Wednesday, June 3, 2009

160) Sugar (2008)

160) Sugar (2008) Dir: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: June 3rd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

It's a shame that the dedication to characterizing details that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck invest in Sugar is periodically offset by blunt reminders that the filmmaking duo are obviously not of the character's world. The smallest gaffes are capable of smothering the most delicate feeling of alienation that one gets from the periodic use of Dardenne-esque tracking shots, making it impossible for me to see the forest from the trees on this one. 

Fleck and Boden's storytelling errors hardly outweigh the tact and thoughtfulness of most of their script's dialogue or their aesthetic sensibilities--the Dardennes may have used this technique to better effect before, but I'll be damned if I wasn't struck dumb when Miguel "Sugar" Santos (superbly played by Algenis Perez Soto in his debut performance) first steps out of his team's bullpen onto the field--but Sugar's failures nag at me more than its considerable and much-touted successes. Maybe it's because I expected more from the duo after their stirring debut film, Half Nelson, won me over in spite of myself, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, while I felt like Santos' story was not told condescendingly, I did feel it was related imprecisely.

My discomfort with Sugar mainly stems from heavy-handed redundancy in the way we get insight to Santos' feelings, especially when it comes to establishing how he sees his fears played out in the fortune of previous Domincan ballplayers. For instance, the scene where he overhears fellow teammate Jorge Ramirez's (Rayniel Rufino) phone call home and the previous scene where Santos worriedly stares down a local trash-talking has-been were both too much of the same thing. On their own, either scene is perhaps too blunt to establish the character's concerns, which, thanks to the ensconcing narrative that these scenes are a part of, never warrants such unnecessarily direct reminders of Santos' concerns; combined, they're fodder for the cutting room floor.

Fleck and Boden also make a conscious but not consistently successful attempt to avoid cliches in stereotypical, character-defining situations. The confrontation at the club after Santos' first game and his flirtation with Anne "the farmer's daughter" Higgins (Ellary Porterfield) are both resolved quietly but are once again unnecessary and painfully obvious means of showing us that Santos is persona non grata in America. Again, these scenes would in any other film be insignificantly problematic, but considering the expertly handled way Santos breaks away from much more important relationships, like with the team and with his Dominican girlfriend, they seem like the tiny specks of dirt that eventually are all I saw in an otherwise well-crafted film.


  1. The review is as fine as ever, but I don't agree with calling the tracking shots "Dardenne-esque" - Boden & Fleck show much less discipline than the Belgian brothers. The most pronounced tracking shot of SUGAR has everytging *but* Sugar himself gone out of focus, which stresses the poetic quality of the image, rather than the matter-of-fact presentation of physical reality surrounding the character (the field in which the Dardennes excell). I would point more to P.T. Anderson's self-0indulgent SYDNEY (1996) as the possibble source of inspiration here (see the long shot of Philip Baker Hall trekking through a huge casino near the middle of the movie).

  2. Thanks, Michal. Maybe I just haven't seen HARD EIGHT (I know it by that title; wonder when it changed) in a while but I don't think I'd charcterize that shot as particularly "Andersonian." In other words, I'll probably agree with you in that it's similar in that one instance but damnit, I'm making a sweeping auteurist generalization!

    I don't agree though re: the Dardennes. From what I remember of LE FILS, LA PROMESSE and L'ENFANT, their tracking shots don't preserve reality so much as they present a hyper-stylized (yes, even that is style) distillation of what it's like to be immersed in "reality."

    It's like the reverse technique-effect relationship of a close-up. A close-up gives us through an unreal examination of a particular feature a greater understanding of a particular facet (ie: from an unreal proximity comes the appearance of a real feeling). The Dardennes' close-ups immerse in the immediacy of the characters' physicality but, in doing so, give us a surreal world of sensory immersion (from the real the unreal).

    Forgive me for being didactic, but I feel it's perhaps too easy to call what the Dardennes do a "matter-of-fact presentation of physical reality." What they do is no more surreal than what Fleck and Boden do here in showing us poetically Santos' first steps on the field as if he were ten feet tall and the world were on his broad shoulders.

  3. You're right, let me rephrase that. It's true that both the Dardennes & Boden/Fleck use the tracking shots to "give us a surreal world of sensory immersion". But if the Dardennes use this immersion to wove the character even more strongly into the spaces he or she inhabits, Ryan & Fleck aim for the exact opposite: they distill the character from the world; separate one from the other and thus reach a more eerie (and thus less politically charged) effect.