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On Christmas Day 2003, Matthew Sievert, the only child of a single mother and California state worker named Stepheny Milo, was removed from life support. He’d gone out to a Sacramento park the night before to meet an ex-girlfriend, and had been gunned down. He was 19.

The playground where he was ambushed is five miles and a world away from the white-domed Capitol that was his mother’s workplace. His murder, though, would touch not only those halls, but some of California’s best-known political figures.

Initially, it would touch lawmakers, co-workers and lobbyists who sought to comfort Milo, an administrator for the Assembly’s Republican caucus. Later, it would touch Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles, who, in 2014 married the sister of Chan “John” Lam, one of the young men convicted of killing Sievert.

In February 2018, it would touch then-Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Rendon asked to read his brother-in-law’s petition for mercy. Ten months later, just before Thanksgiving, Brown reduced Lam’s sentence.

Lam could be released this year, 16 years after the murder.


Few governors would ignore such a request from a legislative leader. Beyond that, a comparison of Brown’s action on similar cases supports his and Rendon’s assertion that Lam got no special treatment.

Rendon’s brother-in-law has been, by all accounts, a model inmate. Brown’s decision to shorten Lam’s sentence was consistent with his view that people can change, held since his earliest days in public service. The former Jesuit seminarian reduced the sentences of 283 prisoners, including Lam, and pardoned 1,332 people who had served their time, more by far than any California governor before him.

“I guess your question is: ‘Should we discriminate and would that be lawful?’” Brown said when asked about Lam. “'You’re totally deserving, but we’re not going to give it to you because … others are going to write nasty stories and imply there are politics involved.’”

In a larger sense, though, the murder of Matthew Sievert and its aftermath offer a case history in one of California’s most enduring quandaries. In the years since Lam and his friends fatally attacked Milo’s son, the criminal-justice pendulum has swung from a policy of mass incarceration to a view that rehabilitation is a fairer and more farsighted bet.

Through that lens, Brown’s decision was a study in the forces that shape the law and its enforcement—and of a question that has haunted and cost not just politicians like Rendon and Brown, or criminals and victims like Lam and Sievert, but also generations of Californians: How do we balance pain and redemption, mercy and safety, society and victims, crime and punishment?

Sixteen years is a long time in politics. On Christmas 2003, Anthony Rendon was celebrating at his parents’ home in Whittier, having left a job working on gang intervention to become a consultant. Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, confronting a spike in homicides.

It’s a long time for teenagers, too. In late 2003, Matthew Sievert’s 17-year-old ex-girlfriend, Nicole Carroll, was embroiled in drama.

Venting to Lam, she’d claimed Sievert disparaged her father and said something derogatory about Asians, though there was no evidence that Sievert was racist. Lam was 17, too, and had been jealous that Carroll had dated Sievert. To impress her, Lam offered to beat him up. She agreed.

They devised a plan, and early on Christmas Eve morning, Carroll phoned Sievert and asked him to meet her at Tahoe Park, a few blocks from where Carroll’s father lived, and a mile from the home he and his mother shared. Matthew borrowed his mom’s car, a five-year-old Camry. He promised to return in 20 minutes.

Lam and nine other teenagers converged in three cars on Tahoe Park. One brought nunchucks. Two brought guns. They waited as Sievert and Carroll talked on a bench. He stood and tried to hug her goodbye. She brushed him away twice, then relented. He walked to his car. As he turned on the ignition, Lam and his friends sped up, using their cars to box him in.

When Sievert tried to accelerate, Hung Thieu Ly, 18, his face obscured by a bandana, fired his .38-caliber revolver, striking Sievert in the chest and left temple. Lam, Carroll, Ly and the others drove off. Sievert’s car rolled into a fence across the street, its tires spinning. It was a little before 1 a.m.

“Oh well, I didn’t like him anyways,” Carroll said, according to participants who testified against her.

When her son didn’t return, Milo called a friend who drove her to search for him at Tahoe Park and Carroll’s father’s home. They probably drove right past the Camry. First responders found him an hour after the shooting, and rushed him to the UC Davis Medical Center. Someone from the hospital called his mom.

After her son’s death, Milo’s coworkers at the Capitol rallied around her. Then-Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox asked that the chamber adjourn in Sievert’s memory on Jan. 5, 2004. On Jan. 6, the day Lam and Carroll were arrested, then-Assembly Policy Director Richard Mersereau sent an email throughout the building saying a fund had been established for her.

An insurance lobbyist called her carrier to make sure she got top dollar for the Camry, and lawmakers and staffers chipped in to buy her a replacement, a VW Beetle. When court hearings consumed her vacation time, the Assembly’s Democratic leaders changed policy to let her take sick leave, and staffers from both parties donated their sick days to her.

“We go hammer-and-tong on the issues,” Mersereau said. “But we have to care for our own.”

As the months stretched into years, however, at least one new member of the Capitol community remained a stranger to Milo: the older sister of the teenager who had set up her son’s ambush.

A graduate of UC Davis in Asian American studies, Annie Lam had forged a very different path from her errant brother’s and had gone to work as a junior aide to then-Assemblywoman Judy Chu.


Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Donell Slivka prosecuted Lam, Carroll, Ly and two others, Jimmy Cooc and John Dich, in a single jury trial. The other participants testified against them.

Lam’s parents are Vietnamese refugees who worked in the fields and at other hard jobs in and around Sacramento to provide for their five kids. John Lam, the youngest, was born here. Lam’s father regularly attended court, wearing a tie and sitting behind Milo on the prosecution side of the courtroom. One day, a lens from Milo’s glasses popped out. Lam’s father found it and handed it to her.

“I thanked him,” she said. “I felt bad for him. He seemed like someone who really tried hard to do for his kids.”

Although only one defendant pulled the trigger, Slivka won convictions in 2005 of all five for first degree murder, based on the natural and probable consequence doctrine: Their plan to beat Sievert predictably resulted in his death. The murder occurred in the course of a felony, so each was as culpable as the shooter—or so the theory went.

Within a decade and a half, that thinking would change. But this was then: At their sentencing, Milo stood in Superior Court Judge Trena Burger-Plavan’s courtroom and spoke, aiming most of her anger at Carroll, the teenage girl at the center of the crime.

“Matthew was my life. You took my life,” she said. “I go over this whole thing every single day, several times. When you think of that night, and you will, I hope it rots your brain like acid. I hope you feel the pain in some way. I hope your days are filled with fright and pain.”

The judge sentenced the shooter to life in prison without parole. Lam and Carroll got 26 years to life, and the other two to 25-to-life.

“They have to be punished,” Milo told the judge. “This has to stick.”


John Lam arrived at Corcoran State Prison, one of the state’s highest security joints, in 2006. Driven by a generation of tough-on-crime legislation, California’s prison population that year stood at 172,528, a record high. He was 19.

“The violence and intimidation shocked me at first, but eventually fear became the norm,” he would later write in a prison newspaper. Back home, his sister Annie was by now working to elect Judy Chu’s husband—and her future employer—Mike Eng, to the Assembly. Rendon managed that campaign.

That’s where Rendon and Annie Lam met, though they didn’t start dating for several more years. She’s a consultant now focusing on mentoring Asian Americans.

The contrast between brother and sister didn’t surprise Rendon. “I worked in gang-reduction programs, and saw this a lot. I saw it in immigrant families where some people were successful, and some weren’t.”

That dynamic extended to his own family. In 1997, while Rendon pursued his doctorate in political science at UC Riverside, a cousin’s son was shot and killed at age 16 in Echo Park. He talks of distant relatives who, in family photos, throw gang signs.

In 2010, Milo retired, unaware that Annie Lam was Assemblyman Eng’s staffer. Rendon rose through the ranks of Democratic activism in Los Angeles, not joining the Legislature until two years after Milo’s retirement. In our term-limited era, with institutional memories short, Rendon winced upon being told, recently, that Matthew Sievert’s mother worked for 24 years in the House he now leads. Brown became attorney general and then governor, again.

Then, in 2011, came a decision that shifted the dynamics of criminal justice in California: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s prisons were so crowded that they violated the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Brown had initially fought the case, but came to embrace the ruling, pushing legislators to enact laws that would cut prison population. It now stands at around 125,000, largely because of his policies.

Brown signed a 2011 bill that kept lower-level criminals out of prison, and another giving second chances to people who commit murders as teenagers. He also signed transparency legislationrequiring that governors give notice to prosecutors before granting clemency.

That bill was a response to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to halve the 16-year sentence of Esteban Núñez, the son of former Speaker Fabian Núñez, in connection with the stabbing death of a San Diego college student. Schwarzenegger granted only 10 clemency petitions during his six years in office, and acted without notice in 2011 on his final day in office. He later said he’d exercised his executive prerogative out of friendship with the then-speaker.

“Victims and their families should not be blindsided when a request is made for a sentence to be commuted,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said after Brown signed the bill.

After his 2014 re-election, Brown went on to fund Proposition 57, a 2016 initiative that offers prisoners the possibility of release if they rehabilitate themselves. He assigned a dozen lawyers and staffers to sift through prisoners’ requests for mercy, and deliver promising petitions to the Board of Prison Hearings for full investigations.

And he signed a major overhaul of the felony murder rule. The new law restricts prosecutors’ ability to charge and convict people of first-degree murder who, like Lam, didn’t actually pull the trigger.

“Basically, I believe the sentences are too damned long,” Brown said in an interview. “There are literally thousands of people who have turned their lives around and are being kept in cages for no legitimate reason, other than that’s the law in California.


Rendon, elected to the Assembly in 2012 and as Speaker in 2015, doesn’t tell many people about his brother-in-law. They’ve spoken briefly by phone, never in person. Although he accompanies his wife on the drive to San Quentin, he doesn’t go in, at her insistence. Instead, he reads or works on his laptop at a nearby Starbucks.

“It is not something I have pressed. It is a tough subject for them,” Rendon said.

One day last February, though, he walked from the speaker’s office to the governor’s office with a thick envelope: “I said, ‘I have something I want you to take a look at, something I want you to consider. I don’t want you to be blindsided. It’s somebody who is related to me.’”

It was Lam’s clemency petition, 192 pages. Rendon recalled Brown’s reaction as being “very Jerry Brown.”

“He started talking about criminal justice, theological-Jesuit stuff,” the speaker recalled. “I felt like my part was very brief.”

Both Lam and his sister declined to be interviewed for this story, but the package details Lam’s accomplishments: a high school diploma, four community college degrees. He has learned carpentry and has been a member of prison groups that did Bible study, restorative justice and gang rehabilitation. It also includes laudatory notes from prison officers, who report Lam has never been disciplined while in prison.

The centerpiece is Lam’s letter to Brown. In it, he described the fights, drugs and violence that were “a normal part” of his gang life leading up to the murder. Of the crime, he wrote, “the fact that we brought guns meant it was likely something much worse would happen, and it did. … We attacked and shot Matthew, then we ran away, like cowards.

“Today, I fully understand that my decisions during the night of the crime were just as costly as those of the person who pulled the trigger. Actually, I believe my actions were probably worse, because I was the person who got my friends together with the intention of attacking Matthew.”

Lam ended by saying he is “fully committed to living a life of service to others.” He has been at San Quentin, one of the top prisons for rehabilitative programs, since 2012. One of his staunchest advocates is Scott Budnick, whom he met there.

Budnick, who gained fame as producer of the “Hangover” movies, has also helped shape the law, as a proponent of sentencing reform, especially for offenders who committed crimes as teenagers. Teen brains are not fully formed, so they are not fully responsible for their actions, or so goes that theory.

“What stood out to me is that a lot of people screw up in prison before they realize what is important in life. John recognized that at a very young age,” said Budnick, who wrote to Brown urging mercy for Lam.


Lam has eight job offers, including ones from Budnick and Annie Lam, who promises to provide him a place to live and position in her consultancy business. Brown’s clemency team turned the case over to the Board of Parole Hearings, and a board investigator informed the judge and prosecutor at the end of February 2018 that he was opening an investigation of Lam’s request.

Slivka, the prosecutor, wrote a letter opposing Lam’s release, though she was not surprised at the outcome. Views have shifted: An appellate court had previously reduced convictions of Cooc and Dich to second-degree murder. Cooc got out last year. Dich likely will be released soon. Besides Lam, only Hung Ly, Sievert’s shooter, and Carroll—who remains behind bars at the California Institution for Women in Corona—were left.

On Nov. 21, 2018, Brown granted clemency to 52 convicted murders, reducing their sentences by a decade or more and making them eligible to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings for potential release.

Of those, 38 individuals had pulled the trigger, including two who committed double homicides. Thirty-two had been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Most committed the crimes as teenagers. One was Hung Ly, Sievert’s shooter. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2021. Another was Lam.

In knocking 10 years off Lam’s 26-to-life sentence, Brown wrote that Lam is “dedicated to living without violence and serving others.” Lam is scheduled to appear before the Parole Board later in May.

Milo is thinking about making a statement at Lam’s parole hearing.

“This thing about prisons being crowded, and not humane: What was humane about killing somebody? … I have no mercy for any of these people,” the mother said.

She was sitting in the front room of her East Sacramento home, near a framed photo of Matthew. She has a medallion acknowledging that his organs were donated. She has never returned to Tahoe Park, but has thought a lot about justice and what might have been had that night not happened. Maybe Matthew would be living with her now. Perhaps he would have married. Probably he would have wanted a job working outside.

Or maybe he would have evolved, like so much else. He was so young on the night they killed him. He would be a grown man now, like Lam, had he survived.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Below: Chan “John” Lam, 17 when the murder occurred, was sent first to Corcoran, then to San Quentin prison. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Published in Politics

Days after losing his position as leader of Assembly Republicans, Chad Mayes was entertaining lobbyists and lawmakers at a bar near the state Capitol, raising money for his re-election with a live video message from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I think you are the future of the Republican Party,” Schwarzenegger said to Mayes from the big screen, as guests sipped cocktails and nibbled on ahi tuna hors d’oeuvres.

The Republican former governor went on to praise Mayes—a Yucca Valley resident whose 42nd District includes much of the Coachella Valley, from La Quinta going west—for negotiating a bipartisan deal to extend California’s cap-and-trade program, an environmental policy Schwarzenegger helped create to curb global warming by forcing companies to pay for emitting greenhouse gases. Schwarzenegger called the deal “a fantastic way to move forward.”

If the Republican Party will go in that direction, then we will have an increase in the membership of the Republican Party,” Schwarzenegger said. “Because this is what the people want us to do.”

The comment illuminated a vast schism among California Republicans, who are divided over how to bring their shrinking party back to relevancy. The very reason Schwarzenegger called Mayes the “future of the Republican party”—his work on climate change—was what ultimately cost him his leadership post. Most of his fellow Republicans voted against the cap-and-trade bill, even though it was backed by traditional GOP interests including oil companies and the Chamber of Commerce. Republican activists saw Mayes’ support for a program that adds costs for businesses and their consumers as a betrayal of GOP values. They turned up the pressure until he was forced in late August to resign. Schwarzenegger, by contrast, saw a modern Republican taking pragmatic steps to broaden the party’s appeal in a state where voters overwhelmingly support policies that address global warming.

Mayes’ ouster shows how hard it is for California Republicans to embrace a more moderate stance. A decade ago, Schwarzenegger famously said California Republicans were “dying at the box office,” because hard-right politics appealed to so few people in an increasingly diverse state. Since then, the GOP has slipped even further. Today just 26 percent of California voters are registered Republicans, and internal polling Mayes highlighted shows that 7 percent of state Republicans are considering abandoning the party because of its stance on climate change. The GOP holds only one-third of the seats in the Legislature—too few to be of any consequence on most issues—and a Republican hasn’t won a statewide contest in California since Schwarzenegger’s re-election in 2006.

“We have one of two options,” Mayes said during a recent interview in his Capitol office. A stack of books on the table included a collection of Christian prayers and photos from the Civil Rights Movement. On the wall hung a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Dare mighty things.”

“We can either convert individuals to become Republicans, or we can reflect California values and as a party begin to move toward Californians. What we’ve been doing for the last 20 years is not converting Californians to our ideas. We’ve been repelling them, and we haven’t been reflecting Californians; we’ve become more insular and ideologically pure. And both of those are not winning strategies.”

Donald Trump’s victory last year, campaigning against climate policy and immigration, made it harder for Mayes to convince fellow Republicans that moderation was the key to electoral success. Even though Trump was trounced in California, he won the highest office in the land by appealing to the far right.

Mayes’ cap-and-trade vote in July was the tipping point for conservative activists who wanted him out, but it was not the first time Mayes had tried to craft a different image for California Republicans. Earlier this year, he took criticism from the right after the Assembly Republican caucus honored gay-rights icon Harvey Milk in a social media post.

During almost two years as leader, Mayes brought his caucus to a homeless shelter and spoke often about California’s soaring poverty rate. He wrote a bill (still pending) that would give welfare recipients incentive grants for completing their education. He negotiated with Democrats on a bill enacted last year that taxes health plans to bring in more money to provide health care for the poor. Mayes and Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon became known for their rare bipartisan bromance.

Yet Mayes is hardly a liberal sop. The son of an evangelical preacher, Mayes opposed Democrats’ plan to raise gas taxes to pay for road repairs. He voted against bills to increase the minimum wage and pay overtime to farmworkers. He earned an A+ rating from the Firearms Policy Coalition for his votes supporting gun rights.

Still, his chummy approach to Democrats didn’t fly with Republican party activists, who publicly accused him of having an extramarital affair with a former assemblywoman as the cap-and-trade vote loomed. (Mayes declined to answer questions about his personal life, other than to confirm that he is going through a divorce.) After the vote—and his participation in a bipartisan celebration in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office—the California Republican Party took the unusual step of formally urging Mayes to step down. Party leaders felt the cap-and-trade extension was both bad policy and bad politics, because in delivering Republican votes for the bill, Mayes allowed some Democrats to vote against it. The Democratic supermajority had splintered over cap and trade, with some progressives opposing it as too business-friendly, and some moderates withholding support to appease conservative voters in their swing districts.

Harmeet Dhillon, who represents California on the Republican National Committee, said Mayes was too focused on being liked by Democrats, and criticized him for handing Brown a victory by supporting cap and trade.

“We should all be bipartisan on issues that genuinely two sides can agree on. But there are no two sides to over-taxing Californians,” she said. “This is not an area where we can agree to have different shades as Republicans.”

Dhillon believes the new caucus leader, Assemblyman Brian Dahle, will be more reliably conservative. Dahle is a farmer who voted against extending cap and trade. His hometown of Bieber in Lassen County has 300 residents, and his rural district is solid Trump country.

Dahle is also known for building relationships across the aisle—he has already hosted the Democratic Assembly speaker at his home—and said Mayes’ bipartisanship makes sense in a statehouse so heavily dominated by Democrats. But Mayes “moved a little faster than the party could keep up with,” Dahle said during an interview at the Sacramento fundraiser.

“He takes huge gambles. And unfortunately, it was maybe too fast for some of the Republicans in California.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. For more analysis by Laurel Rosenhall, visit calmatters.org/articles/category/california/politics.

Published in Politics

More than three decades ago, James Cameron released a little slasher film with a sci-fi twist starring the dude from Conan the Barbarian.

The Terminator became a colossal hit—and the dude from Conan went on to bigger movies, including a rather high-profile temporary government job.

Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the Terminator franchise, isn’t nearly as good as the original or the first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (also by Cameron). Thankfully, it’s a slightly better offering than the third and fourth Terminator films (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation), films in which Cameron was absent and off doing other things like Titanic and his jazzed-up alien-Smurf movie, Avatar.

Cameron himself was part of the marketing campaign for Genisys, because he admired the film’s faithfulness to his two original offerings. While I share his enthusiasm for some aspects of the movie, the film isn’t without major problems. In some ways, I’m kind of surprised Cameron liked this movie.

There are lots of tricks played using the time-travel gimmick, throwing the whole Terminator universe out of whack. This gives director Alan Taylor the chance to revisit and re-create events from the original Terminator, including naked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first scene as the steely-eyed cyborg. The results are often fun, but a little chaotic and sloppy.

First, the good stuff: Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in his most iconic role, and he’s great. He plays a couple of different ages here, although he can’t get credit for playing his 1984 self in this film: That Arnold is a total computer creation, and an amazing one at that. Old Arnold fights his 1984 self in a scene I never thought I would see.

Arnie is as convincing as ever as an aging cyborg, with goofy pretend smiles and droll asides. As for action, the film provides plenty of good Terminator fights, and San Francisco again has a bad time at the movies, suffering through nuclear blasts and catastrophic school bus accidents on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now, the bad: Emilia Clarke is a washout as Sarah Connor; Jason Clarke is miscast as John Connor; and Jai Courtney absolutely stinks as Kyle Reese. These are big flaws—flaws big enough to derail most movies.

Emilia Clarke seems disconnected, and there’s an insincerity in her line delivery. Jason Clarke plays John Connor like a cartoon character, which is disheartening after the good work done by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl and even Christian Bale in the prior films. (Stahl and Bale were in subpar movies, but they still came off decently as John Connor.) His portrayal offers little nuance and feels out of place.

The biggest soul-sucker would be Courtney; he’s very bland in this one. Watch the original Terminator and Michael Biehn for a real angst-ridden, on-the-edge characterization of a guy who has been through the apocalypse. Courtney plays Reese like a soulless video-game character. There’s no reason to root for him.

Still … I like this movie. Arnold looks cool in his Terminator shades, and things blow up in really cool ways. Sometimes, I’m relatively easy to please.

Do the time-travel complications get a little confusing at times? Sure they do, but I admire Genisys for stretching out and attempting different things in the Terminator universe. Some of the paradox stuff had me scratching my head, but it all sort of ties together in the end. I did hate the total rip-off of the holographic villain from the Resident Evil series, though.

In the end, I had a good time. I want more for sure, and the movie leaves things open for future sequels, two of which there are currently planned. (Stay for the after-credits scene.)

If the future installments get the go-ahead, they should keep aging Arnie, but fire the rest of the cast. This film lacks true human charisma. As for Terminators, Arnie has things more than covered.

Terminator Genisys is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Maggie certainly boasts a promising premise: A father (Arnold Schwarzenegger) keeps authorities at bay as he deals with the slow death of his daughter (Abigail Breslin)—who is becoming a cannibal zombie.

Unfortunately, director Henry Hobson takes this premise and soft-pedals it, making the movie less of a horror film and more of a disease-of-the-week family drama.

While the leads do some decent work, there’s little in this movie that surprises or—more importantly—scares. I got the sense that the folks putting this movie together went in with one idea, and wound up with something completely different. It’s rated PG-13, and there are scenes that play as if they were re-edited to attain that rating rather than an R rating.

Schwarzenegger can’t really catch a break since coming out of semi-retirement, even though he’s putting in some of his best performances. Breslin did zombies much better when she was in Zombieland. Joely Richardson plays the mom role as if she has no idea what kind of movie she is in.

Hobson’s movie was highly anticipated by genre and Arnie fans—and it’s a bit of a letdown.

Maggie is available on demand and via online sources including Amazon.com and iTunes.

Published in Reviews

Sylvester Stallone and his awesome band of old crows take some major missteps in The Expendables 3—an unfortunate leap backward for the aging-action-star franchise.

Stallone and company jettisoned the smarmy Bruce Willis in favor of the growly Harrison Ford, and this is a great change. They also added Wesley Snipes as Doctor Death, Antonio Banderas as fast-talking comic relief and, most notably, Mel Gibson playing himself (aka The World’s Biggest Asshole).

Stallone and director Patrick Hughes should’ve stopped right there and given the group (which also includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and many others) a decent script. This is a sufficient cast for any action movie—so get cracking with the pyrotechnics, and focus on a story that makes sense!

Alas, that didn’t happen. Perhaps because the production could only afford the big guys for a minimal amount of time, the script has Stallone’s Barney Ross putting the old guys on ice after the first 30 minutes in favor of a new, mostly younger crew—and most of that new crew is uninteresting and lacks the charisma of their older counterparts. Too much screen time is given to the likes of mixed martial arts superstar Ronda Rousey, who can most certainly kick the shit out of people, but can’t act for squat. Names like Kellan Lutz (the Twilight films) and boxer Victor Ortiz round out the boring faction of the new cast.

The plot is a mish-mosh of action-movie clichés, as Barney finds himself gathering the new team to go up against Stonebanks (Gibson), a former Expendable turned arms dealer and bad guy. Gibson gets a couple of scenes to show off his catcher’s-glove face (seriously … stop smoking, Mel!) and act all crazy.

After some tedious scenes introducing the new crew (featuring Kelsey Grammer, of all people), Barney eventually lets the old guys back into the movie, and this results in a halfway-decent finale during which many things blow up. It also has a typical showdown between Barney’s good guy and Stonebanks, during which the villain gets the upper hand, yet throws away his weapon in favor of hand-to-hand combat. Gibson vs. Stallone is a bit outlandish, even if Stallone is something like 95 years old.

I did like the sight of Harrison Ford piloting a helicopter, Han Solo-style, and Snipes is fun in his few scenes. The screenplay has a lot of inside jokes about his tax-evasion jail sentence that warrant a chuckle or two. Dolph Lundgren’s “Sore Loser” T-shirt also put a smile on my face, as did Terry Crews, once again letting loose with his really big gun.

I don’t understand the Jason Statham phenomenon. He’s been OK in a couple of films, but most of the stuff he slums in is trash. I’m sort of grateful that this movie puts him into more of a background role.

In an effort to give the film more earnings potential, it was made for a PG-13 rating (while the previous installments were R-rated). Dumb move. The target audience for this sort of stuff likes movies filled with bloody carnage and F-bombs. This boneheaded move, along with a pirated copy of the film that has been downloaded by millions, resulted in The Expendables 3 having a bad box-office opening.

Unless this movie catches fire overseas, the franchise may be in jeopardy. If you can’t get it done in the third installment, you are usually toast in Hollywood.

The Expendables 3 is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t catch a break. He’s looking good, and he’s delivering nice “Arnie” performances—in films with scripts that make Commando look like Citizen Kane.

In Sabotage, he plays a drug-enforcement agent who, along with his team of ragtag miscreants, tries to steal money from a drug cartel. When the money gets stolen, each of them starts to get picked off, one by one, in increasingly grisly fashion.

The film suffers from poor casting. Olivia Williams, who is British, cannot sell an American accent, even when she’s chewing gum. Mireille Enos is unintentionally hilarious as an undercover DEA agent who can’t shake the drugs off the job. Sam Worthington, Josh Holloway and Terrence Howard all put on their tough faces, replete with heavy sneering and scowling. In the end, you get a bunch of characters you could care less about in a movie with a plot that is far too convoluted.

Arnie soldiers through for director David Ayer, who did the very-good End of Watch—but can’t ride the wave of goodwill that film created into this one. It’s sloppy, clichéd and not worth your time.

Sabotage is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Last April, partisanship reached new extremes in the Montana Legislature. Democratic lawmakers, shouting and pounding their desks, drowned out the Republican majority’s attempts to read Senate Bill 408. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, called the partisan warfare “worse than Washington, D.C.”

The bill, which passed on a party-line vote, sent to the November 2014 ballot a referendum that will let Montanans choose to replace party-based primaries with a top-two system: Rather than advancing the Republican, Democratic and third-party primary winners to general elections, top-two systems require all candidates to face off in a single primary. The two most-popular candidates advance, regardless of party. (Even though Bullock opposed the measure, referendum bills don’t need to be signed by the governor in Montana.)

Washington state implemented the system in 2008, as did our state of California in 2012. Advocates say the old system favors extremists and contributes to polarization. Political observers disagree on whether the reforms have helped.

But one result is undeniable: Top-two has banished minor parties, like Libertarians and Greens, from general-election ballots.

“They’re screwed,” says Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political scientist. That prospect seems to be exactly what’s motivating Montana Republicans, who blame Libertarian spoilers for their recent narrow losses to Democrats.

Many politicos see traditional primaries, which generally allow only registered Democrats or Republicans to vote, as partly to blame for congressional dysfunction. Both parties have painstakingly redrawn legislative districts to make them safe bets. Primaries in some of these reliably red or blue districts have become more decisive than general elections, forcing candidates to court the voters that turn out for them—often the parties’ most right- or left-wing members.

This puts centrists at a disadvantage. Many “establishment” House Republicans, for instance, took a back seat to their Tea Party colleagues in last year’s government shutdown, fearing that any compromise with Democrats would provoke primary challenges from conservative ideologues. The resulting crises have prompted more calls for primary reform, and rebellion among conservative allies dissatisfied with the gridlock. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is throwing its weight behind old-guard Republicans like Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, who is facing a Tea Party primary opponent. A pro-business political group is doing the same in Montana.

California state legislators, unable to compromise over taxes and spending, also created regular budget crises. In response, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger helped lead a successful push for reforms, including the top-two primary system. It would promote moderation, proponents believed, because candidates would have to appeal not only to their ideological base, but to voters of all political leanings.

For the top-two system to work, however, centrists have to vote. Turnout for California’s 2012 primaries slumped to its lowest ever, while Washington’s dropped to its third-lowest. That may be why California politicians are no more aligned with the average voter than they were before the change, according to two survey-based studies. And Washington’s Legislature was already fairly moderate, says Donovan, who has seen little evidence of political change.

Advocates say top-two just needs more time. Still, they believe it’s already helping: Last fall, former Republican strategist Dan Schnur told The New York Times, “You see Republicans voting for immigration reform; you see Democrats voting for streamlining environmental regulations.”

In any case, the new system has undoubtedly further marginalized minority parties. Third-party congressional candidates appeared regularly on Washington’s ballot before 2008; only one has done so since. In California, where more than 20 percent of voters are registered independents, the only third-party candidate on the 2012 general-election ballot was Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

While sidelining minority parties was never the goal in Washington and California, it appears to be driving the GOP’s push for a top-two system in Montana. In 2006, incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, lost to Democrat Jon Tester by only 3,562 votes. A Libertarian took about 10,000 votes. In 2012, many think Libertarian candidate Dan Cox, with help from liberal dark money, siphoned votes from Republican Denny Rehberg, enabling Tester’s second victory. Cox drew 31,892 votes—13,820 more than Rehberg lost by. A Libertarian took 4 percent of votes in the 2012 governor’s race, which Democrat Steve Bullock won by just 2 points.

But a top-two system may not guarantee future GOP victories, says Richard Winger, a California-based ballot-access analyst. The theory that Libertarians spoiled these races assumes that the votes they draw would otherwise go to Republicans. That’s not always true. When a Libertarian won 6.5 percent of the vote in Virginia’s last governor’s race, exit polls showed that those voters were largely pro-choice, and some favored the Democrat over the Republican. Either way, Montana Libertarians anticipate extinction if the state adopts top-two. “You have to wonder if (the Republicans) actually believe in the free market, because they are trying to use the forces of government to their ends,” says Montana Libertarian Party chair Mike Fellows.

Not everyone is worried about the potential demise of third parties. Montana political scientist Jim Lopach thinks that top-two would have a net benefit for the state if it had a moderating influence. On the other hand, general elections are “where people discuss what they want in an office, and what they want in public policy,” says Andrew Spencer, an attorney with FairVote, a voter advocacy group. A third-party presence can help shape the debate, and even policy. Independent Ross Perot, who campaigned for president in 1992 on fiscal prudence and took nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, is credited with influencing Bill Clinton’s effort to balance the federal budget.

“If you opened up a good burger restaurant, more people are still going to eat at Burger King and McDonald’s,” says Montana Libertarian Dan Cox. “It takes time to get your share of the marketplace.”

However, in Montana, as in California, time may be running out.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Politics

At long last, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up for a movie together in which they both play big parts. Yes, they have been in The Expendables films together, but Arnie has only done guest spots.

Escape Plan has Sly playing a security expert who escapes from prisons for a living. Things go bad when he gets buried in a maximum-security prison—and the folks who put him there plan to keep him locked up. Arnie plays a prisoner who befriends Sly on the inside, and they together look for a way to get out of a seemingly inescapable place.

Stallone is good here, and I haven’t enjoyed Arnie this much since well before he became governor. Arnold has one scene in which he raves to the warden about God in German. It turns out the warden is played by Jim Caviezel, who did, in fact, play Jesus for Mel Gibson, which makes the scene extra insane.

Escape Plan is junky fun, and it will make fans giddy. Yes, Stallone and Schwarzenegger are getting old, but they look great and have a lot of life in them. This bombed in the U.S., but did OK overseas, where the two aging stars appear to still have a little box-office clout.

Special Features: A commentary with the writer and director, deleted scenes and some behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

At long last, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have teamed up in a movie in which they both play big parts. (Yes, they have been in the Expendables films together, but Arnie has only done guest spots in those.)

Escape Plan has Sly playing a security authority who escapes from prisons for a living. Things go bad when he gets buried in a maximum-security prison—and the folks who put him there plan to keep him locked up.

Arnie plays a prisoner who befriends Sly on the inside, and they both look for a way to get out of a seemingly inescapable place. Stallone is good here, and I haven’t enjoyed Arnie this much since his films before he became governor of this great state.

Arnold has one scene in which he raves about God in German—and he’s raving to the warden. It turns out the warden is played by Jim Caviezel, who did, in fact, play Jesus for Mel Gibson, which makes the scene extra-insane.

This is junky fun, but it will make fans giddy. Yes, Sly and Arnie are getting old, but they look great and still have a lot of life in them. 

Escape Plan is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to movies as a headliner not only bombed domestically; The Last Stand was a massive international bomb. It didn’t make back its relatively meager $45 million budget during its theatrical run—a big fall for the man who used to be the world’s biggest movie star.

In truth, this is not the greatest of surprises, because the movie is not very good.

Arnie plays a sheriff in a border town who finds himself squaring off with a drug-cartel baddie and his cronies. Johnny Knoxville shows up as the kooky sidekick (again), and Luis Guzman shows up and does his normal thing.

Arnie is in good form; it’s the film that seems stale. It feels like 12 movies you’ve seen before cobbled together as a warm-up for a guy who has been out of the game for a few years. It’s too bad; Arnie should’ve made his comeback vehicle a film in which he was fighting aliens or trading quips with Danny DeVito.

This mediocre rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13 doesn’t do him justice.

Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker plays an FBI agent who spends most of the film yelling into telephones and staring at computer screens.

Special Features: There are deleted and extended scenes, along with some behind-the-scenes docs.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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