Wednesday, April 29, 2009



n immigrant's saga more than "a baseball movie," Sugar ultimately runs headlong away from the clichés that mar formula sports-related narrative films. In embedding their tale in the consciousness of 19-year-old Dominican pitching prospect Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), whose attempt to become an American major leaguer meets with daunting complications, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck trust the accretion of small successes, humiliations and frustrations to supply the drama of a young man who, for all his potentially remunerative gifts, is unfinished.

Boden and Fleck's sleeper
Half Nelson rode a flashy Ryan Gosling star turn to Oscar attention, but Sugar is largely free of the contrivances and wobbly structure that marred that hip Mr. Chips redemption story. It makes Sugar—Miguelito to the family that dreams for his success and their security—someone who owns his quest, whose identity isn't forged through development on the mound but in the struggle to assimilate and thrive in an alien society.

An assiduous builder and carpenter who makes love to his girlfriend in the unoccupied house he's begun constructing for his hopeful family, Sugar becomes a star at a Kansas City team's "academy" in his hometown (the baseball hotbed San Pedro de Macorís) where the impoverished hopefuls are drilled not only in on-field skills but diamond phrases like "fly ball" and English interview essentials like "I need to work on my mechanics." T

The phenom's imagined future seems palpably attainable when he's invited to spring training in Arizona, promising family and friends that his talented right arm will make him rich and celebrated before he returns. The everyday banalities of Phoenix are wonders to Sugar and his fellow Latino neophytes; veteran catcher and mentor Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) has to school them to pass up pricey hotel-room mini-bars and TV porn, and all the rookies parrot "french toast" at the breakfast diner because they can't read the menu.

Advancing to minor-league ball in the Midwest, Sugar finds more awkward, limited Anglocentric guidance. The Iowa farm family he lodges with sees themselves as the caretakers of his athletic and moral development: "No cervezas in the cazza and no chickas in the bedroom" are the rules they issue in cornpone Spanish.

The plot of Sugar become suffused with anxiety when Miguel loses command of his hurler's repertoire, desperately tries some unidentified "performance-enhancing" pills that are no help, and a steadier young Dominican usurps his place in the pitching rotation. While the American baseball superstructure upon which Latino prospects are dependent for support isn't explicitly condemned, it's seen to lack empathy for the visa-holding youths it has uprooted and placed in a charged, high-pressure bubble. Sugar's drawling, white A-ball manager tries to assuage his charge's jitters by wrong-headedly telling him, "I used to be just where you are." A final-act sea change leads Sugar to the Bronx of the storied Yankees, but in an assertion of independence rather than on a professional journey.

Soto, like many of the young actors a first-time professional, embodies youth in accelerated transition, whether being rebuffed in an Iowa disco by jealous rednecks or saying what baseball lifers want to hear. When Sugar and his peers sing a phonetically memorized version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" over a bottle on the eve of his departure for the States, it's an incantation to summon a Pan-American dream. This modest bildungsroman, shot mostly in fly-on-the-wall style, frees Miguel/Sugar from a fixed track, rewarding him with newfound community and renewed autonomy.

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Treeless Mountain

Treeless Mountain

arely has a child's POV been as evocatively emulated as it is in So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain, a work of tremendous poise and poignancy that assumes and articulates the perspective and emotional tenor of its two juvenile protagonists. Kim's film is reportedly semi-autobiographical, which goes some way toward explaining the South Korean director's striking ability to tap into the anxiousness and frightening disorientation that engulfs pint-sized sisters Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and Bin (Song Hee Kim) after their mother dumps them in the care of a cold, selfish relative.

Yet personal familiarity with certain aspects of their story can only account for a share of this sophomore effort's grace and power, as considerable credit must also go to Kim's formally assured, tender aesthetic, which touchingly suggests the way her characters see, feel, and think about a world in which they are—for all their amazing intelligence, humor, compassion, and courage—helpless charges of adults whose thoughts and behavior are inscrutable to young eyes.

In Seoul, seven-year-old Jin is removed from school by her mother and, along with little sister Bin whom she helps care for (and whose preferred outfit is a blue princess gown), is shuffled off to live with Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim). The motive for this change is that the girls' mom, already barely capable of providing for her offspring, is determined to locate the good-for-nothing husband who, for unspecified reasons, left the family.

As evidenced by their last dinner together, during which her attempt to show her mother a 100% homework grade is barely acknowledged, Jin is a kid conditioned to loneliness, though her mother's abandonment cuts extra deep thanks not only to its suddenness but, also, the subsequent discovery that Big Aunt is a worthless drunk and two-bit swindler who deems her new responsibilities an unwelcome burden.

Out of school and often left to their own devices, and tightly clinging to their mom's promise that she'll return once they've successfully filled a plastic red piggy bank with coins, the girls bide their time catching, grilling, and selling grasshoppers to hungry schoolchildren, an entrepreneurial endeavor fit for a plucky fairy tale.

Treeless Mountain, however, is far from fantasy, as Kim's prime concern is credibly inhabiting her protagonists' headspace. A litany of close-ups strike a balance between empathy and objectivity, refusing to exaggerate the feelings gripping their hearts or unduly sentimentalize their plight. Kim achieves a simultaneous detachment and warmth in these compositions, her honest, nonjudgmental depiction of their actions and reactions creating a potent degree of sensitivity, as well as insight.

An early shot of Jin at school, quietly and intently listening to her teacher's lesson, affords an affectingly artless view of active thinking and learning, while Kim's representation of adults—who are seen in stark close-ups featuring intimidatingly mature expressions, or often as dominating torsos looming over their grade-school counterparts—eloquently captures children's dwarfed vantage point on life. Whether teary-eyed over their mother's absence, shamefully silent about a bedwetting incident, or happily skewering insects for food, Jin and Bin prove fully realized, distinctively un-precocious tykes whose rollercoaster experiences are treated without embellishment, and with great regard for their legitimacy and value.

Both nonprofessionals, stars Hee and Song's ignorance of typical kid-actor tricks and gimmicks results in guileless performances whose naturalism further enhances the proceedings' sequences of joy and foreboding. Panoramic interludes of gorgeous sky and land initially come across as excessively expressionistic. Their progression from day to night and from cloudy to clear, however, eventually operates in harmony with opening statements about learning to tell time, as well as Jin and Bin's extended, up-and-down odyssey, which leads them from Big Aunt to their grandparents' farm, a destination that, accompanied by more expansive cinematographic framing, completes their transition from urban to rural and from flux to stability.

Clear-sighted and unpretentious, Treeless Mountain begins as a portentous what-if scenario along the lines of Hirokazu Kore-eda's arresting Nobody Knows. Yet the film so persuasively affixes itself to its protagonists' outlook—in a first-person peek into a piggy bank, or a glance at an elderly woman working—that, as Jin and Bin finally find a home for themselves, it gradually develops into a sanguine snapshot of the resiliency of youth, the tenacity of hope, and the reciprocal nature of kindness, all encapsulated by the closing sight of two young girls merrily singing and skipping through the tall grass.

17 Again

17 Again

aving been fired by his boss and his wife, middle-aged sadsack Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry) stands before the altar of his high school's hallway trophy display and entreats the cosmos to restore his youth in 17 Again, a remarkably slipshod reversal of Penny Marshall's Big that sails quickly past its own magical mumbo-jumbo, which comes down to nothing more than a shitty-looking, swirling vortex that appears wherever and whenever it's needed, in order to get on with a series of make-swoon vignettes of star Zac Efron tweaking bullies, befriending grateful nerds, and avoiding a pack of voracious girls who chase him around as though he were, well, Zac Efron.

On a mission from the get-go to sell us on its star's total irresistibility, even at the expense of story coherence, 17 Again initially limits itself to reasonable doses of teen catnip, such as slow-mo montages of Efron strolling along while bedecked in a white tee and aviator glasses, with heads turning in his wake, before eventually hitting blast-off with the reveal that his estranged wife Scarlett (37-year-old Leslie Mann) will remain his love interest in the film, despite the significant age changeup.

Although director Burr Steers is too preoccupied with trying to learn how to end scenes without fading to black to exploit the pay-dirt potential of a timely cougar-cub romance, the screen still heats up considerably when Mann and Efron play verbal footsie, toss around MILF jokes, and later share an intimate slow dance, with her attraction passed off as a curiosity over the kid's (supposed) spooky resemblance to her mysteriously absent and estranged husband.

The State's Thomas Lennon is Ned, Mike's rich friend, privy to his secret and able to absorb it due to his sci-fi geek orientation, which is subtly conveyed by his clip-on Vulcan ears and Star Wars landspeeder bed, and which fuels the film's mostly tolerable subplot, in which, after helping Mike to enroll in school by posing as his father, he continually tries to date Jane (Melora Hardin), the school principal and a secret geek, despite her persistent refusals.

As far as inappropriate relationships go, that one is nothing compared to Mike's daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) developing the hots for him after he successfully weens her off her douchebag boyfriend, a conceit that's as instantly recognizable as being from
Back to the Future as the moment when Mike is knocked out cold and awakens in a darkened room, thinking he's just had a terrible dream.

When 17 Again isn't pilfering from its betters, it's engaging in the most Pavlovian button-pushing, jumping from shots of Mike biting into a Fritos-on-pickles sandwich (eww, gross!) to Mike pulling up to school in his high-performance sports car (ooh, sexy!) to Mike wielding one of Ned's toy light sabers (aww, dreamy!). Here's hoping Efron's agent lands him a real part soon, since even his most ardent fans will soon want more to chew on than his ass.



hysterical male victimhood nightmare in the Fatal Attraction mold, Steve Shill's Obsessed takes a crazy-adulteress premise, gives it a brazenly racialized spin, and then to top things off, transforms the entire affair into a waiting game for spurned wife Beyoncé Knowles to slap the bitch out of lunatic maneater Ali Larter. The big dog in the middle of this catfight is Derek (Idris Elba), a VP at an asset management firm whose life is thrown into infidelity disarray when the new temp, Lisa (Larter), turns out to be a righteous fox both in the physical and predatory sense.

Since Derek wound up marrying his last female assistant, Sharon (Knowles), he's initially reluctant to tell anyone about Lisa's aggressive enticements—first in a bathroom stall during the Christmas office party, then in his car when she turns out to be wearing a trench coat and little else—lest he arouse suspicion from both co-workers and wifey.

Of course, a little bit of guilt for leading Lisa on also compels his silence, though if there's a gaping plot hole in the center of Shill's B-movie, it's that Derek inanely keeps quiet about Lisa's psychotic behavior and, once things spiral out of control, barely works up any energy mounting a serious defense. Of course, inspecting Obsessed too closely will only cause migraines—and guffaws.

Not to mention that it'd spoil all the base, tawdry entertainment value of watching hetero carnivore Larter set an exquisitely deranged plan to nab Derek, which involves, but is not limited to, memorizing his daily routine, ordering him a "filthy" martini, shaking her ass in his crotch on the dance floor, breaking into his house to cradle his (apparently deaf and dumb) son, and giving him roofies and seemingly raping him before trying to commit OD suicide in an attempt to expose their phony affair to the world.

Shill doesn't get fancy building tension from his nonsensical male-anxiety mayhem, allowing Knowles's beguiling fierceness and Larter's sexualized cunning to carry much of the prurient load. While the film seems tailor-made for more melodramatic madness than eventually materializes, and Derek in particular becomes increasingly frustrating and insipid prey thanks to a script that denies him real initiative, the film's emphasis on innuendo-laced come-ons and unhinged machinations has a campy allure.

Even if, ultimately, Knowles's eagerly-anticipated climactic one-liners ("I'll show you crazy. Just try me, bitch!") don't quite live up to Larter, with amusing frankness, telling a dense detective (Christine Lahti) that she's Derek's "Loverrrr."

Battle for Terra

Battle for Terra

umans are the villains and floating tadpole aliens are the good guys in Battle for Terra, a bizarre, preachy pro-peace animated adventure. The film's tagline may as well be "Can't We All Just Get Along?," since Aristomenis Tsirbas's film seems to scream the sentiment in every frame, all of which have been drawn with an uneasy blend of photorealism (the humans' ships and machinery, as well as the opening galaxy panoramas) and cartoonishness (in everything else). 3D technology certainly provides the proceedings with a bit more visual depth, but otherwise, this hybrid of Star Wars, WALL-E, and—in its reverential sky whales—Star Trek IV is a shallow sermon masquerading as a tweener-targeting thrill ride.

Having exhausted Earth's resources and then obliterated the planet during a war with colonized Mars and Venus, the race's remaining survivors now travel the solar system in a rapidly decaying space station, and target Terra as their last chance for a permanent home. While the Terrians have, after years of war, transformed themselves into a peaceful race in touch with nature (and beholden to the commands of autocratic religious leaders), man is typified by military lunatic General Hemmer (Brian Cox), who argues that a Terrian genocide is acceptable and necessary (us or them!) in order to secure mankind's survival. When human pilot Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) crashes on the foreign planet and is befriended by female Terrian Mala (Evan Rachel Wood), the two form a pseudo-romantic affinity for each other that holds the key to preventing Hemmer's proposed holocaust.

Make whatever you will of this allegorical tale about bloodthirsty Caucasians attempting to obliterate innocent colored-skin aliens, whose moralizing conversations attempt to impart hot-button weight and yet wholly fail to suggest cogent real-world parallels. Which, for better and worse, leaves most of the emphasis on the specific wham-bang narrative at play, which is so tonally leaden, bumpily paced, and just plain weird—things end with a heroic kamikaze mission, for crying out loud—that it's tough to imagine kids and/or animation enthusiasts not just waiting to satisfy their CGI fixes with next month's Up.

The Limits of Control-Limits of Control

The Limits of Control

olly of the most pretentious order, The Limits of Control is an obtuse stylistic immersion from the typically on-point and perceptive Jim Jarmusch. The lark of a story, with its laughably phony pretense of existentialism, follows a gangster (Isaach De Bankolé) on a scenic tour of Spain as he attempts to finish a job that, to the very end, remains as enigmatic in purpose as the strange persons that perpetually cross his path.

These weirdos, played by Jarmusch's coolest friends (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, a perpetually naked Paz De La Huerta), are all kookily trivial takes on familiar noir types, emerging from around corners to engage De Bankolé's "Lone Man" in conversations about such things as the molecular structure of wood and to participate in absurdly elaborate exchanges of matchbooks whose contents—slips of paper with letters and numbers written across their surface—presumably advance the gangster's search for some kind of political comeuppance.

After only a quick glance, the man swallows his secret codes, washing them down with espresso he insists on being served to him in two cups—
always two cups, and shot from above by superstar DP Christopher Doyle so as to convey what Jarmusch wants us to glean as the windows to the soul. But the redundant symmetry and meticulous color-coordination of the film's aesthetic doesn't represent a serious exploration of spiritual struggle; like De Bankolé mediating inside a darling Spanish flat, it's just shallow posturing.

Shunning the more playful and earthy idiosyncrasy of his earlier films for imperceptive philosophizing that invites whatever political reading the viewer wishes, Jarmusch confuses his heavy aesthetic touch for the heavy overtones of Eastern philosophy, and in the inexplicable act of encroachment De Bankolé's mystery man accomplishes by film's end, the writer-director actually works to trivialize spiritual practice and yearning. Resembling what a David Lynch film no doubt looks like to people who don't actually like David Lynch films,
Limits of Control is a singular but bland vision that seems only useful as a feng shui instruction manual.


by Joseph Jon Lanthier
Posted: April 27, 2009

If there's one thing the movie-going public is ready, willing, and able to suspend their disbelief toward, it's a contrived excuse for a filmic road trip—and the less time spent securing the foundation for the excursion the better, since the destination, however expertly foreshadowed, is never anywhere near as aesthetically satisfying as the journey (screenwriters could take more than a few tips from Homer and Joyce in this regard). Bearing that in mind, the sheer incredulity of Eldorado, a Belgian film from 2008 just reaching the United States, is simply an exercise in poor manners, as though writer-director Bouli Lanners means to test the limits of his audience's good faith. How much expository tripe are you willing to wolf down in exchange for the dubious poetry of relationship drama?

A luckless vintage auto mechanic, Yvan (Lanners) returns home one evening to find his apartment being ransacked by a scraggy junkie , Elie (Fabrice Adde). Rather than notifying the proper authorities or simply kicking the shit out of the kid (though he does rather regretfully trip the intruder down a flight of stairs in self-defense), Yvan agrees to chauffeur the troubled twentysomething to his parents' flat on the French border after a string of pitifully laconic, expletive-laden conversations. The road trip is, of course, an obligatory guilt trip, made possible by Yvan's deceased younger brother, whose neglected, heroin-addicted ghost has still not been properly exorcised.

Of course, this would be perfectly acceptable, if a bit garden variety as far as indie imports go, were the actual trek in Yvan's prized Chevy (possibly the tangential inspiration for the title) more than a series of dead-end, oddball confrontations. The most confounding of these involves a kindred spirit gear head who fixes Yvan's radiator after a breakdown; the episode climaxes with some wide-eyed Dead Zone-esque soothsaying as the travelers' wrists are gripped portentously by their benefactor.

Despite occasional stabs at humor, Eldorado is a tragedy; most poignantly because in spite of the film's malodorous editorial flaws, it works as a visceral experience, taunting us with potential that a better script could have seized and actualized. Lanners's mise-en-scéne is a trifle bombastic at times, but effectively placed edits juxtapose wide shots of the overcast Belgian countryside with tight, in-vehicle close-ups to emphasize the characters' isolation—as though the duo has been expelled from the rural Eden in their very midst as a punishment for their social atrophy.

Likewise, while the leads never develop dramatically as anything beyond formulaic indie loners, their mismatched physiques succeed with visual chemistry: Yvan, beer-bellied and long-haired, resembles the bastard offspring of Slavoj Žižek and Jeff Bridges's "The Dude" while Elie, nervous, lanky, and strung out, often wears green sweaters that match the ubiquitous grassy hills and accentuate his self-inflicted cipher attitude. One can easily imagine this bewhiskered, bohemian Laurel and Hardy helming a modern classic, but this film, which laughably closes with a moribund canine as a symbol for the protagonist's flickering faith in humanity, surely isn't it.