Reviews: Documentaries on Spielberg, Joan Didion, “Tickling Giants,” and Lady Gaga

By | October 30, 2017

There’s something inherently fascinating about documentaries about artists, and what a collection we have to choose from with new docs on the world’s most famous living film director, a legendary 60’s writer, a mega-successful pop star, and an Egyptian political satirist trying his best to poke fun at encroaching fascism…

Spielberg…If you go outside Hollywood to…let’s say a mall in Kansas and you asked people “Name a living film director,” they’d probably say “Steven Spielberg.” He’s in a class of his own, and if you wondered about the man behind the label of “most well-known and successful film director of all time” then this film is fantastic. It takes you deep inside his career, his filmmaking process, the professional choices he makes (why did he take a crucial scene out of “The Color Purple?” or why did people not want him to direct “Raiders of the Lost Ark?”), and also explores his childhood, his family, his marriages, his personal life when success finally takes off post-“Jaws.” It does something all biographical documentaries should do, but few actually do (as you’ll see below): it let’s you know who this person really is, and layers in a ton of interviews and clips of the people around him over the years. Grade: A

Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two…Most people either love Lady Gaga or hate her (and like most “love or hate” debates, I’m somewhat indifferent), and this doc probably won’t change anyone’s perspective all that much. It begins well with Gaga being literally hoisted up in the air like she’s ascending to super-star heaven, and then quickly dishing on why she doesn’t like Madonna and her relationship troubles with ex-fiancee Taylor Kinney, but then it pulls back, and doesn’t really probe much deeper into who Gaga really is. Instead, it’s mostly a fly-on-the-wall account where we see Gaga sing, record music, cry over her break-up with Taylor (which is never really explained), and complain a lot, from the set of “American Horror Story” (where I was an extra in a scene she was in) to the confines of her sprawling, plush home. If you come away from the end of this movie thinking “Is that really all there is to her?” you might have had the same lukewarm reaction I did. Grade: C+

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold…Didion’s writing doesn’t quite fit into the “counter-culture” label that some of her equally revered 60’s peers does, and this documentary (directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, who perhaps takes too big a role in the on-screen proceedings) accidentally shows Didion to be almost a blue-blood. Some younger viewers—like myself—may not be all that familiar with Didion’s books, and might wish the doc had delved a little deeper into her work (some of her most famous books are just barely mentioned), and what inspired some her novels, her process, etc. rather than her husband, her dinner parties, or her famous friends. The doc’s best parts are almost always samples of Didion’s actual writing, which really does seem to add clarity to a messy age, dissecting it with scalpel-precision and if the film encourages people to seek out Didion’s writing, then it can’t be all bad. Grade: B

Tickling Giants…Dr. Bassem Youssef is sometimes called “The Egyptian Jon Stewart” since he hosted a “Daily Show”-like political satire show in Egypt, but the main difference being that Youssef could’ve been jailed or killed after each broadcast. Some of the clips we see of Youssef’s show—which mocks Mubarak’s downfall towards the very end of his reign, then the Muslim Brotherhood led by President Morsi, and finally current-Egyptian dictator Al-Sisi—look hilarious and vital, as his country seems to cycle through one dictatorial regime into the next. [Interestingly enough, Morsi never blocks the signal for the show, but Al-Sisi criticisms get the show’s signal dropped (blamed on technical difficulties) and quickly cancelled.] You wouldn’t blame Youssef for getting depressed as things seem to go from bad to better to just-as-bad to better to just-as-bad, but he never seems to let it get him totally down, and a documentary that shows how important it is for societies to laugh at themselves, has never been more relevant. Grade: A-


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