12 Mighty Orphans **
Fact-based underdog sports movies are a dime a dozen, so if you want yours to stand out, you’ve got to do something more than just show up with the ragtag heroes and triumphant music. This one is set in Fort Worth, Texas circa 1938, where Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) arrives at the Masonic Orphanage to teach math and try to put together a football team. Unfortunately, only 12 young men are able to qualify academically, forcing Russell to get creative with his two-way squad. There’s a nice little slice of sport trivia for those interested in such things—apparently, Russell invented the spread offense to optimize his under-sized team’s strengths—and a bit more of a rough-edged approach to the horny, foul-mouthed youngsters and the slave-labor work demanded by the orphanage overseer (Wayne Knight) than a feel-good Disney version might have. But it’s also mostly a slog through predictable plot points, montages and setbacks, with Wilson unable to bring a crucial energy to his theoretically-recovering-from-WWI-shellshock Russell. And it’s particularly hard to understand the logic behind the tedious voice-over narration given to Martin Sheen as the team’s assistant coach/orphanage doctor. I’d love to read the book it’s based on, which might value real human drama over cliché. Available June 18 in theaters.
Carel Nel, Monique Rockman and Alex van Dyk in Gaia
After In the Earth
, I certainly wasn’t expecting another 2021 movie involving a researcher threatened by nature-cultists, a protagonist experiencing extreme foot trauma, hallucinogenic spores and a semi-sentient forest … yet here we are. On a routine expedition in the forest of South Africa, ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman) encounters Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk), a father and son living a survivalist lifestyle in a place where a fungal entity has taken on a particularly threatening form. Director Jaco Bouwer and screenwriter Tertius Kapp offer up a heaping helping of body horror and multiple scenes of people waking up from horrifying visions to discover that it was all a dream (or was it?), capitalizing on what is clearly an of-the-moment sense of the natural world pushing back against humanity’s destructive tendencies. But the human part of this story doesn’t really connect, as Gabi never becomes a fleshed-out character so that any philosophical conflicts with Barend can resonate. The creatively creepy creature imagery gives Gaia
a bit of a jolt, which proves necessary since the rest of it feels cut out from an unexpectedly familiar template. Available June 18 in theaters.
The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard **
See feature review
. Available June 16 in theaters. (R)
Enrico Casarosa’s Pixar feature debut operates on a smaller thematic scale than many of the studio’s recent entries, but nails something very specific about a certain kind of adolescent male friendship in a way that’s almost frightening in its accuracy. There is an element of the fantastical, naturally: Young Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is from a family of sea monsters living off the coast of Italy, unexpectedly discovering that when his kind are on the surface and dry, they look like humans. There Luca makes a friend in Alberto (Jack Dylan Glazer), and becomes fascinated with the prospect of seeing the world. For a while, the story feels a bit too reminiscent of The Little Mermaid
, complete with a fascination with unfamiliar human artifacts. Once the main plot kicks in, however, Luca becomes a terrific coming-of-age story with a clear-eyed sense for both the fear and exhilaration of breaking from parental expectations. Better still, it’s simultaneously hilarious and wise when it comes to Luca and Alberto’s friendship: the posturing of Alberto’s older know-it-all; the jealousy when Luca makes another friend; the moments when not just parents, but friends, need to let go. Lively action and great supporting voice work—particularly Saverio Raimondo as the arrogant villain—provide the seasoning to a wonderfully low-key treasure. Available June 18 via Disney+.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It ***
When a celebrity biographical documentary is obviously going to be built on unabashed love for its subject, something has to bring the effort down to earth—a task which fortunately here falls to the subject herself. Mariem Pérez Riera follows the legendary Rita Moreno circa 2018-2019, as the 87-year-old actor experiences something of a career resurgence as a cast member on the Netflix revival of One Day at a Time
. The film tracks her life from childhood as a first-generation Puerto Rican immigrant to 1930s New York, through her days as a contract player for MGM, and the ensuing career highlights including West Side Story
. Riera wisely frames Moreno’s story not so much as the “American dream” narrative suggested by others, but one filled with obstacles like getting typecast in demeaning “dusky native” romantic roles. It all comes together thanks to the openness of Moreno in discussing potentially painful subjects in on-camera interviews: sexual harassment and sexual assault in her youth; a botched abortion during her long-term affair with Marlon Brando; the difficulties of being in a controlling marriage. While colleagues and admirers do the obligatory work of describing her groundbreaking importance as a Latina role model on screen, Moreno herself focuses on the hard work of recovering from traumatic racism and sexism, and coming out on the other side with a ferocious sense of self-respect. Available June 18 in theaters.
The Sparks Brothers ***1/2
Two hours and fifteen minutes might seem like an epic length for a documentary about a band, but director Edgar Wright’s chronicle of the 50-year career of brothers Ron and Russell Mael—a.k.a. Sparks—does a great job of making it clear that they’ve earned it. From their childhood in 1950s California to their 1970s early popularity in England, 1980s MTV-era five minutes of fame and a bunch of subsequent re-inventions, Wright crafts a clearly affectionate story that’s as puckishly playful as his subjects. Historical re-creations are presented in a range of animation styles from hand-drawn to stop-motion; interview subjects are occasionally identified with on-screen captions like “Beck: See Above” and “Jason Schwartzman: Talia Shire’s Son.” But mostly, it’s a great big love letter to Sparks not just as influential pioneers in synth-based dance music, New Wave and more, but as resilient artists who traveled where their hearts led them rather than to the next likely paycheck. When the final act explores a crazy concept for a London concert residency in which they decide to perform all then-21 of their albums in their entirety, it plays out as something crazy yet entirely consistent with their work ethic. The Maels never once seem bitter or regretful about where their careers didn’t go; Wright honors them by appreciating where they did go. Available June 18 in theaters.
Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation **1/2
How much should it matter that the subtitle feels kinda like false advertising? Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland certainly delivers the “Truman & Tennessee” part, offering a profile of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams that combines archival interviews with the two celebrated writers, footage from the filmed adaptations of their work, and voice-over performances of writings by Capote and Williams (provided by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto, respectively). Vreeland’s organization often juxtaposes the two men’s views on the same subject—living in New York, living with alcoholic parents, dealing with jealousy, perspectives on love and sex—often while accompanied by dreamlike double-exposures of still photos against drifting clouds, blowing trees and the like. It’s frequently interesting stuff, but not nearly as compelling as when the film is actually addressing the 40-year friendship between the two men, along with its accompanying stresses and strains, like Capote’s caustic version of Williams in one roman á clef
piece. Their experiences as out, famous gay men at a time when there weren’t many others was unlikely to leave a ton of documentation behind, yet it’s hard not to be a little disappointed by something that’s pitched as “an intimate conversation” but mostly plays like two people talking in separate rooms. Available June 18 via SLFSatHome.org and ParkCityFilm.org.