Sunday, March 19, 2017

TEN MOVIES TO CELEBRATE THE HOLIDAYS WITH
By
John Michael Decker

To me, holidays have always been a double-edged sword. I mean, sure, you get the day off to spend time with your family, BUT that means you have to spend time with your family on your day off! Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but we are the most divergent, opinionated group of misfits ever to break bread together, and it doesn’t take much provocation for a pleasant family dinner to devolve into a proper European soccer riot.  I’m sure many of you know just exactly what I mean.

But not to worry, friends! I have the perfect balm for your holiday woes! Movies! Yes, nothing encourages unity more than plopping down in front of the ol’ boob tube with the fam and collectively plugging into your favorite film-viewing technology.

To help you out I have compiled a list of the ten most celebrated holidays in the United States, and then offered a flick for each date, which I feel best exemplifies said holiday. All the movies I chose are eminently re-watchable and contain boatloads of entertainment value, which should unify even the most combative households. No Schlindler’s List or Passion of the Christ here. These flicks are fun!

Warning! There may some very minor spoilers in my film descriptions. Nothing serious, but if you haven’t seen the movies I’m talking about and you want to go in clean, proceed with caution.

1) NEW YEAR’S EVE (December the 31st):

Alright, this one isn’t necessarily appropriate for the whole family and it definitely wouldn’t be something you would want to show small children, but then again, out of all the holidays I’m covering here, New Year’s Eve is less about getting together with the family and more about partying with your best chums. So my suggestion is to break up your New Year’s Eve gathering with a mandatory viewing of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). At a brisk running time of about an hour and a half, you could start this little gem just after 9pm and finish in time to pop the cork on some champagne, watch the ball drop in Times Square, and kiss your best guy or gal full on the mouth.   

This early Carpenter effort concerns a nearly empty police station on the verge of closing that ends up getting attacked on New Year’s Eve by an almost supernaturally relentless gang of street punks who are out for revenge. It’s got a real pulpy, exploitationy, grind house kind of vibe that will go real well with whatever adult libation you and your friends happen to be imbibing. It’s an efficient little thriller, rough and sloppy at times, but then again, so are the best New Year’s Eve parties.

2) VALENTINE’S DAY (February the 14th):

This can be a lovely holiday if you’re in a happy romantic relationship. If you’re single however, Valentine’s Day can suck rocks. In either case, a good film to watch on the night in question is The Terminator (1984). Now some could argue that this is an inappropriate choice for what is purportedly the most romantic night of the year. Why pick a science fiction/action movie with horror elements sprinkled in to commemorate Cupid’s busiest day? Because stripped down, Jim Cameron’s original killer-cyborg-from-the-future flick is a love story.

Sure, Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s portrayal of the cybernetic assassin, the T-800, is pretty badass, and there are some amazing action set pieces that still hold up today. But I contend that that the T-800 is nothing more than a mechanical MacGuffin, in service to the real story, the love that develops between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor. Think about it. Reese volunteers for what is almost certainly going to be a suicide mission. He agrees to travel back in time and protect a woman whom he only knows through the stories her son has told about her and from staring for hours at an old Polaroid of her face. Throughout the night Sarah goes from fearing Kyle, to counting on him, and then ultimately to returning his love and through their mutual love they are able to create something that will eventually save the future. If there is anything more romantic than that, I don’t know what it is. And hey, if you are feeling cynical about romance, you can still enjoy it for all of the car chases, explosions and the huge body count that the Terminator racks up.

3) ST. PATRICK’S DAY (March the 17th):

To me St. Patty’s Day has always been an excuse for Americans to pretend they are Irish and get drunk. And hey, if that’s how you want to spend the day, Mozel Tov. But while you are chugging down six packs of your favorite green brew, why not throw a copy of The Quiet Man (1952) into the ol’ DVD player. This movie is more Irish than a leprechaun with a shillelagh in one fist and a parcel of four leaf clovers in the other kissing the blarney stone. Faith and Begorrah!  

The story focuses on American boxer, Sean Thornton, played by the great John Wayne, who travels to Ireland to escape his past and falls for fiery lass, Mary Kate Danaher, played by the resplendent Maureen O’Hara. The lass’s brother, Red, played by Victor McLaglen, doesn’t like the cut of the Duke’s jib and shenanigans ensue. There’s even a proper Irish Donnybrook that breaks out between Sean and Red, which is broken up by a trip to the pub for a wee drink before the boys get back to their fisticuffs. Nothing could be more appropriate than this American view of the Emerald Isle.

4) EASTER (First Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon or soonest after March 21st):

I almost picked Richard Donner’s Superman for this holiday, but then I thought about it and came up with an even more appropriate film choice. Putting aside the giant, anthropomorphized rabbit and his basket of type-two diabetes, Easter celebrates the story of the death and resurrection of a man who came to earth to teach us a better way. What movie better exemplifies this idea than Steven Spielberg’s wonderful E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)?

Think about it. You have the lonely little boy, Elliott, who encounter’s a being from the sky who is gentler and wiser than most of the human beings he finds himself surrounded by and who has seemingly supernatural powers. Through this being’s patience and love, Elliott’s life, and that of his family, is changed for the better. Throw in the death and resurrection of the alien and this Easter metaphor really starts to snap, crackle and pop. And yes, there’s even the scene with the Reese’s Pieces for those of you who are into the holiday for the delicious, delicious candy. Mmmmm… Delicious candy…    

5) MOTHER’S DAY (Second Sunday of May):

It could certainly be argued that motherhood is the toughest job in the world, so what better movie to celebrate all Moms everywhere than James Cameron’s science fiction/action masterpiece, Aliens (1986). James Cameron excels at writing well rounded, action heroin’s (check out Sarah Connor from the Terminator) and there is none more ass-kicking than Ellen Ripley, as portrayed by the amazing Sigourney Weaver.

And the major thing that makes Ripley so freaking cool is fact that she’s a mother. In the extended version of the movie it’s revealed that in Ripley’s fifty-seven years in suspended animation, her biological daughter has grown old and died. So the movie begins with Ripley not only traumatized by her experiences with the alien xenomorph from the first flick, but from the fact that she lost her child. And Ripley pretty much remains traumatized until she returns to the colony on LV-426 and encounters the orphan, Newt. By becoming Newt’s surrogate mother, Ripley is able access her inner action hero and fight hoards of the aliens, which she fears so much. This movie also introduces the Alien Queen (another mother) and culminates in a battle between the two baddest mothers in the galaxy. 

6) FATHER’S DAY (Third Sunday in June):

On this day when we celebrate fatherhood, paternal bonds, and the influence of the Dads in our lives, why not treat the old man to a classic flick. Some of the best memories I have of my pop are when he would take me, my brothers, and our gang of friends to the movies. My Dad would have us all sit in the back of the theatre and then let out his impressive Bigfoot scream during the most intense moments of the film, so we could watch everyone in front of us enjoy a good jump scare.  

Many people I know consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) to be the best Indy film of the bunch. I think that one of the main reasons this flick stands out is that the major relationship explored isn’t between Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and some ingenue, but between Indy and his old man, Henry Jones Sr. And let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want Sean Connery to play our Dad? I mean, come on! The dude was the original James Bond! JAMES BOND! Now that guy had to have seeded a bunch of vodka-martini-loving kids all over the most exotic corners of the planet, am I right? But I digress. The strained but loving relationship between the two Jones’ echoes many real father/son relationship’s I know, and the film culminating in the older man’s acceptance of his son when he finally calls him “Indiana” and not “Junior” always brings a tear to my eye.

7) INDEPENDENCE DAY (July the 4th):

The Fourth of July is a time for picnics, fireworks, and a celebration of the birth of our nation. It’s also often a time of rampant jingoism. There are many great, jingoistic, flicks I could have chosen to honor the good ol’ US of A, but to my mind, none are as much fun as Rocky IV (1985).

This absolutely isn’t the best film of the Rocky franchise by any stretch of the imagination. The adult cartoon that is Rocky IV is really just a series of training montages broken up by the occasional fight scene. But by God, it is the most relentlessly patriotic Rocky flick of the lot! The films main antagonist, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, represent’s pretty much everything we feared about the U.S.S.R. in the Regan era. He’s a gigantic, steroid-fueled automaton, whose sole purpose seems to be to prove that Soviets are superior to puny Americans. But through the power of pure stubborn determination and pluck, our hero Rocky not only manages to defeat the Soviet Superman in the ring, but to single handedly put an end to the cold war with a speech so passionately inarticulate, yet humbly earnest, that it manages to change the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Preposterous? Sure. But you won’t notice because you’ll be too busy wiping the tears out of your eyes and pumping your fist in the air.

8) HALLOWEEN (October the 31st):

Out of all the holidays I chose to tackle in this article, Halloween was the toughest to pair a film with because there are literally hundreds of great Halloween-centric flicks I could have chosen. I thought about John Carpenter’s classic 1978 masterpiece named for the holiday itself, but that was a little on the nose. Then I considered the Nightmare before Christmas, but it’s debatable weather that one is more of a Christmas or an All Hollow’s Eve flick. Ultimately I ended up going with Michael Dougherty’s criminally under-seen Trick ‘r Treat (2007).

Like many of the best cult classics, this little gem had a limited and unsuccessful theatrical release before it found its audience in the home media market. This is an anthology weaving together five stories, which take place on the same Halloween night. The major unifying factor in all the stories is the appearance of Sam, who seems to be a child in shabby orange PJs with a burlap sack over his head. Sam acts as an avatar for the holiday, and every time the “rules of Halloween” are broken, he appears to see that justice is done. The reason I chose this flick over others is that through the course of the story it covers many of the different subgenres or horror that I love. From slasher, to supernatural, to monster, there’s something for everyone here, so in between handing out candy to cosplaying kiddies, and bobbing for apples, why not watch Trick ‘r Treat with your best ghoul, but don’t forget to obey the rules of the day… Or else! 

9) THANKSGIVING (Fourth Thursday of November):

I’ve always thought that Thanksgiving isn’t as much a time to be thankful for the good things in our lives, as it a worship of food (although it is good to stop and be thankful once in a while). I can’t think of the holiday without imagining a giant roasted turkey surrounded by mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, corn bread, apple pie, oh sweet lord, that apple pie, heated with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Heaven. And then you get to feast on Thanksgiving sandwiches for the rest of the week… Sorry, losing focus here. Anywho, on that Holy Thursday before Black Friday when the world goes insane for a month, it’s common to fight off the tryptophan induced fatigue by plopping on the couch and watching sports-ball. But I say, why not watch a movie that also pays tribute to food wonderful food. I’m speaking, of course, about Jon Favreau’s Chef (2014).

This quirky little indy dramedy has Favreau not only sitting in the director’s chair but staring as Carl Casper, the head chef of a fancy California restaurant. Feeling creatively boxed in, and totally dissatisfied with his place at the restaurant, Carl has a twitter tantrum after a bad review, which blows up his life. In order to find his center, he returns to his roots in Miami, FL, where he buys a food truck and then travels cross-country with his best friend Martin and his estranged son Percy. The three bond, sell Cuban sandwiches, and visit famous foodie hot spots in New Orleans and Austin. I know this doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but this is a really great character piece about finding that thing you were meant to do and then doing it, while extolling the virtues of great cuisine and family. Also, it will make you want to add Cuban sandwiches and yucca fries to your menu on your next Turkey Day.  

10) CHRISTMAS (December the 25th):

Like Halloween, Christmas offers an excess of movie choices, which would go well with the day. But unlike Halloween, for me anyway, the choice was easy. So after opening your presents, eating your Christmas ham, and drinking your spiked eggnog, sit the family down and watch the Richard Donner classic Lethal Weapon (1987). Yeah, this movie is more than an 80s cop buddy action flick with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

First of all, this is written by Shane Black, who seems to weave a Christmas motif into all the pictures he works on. Here are just some of the Christmas themes that are woven into the story. The film opens to the sound of “Jingle Bell Rock” as a coked-up hooker takes a nosedive off a high-rise in LA. Sure, it’s not going to snow outside in the City of Angels, but that prostitute sure was snorting some snow, the very definition of an LA Christmas. One of the first times we see Gibson’s unhinged detective, Martin Riggs, he’s busting a bunch of drug dealers at a Christmas tree lot. And let’s not forget the even more unhinged Mr. Joshua, played by the motorcycle-helmet hating Gary Busey, driving his car through the side of Detective Roger Murtaugh’s home, which is all bedecked in Yuletide splendor. A Christmas Carol is playing on the television, and when Alastair Sim asked the question, “What day is it?” Joshua responds by blasting the TV and screaming, “It’s Goddamn Christmas!” Then there is a recurring theme of redemption as the formerly suicidal Riggs finds new reasons to live through his friendship and exposure to Murtaugh and his family.    

Well, that ought to get you through the major holidays, but I think I’ll leave you with a special BONUS…

ARBOR DAY (Which will fall on April the 28th, 2017 in Nebraska this year according to the inter-webs):

“What?” I hear you thinking. “Arbor Day? That’s not a proper holiday!” Listen bub, if it got a Charlie Brown special it’s good enough for me! That’s why this year on Arbor Day you should take some time away from hugging trees to watch Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). “Why Guardians?” You may inquire. Three words. “I… Am… Groot.”

That’s right, folks, inarguably the heart and soul of this awesome little super hero/science fiction hybrid is a giant, sentient, tree with a three word vocabulary. So on the day when you should be focused on saving the trees, take a little time to watch the flick where the tree saves the humans.    

John Michael Decker is an actor living in Brooklyn who loves movies, comic books, and wearing hats. He lives with his understanding girlfriend, Tessa, who is a hell of an editor. 

Copyright 2017 John Michael Decker. No reprints without written permission.


Sunday, January 08, 2017

John Michael Decker's Top Ten Favorite Films of 2016!!

I haven’t made a list like this in a few years. Time I got back to it. I’ll try not to get as verbose as I have the last few times I did this. I just want to point out two things before I start. Firstly, I haven’t been seeing as many flicks as I used to back in the day, which is the main reason I haven’t really produced an official list in awhile. If there is something that you think was incredible that you feel I somehow omitted, chances are I didn’t see it. Secondly, this is my list of “favorite” films. Favorite doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” These are the top ten experiences I had in a movie theatre in the past year. The ones that were the most enjoyable to me. The ones that appealed to my particular sensibilities the most. And trust me, 2016 was a year where I really needed escapism.

Honorable Mentions

Before I get to the official list, I'd like to mention a few films that didn't quite make the cut this year. Good enough to recommend, but not a top ten pick for me.

Hail Caesar was a lesser Coen brother’s comedy featuring Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio executive in old Hollywood whose job it is “fix” problems. Particularly, to track down the studio’s biggest star, played by George Clooney, who vanished in the middle of a film shoot. This is great off-kilter comedy delivered as only the Coen brothers can.

Star Trek Beyond is the third Trek movie that takes place in what has come to be known as the Kelven timeline, and the first of this trilogy not to be directed by JJ Abrams. This time it’s Justin Lin in the directors chair working from a script co-written by Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty in the film). It’s a lot more fun than the last one, and the movie does a nice job of giving each character their place in the spotlight. Although this isn’t the Star Trek I grew up with, it offered some truly enjoyable escapism.

Green Room features, sadly, one of the last performances of the talented young actor Anton Yelchin who died tragically last year, as well as an atypical performance by the great Patrick Stewart, who played a Neo-Nazi club owner. The plot finds a punk band fending off attacks by Neo-Nazi’s in the pacific northwest after seeing something they really shouldn’t have in a Skinhead bar. This is a great, intense, bottle-film with masterfully handles suspense as well as explosive action.

The VVitch: A New England Folktale is a chilling, slow-burn of a period horror film about a family of Puritans who are exiled from their village and must face an evil force plaguing them from the deep, unexplored, forest. The 17th century language and attention to details were astounding, as were the performances and the very genuine sense of impending doom.  

But enough with the appetizers, lets get to the main course!

My Top 10 Films of 2016:

#10: Don’t Breathe
In this clever twist on the home invasion horror flick, directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez, three ne’er-do-well teens break into an old blind man’s house, hoping for an easy score. Unfortunately for them the old man, played by the fantastic Stephen Lang, is the most terrifyingly deadly human being imaginable. High jinks ensue. Not for the faint of heart.

#9: 10 Cloverfield Lane
This terrific psychological thriller is the spiritual successor to the 2008 found-footage, giant monster flick, Cloverfield. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a young woman who is abducted and held in a bunker by an apparently unhinged man, played brilliantly by John Goodman, who claims to be protecting her from some kind of apocalyptic event. The film is incredibly effective as a thriller, but in the last ten minutes or so it switches gears and turns into something so amazing and unexpected that I can’t even hint as to what it is without spoiling the experience for you. Just go and see it!

#8: Swiss Army Man
This is, without a doubt, the strangest, most original, most unexpected thing I saw in 2016. Describing the plot is going to be nearly impossible, so I’ll just say that it’s about a suicidal man and a corpse, played respectively by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, who develop a unique friendship as they try to escape being marooned on a deserted island. Think Castaway meets Weekend at Bernie’s only somehow deeper and more thought provoking than either of those films.

#7: Doctor Strange
I’m a sucker for comic book films, and no one does comic book films better than Marvel Studios. In this one Benedict Cumberbatch plays an arrogant surgeon who loses his fine motor skills after a serious car accident crushes his hands. Exhausting all medical means to restore his ability to perform surgery, he turns to mysticism to cure his handicap. In doing so he finds a power within himself he never knew he possessed and is drawn into a bizarre occult world. As much as I enjoyed the story and the characters, my favorite thing about this movie was the special effects, which mirrored the artwork of Steve Ditko, co-creator of the Doctor Strange character with Stan Lee. I don’t say this often, but it’s totally worth it to see this one in IMAX 3D. 

#6: The Nice Guys
In 1970s Los Angeles two schlubby private eyes, played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, bumble their way through an investigation into the death of a porn star. This was written and directed by Shane Black, the same guy responsible for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, one of my favorite flicks, and while it’s not as good as that one, it still features Black’s signature dialogue, action, and fantastic character interactions. 

#5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This is, without a doubt, the best Star Wars prequel ever made. Not that a really high bar has been set for Star Wars prequels. This is also the first Star Wars film to truly deal with the heavy cost of war. Indeed, this is a genuine war film set in the Star Wars universe which tells the story of the brave band of Rebel’s whose job it was to steal the plans for the Death Star from the Galactic Empire. The end of this film fits seamlessly into the beginning of Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope, and is especially heartbreaking considering the recent, untimely death of Carrie Fisher.

#4: Hell or High Water
In this modern day western, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of brothers from West Texas who start robbing banks in a scheme to save the family farm while being pursued by a couple of dogged Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Brimingham. It is the fascinating parallel relationships between the two groups of men as well as the complex moral gray areas this film delves into that sets it above the typical western. 

#3: Arrival
This is the best hard science fiction movie I’ve seen in years. Amy Adams plays a linguistics expert hired to communicate with a mysterious group of aliens whose spacecrafts are hovering in twelve locations across the planet. This is a story more about ideas than action, and the ideas explored are fantastic. The end of this film manages to be both devastating and hopeful in equal measure, which is no easy trick. Challenging and beautiful, the twist ending really stayed with me. Seriously, I just can’t recommend this enough.

#2: Deadpool
The popular Deadpool comic book character is brought brilliantly to the big screen by director Tim Miller and actor Ryan Reynolds, who plays the titular title character. Not only is this one of the few successful R-rated comic book movies ever made, but it also serves as the first real superhero comedy, and it is hilarious. The plot, about a loud mouthed, mentally unstable, mercenary who is subjected to an experiment which grants him accelerated healing powers but makes his face look like undercooked meatloaf, is a pretty by-the-numbers superhero origin story. What makes it great is the dark sense of humor and clever writing, which subverts typical superhero genre conventions and makes familiar comic book tropes hilarious.

And now, my favorite movie of 2016...

#1: Captain America: Civil War
As I said, and as this list proves, I am a sucker of a good super hero movie, and this one is incredible. This is the thirteenth movie in the series of films making up the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the third film to focus on the heart of that universe, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America. Not only does the plot change the core dynamic of that universe from here on out, but it features the absolute best on-screen superhero battle ever put on film. It is packed with characters, but because most of them have already been introduced in their own movies, it does not seem overcrowded the way Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad did. This is also the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature Spider-Man, my personal favorite comic book character, and even though his screen time is limited, this is the most true to the source material Spider-Man we’ve ever seen. But beyond all of the amazing action and spectacle and all of the strong supporting characters, this is a movie about the fracturing of the relationship between Tony Stark AKA Iron Man and Steve Rogers. The viewer is presented with two very strong protagonists with opposing points of view, both of which are totally valid. Both of these men are honorable and try to find a peaceful resolution to their conflict, but in the end their differences prove to be too big for them to resolve and it’s all kind of heart breaking.

For someone not as invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as I am, I can see how this movie wouldn’t be on the top of their list. But for me, who has followed and loved these characters since I was a child, this was exactly the balance of character driven drama and cinematic thrill ride that I want beamed into my eyeballs every year.    

Let me know what you all thought. What were your top ten? Did I miss anything spectacular? Am I completely off the mark on anything?

John Michael Decker is an actor living in Brooklyn who loves movies, comic books, and wearing hats.


Copyright 2017 John Michael Decker. No reprints without written permission.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Life in a world where Donald Trump is President

I haven’t made any political statements on my main page in awhile. After this post, it may be awhile before I make another one. I’m sure many of you are relieved about that. With Inauguration Day fast approaching, I feel compelled to speak. This is a post aimed at my conservative friends, my Republican friends, my friends who supported Donald Trump in the presidential election of 2016…

The first thing I want to say is that I’m not looking to start a fight here. I don’t think that any of you are unintelligent, deluded, or misinformed. If you are one of my friends on Facebook, and if you are still reading this, than know that I hold only the utmost respect for you. We all had the same resources to draw from, we all looked at the arguments all sides made in favor of their respective candidates, and on Election Day 2016, we all made what we felt were the best decisions we could for our country and for our families and for the future based on our various ideological beliefs. If you supported and/or voted for Donald Trump, I know that you had your reasons, and I see no need to rehash what those were. Most of you intelligently and eloquently stated your case on your various social media outlets. Now I most likely didn’t agree with your reasons and I might even have debated with you over those reasons, but please understand that any decisions you made in the voting booth last November do not diminish the feelings of love and friendship I have for you. Hopefully we’re all on the same page so far.

When it first became clear that Donald Trump was going to be our next president, I will freely admit that my response to this was extreme. I was shocked, angered, and then seriously depressed about the outcome. If anything I posted during that emotional time offended any of you, than all I can do is apologize. I also want to thank those of you who reached out to me to see if I was alright after the election. I was not alright. To be honest, I’m still not alright about the results of the election, but at least I’ve given myself some time to look at the situation in a more practical, less emotional, light.

And the conclusion I’ve come to is that I can’t support Donald Trump as our president. I can’t give him a chance. I can’t hope he’s not as dangerous as I think he is. And I can’t just accept the situation and move on with my life, because every instinct I have tells me that making this man the 45th president of the United States was a tragic mistake.

And it’s not just about the political and ideological differences that I have with the man. True, if any of the Republican candidates had won the election I would have been upset and I would have felt that they were taking the country in the wrong direction, but my issues with him go far beyond that. I couldn’t support Trump as president even if he were still a Democrat.

There are two major things about Donald Trump being our president that give me pause outside of the political disagreements we have. They are things that I hope you have thought of, and that should give you pause as well.

Number one is that, to my mind, there has been ample evidence made available from several reputable sources that our American election was tampered with by the Russian government under the direction of Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin is not a good man. He is not a good leader, and he is not a friend of the United States. I could present a list of all of the despicable atrocities that Mr. Putin is responsible for, but we all have the internet. If Vladimir Putin altered events to tip the election in favor of Donald Trump, and I truly believe that he did, that is bad for all of us. Really, really, bad. 

But let’s say that you don’t believe that Russia tampered with our election. I’ll disagree with you, but I’ll grant that maybe you have some good reason for that opinion or maybe you even have some information that I don’t. So let’s put that little chestnut aside for now. My second reason for refusing to support our incoming president is, to my mind, even more troubling.

Simply put, Donald Trump is unstable. Donald Trump is 70 years old, but has been in the public eye since he was in his early 20s. We have had ample time to observe his public persona and to get to know who he is. The kind of person he is. Trump has always been a classic narcissistic personality and he is certainly a demagogue, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I submit to you that Donald Trump has serious emotional and mental difficulties. Difficulties which should render him unfit to serve in the capacity of President of the United States. Look at any of his speeches or his social media output. Hell, just take a random cross section of his tweets over the past two years. He is erratic, emotionally immature, and half the time I’m not sure if he’s simply lying or if he actually believes the contradictory statements that are coming out of his mouth. He is incredibly thin-skinned and can’t abide even the slightest hint of criticism. He seems more upset about Alec Baldwin’s parody of him on Saturday Night Live than he does about serous world events like the tragedy in Aleppo. I could go on and on, but again, you all have the internet.

Now at this point in my diatribe you may be thinking, “but Hilary Clinton would have been worse!” Again, I strongly disagree with that statement, but we will never know because she lost and at this point it is incredibly unlikely that she will ever be the president. Politically I believe that Hillary Clinton is finished, and any of you that had serious concerns about her can now breathe a sigh of relief. Arguing over who would have been a better president now is like closing the barn door after the horse has run away. It’s an exercise in futility.

So we have to deal with the facts that are in front of us. A dangerous and inexperienced man has taken the rains of power. Sure, he’s going to be surrounded by more experienced politicians and advisors, but nothing in his public behavior over the past forty plus years or so indicates that he will listen to them. This is not a president that the GOP can easily control. I suspect most of them already know this and are seriously concerned about this monster that they helped to create.

So at some point in the next four years, when something goes wrong, be it an act of God like an ecological or environmental disaster or a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, or some other serious international incident, Donald Trump will be the person who has to react to it. His reaction will be the important one, the one that affects things, that sets them in motion. I don’t believe that he will react in an appropriate manner. Further, I believe that there will come a point where he will need to be removed from office. And the ironic thing is that it will be the Republicans who will have to remove him.

Listen people, I hope I’m wrong. I would be so relieved if it turned out that Donald Trump wasn’t the dangerous lunatic that he appears to be. If he somehow brought about a new golden age to the country than I would happily eat my words. That would be better for everyone. But I don’t think I’m wrong about him. And, in your heart of hearts, I don’t think any of you believe it either.

So, until Donald Trump proves me wrong, I choose to be cautiously pessimistic. I’m going to watch my back, and I’m going to watch the backs of the people I care about. I will, in a peaceful and non-violent way, resist Donald Trump and everything he stands for with all of the resources that I have at my disposal. I will do this until such a time as he is no longer in a position to do permanent harm to this country that I love.


I suggest you all do the same.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Day Evaluation! 29 February 2016

Happy Leap Day everyone!
If you don't care to hear about my spiritual or political beliefs, that's great. Just stop reading here.
Up until now I've tried to leave some more personal beliefs off of social media, but as this is a year for changes I'm going to break from tradition and try to make clear some of the things that are important to me and that I give a great deal of thought to.
Spiritually I consider myself a progressive Catholic. I support a woman's right to choose what to do with her body. I support marriage equality. I think that Pope Frances is an important historical figure who is helping to usher the Catholic Church into the 21st century. I also believe in Darwinian evolution and hard science and I don't think that conflicts with my spiritual beliefs. I believe in an afterlife (let's call it "heaven" for the sake of argument) and I think that if you are a good person who does their best to make the world a better place for yourself and others than there is a place for you there, irregardless of your spiritual beliefs or your gender or the color of your skin. I believe that the Bible is an important book filled with many parables that can be interpreted in many different ways, and there is a lot of good in there if you know where to look, but it is not a living history or the infallible word of God. I believe in prayer and when I do pray I feel connected to something greater than myself. I believe in ghosts and spirits and other supernatural phenomenon as well. As the bard wrote:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio
I have certain beliefs about how the universe works, but I can't prove them nor can I say for an absolute certainty that they are true. I am a fallible human after all, and I leave myself opened to change or amend these beliefs as new information becomes available to me. I suppose this is faith.
Now to politics. I am a registered Democrat and I tend to lean heavily towards liberal ideology. This does not mean that I hate anyone with differing viewpoints. In fact, I have many close friends who are quite intelligent and vote Republican and who hold a more fundamentalist view of spirituality than I do. I welcome their thoughts and opinions on all matters as long as they don't get rude, insulting, or racist. The same goes to my left leaning friends, by the way.
I believe that currently Bernie Sanders is the best candidate available to be the next president of the united states. I don't agree 100% with Bernie or with any of the current crop of candidates for that matter, but I truly feel in my bones that Sanders has the best chance to change the toxic political landscape that is dividing this country. Will he have an easy time doing this? Hell no! No one will. But he's my guy. Should Bernie not capture the Democratic nomination, I will happily support Hillary Clinton. Although I have some serious issues with Hillary, I think she is an able politician and a better choice than any of her Republican counterparts, many of whom genuinely scare me.
I am a supporter of Barack Obama. I don't believe that he has been a perfect leader, but I do believe that he is a good man who has done his best for the country and who has a great deal of personal integrity. Yes, he has make mistakes. Some really huge mistakes at times. But the country is absolutely a better place than it was when he first took office and I am grateful to have had such a cool headed, intelligent, measured leader to represent us. His accomplishments, in my opinion, far outweigh his failures and I think that history will remember him positively. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has been especially helpful to me personally.
I am far from perfect myself. I've made quite a few mistakes in the past two years, many of which have hurt people I am close to, but I've done my best to correct them in the best way I know how. I am working hard every day to become a better person and to live with integrity. I'm still going to make mistakes, but that won't stop me from trying. One thing I've done that is absolutely not a mistake is my decision to become Tessa Flannery's life partner. She is my compass. My guiding star. Having her in my life makes me a better person and I am grateful every day that we found each other. I look forward to the many adventures that we will have together. 2016 so far has been about learning to let go of the things that no longer work in my life. I suppose part of the reason I'm writing this is to make clear to myself where my center is.
That's all for now. If you've read this far and you want to comment, I welcome it, as long as the conversation doesn't get nasty or divisive. I support free speech and welcome all opinions, even those that differ from mine. It is my hope that 2016 is a great year for my nearest and dearest.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

John Michael Decker's Top Ten Films of 2012


John Michael Decker's Top Ten Films of 2012

It's time for my annual list of favorite movies from the past twelve months. I remind you all that I’m not a professional film critic – just a cinephile with some free time. I am a big geek and I expect that this article may be hyperbolic at times, but I’ve tried my best to keep a lid on it. As with anything, my opinions are subjective. Feel free to agree with me. Or disagree. Or name a movie that you think should have been on my list.

Exclusions

I have not seen Les Miserables, The Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Cloud Atlas, or The Life of Pi – all movies I’ve heard great things about – so if any of them were your favorites this year, then I'm sorry that they didn’t make my list.

Honorable Mentions

Before I get to the official list, I'd like to mention a few films that didn't quite make the cut this year. These flicks are fun and worth seeing, but there were at least ten other films I liked better.

Solomon Kane was technically released in Europe in 2009, but it only became available to American audiences this year. Solomon Kane is a pulp character created by Robert E. Howard (best known as the author of the Conan the Cimmerian adventures). To be honest, I prefer Howard’s Kane stories to his Conan tales. This movie is a pretty good origin story for Solomon Kane, the dour Puritan killing machine whose adventures take place in the Elizabethan era.

Dredd is the second movie adaptation of the popular British comic book series, Judge Dredd, which originally appeared in the magazine 2000 AD. The first was a lame Sylvester Stallone vehicle that came out in 1995; most fans of the comic book would be happy to forget that one. The 2012 version is a loyal adaptation of the source material starring Karl Urban as the stone-faced protagonist who upholds the law in the totalitarian Mega City One. 
 
The Amazing Spider-Man is a decent origin story of the popular Marvel comic book character directed by the talented Marc Webb. My major problem with this film is that Sam Raimi already made a fantastic Spidey origin movie in 2002, and as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t need to be rebooted. That being said, if I remove the Raimi movie from the equation and just look at this film for what it is, I have to admit that I enjoyed it a lot. Andrew Garfield is a great Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Rhys Ifans is excellent as Dr. Curt Connors, who is transformed into the tragic villain, the Lizard. I also enjoyed Emma Stone as Peter’s love interest Gwen Stacy. Now with this second telling of the origin out of the way, I hope I can look forward to some great web-swinging sequels that cover material not already done better by Sam Raimi.

21 Jump Street is a film adaptation of a television show that ran on the Fox network from 1987-1991. Both the television show and the movie are about youthful-looking undercover cops who pose as teenagers to thwart crime in high schools. The film stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as undercover protagonists Schmidt and Jenko. I didn’t like the television show, and I am generally not a big fan of Hill or Tatum as actors, so there was no reason on Earth that I should have enjoyed this at all, and yet… I did! I don’t know what kind of cosmic confluence of events occurred to make this as entertaining as it was, but this is a really fun comedy with solid performances and a script that is just self-aware enough to be funny and not annoying.

Argo is the latest film by Ben Affleck, who has turned out to be a pretty solid director. It takes place during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, when several Americans hid at the Canadian ambassador’s home in Iran. The CIA plan to rescue them entailed creating a fake science fiction movie, and going to Iran posing as a Canadian film crew. I love these lesser-known historical events that happened during my lifetime.

The Grey is advertised as an action film featuring Liam Neeson fighting wolves, but that’s not really what it is. It is a deep meditation on death, and more specifically the way men choose to die. There is a definite Jack London man-versus-nature vibe here that I enjoyed, and although it's not for everyone, I found this material compelling.

Django Unchained is not Quentin Tarantino’s strongest movie, but that being said, I feel even his weaker efforts are head-and-shoulders above most of the stuff I see at movie theaters. This one is a mash-up of spaghetti westerns and 70s-era blaxploitation films, starring Jamie Foxx as a slave-turned-gunfighter seeking revenge against the men who took his wife. Though wildly entertaining through most of the film, I found the tonal changes from comedy to brutality a little jarring at times.

Top 10 Films of 2012

Here are my spoiler-free reviews of the best movies of the past year:

#10: Wreck-It-Ralph

I love stories where the protagonist has to subvert the expectations that others place on him and choose to be something more. Wreck-It-Ralph certainly falls into this category. It's a Disney animated film about a video game villain who wants to prove to his peers that he is more than just a dumb wrecking machine. It's funny, exciting, and at times poignant, with terrific voice acting and Disney’s usual fabulous animation.

Interestingly enough, Wreck-It-Ralph is not a film that was produced by Disney’s all-digital Pixar animation branch, even though it seems like anthropomorphized video game characters would be something that is in Pixar’s wheelhouse. The Pixar movie that came out in 2012 was Brave, about a Scottish princess. Princess films are usually the kind of thing that Disney animation churns out. It tickles me that Disney and Pixar seem to have swapped their usual subject matter.

#9: Safety Not Guaranteed

This is a cool indie flick about three magazine employees who are assigned to investigate a man who has placed a classified ad seeking a companion to time-travel with. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, the most cynical of the three reporters; and Mark Duplass plays Kenneth, who is either the genius who figured out time travel, or a dangerous lunatic. Darius and Kenneth are two outsider personalities who start to develop a very real connection, and the viewer is left question the validity of Kenneth’s claims right up until the end of the film.

In many ways this reminds me of the 2011 independent film Another Earth (#6 on last year's Top Ten list), in that the science fiction element is just a backdrop for a very compelling human story. Unlike Another Earth, this is a much lighter story with more humor and a lot less angst. I’m not always a fan of romantic comedies, but Safety Not Guaranteed has so much heart that I was won over.

#8: Jack Reacher

This Tom Cruise vehicle is an adaptation of the Lee Child novel, One Shot. I’ve been told that Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher is physically nothing like the character described in Child’s novel, but having never read the book, I have to judge the movie on its own merits. As a film, this is one well-written, action-packed thrill ride, and Tom Cruise is fantastic as the protagonist.

Like Caine in Kung Fu, Jack Reacher is a character whose modus operandi is pretty much to wander the earth and get into adventures. He lives off-grid and uses his training as both a soldier and an investigator to uphold what is right, caring very little for the letter of the law. Not only does this movie have some fantastic action set pieces but there is an interesting mystery at its core that kept me involved right up to the end. Cruise’s dialogue is especially sharp, and I love some of the verbal interplay in the film that proves that not only is Jack Reacher the toughest guy in the room, he's also the smartest.

Jack Reacher is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed a film I really enjoyed called The Way of the Gun back in 2000. He is rumored to be directing the next Mission Impossible movie; this is good news because he and Cruise seem to have a rapport.

#7: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is also based on a book, the first in a bestselling trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. It deals with a dystopian future where a tyrannical government forces the poorest of its districts to sacrifice a boy and a girl once a year to compete in televised gladiatorial sports. Only one player will emerge alive, winning food and supplies for his or her respective district. Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful as Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist who learns that in order to win, not only must she count on her considerable survival and hunting skills, but she must also become a media darling.

This is a great adaptation of the book. It's powerful, well-cast, and well-directed; and includes some pretty heavy themes like the power of the media, class struggles, and sacrifice for a higher good. Although I missed Katniss’ internal monologue from the book, Jennifer Lawrence is a strong enough actress to show the emotional impact the story requires.

#6: Chronicle

Chronicle may be the best “found footage” movie ever made (or at least, it’s the best one I’ve ever seen). The story is told largely from the point of view of Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan, a troubled high school student who buys a camera to document his abusive home life. While attending a party, Andrew, his cousin Matt, and school jock Steve discover a mysterious underground cavern that grants them all telekinesis. At first the three boys revel in their newfound abilities and do a lot of the crazy stuff you might imagine high school kids would do if they could move things with their minds. But it’s not long before their bond of friendship is tested when the darker aspect of their power emerges.

I love this street-level approach to the superhero origin story. Director Josh Trank does a fantastic job of balancing both the action and the personal story, and this film contains one of the best superhero battle scenes I’ve ever seen. The screenplay by Max Landis, son of famous director John Landis, has a lot of heart and gives this film a Shakespearean level of tragedy.

#5: Lincoln

Lincoln deals with the 16th president of the United States and his efforts to pass the 13th constitutional amendment in 1865, which would officially abolish slavery. This may seem like a dull subject, but in the hands of the great director Steven Spielberg, this movie is anything but.

The greatest strength of this film is the quality of the performances, among the best of which are David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. All of these performances are outstanding, but they pale in comparison to Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, which can only be described as transcendent.

Watching this film I was able to think, “Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones are doing amazing work in this movie.” I was able to think that about most of the actors. Not Daniel Day-Lewis. Every moment he was on screen, I was watching President Lincoln. It was as if Mr. Day-Lewis was channeling the dead president. In a career of amazing performances, this may be his best – and that is saying something.

#4: Cabin in the Woods

This horror comedy produced by Joss Whedon, directed by Drew Goddard, and co-written by both men takes familiar scary movie tropes and turns them on their ear. Did you ever wonder why horny teenagers go to remote locations in horror movies and then behave in the most stupid, illogical, and cliched ways possible? Well this movie explains why, and does it with the kind of Joss Whedon sharp wit we’ve seen on his television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

I really can’t say much more about the plot without going into spoiler territory, but suffice to say, this is essential viewing for fans of '80s horror films. Hell, this is essential viewing for people who hate horror movies for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. This is a truly fantastic time at the movies.

I also have to say that the last twenty minutes of this film are the most fun I’ve had at the movies since… Well, since the last twenty minutes of my number one film this year.

#3: The Dark Knight Rises

With The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion. It neatly ties up the hero's journey started by Bruce Wayne, played by Welsh actor Christian Bale, in 2005's Batman Begins and continued in 2008's The Dark Knight. While I don’t think The Dark Knight Rises is as strong a movie as The Dark Knight (largely due to Heath Ledger's iconic, show-stealing portrayal of The Joker), I do think that this is one of the strongest trilogy finales in cinematic history.

This movie begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, with Bruce Wayne having retired his costumed alter ego to live as a recluse. But it’s not long before the Machiavellian schemes of the villain Bane, played excellently by Tom Hardy, contrive to pull Bruce out of retirement and threaten to destroy everything he holds dear, not the least of which is his beloved Gotham City. The appearance of Selina Kyle, a wildcard and cat burglar played by the sexy Ann Hathaway, further complicates matters for Bruce.

Everything I’ve mentioned about the plot pretty much takes place in the first ten minutes of the film, and I’m afraid if I say much more I’ll get into spoilers. I will say that The Dark Knight Rises is an action-packed, psychologically dense, dark, character-driven tour-de-force, and I loved every frame of it.

#2: Skyfall

Skyfall is now my favorite James Bond film, and as a huge James Bond geek, I do not say that lightly. I have seen every James Bond movie and read all of the original Ian Fleming novels. Skyfall captures everything I love about this franchise. The action, the villains, the women, the cars, and the death traps are all here and are all outstanding. We get to see the return of a few characters who have always been a big part of the James Bond mythos but who have been absent from the last several films. But the best thing about Skyfall is Bond himself, portrayed effortlessly by Daniel Craig as a very physically and emotionally damaged man. When Craig plays Bond, we see that his debonair exterior is just a thin veneer masking a brutish thug who will do whatever it takes to accomplish his missions. We also get a fantastic peek into James Bond's past that gives us some clues as to why he became the man he is.

Skyfall is directed by Sam Mendes, who usually does character-driven films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. His deft touch for interpersonal drama benefits the movie, but he does not skimp on the action. Judi Dench has never been better as M, Bond’s hard-nosed boss; and Javier Bardem is deliciously creepy as Silva, the main villain of the story.

And now, my favorite movie of 2011...

#1: Marvel’s The Avengers

If anyone had any doubt that Marvel’s The Avengers was going to be my favorite movie this year, then they don’t know me very well. As both a movie and comic book fan, I came into this with very high expectations. The kind of expectations that are often dashed when a project gets too ambitious for its own good. The buildup to this film was epic, and it seemed as though it would be impossible to live up to the hype. Marvel Studios hinted that the Avengers movie was on its way at the very end of Iron Man in 2008, then continued to drop tantalizing breadcrumbs throughout The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: the First Avenger (2011), all the while building up a cohesive Marvel Movie Universe complete with characters who crossed over from film to film.

The very idea of a flick featuring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, the Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Agent Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. – all characters capable of carrying their own films – seemed like it would collapse under its own weight. How could you make a film with all these huge personalities in it, load it with the kind of action that modern comic book fans would demand, and give each character their moment to shine without the story over-focusing on one hero? Who could take on the responsibility of pleasing both rabid fans and the studio that invested massive amounts of time and cash into this project?

Enter geek legend Joss Whedon. Third-generation television writer, producer of cult hits like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and comic book writer of, amongst other things, Astonishing X-Men and Fray. He also had a hand in a little movie called Cabin in the Woods (#4 on this list). As director and co-writer of Marvel’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon managed to craft a film that balances character drama, explosive action, and even comedy and pathos, and leaves its audience drooling for more. I saw this in the theatre four times; once in IMAX 3D, once in RealD 3D, and twice in regular 2D, and after each viewing I left the theatre with a silly grin on my face, loving life and ready to fight an alien invasion.

Whether or not you’ve seen the films leading up to Marvel’s The Avengers, this is a truly amazing time at the movies, well worth paying full price and buying a tub of artery-clogging popcorn. It gets my highest recommendation.

Summary

I’ve had a lot on my plate, and putting together my annual Top Ten list this year was a difficult birth. I would like to acknowledge the efforts of my good friend Jem Matzan who once again edited this article for me, as well as offering words of encouragement when I thought writer's block was going to beat me. I may even pull out that short story I’ve had hidden in the bowels of my computer for years. Thanks, Jem!

I hope this list was an enjoyable read, even if you totally disagree with my taste in entertainment, and I hope to see you all at the movies.

John Michael Decker is an actor who loves movies, comic books, and wearing hats.

Copyright 2013 John Michael Decker. No reprints without written permission.