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Acting saves by-the-numbers Sparkle Sparkle

Starring Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps, and Tika Sumpter. Directed by Salim Akil. From Tri-Star Pictures. Official website: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, some violence, language and smoking. Opens today.

(Cinematic masterpiece); (Excellent movie experience); (Admirable, but flawed); (Needs work … a lot of work); (One word: “Terrible”)

by Michael Clawson staff writer

buffing here and there so, you know, it glitters more. Yep, that’s sparkle and glitter in the same paragraph; I hope you brought your sunglasses. Just to clarify, though, this is a review of Sparkle, with Glendale’s American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. Glitter is that atrocious and very similar Mariah Carey movie from 2001, the one people point at and laugh and then mutter to themselves, “Oh, Mariah, pretending to act, how adorable.” You’ll be forgiven if you mix them up; everyone will. Back to Sparkle: It pleasantly surprised me. Not so much because of the mediocre story, constructed from hand-sanded planks of solid cliché, but because it was so wonderfully cast. I couldn’t tell you the last time I loathed a story but loved the cast as much as I have with Sparkle. And I’m not just saying that to avoid criticizing the late Whitney Houston and her famous last role. Everyone just clicks together. And most importantly, I cared for these characters.

Sparkle needs a polish. Nothing intense. Just some

who lives with her reformed alcoholic mother in Detroit during the Motown post-heyday of 1968. The movie reminds us what year it is by showing us Martin Luther King Jr. on television sets, but says absolutely nothing of racial relations, the civil rights movement or that whites and blacks were having major disagreements about equality. There is one line about the 1967 Detroit riots, but then it’s abandoned. But this is a music movie, not a message movie, so don’t think about history here other than a backdrop for classic cars, vintage threads and female singing groups. With her two sisters, Dolores (Tika Sumpter) and Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Sparkle sneaks out of Mother’s house to sing at bouncing Detroit nightclubs. The group, known as Sister and the Sisters, weaves pop and soul into that classic Motown sound and, sure enough, they’re a hit. (And what female group wouldn’t be a hit when they perform in nightgowns so short that it’s a good thing the camera films from high angles?) Mother (Houston) is kept in the dark until she has to see all her daughters, one of them in a see- through dress, on TV opening for Aretha Franklin. As soon as fame hits the group, Sister starts making all the typical blunders, the kind of cautionary mistakes that inspire audiences to look around the screen for that little Lifetime

Sparkle (Sparks) is a talented 19-year-old songwriter

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

JORDIN SPARKS, left, and Whitney Houston star in Sparkle. Houston also served as executive producer of the film that would be her last.

logo, maybe down in the corner somewhere. She hangs out with abusive men, starts snorting cocaine, shooting heroin and showing up bruised and high to band meetings. The movie paints these episodes in broad and obvious strokes, as if Sparkle were a teen sitcom, perhaps that episode of Saved By the Bell, the one where the Zack Attack lets drugs and alcohol come between “friends forever.” Sparkle lacks all story subtlety. One day Sister is fine and the next she’s packing viles of cocaine in her purse. There’s no build-up to this point, no erosion of her personal values, no contemplation as she edges closer to peril. One day she’s fine, the next she’s a cocaine addict holed up in broom closets. She also marries Satin (Mike Epps), who might be the most spectacularly evil villain since Daniel Day-Lewis beat that preacher with a bowling pin. Sister and Satin are fill-ins for Ike and Tina, or maybe Whitney and Bobby, and how bad they were together. It was brave of Houston to be in and produce Sparkle considering it must be based, in part, on her own trauma. I wish the film would have shown Sister’s downfall in a more meaningful way, though, because here she has no motivation to descend into the abyss of drugs other than to hit stale plot points to further the by-the- numbers story. Where Sparkle works and works well is with its terrific little ensemble of actors. Sparks is not a trained actress, but she was believable and I found myself cheering her on as she confronts her controlling mother and wrangles her fading sister. Ejogo, as Sister, is remarkable even when the script gives her little to work with. Epps is ruthless and mean, and he played it so well I was struggling to

remember what Epps was like in real life. Derek Luke, another fine actor, plays the group’s manager and he doesn’t hit all the usual music-manager beats that a lesser movie would hit. Even the small characters are interesting, including a record executive played by Curtis Armstrong, who I will always remember as Booger from the Nerds movies. I also enjoyed a preacher who blesses everyone’s digestive systems during the dinner blessing. My favorite character, though, is a minor one played by Omari Hardwicke. He plays Levi, a kind and gentle friend of the manager who puts up with more abuse than he deserves. The movie may be predictable on every level, but I was not ready for this character and his modest proposal in a diner. Then there’s Houston. Her role is small, but it always looms over the proceedings. Her voice is raspy and scratchy, but she looks spectacular. Houston is not the greatest actress and I think she knew that. She gets by, though. Her Mother character only sings once, but watching it will make you wish she had a Sparkle in her life to pull her out of the muck she routinely found herself in. Sadly, her song is not as energetic or as good as all the other music, some of which is very catchy, but it’s one of her last performances so I think her fans will be grateful. Sparkle is not the greatest movie of its genre — try

Michael Clawson can be reached by email at Sealed Lead Acid Batteries for:

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Dreamgirls or Hustle & Flow — but it gets the job done. Well, let me clarify: the actors, including the late Whitney Houston, get the job done.

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