Sugar, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 114 mins, (15)
Last Chance Harvey, Joel Hopkins, 92 mins, (12A)

Poignant, sweet and very funny. A sports movie that's pitch perfect

Just to get the puns out of the way first, Sugar is in a different league from most sports movies. It's not even in the same ball park.

A nuanced, humane drama from the writer-directors of 2006's Half Nelson, it doesn't have a single rousing locker-room speech delivered by an irascible old coach, it doesn't have any larger-than-life characters or trumped-up rivalries, it doesn't claim that the noblest players come out on top, and it doesn't finish with a championship final being won in the last milliseconds by the hero. Closer to a documentary or a magazine article than a traditional Kevin Costner underdog yarn, Sugar examines baseball's reliance on Latin America as a recruiting ground.

The story begins in the Dominican Republic, which is second only to the US itself in providing baseballers for American clubs. Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a 19-year-old pitcher who attends a training academy run by one such club. Like every other student, Miguel learns about nothing but baseball, all day every day, on the off-chance that the man from Del Monte will say yes. If the talent scouts send him to America, he'll be able to send money back to his slum-dwelling family.

When Miguel is flown to a minor league team in Iowa, his dreams seem to be coming true. But the rolling corn fields might as well be the surface of an alien planet. The farm he lodges in couldn't be more different from his crowded urban home, and it's in a town where everyone is white and no one speaks Spanish. Without any long speeches or dramatic confrontations, Soto communicates the faltering confidence of a shy young immigrant who's far from his family for the first time, surrounded by other players hoping to take his spot on the team. If his pitching is perfect, he'll progress to the big leagues, but if it isn't, he'll be packed on the first plane back to the Dominican Republic, with no visa, no money, and no education that isn't related to throwing a ball.

It's a poignant, wholly convincing yet often very funny account. There are as many triumphs and disappointments as there are in any sports film, but in Sugar they're unforced and understated. A career-threatening injury is given no more emphasis than the scenes of Miguel ordering French toast night after night in an Iowa diner because he doesn't know how to pronounce anything else on the menu.

In its way, Sugar is also as political as a Michael Moore or George Clooney tub-thumper, but, again, it makes its points subtly. In one scene, Miguel is shopping for clothes and catches sight of some underwear labelled "Made in the Dominican Republic". He doesn't say a word, but the film-makers trust us to know what he's thinking: maybe the underwear was stitched in the very factory where his mother and sister work. And maybe he himself is just another product that's been exported to America then sold at a knockdown price.

Mamma Mia! demonstrated that there's an audience for wrinkly romances, so maybe there'll be a market for Last Chance Harvey, a benign, gentle comedy drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson as two strangers who fall in love as they walk around London one evening. I have my doubts, though.

A film as dialogue-heavy as this needs a sparkling script and three-dimensional characters, whereas Last Chance Harvey has bland small-talk and movie clichés. It even resurrects ye olde Four Weddings trying-on-lots-of-dresses montage.

Hoffman and Thompson stick to their usual personae (smug, twinkly gnome and wounded, galumphing scatterbrain respectively), but I didn't believe in their relationship any more than I believed in the creaky subplot about Thompson's mum (Eileen Atkins) suspecting her next-door neighbour of being a serial killer. It doesn't have any Abba songs, either.

Also Showing: 07/06/2009

Max Manus, Man of War (118 mins, 15)

There's been a spate of films about wartime resistance agents, but this Norwegian example holds its own alongside Black Book, Flame & Citron, Female Agents, Lust, Caution and Defiance. As the true story of Max Manus (Aksel Hennie), a charismatic daredevil who fixed limpet mines to German warships in Nazi-occupied Oslo, it's a conventional tale of courage under fire, but at least you care about Manus and his comrades, which is more than can be said for the resistance troops in Terminator Salvation.

Anything For Her (96 mins, 15)

French thriller starring Vincent Lindon as a teacher whose wife, Diane Kruger, is arrested for murder. Three years into her 20-year sentence, he hatches a plan to break her out of prison. It's intriguing, but credibility seeps away as Lindon switches from law-abiding family man to pistol-packing criminal mastermind, even if he does look harder than any schoolteacher I ever had.

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Alex MacQueen is superb as a nerdy birdwatcher who's keeping his eyes peeled for a rare plover when a tattooed, menacing interloper (Phil Campbell) strides into his hide. This hilarious, tense British two-hander is well worth seeing, even if its origins as a stage play are rather obvious.

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