Once upon a time on ‘Thor: The Dark World’…

According to Celtic myths, Samhain, the first of November, marks the end of summer — when ghosts, spirits and fairies can haunt our world. People honored the dead by dressing up in costume, going door-to-door for food — a tradition memorialized in the modern Halloween festivities.

So perhaps it’s fitting that “Thor: The Dark World” was released in Samhain (the Irish word for November) — days after U.S. daylights savings time. The dead return to our world as the day grows shorter and darker.

The second of Marvel’s post-Avenger’s films (the first was this summer’s “Iron Man 3”), “Thor: The Dark World” chronicles the Convergence — a once in a blue moon phenomenon when nine planets overlap and objects can be seamlessly transported from one place to another.

Normally, that would be a magical wonder — one that astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) explains with science. But the legend of Thor’s made out of the stuff from myths and fairy tales.

No, not Disney’s “Tarzan” (although Jane and Thor did have a few Tarzan moments when he fell out of the sky in the first Thor movie).

This fairy tale is made of grimmer stuff — the kind where fairies stole you away like the Pied Piper.

The dark fairies in this story are from the Unseelie Court, led by dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith created a liquid weapon called Aether, which is supposed to bring darkness to the world.

While Asgardians stopped Malekith’s evil plot years ago, the Convergence would be the perfect opportunity for the dark elves to try again: unleashing darkness on all nine worlds, including Earth.

That’s the backdrop to this movie, and Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay’s layered like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

On one level, they’re dealing with the aftermath of “The Avenger’s” and the alien invasion of New York City; prisoner-of-war Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is brought back to his home planet in chains. His hammer-wielding older brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fights to fix Loki’s mess.

On another level, the writers are threading the plot of the mediocre 2011 “Thor” film — which plays out like a typical Shakespearean rom-com. Jane, her snarky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) and their mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) return, studying anomalies in Earth’s gravity. Jane feels slighted by her crush Thor, who never contacted her after he abruptly left.

Luckily, the dark elves play matchmaker, and their nefarious plot reunite Jane and Thor.

“Thor: The Dark World” offers a much more dynamic plot-line than its predecessor. Unlike the first Thor movie, which divided its time evenly between the wild magical woods of Asgard and the rigid mundane cities of Earth, time spent in Earth’s brief.

But that doesn’t mean this fairy tale’s “once upon a time” gets a “happily ever after.” After all, the Marvel sagas continue with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in spring 2014 and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in the summer of 2015.

Unfortunately for us, movie-goers, suffering through each superhero blockbuster until the release of Joss Whedon’s next highly anticipated (and highly lucrative) Avengers movie, most of the characters in this film, including our titular hammer-wielding muscleman, are as flat as the comic book paper they came from.

“If we shadows have offended/ Think but this, and all is mended.” — Puck from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The only exception is Loki (and Tom Hiddleston — who won best male newcomer and best villain for his reprising role). The honest trickster god captured our hearts in “Thor” and “The Avengers” and promises to be as mischievous as the prankster Puck.

Just remember (because Shakespeare taught us well): it’s all fun and games until somebody dies.

“Thor: The Dark World” is directed by Alan Taylor of “Game of Thrones” fame; the screenplay was written by Christopher Markus, Christopher Yost and Stephen McFeely, based on Don Payne and Robert Rodat’s story and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber’s Marvel comic books.


Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’ reborn in 3D

Tim Burton has directed countless movies, many of them featuring characters with big eyes and dark, gothic eye shadow. However, his latest film, “Frankenweenie,” a 3D black-and-white, stop-motion animation remake of his 1984 short, has its own special, childlike charm.

“Frankenweenie,” loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein,” follows the relationship between Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his dog and best friend, Sparky (Frank Welker). When a driver accidentally runs over Sparky, Victor is devastated until he gets the crazy idea to try to bring his dog back to life.

Unlike Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, Burton’s is younger and more innocent. The film carries threads of past Burton films; for example, “Corpse Bride” also featured the dead coming back to life, while “Edward Scissorhands” featured a budding inventor and his creations. Despite how “Frankenweenie” mirrors themes of older Burton films, the modern retelling of the classic “Frankenstein” never gets old.

Compared to Burton’s 1984 short, which starred Barret Oliver as Victor, the 2012 animated remake of “Frankenweenie” shares similar and nearly identical scenes. However, compared to the half-hour short, Burton adds an hour worth of exposition as well as crams more memorable, creepy and disturbing characters into the remake. Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), a kid in Victor’s class who wasn’t in the original version of the film, trails Victor and blackmails him to show him how he revived his dog. A weird girl (Catherine O’Hara) always carrying a white cat named Whiskers resembles J.K. Rowling’s character Luna Lovegood in “Harry Potter,” giving spacey and elusive omens to the protagonist.

The newer version of “Frankenweenie” illustrates the lengths to which some middle school kids will go to to place first at a school science fair: One boy jumps off a building and breaks his arm to test his experiment. These plot points seems to gear the film from kids to an older and more mature audience, which would understand troubling issues such as death and competition.

The film’s introduction, featuring Victor screening a short movie of his dog, Sparky, to his parents, is a clever way to showcase the overuse of 3-D technology. “Do we really need these 3-D glasses?” Victor’s mom (Catherine O’Hara) says. Though the film’s own 3-D feature offers the occasional scare when animals or baseballs pop out of the screen, it was neither dazzling nor necessary. The real star of the film was the stop-motion animation. Sparky pants, sniffs, barks and wags his tail just like a real dog would; unlike Dug, the dog from Pixar’s “Up,” or the cast of animated dogs in Disney’s “Oliver & Company,” Sparky doesn’t sing or speak English. Meanwhile, Welker’s voice, known as the voice of Scooby Doo, lends itself to bringing the character of Sparky to life.

Though “Frankenweenie” may not live up to previous Halloween-themed Burton classics like “The Nightmare before Christmas,” “Frankenweenie” illustrates that despite all these years, the tale of Shelley’s “Frankenstein” still stands the test of time.

“Frankenweenie” was written and directed by Tim Burton. The screenplay was written by Leonard Ripps and John August.

To read this review in The Ithacan, click here.

Sandler and Samberg reunite in ‘Hotel Transylvania’

Just four months after Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg co-starred as father and son in the movie “That’s My Boy,” the duo is working together again in director Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated film, “Hotel Transylvania.”

The film follows Count Dracula (Sandler), an overprotective vampire who attempts to throw the best 118th birthday party ever for his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). While Mavis wants to travel and see the world, Dracula wants to keep her safe from sunlight and even worse, humans. However, when Jonathan (Samberg), a human traveler, stumbles upon Dracula’s mansion, Hotel Transylvania, and falls in love with Mavis, the monsters living there learn that maybe humans aren’t that frightening after all.

The premise of “Hotel Transylvania” is delightfully funny, featuring Sandler and his goofy, over-the-top, ‘Count Dracula’ accent. Not only does the film feature Sandler’s silliness, but the film also pokes fun at monsters and the “Twilight” franchise. In one scene, when Jonathan is watching a scene with Edward and Bella from “Twilight,” Dracula comments, “I can’t believe this is how we’re represented.”

“Hotel Transylvania” also makes use of the cast’s many talents. Samberg, known for his digital shorts on “Saturday Night Live” and for being of the three members of the musical group The Lonely Island, showcases his rapping talent in the movie, while Gomez and Sandler sing. Although Samberg’s lines aren’t as memorable as The Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat” lyrics, Samberg does get to rap about “Nala and Simba in the Lion King.”

The touching scenes between Sandler and Samberg’s characters also add heart to the film. Dracula saves Jonathan’s life on more than one occasion, though he repeatedly says he doesn’t want Jonathan to have anything to do with his daughter. In another scene, Dracula risks flying in the sun in order to fetch Jonathan.

The film also features Frankenstein (Kevin James), who is afraid of fire. Griffin (David Spade), also known as the invisible man, has red hair. Werewolves Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon) have more than a dozen kids who love to play pranks. These quirks humanize the monsters and make them fun to watch. Though this is a movie about monsters, these comical elements make the movie less scary, more ridiculous and a real treat.

“Hotel Transylvania” was written by Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel and directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.

To see this review in The Ithacan, click here.

‘ParaNorman’ animation provides horror, comedy and brains

“Brains,” the zombie moans as he edges closer and closer; meanwhile a woman screams as she watches in horror.

While this scenario may seem like it’s from a typical zombie slasher flick, it is the opening sequence to “ParaNorman,” directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s delightfully charming 3-D stop motion animation film.

The movie follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy who can see and talk to dead people. While his town, Blithe Hollow, is celebrating its anniversary, Norman learns that the founder has left the citizens a curse: the seven people responsible for a witch’s (Jodelle Ferland) death 300 years ago are resurrected annually as zombies. Because Norman is the only one who can communicate with the dead, he is the only one who can resolve the issue.

Butler, who wrote as well as directed “ParaNorman,” pays homage to other films of its genre. In addition to borrowing the premise from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” — a film about a young boy can see the dead — Butler pays tribute to other horror classics. The scene where a group of teens drives over a body on the side of the road resembles the plotline to “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Meanwhile, another scene features the “Halloween” theme as Norman’s ringtone, as well as Norman’s friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) dressed with “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhes’s signature hockey mask.

Despite the ghostly subject matter, the scariest part of the film is grounded in real issues. Anyone can relate to being labeled and bullied as an outsider, or listening to parents arguing, or being ignored like Norman has. The film excels at exploring childhood insecurities and imparting didactic lessons without being too preachy. As Norman’s mom (Leslie Mann) tells him, “Some people say things that may seem mean, but they do it because they are afraid.”

Like the film “Coraline” — which Butler worked as the storyboard supervisor for, the stop motion animation of “ParaNorman” also succeeds at flowing seamlessly as piece of art. In one visually thrilling scene, Norman appears mentally disturbed while talking to invisible imaginary friends. The scene beautifully transitions into the subjective view through Norman’s eyes, revealing the ghosts surrounded by their magical ghostly green auras.

Although “ParaNorman” does many things well, some of the humor seems a bit excessive, especially when the jokes are built for cheap laughs. For example, in one scene, when Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) says the situation “is getting completely out of hand,” a zombie hand appears right in front of her. Although this may seem funny at first, if the same humor device is overused throughout the film, it ceases to be as funny because it borders on cheesy.

There are a few consistent gems though. Elaine Stritch, who voices Norman’s sassy dead grandma, has the funniest lines. In one scene when she is watching a zombie swallow brains on TV while knitting, she responds, “That’s not very nice. He’s going to ruin his appetite.”

Butler also pokes fun at stereotypes, using them as a source of humor and for comic effect. For instance, when Neil is looking to his other brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to set an example, he argues, “Mitch, you’re the oldest!”

Mitch, a stereotypically well-built, dumb jock often found lifting weights or exercising in his spare time, replies, “Not mentally!”

Butler successfully incorporates this same tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the film, as well as utilizes comedic timing, irony, and satire. For example, in once scene, a “Crime Prevention Ceremony” sign is used to commit an act of breaking in and entering. In another scene, a mob of humans hunts the band of flesh-eating zombies — turning modern convention upside-down.

Not only does “ParaNorman” provide a fresh portrayal to the horror genre — bringing both reality and magic to life — but the movie also proves that Butler has just the right amount of brains to do so.

“ParaNorman” was written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell.

To see this published in The Ithacan, please click here.