Sparkle (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Sparkle (2012)

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Imagine you're watching someone driving down the highway. It starts raining, they put on their windshield wipers.

The rain gets faster. Harder. A lightning bolt flashes! Suddenly, the water mixing with the oily surface has become too much. The car swerves left, than right, than left again! The car hits the median at such a speed and angle that it flips, head over front across the road--


That's what I'm going to say what it's like watching Sparkle, only replace the huge explosion with something approaching Motown and you're good.

"Please, tell me more about these things called 'benches'. They sound fascinating."

I think that opening implies that Sparkle is a disaster, and I kind of have to agree with that. But, hey, at least it starts pretty good. Telling the story of an uglied up duckling named Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) who wants to be a songwriter, she gets detoured when she coerces his older sister Sister (Tia, Tamara Mowry Carmen Ejogo) to join as the vocalist. Besides Sister's mile wide destructive streak, this also means sneaking around behind the back of their mother (Whitney Houston), a religious woman who had her own bad experience as a singer.

Let me be blunt: it's hard to tell in the movie what here is the result of bad acting, what's the result of a bad screenplay, and what may have gotten cut out because of Houston's death earlier this year. Telling is how much footage is in the trailer that didn't make it into the actual movie, but the dead flatline of a character arc that Houston character goes through is bizarre. She's a character who we're constantly told is scary, but we see no evidence of. Worse, her entire story is resolved by one line from one of her friends who basically just says 'get over yourself' and then it's sunshine and roses.

Now, it's not just her character who suffers from bad writing, which is why I'm erring more towards screenplay issues. Sparkle-- you know, the titular character-- has a long character arc where the most definitive thing she has to do is break away from her mother and 'find her voice', all of which is handled in passive and confusing sequences. Even the moment where she finally leaves her home and picks out her own apartment to follow her own dream-- we don't see that discussion. That discussion should be the lynchpin of the film, not the 'I'm doing a show, I'd like it if you come' moment later on. That's the reconciliation-- we need to see the split first!

That's not a sparkle, that's a flash! Come on guys, get it together.

Other characters are even worse served. There are three sisters, and the third, Dolores (Tika Sumpter) is determined to become a doctor. She joins the other two girls to sing to make some money for medical school. Then she kills a dude. Then she goes to medical school. Any doubts in the middle there? Any character exploration? The scene of her looking sad afterward cuts quickly to Sparkle-- Sparkle's sadness about losing her dream to be a successful songwriter is supposed to be the important issue here, not the moral anguish of the woman whose life goal is to heal people but just killed someone.


Now that I've thrown the film into the grave, I do have to sing its praises in a couple of regards. Sparkle is one of the best costumed movies I've seen all year, evoking fashions of the late 1960's with uncharacteristic aplomb. It also has some seriously fantastic music; I might recommend the soundtrack album over the movie.

And it must be noted that two of the supporting actors shine here: Carmen Ejogo as Sister, and Mike Epps as a comedian named Satin. Satin is nationally popular for his jokes, but they're all made at the expense of others of his race. The best scene in the movie involves him and Sister dualling with their family and pastor over dinner, as it becomes clear that the two of them only respect power and fame, while the rest of the family struggles to understand how cruel they can be to their racial and familial brothers and sisters.

There's a great shot of Epps in there, as we see a closeup of his face morph from fierce reserve to a wide fake smile. Unfortunately, there are still times when director Salim Akil fails even them. One sequence, showing a drunk and drugged Satin chasing Sister with his belt is played in slow motion, looking completely ridiculous and a step or two below a Benny Hill routine.

The rare well executed shot. The reverse on this is atrocious, though.

For all it's talk of black-on-black racism, the movie ends Satin and Sister's affairs in cliched 'After School Special' type scenarios and resolutions. Oh no, Satin is a racist and rich! That must mean he does cocaine! And is a wife beater! The movie's God is in his heaven, all is right in the world.

It's handled with so little subtlety that it's almost tempting to consider the last act of the movie a satire of A Star is Born. Hell, the musical finale, which involves a reveal of about 50 performers coming out of the woodwork during a low key showcase for Sparkle is truly goddamned hilarious.

I feel strongly about this movie, but I can't quite nail down how. It veers off the road in the second act and just becomes a disaster by the third, but it has such promise within. There's some really solid work under the surface, with enough good music and beautiful shots to make it look a lot more fun than the inexplicable characters can manage. Overall, it just feels like it may have suffered like Sister, and Sparkle just got beaten up by someone who loved it.

P.S. -- Curtis "Booger" Armstrong plays a record executive, and at one point emphasizes each syllable in the word "fantastic." Anyone who listens to our podcast will understand why this cracked me the hell up.

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Posted by Danny

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