“Hereditary” is like my love life- starts strong, has some good rising action and ends with a thud

Figuring out what the hell “Hereditary” was about from the trailer was a fun game in and of itself. A collage of creepy sequences, unsettling images and a heightened score. What was this movie? It seemed like a wild trip.

Now after having seen the movie, it’s somewhat disappointing that it all made so much sense.

Written and directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the story of a family working through the grieving process. Mother Annie (Toni Collete), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) all have different reactions to the death of Annie’s mother. As secrets from the past begin to percolate, the question of the family’s sanity begins to unfurl and more tragic events lead to disaster.

Toni Collette shines as Annie, keeping you on the edge of your seat with her desperation, her depression and her horror. As the film transitions from her point of view to that of Peter, we are nevertheless engaged emotionally with her journey most of all.

The trick for any good horror-mystery film is to build progression, and “Hereditary” does that expertly. Without giving anything away, the mystery of the grandmother’s death leads to questions about the family’s sanity which leads to building fears about their safety which leads to etc. This builds tension throughout and engages the audience.

However, the other trick of this type of horror film is to surprise the audience with a twist ending that changes the meaning of everything the audience had thought up to that point. Think about the endings of “Psycho” and “The Others” and “The Babadook”. We had thought one thing, then everything was flipped on its ear. And more than that, it was an earned surprise that rewarded us for our involvement with the story.

“Hereditary” has a twist ending, but it feels removed from the actual storyline of most of the film. Without giving too much away again, the death of a certain character at the 30-minute mark should have had far more bearing on the outcome of the story. That seems to be its own plot while the plot about the grandmother goes off in its own direction, creating two separate storylines that don’t intertwine to the extent they should and leaves the ending feeling muddled. In addition, the ending makes far too much sense and trivializes the excellent questions it had built up to that point. In short, instead of a “Wow!” there’s a general feeling of “Oh, that’s what it was about.”

Perhaps an additional viewing of “Hereditary” is needed to really gain perspective on what it was trying to accomplish, but the split in narrative focus seems to weigh it down. For now, it feels somewhat like a wasted opportunity, strong most of the time, but teetering at the conclusion.

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“Bumblebee” buzzes along to success

To say the “Transformers” films have been underwhelming so far would be an understatement. A massive understatement. They have been God-awful, emblematic of everything people hate about big-budget blockbusters: they’re loud, dumb, too focused on special effects and have utterly nothing to say. It’s especially disheartening when the sole reason for their existence is to sell toys. So it is a huge relief that one of them stands up as something other than being truly terrible. “Bumblebee” tells a story, one we’ve seen before, but still, an actual story with characters, plot and an arc.

Directed by Travis Knight and written by Christina Hodson, the film takes place in the year is 1987. The Autobot Bumblebee has landed on Earth, chased by the villainous Decepticons. While in combat, his vocal circuits are destroyed and his memory lost. Disguised as a beaten up car, he is found by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18-year-old who is struggling over the death of her father and a difficult social life. Together, they work with new friend Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to escape the army led by Agent Burns (John Cena) and the Decepticons who have come to extract information from him.

The film employs a light-hearted tone right out of the 1980s, where a car represented freedom, parents were so lame and rock n’ roll still stuck it to the man. The plot is heavily borrowed from “E.T.” and “The Iron Giant”, utilizing the same disillusioned youth who befriends an alien creature and learns to love again. In difference to the other “Transformer” films, character is emphasized over plot which works better to tell a coming-of-age story.

The film is nothing groundshatteringly new. We’ve seen it all before. Beat for beat, you can see the setups, character arcs and revelations before they occur. It doesn’t decrease the fun and emotion of the film due mostly to the performance of Hailee Steinfeld and the attention paid to the characters. Even Agent Burns, rather than being a one-dimensional villain, has some zippy one-liners and an arc.

But it’s in comparison to the previous “Transformers” films that the perspective of “Bumblebee” changes.

Perhaps it hasn’t been emphasized enough, but the “Transformers” films are ungodly, horrendous, duplicitous, unmoving, nauseating, soul-crushing garbage. Anything that even resembles a story, no matter how unoriginal, feels like the Pristine Chapel next to a pile of excrement. So “Bumblebee”, by virtue of having a spine, a heart and a brain, reigns supreme over the franchise.

Why is this film so much better than its contemporaries? Hmmm. Well, the previous five films were directed by known hack Michael Bay. This film… wasn’t. Why is this so much better? We may never know.

For fans of the “Transformers” of the 1980s, it’s a nostalgic breath of fresh air after years of morbid blasphemy. Robots turning into cars and planes and blowing each other up finally feels fun, as it always should have.

“The Mule” misses some merit but meets most of its mission

Clint Eastwood’s films have all been about regret and the old world clashing against the new world. He serves as a wise old sage in many respects, a symbol of past Americana, both great and flawed, and how it crashes against new social norms. In films like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino”, his nuanced, simple approach works well and develops strong themes. “The Mule” is not near as successful, but nevertheless has some strong points.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who doesn’t have enough money to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding or his mortgage or any number of other expenses. When he is approached about becoming a drug runner, he jumps at the chance to earn some much needed cash. In time, he becomes the cartel’s top “mule”, driving drugs back and forth from Mexico to Illinois. All the while, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) investigates him, never suspecting that the man he’s hunting is not a young hoodlum, but a Korean War vet.

The themes of regret, aging and love are strong throughout the film, and they keep it afloat even as some narrative storylines tumble (especially one starring Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), whom we believe to have a part to play in the conclusion but who simply disappears). Its universality keeps it highly accessible.

A devout Republican, it’s a bit hard to stomach some of Eastwood’s conservative underpinnings in the age of Trumpism. Most of the Latinos in the film are depicted as drug dealers, feeding directly into a sinister national narrative. Earl at one point calls an African-American family negroes before being corrected and is amused by a group of dykes on bikes. Granted, he is charmed to be corrected, but the stigma and general theme of new needing to learn from old still feels antiquated.

Narratively, the biggest problem with the film is Earl’s character. He’s rather dumb and naive, not taking care to cover his tracks very well or feeling remorse at being a drug runner. He eats ice cream, sings songs on the radio and pays his granddaughter’s tuition. What he really needed was a stronger conscience. He should feel bad about what it is he is doing and then the story is an examination of his conscience. Will he try to get out? How far is he willing to go? At what point will he break? Instead, Earl is far too eager to just go along with the plan, resulting in a ho-hum narrative that only achieves punch at the conclusion.

Being 88-years-old, who knows if this is last film of the legendary Clint Eastwood. It seemed that “Million Dollar Baby” was the crescendo of his career, then it was “Gran Torino”, then it was “American Sniper.” He appears to be showing no signs of stopping, but each Eastwood film, with its understated examination of basic emotions and penchant for hitting the heart, should be valued just in case.

Being a Red Wings fan in 2019

A new year for all of us, but for the Red Wings it feels sadly the same.

Losses pile up. Leads, some of them by 3, are extinguished just as quickly as they are built. After a poor start, the Wings had strung together a strong November and early December before falling back into bad habits and injuries. The playoffs are out of reach once again. Red Wings hockey will cease in early April.

That will make it three straight years of missing the playoffs, not really even getting close. For Wings fans, this is a strange, disappointing result. We’d made the playoffs 25 straight seasons, conquered dozens of playoff rounds and won 4 Stanley Cups. We’d had Hall of Fame players like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Dominik Hasek and Brett Hull just to name a few. A Hall of Fame owner in Mike Illitch. The greatest coach ever in Scotty Bowman. Then the current best coach in Mike Babcock. The torch was passed from Yzerman to Lidstrom to Henrik Zetterberg.

For many of us, it felt like that torch would never be relinquished. Master GM Ken Holland had a foolproof plan, supplemented by master late round draft gems that would ensure that the Wings would be perennial contenders. The playoffs were our birthright. But that torch has fallen.

Yes, Dylan Larkin seems like a stud franchise centerman. Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Michael Rasmussen and Tyler Bertuzzi seem like strong top-six pieces and scorer Filip Zadina shouldn’t be too far behind. But who knows if they can all come together to be a dynamic juggernaut. The key word here is “potential.” They could all potentially fall apart. And the stars of yesteryear loom large, forever reminders of past greatness. That’s an inordinate amount of pressure to put on anyone.

The sudden switch has created whiplash. As losses mount, that previous sense of confidence that we’d all felt in years past continues to get hammered. Losing back then was easy to brush off because we knew another winning streak wasn’t too far ahead. Now who knows when the losses will stop.

For many fans, the belief is that losing in the present will portend winning in the future. The worse a team is, the higher their draft lottery spot potentially. Look at Tampa Bay, Chicago and Pittsburgh, they’ll say. Crappy teams that utilized high draft picks like Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin to find success.

But there’s a cautionary tale to that as well. Buffalo has tanked for years with minimal success. Phoenix isn’t any closer to contending. And Edmonton, well, Connor McDavid can’t do it all by himself

The reality is that the team seems so far away from competing. Even if the Wings won the draft lottery and drafted potential phenom Jack Hughes, Jimmy Howard can only tend goal for a few more years, and there’s not another potential starter in the pipeline due soon. The defense has some interesting pieces in Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek, but no one is a Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski or Niklas Kronwall. Changes can happen, sometimes quickly, to be sure, but that’s difficult to pin hope to.

With anger percolating in the ranks, the blamegame has begun to spread. “Ken Holland should have torn this team down earlier.” “Abdelkader should have been let go.” “Nyquist failed to be a star.” “DeKeyser never lived up to his contract.” “Jeff Blashill sucks.” Such bickering only leads to more anger, more blame and fewer answers.

Sports are such strange things. As fans, we have no control over the direction of the team. We don’t vote on who should be the GM or owner. We have no input on who should be traded or drafted. The only real power we have is in our wallets and how much money we dedicate to tickets, souvenirs and whatnot. And only the most jaded of us give up on our teams entirely. The simple act of rooting for a team carries no tangible benefit. In sports, there is only one winner which means for 31 NHL teams (soon to be 32), there’s a whole lot of losing.

Yet we flock to sports nevertheless. Whether for social excursion, the joy of winning or identity tribalism, sports will forever attract us and generate regional pride or embarrassment.

For the Wings, our record of winning gave us a sense of pride. Even though we were never part of the team, our identity with them instilled us with hope and energy. To have that ripped away from you after so long, it’s akin to losing a part of our identity in a way. We’re learning how to cope.

Hockey is a beautiful game with highs and lows deeper than any other sport. The thrill of a win is equatable with the sting of defeat and keeping everything in perspective is hard at times. Kindling hope against the barrage of negativity is important, and it is the mantra of the Wings that will keep us going during dark times. Simple reminders about what the franchise means to each of us will carry us on. Much as life can be unpredictable and tough, it is our ability to power through that makes us strong. One need only look at Dylan Larkin in his last game against the Predators to see hope for optimism.

“The difference was when they scored the tying goal with a minute left, I felt, I think the bench felt: we weren’t losing,” Larkin said. “There’s no way. We played too well. Too much was going right for us, we were getting too many chances. I knew one way or another, we were going to win that game.”

That’s the kind of resiliency that speaks to something deeper than sports: the strength to endure despite hardship. It’s why so many of us fell in love with the team in the first place; they stood up for each other, they represented the community, especially the most unfortunate, and they never gave up. They honored their past and welcomed new teammates with pride. More than winning and gloating, that’s what attracted us to the team. That’s what made us true Red Wing fans. That’s what management, players and coaches call the “Red Wing way.”

It’s how teams should behave which is also why the idea of intentionally losing just doesn’t seem to compute. It goes against the very heart of why so many of us love the team. You don’t give up and hope for the best. You keep playing. For pride, for your city, for your community.

Perhaps the Wings never win another championship in our lifetimes. Perhaps draft pick upon draft pick fails to pan out. But as long as the Wings compete in the best and worst of times, I’ll consider them a part of my identity. That’s what sports should be about. That’s why they’re important.

Mark Howe meets with well-wishers as they pay their respects to Gordie Howe, the man known as Mr. Hockey, at Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings NHL team, his team for much of his Hall of Fame career, Tuesday, June 14, 2016 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, Pool)


“Ralph Breaks the Internet” breaks from Disney’s tradition

The first “Wreck-It Ralph” film is an average story propped up by likeable characters. Its sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet”, is a subaverage story propped up by somewhat likable characters. So, in general, a stepdown.

Written by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon and directed by Johnston and Rich Moore, the story picks up six years after the events of the first film. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) are best friends growing distant. Vanellope wants to branch out and is bored by the repetitiveness of her game. Ralph tries to help her, but is stuck in his routine. When circumstances force them to venture into the internet, Vanellope wanders into Shank’s (Gal Gadot) game, finding a potential new home, while Ralph and Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) try to win money by getting likes online. Eventually, Ralph’s insecurities spiral and bring down the whole internet.

The first real test of a sequel is determining whether or not it’s necessary. Great sequels build on the original’s themes and characters and feel urgent and important. “The Empire Strikes Back” deepens the emotional involvement of Luke, Leia and Han. “The Godfather Part II” further illuminates the theme of power and the fall of Michael. Heck, even “22 Jump Street” deepens the connection of Schmidt and Jenko. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” doesn’t quite reach that standard of importance. Ralph and Vanellope go through some turbulent times together, but it doesn’t feel as weighty as the original’s quest for Ralph to find comfort in his identity. The original’s plot is not a master story to be sure, but it was charming and heartfelt and much of that heart is missing in this sequel. Learning to let go of Vanellope is an interesting side plot more than a main plot. Indeed, the film ends at a more interesting point than it begins; if Vanellope leaves Ralph, how does he cope? “Ralph Breaks the Internet” just doesn’t feel as relevant as it needs to be.

The new aspect of Ralph’s world is the venture into the internet. There are some interesting winks and nods towards certain services like eBay and a rather shameless Disney website promo. All in all, it feels rather pedestrian without much commentary. Is the Internet good? Is it bad? What does the film have to say about it? Not much. Some definitive moral themes about the net and its effect on us would have given greater depth to the story. And one can’t help but wonder with all the pop culture references if the film will have a short shelf life.

But in a way, it’s the strangeness of the film that leads to its entertainment. Ralph puts his face on a screaming goat. All the Disney princesses appear in their pjs complaining about men. Vanellope breaks into song about a game called “Slaughter Race” (penned by longtime Disney musicman Alan Menken). And the ending is so bizarre in its harkening to King Kong that it’s worth the price of admission itself. In a way, the Ralph franchise is Disney’s Deadpool: off the collar, parodical and distinctly unique in its irreverence. It’s entertaining to be sure, but far from a classic Disney outing.


“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” a song to Westerns real and mythic

The Coens have crafted dozens of screenplays, directed classic films and won Oscars, WGAs and Golden Globes. Now they venture into the world of online streaming with their first Netflix film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

The film illustrates six tales of the Old West, starting with singing gunslinger Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), continuing on with a cowboy trying not to be hanged (James Franco), to a pair of traveling showmen (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling), to an old prospector digging for gold (Tom Waits), to a girl who gets rattled on the prairie (Zoe Kazan) and finishing with an odd group of individuals in a rickety old coach (Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross).

The different stories never intertwine or have interacting characters, instead serving as a collage that illustrate the themes present in pretty much every Coen brothers film: the wondering of life’s purpose, the corruption of evil, the unpredictability inherent in living and the just rewards of simple good actions.

It is both a celebration and a condemnation of Western stories, the tales of rough riders thrillingly told but with an admission of the failure of their hubris. For every glorious gunfight, there is a sad death scene. For every strike of gold, there’s a harrowing betrayal. For every moment of marital happiness, there’s a sad reminder of the unpredictability of life. For the Coens, one can sense their idolization of the Western, but they incorporate the knowledge of history, bloodshed, backstabbing and cruel ambition. The Western is an inherently American genre, mythmaking in its tales of bravado and open plains, of adventure and glory, but much like America is full of contradictions, the Western is too. Our myths guide our national heritage, but the truth about our past is fraught with inconsistencies.

Though all the different stories belong in the same world and have the same pacing, they are disjointed at times. Some stories are stronger than others and some feel less consequential. And like so many of the Coen’s other films, sometimes they’re just a little too cerebral for their own good.

All in all, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is another strong chapter in the Coen’s cannon, more a peripheral entry than a starring one. It weaves several personal stories against a grand landscape to give a very balanced yet stylized interpretation of the Old West.

“Mary Poppins Returns” is a low-flying kite

Mary Poppins as a character has loomed large over Disney’s cannon ever since her inception. It’s a bit surprising, given Disney’s track record of dusting off, refurbishing and remaking all of their IPs, that it’s taken this long for her to return to the big screen. And when you throw in Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep and Rob Marshall, it’s enough to quantify “Mary Poppins Returns” as an event movie. The end result is more of a mixed bag, but the familiarity of the story and its themes compensates for many of its shortcomings.

Following much in the same vein as other soft reboots, “Mary Poppins Returns” is very much the same story as its predecessor. This time it is Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now grown up, who has lost his sense of inner child as his wife has died and his home is about to be foreclosed. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), tries to help, but his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaneal Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), find themselves lost and lacking imagination. Enter in Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), here to save the day as it is, along with admirer lamp lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

The idea of another soft reboot is a tad sad. It’s bad enough that sequels have proliferated the marketplace, but so many of them simply repeat the plot points of earlier films. Something different that tests the formula while remaining true in spirit to the original is the recipe to creating a memorable, worthwhile sequel. “Mary Poppins Returns” gets the spirit right, but simply retreads with plot.

What’s most surprising about the film is how old school it feels. With its old style dancing and singing and slow sensibilities, it reflects the time management and temperament of a 1960s film like its predecessor. Musical sequences last for several minutes and have old-fashioned dance numbers and wide shots that emphasize an entire set. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a commitment to an older style and a film that feels different. On the other hand, it also creates a somewhat boring movie where whole sections of story feel unimportant. The mind wanders.

What the film has going for it are strong visuals and music. Director Rob Marshall has always been able to create engaging set pieces in his musical films from “Chicago” to “Into the Woods.” Composer and songwriter Marc Shaiman crafted some memorable, if not quite comparable to the original, songs that are strong additions to the Mary Poppins mythos.

All in all, the film is carried by the actors who shine with charisma, from the likeable kids to Ben Whishaw’s earnestness to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terribly charming cockney accent to Emily Blunt’s brisk manner imbued with love. They elevate a film that suffers from some uneven moments and pacing issues yet excels with optimistic tone and visual splendor.

Understanding films from all angles