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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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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 likes 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.

Movie review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ a bittersweet story of life and loss

66443 KS_New_starsHollywood had trained us to expect stories with happy endings. Of course the characters will go through some challenges and struggles along the way, but by the ending credits, we know all obstacles will be overcome, and the hero and heroine will fall in love and live happily ever after. The trick is, we know real life doesn’t work like that, and there is no such thing as a perfect “happily ever after.” However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still beautiful stories to be told, because mingled with the moments of pain and heartbreak are moments of light and hope and joy.

That’s the kind of story told in “The Fault in Our Stars,” a movie based on a popular young adult novel about falling in love and learning to let go. If you follow my blog, you know I’m more of a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero girl, so a teen romantic drama isn’t the type of film I normally review. But something about the trailer for this one grabbed me, and I’m really glad I went to see it. The film can speak to more than just its teenage target audience, and it’s worth checking out, even if it’s not the type of genre you normally watch either.

In the film, Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl who has been fighting thyroid cancer. She’s growing tired of battling the terminal cancer, of the endless rounds of treatments, and so her mother encourages her to go to a support group with other cancer patients her age. Hazel doesn’t want to go, but at one of the meetings she meets the stubbornly optimistic Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who is in remission and is determined to draw Hazel out of her shell. He teaches her how to laugh and live again and even plans a surprise trip for her to Amsterdam, so she can meet her favorite author. Still, considering her diagnosis, Hazel knows a “happily ever after” likely isn’t in the cards for her. She has to decide if the joy she’s experiencing now is worth the heartbreak coming at the end of the journey.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is a refreshingly un-glamorized and authentic love story. The screenplay doesn’t gloss over the fact Hazel and Augustus are teenagers dealing with a life-threatening disease — we see them struggle and hurt and reach moments of genuine despair. Hazel has to carry an oxygen tank with her throughout the entirety of the movie so she can breathe, constantly reminding us of the battle she has to fight day by day and even hour by hour. The main characters deal with very heavy, adult issues while still trying to find a way to be “normal” teenagers. However, the film balances those heavier issues with some lighter moments, and Hazel and Augustus manage to find humor even in the midst of their challenges.

Although the film draws from some fine performers (including Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother and Willem Dafoe as Hazel’s favorite author), the film belongs to Woodley and Elgort. Both are talented young actors with a lot of promise, and they have great chemistry as Hazel and Augustus. Woodley also starred in the dystopian sci-fi movie “Divergent” earlier this year, but I didn’t think the film made full use of her range as an actress. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with “The Fault in Our Stars”; Woodley gives a down-to-earth, honest performance as Hazel, capturing the hopes, fears, and heartaches of a teenager who knows she’ll probably never get to experience a full life. Elgort is the perfect foil for her as the charming and funny Augustus, with a smile that slowly wins Hazel over.

When a movie has a title like “The Fault in Our Stars,” it really isn’t a spoiler to say you shouldn’t expect the movie to have a happy ending (I guarantee you will cry in the theater). But that doesn’t mean the movie has a bleak ending. Just like in real life, the ending is bittersweet, and the story will linger with you even after the credits stop rolling. The film reminds us of the truth in the phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Movie review: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ a clever, smart summer blockbuster

97366 KS_New_tomorrowWe’ve all experienced bad days — the kind where you wreck your car, find out you’ve lost your job, and have your wallet stolen, all before lunchtime. But imagine if you had to relive that same bad day again and again, like a broken record that won’t stop playing? And imagine if it wasn’t just an ordinary bad day — what if you had to experience the same terrifying, living hell over and over and over?

That’s the trap Tom Cruise’s character finds himself in during “Edge of Tomorrow,” a surprisingly clever and entertaining sci-fi action film that manages to blend elements of “Groundhog Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” while still feeling refreshing and original.

In the film, Earth has been invaded by a race of highly intelligent aliens known as “Mimics.” Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a PR officer in the military who knows a lot about propaganda but little about actual combat. When he refuses a risky assignment that involves recording footage during an assault, he is demoted to the rank of private and forced to serve as an ordinary soldier during the battle.

Unsure of how to even turn off the safety on his weapon, Cage knows he has little hope of surviving. He doesn’t last long on the beaches of Normandy and experiences a quick, traumatizing death. However, that’s not actually a spoiler, because Cage isn’t dead for long. He abruptly wakes up and realizes he’s been transported back in time to the day before the battle. He’s sent back to the beaches of Normandy, where he dies again, and then wakes up, then dies again, and then wakes up, in a seemingly endless cycle.

However, Cage gradually learns how to use this time loop to his advantage, and each time he’s sent back to the battle, he’s able to survive a little longer. He also meets Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the symbolic head of the war effort who has a mysterious understanding of Cage’s new powers and a belief that those powers just might hold the key to winning the war.

Regardless of how you feel about Tom Cruise as a person, as an actor he never turns in a half-hearted performance. Though his character is usually the fearless action hero, he allows himself to play against type here — Cage starts off as a coward who gradually becomes a skilled soldier. He lets Emily Blunt steal the show as the tough, smart, but also world-weary Vrataski. There’s also a fun cast of character actors who fill out the ragtag unit of soldiers who help Cage and Vrataski on their mission, and Bill Paxton is great as the master sergeant who is determined to make sure Cage learns his lesson.

I really liked the CGI effects in the film. The battle scenes look realistic; they’re chaotic enough to feel authentic, but they are clearly shot and well edited, so you can still tell what’s going on. The alien culture is creative enough it doesn’t feel like another one of the same alien types we’re used to seeing in sci-fi films.

I was also impressed with the script. Time loops are a tricky concept to pull off, and it would have been easy for the film to become too convoluted or too repetitive. However, the film clips along at a good pace and never fails to be entertaining, and each time Cage “resets” is different enough you don’t feel like you’re just watching the same scene over and over. I wasn’t expecting the film to include humor, but it works well and adds to the fun. I do wish film makers hadn’t changed the title of the film; the book the movie is based on is called “All You Need Is Kill” — an edgier, more clever title that fits the story much better than the more generic “Edge of Tomorrow.”

The film didn’t bring in huge box office numbers this past weekend, which is a shame, because it’s actually one of my favorite movies so far this year. I hope good word of mouth will give it a boost this weekend; it’s definitely worth catching on the big screen.

Movie review: ‘Maleficent’ offers a twist on a classic fairy tale

178833 KS_New_maleficentMaleficent is one of Disney’s most iconic villains — a terrifying fairy and master of dark magic who curses the infant Princess Aurora, better known as “Sleeping Beauty.” She’s heartless and irredeemably evil … or is she? Disney’s new film “Maleficent” offers a different twist on the classic fairy tale, presenting Maleficent as a damaged antihero whose heart wasn’t always bent on revenge.

“Maleficent” takes places in a fantasy land divided into two realms: humans and magical creatures. The young fairy Maleficent befriends Stefan, a human who wanders across the border between the realms. She falls in love with him, but he betrays her in order to become next in line to succeed to the throne. Enraged and heartbroken, Maleficent plans the perfect revenge: she curses Stefan’s newborn daughter, Aurora, to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and fall into a sleep like death.

However, events transpire a bit differently than in the animated “Sleeping Beauty” film. As Maleficent watches Aurora grow up, her heart is touched by the young girl’s innocence and compassion, and she begins to question whether she should use the princess as the instrument of her revenge. The curse is too powerful to be stopped, but are love and forgiveness powerful enough to break it once it takes hold?

Although “Maleficent” has received mixed reviews from critics, most seem to agree the main strength is Angelina Jolie, who stars as Maleficent. Jolie is the perfect fit for the role; not only does she look the part, thanks to great costume and make-up work, she brings more depth to a character that was previously a one-dimensional villain. She conveys a sense of regal but dangerous power, and she’s terrifying when she unleashes the full force of her wrath on King Stefan. The visuals and special effects are darkly gorgeous, taking on a more gothic feel as Maleficent’s wrath casts a shadow across the land.

While it is nice to have a family film option in the summer release schedule, especially since it seems like it’s been a while since there’s been one that’s live action, I did find myself wondering what “Maleficent” would have been like if film makers had been allowed to make it a little darker and grittier. 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” wasn’t flawless, but one of the things I liked best about the film was the fact it wasn’t afraid to be dark and gritty, and it was fun to see the classic fairy tale presented as a gothic fantasy.

Although this version’s Maleficent does some bad things, one could argue she’s never actually truly evil; she even “softens” her curse after King Stefan begs for mercy. If script writers had pushed Maleficent a little farther to the dark side, her eventual return to the light would have had even more emotional impact (à la Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi”). It also might have been nice to see some deeper character development from some of the other players: perhaps a more nuanced King Stefan and more background on Maleficent’s shape-shifting henchman, Diaval.

Still, the movie is definitely worth watching for Jolie’s performance and the breath-taking visuals. Also make sure you stay for the credits — they feature a haunting, eerie re-imagining of the “Sleeping Beauty” song “Once Upon a Dream” by Lana Del Rey.

 

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