THE SPARKS BROTHERS
As we discover in Edgar Wright's music documentary The Sparks Brothers, not long after the release of their 21st (!) album, the frontmen for the genre-defying rock outfit Sparks – siblings Ron and Russell Mael – embarked on a live-concert run of all 21 of those albums performed in chronological sequence, one night after another, over the course of 29 days. That's insane. (With both Maels then in their late-50s, what's even more insane is that they were able to pull off the stunt.) Yet by the time we're treated to that information roughly 20 minutes before the closing credits, the Maels' plan doesn't feel like lunacy; it feels like joyous inevitability. My only complaint about this factoid is that we weren't privileged to see all 21 of those “Sparks Spectacular” sets in their entirety. Wright's film runs two hours, but I honestly wouldn't have minded him adding another 30 or so.
Granted, I've never been much of a music guy. But how is it possible that, until the release of this extraordinarily entertaining doc, I'd never before heard of Sparks? Everyone else sure seems to have heard of them. In tracing the group's arc from the Maels' childhoods in Southern California to their output of today, The Sparks Brothers showcases an eclectic array of celebrities eager to supply on-screen testimony to Sparks' greatness: Beck, Flea, Fred Armisen, Neil Gaiman, Patton Oswalt, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Wright himself. (Mike Myers takes an amusing moment to decry Wright's camera angle that highlights the mole on his cheek.) Yet as enjoyable as it is to have these folks around, Wright's latest absolutely doesn't need them, because Ron and Russell prove to be such exquisite screen company – both in the documentary/concert footage and as interviewed by the director – that even someone as ignorant about glam rock as I raced home from my screening to listen to as many Sparks singles as possible. The Maels' hilariously deadpan personalities are entrancing. Their songs are extensions of their personalities.
After opening segments devoted to the Maels' upbringing and the formation of their band, Wright fashions his documentary narrative around a chronological exploration into Sparks' individual albums, gliding over a few and giving others – principally 1974's Kimono My House and Propaganda, 1977's Introducing Sparks, and 2002's Lil' Beethoven – more room to breathe. This turns out to be a fabulous decision on Wright's part. As the musicians appear to never tire of changing their perceived image and attempting to top themselves, Wright allows us to see just how grand Sparks' stylistic leapfrogging has been over the course of more than 50 (!!!) years spent making music. You're privy to why fans flocked to the brothers, but also to how the Maels responded to that flocking, usually by abandoning the very elements that drew devotees to their work in the first place. Augmenting his talking-heads segments with TV appearances, music videos, and hand-drawn and clay animation, Wright might as well be slipping us all into an album jacket; you truly feel inside the recordings being presented and discussed. And in an absolute rarity for the music-doc genre, it seems that this particular band's founders never endured a day's worth of disagreement, which allows The Sparks Brothers to be an almost total cinematic high. (Even Sparks' commercial misfires are viewed with easy acceptance and an air of “Okay, so that didn't work … . What's next?”) Russell, with his matinée-idol handsomeness, and Ron, with his sneaky leer and Chaplin/Hitler mustache, are so ebullient in their downplayed forthrightness that you don't know whether to bow down to them or enclose them in an enormous bear hug.
Plus, those songs! “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us,” “The Number One Song in Heaven,” and “When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'” are colossal earworms, so funny and catchy and clever that you never want their three-ish minutes to end. But I also can't get numbers such as “My Baby's Taking Me Home” out of my head, and don't want to; through the course of what felt like a million refrains of that titular lyric, I had moved from amusement to incredulity to exultation, and when the song finally ended, I was in tears. That was my response during quite a lot of Wright's movie, actually, and generally because the film filled me with so much genuine awe and love – for the Maels, for their director, for their fiendishly witty repertoire – that it was almost overpowering. I can't wait to own The Sparks Brothers one day, right after I gets my mitts on as many Sparks albums as possible. I knew that Amazon-gift-card stockpile would come in handy someday.
12 MIGHTY ORPHANS
At the very start of director Ty Roberts' period drama 12 Mighty Orphans, you kind of know what you're in for the moment you hear Martin Sheen, with maximum folksiness, delivering voice-over narration alongside a sentimental score and black-and-white Dust Bowl footage of hardscrabble Texans during the the Great Depression. You kind of really know what you're in for the moment Sheen himself arrives on-screen as a lovable drunkard named “Doc.” Yet despite following its genre imperatives with fanatical allegiance, this inspirational sports flick actually proves to be rather terrific, thanks mostly to the welcome rough edges supplied by its cast. Roberts' film may only be a few cuss words and one dropped towel away from traditional Disney-style treacle, but it boasts smart readings and images – most of those images of young men's alternately ravaged and hopeful faces – that stick with you.
Regarding the plot of this based-on-true-events football saga, I'd say “Stop me if you've heard this one ...”, but you've all heard this one. This is the one about the tough but tender coach (with a tragedy in his past) who shows up to whip a team of teenage misfits into champions, with each of the youths given exactly one personality trait apiece and the coach given a fretfully supportive wife and an endearing sidekick, the latter almost certain to be named Doc. What initially makes 12 Mighty Orphans more intriguing than its cinematic brethren, however, is its setting: a sprawling yet ramshackle orphanage in 1938 Fort Worth that, until the coach's arrival, not only didn't have a football team; it didn't have a football field. (Or helmets. Or cleats. Or a football.) Unfortunately, this locale can't disguise or make up for the über-familiarity of screenwriters Lane Garrison's and Kevin Meyer's narrative and its particulars: the antagonism of the teenage orphans leading to grudging respect leading to utter devotion; the cartoonish piggishness of the adult villains; the de rigueur losers-morphing-into-winners trajectory culminating in The Final Game and its accompanying lump-in-the-throat music cues. (As a Great Depression piece, we also get the requisite cameo by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, played here by Larry Pine, who basically serves the same function that the president did in Annie.) But it's been a long time since I've seen a movie set in the 1930s in which, production and costume design notwithstanding, the actors themselves look legitimately of the period, making their earnest performances all the more effective.
As the math and science teacher recruited to inspire self-worth in his parentless charges, Luke Wilson, with that stalwart jawline that could only belong to him, is as casually commanding as he's ever been, peppering his portrayal of a similarly orphaned figure with flashes of post-war trauma and protracted childhood insecurity; considering his stereotypical role, Wilson is remarkably fresh. A de-glammed Vinessa Shaw, as the coach's wife, provides some comic snap before the film decides to forget about her, while Sheen's booze-swilling medicine man is irascible and sage in the ever-appreciated Martin Sheen manner. (If we must endure adorably cantankerous octogenarians named Doc in these things, is it too much to ask that Sheen play all of them?)
Even though the movie makes the standard mistakes of over-simplifying its characters and unevenly distributing the subplots among the players – unless I'm mistaken, at least two of the titular 12 aren't even allowed to say anything – the Mighty Mites look thoroughly 1938, and Jake Austin Walker and Slade Monroe appear to be sensational actors besides. (The latter is given a wrenching scene in which his orphan Wheatie is finally reunited with his long-absent and obviously damaged mom, forcing the kid to opt for a life without her.) And despite the film's worst, most obvious dialogue coming from the mouths of the villains, Wayne Knight, as the abusive orphanage director, is admirably loathsome, creating a bookend to his venal asshole from Jurassic Park. 12 Mighty Orphans works quite nicely as formulaic uplift, but it exudes enjoyably hammy fire whenever Knight is around. Hello, Newman.
HITMAN'S WIFE'S BODYGUARD
When I first saw the trailer for Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard a couple months ago, I thought the movie looked like prototypical action-comedy nonsense, complete with broad jokes, frenzied car chases, discreet cuts right before someone dropped an F-bomb, and the sight of one of our heroes unironically strolling away from an explosion in slow motion. Still, I was hopeful that its stars – Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, and Salma Hayek – might at least make a moderately appealing trio of leads. What I hadn't realized until a day before seeing the film was that they already did make a moderately appealing trio of leads – back in 2017, when the original The Hitman's Bodyguard was released. Somehow, that four-year-old title had completely evaporated from memory, and I literally had to go to my online index to find out whether I saw and reviewed it. Turns out I did, describing the movie as “the fidget spinner of action comedies.” (Then I had to go online to remember what a fidget spinner was.) And I'm thinking that director Patrick Hughes' sequel, astoundingly, might prove even less memorable than its predecessor, given that this time only four days have passed and I'm already having trouble recalling the experience.
I mean, I remember that Reynolds' bodyguard was again strong-armed into protecting Jackson's hitman and Hayek's bombastic spouse, and there was some sort of negligible plot involving a European cyber-attack initiated by Antonio Banderas, whom I'm pretty sure slightly altered his natural Spanish dialect in order to sound Greek. I remember that scruffy Frank Grillo, playing a CIA agent or a detective or something, didn't seem to realize he was in a comedy, probably because the movie is so consistently unfunny. Though the details are fuzzy, I'm semi-confident that I smiled during a few of Reynolds' and Hayek's quieter exchanges, not that there are many of them. I do know that Morgan Freeman showed up in a role I didn't expect to see him in, and, under the circumstances, the guy delivered a relatively suave performance. Oh, and the film's final punchline is decent enough. Otherwise, Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard – an outing so totally “Who cares?” that even the Internet Movie Database isn't certain whether its title has a “The” preceding it – is simply a blur of rote gunfire and stale repartee and visually bland globe trotting and listlessly bellowed insults and grim jokes about the size of Hayek's breasts. This contractually obligated blockbuster doesn't even rise to the level of fidget spinner. It's just white noise.