A Frenemy in Need


Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Risky: It’s a word that’s been used almost relentlessly in relation to Marvel’s new kids on the block — a huge gamble on a part of the Marvel universe that until now was considered niche, unknown to all but the hard-core fans and tricky to translate onto film.

The universe is complex; the factions many and varied; and the characters are more than a little eccentric. It was an accident waiting to happen, but sometimes wonderful things happen in the most unexpected of places.

Let’s cut to the chase — “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a riot. Blistering action, sometimes dizzying especially in 3-D, a smart script and the kind of love-hate relationships and whip-crack dialogue you might find in an episode of “Firefly.”

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Turned Off by the Dark

Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures

It was a huge relief to many comic-book fans that Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” was such a charming, witty and enjoyable return to form, after the action-packed but plot-mangled mess that was “Spider-Man 3.”

It’s hard enough to reboot a series that is only five years old, but even harder to supply a worthy sequel. Much of the success of the first film was down to the on-screen chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, a sharp script and a few logistical changes (mechanical rather than genetic web slinging for example). The temptation would always be to go bigger and throw in everything in an attempt to stun the audience into submission, and this has resulted in some of the common problems that sequels always face.

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Lightning Nearly Strikes Twice

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Jay Maidment/Walt Disney Studios

Phase two of Marvel's cinematic takeover is well under way; and after a lackluster affair with "Iron Man 3," the burden to lift the series back up into the starry sky falls on the shoulders of the hammer-wielding Asgardian.

The film sets its stall out early in its "The Lord of the Rings"-style prologue — punchy, big and as glossy as Chris Hemsworth's well-oiled pectorals. There is definitely something for the ladies in this movie. The action keeps up this crunching pace, with big, brutish enemies for Thor to smash, and lots of bad guys trashing familiar landmarks. Asgard gets a bit battered; a little bit of London gets knocked all over the shop; and all the realms come under attack from Christopher Eccleston's cold-as-the-back-of-a-fridge Malekith.

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The Lashing Samurai

The Wolverine (2013)

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

Be it James Mangold or Darren Aronofsky in the director’s chair, Christopher McQuarrie or Mark Bomback on script writing duties, this is very much Hugh Jackman’s vision of how Wolverine should be.

The actor has pushed hard for this particular version of Wolverine to be committed to film, and now his wish has been granted. Supposedly based on a collection of comics from Frank Miller and Chris Claremont loosely known as the Japan Saga, “The Wolverine” transports Logan to Tokyo where he clashes both with the culture and the local yakuza.

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Broken Home Invasion

You're Next (2013)

Corey Ransberg/Lionsgate

You would be forgiven for thinking that Adam Wingard’s low-budget slasher horror was another straight out of the mold, paint-by-number copycat, but you would be so very wrong.

In all honesty, the first 10 minutes do nothing to allay the fear that you’re going to have to sit through another cheap and tactless John Carpenter rip-off. You’ve seen all this before: a masked killer, a half-naked teenager, a brutal murder. However, it soon becomes apparent that you’re dealing with a different kind of beast once the dysfunctional family, about to be accosted by said masked killers, assembles in the nearby house (or rather, mansion) for a long-overdue reunion. Then the bickering begins — particularly the long-standing browbeating that son Crispian (played in wonderfully understated fashion by A. J. Bowen) receives from his smug brother Drake (Joe Swanberg, landing some of the most delicious lines). Drake is the character you love to hate, and is a clue to where this very black comedy is heading.

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Driving, a Hard Bargain

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Universal Pictures

Expectations are naturally low when you enter the sixth part of a franchise, unless you’re a J. K. Rowling fan and you’re watching "Harry Potter," and with "Fast Five" being such a lackluster affair, the expectations here are rock bottom.

To attempt to offer an outline of the plot would not only be pointless, but in a way would do the film a disservice. There is a story of sorts, involving some military bad guys and a MacGuffin (in the form of a world-ending microchip) but it’s so thin and clearly only there to allow the ridiculous action to happen, that it’s barely worth mentioning. All the gang are back — including one that was supposedly dead — and they’re all needed for one last job . . . again.

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Overruled With an Iron Fist

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Zade Rosenthal/Marvel

At some point in any hero's journey, the past will come back to haunt him or her, and so it is with Tony Stark a k a Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). His past mistake is Aldrich Killian, a slithering Guy Pearce as an ambitious genetic engineer who wants to form a partnership with Stark. Of course Tony Stark snubs him, and the seeds are planted for revenge years later.

Into the picture steps a global uber-terrorist known only as the Mandarin, played with delicious delight by Sir Ben Kingsley, who is clearly enjoying himself in the role. Stark's world is quite literally torn apart, and he begins his road to redemption and his own revenge.

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A Familiar Ring

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

James Fisher/Warner Brothers Pictures

No one will ever know what visual delights auteur and cinematic genius Guillermo del Toro would have conjured up for Middle Earth; but in the hands of Peter Jackson and his team, everything seems comfortable and familiar, or is it?

This is definitely Middle Earth, but a more innocent and happy place than seen in “The Lord of the Rings.” Four hundred years of peace have made the colors brighter, the world is greener, the skies bluer. Even Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is more jovial than ever before. This is a different world. Sauron (Benedict Cumberbatch as Necromancer, replacing Sala Baker) is still in his deepest slumber; and although evil is stirring, a shadow moves to the East, no-one has anything to fear. This is not “The Lord of the Rings.”

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Boys and Their Toys

Weta Digital/Paramount Pictures

Watching “The Adventures of Tintin” reminds you that modern entertainment is increasingly driven by each move forward in technology. Images of Steven Spielberg directing scenes from his latest all-action adventure with what appears to be an oversize PlayStation controller only go to emphasize the point.

The shark may have almost driven him mad, but Mr. Spielberg’s career is littered with each leap forward in cinematic wizardry. Not to accuse such a visionary of standing on the shoulders of giants, but where would “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” be without the work of John Dykstra on “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica”? Where would “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” have been without animatronics? What would “Jurassic Park” have looked like without the generational leaps in C.G.I.? And “Tintin” — well, if that doesn't owe a massive debt of thanks to Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, then I don't know what does.

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Secret Lip Service

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Jack English/Studiocanal

Some movies generate high expectations — often through overblown marketing, sometimes by virtue of the elements that have come together to create the two hours of entertainment you have coughed up your hard-earned dollars to see. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has ingredients that would leave even the most jaded of cinemagoers salivating: a director (Tomas Alfredson) who has already proved himself the master of understatement and the purveyor of claustrophobia-inducing tension with "Let the Right One In"; a glittering cast of British talent — Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch et al — gathered in such numbers that you would be forgiven for thinking you were at an awards ceremony already; source material of almost legendary status written by one of the greatest thriller authors of our times.

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