I ran long in the mag this week on Observe and Report (wildly recommended) and Anvil: The Story of Anvil (a heavy-metal doc that must be seen to be disbelieved), so here are a couple of extra-short reviews of The Escapist and Sugar. Check back for a couple of sentences on the ten-hour The Human Condition (back at the Film Forum for ten days starting April 8), a formidable work that deserves more words than I plan to write (but not that many more).
The Escapist. There’s something crepuscular about the Scottish-born Brian Cox: His soul is twilit, eerily shrouded. He made a subdued and mysterious Hannibal Lecter (the screen’s first) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and he’s stunningly effective in Rupert Wyatt’s fractured but intense prison thriller, The Escapist, as Frank, a con determined to break out and save the life of his drug-addicted daughter. Wyatt goes in for some fancy cinematic footwork along the way, and the ending — let’s call it “ambrosial” — will have you either groaning or sniffling (or both at once). But as Wyatt cuts back and forth between Frank’s team’s grueling underground getaway and the planning that precedes it, Cox becomes, in all senses, a man stumbling groggily from darkness into the light.
Sugar. Or, the perils of being earnest. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) go subtly but exasperatingly wrong in this humanist sports saga, which takes us from the Dominican Republic, where boys dream of making it as baseball players in the U.S., to the Iowa fields of dreams where the protagonist, Miguel, nicknamed Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto), gets tested in a Single A park run by the Kansas City Royals. Sugar is engaging as who-knew? journalism (the kindly but single-mindedly pro-team old Iowa couple that puts Miguel up is a howl), but it’s all so evenly paced, so noncommittally neutral, that the holes swallow the movie. Again and again I wanted to yell to Miguel, “Learn English!” — and not because I’m Lou Dobbs and think that immigrants should master the language straight off the boat (or bus), but because the lack is almost never openly addressed. The treatment is so respectful it’s patronizing, with Miguel’s central decision about his life (no spoiler here) a puzzlement. The camera is on Sugar the whole time, but the faux-documentary approach keeps him out of reach in all the ways that really matter.