Cinema reviews: We Steal Secrets, Monsters University and more

Truth, contended the crusaders of WikiLeaks, should be free, universal and out there. Except in the case of the leading crusader of WikiLeaks. When Julian Assange refuses to give an interview to Alex Gibney in Gibney’s enthralling documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the film becomes what we suspected it was becoming: Hamlet without the prince. This prince – the pale, enigmatic Aussie from the country you’d reach if you fell through a deep hole in Elsinore – allows himself to be seen walking, talking and thinking aloud in news and archive footage. But he won’t do it for free to help a documentarist promoting, to a large extent, Assange’s cause. Near the film’s end, ensconced in the country house sanctuary of protector and journalist club owner Vaughan Smith, Assange states, off-camera, that he wants a million dollars for a face-to-face chat.

Gibney promotes Assange’s cause? How can he not? Once upon a time, the world needed to know that an American helicopter gunship in Iraq had blown apart a group of Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, one of whose long-lens camera was mistaken for a weapon. The world needed to know that the US was handing over its prisoners en masse to the Iraqis, in direct contravention of Geneva Conventions. The world needed to know a great deal it might not have known without the Melbourne whistleblower and his “passion for truth”.

But what is that passion’s nature and degree, and where is it located? “I like crushing bastards,” says the bloodless blond with the wry smile. At the end of one public musing he says he leaks secrets because “I ... care?” Note the pause and question mark. This man, this media Hamlet, this rebel with a thousand causes, isn’t the most convincing carer. At times he seems to belong more on a self-absorbed battlement in a Danish castle than leading a jihad for truth.

Yet a few acts into this drama – acts including the imperilling by WikiLeaks of dozens of western operatives in foreign war zones, despite Assange’s boast (repudiated by one ex-colleague) of a “harm minimisation process” – we realise Assange isn’t so much Hamlet, more Janus: he of two or several faces. Beginning as a chameleon entity, or nonentity, he rose without trace to humble Washington and the west. But he was less active in exposing the no less nefarious actions, overt or covert, of Islam. And more recently he has embraced Ecuador, famed for its tolerance of a free press, as a London host.

This is an expertly organised documentary; Gibney’s always are (Mea Maxima Culpa, Client 9, Enron). Uncle Sam’s representatives, including an ex-CIA chief, are allowed their say. Adrian Lamo, the hacker who betrayed Bradley Manning, is a weird, compelling witness: a glazed, monotoned, tormented-seeming introvert with a late moment of remorseful tears. All human life is in this film. Or almost. The only life missing is that of Julian Assange. He continues to avoid capture, even by film-makers, although apparently – didn’t we somehow always suspect it? – even he has his price.

Monsters University
clatters out of the Disney-Pixar toy cupboard, colourful, inventive, loving and – I’m trying to say “funny” but the word won’t quite come out. These characters were hilarious at first discovery. In Monsters Inc (2001) the ambulant eyeball Mike (Billy Crystal again) and the furry super-lump Sulley (John Goodman) had the run of our funnybones. They skittered and thumped along them; they played them like xylophones. As oversized critters they were the Laurel and Hardy of Kiddywink Nightmare Land.

But this prequel narrating their early friendship is like being sat down to go through the family album. Birth, childhood, school, university ... Hmm, interesting. The movie tries hard. At university there are monster-packed frat houses and courses in “scaring”. There is Steve Buscemi voicing a multi-pawed pink-lizard sophomore. Helen Mirren does a swoopy-dragon bit as a sinister lecturer. But after an hour it starts to feel like Harry Potter gone wacky and gonzo – and not quite wacky and gonzo enough.

also holds out a collection box for nostalgists. A silent Spanish comedy-drama based on the Snow White story, it is in black and white with intertitles. It screams “The Artist” at us, or seems to, although writer-director Pablo Berger insists he had his idea first. If it doesn’t invoke The Artist, it invokes even more winsome and whiskered things, from D.W. Griffith in folk-tale mode to Lotte Reiniger. (One shadow tableau recalls that animator’s filigree’d silhouette fairy tales.) Some critics have raved. This critic sees a worrying trend. Will we soon get a movie every year, or every month, devoted to actors in silent-cinema slap doing kitschy dumb play to music-accompanied monochrome?

There is always a surrealism you hadn’t thought of. Decades of Swedish cinema have persuaded us that everyone in that country, or screen culture, is blond, pale-skinned and dedicated to the higher spiritual agonies. We are unprepared for Ruben Östlund’s Play, where five malevolent black youths, speaking what sounds like Ingmar Bergman lingo gone street, torment a trio of younger boys. They “kidnap” them in a shopping plaza and lure them out of town, on a pretence that one boy’s mobile is a stolen good and must be put before its supposed owner, one black kid’s brother.

The truth-based story moves at a slow, nerve-paring speed: that is its genius. Will there be a mugging? Will there be worse? One boy, asking to go home, is told with chilling, coercive inconsequentiality to do 100 press-ups. Another boy gets “shit scared” in a very literal way – look away if you want – when the threats begin.

The movie caused a furore in Sweden. It lit all the expected racism fuses. But what can a crime story director do if his true-life perpetrators were African immigrants? Östlund appends a late scene in which two white dads have a reprehensible revenge flutter with two young black kids: it’s tokenist and perfunctory. Moral: just go with the truth.

In Pacific Rim, a sci-fi action epic directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Blade Runner style tropes meet an overblown Transformers plot. Skyscraper-sized robots march about on land, in sea and through pouring rain, battling squishy mega-things emerging from a breached seabed. There is lots of brio, lots of monotonous bang and crash, lots of naff dialogue. The audience starts to be exhausted before the end. The film, without a fresh or un-borrowed idea in its head, is exhausted before it begins.

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