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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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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?

Movie review: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ thought-provoking science fiction

908991 KS_New_apes“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprise late-summer hit in 2011, serving as a prequel to the classic sci-fi “Planet of the Apes” film about a team of astronauts who travel to the future and return to find that apes have become the dominant species on the planet Earth. A thought-provoking, emotionally resonant plot and impressive motion capture work elevated it above the shameless, cash-grabbing reboot it easily could have become, and it earned praise from critics and viewers. The good news is, the sequel — “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — is even stronger, balancing its lifelike special effects and action set pieces with reflections on what it means to be human.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” takes place a decade after the previous film; an opening montage quickly catches audiences up to date about how a virus has devastated most of planet Earth and brought about the collapse of human society. A colony of humans struggling to survive in the post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco decide to venture out into the wilderness to try to repair a hydroelectric dam that could generate power. In the forest, they discover a complex society of highly-intelligent apes who are becoming increasingly human-like (due to experiments performed on them in the first film). The ape society is led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who has gained the ability to speak.

Although Caesar forms a tenuous agreement with the humans, allowing them to work on the dam, not all of the humans and apes are certain they can trust each other. A betrayal threatens to lead both sides to war and end the humans’ hope for returning to the life they once knew on Earth.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an unconventional summer blockbuster, but that’s part of what makes it refreshing. Although there are long periods without spoken dialogue (most of the apes communicate by sign language, which is translated in the captions), the film still holds viewers’ attention, thanks to life-like motion capture work by Andy Serkis and other performers as the ape characters.

Serkis has established himself as a leader in motion capture work, and that recognition is well-earned. Though the animators deserve plenty of credit for creating the CGI apes that blend seamlessly with the live-action film, Serkis adds the subtle layers of emotion that make Caesar a fully-realized character. He is the most “human” of the apes, and the one that struggles the most over the conflict that erupts between the two cultures.

One of the film’s most interesting themes is the development of the ape society, and how more problems arise within the society the more “human-like” the apes become. With higher levels of intelligence come good traits, such as compassion and appreciation for family and friends, but the apes also discover the darker side of humanity is starting to manifest itself in their own culture: power struggles, lies, jealousy and revenge.

Another interesting thing about the film is that it doesn’t necessarily pick sides; there are good humans and bad humans, good apes and bad apes. Some see the war between the species as regrettable but unavoidable, while others see it as an opportunity to shift the balance of power. While one could argue that the apes are actually the main characters in this film, among the humans Jason Clarke is a standout as a leader who develops a friendship with Caesar.

Although the film’s open ending is obviously paving the way for a sequel, I think the ambiguousness also fits well with the tone of the film. It gives audiences space to think about our own strengths and weaknesses as a society and where we might head in the future. The movie does exactly what good science fiction should do: both entertain and enlighten.

 

‘The LEGO Movie’ — an extremely belated review

868314 KS_New_legoI meant to watch “The LEGO Movie” a long time ago. I hadn’t heard much about it before it was released in theaters, and then it seemed to come out of nowhere with a 96 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and a surprisingly strong $70 million opening weekend. Then it came out on DVD in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, and I kept forgetting to rent it. At this point it’s probably a little late to be writing a review, and when I finally got around to watching it, I found myself wishing I had caught it while it was in theaters. It’s a whimsically charming, quirky and funny film that’s equally entertaining for kids and adults.

The film is about an everyday construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) who is perfectly content with his ordinary life. He listens to the same music everybody else does, enjoys the same TV shows everyone else likes, and doesn’t try too hard to stand out in the crowd. Then one day, by accident, he discovers a magical LEGO brick that turns out to be the key to defeating a plot by the evil President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) to stop all creativity and force everyone to conform to his will. What follows is an entertaining, madcap adventure through various LEGO realms (the Old West, the Middle Ages, Pirates, etc.). Emmett learns that even an ordinary person can be a hero.

It’s difficult to describe “The LEGO Movie” since it really isn’t like any other animated movie I’ve seen. This movie easily could have turned into an hour-and-a-half commercial for LEGO toys, but thankfully the film makers manage to transcend this. Although there’s a lot going on both in terms of plot and visuals, it never seems to spiral out of control. It takes a while to get used to the fact that literally everything in the film — even the smoke from a train and waves in the ocean — is constructed from LEGO bricks, but it turns out to be a fun, creative animation style.

The film is loaded with cameos and famous voice actors — Morgan Freeman is great fun as a mystical wizard; Will Arnett shows up as Batman; and Liam Neeson hilariously sends up his action hero persona as the two-faced Good Cop/Bad Cop. My favorite of the cameos was a surprise appearance by some “Star Wars” characters, but saying too much would spoil the fun. The dialogue is clever, and the film isn’t afraid to embrace its silly quirkiness (the list of characters includes a pirate cyborg and a cat/unicorn hybrid called “Unikitty” — yes, you read that right). But somehow, it all works, and grown-ups will laugh just as hard as kids. There’s also some surprisingly pointed satire for a kids movie.

“The LEGO Movie” does end with a somewhat expected lesson — that we all have the power to be special. However, the film presents this lesson in a unique way (I loved the twist in the ending). It’s nice to see a film celebrating creativity and imagination. I know by now I’m one of the last people to watch this movie ;) but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth a rental, especially if you were a fan of LEGOs as a kid. OK, I’m an adult, and I still have a LEGO collection. ;) This is a great movie for kids and for grown-ups who are still kids at heart.

Movie review: ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’

846011 KS_New_transformersBy this point, the “Transformers” franchise seems pretty much bulletproof. Despite harsh critical reviews (the latest has a particularly scathing score of 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the movies always pull in large amounts of money at the box office. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” easily beat the competition this weekend, earning $100 million so far.

And yes, I must confess, I contributed to that $100 million this weekend. I’m not a “Transformers” apologist — I have issues with all the films in the franchise, even the first one, which actually came relatively close to a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While I think you can make an argument that sometimes it’s fun to have movies that are just pure, mindless escapism, the “Transformers” movies have always felt a little too indulgent. There are enough other action movies to choose from that make more of an effort to have a decent plot and characters.

However, I gave in and went to see “Age of Extinction,” mostly out of curiosity to see the Dinobots. And I have to admit (don’t judge me!) that I enjoyed this one. Can I defend it as a great movie? No — but it was fun.

The plot is admittedly rather convoluted. The main character is Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor and salvager who discovers a Transformer that turns out to be Optimus Prime. Both Transformers (the “good” robots) and Decepticons (the “bad” robots) are treated as enemies who must be hunted down and destroyed, but Yeager decides to protect Optimus. What follows is a rather complicated adventure that involves the CIA, an intergalactic Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown, the (sort-of) return of Decepticon leader Megatron, and the arrival of the much-publicized dinosaur Transformers, the “Dinobots” (trust me, you’ll enjoy the movie much more if you don’t try to think about it too much).

The film does run too long, clocking in at almost three hours, and it takes too long for the Dinobots to show up (they don’t appear until the film’s final third). All the issues that director Michael Bay regularly takes flak for show up again here: more effort spent on special effects than plot, too many characters that aren’t fully realized, and a major requirement for suspension of disbelief.

But Bay is helped in this installment by Mark Wahlberg, as well as Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce, a Steve Jobs-esque ruler of a tech empire. Wahlberg is a much more likable lead (sorry, Shia LaBeouf!) and the film benefits from his charisma. Tucci is also obviously having a great time chewing scenery as the arrogant, eccentric Joyce. The film has some genuinely funny moments, and no matter how cynical you are, watching Optimus Prime ride into battle on a T-Rex Dinobot is all kinds of awesome.

This movie won’t end up on my “best of 2014″ list, but for a $5 summer matinee movie, I felt I got my money’s worth.

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