aware of this fact late in the movie, Wayne prepares a clever pre-emptive strike that seeks to avoid war but averts the great threat of this Indian union.

If Indians equal Communists, then Yellow Ribbon (1949) is optimistically cautious about a defensive military posture.  We can contain the commies without having to go to war with them.  Of course, the Indians are Indians too, so Yellow Ribbon‘s revisionist account has one incoherent old Indian screaming “Hallelujah!” madly while all of his brothers are purely bloodthirsty.  Not exactly a flattering portrayal.  This just goes to show that the losers don’t write the history books, nor do they make movies, so — moral of the story is — don’t be a loser.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 7

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »

Fort Apache (1948)

Posted by J on October 29, 2008

Fort Apache is the sigh of relief after a long return home.  The film, set on a southwestern American military outpost, doesn’t ever get much into cowboys v. Indians or gun play.  There is plenty of friendship, dancing, drinking, and laughing at the outpost.  It’s not until the 1 hour, 30 minute mark that a major problem occurs.  Considering the movie was released in 1948, it’s little wonder.  Very likely, military veterans and their families were too war weary to watch much carnage on the big screen.

The novel aspect of Fort Apache is that there is no big enemy to combat.  American military forces here don’t have a great looming Other to worry about, even though the Apache ride out beyond the military post.  This is quite unlike the military movies of the 1950s and ’60s, when the spectre of communism was culturally potent for moviemakers, who could easily create some monstrous villain for American soldiers to fight and American audiences to automatically despise.  Fort Apache reflects the small, historical space between WWII and the Cold War, and because of that, it’s something of a unique Western.

Interestingly, the Apaches aren’t exactly the bad guys.  They are stereotyped, as all Indians are in John Ford movies, but so are the American soldiers.  The main issue in Fort Apache is the lack of foresight from the uptight Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), the new fort commander who distrusts the Apaches to a fault.  Unfortunately, Thursday rules, and not Captain Kirby York (John Wayne).  York desires to negotiate peace with the Apaches — he has done it before, and respects them — and he knows that failing to negotiate that peace will mean a long, bloody feud.

Consider one of the movie’s final images.  After provoking the Apaches with a pre-emptive attack, the fort has to desperately erect a barricade and defend its outer circle.  But the Apaches have this battle won.  We see them approach, anticipating a horrible fight.  But their horses stop, the chief rides forward alone, and then he plants the American flag he’s holding in the ground, right in front of the U.S. cavalry’s barricade.  In a cloud of dust, both Wayne and the chief meet, and we know that the chief is saying, “Here is the border between us.” For a moment only, Wayne and the Apache chief occupy the murky space between.  And then the Apaches leave.  Their warning is obvious: avoid military adventures, especially unwarranted ones.  And respect boundaries.

More shockingly, Fort Apache purposely undermines the myths of Western expansion.  Thursday’s command decisions were rash and foolish, causing a near massacre and the loss of a significant number of cavalry officers.  For all we know, this is Thursday’s legacy.  But the movie’s end suggests that Thursday has become a national hero, a man well remembered for bravely standing up to the Apaches.  Captain York, now fort commander, takes part in this myth even though he knows the truth of Thursday’s folly.  The suggestion is that the U.S. Cavalry’s western Indian wars were partly unjustified, even though they are the stuff of national myth.

To emphasize the battle aspects of the movie is to emphasize only a part.  Here you have Irishmen gaily drinking, and a teenage Shirley Temple oogling over a handsome soldier.   John Wayne dances at a formal ball.  Young men ride horses in the West.  These are moments of calm, because calm is greatly needed.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 9

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Posted by J on October 24, 2008

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance attempts to be the American allegory.  It might have succeeded.  Since the frontier was our dreamscape, the place where fortunes could be made, where nature was tamed, where cowboys battled Indians and the sky and land went on forever — since this was our national dreamland, it is the best place for an allegory.

Everything in this movie is a political comment.  There are two main characters, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, the first of which is a lawyer and educator who rejects gun violence, and the second of which is a tough cowboy with hints of kindness.  Stewart represents our political class — pro-education, anti-gun violence, with an unwavering trust in the law — while Wayne represents the classic frontiersman.  When the story opens, Wayne has just died, and Stewart has just come back from Washington DC to honor Wayne.  Stewart has long been an important politician in the federal government.  When newspapermen ask him why he came back to honor Wayne, Stewart begins to tell a long story that happened decades ago.  This story takes up almost the whole movie.

We can immediately see what comment the movie is making.  Wayne is dead, hence the frontiersman is dead and so the frontier is closed.  This was Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous lament: what would happen to American democracy if there were nowhere for pioneers and settlers to go to?  Turner worried that American democracy would die, potentially, because the spirit of democracy was wrapped up in the existence of the frontier.  Our political institutions might become less free, more centralized, more like Europe’s.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance romanticizes the long-gone frontier at the same time it worries about the frontier’s death.  We do not know who shoots Liberty Valance, a notorious outlaw, because there are two different versions of the story told.  Perhaps Stewart, the gun novice, shot Valance.  But perhaps Wayne shot Valance.  Stewart believes that Wayne shot him, but the entire world believes that Stewart did, which enhances Stewart’s personal and political career.  The story is a frontier legend, told again and again.  But it might not be true.  The movie, in certain ways, considers this a problem.

The movie shows that guns are useful, because Stewart learns that men like Valance don’t believe in obeying laws anyway.  In order for laws to be effective, we must have a moral populace, which obviously doesn’t include Valance and his gang.  But the movie also privileges many of Stewart’s positions — unflinching patriotism, trust in never-ending progress, faith in the federal government, distrust of open-range ranches.  At least that’s the way Stewart tells his story.  Of course, by the end of the movie, Stewart seems to be reconsidering his beliefs.  He wants to leave Washington and go back west, to retire and settle down.

Problems exist. There is no hint of religion in the movie, not even a shot of a church or the use of a minister as a character.  Surely, in a movie soaked in patriotic rhetoric and symbols, churches would be included.  Also, Liberty Valance is wholly evil.  We watch him beat people unmercifully several times, to the point where these beatings feel like they are meant for sadists to enjoy.  The movie has many disturbing undertones, beneath its presentation of a plucky and determined American spirit.

This is not, perhaps, a better movie than others that are similar thematically.  Shane is superior, as is The Searchers.  But it is surprisingly complex and ambiguous.  Maybe the American allegory should not be so naively happy after all.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 7

Posted in Pretty Good, Western | Leave a Comment »

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Posted by J on April 5, 2008

If you’ve ever come across a major piece of crap, you’ve encountered something far more valuable than this version of 3:10 to Yuma. Did we say that’s it’s incomprehensible, moronic, vapid, boring, repulsive, and inane? Pardon us for a moment. We had to vent our spleen a bit.

This is a great example of a movie without a point. (And here comes the ending, but it doesn’t much matter.) There’s a hero, sort of, only he gets killed. There’s a villain, a really bad one, but he inexplicably becomes a good guy in the last five minutes. There’s no scripted reason offered to explain the villain’s conversion — he just gets a sympathetic heart, after spending the first two acts murdering a bunch of people. At least the 1957 version incorporated possible motives for the villain’s conversion and, failing that, could fall back on the Stockholm Syndrome. This 2007 version is nihilistic up until the very end, when it tries to provide a moral, which is: If you’re Russell Crowe, you can kill lots of people, quote the Bible, and still look cool.

The near-absence of any recognizable morality play makes this an utterly pointless movie. What’s worse is the incomprehensibility of a great number of plot points. These include, but are far from limited to:

  • The hero’s wooden leg, which doesn’t keep him from running, stopping and planting to shoot, and then running some more.
  • A few men on horses can overtake a stagecoach equipped with a Gatling gun.
  • An old man can get shot in the gut, and after the bullet is removed, he’s back on his feet and riding a horse.
  • Russell Crowe can sneak up on a group of Apaches, after the Apaches have proved to be sneaky.

Obviously we advocate just one thing: do not watch this movie. Save your money. Spend your free evening in pleasant company, or if you have to watch a flick, stick to the older 3:10 to Yuma.

Entertainment: 1

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

Posted in They Spent Millions on This?, Western | Leave a Comment »