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Has the Summer of 2014 Been the Best in Years?

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Quite simply: yes. We’re not even mid-way into July and we’ve already seen the meteoric rise of many masterclass takes on the summer tentpole. With the nearly perfect Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the breathtaking X-Men: Days of Future Past, Tom Cruise‘s thrilling sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s hysterical 22 Jump Street, Dreamwork’s stunning and heart-breaking animated follow-up How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Gareth Edward‘s crazily awesome Godzilla, the season’s blockbusters have been just that: blockbusters.

We’re not even half way into the season and we’ve got more certifiable showstoppers than ever before. And we’re not just talking superhero movies, a facet that has made 2014 stand out even more. We’re talking a wide array of films with varying perspectives and takes on what is great about a summer blockbuster. They’ve topped the charts and for good reason: they’re quite simply good movies on a bigger scale, and we’ve only yet mentioned the hundred million dollar ones.

On the indie side, we’ve seen Bong Joon-ho‘s wildly unconventional Snowpiercer, David Michod’s deeply unsettling The Rover and Jim Mickle‘s unpredictable Cold in July, each made in the traditional of big screen excellence but seen by a smaller, more niche audience and using with a smaller change purse to make it happen. But even this independent cinema has unleashed a pantheon of unforgettable big screen debuts this summer season, each in the tradition of the summer tentpole.

And when we do add superhero movies into the mix, even the overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier was solid as was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (a vast improvement over the original). Plus we haven’t even gotten to Guardians of the Galaxy that’ll debut the beginning of August and has the potential to be a breakout hit.

And sure the vastly inferior Transformers: Age of Extinction and Maleficent may have shown them all up in the box office ring but we have to take into account that old habits die slow. People take time to learn what’s good for them. The aforementioned blockbusters are Filet Mignon, it just so happens that people are used to eating hamburger. But so long as we continue to praise these movies and show up to buy tickets for them, things may just continue to trend in a positive direction. I’m no box office guru but I know that at the theater, your money is your voice. Make sure that you’re speaking up for the ones that matter.

Taking into account this fact, just compare with me the quality of 2014 Summer’s blockbuster to recent summer seasons past and you’ll see just how easily it eclipses anything from the past few years. Last year held the decent to middling to just plain bad; Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious 6, Man of Steel, R.I.P.D., Star Trek into Darkness, Pacific Rim, The Heat, The Hangover 3, After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Red 2. Sure I purposely left some of 2014 lesser films out of my analysis for the sake of making my argument but look at how many clunkers we have above. Just one after another.

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Blow for blow, 2014 trumps 2013 at every turn. And though 2012 had Dark Knight Rises, Avengers and the like-it-or-hate-it Prometheus, it was also filled with crud like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Expendables 2, Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall, Battleship and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Save for one or two exceptions (nearly all from the superhero camp), it was once again a summer left in the wash.

2011 had more Transformers, another unwanted Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Cars 2, the water-dump Green Lantern, the brutally bad The Hangover: Part 2as well as the truly awesome Mission Impossible 4, the conclusive Harry Potter installment, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Cowboys and Aliens and the very solid Fast Five. It also introduced us to Thor and Captain America but it still doesn’t compare to 2014 in terms of originality and vision. Superhero movies and sequels do tend to dominate these summer months but you’re gonna have to spend your hard-earned dollar on things like Edge of Tomorrow if you want to see the summer movie zeitgeist head in a positive direction. It means you taking a risk, or at least reading critical response to movies and knowing what you’re getting into. The good stuff is out there, you just have to be able to not be seduced by the golden arches every time round.

What I’m trying to say is: in terms of the big picture, 2014 is the year of the summer blockbuster puttering back to life and don’t let the big box office performance of Trans4mers or Maleficent tell you otherwise. If you’re still amongst the naysayers calling 2014 a bad year for movies, remove your head from your ass and actually head to the theater. I could recommend ten movies playing right this second that would simply wow you (just take a look at top tier of the 131 2014 films I’ve reviewed so far this year for proof of that). Summer 2014 really has been a showstopper and one that you probably oughta stop talking smack about. But with less and less people going to the movies, the onus is those who do care about the future of cinema to step up and gently herd the box office in the right direction. Spend your money wisely, unless you’re content seeing Transformers 29: Attack of the Robot Nazi Ninjas.

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Out in Theaters: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

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The X-Men franchise has always confronted big themes: tolerance, shame, homosexuality, even genocide. At its greatest hours, the series has relied on ideas of deontological ethics and ideologies of self-worth winning over flashy spectacle – although the vast display of superpowers were always welcome icing on the cake. Even the much derided Last Stand shoulders a message of coming together to defeat a greater enemy – about differences paling under the looming shadow of fascism – but that’s hardly something new to a series that juggles laser sight in with race extermination. Days of Future Past takes its place in the crossroads between bold ideas and blockbuster pageantry and though maybe it’s not the most outright fun X-Men film to date (that honor goes to First Class), it might be the most important.

Days of Future Past starts with a bang. A dazzling cold open sees a new pack of mutants coming to head with the iconic sentinels – giant mutant-killing robots hunting down the last of the surviving supers – and sets the table for the stunning special effects goodies in store. With the sentinels knocking on their door and no international borders or mutant powers strong enough to stop them, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his tattered band of X-Men devise a plan to right the events of the past. Harnessing her ability to travel through stuff, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends a battle-weary Wolverine back in time to the 1970s iterations of the characters that we met in First Class.

Charged with stopping the assassination of Boliver Trask, the man responsible for the sentinel project and who’s death was the catalyst for its expansion, Wolverine must get the band back together to change the events of the future and prevent the sentinels from ever getting the green light.

If X-Men was about coming out of the closet, X2 about unity, X3 about fear mongering, and First Class about brotherhood, X:Men Days of Future Past is all about course correction. Can we change the path we’ve been set on? Are people fundamentally good or evil, or does the gray area in between win out every time?

With much more of a centerpiece role than before, the story is essentially a battle for Raven/Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) soul. Not saddled with her ho-hum lines from Matthew Vaughn‘s First Class script and seemingly more dedicated to this all blue role, Lawrence provides depth to a character that’s always been cloaked in mystery, showing off her penchant for ambiguity under the gun. In a movie filled with intriguingly unstable character conviction, hers is the most shaky.

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Considering that the characters in the story rarely conform to absolutes, there’s something undefined about who the villain actually is. Surely some might think Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) is the one to single out – and Tywin Lannister won’t forget you did – but he’s really just a scared little man doing the best he sees fit to protect his race against an invading species. If you hold a mirror to Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Trask is but a counterpart, his human alter-ego using full measures to fight the emending species war between homo-sapiens and homo-superior.

If there’s really one enemy in the film, it’s fear. Fear leads us to fight, to kill, to close down borders and look uneasily on our differences. It’s fear that governs the deeds of the villains here, that pollutes their senses and poisons their potential.

As has always been, Professor X champions compassion and acceptance, believing good deeds can cause immutable ripples through time, while Magneto sees the world in two colors: black and white; mutant and human; us versus them. In the midst of the film, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen share a touching moment that really puts the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender timeline in perspective. “I wish we had spent less time on different sides,” McKellan’s weathered Magneto admits. Stewart just dips his head and you know he feels the same way. In the end, they’re just two outcasts who don’t want to live in fear.

Social commentary is a mainstay of the X-Men franchise and, when done right, is what makes the series more than just a popcorn cruncher. All the issues of the past installments are present and expanded upon in thoughtful brushstrokes now with Singer behind the helm again. Holocaust allusions ripple through the narrative as much as ever before, now joined to themes of drug abuse, free will and destiny. With so many ideas and timelines floating around, the narrative could have easily gotten fuzzy, or worse yet, pretentious but Singer manages to keep the high-minded ideas in check with brilliant displays of blockbuster showmanship.

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A scene introducing Quicksilver (Evan Peters), aside from alluding to the fact that he’s probably Magneto’s offspring, provides one of the most innovative set pieces since bullet time and still manages to be stuffed with laughs. It was Singer’s ability to mix comedy in  with superheroes and social issues that put X-Men on the map in the first place – and for all intents and purposes, proved that a superhero movie could be excellent – so it’s no surprise that he’s done it here again. 14 years later though, he’s even better at his craft.

For the many Last Stand haters out there, Singer’s own course correction will be much appreciated. With the events of Days of Future Past, he’s scrubbed away the mistakes of Brett Ratner – like rot from an otherwise living patient – and left only the portions that mattered most: Wolverine’s emotional anchor of pain and regret. He’s an evolving character, one we’ve now seen in seven films, and unlike anything else in movie franchise history.

Now present in not one, but two timelines, the question remains: how many more does Hugh Jackman have in him? Although he’s a tremendous dramatic actor (just look to Prisoners for proof of that), so long as the future installments are as great as this, I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing him ride this train until retirement. Especially alongside a cast this bed-wettingly good.

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X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Gets First Trailer

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X-Men: Days of Future Past
is not only one of the most anticipated superhero movies in the foreseeable future, it’s also an experiment in what’s to come for world building cinematic universes. Marvel had hopes that The Avengers would soar financially but even they failed to see just how successful their franchise would become. After essentially using their standalone films to promote an eventual team-up movie, interest in seeing separate films eventually come together is a market essentially untapped. Since the one-piece-at-a-time tactic has not been the explicit approach for Days of Future Past, director Bryan Singer and Fox Studios are living in a bit of a Petri dish for all to see if their approach to building a cinematic universe on the fly is a box-office success or a flop. If this first trailer, and the internet’s stunned reaction, is any indication, I’d say we’re looking at a winner.

Although this first look is notably light on action set pieces, it properly outlines the very basics of the plot – a time traveling Wolverine must warn 1970s versions of Magneto and Professor X of a coming disaster involving mutant slaying robots. But instead of selling us on the spectacle, it mostly functioning on an emotional, nostalgic level. Stirring our nerdy desire to see the characters from the past six X-Men films share the screen, Days of Future Past looks to fulfill that promise of culmination, or, at the very least, suggest that we have lift off. 

One narrative issue that the trailer suggests is that characters of the future and the past may not share many physical scenes. At least, that appears to be the case for the time being. If that approach is doubled in the film, with each set of characters condoned off into their own “present,” thusly not interacting together as a whole X-Men collective, then the promise of team-ups could come off as deceptive and insincere.

The more likely scenario is that Fox and its constituents are not going to blow that revelatory reunion moment on this first run of a trailer. If anything, it’s a trial run to gauge reaction to the concept. But if the film does end up jumping between narratives of past and present, us audience members might not be getting quite what we want. While keeping the stories largely separate could just work, it does set up a potentially disjointed narrative while also squandering the excitement of having all these actors share the same screen. If Wolverine proves to be the only connective tissue between the two subsets of X-folk, the whole trend towards character acceleration – the propulsion towards more, more, more – may prove to be too little, too late. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past is directed by Bryan Singer and stars Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Shaun Ashmore, Omar Sy and Evan Peters. It hits theaters on May 23, 2014.