A Mangled Web

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Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Some superhero stories can shoulder excess baggage with ease, but by rights a Spider-Man film should drill down to their simplest essences: the transformed human body; the exhilaration of flight; urban strife; youthful revolt; hubris. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" isn't really into simple essences, obliged instead to do that modern thing of providing $200-million-worth of mild legal highs, via scripts in which all relevant bullet points are actioned. The only properly new element is an air of collective panic about Disney, judging by the fractured clip from the next "X-Men" film shoehorned into the end credits of this one to try and bolster a mutual defense. Would-be wild and crazy cinema with all strings attached, "ASM2" is an average superhero film in every way, and so has to shoulder its share of the blame for the fact that the average is now decaying with a pretty rapid half-life.

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Pipe Dreams

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Erik Aavatsmark/Vertigo Média

MOVIE REVIEW
Pioneer (2014)

Norway's natural environment was a big factor in "Insomnia," Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 debut in which Stellan Skarsgård struggles with a murder case and the extended daylight hours, and comes off worst on both counts. It's at the heart of "Pioneer," too — the director's new film set in the early 1980s — right at the moment when exploitation of the North Sea oil lying offshore is about to alter the country from top to bottom. Part paranoid conspiracy thriller and part blue-collar procedural, it maneuvers deep-sea diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) into position as the fly in the ointment for those awaiting Norway's transformation into one of the world's richest countries. They duly set about removing the irritant obstacle; a plot whose fidelity to real events hinted at in the credits is hard to judge, but whose broad authenticity for those caught up in the transformation at the time would seem tough to deny.

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Danish Blue

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Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Nymphomaniac (2014)

Upholding the tradition by which Lars von Trier spooks the massed ranks of the tabloids with talk of pornography before then unveiling films that prove as arousing as a kick in the knee, the four-hour, two-volume "Nymphomaniac" is merciless and hilarious in close proximity. The story skips between an intellectual investigation of a woman's insatiable libido and a stylized erotic farce, threatening to cast its vote against optimism altogether and decide that no peace between the sexes is possible or perhaps advisable. Along the way, Volume I — with its droll laughs at regular intervals — becomes Volume II, which plunges into darkness headfirst. Large themes are invoked; large genitalia are inspected. Large theories are inevitable.

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To Protect and Preserve

MOVIE REVIEW
RoboCop (2014)

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Columbia Pictures and MGM Pictures

There are several films wrapped up in "RoboCop," of which the new one starring Joel Kinnaman as the luckless Alex Murphy and Abbie Cornish as his traumatized wife is competent, slick and knows that some topicality will condense automatically in a movie with Samuel L. Jackson as a ranting conservative talk-show host. The immediate problem is the heavy fan-service nods made to another film, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original, which tend to land with a clang. If the new model is going to invoke its predecessor as knowingly as that, it can't complain if some comparisons are made about the level of ambition. The Reaganite military-industrial complex with its heartless wonks was only one target of the original film, a curate's cornucopia that also scooped up the Vietnam mind-set, blue-collar nobility, the role of women, contempt for intelligence and religious symbolism. José Padilha's version puts all its chips on one number instead, correctly spotting that contracted-out drone warfare is a moral minefield, but down-shifting the end result from gallows pulp to a high-concept sci-fi actioneer about a dead-shot cyborg and the woman who loves him. American Jesus has been swapped out for American Gladiator.

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A Roomful of Sugar

MOVIE REVIEW
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

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François Duhamel/Walt Disney Studios

No one's hidden pain may be left undocumented these days, and most creative works end up being skinned so that the inner workings of their makers' tormented minds can be laid out on the operating table for inspection. This urge may throw some new light on the activities of characters in a story like "Mary Poppins," where the internalized pain and regrets of a young Australian girl can be seamlessly projected forward onto the book she wrote in later life, lending resonance to every poignant plot point. But it's a strange modern way to interact with art, which has historically been expected to present a mirror to your own personality, rather than provide a hotline to the one buzzing in the head of P. L. Travers. Plus a lot of immortal literature for young people was written by mature individuals with issues, and what does it matter? Look at Enid Blyton; the definitive film about her would have to be made by Wes Craven.

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Publish and Be Slammed

MOVIE REVIEW
The Fifth Estate (2013)

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Frank Connor/Walt Disney Studios

Julian Assange's pre-emptive attempt to persuade Benedict Cumberbatch not to play the WikiLeaks founder in "The Fifth Estate" was probably a forlorn hope. As if Mr. Cumberbatch, now deep into that period when stars can be seen still visibly enjoying the work, was likely to refuse the opportunity of investigating a character as confounding and mannered as Mr. Assange. The actor's talent for mimicry has been put to good use before, but Bill Condon's film allows him to deploy it on a higher level altogether, and the results are a firework display. It's not his fault that the film comes not long after Alex Gibney's documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which covered some of the same ground in more eccentric and inventive fashion, and did so with a harder focus on Mr. Assange than "The Fifth Estate" can pull off.

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Royal Pain

MOVIE REVIEW
Diana (2013)

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Laurie Sparham/Le Pacte

History has more or less made its judgment on Britain's former Princess of Wales, but what it will make of the current state of the biopic industry is anybody's guess. The double whammy of "Diana" and "Rush" in close proximity suggests that the English-speaking end of the genre can be easily rendered speechless, finding nothing left to say and apparently no new ways left to say it. Excepting some wild-card swerves like casting Cate Blanchett as an avatar of Bob Dylan, mainstream depiction of people in the public eye seems to have lost most of its audacity, unable to gain traction when fame means already being lost into the pulping machine of celebrity and voyeurism and prurience. No coincidence surely that documentarians are currently running rings around feature film makers when it comes to biography, or that those feature films are reduced to the most literal self-explanatory approaches to the material. You don't have to have met Diana Spencer to spot that the character in "Diana" is a sketchy outline, you just have to have met another human being. A scriptwriter can type "Diana feels nameless existential dread in a Paris hotel corridor" with a straight face, but see that exact thing and the floor opens up beneath you.

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Tales of the City

MOVIE REVIEW
The Great Beauty (2013)

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Gianni Fiorito/Pathé Distribution

When Peter Greenaway gazed at Rome back in 1987 for "The Belly of an Architect," he pointed his near-stationary camera towards it from a distance, until the static accumulating from this God's-eye view nearly caused the screen to bow outward at the sides. Paolo Sorrentino does things differently, and "The Great Beauty" hews close to the affluent end of the Eternal City's citizenry and shares their perspectives instead. Mr. Sorrentino is interested in the effect that people have on their city rather than the reverse process, and his Rome is built on networks of vaguely mournful parties and nightclubs and middle-aged hedonists; a seemingly fragile base for so much history to find itself standing on. The resident Lord of Misrule Silvio Berlusconi never actually turns up, but lurks around every corner.

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Friends Without Benefits

MOVIE REVIEW
Magic Magic (2013)

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Andrés Gachón/2013 Sundance Film Festival

Sebastián Silva's "Magic Magic" starts off as it means to go on, in a very affected state of agitation. The camera hovers nervously around characters at waist height or below, apparently unable to look them in the eye; a brusque title card flashes on screen for a nanosecond before the camera returns to bothering someone's Skechers. Notionally a horror film, "Magic Magic" lays on the visual alienation tactics in large dollops, nearly turning into something potentially more interesting: a story built of nothing but constant fret and friction between a group of acquaintances (clearly not friends) on a Chilean road trip, where the internal stresses reach such a pitch that even the strongest of them shows signs of climbing the walls. By that point the weakest has already gone round the bend.

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Take It to the Streets

MOVIE REVIEW
Centro histórico (2012)

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International Film Festival Rotterdam

"I have been involved in this kind of thing before. It never works." Ahead of the Edinburgh screening of "Centro histórico," Pedro Costa's comment could have been about the dubious nature of portmanteau films; in this case four stories set in the Portuguese city of Guimarães by Aki Kaurismäki, Mr. Costa, Victor Erice and Manoel de Oliveira. Afterward, and filtered through an idiosyncratic Q. & A. with the director, it could just as easily have been a sign of Mr. Costa's professed wish to keep faith with an uncompromisingly political cinema and reach audiences who may not be receptive to his methods. Either way, it surely echoed the sentiments of the film's backers, who having commissioned it to promote the city's status as a 2012 European Capital of Culture and received a work deemed unreleasable, have now cast it onto the waters of the world's film festivals while hoping for the best.

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