Movie reviews: 'The Willoughbys' a delightfully dark tale about true value of family
Published Friday, April 24, 2020 8:15AM EDT
THE WILLOUGHBYS: 3 STARS
Based on a book by Lois Lowry, "The Willoughbys," a new animated film now available on Netflix, is a parody of "old fashioned" classic children's stories where terrible things happen, babies are abandoned, long-lost relatives show up and nannies look after the kids. Yet somehow, a happy ending and a lesson or two always emerge from the chaos.
Narrated by Ricky Gervais — "I'm the narrator. And a cat. Get over it, yeah." — the story takes place at the Willoughby mansion, a home tucked away between two skyscrapers, hidden from the modern world. The family has a long and distinguished legacy of tradition, invention, creativity and courage. "Their greatness passed down from generation to generation like their magnificent facial hair," says the narrator, "until this one." Enter the youngest son (Martin Short) and his new bride (Jane Krakowski). Madly in love, they only have eyes for one another. They don't even care for their kids. "I am your father and that woman in there you insulted with your rude burp is your mother," father says to eldest son Tim (Will Forte). "If you need love, I beg of you, find it elsewhere. Thank you."
All they gave Tim was their name, and siblings Jane (Alessia Cara) and twins, both named Barnaby (Sean Cullen). "Let's face it this Willoughby family isn't great," says the narrator, "and by the looks of it, they never will be. Not without a little help."
So the kids hatch a plan to create a better life for themselves. "We can send them away!" says Tim. "What if we orphaned ourselves? We shall craft a murderous adventure that gives our insidious parents exactly what they want." "To be left alone with their love!" says Jane.
Tim concocts a "a romantic getaway hiding deadly orphaning opportunities. If they do not melt in the hottest places on Earth, they shall drown in the wettest. Cannibals will feast on them unless they freeze in glacial ice." They create a travel brochure from the Reprehensible Travel Agency — No Children Allowed! — and make sure the folks see it. They love the plan but fear the children will destroy the house. The solution? Get a nanny. "But aren't good nannies expensive?" wonders mom. "Yes, so we'll hire a not good nanny! For cheap!" says father.
Thus, begins a wild adventure for mom, dad and the kids.
"The Willoughbys" is not as dark as "A Series of Unfortunate Events" or as magical as "Mary Poppins." Instead it finds its own tone, deriving much humour form the dire circumstances. "If you like stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin," says the cat narrator, "and it all ends up happily ever after, this isn't the film for you OK?"
Director and co-writer Kris "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2" Pearn energizes the story with characters that look like they're shaped out of bubble gum; colourful and highly stylized. Then he puts them in constant motion. It's frenetic and fun, even when the kids are plotting to kill their parents.
There's strong voice work from Will Forte, Alessia Cara, Jane Krakowski, Martin Short and Terry Crews but Gervais and his droll narration steals the show. "It's hard to leave home for the first time," he says, "although I was six days old when I left. All my folks ever did for me was lick my eyeballs open and sent me packing."
"The Willoughbys" isn't remarkably original story wise. It mixes and matches from a variety of sources. There's a taste of Roald Dahl, a hint of "Despicable Me" and a dollop of "Mary Poppins," but, all spun together, they form a delightfully dark (but not too dark) story about finding the true value of family.
CIRCUS OF BOOKS: 3 ½ STARS
"We've always belonged to a synagogue," says Karen Mason. "Although the synagogues never knew what we were doing." In fact, Mason kept her business a secret from almost everyone, including her kids Rachel, Micah and Josh. For thirty-five years, with husband Barry, she ran Circus of Books, a gay porn store that served as the Los Angeles epicentre of LGBT culture. "At one point," Karen says, "we were probably the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States." Now, with the store shuttered, filmmaker daughter Rachel tells their story in the Netflix documentary "Circus of Books."
At the centre of the film are odd couple Karen and Barry. Married for decades, she is devoutly religious; he shakes his head no when asked if he's a believer. She harbours reservations about selling pornography, treating the raunchy magazines and sex toys they sell as a product, nothing more. For Karen their wares are a means to an end. One former employee sums up Karen's attitude toward the merchandise as "like selling apples in an apple cart." Barry is more supportive of both the business and the community it served. Both, according to porn star Jeff Stryker, are "good, honest, trustworthy people," a rarity in the adult film biz.
Using old family home movies, archival footage and loads of new interviews with everyone from LGBT activists, porn icons like Larry Flynt and former employees (including Alaska, who later became a "RuPaul's Drag Race" all-star) Mason's movie is not simply a tribute to an influential institution like the Tower Records doc "All Things Must Pass." Instead she uses the book store, and the safe space it provided for LGBT people, to provide an intimate look into her unusual family. When they aren't being pressured to plead guilty to a federal obscenity charge or ordering sex toys at a porn convention — "I don't particularly like looking at it," Karen says as she passes a sex toy display, "I notice it without ever really looking at it." — they lead a life that is more "Leave it to Beaver" than "Boogie Nights."
That dichotomy provides an interesting narrative push-and-pull that is deepened by the history of the store's thirty five year run. The devastation of AIDS, the persecution by religious groups and conservative politicians are all handled with care, but it is the personal story of Karen's crisis of acceptance when her son Josh comes out as gay that provides the biggest emotional moments.
"Circus of Books" details the "aging, ailing business'" last days. The legendary store (and its second location in Silverlake) closed in 2019, victim of changing times, Pornhub and Grindr. Mason's camera details the last gasps of the once powerful place, right up to Karen taping a closed sign to the door. The store may be long gone but its ethos of embracing who you are is well represented in this charming documentary.
SELAH AND THE SPADES: 3 ½ STARS
Part high school hierarchy drama, part crime tale, "Selah and the Spades," now playing on Amazon Prime, is a study of power and the teenage clique system at Haldwell, an elite Pennsylvania boarding school ruled by five "factions." "The factions are realistic in the need for the student body to engage in their vices," we're told by the narrator (Jessie Cannizzaro), "and are pragmatic in facilitating them."
The Seas "will help you cheat your way through anything for the right price," while the Skins deal in anything students can gamble on. The Bobby's are responsible for every illegal party thrown in a dorm basement after lights out and the Prefects keep the administration blissfully unaware of on campus shenanigans.
The dominant faction, The Spades, deal in the classic vices, booze, pills, powders and fun, under the iron fisted rule of Selah (Lovie Simone).
Like a teenage "cosa nostra" the factions live by an Omerta, an inflexible code. Don't be a rat and the only consequences to be concerned with are the ones they impose themselves.
As an A student who will soon graduate, Selah has her mind on succession. Who will take her place to ensure the Spades stay the most powerful clique in school? With her first lieutenat Maxxie ("When They See Us'" Jharrel Jerome) distracted by a new boyfriend, Selah sets her eye on Paloma (Celeste O'Connor) the new girl in school as her protegee.
Meanwhile, when the headmaster (Jesse Williams) cancels the prom over the misconduct of a handful of students, tensions erupt between the factions as they search for a rat in the ranks.
"Selah and the Spades" is a promising feature debut from director Tayarisha Poe. Visually stunning and filled with charismatic performances, it is a mix-and-match of high school movie tropes and film noir crime drama. Imagine if John Hughes, the great American portrayer of high school life, had ever tried his hand at gangster movies and you get the idea. It's a study of how precarious life is at the top of the social hierarchy that saturates its story with elements of "Scarface" and female empowerment. "They never take girls seriously," Selah says. "It's a mistake the whole world makes."
The story sputters near the end but is kept alive by the atmosphere of tension Poe infuses into every scene and the lead performance. Simone is equal parts power and insecurity, never letting her guard down except in a phone call to her mother. When her mom asks what happed to the other seven points on a test where Selah scored 93, we immediately understand the weight this young woman carries around and her need to control her surroundings in the face of an uncertain future. It gives the character a much needed dose of humanity that elevates her from extreme-mean girl to compelling character.
"Selah and the Spades" is an excellent debut for Poe, fierce and fascinating.
BAD BOYS FOR LIFE: 3 ½ STARS
The boys are back town and new to VOD.
Almost seventeen years after "Bad Boys II" Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith), are longer in the tooth but still ready for some over-the-top action in a one-last-job movie. "I've never trusted anybody but you," says Lowery says to Burnett in "Bad Boys for Life." "I'm asking you, man. Bad Boys, one last time?"
Once "bad boys for life," the team of Burnett and Lowrey is coming apart at the seams. Middle age and career aspirations have sent the once inseparable team in opposite directions. Burnett, now a grandfather, is one the edge of retirement — "Mike, we got more time behind us than in front," he says. — while Lowery is still hungry for the adrenaline rush that comes with police work. "I'm going to be running down criminals till I'm a hundred," he says.
Their lives have taken them in different directions but when Armando Armas Tapia (Jacob Scipio), a drug kingpin and son of a man Burnett and Lowery took down years ago, resurfaces looking for vengeance, the two cops put the band back together. "Family is the only thing that matters," Burnett says to Lowery. "I'm not letting you go on this suicide mission alone."
"Bad Boys for Life" doesn't feel so much like a sequel or a reboot as it does a tribute to the Michael Bay films of the oh-so-many-years-ago. The patented "Bad Boys" high style feels like nostalgia for the 1990s when movie violence came with dark humour and buddy cop charisma. The story of a vengeful drug dealer is about as deep as a lunch try but directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who have clearly worshipped at the altar of Bay, understand that the success or failure of a "Bad Boys" movie isn't about the story but the sparks generated by Smith and Lawrence. The pair, now aged 51 and 54 respectively, fall back into their roles effortlessly, having some fun with their middle-aged selves. "Bad boys ain't really boys anymore."
One effectively staged scene compares and contrasts the partners and their stages of life. It's a funny sequence that intercuts Lowery putting on his Ray Bans with a flourish while Burnett struggles to get his reading glasses on his face, etc. It's a nice light show-me-don't-tell-me scene that sets up the dynamic between the two.
The wild action scenes that follow tend toward orgiastic videogame style shootouts, particularly the climatic battle, but succeed because the CGI is kept to a minimum and the gunshots are punctuated by Lawrence's quips.
"Bad Boys for Life" keeps the camera in constant motion, filling the screen with equal parts over-the-top violence and humour, breathing new life into a franchise that was declared dead when George W. Bush was still president.
RUN THIS TOWN: 1 ½ STARS
The Rob Ford Movie. That's the shorthand being used to describe "Run This Town," a film coming to VOD this week and set during the tumultuous term of the late Toronto mayor but make no mistake this isn't a Ford biopic or a study of his politics. It's a film that uses Ford's tumultuous time as a backdrop for an unconvincing study of millennial angst among other things.
Set in 2013, the film centres around Bram Shriver (Ben Platt). Fresh out of journalism school he's keen to tackle the big stories, to write articles that will move the needle. His dream job of being a reporter at The Record, however, sees him writing Best Hot Dogs in the City clickbait lists instead of investigating city hall.
Meanwhile, it's chaos at city hall. Rob Ford (Damian Lewis under a mound of Fat Bastard make-up), the popular 64th Mayor of Toronto, is making headlines for his erratic behaviour. Keeping things on course is Kamal (Mena Massoud), spin wizard and special assistant to the mayor, who, it is said, "knows everything." A Greek chorus of Steamwhistle-beer-drinking communications folks provide the necessary exposition to explain how they spin bad news and behaviour into good news and how to vilify the press.
Back at the newsroom Bram stumbles his way into the wildest political scandal in Toronto history when he happens to pick up the phone and become the first person to find out about "the crack video." Can he capitalize on the biggest break of his career and finally put his Frum Award to good use or will he be doomed to write lists forever?
Keep in mind Bernstein and Woodward he is not. The story runs parallel to the reporting done by Bram's real-life counterparts at The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star. More pointedly Robyn Doolittle or Kevin Donovan, the real-life reporters who broke the story are nowhere to be seen or heard.
"Run This Town" is a mix of fact and fiction, of flights of fancy that live at the intersection of real reporting and fake news. A muddle of ripped-from-the-headlines details, innuendo and fiction it takes on the Ford administration's failings, the state of journalism, millennial angst, sexual harassment and more. Jam packed and lightening-paced it hop scotches around, pausing only long enough to linger on a grotesque caricature of Rob "Show me some respect, will ya?" Ford.
Ford, played by Lewis in a prosthetic suit, fake flab and a stereotypical "oot and aboot" accent, is portrayed as an incoherent buffoon. Misogynistic, racist, paranoid — and those are the good qualities the film grants him — he lurches about the office making inappropriate remarks, prone to fits of sudden temper. It's an exaggerated interpretation of the mayor but it is also one that is all fat suit and no humanity. Say what you will about Ford's behaviour while in office, and there is much to be said about it, what we see here is larger-than-life without the enough life to make it feel real.