Review by Gordon Justesen
Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ellary Porterfield, Michael Gaston,
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 114 Minutes
Release Date: September 1, 2009
“Starting pitcher for American league, SUGAR SANTOS!”
If there’s one genre of film that should be rewarded for coming up with a wholly original type of story, it’s that of the sports movie. These days, no matter what sport is being depicted, there is never any sense of surprise in terms of what goes down during the course of the movie. You’d be hard pressed not to find a movie where a team of underdogs have to win the big game at the end.
So in watching a film like Sugar, you can’t help but react with a sense of joy. Here’s a film that not only defies every sports movie convention in existence, but happens to be about so much more than the sport being focused on. In this case, that sport is baseball, and the fact that baseball has been done to death in conventional movies makes this film all the more special.
The film comes to us from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Their previous film was the extremely superb and unflinching character study, Half Nelson, which dealt with a schoolteacher’s addiction to drugs. With this film, Boden and Fleck do an amazing job of stripping this baseball story of the expected clichés in the same way they stripped their previous film of the hammered preachy elements usually associated with movies about drugs.
The title refers to the nickname of the lead character, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, played in a striking debut performance by Algenis Perez Soto. He is a baseball pitcher from the Dominican Republic, whose primary trait is that of a mean curveball. It is that quality which captures the eye of a baseball scout from Kansas City, who then offers Sugar a once in a lifetime chance to come train in America.
In addition to eluding all of the noted sports movie clichés, Boden and Fleck also avoid the “fish-out-of-water” formula that is so easily applied to most movies involving a foreigner in an unfamiliar land. As a result, Sugar is not just an original in the vein of the baseball movie, but it also happens to be a most invigorating immigrant story. What we see in terms of Sugar learning to speak in English and adapting to American lifestyle is done in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another film. To sum it up, everything has a truly authentic feel to it.
Following spring training, Sugar finds himself assigned to play for a franchise team in a small town in Iowa. He also takes up residence with a husband and wife who are team boosters. The family is a fairly conservative and religious one steeped in family values, which presents a problem for Sugar when he develops a crush on the couple’s granddaughter.
It doesn’t take long for Sugar to become something of a celebrity once he starts taking the field. But many obstacles are thrown in front of him, as well. And all I’ll say is that you won’t expect the third act of the story to go in the direction it does, which elevates the film to a whole new remarkable level.
Throughout this engrossing film, it’s the filmmaking that shines more than anything. Boden and Fleck have truly made the absolute most of their shoestring budget, and also put every inch of their heart and soul into the directing, editing and just about every camera trick imaginable. So much is conveyed to the viewer in the most subtle way, which is a feat I wish could be accomplished in so many other films.
Sugar is quite simply a remarkable gem of a film, and one of the very best films to come my way this year. I never thought I’d ever encounter a film about baseball that was personal, emotionally gripping, atmospheric and devoid of any clichés, but that’s exactly what was given to me here. This is one film that deserves to be discovered by everyone.
This Blu-ray release from Sony is something of a revelation, in that it illustrates that independent films can shine just as much as any big budget, effects laden feature in the format. The picture quality is that of a consistently rich, warm and immensely detailed anamorphic image, brought to amazing life in the 1080p. The film consists of three distinct settings for its three act structure; the Dominican Republic, Iowa and The Bronx, all of which looks strikingly authentic. Day and night scenes both look dynamic, and scenes set on the baseball diamond appear nothing short of fantastic.
Though mainly a dialogue oriented piece, the Dolby TrueHD mix does provide some knockout lossless sound in numerous areas. In addition to the super clear dialogue delivery, the baseball scenes are given some awesome surround sound action as far as the rear and side channels are concerned. Several music selections in the film also get amazing playback, including tracks by the likes of TV on the Radio and Moby.
I should first point out that the Blu-ray release contains the full, uncut release that was in theaters, while the DVD release is said to include a more toned down PG-13 version. Among the extras on this Blu-ray, we get three very well made featurettes; “Making Sugar: Run the Bases”, “Play Béisbol! The Dominican Dream” and “Casting Sugar: Interview with Algenis Perez Soto”. Also included are five Deleted Scenes and several Bonus Previews for additional Sony releases.
Sugar is another fantastic, expectation defying piece of cinema from filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are establishing themselves as remarkable storytellers. Fans of independent cinema should definitely take notice of this one of a kind film!