Sugar, seen Saturday April 11, 2009 at the AMC Empire 25, Aud. #5. 3 slithy toads.
I saw these two films prior to heading off for London Book Fair, almost 2 months ago. Sugar is still hanging around here and there, such as at the Cinema Village in New York City. Hunger, you'll want to keep an eye out for on DVD. I'd certainly recommend renting both. Hunger is the better movie, but Sugar the more enjoyable. I've been meaning to blog about both, but as you can tell from the small # of posts in May, it's been a busy time in the weeks since I got back from London, and the blog often feels the brunt of my busy-ness.
Hunger is about a 1981 hunger strike in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland led by Bobby Sands. But while about Bobby Sands' hunger strike, the film makes an interesting and even courageous decision to NOT approach the story directly from Sands' point of view. Rather, the first chunk of the film takes us into Sands' story by way of a couple other prisoners participating in a "blanket" strike, where the prisoners refuse to wear prison issue and go into their cells with blankets instead. And more. Not for the squeamish, we get to see quite vividly how you can avoid using a bathroom by smearing your feces on the wall and building mashed potato culverts to put your urine out into the cellblock hall. Quite, quite vividly. The purpose of all of this is to attempt to get the Thatcher government to recognize the IRA prisoners as political prisoners instead of garden variety criminals. The authorities do not take well to this, and there are scenes of great brutality and power as the guards attempt to assert authority and give the prisoners haircuts or clean their cells.
Sands embarks on the hunger strike as a way of escalating the stakes, and the second half of the movie is devoted to that hunger strike. He sticks to it until the bitter and fatal end, and the movie has a Kubrickian chill in depicting how the hunger strike plays out. If you could imagine a wasting body inserted into the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the old man star child of that film being turned in bed and his bed sores treated with ointment, his parents looking on, that's about what you're getting in Hunger. And to me, there's no better praise for the movie than to say that it's one of the most Kubrickian pieces of cinema I've seen since Kubrick himself. Its structure as a play in three acts is reminiscent of 2001 and Full Metal Jacket. The art and set direction, the symmetry of things, the use of music through most of the film, it's all Kubrick. I think it very safe to say that your attitude toward Kubrick's work may well be indicative of your interest in Hunger.
There's only one flaw in the film which keeps it from getting the last half toad. The middle act of the movie is an extended sequence in which Bobby Sands discusses his plans for the hunger strike with a visiting priest at the prison. On the one hand it's a brilliant scene with rich, vivid and provocative dialogue. On the other hand, it's a godawful indulgent scene that drones on and on. And on and on. And almost set me into a deep and lasting slumber for what was to come.
This isn't a film to see again and again, either. Kubrick has a chill to a lot of his work but also a kind of brute genius that makes me want to see his major films once every five years. Hunger is a brilliant work with almost all the same ingredients, but once is both a must, and enough.
Sugar is a baseball movie that really isn't about baseball. It comes from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who attracted considerable attention a few years ago for a film called Half Nelson that I only half-liked. It was about a school teacher played by Ryan Gosling with a lot of problems and baggage besides his work, and it was worthy but flat. I was interested in Sugar from the first reviews of it I read coming out of Sundance in 2008, but also ambivalent.
Happily, this one wasn't flat at all. The central performance by Algenis Perez Soto as a Dominican baseball player who comes to the minor leagues in the US is totally winning. Soto is a charmer, totally engaging. There are some small scenes of big grace. My sister and I both liked one where Soto visits a diner in the US, is unable to order eggs because of his inability to know what kind of egg is which, and gets the assistance of a kindly waitress who brings him a plate full of eggs in different varieties with a quick English lesson to go along with it. I enjoyed some of the scenery. Soto's minor league team plays in a stadium in the shadow of a bridge across the Missisippi, and there' s something about the play of the big bridge and the minor leagues that I cottoned to.
This so-called sports movie takes an interesting turn when it leaves sports behind. Soto's Sugar decides that he isn't going to cut it and abandons his A-level minor league team to seek friend in New York City, and the last third or quarter of the movie turns from sports to immigration assimilation drama. Soto's absolute charmer of a performance takes the viewer along because we care about him more than the balls and strikes. However, the downgrade on the toad scale for me in this movie comes about because I didn't feel as if the lead character's pivot from lifelong pursuit to total abandonment of baseball was sufficiently justified by what was on the screen. This didn't bother my sister as much, because she feels from working with latino kids as a school teacher that there's a kind of macho that totally justifies what the character does without it needing to be spelled out, and she and I have agreed to disagree on that.
But we would both recommend Sugar. It's charming, approachable, likeable, and worth the ride.