The 300: Rise of an Empire story follows Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) in the Battle of Artemisium – while interweaving with the events of 300 (i.e., the Battle of Thermopylae). During the first attempted invasion of Greece by the Persian empire, Themistocles and his army successfully defend the Greek shoreline in the Battle of Marathon – mortally wounding King Darius I (Yigal Naor), father of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and mentor to the ruthless Artemisia (Eva Greene).
As the king is dying, Artemisia formulates a plan to seek revenge on the Greeks by turning the naive (and cowardly) Prince Xerxes into a God-like figure for the Persian Empire to rally behind. Ten years later, Xerxes return with a devastating invasion force – engaging King Leonidas and his Spartan warriors on land at the Hot Gates, while Artemisia battles Themistocles and the Greek navy at sea. Like the 300, Themistocles is gravely outnumbered – forced to rely on cunning and the strength of a unified Greece if he hopes to once again defend his homeland and drive back the invading Persians.
300: Rise of an Empire arrives eight years after Zack Snyder’s original 300 wowed audiences with slick slow-motion fight sequences, an illustrative visual aesthetic, and an intriguing fantasy tale variation on the real-life Battle of Thermopylae. Snyder returns as executive producer but handed directorial duties over to Noam Murro (Smart People), who does his best to imitate the 300 formula but falls short of doing anything new or particularly memorable in the process. In general, it’s an adequate follow-up, packed with action, machismo, over-the-top violence, and fantastic twists on actual events – but nearly every single element is slightly inferior to Snyder’s original vision and execution. Fans of the original will, likely, enjoy returning to Frank Miller’s exaggerated version of Greek history; yet, 300: Rise of an Empire doesn’t offer the same cross-genre appeal as its predecessor.
The main plot is serviceable, jumping in and out of scenes previously seen in 300 to help flesh out the larger war with Xerxes, as well as the backstories of Artemisia and Themistocles. Familiar supporting characters – like Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Dilios (David Wenham) – return to connect Rise of an Empire to the prior installment, but viewers shouldn’t expect to spend a lot of time with the Spartans, as the sequel is tightly centered on the conflict between Artemisia and Themistocles.
Frank Miller, Kurt Johnstad and Snyder serve as screenwriters and craft another epic revision of a Greek history, with all the same romanticized ideas about honor, freedom, and beautiful deaths - albeit with a bit less depth. Those who criticized the original300 for being style over substance will find the ratio of visual spectacle to thought-provoking storytelling is significantly wider than before – providing an equal amount of over-the-top action but even less character development and thematic synergy.
Themistocles is a passable leading man but lacks the same gravity (and quotable lines) as his Spartan predecessor. Where Leonidas was a brash but sympathetic warrior, Themistocles is much more calculating and remorseful – making him interesting and heroic but not quite as engaging to watch on screen. Still, Stapleton is strong in the role, conveying the reasonability (and desperation) that Themistocles feels – while also shining in exciting (and bloody) fight choreography.
However, Artemisia is, without question, the film’s most compelling addition – especially with Green in the part. Despite an over-complicated backstory and an obsessive search for a warrior that is truly worthy of a fight, the character reflects what’s great about 300 - taking larger-than-life historical figures, setting them in a heightened series of real events, while making them relatable and enthralling in a modern movie experience (in spite of the twenty-five hundred years in between). Green commits to the role entirely, presenting a layered villainess whose tongue is just as quick as her sword – capable of fighting toe-to-toe with brawny greek warriors while also manipulating powerful Persian commanders into doing her bidding.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is much less defined. Returning faces are a welcome bonus but every single one of Themistocles’ warriors falls into a familiar trope (some of which were already explored in 300): a son that must earn his father’s respect on the front lines, and a generic second-in-command that spends more time as a sounding board for Themistocles than he does actually fighting,etc… The origin of Xerxes adds a few extra layers to Rodrigo Santoro’s God-king, but Rise of an Empire, much like 300, once again shoves the character – and the Persian war machine – into the background to spotlight the battle at hand (not to mention leave ample room for another sequel).
In fact, the action is glued almost exclusively to Themistocles, aside from shots of nondescript greeks as they clash with featureless persians. And, while the fights are more violent than ever, they’re a slight step down overall. The main battle sequences include set pieces that should get a reaction out of fans, but Rise of an Empire‘s overall approach lacks the innovation and flair of Snyder’s original. The naval combat is a smart change of pace that allows for some fresh ideas, but once swords hit shields in close combat, it’s clear that Murro was struggling to find his own style while also including elements that returning moviegoers would expect from a 300 sequel (bloody slow-motion fighting, for example). Moment to moment it’s all entertaining enough –Rise of an Empire just fails to evolve the story or sword-and-sandles brawling in any meaningful way.
300: Rise of an Empire is also playing in 3D and IMAX 3D; given the visual aesthetic of the film, both formats are worthwhile upgrades. Frugal moviegoers could compromise and skip the IMAX price hike (not the 3D) but the improved sound and screen space will be rewarding for anyone that is willing to spend the extra cash.
It may not court casual moviegoers as easily as its predecessor, but Murro succeeds at delivering a 300 sequel that fans will enjoy watching. Buoyed by a captivating performance from Eva Green and an adequate replacement for Gerard Butler in Sullivan Stapleton, it’s still interesting (and exciting) to explore Frank Miller’s retelling of the Greco-Persian war. Nevertheless, much like the real Battle of Artemisium – which often takes a backseat in history books to the Battle of Thermopylae – it’s hard to imagine that Rise of an Empire will ever step out of 300‘s lofty shadow.
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 FINALE: A MOTHER’S WORK
The season finale is finally upon us. An action-packed sixth season, which was ushered in with one of the most explosive premieres in recent television history, starts its final episode with a much-needed voice over narration from Jax. It is in this opening segment that Jax bears his soul the only way that he has ever known how, by putting his thoughts down on paper.
The major theme of the season has been about Jax’s ability to accept personal responsibility for his actions and this is precisely what he finally acknowledges in this inner monologue. Moreover, the fact that he is fully aware he has turned into the man that he hated, Clay, and that ever since Opie died he has lost his moral centre, tells us that Jax is very much aware of the destructive path he has been on. He even realizes that his “self-hate is so deep and so palpable” it is affecting every decision that he makes and this is a character flaw he has had ever since the pilot episode.
Additionally, Jax is pretty clear that the fear he experiences actually motivates him. ”I thrive on it. I crave it. I need that rush of terror to get my out of bed in the morning.” This destructive impulse has served him surprisingly well as SAMCRO’s leader but it has not served him well as a husband, a father, or as a “good” man. A fact that the DA is more then happy to point out to Jax when she says “what you are, crashing into who you are. Are you willing to let your family pay the price for your mistakes?”. It appears that for once, Jax did take some constructive criticism to heart. This narration was also strategically placed in my opinion to make us aware that personal responsibility has always been at the forefront of this season and it also helps to get the audience to reconnect with Jax as we have spent so much time this series being deliberately kept out of Jax’s head. This inner monologue finally lets us back into Jax’s mind and his motives become clearer to us for the first time in quite a while.
"I can’t ask my wife to take the hit for us." Here, Jax finally accepts not only personal responsibility for his actions but decides to sacrifice himself to save his "true" family. He hands over the gavel to Bobby, which is actually the best thing for the club and with Chibbs as vice president SAMCRO really has never had stronger leadership. Arguably, ever since the first episode we have wanted to see Jax not only set the club straight but set himself on a path to legitimacy. Jax reminded us of why we, on some level, have always rooted for him because deep-down he has the ability to be "good" and he always manages to defy our expectations. Jax has saved his family and SAMCRO, while at the same time he has managed to leave the streets in the hands of August Marx, who is more than capable of keeping everyone in line - after all there is more than enough product to go around and everyone will have their place.
Perhaps in an attempt to interrogate certain questionable business choices that certain people make solely based on greed, Marcus Alvarez is not too happy about this new arrangement. Alvarez confronts Jax about SAMCRO giving up their role as the “referee” or the “keepers of the peace” in the Northern California gun business. We find out that since Romeo was able to crush the resistance to his cartel that Alvarez and the Mayans are hurting for money because Romeo is no longer in need of their services. As such, Alvarez wants the Mayans to ally with the Chinese and take control of what he sees as a new opportunity for growth and profit. On top of this, Nero has officially joined with the Mayans and with the new Mayan charter setting up in Stockton this will undoubtedly cause major problems for SAMCRO. Nero has decided to renter this mess because he feels betrayed by Jax as he knows that Jax had juice kill an innocent women. The fact that Jax looked him in the eye, lied to him and had the nerve to call him brother really sent Nero over the edge. Nero tells Jax that the past comes back to haunt us and that our actions carry serious future implications.
We had a final confrontation between Jax and Tara that turned, as many people suspected, into a reconciliation. A reconciliation I did not see coming but was ecstatic to see happen. It was such an intense moment of honesty between these two characters that it reminds us of the connection that they had to each other in the first place. Tara tells Jax, whom she is convinced is there to kill her that “I’ll die if I have to, at least I’ll know I tried to save them from what you are.” Hearing this, Jax reacts by saying “I never forced this life on you you came back to me.” Tara admits that she really does love Jax but made the mistake of thinking that their love could transcend Jax’s love for the club and she tells Jax that she knows his pain and that she cannot understand how by knowing this pain how as she says “condemn your sons to that same torture. They will suffer.” Jax understands this and knew all along that the boys needed Tara and that they needed out of this life. Remember that he tried to let go of Abel back in season three, so Jax’s decision to sacrifice himself to save Tara and the boys did not come out of nowhere, rather it was carefully placed there all along.
After this moment of reconciliation, the DA shows up more then a little surprised to see Jax in the hotel room. Jax was also positioned in much the same way as Michael Corleone during the pivotal scene in the first Godfather film when he sits down in his father’s chair for the first time. Jax who clearly seems to have taken Tyne’s advice, says “this is me owning my place”. Jax offers to give himself up as the man responsible for the guns used in the school shootings and only asks that his club, Tara and the boys be left out of it. Jax defied our expectations and acted in a truly heroic and selfless manner. Who else but Gemma would screw the whole thing up? But who could have predicted the insane way that this went down?
Gemma is convinced that she will never see her grandchildren again because Tara has made a deal and ratted on the club. She then tricks Wayne into leaving her alone so that she can steal his keys and take his truck to Tara’s house. Upon entering the house and Tara finally thinking that her life is going to work out, Gemma in an almost unreal fit of emotional rage brutally murders Tara, using an iron as a weapon. Do we really believe that Gemma’s rage is only because Tara wants to take her grandchildren away? Gemma has always had more “love” for her son then any mother should have and she murdered Tara in the way that a psychopathic ex-lover might murder someone that they view as a threat. Tara has always been a great character and an important contrast to Gemma and now the stage is set for Jax and Gemma to have a final confrontation in season seven.
Since this is Sons of Anarchy, the shocking scene we have just witnessed will naturally only get worse. Juice has gone completely over to the “darkside” and this once lovable character’s true nature as a turncloak and as a vicious psychopath manifests itself as he murders Roosevelt. He then inexplicably helps Gemma by cleaning up the murder scene and we are unsure if Juice or Gemma was the mastermind behind Jax being found with the bodies or if that was just a happy coincidence that the DA is more then happy to jump on? Juice, this show’s version of The Godfather's Fredo, was always a loose cannon and Jax realized his mistake too late. It was ironic that his act of compassion towards Juice came back to essentially destroy him.
Initially I thought that the scene between Jax and Tara at the park was the most emotionally powerful moment of the episode and then I was proved wrong because Jax gets to be the one who finds Tara’s body. How a show can at one moment make you want to turn away from the horrific violence that you are seeing in one scene and then almost immediately be able to manipulate you emotionally to the point of tears is a feat few, if any, other shows can pull off. It was a brilliant end to a brilliant season that has left me thirsting for more and completely devastated by what I just witnessed. As a married man myself the last scene was hard to take and perhaps waiting a year for the seventh season is a blessing. This was possibly the best season of the entire series!
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 12: YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE
As sprawling and convoluted and ludicrously overlong as this season of “Sons of Anarchy" has been, it basically boils down to two major storylines: Jax’s attempt to extract SAMCRO from the business of gun running and longstanding connections with the IRA and Tara’s attempt to extract her boys from the dangerous world Jax is trying to make safer.
Both Jax and Tara made significant advancements in tonight’s penultimate episode, but the vast divide in how compelling these two storylines have been illustrates what a sloppy, frustrating, mess this show has become.
Does anyone actually care about anything that’s happened with the Irish all season long? Was there any reason we had to spend so much time watching it all shake down (besides a convenient excuse to pad out the season’s new standard 90-minute running time)? The turf wars, crazy Galen O’Shay, ambitious August Marks, the last minute introduction of the Chinese … all this trumped up conflict kinda sorta found a resonant climax in Clay’s death last week, but that could’ve been achieved in any number of ways, for any number of reasons.
I suppose SAMCRO’s Irish troubles illustrated how much worse things needed to get for Jax and the club before they could possibly get better. There was a whole lot of blood spilled in the name of Jax’s supposedly noble cause of taking the club legit. And even though Jax thinks he’s successfully achieved his goal — the top Chinese players went down in a hail of bullets, the Irish are willing to work with Marks, SAMCRO can step aside — there are hints this cowboy solution isn’t as open-and-shut as Jax imagines. As one of Marks’ underlings retorts when Jax claims they’re out of the game, “Come on Teller, who you kidding?”
The Byz Lats are ticked off about the power vacuum SAMCRO is leaving behind, and while the Irish may be temporarily willing to work with Marks, a larger war appears to be brewing in the absence of Jax’s peacemaking. These complicated power plays have never been the show’s strong suit — at best, they give Jax an excuse to show off and look like the smartest little criminal in California. But the business side of SAMCRO this season has been an unequivocal bore, populated by dull characters and even less interesting conflicts.
I’m with Connor, who left Jax with these wise words: “It’s been an interesting road, Jackson, one I’m really looking forward to getting off of.” Although “interesting” isn’t the word I’d use.
At least the banality of the season’s Irish arc has had a rather stark contrast in the genuinely gripping, edge-of-your-seat Tara arc. Her storyline has rarely made a lick of sense but it’s been the most compelling drama “Sons” has offered up this year, and the strange unpredictability it continues to provide deserves some credit for keeping this sinking show afloat.
That said, Tara’s inscrutable actions may have reached both an apex and a nadir tonight, as she ultimately decided to take her boys and run — abandoning Jax but also turning her back on Patterson’s offer of witness protection. It feels like the worst of both worlds — Patterson understandably predicted the MC will hunt Tara down and kill her if she chose this route — and it’s impossible to know what the hell Tara is thinking … or what exactly Jax will do next, although killing the mother of his children certainly isn’t an option with an entire season left to play out.
There’s no reason to have sympathy for Jax in this situation, but it’s hard to have any sympathy for Tara either since the writers keep forcing her to behave like such an idiot. Heading into the finale I have absolutely no emotional investment in how this turns out, but I’m still curious to see what nutty resolution or insane cliffhanger the writers have in store. I guess that’s something?
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 11: AON RUD PERSANTA
Yeah. So…that happened. We can’t say as we’re entirely surprised, given Clay’s ominous words to Gemma last week, or Clay’s repeated, bordering-on-absurd escapes from the reaper over the years, but especially in light of FX’s rare decision to withhold a screener of tonight’s installment until hours before airing. Suffice to say, the writing was on the wall for either Clay or Tara, and only one of them would be in the line of fire for a dangerous prison transport, 11 episodes into the season.
Shock value not withstanding, we’re almost at a loss to consider Clay’s ultimate end, given that series creator Kurt Sutter deliberately kept the character alive to at least earn some sense of redemption and peace over the course of the season, far removed from any of Jax’s justifiable rage about his father. The name of the game for ‘Sons of Anarchy’ season 6 had arguably been a desensitization of violence, and the effect on all involved, but the story simply hasn’t needed Clay for some time now. Through his death, we have at least a temporary peace with the Irish (trigger-happy Connor wasn’t too thrilled), but little fanfare, or registered reaction from any of the characters we’re still invested in.
So we’ll say an expected goodbye to Ron Perlman’s presence on the series as Clay Morrow, but not one that carries with it the shock of grief. Clay earned his brief bit of peace, but had done far too much in the grander scale to lament his loss. Jax barely bat an eye. Gemma shed her tears, wishing not to feel as much sentiment as she had. We’ll have fewer complaints about Sutter’s last-minute reprieves. We’ll move on.
Going forward, we’ll surely have Tyne’s vengeance to look forward to, as well as the wrath of the Chinese that Jax spurned across his multi-level play, while Tara seemed a bit conflicted about her final opportunity to take the boys and run. Much as we were surprised by Jax’s muted reaction to Tara’s plots, so too were we impressed that the character could gain as much clarity to own up to his role in pushing her to it. There’s still a faint spark of hope that the relationship won’t end in such bitter blood, though with two more episodes to go, and Clay out of the picture, it does seem as if the hardest axe has yet to fall.
Certainly, we’ll have more to process in the coming days, though we have little fault with “Aon Rud Persanta” for crafting a dignified, and elaborate end for such a pivotal character. The only difficulty in execution lies with its overdue turn, and a struggle to reconcile what effect Clay’s end can have on the immediate story at hand. Hey, remember when Donal Logue was crazy? It’s been a fun season.
What say you? Did you get your fill of road-rashing ‘Sons of Anarchy’ action? What did you think about the big shockers of tonight’s “Aon Rud Persanta”? Join us next week for another all-new ‘Sons of Anarchy’ recap of “You Are My Sunshine,” and stay tuned as we bring you additional coverage on tonight’s shocking developments with series creator Kurt Sutter!
RIP The Irish King, Galen O’Shay and Sons Of Anarchy The First 9, Clarence “Clay” Morrow. You’ll will be missed!
In Last Vegas, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline play four childhood friends that reunite to celebrate the pending nuptials of the group’s long-term bachelor, Billy (Douglas). The sole marital hold-out among his boyhood companions, Billy has decided to tie the knot with Lisa (Bre Blair) a thirty-something woman who the group believes is little more than an attempt for their friend to avoid facing his actual age.
Undeterred by their concerns and complaints, Billy reunites the “Flatbush Four” for his bachelor party, one last night of debauchery on the Las Vegas strip. Eager to break free of their respective “prisons” (a stale marriage, overprotective son, and life-halting grief), Sam (Kline), Archie (Freeman), Paddy (De Niro), and Billy are unprepared when the scandal of Vegas, along with the complications of aging bodies, outdated cultural norms, and long-kept secrets, throw the pals into a series of absurd scenarios – that will test the strength of their near-70-year friendship.
Ever since Last Vegas was first announced, the project has been branded with the (understandable) notion that CBS Films, along with director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) and writer Dan Fogelman (Crazy. Stupid. Love), were merely trying to capitalize on the success of The Hangover series – by mixing aging protagonists into the Vegas group-comedy equation. While there’s no doubt that Last Vegas shares similarities with Todd Phillips’ iconic comedy franchise, trading the Wolfpack for the aged Flatbush Four, Turteltaub’s film is a much more sentimental and less over-the-top offering. Instead of outrageous and gross-out gags, Last Vegas is a harmless and humorous (but not particularly memorable) chance to watch fan-favorite veteran actors riff on their old age in an eccentric setting.
In fact, serving-up comedic opportunities for Douglas, De Niro, Freeman, and Kline is the primary function of the Last Vegas narrative – which includes a thin layer of heart-warming filler to help ground the hijinks. Few of the jokes deliver legitimate laugh-out-loud surprises and the rumination on growing old as well as true love aren’t particularly profound but, as a whole, the Last Vegas story and comedy beats combine into a competent and well-rounded experience – one that will be especially relatable for anyone who has begun to experience the challenges (mentally and physically) of aging.
Though, this is not to say that Last Vegas is only for moviegoers who hold an AARP card. The characters and the diverse situations they encounter could be entertaining for certain younger viewers – if for no other reason than satirical juxtaposition. Younger moviegoers who were entirely uninterested by the Last Vegas trailers aren’t likely to be won-over but the movie includes plenty of references to modern pop culture (references the characters often do not understand) to ensure that viewers who are much younger than the Flatbush Four protagonists can still be entertained.
The conflict between Billy (Douglas) and Paddy (De Niro) is at the center of Last Vegas and its attempt to explore love and companionship – they are the only two members of the group who no longer get along. To that end, Douglas is serviceable as Billy – a once “invincible” ladies man that is now struggling to face the reality of his age. However, the actor never presents Billy as a complete cliche and, despite somewhat naive views about love, he’s a sympathetic leading man – even if Douglas doesn’t get as many set piece laughs as the rest of the cast. De Niro, as usual, makes the most of what he’s given, and elevates the “emotional heart” of the story – while Paddy’s friends are busy dancing, drinking, and trying to get laid. It’s hardly the most evocative performance of De Niro’s extensive career but his expertise in providing humor and gravity to even the most absurd projects (see: The Big Wedding) successfully sell several scenes that, in the hands of a less capable actor, would have undercut key non-comedy beats.
Freeman and Kline, playing Archie and Sam, respectively, get their own character arcs, but their primary function is to explore that “Hangover with old people” setup at nearly every turn. As a result, it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that the pair is easily the most enjoyable and, at times, endearing element of the movie. Paddy and Billy are sometimes mired by heavy-handed storylines but watching Archie and Sam explore the debauchery of Las Vegas, in an attempt to rediscover a youthful playfulness, presents a number of great encounters – even if the jokes (and certain plot outcomes) are easily predicted.
The cast is rounded-out by other recognizable faces in key, but minor, roles. Romany Malco (Weeds) and Jerry Ferrara (Entourage) get to poke-fun at the Flatbush Four but, as the film progresses, become likable counter-points to the veteran stars and each get a few laughs of their own. Mary Steenburgen (Back to the Future III), as lounge-singer Diana, has no trouble keeping up with Douglas, De Niro, and the rest of the gang – easily knocking each of the well-known stars (via their characters) down a peg.
Last Vegas is hardly the most creative, innovative, or fresh film concept that has come through the pipeline in recent memory. Without question, the movie borrows heavily from other Vegas-set buddy comedies, especially The Hangover series, resulting in a lot of familiar jokes and story ideas that are not as engaging this round – despite the “elderly” angle. Yet, the film’s star-studded cast of actors manage to make certain rehashed moments slightly more engaging – meaning that Last Vegas lands somewhere in the middle of the films that came before it: a mix of formulaic and inspired comedy that will entertain in the moment, even if it falls short of setting the bar any higher.
Viewers who were intrigued by the Last Vegas trailer should have a pretty good idea of what to expect: a film that allows fan-favorite actors the chance to poke fun at each other, aging, and Las Vegas culture, while including enough heart to make up for any especially worn-out jokes.
In Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Johnny Knoxville returns to his hidden camera comedy hijinks – this time dressed as 86-year old grandpa, Irving Zisma. Following the death of his wife Ellie (modeled after Catherine Keener), Irving sets out on a two-fold mission: 1) get laid and 2) deliver his 8-year old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his father across the country – after the boy’s mother Kimmy (Georgina Cates) is forced to serve jail time.
In traditional Jackass brand fashion, the cross-country trip puts the unlikely pair in a series of awkward (and over-the-top) situations as Irving, a self-absorbed, reckless, and horny senior, attempts to honor Ellie’s memory, balance his newfound freedom as an eligible bachelor, and successfully care for Billy until he can dump him off in North Carolina. However, as the oddball pair journeys across the USA, hitting on women, offending strangers, and wreaking havoc on local store owners, Irving begins to ponder whether or not he should actually hand Billy over to his deadbeat dad.
Unlike prior Jackass films, Bad Grandpa is peppered with a scripted storyline that tethers all of the hidden comedy beats (and penis jokes) together. Yet, the main draw of the film is still the outrageous improvised interactions with regular people on the street – unaware of Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine’s elaborate pranks. For this reason, moviegoers may be mixed on whether or not the straightforward narrative actually enhances or hinders the success of the film. Some viewers will likely find the story (which is pretty soulless and very predictable) to be a waste of runtime with no substance, wishing that more (of the far superior) hidden camera moments were included instead. Others will appreciate the added effort from Tremaine and Knoxville, who present a film that does slightly more than the Jackass standard – which jumped from one scandalous moment to the next.
Regardless of how filmgoers respond to the scripted bridge scenes, Bad Grandpa is still a Jackass movie in nearly every way imaginable – meaning that the film will, without question, satisfy fans of Jackass: The Movie, Jackass Number Two, and Jackass 3-D. Nevertheless, the narrative material is not enough to draw-in viewers who did not enjoy prior entries in the series. As mentioned, Bad Grandpa‘s barebones storyline only adds surface level plot – without taking time to earn any of its attempts at (tongue-in-cheek) emotion.
While the relationship between Irving and Billy is little more than a formula for laughs, the characters succeed in moving the comedy formula away from staged Jackass pranks to more nuanced situations – raised by a pair of likable leading men. Awkward moments, dangerous stunts, and gross-out gags are still the priority, but certain trailers sought to present the film as a somewhat traditional character story (in the interest of pulling-in a wider viewership) and certain audience members who were expecting a more balanced mix between scripted drama and improv could feel slightly cheated by the final Bad Grandpa film.
Despite the reality that some jokes work better than others, Knoxville (with a team ofJackass alums producing) is in top-improv form as Irving. Aside from the obvious necessity of hiding the actor’s now-familiar face from the public, his geriatric routine presents plenty of room for unique hidden camera jokes. Between staged prop sequences and entirely improvised interactions with random strangers on the street, Knoxville is sharp and brash – once again putting his body in harms way for the sake of making filmgoers laugh. Some ideas get repetitive over time, especially those involving Irving’s clumsy quest for sexual gratification, but even when Knoxville is retreading familiar ground, the reactions from his unknowing victims are still priceless.
Easily the most remarkable aspect of Bad Grandpa is the inclusion of 9-year old Jackson Nicoll (Fun Size) who absolutely nails his improv and dramatic scenes – especially considering the outright crazy things that Knoxville and Tremaine asked of the young actor. Nicoll delivers in scripted moments but his interactions with concerned adults on the street provide solid payoff – oftentimes stealing the spotlight from Knoxville. It’s hard to imagine anyone, much less a pre-teen kid, being able to keep a straight face while shooting Bad Grandpa but Nicoll never shows signs of cracking – providing a hilarious new twist on otherwise straightforward Jackass comedy beats.
Of course, the supporting “cast” of victims left in the wake of Knoxville and Nicoll impart some of the biggest laughs. As Jackass and other hidden camera features have taught us, it’s impossible to predict how everyday people will react to extraordinary situations. Whether capturing anger, shock, incompetence, fear, compassion, determination, aggression, or relief, among countless others, the Jackass brand still reveals interesting (and flat out riotous) insight into modern culture – as people respond to Irving and Billy’s shenanigans.
Longterm fans of the Jackass franchise will find plenty to like in Bad Grandpa. The film successfully freshens up the format and elevates the hidden camera comedy series away from mindless stunts and eye-rolling gags to a series of diverse and laugh-out-loud setups carried out by a fun set of protagonists. That said, viewers who were hoping for a full-on overhaul of the formula with a heavy emphasis on the overarchingBad Grandpa story might be underwhelmed by the narrative through lines – which possess little substance and are nothing more than filler to keep the movie flowing from one improv scene to the next. Whether or not the story is a boon or a bane, Bad Grandpa successfully freshens the Jackass format and will, without question, keep fans of the series laughing (and cringing) the entire time.
The 2013 Carrie remake once again follows the titular Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) a shy and awkward teenage girl who is routinely bullied and ostracized by classmates. Sheltered by her overbearing, and extremely religious, mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), Carrie longs for the “normal life” of the other kids at Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School.
But Carrie isn’t normal, and after discovering that she possesses telekinetic powers, she begins to develop a new-found confidence that causes tension between her and a popular clique of girls led by Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde). Rebelling against her mother’s control, and extreme Christian beliefs, Carrie decides to attend the school prom with cool kid Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), setting the stage for a memorable night of dancing and violent revenge.
Given the success of Brian De Palma’s adaptation, starring Sissy Spacek (and featuring a pre-Saturday Night Fever John Travolta), a lot of moviegoers have been skeptical about Carrie (2013) – especially considering the latest iteration follows closer to that 1976 original instead of the actual novel source material. As a result, it’s fair to say that Carrie is a true remake, not an extensive reimagining that seeks to be more faithful to Stephen King’s version of fictional events. Still, director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) manages to present a worthwhile, albeit arguably unneeded, retelling of the Carrie White story – strengthened by modern visual effects and a great performance from Chloë Grace Moretz in the titular role. The latest Carrie film isn’t going to win the same accolades as the first one (which led to Oscar nominations for both Spacek and Piper Laurie) but it’s an entertaining and oftentimes competent update for anyone who isn’t already, on principle, off put by remakes – particularly ones that hew so close to the celebrated original.
Peirce’s iteration once again skips some of the more complicated (and convenient) elements of the novel material, most notably in the third act, in favor of telling a straightforward narrative about a girl that is constantly oppressed and ridiculed – until she discovers the (malevolent) power to fight back. Beyond updating the setting for contemporary moviegoers with YouTube and video phones, Peirce along with screenwriters Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa as well as Lawrence D. Cohen attempt to inject fresh subtext into the mix. Some of the additions succeed but, at the same time, leave less of the runtime for elements that were instrumental in De Palma’s movie. Therefore, the Carrie (2013) story presents the same effective and heart-breaking character arc, with some new angles for returning viewers to ponder, but without major deviations to raise the remake into the number one spot.
Moretz is a solid Carrie, balancing reverence to the role while also injecting subtleties that make her version of the horror movie icon distinct (and slightly more intimidating). Moretz effortlessly sells all three sides of the Carrie character – transition in and out of a terrified victim, cautiously empowered young woman, and iconic (not to mention blood-soaked) killer. Certain viewers will prefer one version over another, but Moretz delivers in several key moments – successfully capturing the genuine hopefulness and raw terror that make the fundamental Carrie story so powerful. Of course, the actress is aided in this undertaking by contemporary special effects and, even though some of the visuals come across as “budgeted” in certain shots (with a few slightly awkward disconnects between practical and CGI images) the character, as well as Moretz, comes across as even more menacing than before.
Peirce also digs a bit deeper into the relationship between Carrie and her mother Margaret, played by Moore, which is both a strength and sometimes a setback for the film. Unsurprisingly, Moore embraces the character wholeheartedly with a capable and disturbing performance that pairs well with Moretz (and the larger character story). Still, despite positioning Margaret as a delusional relic from a by-gone era, Peirce’s take on the christian fundamentalist character often slides dangerously close to caricature territory.
Much like in De Palma’s film, and the source book, the majority of supporting characters are relegated to one-note plot points that merely serve as touchstones for Carrie’s development – and fall into very familiar high school cliches. Gabriella Wilde and Portia Doubleday are both adequate at the extremes, as the remorseful Sue Snell and conniving Chris Hargensen, respectively. Judy Greer is a smart fit for Carrie’s confidant and gym teacher Miss Desjardin – a character that gets a more prominent role this round and is smartly juxtaposed with the clueless Principle Morton (portrayed by Barry Shabaka Henley).
Finally, despite a likable turn from Ansel Elgort, the script somewhat muddles the Tommy Ross character – as, in an effort to make the character estimable while also playing off his interest in Carrie at the dance, the writers subsequently convolute his arc. Given that most of the characters rely heavily on thin teenage tropes, side stories are mostly included for the purpose of advancing the narrative but a few, like Tommy, get saddled with too many layers and become a distraction rather than inspired reimagining.
Filmgoers who are not interested in seeing a modern remake of Carrie are equally unlikely to be won-over by Peirce’s effort – since it tells (mostly) the same story without dramatically improving anything but the onscreen visuals. Nevertheless, for viewers who are open to the remake, the assembled cast and crew manage to accomplish their goal of updating the still timely Carrie storyline with a more intense (and gory) retelling of events for the contemporary movie market. While it might not have been necessary, the Carrie remake is still an adept, entertaining, and at times downright haunting, piece of filmmaking.
Machete Kills picks up with ex-Mexican Federale Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) and his partner/lover Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba), who are now working together by patrolling the U.S./Mexico border. The pair stumble upon a plot that involves members of the U.S. military selling a dangerous missile to a former Mexican drug cartel head-turned self-declared revolutionary, by the name of Mendez (Demian Bichir).
Machete, after suffering a tragic turn of events that almost results in his death, is then called to Washington, D.C. Once there, he is recruited by President Rathcock (Charlie Sheen, credited under his real name, Carlos Estevez) on a mission to stop Mendez, who threatens to destroy the White House with his newfound missile. Assisted by the undercover agent/beauty pageant contestant known as Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), Machete returns to his home country in order to do what he does best: kill.
Machete Kills is the latest movie from one-man-band filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who co-wrote the screen story for the Machete sequel (with his brother, Marcel), in addition to serving as director, cinematographer, co-editor and co-composer. That said: if you thought that the original Machete feature – based on the three-minute faux-trailer from R. Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double-feature – was an example of what happens when a simple concept is stretched beyond its breaking point, then Machete Kills will test your patience even more.
Robert Rodriguez decided to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the Macheteuniverse in the sequel, which (on paper) reads as a better decision than continuing to emphasize the social/political commentary in his original “Mexploitation” film (a la the self-empowerment messages and political subversiveness of Blaxploitation). Problem is, Machete Kills isn’t smart in the way that it goes about parodying itself, nor is it really joyful in the way that it riffs on trashy cinema conventions. In short: this is easily among the silliest movies released this year, but unfortunately that doesn’t end up meaning it’s also one of the most fun.
Part of the problem is screenwriter Kyle Ward, whose script features surprisingly little in the way of cleverly violent gags, exciting action scenes, enjoyable character moments and ingenious satire/humor (note: Ward’s output here doesn’t bode well for his work on the postponed Kane & Lynch movie). The other guilty party is Rodriguez, whose shot composition and editing choices (the latter in collaboration with his sister, Rebecca Rodriguez) tend to be sloppy enough that it becomes a distraction. Not to mention, he skips on being playful with the many cheap-looking green screen backdrops and settings in the film, which begs the question as to how much the low-budget look (sometimes on a par with a Youtube video) was not intentional.
Similarly, a disappointingly small number of Machete Kills cast members do a good job either hamming it up or seeming like they’re having a blast in the movie. Trejo, whose age is more noticeable in this film, does his usual machismo act, but seems a bit tired in the eponymous role. The same is true to a lesser extent with Michelle Rodriguez back as Luz, while newcomers Bichir and Heard come off as trying too hard to feel like the sort of cartoonish people you’d expect to see in a schlocky B-movie (likewise, Sheen just lazily references his bad-boy public image in the film).
The standouts in Machete Kills include the La Camaleón character (played by Lady Gaga, among other actors) – who makes for a mildly amusing, if pointless, running joke – and Mel Gibson, laying on the cheese as eccentric technology manufacturer Luther Voz (who is in shockingly little of the movie) – and has fun while doing so. However, Sofia Vergara as Desdemona – the self-reliant brothel owner constantly flocked by her scantily-clad “girls” (including, former Spy Kids star Alexa Vega) – is pretty irritating, since her sole purpose is to screech and made unfunny jokes that involve weaponizing her cleavage (to word it delicately).
To sum it all up: yes, of course Machete Kills is supposed to be “bad,” but it’s also supposed to be entertainingly dumb and loony – which is where it falls short. The final movie result is harmless, yet mostly dull, rather than delightfully over the top or crass; even the promise of a more camp-tastic third Machete installment seems uninteresting by the time the second film reaches its conclusion (note: if you do choose to see the film in theaters, you might as well hang around until the credits are done rolling).
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 10: HUANG WU
With the reopening of the repair shop, Jax showing restraint but not attacking Tara, Nero being back in business, and Katey Segal’s angelic voice guiding us while we check in with the major players, Sons of Anarchy gives the impression that new beginnings are possible as well as the hope that things are finally looking up for everybody now that the truth is exposed. I am sure that most people were expecting a massive confrontation between Jax and Tara and I think it was wise not to jump right into that potential catastrophe. Once again though, remember moments of calm on Sons of Anarchy are pretty much always followed by complete and utter mayhem. How fitting that the opening segment ends with Clay trying to expedite his escape and narratively speaking set the spark in motion for the ensuing chaos to follow.
We also have a very poignant scene this week in which Tara realizes just how much she is now endangering the lives of the people around her. Poor Margaret Murphy, who has been Tara’s only real ally when you think about it, is now in legitimate fear for her life, as is her lawyer Ally Lowen. It appears that Mr. Mayhem now affects pretty much every player in Tara’s life and when she breaks down and cries in her office where she faked her miscarriage perhaps Tara realizes that her sons are next on the list, no matter what she does. More intrigue is added to Tara as she desperately confronts Wendy about being the weak link in her plan and the two share a painful exchange in which Tara realizes that the core difference between she and Wendy is that Tara is wiling to sacrifice her life in order to save her children, and Wendy never could. Tara’s Ophelia-like descent into madness seems to be just about complete as after confronting Jax in the brothel she completely loses it and realizes before driving off that she had basically lost her mind. Now the question is will Tara commit suicide, and if she does will that ‘weight’ on Jax destroy him? Also, how perfect was it that Jax leaves one women behind who has been physically battered, Colette, and then leaves another one behind who has been psychologically damaged beyond repair?
Gemma and Tara get to have yet another wonderful exchange that reveals so much about who these two women really are. Both are extremely powerful women who, under different circumstances, could have very easily been squaring off in a boxing ring or as political opponents. Yet their different ideas about ‘family’ is what puts these two at odds and it always boils down to who is going to control Jax. In case anyone who watches the show refused to believe that Jax has a complicated relationship with Gemma that borders on being Oedipal in its nature, how fitting was it that Gemma, upon meeting Colette for the first time, is immediately confrontational to her and then Nero tells her that “he is working out his mommy issues.” Lastly, with Tara what happens to a person who is willing to be a ‘Judas’ and then gets turned down? Kurt Sutter and his crew do a wonderful job of creating complicated story arcs for their characters and they have done a masterful job with Tara.
You have to hand it to Galen O’Shay as he takes command of every scene that he is in. As disturbing as his complete disregard for human life is - especially if the people he comes into contact with happen to be minorities - his ability to turn off any bit of human compassion that may reside in him and consistently prove to his adversaries that he and the Irish are always calling the shots makes him grow larger in stature as a villain, and a more-than worthy adversary for the club. It also shows us that in this violent criminal world, emotion is what will get you killed and it reminds us of Jax’s biggest achilles heel. Ironically Jax’s ability to be motivated almost solely by his emotional turmoil is exactly what makes us root for him. Although Gemma makes a really good point about her son when she says “my son loves deep, hates deeper.” This emotional turmoil may be the very thing that ruins Jax in the end and it is fitting that this character trait has been present in him ever since we first met the current king.
We had a few nice twists in this episode involving Galen insisting that SAMCRO be involved with Clay’s escape from prison. We have the reintroduction of Henry Lin and the Chinese to the narrative mix, with the Chinese insisting that they get SAMCRO’s gun business as opposed to the Irish. This complicates things for Jax because it will hurt him in being able to follow through on the deal that he concocted with the DA. Of course Galen’s rash action was actually not as bold a move as we had initially thought, because the Chinese wanted to cut the Irish out of the gun business. It is also worth discussing that the gun meet involved three distinct ethnic groups, Irish, Italian and Chinese, trying to get a piece of the ‘American Dream’ by destroying each other in the process. Is the show perhaps making a comment about ethnic and racial tensions that exist not only in America but worldwide? On top of that, the leader of the Italian connection has a great line to Galen about how his tactics undermined the “free market approach” they were tying to partake in. Is it not fitting that this business deal was sealed in blood and negotiated over dead bodies? This potential criticism of the most perverse aspects of capitalism make yet bother strong connection to the narrative themes present Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather.
With the anticipation built up in last weeks episode I have to say that I left this episode not necessarily feeling disappointed but perhaps more eager to watch next week’s instalment because it is time for the mayhem to ensue. As we only have three episodes left, the time for the biggest emotional gut-punches to be thrown is upon us and I can no longer wait patiently to see how the Irish deal goes down and how Clay’s escape will undoubtedly be amongst the shows most memorable sequences. I would be willing to bet that at least one major character gets killed by the end of the season but who will it be is anyones guess because everyone seems to be at risk. The one prediction that I am going to be bold and make is that somehow Clay will make it to the next season. Somehow I just do not believe that Kurt Sutter is done with him yet. Bring on next week!
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 9: JOHN 8:32
Nero, Gemma, Jax and Tara are immediately brought to the forefront in this week’s episode to remind us that as the season is on its way to concluding, that ultimately these are the major players that deserve our undivided attention. Visually, Gemma and Nero were dressed in black to match not only each other but also to visually connect to the love birds in the cage as well. These two characters who clearly love each other are doomed. Either Gemma is going to go to jail for her “attack” on Tara or Nero is going to sell out the club, or some other unforeseen consequence is going to catch up with them, but the prominently displayed colour of black proves that death is lurking right behind these two characters. In contrast, Jax is presented in white and is attempting to find a way to reconnect with his wife. Although he is sincere in his efforts, he remains oblivious to Tara’s plan and as such, the lives of our main characters are going to once again become further entwined.
Tara, who remains the only character who clearly sees that association with the club leads to death, reminds Nero and us that Gemma has in some ways always been a harbinger of death. Arguably, this downward spiral started when she and Clay decided to kill JT. Tara even tells Nero “I suggest you get out now before you end up dead too.” The references to the circumstances surrounding JT’s death were coming fast and furious this week. One has to begin to strongly suspect that a major plot point is going to be revealed around JT’s death, which, in some ways has always remained a mystery despite the fact that we believe that we know that Gemma and Clay killed him.
Jax has always been haunted by ghosts. In particular the ghost of his dead dad JT still follows him wherever he goes. He even claims to want to make the club legitimate to honour his father’s legacy. So is it really Jax’s dream to bring the club into the “legitimate” world or is he a slave to a ghost in much the same way that Hamlet was? Additionally, will this path ultimately lead to his demise? His obsession with this idea of going legit is blinding him to the fact that his wife Tara has been plotting against him for quite some time now. Furthermore, while we are on the subject of having visions of spirits and ghosts there was a scene in season five when Jax sees a homeless women outside of a warehouse and he gives her a stare as if to admit in an almost uncanny way that he somehow knows this women. We get a similar scene in this week’s episode when this time he does the exact same thing when he is entering the club’s new headquarters and this time the young harbinger proceeds to break the storefront window of SAMCRO’s new clubhouse. This leads Jax to discovering that this girl ‘s mother was “killed” in an accident caused when JT’s bike went of control and led to him being killed. When the club tracks down the girl’s father and Jax enters the house he stares at the girl’s mother in a picture and cannot help but once again feel some sort of connection to this women whom we now suspect must be connected to JT in some other way.
This episode brought back Elliot Oswald to the mix, a character who played a crucial role in the development of the series. He has a great line in the episode that illuminates an underlying ideology in American culture in that the wealthy have no responsibility to help out their subordinates. When Jax makes it clear that he wants Oswald to help out Mr. Putnam and his daughter, Oswald says, “I’m his employer not his fairy godmother.” So is it a fantasy to think that employers might owe something to loyal and hardworking people? We also get an important revelation from Unser about his relationship with Gemma dating back to when they were kids and that they used to “dine and dash” together. This is important because Unser’s fascination with Gemma goes back to his formative years and this helps to further explain his deep connection to her.
Moreover, we had the glorious return of Clay who brought Gospel preaching to a whole new level this week. I do not think any conservative religious folks will be happy with Clay’s mockery of Christianity and his interpretation of delivering a meaningful sermon. The Priest makes some very valid philosophical points about how we cannot see beyond our own selfish desires and he reads a passage from the bible that comes from the episode’s titular John 8:32. Clay manages to put his own spin on the origins of Christianity by saying that “some Jew got nailed to a cross a thousand some years ago and he’s gonna be the magic pill that pulls all us scumbags to freedom?” Of course, this scene also served the narrative function of expediting Clay’s role in being able to become the point man for the gun business in California to continue for the Irish. After Clay makes his dramatic remarks as only the superbly great Ron Perlman can, he then does his best Hannibal Lecter impression by biting a guard’s nose off and then in another visual nod to The Silence of the Lambs Clay is forced to wear a mask around his face in the hospital room where he is awaiting treatment for his injuries. Never count Clay out, seems to be another lesson that we should all never forget.
The onscreen scene between Tyne Patterson and Jax was handled nicely as Jax does what he does best and attempts to make a deal to save the club. Once again, credit to Jax as he has just the type of offer that Mrs. Patterson would be keen to accept by offering up Galen a prominent member of the IRA for her to hold responsible for the school shooting. Now, exactly how Jax is going to go about making this happen and getting the Irish “Kings” to go along with this is an issue for another time. This deal to sell out an Irish man is eerily reminiscent of how he was able to manipulate Agent Stahl in season three of the show. Perhaps Mrs. Patterson better watch her back more closely. Of course, we once again see Jax trying to alleviate himself of any personal responsibility for the school shooting by making this deal. Jax even tries to come to terms with any guilt he may feel over the deaths of innocent youths by forcing Oswald to help out the family of the young girl who broke the new clubhouse window because she comes from a broken home.
As this episode was titled John 8:32, naturally the “truth”was going to come out. The conjugal visit that Gemma was forced to endure with Clay. Tara’s grand plan with her fake pregnancy and the “miscarriage.” Tara’s desire to file for divorce and take Jax’s children away from him. Gemma attempting to win her son back to her side by saying to him in regards to Tara that “I’m sorry I love her too but this is the truth and if she’s not gonna tell you you need to find someone who will.” Then we get the important revelation from Gemma who fills us in about JT’s death. “I didn’t kill him but I knew it had to be done. I gave my blessing for Clay to kill John Teller. I never told that to anyone including my son.” The powerful revelation from Gemma is a fact we were pretty sure was true but it was a very important moment in the story arc of the show because Gemma finally admits this truth for Nero and us to hear.
We end this episode with Jax sitting alone as I suppose he was always destined to be. Tara has a gun ready to deal with Jax upon his return home. This is why Sons of Anarchy is the most rewarding and brilliant show on television for those who watch carefully and pay attention. That same woman, who looked familiar in the picture to Jax was the homeless woman with whom he had the aforementioned encounter in season five. It seems pretty clear that she didn’t die in that accident, which is a very nice twist to end the episode on. Where this revelation is going has me both bewildered and delighted. I realisee that making predictions about Sons of Anarchy is a losing proposition because Kurt Sutter and his crew are always five steps ahead of us.
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 8: LOS FANTASMAS
"I’m the dirty biker whore with the record, she’s the good doctor. Does it really matter what I have to say?" Gemma makes a very strong point about how in American society oftentimes the truth is always relative and oftentimes it is the perception of what happened and more importantly who is telling the ‘truth’ that becomes reality. Once again, I think Kurt Sutter and the writers do a superb job of showing us that the ‘American Dream’ works if you have the means and come from the right social status. Quite honestly, there are a different set of rules that certain members of a perceived ‘lower class’ have to live with every day while the affluent members of this same society do not. Throughout the series, we have seen our beloved outlaws face countless amounts of stereotyping and they have undergone more then their fair share of abuse from organizations such as the police, the IRA, and now arguably their most lethal adversary, the overly ambitious American politician. Manipulating a national tragedy to further one’s own political agenda is something that District Attorney Tyne Patterson does all too easily and perhaps the club’s new arch-nemesis is proving to be more cunningly lethal then our old friend Lee Toric, who at least had the achilles heel of being a loose cannon. DA Patterson is completely rational, calm and calculating.
This week saw Nero sacrifice himself to save SAMCRO and to protect his son. “I’m responsible for the death of those children.” We should have known that Nero was no Judas and his constant association with Christian imagery pays off here. If we’ve been paying attention, this revelation from Nero is anything but shocking, it makes perfect sense. Additionally, as martyrdom is the entire basis for the Christian religion one can argue that on some conscious or subconscious level that this is in fact something that Nero has always longed for. I remain unbelievably impressed by Jimmy Smits’s portrayal of Nero, a character who constantly proves to be an intriguing ally for SAMCRO and fits perfectly into the role of club martyr. It is also worth giving Sons of Anarchycredit for allowing minority actors to actually develop emotionally complex and compelling characters which is certainly not the norm on mainstream American television. (In fact the quality of the acting on this show comes close to rivaling the absurdly outstanding acting on HBO’s The Wire, which remains the only drama in the history of American television to have a multitude of minority actors break every preconception about the scope of their roles.)
Jimmy Smits, CCH Pounder, and Rockmond Dunbar have been wonderful additions to the show and their story arcs have progressed in fascinating ways. CCH Pounder is the newcomer to this group but she has brought a previously unforeseen inner strength and determination to her role that none of SAMCRO’s other adversaries have quite been able to match thus far.
Ever since Eli was introduced during season four as the new head of the Sheriff’s department, we have seen him undergo a painful transition from moral tough guy, to a man completely on the edge of madness, and now to a world weary traveller who, despite the tragic circumstances that he has found himself in, still holds on to the absolute purest sense of morality. (He also had the funniest line of the night when he confronts Gemma at the police station and his words are “Black. Lots of sugar. The coffee”). He now finds himself at odds with cooperating with the district attorney’s perverse sense of justice or with siding with SAMCRO. In this regard the amount of screen time that our beloved Wayne Unser had this week was poignant for several reasons. One it helps to cement the fact that Roosevelt is heading down a similar path that Unser did when it came to getting into bed with SAMCRO. Wayne’s screen time also worked this week in that in an almost sage like way or fulfilling the role of an oracle from greek mythology he delvers the painful truth to both Gemma and Tara. He also offers both of them a way out of their predicaments. Of course, both women decide to shun his advice, which seems to be the story of Wayne’s tragic life. Unser also had an important line about how SAMCRO is forever linked to the prosperity and well being of Charming. That connection to the town is not something that should be easily glossed over or tossed aside. As is always the case with Sons of Anarchy the devil is in the details.
Gemma had a slight chance in this episode if she had taken Wayne’s advice of actually heading down an enlightened path toward redemption. Naturally, she decides that instead of redeeming herself she should do what she does best and that is manipulate every one around her into bending to her vengeful will. In particular, she will prey on the absolute weakest person that she can use. Poor, poor Adrianna (Sopranos reference). Wendy is at least smart enough to realize that she is completely doomed and when Gemma assures her that if she helps her destroy Tara that she will make sure Jax doesn’t kill her we can never again think that there is any hope for Gemma’s soul. In regards to Wendy, whether she has an overdose or not near the end of the episode is not the point. Symbolically she is already dead and has been ever since she crossed Gemma in the pilot episode of the show when Gemma gave her “a fix” to kill herself. Never underestimate Gemma Teller is the moral of this week’s episode. In regards to Tara, we see that her conscience is still there but as Wayne basically told her it is about to completely dissolve into the ether. Tara staring into the mirror and forcing herself to stop crying and toughen up was a powerful moment from this week’s episode because we get to see how much emotional pain Tara is truly in. Visually speaking, the iconography called to mind the wicked stepmother looking into the mirror in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs but in a twist could Tara be becoming the very thing that she hates?
Clearly, the endgame is underway for SAMCRO and I would argue that this may be one of the last quiet episodes of the seasons. Yes only in the world of Sons of Anarchy can an episode in which a man gets run over by a car and then the man driving this car commits suicide by stabbing himself in the throat be considered quiet. In the opening moments of this week’s episode, Jax is shown shutting off a tea kettle. If that is not enough of a visual metaphor for all hell being about to break loose then I do not know what to tell you. This is the calm before the storm and one of the fascinating things about Sons of Anarchy is that it never goes exactly in the direction that you expect it to go. Nero was going to become a Judas then he was completely let off the hook and then he is immediately pulled back into the fact that he may have to turn on SAMCRO. There is still a possibility that he can become Judas number two. This week focused a lot on the relationships between the female characters on the show as well as on the lives of Nero, Wayne, Patterson Wendy, and Eli. The antics of the club pretty much took a back seat this week and this will serve the overall narrative of the show better for the rest of its run this season because the third act of this season is set up with enough intrigue to support most shows for an entire season.
Lastly, Jax who has been trying to come to terms with being the king as Bobby so nicely put it, is still oblivious to the fact that Tara has played him for a fool for the entire season and he thinks that by asking her to let him back in that everything will be alight. Jax is in for a rude awakening indeed. The end and the presence of death is always leering after these characters and As Tyne Patterson said,”We meet the end we deserve.”
In Escape Plan,Sylvester Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who specializes in a very specific talent: he infiltrates and then escapes from the nation’s most notorious prisons, in order to point out flaws in security. One day, Ray and his team are approached by a young CIA agent for a new type of job: breaking out of one the government’s shadow prisons, a place that doesn’t officially exist, used to house the worst threats to peace and order in the free world.
As soon as Ray arrives in the care of the fascistic warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), he knows that something has gone terribly wrong. No one seems aware of his identity, or his mission, leaving him stranded amongst the worst inmates on the planet. Needing help in order to do what he does best, Ray befriends cell block heavyweight Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and brings him into the escape plan. But getting out of the world’s most secure prison proves to be a task requiring a lot of brains, brawn and more than a few bullets.
Carried by the momentum of a Schwarzenegger/Stallone team-up, Escape Plan is nothing less than a shoddy, silly, testosterone-fueled action film throwback, which teeters between clever self parody and an embarrassingly bad attempt to create an actual action blockbuster, using two lions of the genre who are well past their prime. Whatever the intention, the final result (herby dubbed “Grumpy Old Men With Guns”) is definitely something that is so bad it’s fun – which is the only reason it’s not a total failure.
Directed by Swedish helmer Mikael Håfström (1408), Escape Plan looks like someone’s home movie fan-film, with a third act that would be hard to distinguish from one of The Asylum’s mockumentary flicks. Most of the film is shot in bewildering close-up frames of the actors’ faces, with very little sense of environment or space orientation. Given that the body of the movie is mostly dialogue between Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Håfström’s style in shooting keeps us pressed so close to the aging action stars we can practically smell their breath and count their respective wrinkles. Whenever Håfström tries to open up into movement, the shot choices and sequences become even more bizarre and disorienting; in general, very poor work behind the camera.
Those expecting at least a decent action quotient may want to realign their expectations, because there’s very little actual action in the film. The movie could fairly be described as a heist-thriller – only with the “crooks” trying to “heist” themselves out of prison – ergo, most of the film involves talking and scheming rather than shootouts or fisticuffs. The price of admission is really paid to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger in a bunch of winking meta-minded riffs on their respective personas, in between busting each others’ chops. It’d almost be the same if the two actors sat on a stage in front of a crowd joking with each other for an hour and a half – but hey, there’s sort of a movie here, too.
I say “sort of” because the script by Jason Keller (Mirror, Mirror) and Miles Chapman (Road House 2) feels like half a skeleton of a story filled in with whatever meat and muscle Stallone and Schwarzenegger threw at it in their many, many wisecrack exchanges. We’re talking about a film that fell out of the cinema tree, crashed to the ground, and managed to hit every branch of action movie cliches on the way down. The macho bravado, obvious twists, barrage of bullets that never seem to hit the hero, the awful dialogue – and yes, those iconic cheesy one-liners – it’s all there, just the way you found it in the ’80s/’90s eras. Taken as a straightforward action movie, Escape Plan is something that never should’ve been more than a direct-to-DVD feature; as a kitschy satire of Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s action man personas, it may just be unintentional genius.
Out of the lead pair, Schwarzenegger steals the show, as he clearly knows to have tongue-and-cheek fun with the material. Escape Plan plays in a very episodic sequence of challenges and obstacles related to the… er, escape plan, and the “episodes” with Rottmayer almost always result in some good humor. Even when he picks up a huge gun and does that trademark slow-mo turn and scowl, Schwarzenegger seems to be more self-deprecating comedian than faded star trying to reclaim glory. Stallone, on the other hand, still seems think this is all serious and relevant work being done, which makes his attempts at gravitas just as humorous as Schwarzenegger’s winking antics – only humorous in the ‘laughingat him’ as opposed to ‘with him’ kind of way.
The supporting cast is filled with big names and recognizable faces, all them oddly out of place and turning in some bizarre performances. Jim Caviezel (Person of Interest) gives one of the more weirder villain performances I’ve seen in awhile (effeminate sociopath warden, anyone?); at one point Stallone’s character describes a foul-mouthed 50 Cent’s character as a “techno thug” (umm…. okay); Amy Ryan (The Wire) plays a sort of love interest the movie kind of forgets about; Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: CI), Vinnie Jones (Snatch), Faran Tahir (Elysium) – you’ll recognize pretty much every character you meet, and will likely wonder (as I did) how they ended up in this movie at all, giving the strange performance they did.
In the end, Escape Plan feels like one of those films that was made to be the next film immortalized as a drinking game with a cult following. Take a drink anytime that A) Someone says a line you’ve heard in EVERY action movie, B) When there’s a callback to a famous Stallone/Schwarzenegger flick, or C) Whenever the director puts the camera so close to an actor’s face you can see his/her nose hairs. Follow those three rules (if you choose to see this film) and you’ll be drunk in no time.
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 7: SWEET AND VADED
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, SAMCRO is on its way to hopefully rebuilding its clubhouse, its image and its identity. One of the core themes of Sons of Anarchy has always been about the importance of being initiated into a group. This initiation is supposed to give one’s life some sort of meaning and purpose. Ideally, membership in SAMCRO is special because with it comes the expectation that you have earned your place at the table, amongst your family, and in the world. This is the great hope of SAMCRO, and not only is it the ideal that Jax is always trying to get the club to live up to, it is also the ideal that despite everything, makes them at least in some way very admirable.
America is similarly idealised as the land of endless opportunity where, despite class differences, anyone who is willing to work hard can overcome obstacles and become a success. This beautiful ideal is played up so much in Hollywood and US programming that it’s almost accepted as a cultural fact over here. However, class mobility does not occur with anything close to this sort of frequency in America and this noble ideal is more often than not just a myth. In a society that values materialistic goods, what happens to the spiritual soul of its inhabitants? Arguably this is the very reason that a club like SAMCRO exists in the first place. When we combine this idea with the numerous references to Christianity that constantly pop up in the show, perhaps Kurt Sutter and his writers are making a comment about a spiritual emptiness that exists not only in the US but in all societies. Perhaps it is a lack of a meaningful religious or spiritual connections to each other that is the true tragedy of modern times.
The return of Mayor Jacob Hale this week further cements this idea into our minds as viewers. Hale is worn out and his Charming Heights project is still on hold. We see Charming in the midst of an economic decline and the beloved mayor who pretends to be helpless is called out by Bobby, the ultimate soothsayer, who says in regards to the empty storefronts that “This block is half empty because your buying them all out for fifty cents on the dollar. The economic destruction of Charming and the failure of politicians to pull us out from this because they were busy trying to line their own pockets is of course an indictment of the very worst aspects of any political system. This inability to act is also what make us continue to root for SAMCRO, especially under Jax’s leadership, because these men have convictions and will fight for them.
Sons of Anarchy has done an excellent job over the last three weeks of reestablishing our connection with these anti-heroes and like many of the classic heroes of so many western tales, these outlaws live by a moral code (albeit a distorted one) that is at the very least admirable. Furthermore, like the western heroes of yesterday, these men were almost always presented as being part of the very landscape that they were inhabiting and particularly in this week’s episode, our beloved bikers were pictured in the main strip of Charming for the first time in quite a while. This was an interesting connection that to me proves that good, bad or indifferent, SAMCRO will always be a part of Charming.
Additionally, with the biblical references I do not think it’s too much of a stretch to be reminded of The Last Supper this week when Jax was at the head of his new table. Could this again be a subtle clue that Jax is running out of time? Either way, we were given an answer to the question I posed last week as to who will fulfil the role of Judas. Everybody who had their money on Tara, congratulations, because you’ve won the Judas sweepstakes. The fact that Tara betrayed Jax is not the shock, but how she manipulated everybody and got Jax to sign his own restraining order is the stuff of legend. (Even Kay in The Godfather Part II was not this devious when she confronted Michael.)
I must admit that I was ready to cheer when Tara called Gemma “You old whore.” The showdown between Tara and Gemma, which has been brewing since the first episode of the series, has now been set along its final path. Apparently the way to outsmart Gemma is to fake an abortion. So Tara was not pregnant all along and it was all part of an elaborate ruse to make Gemma become the one thing that Jax cannot forgive and that is of course a person who would consciously hurt his children. Talk about knowing how to manipulate someone. In her supposed moment of need, Tara convinces Jax that he is signing a restraining order against Gemma when it is in fact against himself. Wow! Who knew that Tara had it in her to stoop to that level and be able to outsmart everybody with her plan. Give credit to the creative crew here because before this scene, we had just witnessed Jax confronted with the idea that his father abandoned him as well as with the fact that he could be a bad father. We see very clearly that Jax would rather kill someone then allow them to put these ideas into his head. Now how is going to react to his mother killing his unborn daughter? Tara really put together a truly brilliant and exceptionally heinous plan that can only shake Jax’s foundational core beyond a place that he can come back from when he finds out the truth. A descent into madness indeed by Tara, who is putting a new spin on the classic tale of Ophelia’s demise in Hamlet.
Naturally as this is Sons of Anarchy, we experience some truly reprehensible behavior from the family of the most interesting transgender character on television. Venus “The Southern Belle Who Does Not Tell” experienced sexual confusion as a child and as such her mother - played disturbingly well by the underrated and geek-favourite Adrienne Barbeau (Back To School, and the amazing Carnivale) - essentially raped Venus and then profited from these disturbing trysts by selling them to other degenerates. Venus was put into the child pornography business. Tragically, many people like Venus who were abused in their adolescence find their way into prostitution and other questionable business endeavors and this epidemic remains all too present in an otherwise civilized society.
This all ties in very strongly to the idea of the sublime. This is the idea of beauty and pain being linked together, with something horrible lurking underneath something beautiful. A Freudian theme that is usually on display in anything that the great David Lynch touches, the sublime has in some way always been a part of Sons of Anarchy, with SAMCRO representing the criminal underworld of the otherwise aptly named town of “Charming” California. However, rather then being a simple look into the seedy underbelly of American society, every concept or theme in Sons of Anarchy is carefully put there by the writers to connect to the larger story arc. Arguably, Venus’ mother has one of the most important monologues in the entire series because her hatred of her son allows her to release a flurry of awful words about how Venus’ son will hate the lies and the life he was forced into. Before she can finish ripping Venus apart with her awful tongue, we see a teary eyed Jax blow her away. Her last words are “The awful thing that turned out to be his fath…” This, besides being painfully disturbing, brings Jax’s issues with his dad’s abandonment back to the forefront and it also remind sue about his own conflicted relationship with his sons. In many ways Jax has always been searching for a father figure.
Lastly, there is no other show I’ve seen that consistently uses music as a storytelling device as well as Sons of Anarchy does. This week’s ending aided beautifully by Joshua James and his songCrash This Train, added a haunting touch to the shocking conclusion. Its lyrics are about people coming together in the face of a great adversity that the society that they live in places before them and clearly this episode had that theme at its core. The tragedy to me is that if we could work together then a lot of our problems could go away and a better life could await us. Yet betrayal lurks at every corner and the people that we sometimes love and trust the most are the very ones that have the most power to destroy us. Powerful themes, from a powerful show and another episode that proves that there are shows that may be as good as Sons of Anarchy, but none that are better. This was one of my all-time favorite Sons of Anarchy endings. Just exceptionally well done all around.
SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 6 EPISODE 6: SALVAGE
It is absurdly poignant that this episode opens up with Jax examining the wreckage of the clubhouse with an instrumental version of John The Revelator being played. This song was used in the montage sequence of the season one finale. It was at that moment that Jax fully realized that his father ‘John’ was trying to warn him from beyond the grave that the club was heading down the wrong path. Additionally, it was Piney who handed Jax the manuscript and told him that it was time for a change. What a perfect way to start off this instalment after the attack by the IRA, setting up the fact that the club is once again in need of a serious change. We also have Jax finally accepting some personal responsibility and realizing that he needs his brothers.
Arguably, what he have here is Jax realizing that a dictatorship is not the way to successfully run any type of organization and him hopefully accepting the fact that through democracy the club can survive. This idea is made all the more apparent when we get to the Irish King’s explanation about the attempted murder of the Redwood charter. Galen, who seems to be getting almost all of the best lines lately says “I don’t give a shit about your democracy.” This is important coming from Galen because not only is he part of an organization that is undemocratic he is also connected to to the idea of European Aristocracy. I would also argue that it is possible that the IRA angle this season is at the forefront to help us begin to think about how a democracy can survive when confronted by external pressures from outside forces that it has never dealt with before. It is worth mentioning that in America after the horrific and tragic events of September 11th many Americans began to feel a sense of fear that they did not exactly know how to articulate. As such, many Americans wondered how our democracy could withstand such a catastrophic event. To me Kurt Sutter is at least able to capture part of the American psyche and portray these fears on screen in a very meaningful and impactful way that few other shows - The Walking Dead, which has such themes are at the forefront, excepted - have been able to do.
Over the course of the show, Jax has consistently believed that he can pull himself and his club out of any situation that they are confronted with. Moreover, Jax continues to buy into the myth that the club is some sort of larger-than-life entity that can literally withstand any attack whether it be internal or external. Now it seems that the biggest threat to SAMCRO may be an internal one as Tara has a chance to sell out Jax. With the abundant number of biblical references this season, it is not surprising that a Judas character was gong to emerge. Thankfully Bobby has been cleared of that role, and Tara may now be filling it, though the clip from next week’s episode makes it seem like Nero is going to ponder that idea. This would at the very least set up the showdown I am confident is coming between him and Jax. Then again, should anyone really ever let their guard down around Clay? This theme of internal betrayal would work well because Jax continues to miss the very simple fact that SAMCRO taints the lives of everyone around them. As such, Jax’s hubris and naive belief in the club is not allowing him to see the internal enemies that are conspiring against him.
On that note, Tara seems to be one of the only characters on the show who realizes just how dangerous an association with the club can be. She reminds me of one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, the conflict between the perceived ‘coolness’ of the biker lifestyle with the utter turmoil and destruction that SAMCRO causes on an almost daily basis. These men have chosen to participate in a violent life and Kurt Sutter has done a brilliant job of constantly reminding us that in the world of Sons of Anarchy, violence is everywhere. (It was interesting that the popular early nineties video game Lethal Enforcers was captured on camera this week, perhaps to once again remind us that the school shooting is still on everybody’s minds as well as the fact that perhaps a violent culture can breed violent behaviour.)
Tara has undergone the most dramatic character transformation thus far in season six because she is able to realize that there is no way out of this violent cycle. She is also smart enough to realize that selling out Jax to the District Attorney would not be an easy choice to make and although she may accept some sort of a deal it will not be one that she will make easily. She also has a great line in this week’s episode in which she questions whether the violence is getting worse or if her ability to take it in stride is getting better. When violence becomes commonplace what does that say about us? To make our weekly connection to Hamlet, it seems that Gemma may be descending into madness quicker then Queen Gertrude and Ophelia combined. Consider that last week alone she was forced to have sex with Clay, in front of two exceptionally disturbing prison guards, then has Nero ripped away from her and is then sent back into the prison by Jax to meet with Clay again. Even for Gemma that is a lot to deal with and one can only assume that when it is all said and done Gemma’s tough exterior will melt away into nothing.
This week also had the return of the southern belle who does not tell. At first this character’s appearance was meant to signal some comic relief however, after we find out that Venus was beaten, we get a back story about how Nero was the one person who was always willing to help. So we are once again reminded that Nero does have a strong, if at times misguided, sense of morality.
The most important moment of this episode for me was the extended monologue that Jax gives to his fellow brothers that is supposed to act as a wake up call for the club to move out of guns and to go back on the path that JT had originally laid out for them. Jax brings up how hurt he was by Opie’s death and how the club is at a crossroads. However, the seeming triumph of this scene to me is underpinned by Jax’s inability to see the irony in the idea of outlaws becoming “legitimate.” Whenever gangsters use the term “legitimate” in the world of fictional Hollywood cinema they are usually doomed and in American based television shows this trend also seems to be true more often then not. Like Michael Corleone tried and failed to do in The Godfather series, and like the great Stringer Bell tried to do in HBO’s utterly brilliant The Wire, successful gangsters who try to turn their operations into “legitimate” enterprises either fail or lose everything that they wanted to maintain in the first place. These gangsters seem to have a fascination with becoming legitimate business men and fail to realize that they will never be a part of that world no matter what they do. This move to “legitimacy” winds up destroying them, and ends up as the real fantasy.
To sum up this week’s episode, I feel that this was the calm before the storm. If we’ve learned anything from watching Sons of Anarchy it is that when things seem to be working out and everything seems to be calming down, there is usually trouble ahead.
Incidentally, this episode also featured a brand new Pearl Jam song called Mind Your Manners from their album Lightning Bolt, released this week, which is worth mentioning because Pearl Jam is usually a band who don’t become involved in cross-promotional antics like this and clearly Sons of Anarchy is becoming a great outlet for musicians to sell their music because the show does a great job of incorporating songs into the show’s overall structure.