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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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Truth or dare: Marvel and Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’ off to a promising start

daredevil-posterThe first few minutes of the pilot episode of a new TV series are always critical. In a short amount of time, you have to successfully introduce the main character, set the tone for the series, provide background information so the audience knows what is going on but also leave enough mystery so they’re intrigued enough to keep tuning in.

The new Marvel series on Netflix, “Daredevil,” starts off the first few minutes of its first episode with two key scenes: showing how future crime fighter Matt Murdock is blinded as a child due to a toxic spill, and then fast-forwarding to an adult Murdock asking forgiveness from a priest for his vigilante actions. It establishes that this show will be gritty, tightly-written, thought-provoking — and thoroughly engrossing. By the time they started playing the opening credits, I was already hooked.

First off, I think Marvel made a good choice to tell the story of Daredevil — a blind defense lawyer who moonlights as a crime-fighting vigilante — in a TV format. I didn’t see the original Daredevil movie starring Ben Affleck but know that it is not exactly beloved by fans. Netflix has produced a show with cinema-like quality but is able to tell the story in a more episodic format.

Daredevil is an intriguing hero. Unlike some of the other heroes, his defining accident doesn’t give him superpowers (like Spider-Man and his spider bite). He doesn’t have fancy gadgets or unlimited resources like Iron Man or Batman. Instead, even though he can’t see, he uses his other senses to fight crime. Hearing becomes vitally important, as Murdock must listen carefully to tell when an assailiant is running towards him or preparing to fire a gun.

The show is a little grittier than we’re used to seeing from Marvel; to me, it feels like a cross between the CW’s gritty DC Comics show “Arrow” and a classic crime drama. Interestingly, the show also doesn’t seem to use a lot of CGI special effects — a fact I didn’t actually notice until later, when I was thinking back over the episode. Instead, the show relies on well-coreographed fight scenes.

I was impressed with the first episode and am looking forward to watching more. Even though the show is more serious in tone, I like that they still include a few moments of humor, something I hope they keep up throughout the series. After this promising start, I’m also looking forward to some of Netflix’s other planned projects with Marvel.

Marvel countdown: Ranking the best of the Marvel Studios movies

age-of-ultron-empire-cover-feature-1200x520It’s now less than a month to go until “Age of Ultron,” Marvel’s follow-up to its major 2012 blockbuster “The Avengers.” While the film firmly established Marvel Studios’ dominance of superhero cinema, the studio released a number of successful superhero films leading up to “The Avengers.” Before “Age of Ultron” hits theaters, I thought it might be fun to revisit Marvel’s previous films. Here is a ranking of my favorites, ending with my all-time favorite Marvel film. I’d love to hear your favorites, as well!

10. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

While I like some of the Marvel films better than others, all of them — at least for me — have never failed to be entertaining. I enjoyed “The Incredible Hulk” movie, but do have to admit it’s not Marvel’s best. The acting and overall plot are fine; perhaps what’s missing is that familiar shot of adrenalin and fun that always seems to fill Marvel movies — it’s here, but isn’t at the same level of the other films. The Hulk character was definitely one of the highlights of “The Avengers” film, but his solo run didn’t work quite as well.

9. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

It was a blast seeing the banter between Thor and Loki in this movie (Tom Hiddleston is a Marvel treasure). It was definitely an entertaining film, but for me the story wasn’t quite as strong as the Thor origin film. Although there’s a lot of witty lines and funny moments, the villain isn’t as well defined.

8. Iron Man 2 (2010)

I actually kind of liked the much-maligned Iron Man sequel (don’t judge me!) ;) Yes, it’s not as strong a story as the first Iron Man, but it’s always fun to watch Robert Downey Jr. play this character. Then again, Iron Man is my favorite of the Avengers superheroes, so maybe I’m a little biased…

7. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Chris Evans was a perfect choice to play Steve Rogers/Captain America; the character easily could have come across as cheesy or too earnest, but Evans brought genuine heart to the role. Overall, I think “Thor” was a stronger film, but I loved the retro World War II setting, and the poignant ending still gets me.

6. Thor (2011)

Thor and Captain America both had strong, well-cast origin stories, and “Thor” was a fun blend of sci-fi and fantasy. However, perhaps the best find was Tom Hiddleston as Loki, arguably the best (and definitely the most fun and well-developed) villain to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

5. Iron Man 3 (2013)

This film also was a little more polarizing among fans, due to the villain switch-up, but I thought it did a nice job of proving Marvel wouldn’t be falling into a post-Avengers slump. “Iron Man 3″ felt gutsy and fresh, and Robert Downey Jr.’s snark was as sharp and entertaining as ever.

4. The Avengers (2012)

“The Avengers” was, hands-down, one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had in the theater. It was great to see the team up of famous Marvel characters, and how their personalities clashed but they eventually learned to work together. I was a little surprised to find it ended up just No. 4 on my list, but I think “The Avengers,” more so than any of the other Marvel films, is a movie that begs to be watched in the theater, on as large a screen as possible, with a crowd of other enthusiastic fans. It’s an “experience movie,” which means it’s not *quite* as much fun to watch it solo at home.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

While I put it at No. 3, I think there’s a case to be made — from a purely objective standpoint — that this may actually be the best of the Marvel movies. It combines the superhero and political thriller genres into a story that is suspenseful, relevant and all-too timely. The unexpected chemistry between Captain America and Black Widow was another bonus.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Technically this isn’t a superhero or “Avengers” tie-in film, but I couldn’t resist including it because it’s one of my favorites, and it’s conceivable there could be an Avengers cross-over someday (please make this happen, Marvel!). No one expected a movie about a trigger-happy raccoon and a talking tree to be a huge summer blockbuster, but it turned out to be my favorite movie of 2014 and almost my all-time favorite Marvel movie. It was great to see an old-fashioned space opera with a great sense of humor and an awesome soundtrack. This movie perfectly captures Marvel’s winning formula of action, heart and humor.

1. Iron Man (2008)

My favorite Marvel film is actually its first. It probably has something to do with the fact Iron Man is my favorite Marvel character and Robert Downey Jr. is my favorite actor, so I’m not pretending this is an objective choice. ;) However, Downey is a blast to watch in this role, and it’s fun to see Marvel start putting together the building blocks of its Cinematic Universe.

Movie review: ‘Cinderella’ a charming, old-fashioned fairy tale

rs_1024x759-141119042502-1024.Cinderella-JR-111914In recent years, Hollywood has become quite adept at transforming well-known fairy tales into something creative and unexpected. “Snow White and the Huntsmen” brought a sense of gothic grit to a famous children’s story. “Maleficent” turned a seemingly irredeemable Disney villain into a more sympathetic figure (and switched up the classic fairy tale cliche of “true love’s kiss”). The TV show “Once Upon a Time” featured a split narrative that had fairy tale characters living in a small American town under a curse.

However, Disney’s new live action “Cinderella” is a surprisingly straightforward and traditional retelling, sticking fairly close to the storyline of Disney’s own 1950s animated version. While I like many of the revisionist fairy tales we’ve seen, in this instance, the traditional tone works perfectly, and “Cinderella” is a charming, beautifully-shot family film.

I won’t spend much time describing the plot, because most of you probably know the story by heart already — the cruel stepmother, the fairy godmother, the royal ball, the glass slipper, the “happily ever after.” The film stars Lily James, best known as the character Rose from “Downton Abbey.” James gives the character a sense of sweetness and kindness without being artificially earnest; her gentle spirit is genuine. She has a nice sense of chemistry with “Game of Thrones'” Richard Madden, who plays the prince. Although technically they don’t really have much time to get to know each other (and we learned from “Frozen” that you really shouldn’t marry someone you’ve just known for a day!) ;) the romance is sweetly portrayed. Cate Blanchett is icy and elegant as the “evil stepmother; she thankfully doesn’t overplay the role, giving the character a few sympathetic touches. Holliday Grainger and fellow “Downton” alum Sophie McShera are great fun as the two over-the-top stepsisters, with entertainingly hideous costumes and constant bickering. And Helena Bonham Carter has a brief appearance as the quirky fairy godmother.

Another highlight of the film is the gorgeous set design and elaborate costumes. Bright colors pop off the screen, and Patrick Doyle’s lovely score fits perfectly with the film.

As I mentioned before, director Kenneth Branagh keeps the story fairly traditional, and in this case, it works, because while it is traditional, it certainly doesn’t feel stale. The lively performances bring a freshness to the well-known tale. Although this Cinderella doesn’t immediately come across as empowered a heroine as perhaps some of the other princesses in recent fairy tale retellings, she’s more than just a helpless damsel-in-distress pining away in a tower. She’s not a warrior but she does have courage, and determines not to give up, even when it looks like her story won’t have a happy ending. She doesn’t rely on fancy dresses, expensive carriages, or even necessarily the prince to make her happy; she finds that inside.

As much as I like some of the grittier fairy tale retellings, sometimes it’s nice to have a straightforward “happily ever after.” “Cinderella” is rather like a finely-crafted piece of cake — sweet but still with substance.

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Shout-out of the week: This week’s shout-out goes to the blog “Mel Rook & The 7 Deadly Sins.” Mel has been a loyal, long-time follower and writes reviews on movies, TV and more. Check out the new feature “Spared or Spoiled” film reviews, telling you what you may have missed (and what’s better to skip!). https://melrook.wordpress.com

‘A new hope': An open letter to J.J. Abrams

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens1

Dear Mr. Abrams,

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than two years since we first heard the announcement Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and that we’d finally be getting an episode 7 — something most Star Wars fans had long since given up on. It’s now less than a year until that sequel hits theaters, arguably the most anticipated movie of the year (and dare I say it — decade?)

There was some skepticism about bringing you on as director, since you were already helming the rival Star Trek franchise. However, you’re one of my favorite directors, and I think you have as good a shot as any of successfully continuing the saga.

Understandably, we as fans are both excited and nervous about this sequel. The prequels divided the fan community, but I think we all agree Star Wars is ready for a fresh start. I’m hoping you can work the same magic you worked with Star Trek. But the pressure is on — this can’t be a mediocre or even just a good (but unremarkable) movie. It is, in effect, a relaunch of Star Wars, and it has to be great. Whether it’s fair or not, fans and critics expect to be wowed.

What we’ve seen so far is promising. I’ve heard some fans say “The Force Awakens” is a bit of a generic title, but I like it. It fits with the other titles — “A New Hope,” “Return of the Jedi.” It also leaves a bit of mystery. Is the force awakening good or bad, a sign of the dark side or the light side increasing in power? Is it the rebirth of the Jedi or the rise of the Sith?

I really like the look of the teaser trailer. Although it doesn’t give away much of the plot, I think it’s best that way. Go ahead and pique our curiosity. I want to go into this and be surprised. I love how the trailer captures the feeling of the original trilogy, but also with a touch of newer technology. This is something both old and new. The cast you’ve picked is strong — it’s great to see some familiar faces (Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher), while also some promising new talent (Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, etc.).

Hollywood has changed quite a bit since the last Star Wars movie opened back in 2005. Superhero movies rule the big screen, and another Disney property, Marvel, has established itself as the king of the pack. Will Star Wars be able to top the Avengers sequel “Age of Ultron”? The first Avengers broke box office records, but if it’s really, really good, “The Force Awakens” could beat it. Sci-fi also has experienced a bit of a resurgence as a film genre, with your two Trek films, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and others. Star Wars certainly has name recognizability, and if reviews are good, I think this project will go far.

So, I wish you luck, Mr. Abrams. I know you’re probably still putting some final finishing touches on the film, but most of what will define this movie already has been locked in. I know it’s kind of cheesy to say it, but I can’t resist — may the force be with you!

TV review: ‘Downton Abbey’ season 5 ends on a high note

downton-abbey-christmas-special-2014-season-5Another year has come and gone at Downton Abbey, wrapping up with the season 5 finale this past Sunday on PBS. The British drama continues to be an addictive delight, though next season is rumored to be its last.

“Downton Abbey” — about a British noble and his family navigating the tides of social change at the turn of the century — is one of my favorite TV shows. Though it gets some good-natured teasing for being a “glorified soap opera,” it rises above the drama thanks to richly drawn characters, its exploration of relevant social issues of the times, and its often-witty dialogue, many of the best lines belonging to Maggie Smith’s feisty Dowager Countess.

This season, the characters continue adjusting to the changing times. Servants begin to pursue business opportunities — and further their education — outside the abbey. Social rules are bending, and secrets are revealed. The lines between social classes continue to blur still further.

One of my favorite plot lines this season was seeing some of the servants explore their identities beyond the walls of the abbey. Assistant cook Daisy expresses a desire to further her education and think more for herself, and cook Mrs. Patmore, head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes and even the butler Mr. Carson are pursuing business and investment opportunities. This highlights how times are changing — servants want to have dreams and goals of their own; it’s no longer just about promoting the wealthy Crawley family.

Another detail I liked was that many of the romantic plot lines this season involved the older characters. While Hollywood often glorifies the young and in love, it’s never too late to find love or a second chance at happiness. Spoiler alert! Mr. Carson’s proposal to Mrs. Hughes (finally!) was not only the most adorable moment this season, it’s one of my favorite moments of the show, period.

As much as I don’t want “Downton Abbey” to end, I think six seasons is a good number for the show. It’s best to leave fans satisfied but wanting a bit more, rather than complaining the show “jumped the shark.” I’m sad that Allen Leech’s character, the former chauffeur Tom Branson, is (apparently) leaving the show. He’s had one of the best character development arcs on the show, figuring out how to live with the Crawley family after his wife dies. I hope his character will still have some role in the next season (maybe he won’t actually go to America!). I’m really hoping for happy endings for Lady Edith, Anna and Mr. Bates, characters that have all had more than their fair share of tragedy. And it will be interesting to see what happens with Lady Mary. I think I like her new suitor Henry Talbot (played by Matthew Goode); in the past, Mary’s used to men desperate for her attention, so the new character’s aloofness will add a welcome challenge.

It’s sad to think of Downton ending, but I’m happy with how the show’s developed. After it ends, I’d be interested in seeing a World War II era spin-off series featuring the children of Mary, Tom and Edith — or a prequel about the younger days of the Dowager Countess!

To boldly go: In memory of Leonard Nimoy

5731__leonard-nimoy_images-uploaded-by-terraincognitoI stayed home from work sick today, and was just lounging in bed and resting when I got a text from my dad — and fellow “Star Trek” fan — to let me know that actor Leonard Nimoy had passed away today. I had heard that Nimoy was ill, but that doesn’t really make the announcement easier to take. Nimoy played Mr. Spock, arguably the most iconic of the “Star Trek” characters, in numerous TV episodes and films, and it’s a loss that will certainly be mourned by the community of science fiction fans.

I haven’t always been a “Star Trek” fan. “Star Wars” was my first love, and when I was younger, for whatever reason, “Star Trek” didn’t really click for me. I went to see J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot film with some friends who were Trek fans, and the film took all of five minutes to win me over, and when I went back to watch other Trek episodes and films, I fell in love with them too. I admire Nimoy’s willingness to appear in that reboot film. It was a risk, of course; nobody knew if Abrams would successfully reboot or ruin “Star Trek,” but Nimoy had enough confidence — or faith? — to appear in the film as the older version of Spock. Even though the reboot film made the gutsy move of altering the classic Trek timeline, having Nimoy there made it seem legitimate. He was, in a way, passing the torch to a new generation of actors, as well as saluting long-time fans of the series.

Nimoy was great as Spock — a character who valued logic above emotion, and yet was willing to sacrifice everything for his friends. Kirk and Spock are the ultimate odd couple, two beings who “logically” shouldn’t be friends but realize they can’t function without each other. Admit it, Trek fans — we all teared up when Spock sacrificed himself to save Kirk and the Enterprise at the end of “The Wrath of Khan.” In Nimoy’s hands, Spock was both alien and accessible; he was different enough to fascinate us, but still “human” enough to be relatable.

Although the character will live on in the continued Trek films, thanks to a strong performance from Zachary Quinto (whom Nimoy praised), there will always be a special place in the hearts of Trek fans for Nimoy as the original “Mr. Spock.” He helped launch a sci-fi show that in turn helped to launch a genre.

Thanks for being a part of “Star Trek,” Mr. Nimoy — live long and prosper.

Swinging into action: Thoughts on Spider-Man joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Marvel Studios is — at least for now — the undisputed victor when it comes to superhero films. “The Avengers” remains the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time (and one of the all-time highest grossing movies, period), and even their “B-list” heroes have become major stars and major money-makers. At this point, they can even make a blockbuster out of a walking tree and a talking, gun-toting raccoon.

However, a fact that has complicated the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that while there are a variety of Marvel comics films — Avengers spin-offs, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc. — Marvel Studios (and Disney) don’t have cinematic control of all the characters. Sony has the rights to Spider-Man, and Fox has the X-Men. Understandably, neither studio really wants to give up  those lucrative characters. A mash-up with X-Men and the Avengers, or a Spider-Man appearance in an Avengers film, seemed unlikely.

That is, until Sony recently announced a deal to allow Spider-Man to appear in a Marvel Studios film with characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, granting a long-time wish of many Marvel fans. According to the official press release from Marvel, Spider-Man will first make an appearance in an MCU film (possibly “Captain America: Civil War”?), then a solo film with help from the MCU team and a supposed “new creative direction.”

I really think this was a smart move on the part of Sony. Marvel Studios is the biggest power player in superhero movies, and allowing Spider-Man to appear in an MCU movie will only make the character more bankable. Bringing him into the same universe will offer new creative — and financial — opportunities.

4229836-1418955711-38972I am sad to see Andrew Garfield go as Spider-Man; although I haven’t seen a firm confirmation of this, it’s more than likely the role will be recast. Garfield brought a sense of lovably awkward earnestness to the role, and I don’t think we got a chance to see all he was capable of in the role, either. That being said, I think with this new direction it probably is a good call to go with a new actor, so that audiences’ perceptions of the character aren’t too tied to what’s been done before. What I’d actually like to see is, instead of recasting Peter Parker, having the movies features Miles Morales, a character from Marvel Comics who is Spider-Man in an alternative universe with no Peter Parker. Peter Parker already has been rebooted twice in a relatively short time, and using Miles Morales instead would give Spider-Man a genuine fresh start.

I’ve very curious to see how Spider-Man will be worked into the MCU. I’m guessing his first appearance will be more of a cameo, but Marvel Studios will certainly want to show off the new addition to the team. It will be interesting to see how the new Spider-Man interacts with the existing Marvel team. There’s already some big personalities in play, and general audiences are used to thinking of Spider-Man as operating on his own. Film makers will have to be careful about how he mixes with Iron Man, Thor, etc.

Overall, however, I think adding Spider-Man to the MCU is a good move, and positive news for Marvel fans (I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an X-Men/Avengers mash-up). What do you hope to see from Spider-Man in the MCU?

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Shout-out of the week: This week’s blog shout-out goes to Sidekick Reviews, a great blog with movie and TV reviews, as well as entertainment news. Check out this recent post on past Spider-Man films: https://sidekickreviews.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/battle-of-the-movies-spider-man-2002-vs-the-amazing-spider-man-2012/.

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