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Sparks (2013)

April 28, 2013

sparksposter

 

written by: Christopher Folino

produced by: Christopher Folino, Tyler Endicott, James Sutton & Michael A. Smith

directed by: Christopher Folino and Todd Burrows

rating: not yet rated

runtime: 97 min. 

U.S. release date: April 13, 2013 (Chicago Critics Film Festival) 

 

Superhero movies aren’t just for summer blockbusters anymore. Sure, we’re inundated each summer with adaptations of comic books from The Big Two (that’s, Marvel or DC Comics, for those unfamiliar with that phrase), but now those movies are getting released throughout the year. One can easily become overwhelmed and weary of it all (not that I would know) or just harbor a longing for something a little different within the genre. The independently filmed “Sparks” is just that. It’s a mash-up of genres, combining the sensibilities of film noir with the colorful heroes and their murderous foes of superhero movies. Don’t expect “Sparks” to be predictable though, it’s a film that flips conventions, delivering characters that walk a fine line between hero and villain, whether they know it or not.

In 1948 New York City costumed crime fighters, called “supers”, work with the police to keep the streets safe. Some of the them are super powered (due to radiation from a meteor that landed in Rochester twenty years ago), but most of them are just super determined to kick butt and exact justice. Ian Sparks (Chase Williamson, “John Dies at the End”) is one such man. As a boy, his parents died in a horrible accident, which inspired him to don a mask and tights as a teenager, going by his last name while fighting his way through bullies and criminals. He soon learns he can do his job better with a partner, so he hooks up with the lovely Lady Heavenly (Ashley Bell, “The Last Exorcism”), a confidant acrobatic heroine who has a following of her own. She’s been known to team-up with another hero, Sledge (Jake Busey, “Starship Troopers”), but couldn’t turn down Spark’s offer (and charm) to fight crime together. The two make a fine pair fighting alongside each other and soon fall in love.

All that changes one night when they run into the mysterious Matanza (William Katt, “Carrie”), a murderer reported to be a copycat serial killer. That horrific encounter leaves Sparks and Heavenly broken, sending Ian on a dark, self-destructive path of loss and guilt. Just as he’s about to throw away his tights for good, Ian meets Archer (Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”), yet another mysterious figure with ties to Ian’s past. Archer takes Ian under his wing, honing his fighting skills and regaining his confidence, inspiring him to get his masked vigilante mojo back. He reveals to Ian the identity of the man responsible for his parent’s death and recruits Caine, (Ernesto Cueto) a flammable hothead and Dawn (a strong Marina Squerciati) an attractive shape shifter, to assist them in taking him out.

Their mission goes awry and Ian finds himself deceived and manipulated. He turns to a line of work void of morals, betraying everything he once fought to be. This despicable line of work brings its own surprising revelations, reuniting him with Lady Heavenly once again and an inevitable re-encounter with Matanza. Seeking redemption and a chance to restore his reputation, Ian sets out to make things right and hopefully win back the heart of the woman he loves, while discovering certain powers of his own.

 

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“Sparks” is quite an ambitious project for a director without the backing of a major studio. It’s the second feature-length film by Christopher Folino (2005‘s “Gamers” was his debut) who co-directed with Todd Burrows and also served as a producer. Adapting his graphic novel of the same name, Folino shot the film in an astonishing 12 days. With the film predominately taking place at night and considering all the stunts involved, I have to assume there were sleepless nights involved in this production.

Folino and his crew should be proud of what they’ve accomplished here. “Sparks” is visually quite beautiful with set designs that accentuate the noir aspect while embracing the pulpy characters (look for Clint Howard in a fun role as a newspaper editor) that inhabit its dark environment.

Speaking of characters, “Sparks” benefits from a committed cast of veterans and fairly recent newcomers. For sci-fi and fantasy fans, seeing William Katt, Clancy Brown and Jake Busey in the same movie is definitely a draw right there. Katt has fun here playing creepy and does it very well, making me wish his character had more screen time. Brown is great as the mentor with dubious intent, always keeping the audience wondering with his facial expressions. As Sledge, Busey takes what seems to be a minor role and inject some fine nuanced beats that provide a humanizing light to the character.

But Williamson and Bell provide the heart of the film. Williamson gives a nice balance of sarcasm, arrogance and humor to the narration he provides as Ian, while Bell pulls off a strong female lead that harkens back to classic femme fatales. The two have palpable on-screen chemistry, but there were times where it felt like they were relying on noir conventions a bit much. It was either in the language of the script or the way the lines were delivered. At times it just comes across as acting, instead of actors disappearing into their roles. For the most part though, these two were enjoyable to watch and also impressive in their physicality, especially Bell.

 

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Unfortunately, the film does have its flaws. While I respect Folino’s choice to take the narrative of the picture back and forth in time, it left me a little confused and disoriented, requiring another viewing to straighten out some plot elements – even then, everything wasn’t too clear. This resulted in the flow of the storytelling feeling too disjointed in areas. Also, since certain characters felt underdeveloped, the revealing twists at the end felt convoluted. And I’m sure a great deal of labor went into the special effects, but there were times where the green screen backgrounds or explosions felt too fake, pulling me out of the moments where they were utilized. I’m sure with more time and a larger budget, Folino and Burrows could’ve easily ironed out this kinks.

The film gets a noticeable boost from composer Jacob Shea, who’s worked with Hans Zimmer on “The Dark Knight” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. The score is rousing, ominous and stirring all in the right places, echoing the mood and tone of the characters and their situations. It certainly doesn’t feel like something you’d find in an indie film working the festival circuit, that’s for sure.

Actually, the fact that Folino and company are taking this movie on the road, working the festival circuit (it premiered in March at Cinequest and made it’s way to the first-ever Chicago Critics Film Festival this month) is the coolest thing about “Sparks”. It’s getting exposed to the kind of audience that is more accustomed to seeing dramas, documentaries and foreign films. Viewers who will embrace variety. Sure, other low-budget films considered in the superhero genre, like Defendor” and “Special”, have made it around the festival circuit, but it’s rare to see what is essentially a period piece take on superheroes with such zeal.

At this point, the film hasn’t yet been picked up by a studio, but it should just to counterbalance the big budget superhero movies we’re used to and to show what can independent filmmakers can accomplish in the genre.  It was worth whatever obstacles Folino undoubtedly faced making “Sparks” for the sole reason that he followed his dream and passionately made an energetic and creative film – and that’s inspiring.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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