By Eric Henderson

Bad parents may still mean well, and good parents are still capable of inflicting plenty of damage upon their children.

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I don’t have kids myself, but that’s the message two of this weekend’s new releases — Sparkle and The Odd Life of Timothy Green — sends loud and clear.

(The message of The Expendables 2, arguably the “biggest” release this weekend, is yet to be determined, as it didn’t screen for critics. I’m willing to bet that it may be something along the lines of, “You can have my prostate when you pull it from my cold, dead hands.” Just conjecture, of course.)

Sparkle, a costume-heavy remake of a 1976 melodrama, features Whitney Houston in her final screen performance as Emma, the mother of three talented girls who form a Motown-esque girl group in 1960s Detroit. Only they have to do it behind her back, since Emma is a devout Christian who won’t have her daughters slinking their way across stages.

Jordin Sparks stars as Sparkle, but the Diana Ross of their group is Sister (Carmen Ejogo, doing the best she can with a capricious, often ludicrous role), who at-first reluctantly steals the spotlight from Sparkle and Dee (Tika Sumpter) and is quickly seduced by the lure of fame and fortune.

Sister’s swift engagement to slick and contemptuous comedian Satin (Mike Epps) and subsequent plunge into an Ike-and-Tina nightmare alone justifies Emma’s misgivings about the prospect of her daughters becoming singing sensations, but the movie eventually reveals that she knows the dangers of the profession first-hand, having tried to make a name for herself earlier before falling from grace. Her stern authoritarian rule over the roost comes from a need to protect her kin from making the same mistakes she did already.

Houston’s performance is a study in reservation and caution, almost showing how aware she is that both Sparkle‘s storyline and her own role are easily transmutable to her own life experiences with drugs and contentious relationships. That she died earlier this year in a moment of evident backsliding only accentuates the trepidation she brings to the role, and not necessarily in a way that will make anyone feel good about her performance. (One exception: her magnificent rendition of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” which briefly rescues the movie from its default mode of rubbernecking.)

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Arguably, Emma’s unyielding control played a function in the feeling of alienation that eventually drives Sister away, just as it prevents Sparkle herself from believing in her own talents.

But as far as helicopter parenting goes, Emma’s got nothing on Cindy and Jim Green, the unwitting parents of a miracle child in the new family fantasy The Odd Life of Timothy Green.

Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play Cindy and Jim, a couple who have seen every doctor available to them only to be told again and again they can’t conceive a child. Despondent and finally coming to terms with it, the two decide to drunkenly play one last parlor game that anyone familiar with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should recognize.

They write on scraps of notebook paper all the qualities they would’ve wished to see their never-to-be-born child fulfill and bury them in a box in their backyard garden. A storm mysteriously blows in, the door flies open and — lo and behold — a child is born.

A 10-year-old child … with small leaves growing from his calves … who somehow seems to do and be everything the couple he calls “Mom” and “Dad” wanted of him when they were brainstorming the night before. He proceeds to teach them what it means to be a parent even as they prove themselves incredibly capable of doing everything wrong in their overzealousness.

Whimsy is the effect Timothy Green is aiming for, and it manages to charm often enough even when the elements seem a tad too recycled — the story, conceived by Frank Zappa’s son Ahmet, is sort of a cross between Benjamin Button and the just-released Ruby Sparks.

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As a fable, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. New parents can learn about as much from a perfect child as normal children could learn from having perfect parents. But, then again, this particular fairy tale seems aimed squarely at the parents in the audience, who will no doubt emerge from the movie smothering their own children with kisses and embarrassing the ever-loving snot out of them in the process.

Eric Henderson