Geoff Cox’s guide to new DVD releases

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JUST when the franchise seemed moribund, a prequel came to the rescue of the X-Men superhero films.

Kick-Ass co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn was brought in to kick-start the Marvel Comics series again and he came up with a terrific reboot.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (12: Twentieth Century Fox) answers questions about the early relationship between telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the origins of their mutant factions.

Beginning in Nazi Germany and ending with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, this grandiose globetrotting fantasy boasts spectacular action and effective character-based drama set in an age of civil unrest and Cold War paranoia.

As the Hellfire Club leader bent on world domination and driving a wedge between Xavier and his ally Magneto, making them become deadly enemies, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw is a great villain who first unites then divides the nicely defined assortment of mutants.

McAvoy and Fassbender also deliver top-notch performances and the director’s fresh vision means the movie is as much a tweaked Bond espionage thriller as a social and political commentary on the period.

> The novelty of animals engaging in martial arts has already started to wear off.

KUNG-FU PANDA 2 (PG: Dreamworks) is still set in a gorgeously designed China, but it lacks the awesomeness that made the orginal adventure such a treat for kids and grown-ups.

Dragon Warrior Po (voiced by Jack Black) must find his “inner peace” and learn the truth about his childhood.

Only then can he defeat evil peacock Lord Shen (a malevolent Gary Oldman) and his plan to stop kung fu with a new super weapon.

The film is as busy and crisply detailed as ever and the action sequences involving rickshaw chases, martial art dust-ups and cannonball juggling score high marks.

But the plot is all rather familiar and the dry humour feels forced, with the best scenes belonging to Shen’s fast-feather dexterity.

Despite the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Jean Claude Van Damme joining the returning voice cast, much of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s feature debut is stale and the franchise crawls rather than races towards the promise of another sequel.

> While many will find it ponderous and indulgent, Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE (12: Twentieth Century Fox) is, without question, a technical triumph for the cinematic artist.

Only his fifth film in a career spanning 40 years, it’s his most ambitious work to date.

The origins of life on Earth are explored from both a physical and metaphysical standpoint, starting from the framework of a flashback drama set in 1950s Texas.

The more conventional sequences in which Brad Pitt’s frustrated disciplinarian dad screws up the eldest of three sons (played in rebellious adolescence by a compellingly real Hunter McCracken and as a haunted adult by Sean Penn), while his wife (Jessica Chastain) occupies a sainted role, are low on dialogue.

On the anniversary of his brother’s death, the boy questions his relationship with his stern father, his place in the modern world and the meaning of human existence.

Stirring geological, botanical and astronomical passages imprint themselves on the memory and the movie is peppered with Biblical quotes and fragments of narration.

The cumulative effect is mesmerising and unsettling, but also uplifting.

> The cute canine is back in a new adventure, MARLEY & ME: THE PUPPY YEARS (PG: Twentieth Century Fox).

Tear-jerker Marley & Me, starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, was a box office hit – and this time the dog speaks!

The prequel sees mischievous Marley and his dogsitter Bodi (Travis Turner) wreak havoc in the summer holidays while the lad is staying with his pedantic grandfather.

Bodi has always wanted a dog of his own and during the Vancouver vacation, to prove to his mother that he is ready for the responsibility, he enters Marley in the Ultimate Puppy Championship along with the neighbour’s Labradors, Fuchsia and Moose.

After weeks of training, Marley and his team, the Ragga Rascals, are ready for the competition.