Sundance Highs and Lows 

Moving mountains, growing wings

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden'sSugar, which premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (and was inexplicably shut out at the closing-night awards ceremony), gets as much right about baseball as any movie I've ever seen. It gets the hum of the electric lights in the ozone-heavy summer air and the satisfying smack of a knuckle curve as it lands squarely in the catcher's mitt. It exults in the zigzag poetry of the white ball with the red stripes — to the shortstop, to second, to first. Double play! Above all, it understands baseball as a crucible of the American Dream, for Americans themselves and for those who long to come to these shores. In telling the fictional story of a young Dominican pitcher, Miguel "Sugar" Santos (gifted newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), during his first season on the roster of an MLB farm team, it traces a factual line through several generations of minority immigrant ballplayers, from Hiram Bithorn to Roberto Clemente to Sammy Sosa.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

click to flip through (2) COURTESY OF SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL - Sugar
  • Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
  • Sugar

Related Stories

  • Better Weather

    This news is not going to knock anyone off their seat. But, yeah, L.A. County is home to the best warm weather places in the nation. At least that's the conclusion of personal finance site WalletHub, which this week named Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank as "cities with the best ... year-round...
  • L.A. Teens Fast For Central American Immigrants 2

    When you were a teenager you hung out at the mall, made mixtapes and ate McNuggets. These here L.A. kids are going without food this week to support the children coming to the United States illegally from Central America. The young people "will be drinking water only" through Friday, a...
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 40th Anniversary

    @ Cinefamily/Silent Movie Theatre
  • We Wish We All Could Be Caprice's Kind of California Girl

    “This is myself with my best friend at the time, frying my skin," says the across-the-pond celebrity Caprice Bourret while looking at old photos, nibbling a scone at high tea at the Culver Hotel. "I used to be such a California girl. I used to fry. Hawaiian Tropic, no sunscreen at all."...
  • Porn Flight 14

    California porn studio Kink.com, which last year came under scrutiny for a condom-free production in which a woman who afterward turned up HIV-positive had performed, said this week that it's opening facilities in Las Vegas. The company, which was investigated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) following...

Sugar (Click to enlarge)

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Click to enlarge)

It's a gorgeous film — subtle, observant, full of life — and the surprise isn't how good it is, but rather how true it rings. Fleck and Boden are a long way away from the gritty Brooklyn verisimilitude of their previous Half Nelson, but Sugar feels every bit as lived-in, whether we're on the dirt streets of a Dominican Republic shantytown or the hardened clay of a Bridgeport, Indiana, single-A ballpark. And it is just as wise to the cheap inspirationalism of so many sports dramas as Half Nelson was to the pitfalls of inspirational-schoolteacher minstrelsy. Indeed, for Sugar Santos, "making it" in this country only truly begins after his baseball career comes to a self-imposed end.

While Sugar's American panorama includes its own glimpses of the ugly face of racial discrimination, two other Sundance movies charged head-on at that vestigial skeleton in our sociocultural closet. "I don't know any black people" is the alarming epiphany uttered by an upper-crust husband and father at the start of the third vignette in Venezuelan-born director Chusy Haney-Jardine's audacious, just-about-indescribable triptych, Anywhere, U.S.A., which was deservingly awarded a special "Spirit of Independence" prize by the Dramatic Competition's Quentin Tarantino-led jury. A similar sentiment propelled the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep South, in which director Katrina Browne and nine relatives grapple with their family's hidden history as the largest slave-trading operation in North America. A seminarian by education, Browne is far from a natural filmmaker, but her movie contains some of the most extraordinary moments I witnessed onscreen at Sundance this year, including a loaded encounter on the Ghana coast with an African-American woman who tells Browne's cousin she had hoped to make her trip without seeing any white people.

Another deeply personal, first-person documentary came in the form of Christopher Bell's Bigger, Stronger, Faster, which carries the provocative subtitle "The Side Effects of Being American" and recounts the Poughkeepsie-born Bell's childhood infatuation with the holy trinity of 1980s steroidal musculature: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Of course, the impressionable Bell and his two prowrestling aspirant brothers didn't know at the time that their larger-than-life heroes were jacked on performance-enhancing drugs — and once they found out, it did little to deter them from experimenting with steroids themselves. "I'd rather be dead than average," says one of Bell's brothers, affectionately known as "Mad Dog," and from that rich starting point, Bell — who's like Michael Moore with an inverse ratio of muscle to body fat — embarks on a wide-ranging survey of our national obsession with domination. It's a hugely entertaining, surprisingly shrewd ride, complete with guest appearances by the likes of Ben Affleck (seen in clips from an afterschool special about the dangers of "'roid rage"), comic book maestro Stan Lee, disgraced athletes Ben Johnson and Floyd Landis, and the hilariously clueless California Representative Henry Waxman.

"The Side Effects of Being American" could also describe Morgan Spurlock's out-of-competition Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, a vile, naive and reactionary film in which the Super Size Me auteur bids adieu to his extremely pregnant wife and goes off in search of the world's most dangerous terrorist. Giving credence to the ugliest of ugly-American stereotypes, Spurlock bulldozes his way through Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Israel, dropping in on the uncle of al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri and getting into a shoving match with Orthodox Jews on the streets of Tel Aviv. And just for good measure, there are periodic animated interludes in which a CG Spurlock gets whipped around by bin Laden's "turban power" during a Tekken-like showdown. Michael Moore at his shallowest is fathoms deeper than this.

Thankfully, by way of a corrective, there was Oscar-nominated director Edet Belzberg's superb An American Soldier, which follows a Houma, Louisiana, Army recruiter as he enlists the next generation of U.S. troops, then follows three of his recruits as they make their way through basic training and beyond. From its boldfaced candor about the difficulties of recruitment in a time of war to its upending of numerous infantry stereotypes (all of the film's subjects are white, while the most gung-ho of the lot is a college-bound honors student), Belzberg's film is neither a jingoist tract nor an antimilitary jihad, but rather a measured, intelligent and even inspiring portrait of the men and women who take it upon themselves to defend our country.

Two of the best films at Sundance 2008 expressed subtle nostalgia for literally and figuratively extinct stretches of New York City. Azazel Jacob's delightful Momma's Man, shot almost entirely in the Chambers Street loft of his father, the legendary avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, consecrates a bohemian lower Manhattan slowly giving way to gentrification as it tells the story of a 30-something businessman who can't bring himself to leave his childhood home after paying a visit to his aging parents (touchingly played by the elder Jacobs and his wife, Flo). Meanwhile, Wisconsin Death Trip director James Marsh's Man on Wire revisits the peculiar case of French provocateur Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and makes of it a magnificently eccentric film about imagination, risk taking and the unabated creative spirit. Petit had actually conceived of his stunt years before, when he first read about the WTC's impending construction. In 2008, he ascended the Sundance stage with Marsh to collect the second of Man on Wire's two prizes (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award of the international documentary competition) and offered these parting words for the next generation of artists and daydreamers: "Keep moving mountains. Keep growing wings."

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Thu 24
  2. Fri 25
  3. Sat 26
  4. Sun 27
  5. Mon 28
  6. Tue 29
  7. Wed 30

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.
  • Are Westerns For The Weak? Not According to "Sensei" Martin Kove
    Decades ago, the western film was king, with nearly 100 produced every year at their peak in the 1940s, and their popularity extending years beyond. But today, other than rare successes like Django Unchained or True Grit, the genre is not in great shape. Films such as Cowboys and Aliens and The Lone Ranger failed to spark new interests in the western. It's a tough nut to crack, but veteran movie bad guy Martin Kove -- most well known for his role as Sensei John Kreese in The Karate Kid -- is passionate about the classic American film genre and is trying to revive it. We spent an afternoon at his home talking about westerns and how to make the genre interesting again. All photos by Jared Cowan.

Now Trending