Sugar and Tyson.

Sugar, 2009. Directed and written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Jaime Tirelli, Rayniel Rufino, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Ann Whitney, and former Cincinnati Red and current disgraced scout Jose Rijo.

To boil it down, Sugar is a baseball movie. Now I can already imagine art house patrons and filmgoers in general beginning to close their minds like gates in front of a Brooklyn Liquor store at the thought of yet another treacly film about the noble sport. So when I mention that Sugar is one vital part of the great American mythology, the essential tale of a Latin American immigrant struggling to make it here, well, then I find myself trying to shake into consciousness the hordes of baseball fans who want their movies as clean and crisp and sharply delineated as Rick Monday’s flag-saving sprint. Alas, Sugar, then, seems to hover in a netherworld between these two communities, who, if judging by box-office returns in Los Angeles and New York, are missing out on what is, simply put, a damn good movie.

The facts: Miguel “Sugar” Santos is a young man living in the Dominican Republic, pitching at one of the major league academies down there, in this case for the Kansas City Knights (and no, according to Anna Boden this is not a nod to The Natural, which she loathes.) Sugar has quite a burden on his shoulders: his whole family, nay his whole community, is on him to succeed. As they are every ballplayer. When he comes home every night, the children in his neighborhood claw at him for extra baseballs. They, too, are hungry to move up in this world.

Sugar is called to the majors. Of course, he’s got a long way to go. Unlike basketball or football, whose young players are shot into the big leagues immediately, the route to Yankee Stadium runs through Iowa, for instance. And so young Miguel, still trying to master that spike curve, barely 19 years old, finds himself with a family called the Higgins, and plopped down literally in the middle of corn fields.

Like the few great baseball movies out there, Sugar succeeds because of its attention to details. Directors Boden and Fleck interviewed literally hundreds of young men to play the role of Sugar, and settled on, I believe, number 426, Algenis Perez Soto, himself a former shortstop who had hoped to hit the majors (he is now a crack softball player.) Soto is a magnetic presence here: we feel his shifts from confident to confused to existentially frustrated. He’s got a magnetic smile, and the delivery of a decent pitcher.

Boden and Fleck have a wonderful time with the baseball academy, especially in scenes where the young players are learning the American baseball terms (“Home Run!” the teacher calls, pointing to an imaginary zooming baseball; “Home Run!” the class responds.) Even better, Sugar’s “fish out of water” tale is so fresh, so devoid of cliche that it comes across at times as literally startling–there were many times when I did a double-take, surprised at one character’s kindness at a restaurant, at a subtle gesture by another in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Boden and Fleck are thoroughly uninterested in the usual bromides, and Sugar, which could have raged against the treatment of Latin American players or waved Perkins-sized flags of pride in our national pastime, instead takes the very human approach of simply telling Sugar’s story, without demonizing anyone, and in fact treating every ballplayer, host family, waitress, coach and scout with the utmost respect. I won’t give away the ending except to say that it creeps up, slowly and patiently, and when you realize what has gone on, and that it is a celebration of baseball, perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Sugar is about struggle, it is about immigration, but most of all, it is about loving something, in this case, the abundant joys of baseball, be it in a 70,000 seat stadium or a sandlot in the heart of the Dominican neighborhoods of New York City. Baseball fans like to say that “baseball is like life”, and what I think they mean is that it winnows down our experiences to give us a lifetime’s vicissitudes in the course of nine innings. Fair enough. Sugar, then, does the same, except it boils down the essence of baseball, and life, into its two hours, and leaves us as exhilarated as our favorite afternoon at the ballpark.

Tyson, 2009. Directed and written by James Toback. Starring Mike Tyson.

Yeah, Tyson’s a documentary. So what? Oh, it can’t be “written” by Toback, you’re saying… nor can it “star” Mike Tyson. Well, it is and it does. Written and starring that is. Both. Because you see, movies like Sugar are written by people and star other people and they try to entertain and in spite of the fact that they aren’t documentary, they still get at quite a bit of truth in this confused and often painful world. Tyson’s is supposed to be a documentary, supposed to be James Toback shoving his camera in the face of bad-boy Mike Tyson for two hours, but really it’s written, it’s acted, and it’s utter bullshit.

Thing is, I’d be fine with utter bullshit. Oliver Stone’s JFK is an absolute triumph of bullshit, a Colossus of Rhodes with feet on two lands of Outright Lies and Utter Paranoia, straddling the river Truth. But it was fucking entertaining. Tyson’s, outside of twenty minutes in the very center, is utter tedium. Lies plus tedium equals a forgettable motion picture. And especially for James Toback, there’s no excuse.

For nearly two hours, the celebrated pugilist and enfant terrible, Mike Tyson, talks. But he’s very rarely interesting. He speaks to us about growing up in violence, about his meeting trainer Cus D’Amato, meeting Robin Givens and loving that bitch, about his fall, his finding religion, his biting the ear off that cheating Evander Holyfield, about rape, about jail, and about life. The latter he does in front of the sunset on some Southern California beach.

What makes Tyson’s so weird is that it falls into such cliches, like the beach. Or that Toback doesn’t challenge his subject at all. The early interviews, about Tyson’s childhood, lack any detail, so that the story could be about anyone, and the horrors (and I assume they’re plenty, and acute) have no impact whatsoever. Some of the boxing footage is impressive, but then others, like the famous Holyfield fight, are confusing: Tyson claims Evander Holyfield head butted him, and when he says this Toback cuts away to shots… that don’t show anything. I won’t say they show that Holyfield didn’t head-butt Tyson, you simply cannot tell.

Some friends have complained that there should have been other people in the film, Robin Givens perhaps, but I would be content with just Tyson, provided Toback could have got something of interest out of him. Consider Errol Morris’ incredible Fog of War, in which the anguished soul of Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara was laid bare for us to see. Toback achieves this once, when Tyson opens up about Cus D’Amato, a trainer who molded Tyson into the fighter he became. Tyson is beautifully articulate, remembering every lesson and every rebuke of this father figure. We see how lessons bloom into strategies in the ring, how proud Tyson was to have won the admiration of his mentor, and the pain when that mentor died.

And then, we go back to the man in the mask. Apparently, Toback admires that mask, but he fails to realize that it is not very interesting. We’ve all met or heard people like Mike Tyson, and in the end, Tyson for all its sound and fury, ends up signifying nothing.

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