Viewer Guide: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Sugar with Richard Peña

October 29, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s classic is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg. Released in 1977, the same year as George Lucas’ Star Wars, Close Encounters was another sci-fi masterpiece from the fertile imagination of a space age generation director. Yet Spielberg’s vision placed his story’s fantastic sci-fi elements within a naturalistic contemporary world, achieving a constantly shifting atmosphere that ranged from suspense to wonderment.

Originating from a boyhood memory of seeing a meteor shower, Close Encounters had been long gestating in Spielberg’s mind. As a teenager, he produced a full-length film titled Firelight with scenes that would eventually be reproduced in Close Encounters.

Vastly over budget at a then astronomical 18 million dollars, Close Encounters became an enormous box office smash that further propelled the young Spielberg to the forefront of a new generation of directors. Masterfully orchestrating a sweeping canvas of seemingly unrelated incidents, Spielberg interweaves three main narrative strands: the UFO investigations of French scientist Claude Lacombe (played by the great filmmaker Francois Truffaut); a young single mother played by Melinda Dillon desperately searching for her UFO-abducted little boy; and the increasingly obsessive quest of electrical lineman Roy Neary, whose personal close encounter with a UFO propels him on to a truly cosmic fate. Following his bravura performance in Jaws, Dreyfuss reunited with Spielberg to create yet another memorable performance as Roy.

Also memorably featured in supporting roles are Teri Garr as Roy’s increasingly bewildered wife Ronnie, and Bob Balaban as Lacombe’s assistant and interpreter. And with the help of some method acting coaching from Spielberg, a three-year-old Cary Guffey turns in wonderfully naturalistic performance as the boy who gets taken on the ride of his short lifetime.

Visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull broke new ground with the film’s dazzling special effects, largely working with models and miniatures in what was still the pre-digital era. Along with his bass chords approach of the shark from Jaws, composer John Williams’s five-tone core theme from Close Encounters entered the collective consciousness of moviegoers everywhere.

Writer-director Paul Schrader was originally hired to write a script with the working title Kingdom Come, but Spielberg eventually rewrote the script himself with the help of various other un-credited writers along the way. The production period was long and arduous, with many locations as well as studio shooting at huge Air Force base hangars in Mobile, Alabama. The spectacular Devils Tower in Moorcroft, Wyoming served as the ultimate UFO landing pad for the film’s grand finale.

Although not nominated for Best Picture, the film received eight Oscar nominations, but only won for Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography; Frank E. Warner was also honored with a special achievement award for sound effects editing. Both Spielberg and Lucas lost out to Woody Allen for Annie Hall.


This week’s indie is Sugar, a 2008 sports drama directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

“Sugar” is the nickname for Miguel Santos, a talented young Dominican baseball pitcher played by Perez Soto with big dreams of breaking into the high stakes world of US pro baseball. Diligently training at a baseball camp in Boca Chica that looks ominously like a detention center, Sugar and his fellow Spanish-speaking baseball hopefuls are also drilled in the memorization of English words and phrases—“line drive, “home run”—in a feeble attempt to prepare them for the culture clash that lies ahead if those big dreams actually do come true.

When Sugar goes home for the weekend, he’s already attained star status within his village, using his modest bonus from the training academy to start building a new house for his mother and grandmother. After mastering a devastating knuckle curve suggested to him by a visiting scout, Sugar’s major league ambitions make the jump from fantasy to reality, and he finds himself at spring training for the farm team of the fictional Kansas City Knights. Stuck in the corn fields of Bridgetown, Iowa, the warm congratulations of Sugar’s friends and family start to become an increasingly distant echo, as the young athlete’s heady dreams of stardom start to confront the reality of a management that sees him as little more than a property to be used—or dropped, if his performance starts to wane. Each year, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and soon Cuba stake their futures on the distant hope that they will be good enough to earn a slot in the US baseball major leagues; few, of course, do, and Sugar sensitively chronicles the life of one young man who must create a new life for himself when his baseball dreams evaporate.

Sugar is the second feature film from the husband and wife writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose previous feature collaboration was the critically acclaimed Half Nelson starring Ryan Gosling in 2006. After researching the lives of aspiring Dominican ballplayers in Triple A, the script for Sugar gradually came together. The character of Miguel, or “Sugar,” was actually a composite of the lives and experiences of a number of young men, some of whom we see in the moving final sequence when they announce the teams that had initially drafted them.

In addition to television credits including The Big C, The Affair and Billions, Boden and Fleck’s other feature film credits include It’s Kind Of A Funny Story in 2010 and The Mississippi Grind in 2015. In 2019, the duo will make the leap into the Marvel Comics action sweepstakes with the release of Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson, Jude Law and Samuel L. Jackson.




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