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Summer Film Preview 2014: The Season of ‘Fierce’

Fire-spewing lizards, militant apes, and a gangsta Melissa McCarthy: Brace yourself for a long, hot movie summer

peter travers summer movie preview

Warner Bros. Pictures; Sony Pictures

If anyone can shake up summer, it's comic tornado Melissa McCarthy. Just watch the trailer for Tammy, in which she robs a fast-food joint, set to the rap of "Gangsta's Paradise." The lady is one of a kind.

Alt-Summer Movie Preview: 20 Non-Blockbusters to Check Out

Originality is otherwise MIA, no matter how many thrills are sparked by the usual sequels (22 Jump Street, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), remakes (Hercules), retooled monsters (Godzilla), retread action figures (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and return visits from comic-book heroes (Spider-Man, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Even comedy is going back to the well: Neighbors, with Seth Rogen, revives the spirit of Animal House, and A Million Ways to Die in the West is a Blazing Saddles for millennials. Out of 100-plus summer contenders, here's a selective guide on how to separate the flash from the trash. By Peter Travers

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‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (May 2)

Filmmaker Marc Webb, who scored a smash rebooting Spidey in 2012, says about his follow-up: "I want to unleash my inner Michael Bay." Please, God, no! The emotional connection Webb established between Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, saved his first Amazing Spider-Man from overkill. Now there's a trio of villains – Jamie Foxx as Electro, Dane DeHaan as the Green Goblin, Paul Giamatti as the Rhino – and 3D action choreography. Thankfully, Webb (great name if you want to direct a web-slinger movie) says the story is still "emotional and endearing." Whew! 

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‘Neighbors’ (May 9)

Wild man Seth Rogen tames his Animal House instincts to play a husband-father next door to a frat house, run by Zac Efron, playing a role that would have seemed tailor-made for Rogen. But the switch-off has an R-rated zest. "I knew I'd get to touch Seth's bare chest," says Efron. Okay, then. Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) co-stars.

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‘Godzilla’ (May 16th)

Yes, the giant lizard is back. It would be tough to top the 1954 Japanese original, with its subtext about the evils of nuclear testing. (Though no less a 'Zilla-fan than Oscar winner Nicolas Cage has said not to discount 2001's Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah.) We sure as hell can forget the limp-dick Hollywood take in 1998, with Matthew Broderick. For 2014, director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) casts Bryan Cranston as a nuclear physicist who knows those rumblings under the sea are not from Mother Nature. No jokes about Heisenberg killing the beast in a meth lab. In this reboot, Godzilla and his minions are getting the best CGI money can buy. "I love Godzilla," raves Cranston, "more than King Kong." Fighting words, Mr. White. 

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‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (May 23)

Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men epics, returns – with a $200 million budget – to direct the seventh and most elaborate film in the franchise. Days of Future Past unites Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) with their younger selves (James McAvoy as X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto) from 2011's underrated X-Men: First Class. The gang's all here, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who must prevent the blue-skinned Mystique (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the inventor of an army of killer robots, Bolivar Trask — who's played by Game of Thrones MVP Peter Dinklage. I'm sold.

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‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ (May 30)

Forget what Mel Brooks did with Blazing Saddles – writer-director-star Seth MacFarlane has officially saddled up the dirtiest damn Western comedy in, like, forever. There's sheep, sluts and semen as cowardly farmer Albert (MacFarlane) tries to steal a babe (Charlize Theron) from her varmint husband (Liam Neeson) without pooping his pants. In his second try as director after the 2012 megahit Ted, the Family Guy creator again shows his joy in pushing limits. On MacFarlane, gross looks good. 

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‘Maleficent’ (May 30)

Kids who grew up on Disney's animated 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty remember their fear of the evil witch. Now that villainess, Maleficent, has her own movie — and Angelina Jolie is playing her. Some Wall Street analysts believe the movie might be too scary for the wee ones, endangering the box office for the $130 million live-action fairy tale. Jolie really got into the part, admitting she took a bit of the character home to her and partner Brad Pitt's six children: "Mom was a bit nutso for a period." 

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‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (June 6)

Imagine the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day as a sci-fi epic in which a military PR guy, played by Tom Cruise, is forced to relive a battle against an alien race until he gets the upper hand. At Comic-Con, Cruise said he was attracted to the role because it gave him a chance to play against heroic type as a fearful klutz who is way out of his element. 

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’22 Jump Street’ (June 13)

Here's how I look at it: Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum were a blast two years ago in 21 Jump Street (from the 1980s Johnny Depp TV series), playing cops who fool no one by going undercover in high school to bust a drug ring. So if they want to do it again, this time in college, I'm in. Tatum reveals the action stuff is bigger "but more ridiculous." Yes!

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‘Jersey Boys’ (June 20)

Of all names I'd think of to direct the film version of Jersey Boys, a rise-and-fall stage bio of the Four Seasons and their chart-topping hits ("Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry"), Clint Eastwood would come last. Yet it's a Dirty-Harry dare in a mostly dare-free summer. Even better, Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young returns in the role of lead singer Frankie Valli. Of the movie, Young says, "It goes deeper." 

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‘Tammy’ (July 2)

It doesn't sound so hot based on the premise: Tammy walks out on her cheating hubby to go on the road with her grandmother. But add Melissa McCarthy – taking her Oscar-nominated work in Bridesmaids to an uproarious new level – as the woman and Susan Sarandon as her granny, and suddenly Tammy, directed by McCarthy's husband, Ben Falcone, seems can't-miss. McCarthy says Falcone ran a delightful set for her and Sarandon. He jokingly retorts, "I have to break my actors down completely to get what I need." Whatever it takes.

IFC Films

‘Boyhood’ (July 11)

Give thanks to Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, who sneaks out gems from Slacker and Dazed and Confused to Bernie and the Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) with such understated regularity that ward-givers hardly take notice. Screw them. Linklater is a true poet of the everyday.

12 Must-See Sundance Successes

The premise here is deceptively simple: Folow a boy from Texas, a child of divorce, as he grows from ages seven to 18, from kid stuff to college. Documentarian Michael Apted is doing something similar in his ongoing Up series. But Linklater is crafting a movie, a fiction featuring actors and a script. Mason, played by the remarkable Ellar Coltrane, interacts with dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), mom (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha (a sass queen luminously acted by Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter).

Shot in 39 days and covering 12 years, Boyhood flows seamlessly over two hours and 40 minutes as we watch characters age, argue, reconcile, mature or not. Hawke excels as a mostly absentee dad, while Arquette brings a poignant urgency to a mother hobbled by her knack for bringing home the wrong men. But the film belongs to Coltrane, especially as he shows us mason coping with the perils of pursuing a career in photography and his scholl's hottest girl (Zoe Graham). Linklater never overplays his hand with tear-jerking or dramatic excess. He knows the boy's heart, and in the process he captures ours. 

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‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (July 11)

Set 10 years after 2011's surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this latest chapter in the rebooted Apes franchise again spotlights Caesar (voiced and motion-captured by the great Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who has to show who's boss to other simians and a small group of human survivors, including those played by Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and Kodi Smit-McPhee. "It's an ape world," says director Matt Reeves. "That's the fun." 

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‘Jupiter Ascending’ (July 18)

Last time out, in 2012's Cloud Atlas, Andy and Lana Wachowski didn't do it for me. But there's no denying the fierce willingness of these Matrix auteurs to walk a tightrope. So I'm stoked for this sci-fi provocation about Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant who cleans toilets and fights off the jealousy of the gods (you heard me) with the help of an albino (Channing Tatum), who's half-wolf. 

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“Hercules’ (July 25)

Since there have been many cheeseball film takes on the Greek demigod, I don't know why I get good vibes on this one. Maybe because Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson could be the right blend of muscle and mischief to give us the definitive Hercules. "I was born to play this role," says Johnson. Bold, Rock. Now let's see you break those B-movie chains.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for Sony Pictures

‘Magic in the Moonlight’ (July 25)

After the financial-crisis sturm und drang of the Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen creates a beguiling summer bauble, set on the French Riviera in the 1920s and revolving around a magician (Colin Firth) falls for a psychic (Emma Stone) he's trying to expose. Love battles cynicism in a romance that speaks eloquently to any time period.

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‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (August 22)

Nothing succeeds like excess. At least that was the case when Robert Rodriguez brought Sin City, from Frank Miller's series of graphic novels, to savage life onscreen in 2005. Like before, Rodriguez and co-director Miller shoot the actors (led this time by Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, yes, Lady Gaga) against computer-generated backgrounds that make the action leap off the screen. If you're looking for fierce, this this Sin City sequel is "fierce" to kill for.

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