Husband and wife writer/director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck knocked it totally out of the park with Sugar, a wonderful film about baseball, America, and how a particular immigrant’s first experiences in this country are shaped around our national pastime. This was their follow up to Half Nelson, their startling school-teacher/crack-addict drama debut, which announced a new voice in independent cinema. The cinema-verite style combined with intense, raw performances (Ryan Gosling’s bravura work should have gotten the Oscar) made for a searing portrait of man coming to pieces. In Sugar, Boden and Fleck take the same pseudo-doc style aesthetic, but have made a film as optimistic as Half Nelson was bleak. They also changed their aesthetic approach, ditching the rough and tumble look and feel of Half Nelson, instead opting for a gorgeous, colorfully saturated cinematography palette put in place by their regular cinematographer Andrij Parekh, who also shot Blue Valentine. And while baseball is a major aspect to Sugar, the film is ultimately about an immigrant’s strange and life-changing journey, making this touching and sometimes challenging film so much more than a “baseball movie.”
The film can be seen as three distinct pieces. In the opening segment we meet Miguel “Sugar” Santos (the fantastic Algenis Perez Soto, a baseball player who decided to give acting a shot) on his home turf in the Dominican Republic. He’s a hot-shot pitcher, a phenom in the making, someone who the MLB scouts are pegging could go all the way. We observe his mostly poor surroundings, and we see how he’s the treasure of his family, the one person who everyone else thinks will bring the family some fortune. It’s a lot of responsibility, and the film is keen to observe that for many young baseball players in the Dominican Republic, this sort of thing is a regular occurrence. Boden and Fleck shoot the scenes in the Dominican Republic in a rougher fashion, especially when compared to the lush camera style and warmer colors they employ when the action shifts to Iowa, where Sugar has been called up to AA ball. Here, the film becomes a fish out of water tale, as Sugar adapts to middle-of-the-U.S.A. living, all the while trying to keep his spot on the team, in the hopes of becoming a pro. The last section, the part I will discuss the least, takes place in a major American city, and these scenes take on a life of their own, in both dramatic function and style. It’s important to note that the third act of this movie has been completely left out of the trailers, which sort of make the film out to be something that it isn’t.
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that Sugar is exceedingly rich, with lots of genuine emotion and feeling running throughout its veins. The film never stinks of elitist condescension when it comes to the plight of the immigrant; Fleck and Boden’s clear-eyed doc-style keeps the film grounded and realistic. The baseball scenes are handled skillfully, but never in a show-off manner. Soto, who was recruited for his baseball skills and handsome looks, delivers a quietly powerful performance as the titular character. A man of few words (for multiple reasons), Sugar represents all that’s possible for people when they have a certain talent. And he learns that in the end, it’s not necessarily how you use that talent to succeed in life, but rather how you use your talents to broaden your horizons and experience life to the fullest. Fleck and Boden and ace shooter Parekh, keep a close, observant eye on everyone in the film, whether it be through long tracking shots or simple camera set ups which maximize the dramatics of the scene. Sugar isn’t just a simple sports film, and those people who are looking for a movie where it all comes down to the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning are going to be disappointed. Instead, with Sugar, Fleck and Boden crafted an exceptionally engaging movie that strikes many interesting, unpredictable, and satisfying chords. It was one of my favorite films from 2008, and I eagerly await their new gambling drama, Mississippi Grind, which hits theaters later this year.
“Is Mr. Langford expecting you?” – Langford’s Secretary
“Yes, I don’t think he is.” – Rupert Pupkin
Meet Rupert Pupkin – whose name is often mispronounced and misspelled. He is an insecure, timid and dissolutional young man whose dream is to perform a guest spot on “The Jerry Langford Show”. His psychopathic friend Masha is deeply obsessed with Jerry and after numerous failed attempts of Rupert going to Jerry’s office for a meeting – the two devise a plan to kidnap Jerry.
THE KING OF COMEDY remains to be the greatest Scorsese film that not many have seen. It showcases Robert De Niro’s finest performance as Rupert, a wickedly hilarious psychotic performance of a lifetime by Sandra Bernhard as Masha and a steady cool and calm of normality that’s brought to the film by Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford – a Johnny Carson late night host.
This film has a nice polish on it, it looks and feels light and breezy but under the façade this is a deeply dark and sinister film. Rupert is so utterly delirious that his basement room is his Mother’s house is a mock studio with cardboard cutouts of celebrities where he performs in front of an invisible audience every night. The film is incredibly funny – yet you find yourself wanting to look away at how terribly humiliating situations in the film become.
After failing to meet with Jerry at his office, Rupert invites a woman who was in love with in high school, and is now a local bartender, to join him for a weekend at Jerry’s home. Rupert arrives at Jerry’s home and forces his way past the butler and maid. He then begins to walk around Jerry’s house telling this woman all about Jerry’s achievements and his life – speaking as if he’s known Jerry for an eternity. Once Jerry arrives home, he demands Rupert leave, he threatens Rupert with the police and begins shouting at him. This is one of many, many situations in the film that is so painfully humiliating to watch we find ourselves wanting to turn away – but we can’t. We are so mesmerized by the film.
This is film is the essence of black comedy, planting the seeds for future films. Will Farrell’s character in WEDDING CRASHERS – the grown man living in his off screen mother’s basement who is constantly yelling at her. THE KING OF COMEDY started that all.
John McTiernan did so much to shape the modern studio action picture, and it’s wild to look at his resume and see how many classic titles he has to his credit: Nomads (his creepy and odd ghost story debut), Die Hard (quite possibly the best American action movie of all-time), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (as good as threequels will ever get), The Hunt for the Red October (an unimpeachable classic), The Last Action Hero (sue me, I love this incredible action movie deconstruction from genre MASTER screenwriter Shane Black) and The Thomas Crown Affair (one of the best remakes around). Sure, he’s had rough times, mostly due to studio interference (The 13th Warrior and his Rollerball remake were not career highlights because of studio meddling, despite typically great scenes of action), but it’s inescapably true that he’s one of the finest pure action directors of all time. And his genre-hybrid Predator, mixing action and comedy and horror and science-fiction, still stands as one of his best works, a movie filled with non-stop action, macho humor, incredible physical locations, rugged cinematography (the great Donald McAlpine captured the jungle in all its exploding glory with testosterone fueled imagery that has the power to elicit gasps and laughter), and a massively engaging central performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hit all the proper notes of aggressive man-of-action, cheesy drama, and of course, his own brand of signature one-liner humor that never suffered thanks to the witty and inventive screenplay from Jim and John Thomas. The two writers threw tons of stylistic ingredients into the cinematic blender, and because of McTiernan’s fantastic use of space and coherent sense of action, the resulting effort is one of the most satisfying and exciting action films from the 1980’s.
No need in rehashing the plot; if you haven’t seen this movie by now I question what planet you call home base. I’ve always loved the main conceit of Predator, in that another, way more advanced species would drop off their young in order for them to train and hunt, with humans as their mostly defenseless prey. It’s such a classic sci-fi idea, and when joined at the hip with the military action adventure scenario, the film carries a whiff of unpretentious high-concept that would be tough to pull off now and generate the same level of thrills and enjoyment. While I liked the Steven Hopkins directed sequel from 1991 more than most, look no further than Alien vs. Predator as an example of a potentially good idea run amok. The practical and early visual effects, while clearly dated, are still awesome in that nostalgic, pre-CGI fashion that genre efforts from the 80’s all had. The pseudo-sequel from 2010, Predators, the more I think back on it, is sort of underrated; I should give that one another viewing. But on Predator, the filmmakers had to resort to real stunts and real explosions and real props before the onslaught and reliance of the computer, and there’s an honest physicality to the entire production that feels sturdy and realistic. And that’s because this film was legitimately shot in the jungle – deep in the jungle – and it shows.
McTiernan’s films all have a sense of rough and tumble action, and I’ve long loved his mixing of hand-held and stationary camerawork, always filling the widescreen frame with detail and high-powered images that feel lush and expensive. The supporting cast is a rogues gallery of manly-men performers, with everyone bringing their scenery chewing A-game: Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham, all impossibly juiced, jacked, and ripped beyond belief, carrying the world’s largest machine guns, and destroying everything in sight. And let’s not forget action movie author extraordinaire Shane Black as the group’s wise-cracking purveyor of comedy relief; he also did well with his firearms when called upon. And of course, goes without saying, the hulking Kevin Peter Hall was man-in-suit perfection as the titular beast, and the one-on-one face-off with Schwarzenegger at the end still stands as one of the best final fights ever. The camp-site raid at the half-way point is utterly staggering in its balls-out awesomeness, with shell casings galore, bodies flying through the air, and enough fireballs to choke a horse. It’s almost impossible to think that this was a $15 million production back in the day – that wouldn’t even cover the catering costs if a re-make was attempted in this day and age! I’ve long been a huge fan of this definitive piece of movie magic for years, and it’s terrific to note how well it’s held up as the decades have progressed.
The Monster Squad was a pivotal film from my childhood, and looking back on it now, it’s really easy to see why. Independently produced and released by TriStar Pictures in 1987 (I was seven…) and given the then-golden rating of PG-13 when it actually meant something, I was taken to the theater to see this film by my parents, who probably didn’t know there’d be some wonderful, envelope pushing humor (for the time) that I’d become completely obsessed with for months to follow, and some genuine scares for youngsters. Co-written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Predator, The Long Kiss Goodnight), executive produced by Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, 2010, Busting), and co-written and directed by Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps), this is a kick-ass, totally awesome movie for the kid inside of all of us, made by smart grown-ups who never looked down on the childlike fascination that they must’ve know the film would inspire, especially from those of us who were raised on a steady diet of monsters, ghouls, and assorted nasties of the night. With fantastic make-up effects from Stan Winston (Terminator, Jurassic Park, Iron Man), the film involves a group of pre-teen boys who form a Monster Club in their back-yard. This is the same sort of idiocy I used to pull in my days of horsing around outside in the summer, so it was very easy for me to latch onto the narrative.
The kids meet their ultimate match when they discover that, naturally, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, and the Gila Monster are all living in their neighborhood, all in cahoots with each other, all hell-bent on world domination, all being fueled by Dracula’s quest to find some sort of green amulet that controls interdimensional travel. And wouldn’t you know it – it’s up to the group of intrepid youngsters to stop them! All of the child actors did a great job, even if none of them went on to do anything major other than solid TV work in the future. But no matter — those kids were the Monster Squad — and that would have been enough for me! There’s also a solid, late 80’s supporting cast featuring Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor as the lead kid-hero’s parents, Tom Noonan(!) as Frankenstein, the sensational Duncan Regehr as Dracula, Jon Gries doing a super job as Wolfman, Stan Shaw as a cop, and Leonardo Cimino as the immortal “Scary German Guy.” Seriously…this movie is just so much FUN, and despite the critical swats and box office indifference back in the day, it’s formed a massive cult following (VESTRON VHS POWER), and over the years, more and more kids from various generations have discovered this low-budget gem ($12 million according to Wikipedia) that was high on humor and horror without ever becoming intensely gory or over the top.
Bradford May‘s shadowy and full-bodied 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography captures all of the various monsters with a fantastic sense of atmosphere and genre classicism, and the various action sequences, especially the climactic battle on the old set from Back to the Future, Gremlins, and To Kill a Mockingbird, have an integrity to them that’s rather smashing to notice in retrospect. It’s also a film that relied on traditional, old-school monster transformations (love the editing when showing Dracula shape-shifting and the practical werewolf effects are rather stunning) which, for me, will always trump the latest CGI advancement. The opening credit sequence which showcased Van Helsing tracking his lethal prey before getting swallowed up into Limbo is a loving recreation of old school monster movie and genre influences, shot with candle and moonlight and displaying a daring, violent attitude during the opening moments. This film always had an edge – it was that “cool movie” that some kids loved but others weren’t allowed to see – and I’ll always cherish it, even I there’s slicker (more cynical) “kiddie” product out there. The Blu-ray special edition is loaded with special features and sports an excellent image and sound transfer.
I’m a massive fan of Renny Harlin’s output as an action director and this is one of his best. It’s probably Shane Black’s most underrated screenplay – it’s hysterical and violent and nasty and clever and witty and totally off its ass. Geena Davis was never sexier or as commanding on screen, and she paired beautifully with Samuel L. Jackson, who delivered one of his snappiest post Pulp Fiction performances as a sleazy private investigator who has to help Davis regain her memory and take up her old profession – that of a secret and deadly spy who has a team of mercenaries coming after her to wipe her out for good. A terrific supporting cast including Brian Cox, David Morse, Craig Bierko, Tom Amandes, and Melina Kanakaredes was on display, and as per usual for a big-budget Harlin action flick, the tech credits were utterly superb. Guillermo Navarro’s dynamic widescreen lensing was in perfect tandem with Harlin’s signature slick-and-gritty style (always felt that he was one of the better shooters of action, taking a page from Tony Scott’s handbook at times), and William Goldenberg’s propulsive editing proved to be a perfect match for Alan Silvestri’s appropriately bombastic and triumphant musical score. Black pocketed a big pay day for this spec script, and while the film wasn’t a smash hit in theaters, I know I can’t be alone in loving this wild and crazy late 90’s actioner that took full advantage of its hard R-rating, and it also has the added benefit of taking place at Christmas (a Black staple) and featuring action in the SNOW, which I always LOVE.
TRUE DETECTIVE 2.6 CHURCH IN RUINS
“Sometimes a thing happens, splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point. And this is your first. But if you use it right, the bad thing, you use it right and it makes you better. Stronger. Gives you something most people don’t have. As bad as this is, as wrong as it is. This hurt, it can make you a better man. That’s what pain does. It shows you what’s on the inside. And what’s inside of you is pure gold. Pure solid gold, that’s what you got.” – Frank Semyon
Four major events transpired in yet another taut and meticulous episode. Only two more episodes to go, unfortunately. The first major event was the sit down between Velcoro and Semyon, and it went in a direction that I didn’t quite see it going. Turns out, Ray and Frank are friends. There is trust and appreciation between the two of them, yet Frank feels remorse for what he has done to Ray. He turned his life upside down by giving, unknowing to him, false information about the man who attacked Ray’s (ex)wife. At this stage in the show, Ray is the only person that Frank can fully trust within his real world and his shadow world.
Frank visits his former employee’s wife and son, while Frank genuinely conveys his sympathies to Stan’s wife, where the heart of the show truly lies is Frank’s exchange with Stan’s son. Frank, who can relate to Stan’s son, really has no idea how to talk to him, how to comfort him. The dialogue is incredibly impactful. Anyone who watches the show has had a moment that “splits your life. There’s a before and after,” Frank continues, “if you use it right, the bad thing, you use it right and it makes you better. Stronger.”
Ray’s self loathing cocaine, alcohol and American Spirits binge was frightening. He took himself to the absolute limit in one of the biggest self-destructive scenes that I have seen. He breaks down, mumbles to a picture of his son, he touches the scar on his upper lip, now visible without his mustache covering it. The scar on his upper lip was not there in the flashback sequence in the first episode. I can only imagine he got that when he killed the wrong man who he thought was the rapist, or his then wife physically struck him after he told her about what he had done. The scene ends with Ray’s farewell to his son, to his ex-wife, and to his life. First we were teased with Ray being shot with riot shells and in this episode with him nearly having a heart attack at the height of his binge. Ray knows that his toxicity has ruined everyone pure around him and he has clearly made his decision about his fate, and he is going to go out on his own terms.
Then there was the EYES WIDE SHUT sex party. Women are everywhere, old men watching, and cauldrons of Viagra within arms reach. The Mayor’s son was there, Blake the creepy redheaded guy that works for Frank and undoubtedly is behind the false information relayed to Ray, the State’s Attorney who is running for Mayor and many other power holders from the show. Then we get the flashback to Ani’s childhood, she’s on her father’s hippie commune, where she was raped when she was very, very young. The hand of the child in the flashback was strikingly young, and gave you all the information about Ani’s life, and who she is and why she became who she is.
This show takes place in the over dramatized noir world, where people don’t speak the way these characters do, people don’t look like the people from the show. There has been so much unnecessary aggression towards this season and frankly the constant torpedoing of this season is ridiculous. Nic Pizzolatto is such a great writer in the way that he can dissolve this dangerous world to applicable dialogue that challenges the viewer, challenging them to reflect on themselves to see whether or not they really are solid gold.