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(2009) *** 1/2 R
114 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Directors: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden. Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jaime Tirelli.

/content/films/3541/1.jpgA rarified group of directors approach fictional narrative with the same thirst for truth as a documentarian, or perhaps more, compared to those documentary filmmakers overzealous in manufacturing drama. Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are two such filmmakers, using research and their surroundings (including the raw talent to be found there) to create humanistic dramas of convincing authenticity. Boden and Fleck follow up their superb sleeper Half Nelson with another surprise: Sugar, the story of a young man working his way through the farm teams of professional baseball.

In the Dominican Republic, nineteen-year-old Miguel "Sugar" Santos (first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto) is a rising star of the Kansas City Knights' baseball academy, where he gets lessons in broken English and how to throw a knuckle curve. Invited to the team's spring training facility in Phoenix and then to play minor league ball in Iowa, Sugar finds each stepping stone to a pro ball career more strange (he and his friends immediately discover hotel porn in Phoenix) and more daunting. One of his counterparts has a million-dollar contract and a Stanford education in his favor, but if Sugar doesn't make it big or happens into a career-ending injury, he's unsure of his fallback position. And should he miss out on the American Dream (his immigration status is also on the line), Sugar doesn't just fail himself; he fails the family he supports by sending checks home. The culture-clash awkwardness of Sugar's new life among Iowan Presbyterians and the high stress of the season contribute to a slump and some soul-searching.

Though Sugar is sweet, he sours when his luck curdles, the filmmakers wisely avoiding the cliché of making their good-hearted smalltown boy saintly. Sugar showcases a lovely performance by Soto, a match for the modest, low-key filmmaking style of Boden and Fleck, who take a fly-on-the-wall perspective. If Boden takes the lead on this personal drama, baseball fan Fleck keeps an unflinching eye on the game and its "out of sight, out of mind" practices, including dangerous performance-enhancing drug use. The notion that "It's only a game" becomes the film's ambiguous mantra, but it is and it isn't, after all: the game may not be as substantial a pursuit as Sugar's woodwork (taken after his father), but winning the series of baseball competitions means a big payday for Sugar and his family. Career trappings aside, there's one enduring constant for pro ballplayers, also-rans, coaches and fans: the love of the game.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 9/1/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony's hi-def transfer for Sugar maintains a natural, film-like appearance on Blu-ray. The excellent picture quality is most distinguished by rich color, but gets solid marks all around. Detail and depth are strong, as is shadow detail (though the black level isn't as inky as one might hope); the crisp daytime scenes show off the transfer at its most dimensional. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound comes mostly from the center channel, and the low-key film doesn't really work the mix very hard; still, there's good clarity and some nice ambience during the game and nightclub sequences.

The concise, very well-produced "Making Sugar: Run the Bases" (14:33, SD) details what it took to make the film in both the Dominican Republic and the US, explaining the related topics of the film's story and the worlds of depressed Dominican neighborhoods and hope-filled baseball training facilities. Participants include Algenis Perez Soto, co-directors/co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, producer Paul Mezey, baseball consultant/supporting actor Jose Rijo, producer Jamie Patricof, director of photography Andrij Parekh, actor/consultant Emmanuel Nanita, producer Jeremy Kipp Walker, and Rayniel Rufino.

Also concise but informative is the featurette "Play Béisbol! The Dominican Dream" (12:56, SD), which allows a number of imported baseball talents to comment on their own experiences and, in doing so, size up the film's authenticity. Interviewed are Patricof, Boden, Perez Soto, starting pitcher Pedro Martinez, home run record holder Sammy Sosa, Mezey, starting pitcher Daniel Cabrera, Rufino, two-time all-star selection Francisco Cordero, Andre Holland, designated hitter David Ortiz, Silver Slugger award winner Robinson Canó, and President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández.

"Casting Sugar: Interview with Algenis Perez Soto" (4:26, SD) is Soto's original audition interview, a chance to see what Boden and Fleck saw that convinced them they had their man.

Also included are five "Deleted Scenes" (7:30 with "Play All" option, SD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:05, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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