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Pretentious Movie Alert: Honey, Oh Sugar Sugar, You Are My Favorite Film Of 2009

Cancel the 2009 Blogulator Movie Awards -- we have a winner. Yes, Chris and I, along with esteemed prestige blogger Unspar, attended what will surely be near or at the top of our personal fave movies of the year for 2009 -- Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's sophomore feature-length film, Sugar. Yeah, the combination of elements -- slow-moving cinematography, naturalistic acting performances, and minor-league baseball -- pretty much moves anything into a personal favorites list for I, Qualler. Luckily, Sugar is great on an even deeper level than that -- it is also deeply affecting as a tale of a man trying to do good for his family while attempting to make it within our capitalist society. Also, did I mention that I loved it?

Chris, why don't you start with a little bit of discourse on what made it most amazing to you?

Uhh, how about the fact that it's the only sports movie that I can undoubtedly say moved me from beginning to end? The Sandlot got close when I was a wee lad, but I can't imagine that film has aged well. Other than that, there was Friday Night Lights, which was definitely solid, but still came off as a little melodramatic and overly cinematic, even if its hues were darker and more realistic than usually found in the reach-for-your-dreams storyline of your basic sports flick. But thanks to Boden and Fleck's refusal to cram every shot with either ham-fisted "believe in yourself" dialogue (a sports movie prerequisite methinks) or symphonics-laden gametime tension, Sugar feels more intimate and genuine than any other film of its genre. And not only is this coming from someone who generally doesn't enjoy sports, but from someone who didn't fall head over heels with the duo's first effort, Half Nelson. Did you ever see that, Qualler? What's your take on the sports canon? I can't even appreciate the Rocky series, so maybe we should look to an actual spots enthusiast for a more even-handed opinion.

I recently re-watched part of The Sandlot and you're right -- it does not hold up over the years. (And the chubby kid is even more annoying than I remember. Plus, as Brigitte pointed out -- why are all coming-of-age movies like that always about boys' coming of age? That sounds like a topic for another day.) And FNL the movie was solid but emotionally cold (though I have yet to give the TV series a try which from what I've read is right up my alley.) But this movie did work on both a "hey this is a really good indie-style movie" level and a "wow, they're getting the details of minor league baseball down surprisingly well" level. From what I know about how baseball scouts operate, and how baseball academies work in places like the Dominican Republic (home of my favorite current Minnesota Twins player, Francisco Liriano), and how there are so many players trying to get to the same level, and only so many who will actually get signed to a team, and how of that group there are only so many that will even make it above Single-A ball, the attention to detail blew me away.

I'm also with you on feeling pretty "m'eh" about Half Nelson. Why should I give a crap about Ryan Freakin' Gosling being a kinda lazy teacher who does drugs? Sugar, however, was a true gut-puncher. It did many of the same things that Slumdog Millionaire did -- that is, show the struggles people face in developing countries just on a day-to-day basis -- but then take one step further by *SPOILER ALERT* not giving the viewer a gift-wrapped happy ending that makes us all feel warm and gooey inside. In fact, it made me re-think my support of Major League Baseball a wee bit -- for every Francisco Liriano, there are thousands of real-life Sugar Santos' out there. *END SPOILERS* And now with the stellar "Oliver" episodes of HBO's Season Two of In Treatment being directed by Ryan Fleck, the Boden / Fleck duo has risen about a million awesome points in my book.

Yeah, I appreciated that they were challenging how sympathetic a protagonist needs to be with Half Nelson, but we were never let inside the head of Gosling's character I don't think, whereas even with Sugar not being able to say more than "french toast" or "thank you" throughout his time in America, I still felt completely enveloped in his confused, benevolent, and angry mindset because we got a beautiful set-up in the first act. Unfortunately, in Nelson, we barely got any, which works for a stark movie like Wendy & Lucy, but not for a directing team so obviously invested in social issues like education or immigration. But we can't give Boden and Fleck all of the credit. Obviously first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto, who is a former minor leaguer from the D.R. himself, was impressive as hell at recreating his experience in a narrative format. It reminded me of Gabe Nevins from Paranoid Park, who probably didn't kinda cause someone's death, but was refreshing to watch because he had no hint of "actorness" in him, much like Soto. They simply acted as the people they were, whether detached teen or dismissed talent, and worried less about conveying emotion through dialogue or theatrics and more about just letting the camera follow them as they felt, struggled, and hoped. The supporting cast was equally impressive too - in fact the only thing I felt was lacking was more backstory or time spent with Rayniel Rufino's Jorge. As Sugar's cousin and longtime BFF, he was charming and obviously troubled all at once, and yes his mystery helped fuel our protagonist's journey, but I wish I knew him like Sugar did in his homeland.

Yeah, Soto was awesome. Through my extensive research (i.e. listening to this interview with Boden and Fleck ) they cast the parts by going to a baseball academy and auditioning hundreds of players to find the people who would fit the film the best. They also wrote the script in English, then Boden translated it into Spanish, then they had someone fine-tune it to make it especially Dominican Republic-esque. And supposedly the story of Sugar is a composite of the many stories they researched to create the character of Santos...not unlike our fave socially conscious TV character Omar Little of The Wire.

In fact, those comparisons to The Wire that inevitably bounced around my head in the movie theater are another reason why this movie transcended mere "sports movie" genre for me. Baseball is just the backdrop to the story of one man's experience as an immigrant in the USA -- the promise of wealth in America is enough to drive many a person to the one-in-a-million longshot of making it big in the Major Leagues, to the extent of leaving their families behind in their home countries. When Santos left his baseball team to move to New York with his cousin / BFF, we met a dishwasher from Mexico who similarly left his wife and kids to support them while they worked crappy jobs in our country. The only detail I could quibble with was the fact that the church choirs at the Presbyterian church in Iowa had as many dudes as it had ladies. Everyone knows church choirs almost always have a shortage of dudes.

All of this rich sociocultural material was majorly aided by the aforementioned gorgeous cinematography, top-notch acting, and superb script. It seems that maybe I gave Half Nelson a short shrift, but combined with the aforementioned In Treatment and the similarly naturalistic acting performances that Fleck pulled out of another first-time actor, 11-year-old Aaron Shaw, it seems Fleck / Boden are some srrsly talented filmmakers. And if we want to visit where the baseball scenes were filmed, it's only 5 hours and 45 minutes driving (or, thanks Google Maps, 4 days and 8 hours walking) to Quad City, Iowa, home of the St. Louis Cardinals affiliate Quad City River Bandits. (AND they play in the divison of the Twins Single-A affiliate Beloit Snappers, who have a player with my favorite ever baseball name, Shooter Hunt.) May I suggest a Blogulator meetup in Quad City this summer???

Haha we're totally walking there. And making a naturalistic and mildly depressing (but with a glimpse of hope) film about it. With a lot of long silent tracking shots. One last serious note though, because your comment about the fringe dishwasher character reminded me of what's basically the most important thing to keep in mind about Sugar. Yes, it's obviously just as much a political film as much as it is a quiet character study. But what's most significant, I think, especially in this day and age of the majority of socially-minded cinema being unwilling to think solemnly or modestly, is that Boden and Fleck don't enforce any particular viewpoint. Just because we follow and empathize with the plight of Sugar doesn't mean we have to (or should) squarely blame capitalism or even the MLB for his hardships. You're definitely welcome to make those conclusions based on your viewing (I may have as well, Qualler), but what stuck with me most wasn't necessarily that dishwasher's inability to see his family, or Sugar's yearning for someone to care for him. Instead, I ultimately remember the smiles on the players' faces and the warm exchanges between old friends and new strangers. It's just as much about the rewards gained from those struggles as it is about the injustice that occurs because of narrow-mindedness, business-fueled greed, and general selfishness in the world.

I mean c'mon, his name and the movie's name was
Sugar for crying out loud. I think if they wanted us to leave the movie feeling downbeat they'd have named the deal Cyanide or Shasta McNasty or something.

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  1. Blogger Unspar! | 9:02 AM |  

    Great review, guys. This is why it's so much fun to see movies with y'all.

    I think you kind of hinted at this at the end, Chris, but what I really liked is how it is so much about the characters. Even the struggles of poverty in the DR and the struggles of cultural assimilation and the struggles of making a buck to support the family seemed to be a backdrop for the simple presentation of these characters as people. It's the anit-Crash. In a sense the issues that everybody dealt with weren't really issues. For all the money, baseball, and culture exploitation, it showed me that people transcend all of it and can simply be people.

  2. Blogger DoktorPeace | 2:42 PM |  

    Mmm I'm now excited about this for when it comes to Milwaukee, on DVD, maybe.

    I just watched Mr. Baseball a couple weeks ago, and despite its classic 80sness with romance and all, I was impressed by its interpretation of Japanese baseball. Is Tom Selleck in Sugar?

    And there are no female coming-of-age stories because "Are you there God?" ruined it for all of you.

  3. Blogger qualler | 2:47 PM |  

    And Judy Blume. Don't forget Judy Blume.

    I also watched Mr. Baseball recently. Yes, the baseball-ness of it is great, but I couldn't believe the lame humor. "Let's have Tom Selleck slurp noodles. Now, let's have him slurp, again! And again! And again!" Needless to say, it was the kind of gentle entertainment I like to have on mute while studying to wake my senses up at 5:30 am.

    And Tom Selleck makes a showy cameo in Sugar as the beer-swilling, down-on-his-luck ex All-Star pitcher who befriends Sugar and teaches him about sports, nay, life, which, in the big game at the end, Sugar recollects and uses as motivation to strike out the batter to win the World Series and win back the love and adoration of his girlfriend, who he hugs at the end in a "We're spinning together" shot that turns into them doing the same thing at their wedding day, with one last witty line by the hilarious couple that go to all of Sugar's games, played by Steve Buscemi and Kathy Bates.

  4. Blogger qualler | 2:52 PM |  

    Also Chris, you make an excellent point about no viewpoints being shoved down throats, or sweeping generalizations whatsoever. Really, it is a human story. Man alive, the more I think about it, the more this film gets ingrained into my mind as the best of 2009. Where the Wild Things Are -- you have your work cut out for you.

  5. Blogger Brigitte | 2:53 PM |  

    i don't generally care for sports films unless there are dogs that can play those sports involved. but this review makes me wonder if i should change my mind...

  6. Blogger qualler | 2:56 PM |  

    p.s. Brigitte let me know "Are You There God" is written by Judy Blume. D'oh.

  7. Blogger chris | 3:11 PM |  

    I WANT QUALLER TO DIRECT A CHEESY BASEBALL MOVIE.

    Yes, Unspar, you're so right. Sometimes overcoming a struggle isn't about achieving something tangible or falling in love or whatever. It's about just being a person - living life, doing something you enjoy, and just being happy.

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