Mini-Reviews: Sound City, Blackfish, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Sound City sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not to say that this is the best film of the year (it’s not), or that it’s the best film of the year (it’s not); however, I can say this is one of the safest bets for enjoyment the year has to offer. Dave Grohl has created a loving portrait of the legendary music studio, which gives us an encyclopedic history without sacrificing character; the personalities are as important as the music, the why as essential as the what. It’s easy to make a documentary enjoyable by lacing it with sensational music from the 70s and 80s, but Grohl’s execution is crisp and his storytelling eye is sound– it feels like it was crafted by a veteran documentary filmmaker. Anyone with a passing interest in music is likely to find a favorite in the mix: Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, and Nirvana are among the dozens who recorded there and are interviewed and featured in archival footage for Sound City. The final thirty minutes or so amounts to little more than Dave Grohl massaging his own ego; he buys an important piece of Sound City and invites most of the artists back to record music with him at his home. Not that this is a problem– a collaboration between Paul McCartney and the surviving members of Nirvana is likely to delight nearly all who watch it– it just strays from the singular focus the doc had maintained up to that point. Regardless, Sound City is a must-watch for any music lover, and it’s one hell of a feature doc debut for Grohl. 100% well-earned.
Blackfish is a much better advocacy video than it is a documentary. It overwhelmingly succeeds in its goal– to convince you that SeaWorld’s corporate mentality resulted in traumatizing killer whales and lying to the public when those damaged creatures attacked and killed trainers. However, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself frustrated by the number of interesting tangents and related questions briefly touched upon and left by the wayside in favor of the film sticking to its guns. There is no shortage of compelling archival footage of whale attacks and the creatures suffering as a result of being poorly handled in captivity. Yet by blaming owner indifference and greed, it seems to let the nature of captivity itself off the hook– if the animals were kept with their families in proper-sized tanks and given proper treatment and care, would it still have resulted in occasional animal attacks? It’s hard to say either way, but the line of questioning is never fully explored. It also only touches upon the guilt felt by former employees, eschewing further examination of individual characters for courtroom transcripts and proof of corporate mendacity. It’s an essential document regarding an individual group of people committing ongoing immoral behavior for the purposes of profit… but with its fairly short run time, while it’s a compelling pointed attack on SeaWorld, Blackfish’s failure to reach farther into the broader questions it raises left me wanting.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks:
With my review of The Fifth Estate, I complained that Assange, a seemingly intriguing subject, made for a shockingly un-cinematic story. Here we are again, with a comprehensive documentary by Alex Gibney, that manages to be plenty informative regarding the Assange events timeline, yet fails to build the character of Assange in a compelling fashion. This is essentially an Information Dump documentary, where Gibney doesn’t really sculpt a narrative, instead giving us everything there is to know and asking us to glean what we may. For better or worse, Gibney also introduces us to Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, and we read a smorgasbord of her texts, getting to know who she was and why she did the things she did. In short, we get to know a character, making the Manning sections of the documentary ten times more engaging than the Assange parts, and making the doc on the whole rather uneven. Those drawn to Assange’s story may find value here, but others will likely find its visual style, predominantly focused on talking heads and text on screen, too dry. It’s a more informative and less yawn-inducing watch than The Fifth Estate, largely due to Chelsea Manning, but We Steal Secrets still falls short of giving us the depth of insight into the man behind WikiLeaks we crave.