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I'm a movie buff, and I love anything to do with entertainment (especially science fiction and British dramas!) I write about current and upcoming films and other entertainment-related news. I currently work at The Newton Kansan newspaper as a reporter, and I'm an aspiring novelist. - Ashley Marie Bergner

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My movie bucket list: “The Matrix” (Week 3)

matrix_ver1_xlgHave you ever woken up suddenly in the middle of the night, startled from an extremely vivid dream? Your eyes snap open, but it takes a moment for your brain to fully regain consciousness and to distinguish between the dream and reality. It only lasts a few heartbeats, but it’s a disconcerting feeling, as your brain re-establishes what is real.

That’s exactly the sort of feeling the character “Neo” gets in the classic sci-fi movie “The Matrix.” He makes a discovery that leaves him wondering exactly what is real and what is not.

“The Matrix” was released in 1999, garnering attention for its mind-bending plot and groundbreaking special effects. It has certainly impacted many of the sci-fi and action films that followed it, and I wanted to watch it as part of my movie bucket list project. Having never watched it before (I know, I know, this is almost as bad as never having watched a Quentin Tarantino film) ;) I was curious to see if the film still had the same impact 15 years after its release. (Warning: This blog contains some spoilers about the film.)

“The Matrix” is based on a thought-provoking premise: is it better to face reality than live in a dream world, even if that reality is harsh and disconcerting? The film is set in the future, in a time where artificially intelligent machines have enslaved humanity, keeping all people trapped in a dream-like state so they can be more easily controlled. Humans believe this “dream state” is real, and no one is aware they’re just living a lie.

A band of revolutionaries “wake up” a hacker called Neo (Keanu Reeves), believing him to be the man prophesied to free humanity. Neo is trained in combat but maintains doubts he can truly serve as a savior. He has to believe in himself before he can save others.

I really enjoyed this movie and found that the special effects and plot held up pretty well over time. The movie is known for its frequent use of stylized slow motion to highlight the well-choreographed stunts and fight scenes. The special effects probably don’t come across quite as groundbreaking now as they did in 1999, but that’s simply because many other films since then have used those same techniques. I found echoes of “The Matrix” in films like Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” another great sci-fi movie about dreams and altering reality.

The themes in “The Matrix” also remain relevant. One character chooses to betray the other revolutionaries and return to “the Matrix” dream world. Even though he knows nothing in the Matrix is real, he’d rather live a happier lie than face a real but grim future. As our own world becomes more uncertain – political turmoil, new diseases, financial crises – it’s tempting to retreat from these threats and problems. But denying those issues doesn’t make them go away; we’re not really escaping, we’re just falling “deeper down the rabbit hole.” The film also touches on the power of technology, and how it can be both a useful tool or a dangerous weapon, depending on how it is used.

I thought “The Matrix” was a good film that’s still worth watching. It’s a stylishly shot and entertaining piece of sci-fi that raises intriguing questions about humanity and reality.

Next up on the movie bucket list: “The Godfather.”

My movie bucket list: “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (Week 2)

TMTlampoonsvacation2The family summer road trip is a time-honored American tradition, bringing back memories of loading up the luggage, piling into the car, and hitting the road for a trek across the country. While the Griswold family makes plenty of memories in the classic road trip comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” unfortunately, none of those memories are good ones. They experience just about every possible vacation mishap, turning what was supposed to be a fun family bonding time into a nightmare.

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” was released in 1983 and has since become a cult favorite, spawning numerous sequels. It’s the second film on my movie bucket list blogging project and marks quite a shift from last week’s film (Quentin Tarantino’s gritty crime thriller “Reservoir Dogs”). ;) Also, there will be some spoilers discussed in the blog, so if you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to ruin the best jokes.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is convinced he has planned the perfect family vacation: a trip to “Walley World,” a Disneyland-esque amusement park in California. His wife thinks it would be simpler to fly to California, but Clark insists on driving, believing a road trip will be a better experience for their two children.

However, right from the start things don’t go as planned for the Griswold family. A mix-up at the car dealership results in Clark having to buy what may be the world’s tackiest station wagon to drive the family to California. After a stop at the home of his wife’s dysfunctional relatives, Clark leads the family into one disaster after another.

The car is, at various points, painted with graffiti, burglarized and wrecked (thanks to Clark’s poor driving skills). Clark ties the family dog Dinky to the rear bumper of the car, and then forgets about the dog and drives off. He (disastrously) tries to flirt with a young blonde driving a red sports car, who shows up throughout the family’s road trip. Then, to top everything off, once the family arrives at Walley World, they discover the park has been closed for repairs. Clark has a complete breakdown and forces a security guard, at gunpoint, to operate the rides for the family.

“Vacation” is consistently funny throughout its run time, thanks to the work of its star, Chevy Chase. Chase is perfect as the overly-eager (and increasingly delusional) Clark Griswold. His quest to get the family to Walley World causes him to make progressively worse decisions. Another one of the film’s best characters is the feisty Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca), whom the family is supposed to drop off in Arizona along the way. Aunt Edna ends up dying in the back seat of the car but no one in the family notices. When they finally do realize she’s dead, Clark refuses to stop the vacation. and so they strap Aunt Edna to the roof of the station wagon and keep going. It is, of course, a terrible thing to do, but yes, it’s impossible not to laugh. John Candy also is great in a small role as the security guard Clark holds hostage at Walley World.

Comedies don’t always seem to age as well as other films, but I found “Vacation” to still be very funny. It’s not as sharp a satire as some of Mel Brooks’ best films, though Walley World is quite obviously a send-up of the whole Disneyland mystique. It’s also easy to see “Vacation’s” influence on the comedies that came after it. It’s a fun cult classic that is perfect if you just want to sit back and enjoy a movie that most definitely does not take itself too seriously.

My movie bucket list: Quentin Tarantino (Week 1)

reservoir-dogs-quentin-tarantinoLast week, I decided to start a new blogging project: reviewing some of the films on my “movie bucket list.” I’ve been keeping track of movies people have recommended to me and classics I haven’t seen, and one of the first items on my list was a film by Quentin Tarantino. I must confess that yes, I hadn’t ever watched a Tarantino film, and as a movie buff, I thought that was pretty much inexcusable. ;) The majority of people I asked recommended I start with Tarantino’s first movie, “Reservoir Dogs.”

Tarantino is one of our generation’s most distinctive directors; he’s known for creating smart, hyper-violent films with an emphasis on dialogue, and I was excited about seeing my first Tarantino film. (Note: This blog will contain quite a few spoilers about the movie.)

“Reservoir Dogs” is a dark, sometimes disturbing, crime thriller with touches of what was to become Tarantino’s trademark black humor. The film follows a team of criminals who are hired to pull off a diamond heist. However, things end up going badly, and the criminals find a group of cops waiting for them. The criminals quickly deduce one of them must be a police informant, but they can’t figure out who.

Since this was my first Tarantino film, I tried to pay extra close attention to Tarantino’s choices as a film maker, observing how he started forming his signature style. Tarantino is known for his dialogue, and this is definitely a dialogue-heavy film. The movie opens with an extended sequence at a diner, with the characters all sitting around swapping stories. This gives viewers a quick snapshot of who the characters are and what roles they will play in the film. The mood is often tense in the movie, but Tarantino uses dialogue to work in flashes of humor.

Characters also are important to Tarantino, but he chooses to reveal their personalities and motivations slowly. The story is told in a non-linear style; Tarantino jumps back and forth in time, telling a good portion of the story through flashbacks. It took me a bit to adjust to this format, but I think this style choice gives the big twist — the revelation of which criminal is an undercover cop — more impact. It’s also interesting that you don’t see the heist itself.

My favorite characters were Mr. White and Mr. Orange (the criminals go by code names to protect their identities), played by Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth. Mr. Orange is revealed to be the idealistic undercover cop, and Mr. White is the criminal that befriends him. I liked the complex relationship between the two characters. At the end, Mr. White sacrifices himself to prevent Mr. Orange from being shot, even though Mr. Orange is already dying from severe wounds. I think Mr. White had more of a conscience than the other criminals (even though he may not have admitted it), and he recognized that Mr. Orange was a good man. I also liked the always-funny Steve Buscemi’s portrayal as Mr. Pink.

Tarantino doesn’t shy away from violence, another trademark of his movies. There’s a rather disturbing torture scene in the middle of the film; though the camera cuts away before we see the worst of it, it’s still unsettling. Tarantino uses this scene to reveal how dangerous and psychopathic one of the criminals, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), really is.

Although I think I’ll probably end up liking some of Tarantino’s other films better, I’m glad I started with his first movie so I can use it as a comparison when I watch his later films. I’m hoping to come back to “Pulp Fiction,” arguably Tarantino’s best-known film, after going through some of the other movies on my bucket list.

Next up on the bucket list, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”! :)

My movie ‘bucket list': A blogging project

388201 KS_New_runnerPretty much everybody who knows me knows that I’m a movie buff. I have to go see new movies on opening weekend, I read Entertainment Weekly cover to cover, and I know far too much random movie trivia. ;) Interestingly, though, I didn’t really become a movie buff until college, which is when I started paying more attention to the details involved in making films — special effects, music, directing styles, etc. I didn’t start blogging about movies until the year after I graduated from college.

All this brings me to a confession I feel compelled to make. My film repertoire is pretty good from 2006 on, which is when I started college. However, there are some rather embarrassing gaps in the list of movies I’ve seen, and there are some classics I should have watched by now but, well, haven’t. As a film buff whose favorite genre is science fiction, I had to confess — with much shame — that I hadn’t actually seen “Blade Runner,” which is pretty much one of the definitive classic science fiction movies. Yes, there’s no excuse for this. I also watched a Mel Brooks movie for the first time this past year, after I kept getting the “I-can’t-believe-you-haven’t-seen-‘Blazing Saddles’!” response.

So, I decided to sit down and write out a movie “bucket list,” filled with classics I haven’t seen and films people have recommended to me but I just haven’t gotten around to watching yet. I’ve narrowed the list down to several “must see” films, and I’m planning to watch some of those films over the next couple weeks and blog about the experience. I’ve tried to cover different genres with the list, as well.

Week 1: Quentin Tarantino

There’s a small list of directors whose styles are so iconic that their name is enough of an advertisement to entice people to watch a film. One of those directors is Quentin Tarantino. And yes, I know it’s bad, but I’ve never watched a Tarantino film (it’s OK, you can gasp). ;) Tarantino is known for crafting smart, creative, hyper-violent films, and he has a very devoted fan base. I haven’t yet decided what Tarantino film to start with; I’ve had people recommend I start with “Pulp Fiction.” If you’re a Tarantino fan, I’d also love to hear your recommendations about what I should start with.

Week 2: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Released in the early 1980s, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” continues to be a beloved cult comedy. A family trip to an amusement park quickly turns into a trip to hell as the vacation collapses into chaos. The film routinely shows up on “best comedy” lists, and I’m looking forward to crossing it off my bucket list.

Week 3: The Matrix

Don’t worry, I have since watched “Blade Runner,” but I realized “The Matrix” is another science fiction movie I need to cross off my bucket list. It could be too soon to call it a classic (it was released in 1999), and I’m curious to see how well it has aged. At the time, it received a lot of buzz for its innovative special effects and its mind-bending storyline.

Week 4: The Godfather

There are plenty of strong films in the Hollywood mafia genre, but none are quite as iconic as 1972’s “The Godfather.” It’s a saga of crime, family and destiny — the dark side of the American dream. It was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and it continues to earn respect from critics and film fans today.

I plan to start with these four films and see how it goes. I may blog about more films from my bucket list in the future. :)

Best binges: My favorite finds on Netflix

679490 KS_New_leadI’m a big fan of Netflix. It’s great to be able to watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, without commercials. Instead of waiting a week to catch a new episode of a show — or a whole year for the next season — viewers can watch through an entire show in order, on their own schedule. Netflix is also great because it allows people to discover shows they might have otherwise missed. Shows that have already gone off the air or might have flown under the radar are able to reach new audiences.

Here are some of my favorite “binge watches” on Netflix. These are all shows I discovered through Netflix and probably wouldn’t have watched otherwise. I’d also be curious to see what your favorite Netflix finds are, as well!

Arrested Development

ArrestedIf you think your family is dysfunctional, you probably haven’t met the Bluths. The only “normal” member of the family is Michael (Jason Bateman), who finds himself doing some major damage control after his father is arrested for fraud and thrown into prison. He also has to manage his alcoholic and sharp-tongued mother, his self-absorbed magician older brother, his work-averse, materialistic sister, and his younger brother Buster who really just defies description.

This show is sometimes cringe-inducing but never fails to be hilarious. I discovered it a few weeks ago thanks to a friend’s recommendation and I’m wondering why it took me so long to find this great show.

The IT Crowd

the-it-crowdA friend and I were musing one day that wouldn’t it be funny if someone created an “Office”-style comedy about an IT department at a major company, where nobody appreciated or even understood what the IT department did and kept them isolated down in the basement of the company. We later discovered someone actually had made a show with this exact premise. I couldn’t be upset that someone had “stolen” our idea, though, because this show is just so funny.

“The IT Crowd” is a quirky British comedy with a cast of highly eccentric characters. My favorite episode involves the two geeky IT techs leading a group of visiting businessmen in a surprisingly emotional and cathartic game of “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Merlin

merlinThe legend of King Arthur has been retold many times, but one of my favorites is this BBC version. The series focuses on the friendship between a young Arthur, before he becomes king, and Merlin, before he becomes a great wizard. The two don’t exactly get along at first, and Merlin has to hide his abilities, since magic has been outlawed in the kingdom of Camelot. This is a creative and fun retelling of the King Arthur story, with great characters. Bradley James and Colin Morgan, the actors who play Arthur and Merlin, are perfect foils for each other, and their comedic timing is spot-on.

The show has funny moments and sad moments, including a truly heartbreaking take on the famous Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. The series’ bittersweet ending is one that lingers long after you’ve finished the last episode.

Futurama

futImagine what would happen if you were frozen in a moment of time and woke up 1,000 years in the future. For pizza delivery guy Philip J. Fry, it’s actually quite a stroke of good fortune. His life back in the present time isn’t so great, and he sees a better future for himself in, well, the future.

He makes some new “friends,” including Leela, a ship captain and pilot who tries to keep the group in line, and Bender, a grumpy, drunken, chain-smoking robot (no, it doesn’t make sense, but yes, it’s really funny). “Futurama” is silly (in a good way) and cleverly written, and it’s easy to binge watch.

Supernatural

supesI’m not a big fan of the horror genre, so I never thought I’d end up watching “Supernatural,” always assuming the show would be too serious and scary. The show definitely does have its scary moments, but it also has some great humor, thanks to the talents of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, who play the demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester.

The brothers investigate a variety of supernatural creatures, such as demons, ghosts and monsters. One of the best (and funniest) episodes involves a trickster spirit who traps Sam and Dean inside various TV show scenarios, serving as a very witty parody of medical shows, crime dramas and even drug commercials.

Spaced

spacedEdgar Wright’s quirky “Cornetto Trilogy” — “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” — is one of my favorite film series, and it has become a cult favorite. However, before Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost teamed up for these films, they were part of a British comedy called “Spaced.”

The show is about eccentric people living in an apartment complex. It’s a decidedly strange comedy (in fact, it actually makes “Arrested Development” seem normal), but if you like Wright’s offbeat brand of humor, you’ll enjoy this very funny series.

Fall 2014 TV preview: Most anticipated new and returning shows

432794 KS_New_leadIt’s that time of year again: TV networks are rolling out their new line-up of fall shows, featuring both new series and returning favorites. While many of the new shows typically don’t survive through a second season, there’s always a surprise hit or two. Returning shows also face the pressure of living up to viewer expectations and bringing something new to the story.

Here are some of the new and returning TV shows I’m most looking forward to this season (coincidentally, they all turned out to be superhero themed, but that’s probably not surprising). ;) What shows do you plan to watch this fall?

Gotham (Sept. 22)

gothamFox’s new series “Gotham” takes place in the famous fictional city protected by the superhero vigilante Batman, but don’t expect to see much (if any) of the caped crusader. The show is more of a prequel, following a young James Gordon, who eventually becomes commissioner. Viewers can also expect to see origin stories for some famous “Bat” villains like the Joker and Poison Ivy. I like the idea of a spin-off for Gordon’s character, and there should be plenty of character development opportunities. However, the challenge will be if Fox can convince viewers to watch a show about Batman mythology that doesn’t actually have Batman in it.

Agents of Shield (Sept. 23)

shieldABC’s “Agents of Shield” premiered last year with what seemed to be a lot of potential … and then received complaints from viewers about not living up to that potential. The characters didn’t seem to gel as a team, the plots weren’t always engaging, and the show didn’t have the same magic spark as the Marvel movies. Thankfully, that all changed with the second half of season one, and the show made a great comeback, introducing a stronger overarching story line and deeper character development. I’m curious to see where the show heads in the second season, and if show runners can continue moving the series in the right direction. The shocking reveal about Shield in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” should continue to provide intriguing plot lines in the second season.

The Flash (Oct. 7)

flashInspired by their success with “Arrow,” The CW is launching a new superhero show, “The Flash,” about a lightning-fast superhero crime fighter. The network introduced the character during “Arrow” last season and is attempting to create a spin-off. I liked Grant Gustin’s portrayal of Barry Allen/The Flash on “Arrow” last season, and I’m hoping The CW can successfully expand the character into his own show. “The Flash” will be less gritty than “Arrow,” but early fan reactions seem to be positive. It will be interesting to see if it can win over “Arrow” fans, especially if the new show is a little heavier on humor.

Arrow (Oct. 8)

arrow“Arrow” — a show about a wealthy playboy turned hooded vigilante — is one of my favorite currently running series on TV. It returns for a third season on The CW after a strong second season with plenty of shocking twists (Spoiler alert! Killing Oliver Queen’s mother was a gutsy and surprising move) and plenty of cliffhangers (Will Oliver and Felicity FINALLY end up together?). I’m curious to see how the show will move on without some of its major characters; Moira Queen, Oliver’s mother, was one of the most interesting and complex characters, and her loss will be felt on the show. While I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Oliver’s nemesis Slade, we’ll hopefully get some new villains this season as well, along with some new challenges for Oliver. I’m also interested in what will happen to Thea, who has apparently teamed up with Malcolm Merlyn, who revealed himself to be her real father.

Fall/winter 2014 movie preview

35715 KS_New_hobbitAlthough 2014 seemed to get off to a slow start at the box office, there were plenty of fun movies at the theater this summer, kicking off the season early with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in April and wrapping up with the surprise hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” in August.

Several more big movies are slated for release this fall and winter, though I don’t think they’ll challenge “Captain America: The Winter Solider” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which are currently occupying the top two slots on my list of favorite movies of the year. Here are some of the films I’m most looking forward to later this year. What movies are you most excited about, or most looking forward to watching?

“The Maze Runner” (Sept. 19)

mazefeaturedBased on a popular novel, “The Maze Runner” continues the trend of dystopian young adult book-to-movie adaptations. It’s about a group of teenagers trapped inside a giant, seemingly impossible maze filled with deadly creatures. While the trailer for the film looks interesting, it faces the same risk as several other recent films with similar themes: coming across as too much like “The Hunger Games.” It will be interesting to see if the premise for this one is different enough for it to succeed at the box office.

“Interstellar” (Nov. 7)

interstellarLike many of director Christopher Nolan’s projects, “Interstellar” remains shrouded in mystery. We know it takes place in space and is about a team of astronauts who are searching for a way to save humanity as the Earth fails to support life. Beyond that, Nolan plans to keep us guessing. Nolan is one of my favorite directors, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has planned for this one. The movie also has a strong ensemble cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1″ (Nov. 21)

MockingjayAlthough “The Hunger Games” is one of my favorite book series, I will admit the final book in the trilogy — “Mockingjay” — is my least favorite. I’m also not sure how I feel about splitting the book into two films. Still, I’m hoping the movie will address some of the issues fans commonly seem to have with the book, and Jennifer Lawrence will likely turn in another strong performance as Katniss, the former Hunger Games victor who is forced into the role of rebel leader.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” (Dec. 12)

Christian Bale Exodus Gods and KingsIt’s been more than 50 years since Cecil B. DeMille brought the Biblical epic “The Ten Commandments” to the big screen, and in December Ridley Scott will present his own version of the Old Testament story of Moses. Ridley Scott is no stranger to period epics — “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Robin Hood” — and I’m looking forward to seeing his take on this story. The costumes, set details and battle sequences look impressive so far.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (Dec. 17)

5armiesAlthough fans will probably always debate over whether Peter Jackson should have split “The Hobbit” into three movies, the story comes to a close this year with the final chapter, “The Battle of the Five Armies.” Jackson has saved the biggest set pieces for last, with the film likely to be book-ended by Smaug’s attack on the village of Lake-town and an epic battle at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. “The Hobbit” films so far have been lighter than “The Lord of the Rings” in tone, but “The Battle of the Five Armies” will probably be the darkest of “The Hobbit” films, and the grandest in scope.

“Into the Woods” (Dec. 25)

Chris Pine & Anna Kendrick Film "Into The Woods"The 2012 film adaptation of “Les Misérables” proved to be a hit with audiences, and this year Disney is bringing another famous musical to the big screen: “Into the Woods.” The musical is a darker take on the adventures of favorite fairy tale characters such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. The production has caught some flak based on rumors that Disney has watered down some of the edgier elements of the plot, but film makers have promised it will be a faithful adaptation. The cast includes Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine and Emily Blunt.

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