The Quick Spin on Pi, Sugar Man, America and Sleaze

Ah, to dine on filmlandia’s smorgasbord and taste the world!  Behold, the treasures and the trash recently uncovered by the Spin that took us to India, the High Seas, South Africa, Detroit, Middle America and the backwoods swamps of the Deep South.

In Theaters:

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.
Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Salty Sweet Pi: I was finally able to catch a screening of the much ballyhooed Life of Pi (in 3D no less, which no joke, is used brilliantly in this film and rises far above its typical gimmick status) which means Haneke’s sure to depress Amour is the only Best Picture Oscar nominee I have yet to see.  Adapted from an international best-seller I never bothered with, Ang Lee’s film is a sure-fire visual stunner featuring some of the best use of 3D ever (I especially loved the opening credits and the sinking of the ship sequences).  You’d have to be blind not be enthralled for two hours, but sadly the film is left adrift by surface level discussions on religion and an all too twee “parable/fable” ending.  I can see why this is a crowd-pleaser, and it deserves the technical accolades it has received, but much like Scorsese’s Hugo from last year, it’s just too light weight and reliant on visuals for me to sing its praises.  However, it’s still worth a view in the theaters in 3D if you can catch it.

Final Spin: B+ for visuals, B- for story

On Netflix:

Super Sweet Sugar Man:  I love a documentary that is crafted like a fanciful film and not just some series of interviews with people telling a story (though there is some of that here).  Amazing cinematography of Detroit USA and Cape Town South Africa is melded with the infectious music of 70’s folk-rock singer Rodriguez – an enigmatic figure who never found the fame he deserved in the States and against all odds (and thanks apparently to some piracy) became the musical voice of a generation in apartheid era South Africa.

The film is about the search by some South African journalists for “the real Rodriguez” amidst rumors of his death.  Searching for Sugar Man is the best documentary since Man on Wire and is a beautiful story about the power of art to cross oceans and time.  It proves the old adage – truth is stranger than fiction.  Doing some research afterwards it appears there are some who think the filmmakers mythologized Sixto Rodriguez’s story and left out pivotal pieces.  Still, when you listen to the music and the lyrics, it’s just too damned good of a story not to buy into it.

Final Spin: A-

God Bless America:  This one had been sitting in my queue for a long time.  The renewed political fight over gun control and the recent Sandy Hook tragedy made this film look to be in horribly poor taste.  But if you watch it outside of that context, Bobcat Goldthwait’s film is a disarming dark comedy so dark it becomes downright serious and depressing.  Early on, its spot-on eschewing of current reality TV is borderline Network level stuff.  As a man sick of society and recently diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, Joel Murray takes things into his own hands and with the help of a runaway teen girl goes on a killing spree taking out rude people, reality stars and Westboro Baptist Church-style sickos.  While God Bless America is far better than you thought it had any right to be, it still goes nowhere, says nothing loudly and leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.  Satire can go so easily wrong even with the best…or worst…of intentions.

Final Spin: C+

Is this really what my career has come to?
Is this really what my career has come to?

Dirty Rotten PapersWhat was I thinking?  With The Paperboy (also apparently adapted from a novel), Lee Daniels – the over-confident and stylistically wacko subversive of Precious fame – can proudly take his place as one of the worst directors working today, and he’s got the Oscar nomination from Precious to prove it!  This lurid piece of swampy 1960’s Southern gothic trash is riveting from the get-go – everyone is sweating! justice is nowhere! collard greens are on the table! – but makes no sense and goes perverted all too gleefully.  Nicole Kidman’s deliciously reckless turn as a trampy swamp goddess who gets her kicks writing murderers in jail makes the film watchable until it becomes so bogged down in the gravy of Daniels’ melodramatic excess that you begin to fall asleep under its weight.  Matthew McConaughey plays a lawyer (no kidding!) trying to prove Kidman’s paramour (a sleaze-tastic John Cusack) was framed, Zac Efron shows up in his underwear looking mopey, and somehow it’s all narrated by Macy Gray until it isn’t.  I honestly don’t even know what happened or how this ended…nor did I care.

Final Spin: D-

Bottom Line: Stick to Pi and Sugar Man and you’ll be fine – visit Montreal, Pondicherry, Cape Town and Detroit…no wait, better yet, not Detroit.  Avoid sleazy American Paperboys and Lee Daniels.  Listen to Rodriguez.

Written by David H. Schleicher



  1. I thought “Life of Pi” was a profound movie experience. Something magic at the moment and something to think about later. I was enthralled, in a way I wasn’t by “Hugo.”

    • John – I was talking to someone who read the book but hadn’t seen the movie (whereas I hadn’t read the book but saw the movie), and they were surprised by what I took the “moral” of the story to be. So maybe I missed something…or maybe something was missed in translation from novel to screen. Did you also read the book? Maybe you were able to bring more to the film than I did? I really enjoyed the film, I just didn’t buy into the “parable” aspect of it – and I thought the religious stuff was very surface level. I also find the whole “one person stranded, at wits end and screaming out to god/whatever” cliche very tiring…but at least this had amazing visuals coupled with it.

  2. Especially loved your take on Sugar Man. I finished that documentary a couple days ago and loved it. I basically agree with everything you said so I don’t have anything to add — just a thumbs up and an approving nod!

  3. David,

    I’ve read the book and seen the film. Just to let you know, the film has retained the ‘spirit’ of its literary source. While as always, a 2 hr. movie cannot go deep enough in exploring the idea and discourse the book offers, I think Ang Lee has done a superb job in his attempt. This I feel is the director’s best work IMHO.

    If you’ve time, here are my reviews of the book and the film.

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