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Non-Review Review: Batman & Robin

It takes a lot to kill Batman. Just ask Bane. That character broke Batman across his knee, discarded him and claimed Gotham for his own… only to have Bruce claw his way back and reclaim the mantle. The evil New God Darkseid once decided not only to kill Batman, but to send him back to the dawn of time to live through a cycle of death and rebirth in the hopes of destroying the Caped Crusader… Batman just sorta shrugged that one off. He’s a tough nut to keep down, is that Dark Knight.

However, Joel Schumacher managed to nearly knock Batman out for the count (at least on film) with Batman & Robin, the movie which – if it didn’t kill the Batman franchise – at least put it into a coma for several years.

It's some kinda storm (it's not "snow", but it begins with "s")...

I don’t like Batman Forever. In fact, I absolutely hate that film. It’s just poorly made and clearly the product of a production crew that knew absolutely nothing about Batman as a character. “You see, I’m both Bruce Wayne and Batman,” the character explained in the movie’s mandatory moment of revelation. “Not because I have to be. Now… because I choose to be.” That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Batman that anybody with any familiarity with the character could spot as a misreading – you might as well have a version of Superman stalking the girl he knocked up.

This misreading of Batman continues into Schumacher’s follow-up the somehow even weaker Batman & Robin. This movie’s particular nugget of life advice, as served up by Batman to the villain he has just vanquished, comes in the heartwarming moral, “Vengeance isn’t power.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it might sound more authoritative coming from a guy who doesn’t dress up like a bat while breaking the bones in the bodies of various henchmen because mummy and daddy were shot in a dark alleyway decades ago. If anybody is qualified to tell Victor Fries that revenge is a stupid idea and that he should learn to channel his pain into more constructive efforts, it isn’t Batman.

Birds of a feather...

Being honest, I think that’s the biggest problem I have with Batman & Robin. It isn’t the fact that it’s a terribly-made film, with poor choices in acting and direction. I can forgive a film that, and it might even venture into the oft-lauded realm of “so bad it’s almost good.” It’s the simple fact that so much of the film isn’t just bad… it’s completely and utterly wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not typing this from the perspective of a comic book nerd or anything like that – I don’t care if they change a character’s origin or a certain event or whatever. I mean the movie just struggles to do anything right.

Take, for instance, the gratuitous “suiting up” scenes. Apparently the audience loved the nipples and the ass shots so much in the last film that Schumacher just had to bring them back. So the movie opens with a suiting up montage featuring both Batman and Robin. It isn’t a good scene by any stretch of the imagination, but I suppose it makes the later sequence where Schumacher does the exact same thing to Batgirl seem less wrong in some way. It shouts, “Hey kids! Objectification works both ways!” which isn’t as bad a motto as “Objectify girls!” but perhaps not quite as strong as “Objectification is bad!”

In the gutters, looking at the bat signal...

Anyway the scene would be a little bit much on its own, but then the audience suddenly remembered that Batgirl’s Uncle designed this for her. “Suit me up, Uncle Alfred,” Alicia Silverstone commands in her most innocent voice. There’s something just inherently wrong about an uncle designing an outfit like that, when we’re treated to gratuitous ass and boob shots. I’d like to thank Joel Schumacher for ensuring I never look at Michael Gough the same way again.

There’s also the fact that the movie has a great deal of difficulty balancing tone consistently. Let’s talk for a moment about Victor Fries, the second-rate Batman villain known as Mister Freeze. The fact that Schumacher’s shortlist for the character reportedly included names like Patrick Stewart and Anthony Hopkins alongside Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger says a lot about the difficulty with the character. The movie essentially tries to mesh two differing portrayals of the character.

Bruce must have gone bats, trusting Robin like that...

The first comes, of course, from the Silver Age, back when the character was “Mr. Zero” for a while. This is the iteration of the character who appeared on Adam West’s Batman! played with suitably ham-tastic gusto by actors like Eli Wallach and Otto Preminger. This is a colourful superfreak who really wouldn’t stand out amongst Batman’s gallery of villains, alongside other Silver Age baddies like Crazy Quilt or the Ratcatcher. Arnold’s version of the character obviously shares their tendency of silly ice-related puns, introducing himself with the line, “The Ice Man cometh.” This is the Victor Fries who decides to deal with his wife’s loss by hiring a bunch of goons to stand by in hockey gear for a dramatic reveal (“it’s the hockey team from hell!” Robin exposits) and recruits a chief henchman named “Frosty”, all while leading his goons in a snow-themed sing-along (while they’re all shivering in thermal gear, only for Freeze’s gangster moll to stroll over in a bikini).

The other major influence comes from Batman: The Animated Series, which skilfully reinvented the character with the superb Heart of Ice, turning the one-note supervillain into a complex anti-hero fighting to save his dying wife, motivated by her loss. It was a nuanced portrayal, and one which was fairly quickly adopted by the comic books. In fact, I reckon a lot of Freeze’s current popularity can be traced to that half-hour (to the point that I suspect, without it, he’d still be toiling in comic book obscurity). It remains perhaps the best Mr. Freeze story ever told. This version of the character retains the dying wife and… mostly, I think… the motivation. I say “mostly”, because I wouldn’t be too surprised to discover he was committing this crime wave out of the love of punning.

Compare and contrast...

The problem is that the two approaches simply don’t mesh. There’s a scene which illustrates the difficulty in painting Victor Fries as simultaneously a sad and campy clown. Watching wedding videos, the supervillain looks like he might be about to tear up, remembering everything he’s lost. It’s undoubtedly the most emotional moment in the entire movie… until he’s interrupted by a goon with good news. Most evil bosses would demand privacy (one wonders why they never lock the door), but not Mr. Freeze. Freeze produces a big honkin’ ice gun, freezes the poor guy. The scene might be salvageable, but he then puns, “I hate it when people talk during the movie.” And then he goes back to the really sad wedding videos.

It’s hard to complain, though, because Arnold is a punning machine. In fact, he might – while being incredibly crap an inconsistent – be the single best thing about the movie. After all, his puns are at least the most consistently entertaining aspect of the movie, and they actually manage to end up in “so bad it’s good”, rather than cycling through the quality spectrum the whole hog and winding up in “bad” again.

It's a veritable blizzard of puns...

Nah, I take that back. The single best thing about the movie is John Glover as Jason Woodrue. The man is gleefully aware that he’s staring in a production with the artistic integrity of a third-grade pantomime, and proceeds to gleefully chew scenery. I like to imagine the moment Glover realised he wasn’t making a classic piece of cinema came as he arrived on set and discovered that the “un-United Nations” that happen to serve the plot function of funding his experiments were composed of various ridiculous national stereotypes.

To his credit, Glover finds a way to make lines like “we’ll have a flawless supersoldier out to you tomorrow by overnight mail” and “sadly, I’m not good at rejection – I’m afraid you’ll have to die”… well, “work” is a slight exaggeration – maybe “fail less than the surrounding movie” is appropriate. Similarly, Jesse Ventura manages to turn a cameo as an Arkham Asylum guard into a relatively sterling supporting performance. Years of B-movie experience have taught the former wrestler to deliver lines like “All right, Freezy, you can’t live outside the cold zone!” as if they were positively Shakespearean. That said, Freeze subdues them by literally knocking their heads together – so perhaps not the best of Shakespeare’s output.

I wonder if she has an Ivy League education...

At least he does better than Thurman. Apparently the “rather unique effect” that the collection of plants had on her including giving her a faux British accent. Side effects might include monologuing about committing genocide… in an open space…. quite loudly… with lots of reporters present. The character is staged as something of an homage to classic cinema femmes (what with the dance in the gorilla suit designed to remind us of Marlene Dietrich and the old-timey almost Katherine-Hepburn-esque way she shouts things like “Bane! Dear!”), but it simply doesn’t work. If we’re expected to treat Freeze as something of a sympathetic villain, this puts a lot of weight on Poison Ivy to carry the movie… which she really can’t.

By the way, the movie also crams in a completely ridiculous plot introducing Batgirl. Many suspect that she’s only really present so that the film can have somebody hit Poison Ivy (because it’s a very ungentlemanly thing for either Batman or Robin to do), but that’s ridiculous. We all know she’s really there to sell toys. That’s really it, because her subplot is pretty much disconnected from everything else that happens on screen over the course of the entire film.

"Bring out the gimp..." It's like Pulp Fiction all over again for Uma Thurman...

Which makes me feel sorry for Michael Gough. The veteran actor seems to be the only member of the cast who knows when to ham it up (welcoming his niece to Wayne Manor) and when to actually treat the script seriously (in his meditations on the meaning of Batman). He’s literally the only member of the cast to get the balance right and he’s saddled with a completely pointless subplot for his time.

Undoubtedly Robin is a big part of the problem. I’m not going to arrogantly observe that Robin is a character impossible to transition to the big screen, because I’m sure a smart and talented director can find a way to do it. However, here we simply have Robin playing the role of a “younger, hipper” Batman, right down to getting his own “Robin signal.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a meeting of executives where a bunch of suits complained Batman was too old and crusty, and he needed a totally radical sidekick who could speak to the kids in the audience. Even if you ignore the fact that Chris O’Donnell is in his late twenties (and so playing a hip young character seems an insanely stupid idea), the idea itself simply doesn’t work.

At least it's better than Rise of the Silver Surfer... oh, wait... it's not...

Because Robin indulges in all sorts of corny nineties teenage fantasies, shouting banal catchphrases like “Cowabunga!” while surfing through the air during the insanely convoluted opening sequence. There’s also the fact that he seems to exist solely to whine about Bruce’s refusal to let him be his own man and do the stuff he wants to do – because kids can relate to that, right? “How are we supposed to work together if you won’t trust me?” he demands, seemingly wanting a place at the grown-up table. The fact he looks nearly thirty would convince the audience to support him, until he spends the whole movie making incompetent mistake after incompetent mistake. Trying to rugby tackle a guy with a freeze gun more than ten feet away is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I don’t like Clooney’s Batman. He’s a step up from Kilmer, for damn sure, but he’s still distinctly uncomfortable. Clooney plays Bruce as a sort of cheeky, devil-may-care socialite, who spends as much time thinking of funny things to say as he does worrying about being Batman. There’s a genuine sense that Clooney’s Bruce is a character who arrived on the wrong set – playing a middle-aged man who suddenly discovered that he has a son and responsibility now, worried that the kid (Robin) is going to get in the way of his active social life (which in another Clooney film would involve seducing beautiful women, but here it’s brutalising thugs).

Ice, Ice, baby, to go...

Clooney’s Batman is cocky and self-assured, he’s all surface. It’s not even a playboy facade, unless Bruce has started wearing the same cheeky face to Alfred and Dick. Even Adam West’s Batman occasionally gave the impression that there were actual stakes and they may be high, while Clooney seems like he’s hanging around waiting to organise a really stylish casino heist. The actor has since claimed that played Bruce as gay, but it’s hard to believe that too much of the subtext we see on screen comes from Clooney, rather than the script itself.

Indeed, this is another area where the movie just seems to be entirely uncomfortable with itself and quite unaware of what it’s aiming for. It’s long been suggested that the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson was unwholesome – a rich bachelor living with an underage boy and his old butler. Seduction of the Innocent, the book that crippled comics as a medium, read the homosexual subtext into that particular saga long ago – to the point that the comic books introduced female love interests to prove that Batman was straight.

Well, you do like being gay together, Robin...

However, Schumacher seems to play up the juvenile insecure young male aspect of the production, creating a movie where girls are quite literally icky. Poison Ivy’s kiss is literally fatal, Barbara exists solely so “Uncle Alfred” can dress her up in skin-tight rubber to play with the boys (notice her suit is the only one without nipples – because girl parts are icky), Freeze’s wife is literally on ice while he plays supervillain, and Julie Madison seems to exist purely as a decoration for Bruce. Asked about the chances of settling down with Julie, Bruce stutters, “Uh… marriage?” When Julie steps in and fields the question, giving a non-committal answer, Bruce whispers to her, “Thank you, you’re a lot of help.”

It’s as if Julie exists purely to demonstrate to the people of Gotham that Bruce is the marrying type. If Bruce were an obsessive vigilante, this sort of facade might be an end of itself, but Schumacher has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that his Batman isn’t obsessive and certainly wouldn’t go to such lengths to play the playboy masquerade to protect Batman (to the point that Batman is a guest at a gala fundraiser). When Julie raises the issue of marriage, Bruce tells her, “I’m not the marrying kind. There are things about me you wouldn’t understand.”

We're just a pair of guys who like to hang out together dressed in body-molded rubber...

And then there’s the way that Bruce tries to keep Robin away from Ivy, which seems intentionally designed to play up the homo-erotic subtext of their relationship – which, to be frank, is kind of disturbing given the massive age difference and the surrogate father thing. “She has us fighting over her!” Bruce tries to reason with his young ward. Consider this snippet of conversation, with particular emphasis on Robin’s closing line:

“You’re just saying that so I can’t kiss her, is that it?”

“Listen, Dick, it’s a poisonous kiss.”

“A poisonous kiss? You don’t understand. She understands how I feel.”

“She has clouded your mind and you’re not thinking straight.”

“I am thinking straight. For the first time in a long time.”

The reason this is a problem has nothing to do with Bruce’s sexuality. I don’t care if he’s straight or gay. The problem is that Schumacher seems intent on playing up his adaptation as an insecure pre-pubescent male fantasy in which girls are undoubtedly “icky” and just get in the way of all the “boy” stuff going on, while the screen is loaded with incredibly phallic imagery like Freeze’s inexplicable “Freeze Rocket.” Especially since the rocket is completely pointless, and one wonders how Freeze got it into the museum in the first place.

He looks fabulous...

You could make the argument that this is a valid criticism of the “boys own” element of superhero comics, but the fact is that a big budget Batman film isn’t place to play it up as some sort of inside joke. It’s the type of fare best reserved for a deconstruction like Watchmen, to be honest, rather than an element played for laughs. It just seems a bit like a cheap shot at the Batman mythos, something reserved for a parody rather than an actual Batman film. On the other hand, this is probably just a really poorly executed Batman parody.

And that’s the problem. It seems like Schumacher actively dislikes Batman, consciously playing up the insecure “no girlz allowed” sentiment that is frequently associated with comic books, ramping up the camp, and somehow missing the core appeal of any of the successful Batman adaptations made in the previous twenty years. The entire movie seems like a giant deconstructive spoof of the genre from somebody with a radical dislike of superheroes – and that’s not a bad thing of itself, but it is when you’re trying to produce a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. If you changed the names of the characters, viewers would probably describe the resulting movie as an aggressive parody rather than an affectionate homage. And, as I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that (indeed, part of the appeal of The Dark Knight is the way it deconstructs Batman’s “heroism”) – it just doesn’t work when Schumacher is making a movie that is also intended to sell toys and action figures.

Freeze!

However, beyond all this, there are some pretty basic flaws with the film. There’s the amount of clunky exposition that it demands from its cast, with Commission Gordon introducing Mister Freeze like an old-fashioned gameshow host, “Batman, a new villain has commandeered the Gotham Museum.  He’s frozen the antiquities wing.  He’s turned the security guards into ice.  He’s calling himself Mr. Freeze.” Suffocating and writhing in agony, the police still take the time to shout, “My lungs! My lungs are freezing!” Pamela Isley’s first line is, “Drats! My experiment to mate the orchid and the rattlesnake has failed again… but I still have hope for the animal-plant crossbreedings.” You can see it’s not a classic of Western cinema we’re dealing with here.

(As an aside, I like the fact that Isley is so ridiculously offended at what Woodrue was up to, and she was too dim-witted to notice (seen as there are like two people in the building). “I have spent my life trying to protect plants from extinction.. and now you… corrupt my research… into some maniacal scheme for world domination,” she hissed. You know, because I think she’s on to something crossbreeding rattle snakes and orchids.)

Get your skates on...

I can see what Schumacher was trying to do. There’s conscious attempt to skew the movie towards the surreal and absurdist fare that made Adam West’s Batman! a cult hit. Note the heavily saturated primary colours (to the point where even the blue in Commissioner Gordon’s uniform stings my eyes just a bit), and abundance of neon. I know that this going to earn me some flack, but I have a certain fondness for the crazy architectural design of Gotham here. Obviously, it doesn’t hold a candle to the gothic design of Burton’s Batman, but it also veers so far into the ridiculous that it’s actually less visually offensive than Batman Forever.

Consider Gotham Observatory, which looks like any other stereotypical one- or two-story domes observatory with a telescope coming out of it. However, it’s being suspended in the air, cradled in the hands of a giant statue. That is just completely nuts, but so completely nuts that you stop trying to make sense of it (how big must that statue be?) and just go along with it. Plus, I like to imagine that Schumacher’s Gotham has the lamest safety regulations in the world, what with the really crappy precautions taken in Victor’s lab. It’s not wonder that there are so many supervillains created by lab accidents running around, when electrical machinery seems to randomly short-circuit and nobody could be bothered to install a half-decent safety rail. C’est la vie.

Freeze ensures guests receive a frosty reception...

Also, none of the movie seems to be held together by anything resembling a coherent storyline. There’s more a bunch of minor and under-developed threads that never add up. Batman and Robin are fighting! Alfred is dying! Victor Fries misses his wife! Erm… Batgirl! Poison Ivy! And none of these really develop… things just sorta happen. Mr. Freeze literally just happens to be wandering around with two vials of the cure for Alfred’s disease literally up his sleeve. And being a street racer qualifies you to be Batman’s sidekick, apparently. Victor’s wife is dead! Oh, wait, no she’s not! Why is Freeze still wearing his suit in Arkham at the end?

In fairness, I do like that Batman manages to subdue both of his foes without killing them. It’s a long way from the deaths of the Joker and the Penguin, and a substantial increased on the last film’s 50/50 survival ratio (although you can see Two-Face’s outfit in the evidence room where they are keeping Freeze, so it’s possible he survived). It’s a nice touch, as the somewhat casual manner in which Burton’s Batman accepted death always struck me as a bit odd. That said, the competence of Asylum staff as demonstrated here might support Batman’s previous indifference to the death of his villains – it’s certainly a more effective way of dealing with his foes than sending them to Arkham.

I've finally gone Bats...

While we’re on the subject of the Asylum, I have no idea what they were doing locking Freeze in the storage room, given it contains… well… lots of materials from other mass murdering psychopaths. Surely they could convert a cell for his needs? At least they had the common sense to keep his freeze suit in a different room… seemingly just down the corridor. I’ll add it to my growing list of evidence that the words “health and safety” are more gentle suggestions than actual rules and regulations in Gotham. Why would anybody live/work/go near there?

Batman & Robin sucks. It’s a bad film. It’s the bas Superhero film – which, I’ll concede, isn’t exactly fair. I can rattle off about a dozen superhero films that are weaker (albeit barely) than this particular instalment – films like Superman III and Nick Fury and so forth. Still, I can’t think of one that had such a high profile and failed spectacularly, and the problems are so fundamental. Being honest, Schumacher never should have handled a Batman film – at least Burton got the character’s sense of isolation. Ah well, the next Batman film would be Batman Begins.

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10 Responses

  1. I have a soft spot in my heart for Batman & Robin. Sure, like you said, literally everything is wrong with the movie. For whatever reason, I enjoy it more than Batman Returns and Batman Forever.

    Batman & Robin is a silly movie. It basically takes the inherent silliness of batman to the extreme. Schumacher essentially reduced Batman to his most basic form. The movie is basically a man in a bat suit who fights colorful, ridiculous villains. Isn’t that what Batman really is, at his core?

    Instead of focusing on a realistic psychology of Batman, Schumacher made a deliberately superficial Batman film. The whole movie is so silly that it’s impossible to evaluate it on a rational level. I think viewing the movie as a surreal, Adam West-style Batman movie is the most enjoyable way to watch the film.

    As far as matters of tone, I think Batman & Robin is actually superior to both Batman Forever. In the previous movie, every Bruce Wayne scene was mostly pretty serious, while most of the Batman scenes were fairly dumb. It created a weird clash that didn’t really work.

    Batman & Robin succeeded, IMO, by portraying Bruce Wayne at his most superficial. This made for a better mix with the Batman parts of the story. Even the sentimental elements (I actually kind of liked the Alfred and Freeze’s wife scenes) don’t really detract from the extremely light hearted nature of the “story”.

    For me, the Dark Knight made me appreciate Batman & Robin much more than I ever would have realized. As great as the Nolan films are for creating an interesting set of characters and story out of the Batman mythos, this mythos IS inherently silly. Is it so wrong to revel a little bit in some of this silliness once and awhile?

    • Don’t confuse asinine storytelling with enjoyable silliness.

    • I agree with your argument. I’m always nearly the only guy in the room who will admit to enjoying Adam West’s Batman! I can’t stand people who argue that Batman “should be” dark or gritty or menacing – the appeal of Batman is that he can relaly be anything. West’s Batman was corny, but it was fun and often entertaining if you went with it, if only because it spent half the time winking to the camera. Caesar Romero’s Joker make-up is very clearly applied OVER his bushy moustache, for example, and there’s no way Adam West didn’t know what he was doing.

      However, I don’t think Batman & Robin works because it never embraces the demands of a semi-dramatic movie, a campfest or a slight deconstruction of the superhero conventions. It tries to be all three. So you get stuff that’s meant to be emotional, like Alfred’s near-death and Freeze’s wife, but which didn’t work (for me) because there’s no consistency – Freeze interrupts the wedding video to make an ice pun, Alfred clads his neice in a rubber Batsuit. The same things happen with the way Schumacher toys with the homo-erotic nature of Batman & Robin. It’s obviously meant as something of a parody, but it’s also handled relatively seriously – building the whole climax of the film over Robin wanting to kiss a girl, for example, but playing it out as if it’s a serious moment of dramatic tension just carries it too far.

      Batman: The Brave & The Bold proves that there’s an audience for camp Batman (check out John diMaggio’s Aquaman!), but I think Batman & Robin is too bungled to meet it. Your observation about Forever is quite right – it’s balance that’s the problem. However, I don’t see an improvement – both ends of the scale have just been pushed further out for the sequel.

      • Batman & Robin embraces the silliness but contains ridiculous writing, bad acting, gaudy direction and illogical plotting. “Embracing” the silliness doesn’t excuse it’s lack of genuine merit. You can make a work which accepts the inherent ridiculousness of a story and still be good. For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark fully acknowledges that it’s a goofy movie at it’s core and completely plays to that – but it’s still well written, acted and directed. As you mentioned, Brave and the Bold is a Batman work which embraces the camp but still crafts well-written stories. Batman & Robin doesn’t.

  2. What really baffles me is how misguided the creation of this film was. There’s a solid 20+ years of comic books to support how Batman & Robin was made. The movie really isn’t unfaithful (apart from Bane), but it IS guilty of is being severely out-of-touch with what people wanted to see in the character and the mythos at the time. Schumacher’s films were faithful to a certain period in the comics, but what he and WB didn’t realize (or realized and didn’t care) is that those comics had fallen out of popularity for nearly 3 decades. If people didn’t want to read those comics then why would they watch to watch them? Look at the comic books being produced during the time, look at the incredible success of the animated series during the time, and even look at the success of 1989’s Batman which set the darker tone for the series. Then look at Batman & Robin. The movie is completely out-of-sync with what Batman had been since the 70’s, or even throughout the decade.

    • Yep, I see what you’re saying and I agree – it’s very Silver Age, almost Black-Casebook-esque Batman, but I think the problem is that even Morrison would have a hard time defending Schumacher’s film on its own merits. I think that everything in the nineties trended away from that camp (as, as you observed, the seventies and eighties), but I do think there is an audience for it.

      Brave & The Bold is going down a storm now, even among adult comic book fans. I honestly think the movie would have got the same critical panning if it played the camp elements well, but I do think history might have been kind to it. Instead, it’s a bad film. A terrible film.

      • You’re right in that Batman & Robin is just a bad film on any level and above all (above even killing the Batman franchise and comic book movies as a whole) it’s guilty of just being a really bad movie.
        In fact, it was such a raging disastrous farce that nearly everyone involved in making it has essentially admitted that it sucked. Even Joel Schumacher thinks it sucks. If you listen to the director’s commentary track on the DVD, it’s essentially one long, repeated apology.

  3. Finally the essay on everything wrong with Batman & Robin.

    Bruce Wayne never chose to be a deranged vigilante. The rage in him made it impossible to avoid. It would be like having Atticus being a racist in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and only defending Tom for the money.

  4. Looking forward to reading more. Excellent article.Thanks Again. Really Cool.

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