[Screen It]


(2012) (Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young woman and her sisters try to become the next big all-girl group in the 1960s, but must contend with various obstacles and setbacks.
It's 1968 and Sparkle Anderson (JORDIN SPARKS) is a young woman living in Detroit with her sisters, Sister (CARMEN EJOGO) and Dolores (TIKA SUMPTER), in the home of their mom, Emma (WHITNEY HOUSTON), who's strict with her girls, what with not wanting them to follow in her failed attempts at being an entertainer and unwed, young mother.

Yet, while Dolores is going to attend medical school, both Sister and Sparkle have the singer bug in them, something that doesn't escape the attention of Stix (DEREK LUKE) who catches a spirited performance by Sister of a song that Sparkle wrote. While Stix's cousin, Levi (OMARI HARDWICK), sets his romantic sights on Sister, Stix wants the young woman to form an all-girl singing group that he can then promote as their manager. Things seem to look up when local TV comedian Satin Struthers (MIKE EPPS) likes what he hears in the group, although he ends up stealing Sister away from Levi.

As their relationship goes from new romance to cocaine-fueled abuse, Stix tries to keep the group on track, especially when big record label producer Larry Robinson (CURTIS ARMSTRONG) shows interest in signing them. With Emma threatening to disown them if they continue and Sister's self-destructive behavior threatening their potential success, Sparkle finds herself conflicted about following her dream of being a singer-songwriter.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
I'm fully aware that I very well may have placed a cinematic curse on myself that I'll forever regret, but while sitting through the musical drama "Sparkle," all I could think about was how the gun-toting, pot-smoking, butt-kicking force of nature known as Madea would have fit in perfectly and perhaps livened things up a bit.

After all, what initially looks like it might be a worthy follow-up to "Dreamgirls" -- the 2006 film about an all-girl trio performing in the Motown era -- turns into a fiasco of melodrama, overarching angst, family strife, over-acting, hordes of clichés (about the music industry, performers and more), church-related material and even an abusive boyfriend, all of which Tyler Perry's alter-ego would have dealt with in her own cross-dressing way.

Alas, Madea doesn't show up, and the nearly two hour film -- that features what's quite possibly some of the worst direction you'll see all year -- drags on for what seems like an eternity. In fact, you know a film's in trouble when a key scene involving domestic abuse actually elicits laughs from the audience rather than repulsion, disgust or some similar sort of negative reaction. But the way in which helmer Salim Akil handles that scene -- slow motion shots and music that simply doesn't fit the moment -- comes off entirely the wrong way, which can pretty much be said about most of the film.

All of which is too bad since it starts off decently, featuring some good songs and performances that cruelly inspire hope that some decent entertainment might be in store. As penned by Mara Brock Akil (the director's wife), the film is a remake of and pretty much follows most of the plotline of the little seen or remembered 1976 pic of the same name that featured Irene Cara in the title role. Here, that part is played by Jordin Sparks, no doubt hoping to capture the same sort of acting magic that propelled fellow "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson to an Oscar win for her performance in the aforementioned "Dreamgirls."

With nary a worry about being wrong with this prediction, there won't be any such noms and certainly no wins for Sparks who's only okay in her big screen debut, with some obvious rough around the edges moments, especially when deeper emotion is called for. Those who play her sisters -- Tika Sumpter and Carmen Ejogo -- fair better, especially regarding the latter's sizzling on-stage performances that eventually and unfortunately segue into the expected self-destructive behavior that's apparently now a requirement in films like this.

Also of note is that the film features the last acting performance by Whitney Houston who died a few months after principle photography wrapped. She's in the role of the mother whose troubled performer related past makes her want to keep her daughters from heading down the same path. The irony, of course, is that the once uber-talented Houston crashed and burned in real life, but the filmmakers don't allow her to rise above the clichés in terms of bringing any of that to her role.

The same holds true for the key guy parts. Mike Epps plays a comedian who charms the lead singer into his bedroom, only to reveal that he's an abusive, coke-snorting jerk (which comes out of the blue), while Derek Luke inhabits the hopeful but ultimately frustrated producer role. Omari Hardwick plays his cousin who's pushed out of the lead singer's life (and thus most of the film) and Curtis Armstrong (best known for playing Miles long ago in "Risky Business") plays a record label exec.

It doesn't help that the director (who previously helmed "Jumping the Broom") apparently decided that he should deploy just about every sort of shot, effect and editing known to filmmakers, sometimes simultaneously within the same scene. Thus, what starts out decently during the opening musical number eventually turns into an eclectic hodgepodge of visuals that simply don't work or flow together well, thus giving the flick an uneven and sometimes amateurish feel. But hey, at least the dresses look nice (if likely inappropriate for the film's temporal setting).

All of which means that "The Commitments" has no worries about continuing its reign as the best film about the highs and lows of those trying to make it in the music biz. While the title and last name of the lead might suggest otherwise, "Sparkle" might have a few good numbers in it, but it's otherwise a dull and melodramatic collection of stale clichés. It rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed August 15, 2012 / Posted August 17, 2012

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