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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': 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.

Hits and misses: Summer 2014 in review

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Behind-The-Scenes-2Predicting what movies will be blockbusters and which ones will be bombs can be a tricky business. You can have a film come from seemingly out of nowhere to be a huge hit, or a film that generates a high level of buzz but doesn’t live up to the hype.

However, the summer of 2014 has seemed to be a bit more unpredictable than normal at the box office. The release schedule wasn’t as packed with hits as it has been in recent years, and only one movie managed to cross the magic $100 million opening weekend mark (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”). There were some surprising under-performers, and what was arguably the best movie of the summer wasn’t even technically a summer movie at all — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

My friends give me some good-natured teasing about being a movie junkie, and during the summertime it usually seems like I’m heading to the theater every weekend for a new movie. However, I only ended up going to the theater a handful of times in June and July, simply because there weren’t as many big draws this summer. 2014 also seems to be a bit of a slower year overall, with “The LEGO Movie” being the only standout I can think of from early in the year.

Still, even though there were a smaller crop of movies, I did end up enjoying most of the ones I went to see. The movie that did disappoint me a little bit was “Godzilla.” It was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, and had one of the best trailers of the year. There was a lot of buzz heading into this film, but I felt the final project fell short of what it could have been. The classic “monster movie” portions of the film were great, but the human characters didn’t really register on a deeper emotional level.

For me, the biggest surprises of the summer were “Edge of Tomorrow” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” “Edge of Tomorrow” wasn’t a huge box office hit, which is a shame because it was a fun, smart sci-fi movie. Its “Groundhog Day” meets “Saving Private Ryan” concept — about a soldier who has to relive the same battle against an alien army over and over — could have become repetitive, but the script is clever and witty enough to keep the film entertaining. “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t the type of movie I normally watch, but this film about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love transcends the “teen romance” genre. It’s a mature, moving film with a bittersweet ending.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” were also highlights of the summer for me. Both had strong stories with thought-provoking concepts. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” had my favorite scene from a movie this summer: the Pentagon prison break, featuring a lightning-fast mutant named Quicksilver. It’s a delightfully trippy (and fun) sequence.

Although “Captain America: The Winter Solider” — which was released in April — is probably still my favorite movie of the year, if you don’t count it as part of the summer movie season, my favorite summer movie is “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year. It’s Marvel’s quirkiest, riskiest film so far, but it beat expectations and had one of the best opening weekends at the box office. Who would have thought that a talking, trigger-happy raccoon and a gentle-hearted walking tree would be some of the best — and most emotionally resonant — characters of the summer? The movie also is definitely worth splurging on to see in IMAX.

So, what was your favorite movie of the summer? What movie did you enjoy the least?

Movie review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ another win for Marvel

Guradian-of-the-Galaxy-Trailer-New-HD-StillsA plot that’s a blend of “Star Wars” and “The Avengers,” with a dash of “Indiana Jones.” A wisecracking, trigger-happy raccoon in a space suit. A gentle-hearted walking tree who can communicate using only one phrase. A soundtrack featuring hit songs from the ’70s. A sci-fi film that’s heavy on comedy, with numerous 1980s pop culture references.

Try to throw all these elements together in one movie, and logically, it shouldn’t work. And yet somehow, it does, and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” turns out to be delightfully quirky and original, and possibly the most fun movie to hit theaters this summer. Although the movie initially generated some speculation that it could be Marvel Studios’ first real flop, it exceeded expectations and actually came close to tying “Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s” $95 million opening earlier this year.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a departure from the films we’re used to seeing from Marvel, and is more of an old-fashioned space opera than a standard superhero film. The movie stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, a Han Solo-esque thief and smuggler who steals an artifact without realizing it actually contains a dangerously powerful energy source known as an “Infinity Stone.” Dark forces in the galaxy want to seize this power, and Quill finds himself teaming up with a ragtag band of roguish misfits in order to protect the stone: an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana); a foul-mouthed, genetically engineered raccoon (Bradley Cooper); a walking tree-like creature who can only say “I am Groot” (Vin Diesel); and a warrior named Drax who is seeking vengeance for the death of his family (Dave Bautista).

While there are some comparisons that can be drawn between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Avengers” (the “orb” standing in for the Tesseract, the concept of a team of reluctant allies forced to work together for a higher cause), “Guardians” manages to find its own voice. The strength of the movie is the characters; while the Avengers are the polished rock stars of the Marvel universe, the Guardians are more like a scrappy garage band. They’re not heroic by nature, and most of them don’t see the need to look out for anyone but their own self.

Chris Pratt proves to be a strong lead as Peter Quill, giving the character an air of roguish charm and firing off a constant stream of wisecracks. Another stand-out is Bradley Cooper as Rocket. Admittedly, the concept of a talking, gun-toting raccoon seems far-fetched, but again, somehow it works. Rocket knows how to talk tough, making the other characters (and the audience) take him seriously. Groot — the sentient tree who is Rocket’s best friend — turns out to be a surprisingly enduring character, and Drax’s extreme literalness (he can’t process metaphors) provides some great comedic moments. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is mysterious and lethal, and is immune to Quill’s charms (though of course that doesn’t stop him from trying).

Another feature I liked about the film (and it’s a feature Marvel always seems to do well) is the way the script works in comedy without losing the story’s emotional weight. This film frequently uses humor to contrast more serious moments (there’s a great bit where Peter Quill challenges Lee Pace’s very serious, very Shakespearean villain Ronan the Accuser to a “dance off”), but the humor doesn’t take away from the movie’s heart. I also really liked the soundtrack; while it may seem odd to have ’70s pop songs playing in futuristic outer space, it helps to ground the movie and captures the spirit of Peter Quill’s character.

There are probably places where you could be picky in the movie. Ronan the Accuser is a fairly generic comic book villain; Karen Gillan’s Nebula is more of a secondary villain but actually is a stronger character and might have benefited from more screen time. However, overall this is one of the most fun movies I have seen so far this year, and it’s my favorite movie of the summer. I’m glad Marvel was willing to take a risk, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel.

Movie preview: Will Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ gamble pay off?

1819 KS_New_galaxyBy this point, Marvel’s superhero movie empire seems to be pretty much bulletproof. Starting with “Iron Man” back in 2008, Marvel has managed to take B-list superheroes and turn them into blockbusters, building enough buzz for their team-up film “The Avengers” that it became the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time. It would have been easy for Marvel to settle into that comfortable pattern of hits, which is why I admire them for taking a genuine risk this summer: “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy” — based on one of Marvel’s lesser-known comics — is a departure from the superhero films Marvel has produced in the past. The sci-fi action/adventure film involves a team of misfit rogues and criminals — a sort of anti-hero version of the Avengers — who team up (somewhat reluctantly) to save the galaxy. It’s decidedly quirky; the trailers so far indicate the film will be heavy on comedy, and two of the members of that team of misfits include a talking raccoon and a walking tree (yes, you read that right).

It’s understandable that at first some didn’t think this was exactly the perfect recipe for a summer blockbuster. Would the concept be too strange, too obscure for audiences to connect with? Was it too much of a departure from the films audiences were used to seeing from Marvel? Would “Guardians” turn out to be Marvel’s first real flop?

I’m hoping audiences will give this movie a chance. Of course I haven’t seen it yet, so I could change my mind after this weekend, but initial buzz is very good, and I think the marketing campaign is working. The movie has a 97 percent rating right now on Rotten Tomatoes; while that number could drop some by this weekend, it’s a great start, and the early reviews seem to be enthusiastic.

I’ve been really pleased with the trailers released for the movie so far. The visual effects look impressive (it seems like it’s been a while since we’ve seen a film with a really good all-out space battle), and the cast seems to be having fun with their roles. I think Chris Pratt will be great as the leader of the Guardians: Peter Quill, a sort of slacker Han Solo. However, Bradley Cooper may well steal the show as the voice of the feisty, gun-toting Rocket Raccoon.

I think Disney and Marvel also picked a good time to release the movie. Overall, this seems to be a slower summer than normal, and “Guardians” won’t have much competition by the time it hits the box office this weekend. “Guardians” looks like the perfect blend of fun (and funny) and exciting, and the uniqueness of its concept could bring people out to the theater again.

Right now “Guardians” is tracking about $70 million, which isn’t quite as high as “Captain America’s” $90 million+ opening earlier this year but is still well above “flop” territory. If buzz continues to build and critical response remains strong, I could see this number actually going higher. Ironically, Marvel’s bigger gamble now may actually be next summer’s more conventional superhero movie “Ant-Man,” which has been plagued by some negative buzz due to director and cast departures.

So, are you looking forward to “Guardians of the Galaxy?” Do you think it will be a hit or a miss for Marvel?

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