Two very different documentary profiles open this weekend. The first, The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright, is about a little-known pop rock band called Sparks. Ron and Russell Mael are the enigmatic band members and they still remain somewhat enigmatic throughout the doc. Wright combines modern-day interviews, archival footage of their music along with backstories about their childhood and how they struggled financially in the music industry since the 1960s. There's no one else like them in music history and that becomes increasingly apparent as you watch the doc. Wright adds some humor to the film which keeps it from being dry and banal. The film's offbeat humor and palpable energy through the crisp editing reflects the personality of the brothers themselves. There are very few dull moments to be found here even though the doc has a running time of 2 hour and 15 minutes. Wright finds enough insights and revelations about Sparks to make it worth its lengthy running time. Through the illuminating interviews with Ron and Russell Mael, you get a glimpse of what makes them so unique along with their offbeat sense of humor and wit. Concurrently, you also learn what makes them have such a cult following. They're not afraid to be weird and to stand out. Hopefully The Sparks Brothers will make the Sparks' cult deservedly larger. It's a refreshingly unconventional doc about a refreshingly unconventional band. Focus Features opens The Sparks Brothers in select theaters.
The second documentary profile is Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a warm, moving and insightful doc about actress and activist Rita Moreno, best known for playing Anita in West Side Story. Mariem Pérez Riera begins the film with Moreno preparing to celebrate her birthday which is a wonderful way to introduce her to the audience because it captures her charisma, humility and also how funny she is all within the first few minutes. A truly great documentary profile shows its subject behind-the-curtain, so-to-speak, and that's precisely what this intimate doc accomplishes. By the end of the film, you'll get to know Moreno as a human being who's smart, brave and vulnerable which makes her all the more relatable to the audience. Her candidness and kernels of wisdom add plenty of depth to the doc. It's fascinating to watch her reflect on her younger years and to discuss what she has learned since then. She speaks openly about how she was raped, how that affected her throughout the years and how she sought therapy to deal with her issues. You'll also learn about her troubled relationship with Marlon Brando who was abusive to her, what she really thinks about her role as Tuptim in The King and I, and what makes her so significant, vital and inspirational for Latina actors today. It's also worth mentioning the terrific editing by director Mariem Pérez Riera and Kevin Klauber which allows the film to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. At a running time of only 90 minutes, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, one of the best documentaries of the year, is powerful, heartfelt and illuminating. It opens in select theaters via Roadside Attractions.
12 Mighty Orphans
Luca (voice of Jacob Tremblay), a sea monster, lives under the sea with his family including his mom (voice of Maya Rudolph), dad (voice of Jim Gaffigan), uncle (voice of Sacha Baron Cohen) and grandma (voice of Sandy Martin). His parents warn him not to swim to the surface, but, like most adolescents, he disobeys them and swims there anyway. His tail transforms into human legs when he reaches the shore where he meets another sea monster, Antonio (voice of Jack Dylan Grazer), who looks human. Antonio introduces Luca to the world of the humans and inspires him to dream of having a Vespa. At the town of Portorosso in Italy, they befriend Giulia (voice of Emma Berman) who persuades them to join her in the town's triathlon competition to hopefully win money to purchase the Vespa. Meanwhile, Luca's parents swim to the surface to search for their beloved son.
The screenplay by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones takes its time to set the exposition that leads up the main plot which isn't really that exciting because all that Luca want is a Vespa which he instantly yearns for the second he sees it on a poster at Antonio's home. Great Pixar films not only had captivating stories, but also characters who felt palpably human even if they weren't. Once Luca and Antonio reach the seaside town of Portorosso, Luca seems too much in a rush to let the audience get to know the characters and care about their relationships. Even the villain, Ercole Visconti (voice of Saverio Raimondo), isn't a very interesting character nor a memorable villain. There's not enough comic relief, although some scenes are amusing, so as a comedy, Luca falls flat. It works a little better as a drama, but with not enough emotional or intellectual depth to be genuinely heartfelt. Its messages about friendship feel tacked-on and oversimplified.
When it comes to the triathlon competition itself, which involves swimming, pasta-eating and bicycling competitions, that's when the film could have seized the opportunity to become suspenseful and exhilarating. Unfortunately, those scenes aren't very exciting or thrilling for that matter. The same can be said about the threat of rain which would lead to the townspeople discovering the truth about Luca and Antonio being sea monsters. It's too bad that Luca seems like it's too much in a hurry to reach the uplifting third act instead of breathing life into its scenes to allow them to rise above mediocrity.
On a technical level, the animation looks bright and colorful with picturesque sights of the Italian Riviera. Keep in mind that to watch Luca and Antonio eating gelato or pasta will probably make you hungry, so don't watch Luca on an empty stomach. In terms of pacing, the film is all over the place and could've used a slightly slower pace or picked up its pace in the first act to allow the second act to unfold slower. Portorosso is a beautiful town worth vacationing at, but the film never allows it to stand out beyond that. At a running time of 95 minutes, Luca is a mildly entertaining, harmless diversion that panders, mostly, to young audiences without the sophistication found in far better Pixar films about friendship like Ratatouille.
Summer of '85