‘The Philosopher’s Flight’ soars

There are many things you could compare Tom Miller’s debut novel “The Philosopher’s Flight”  to — Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind” or J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” to name a few. But the closest thing I can think of plot-wise is the manga “Saga of Tanya the Evil,” written by Carlo Zen and illustrated by Shinobu Shinotsuki.

In it, a godlike being makes a waver with a Japanese atheist, betting that circumstance could change a  man’s faith. So just after this Japanese man is murdered by a vengeful co-worker he fired, “Being X” reincarnates him into the body of a poor blond blue-eyed orphan girl named Tanya and grants the man-trapped-in-a-girl’s body the magical abilities of flight and magic, which are used in the front lines of battle during World War I.


“The Philosopher’s Flight”
By Tom Miller. 
432 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
Feb. 13, 2018.

“The Philosopher’s Flight” is also about a man gifted with flight and magic, living in a female world during World War I. But while you can see threads of similarities between Miller’s book and existing works, “The Philosopher’s Flight” is truly original.

Miller subverts gender norms by drafting eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes and casting him in an alternate world where some women have become skilled at magic, specializing in written spells which control smoke, flying, passing messages remotely to another magic user or transporting things or people. In this world, women have excelled at practicing these magical skills — called empirical philosophy — while men in the field have traditionally been called and treated as lesser than because they possess less innate magical talent. Few, if any, of these male philosophers could fly.

But Robert, the son of philosopher and war veteran Emmaline Weekes, can fly and he becomes one of the few men accepted at Radcliffe College, Boston’s prestigious philosophy school. Robert’s goal: to become the first man to shatter the glass ceiling and join the U.S. Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, a division of flying philosophers trained to save the lives of soldiers in battle.

Robert faces his share of bullies: teachers that give him extra work, sexist remarks from women who question his sexuality and students that urinate on his equipment, but Robert is resourceful. And growing up with his mother and older sisters has prepared him to thrive at Radcliffe, even earning the respect of Gloxinia “Jake” Jacobi, an excellent student flyer who has a knack for securing anything; and Danielle Hardin, a student activist that’s returned from the war.

“The Philosopher’s Flight” is a novel you’ll fly through with its promise of magic and adventure — plus a female-only flying Olympics. But it’s lessons make it far from a light read. Through Robert, Miller confronts terrorism and moral dilemmas and racism and active shootings.

For every man like Robert, who’s heroes are all strong woman, there’s also a trencherist like Maxwell Gannett, who fears women and philosophy. Gannett and his cult of followers do anything in their power to kill powerful philosophers and to pass legislation to strip them of their prestige.

But through Robert, Miller shows us that it’s really the women who make up a man.


Art imitates life in animated film ‘The Boxtrolls’

Monstrosity comes in all forms. Or so we learn from Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s existential animated 3D stop-motion picture, “The Boxtrolls.”

Based on Alan Snow’s children’s book trilogy, “Here Be Monsters!”, the 96-minute Laika Entertainment film (the production company responsible for “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”) is a steampunk adventure that explores the meaning of humanity. As the film begins, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kinsley) leads a couple of henchmen through the hilly and windy cobblestone streets of Cheesebridge. Their mission: the virtuous deed of capturing and killing these vile nocturnal Gollum-sized creatures fabled to eat human children; these villainous fiends are called boxtrolls.

According to Snatcher, boxtroll extermination is a noble occupation and his key into the privileged cheese-eating royal ruling guild of white hats Lord Portley-Rinds (Jared Harris), Sir Langsdale (Maurice LaMarche), Sir Broderick (James Urbaniak) and Boulanger (Brian George).

His henchmen follow willingly enough, but don’t share Snatcher’s conviction.

“Do you think boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?” asks henchman Mr. Pickles (voiced by Richard Ayoade).

“They must,” answers Mr. Trout (Nick Frost). “Or else why would they hide from us? We are the good guys.”

Except good and evil aren’t clearly defined in Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script. While Snatcher shares “Despicable Me’s” Gru’s portly form, his attitude resembles Robert Helpmann’s child catcher from the 1968 classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Meanwhile, the boxtrolls are small and childlike, fascinated by round items likes gears and clocks. They talk in an adorable nonsensical babble. And call each other by the labels on the boxes in which they hide in.

Naturally, we fall in love with them. With their oblong heads and glow-in-the-dark yellow eyes, they resemble other animated cuties like “Despicable Me’s” minions.

Their underground lair is the rich and intricate treasure troves in “Wall-E.” Their most precious item: a baby boy (voiced by Isaac Hemstead Wright of “Game of Thrones” fame) fascinated by the lullabies from broken wind-up toys and old Italian barbershop quartet records (composed by Dario Marianelli). The boxtrolls call him Eggs. Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) becomes Eggs’ best friend and parental figure. The animation team, comprised of almost 30 members, create a charming montage into the boxtroll’s wondrous world.

But that world dwindles with each of Snatcher’s triumphs.

Like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” conquers tough issues. Brignull and Pava’s screenplay deals with loss as skillfully as J.K. Rowling did when she penned the scene where Sirius Black fell through the veil in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

“Why do we do this, Shoe?” asks Eggs as his boxtroll friends slowly disappear under Snatcher’s reign. “Carry on like everything’s normal?”

The answer, of course, is to live, but what is a life in hiding?

As difficult and grotesque as some of these lessons are, Annable and Stacchi’s film shows that art imitates real life and real life is ugly. Be sure to stick around for the credits, though, as the animators pull back the curtain and reveal the great wizard of Oz himself.

“The Boxtrolls” was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on Alan Snow’s novel, “Here Be Monsters!” 

‘Snowpiercer’: Bong Joon-ho’s Pandora’s box

Hope is hard to find when you’re trapped in a cold iron box — surrounded by sickness, violence and 1,000 lean starving bodies with no room to move. But hope is there — buried in Pandora’s box.

It’s the fire in Curtis’ (Chris Evans) eyes as he patiently plans for rebellion. It’s the rumble in Edgar’s (Jamie Bell) belly as he hungers for steak. It’s the desperation in Tanya’s (Octavia Spencer) voice as she searches for her son, Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis). And it’s the feeling in our gut as we watch Bong Joon-ho’s two-hour dystopian film, “Snowpiercer.”

Inspired by Benjamin Legrand, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” “Snowpiercer” takes place in 2031 — 17 years after man’s remedy for global warming froze the earth. Humanity survives on Wilford’s (Ed Harris) sacred ark — a transcontinental train seated by social class. At its head is Wilford, the train’s divine engineer, and Wilfred’s mouthpiece Mason (played by the excellent Tilda Swinton). It’s caboose contains the dirty and destitute, yearning for a better life.

Captain America’s spearheading this revolution, trading his red, white and blue titanium shield for an inconspicuous wool hat. Evans’ almost unrecognizable in the hat and dark beard and you quickly forget his more popular on-screen persona. By the time he takes off his hat, revealing short, dark hair, he’s Curtis, the mysteriously reluctant leader in this fictional uprising. That’s a testament to the smart costume design by Catherine George and the work of the hair and make-up team (Linda Eisenhamerova, Chris Lyons, Gabriela Polakova, Paula Price, Matthew Smith, Bobo Sobotka and Jeremy Woodhead).

Under their direction (and Swinton’s acting, of course), the androgynous Swinton resembles a cross between “The Hunger Games'” Effie Trinket and “Harry Potter’s” deranged temporary headmaster Dolores Umbridge.

“Would you wear a shoe on your head?” says Mason. “I am the head. You are the shoe… Know your place.”

As Mason compares a shoe to life on Wilfred’s train, she holds a shoe in her hand and slowly twists it — as if its were a moving locomotive and she, the conductor.

Like his friend Park Chan-wook’s (“Stoker,” “Oldboy”) works, Bong’s “Snowpiercer” is visually striking. Bong even draws upon Park’s work. In one scene, Evans fights his way through a train compartment full of butch men in ski masks. It’s reminiscent to a scene from “Oldboy” (2003) — when the film’s hero, Oh Dae-su, fights through an corridor of men.

Written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, “Snowpiercer” (which is the Korean director’s first English language film) echoes the themes of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Order is the code to survival — even if the fruit of freedom tastes sweeter. Nonetheless, in the grimmest of tales, a glimmer of hope resides.

“Snowpiercer” was directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by Bong and Kelly Masterson.

Sometimes you can’t ‘Kill Your Darlings’

At one point in “Kill Your Darlings” — director John Krokidas’ first feature-length film — Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) points at Columbia University’s “hall of fame,” filled with team photos, graduations and ribbon cuttings of “souvenir history. To make people think they left some mark on the world because otherwise nobody would ever know.”

“I don’t ever want to end up on this wall,” says Carr.

But despite his mostly private post-collegiate life, Carr has his place in “souvenir history.”

Some events from his life were immortalized in a series of semi-biographical fictional works from his more famous Beat Generation friends — Jack Kerouac’s first and last novels, “The Town and the City” and “Vanity of Duluoz”; Kerouac and William Burroughs’ “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks”; and Allen Ginsberg’s “The Bloodsong,” published journal entries based on events between 1943 and ’44.

Krokidas and his former Yale University roommate Austin Bunn wrote their version of the events into the screenplay “Kill Your Darlings,” which centers around the death of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a former English professor who obsessively stalked young Carr.

The events are filtered through the lens of 17-year-old Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), who befriends his classmate Carr at Columbia University — where they discuss Whitman, Yeats and Rimbaud over a bottle of Chianti.

Later joined by Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Houston), Ginsberg and Carr plan a literary revolution — to change the old order of rhyme, meter and form. But they can’t get away from the past. “[The past] becomes part of who you are,” says Ginsberg. “Or [it] destroys you,” says Carr.

“Kill Your Darlings” is fascinating because of the larger-than-life personalities captured on the silver screen. But despite his fame as the “boy who lived,” Radcliffe takes a backseat to DeHaan’s mysteriously alluring and seductive performance as the flamboyant Adonis Lucien Carr.

“Holy Lucien,” writes Ginsberg in “Howl and Other Poems,” was one of the “best minds…destroyed by madness.” That greatness, though, makes Carr Jay Gatsby to Ginsberg’s Nick Carraway. And while their lives intersected for only a moment, F. Scott Fitzgerald taught us that sometimes “boats beating against the current are borne ceaselessly into the past.”

“Kill Your Darlings” was directed by John Krokidas and written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn.

Fractured fairy tales ‘Frozen’ in time

In case you’ve lived under a rock (or were locked in tower like “Tangled’s” frying pan-wielding, Tarzan-swinging Rapunzel) for the past three years, you might have noticed Disney’s re-branding — touting virtuous and brave princesses. Nowadays, their animated damsel in distresses resemble the three-dimensional, bow-and-arrow-wielding Meridas from Pixar’s “Brave.”

“Frozen” tries to be the franchise’s latest progressive, self-aware princess movie, featuring 3D technology and challenging its own tropes.

“Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” says Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — the huntsman to Princess Anna’s Snow White — dismissing the Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories of another era.

“Foot size doesn’t matter,” responds Princess Anna (a zinger perhaps directed at Disney’s “Cinderella” and her man, Prince Charming).

But as much as Disney’s evolved over the years, the same fairy tale tropes are central to the formulaic “happily ever after” storyline — written by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and “Wreck It Ralph’s” Jennifer Lee.

Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle is another sheltered princess with big blue eyes and red hair, eager to be part of another world and dreaming of a love’s true kiss. “What if I meet the one?” she sings in “The First Time in Forever.”

Bubbling with optimism at the prospect of love, Anna resembles Amy Adams’ Giselle from “Enchanted,” Fiona from “Shrek,” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (and like Ariel in the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene, Anna also falls into a boat with a handsome prince).

Her counterpoint lies in her older sister, Elsa, a poised blond-haired, blue-eyed witch concealing volatile powers like Jack Frost’s. Voiced by Idina Menzel, known for her role as another misunderstood witch (Elphaba in the musical “Wicked”), Elsa’s like Jo Rowling, entertaining her younger sister with magic. In Rowling’s case, she created stories; Elsa animated goofy snowmen like Olaf (Josh Gad).

Elsa accidentally harms her sister during a bit of roughhousing; her parents order her to hide her powers from everyone, especially her sister. Her parents die (like all fairy tale parents do). But as much as Elsa’s a good girl, she can’t contain her magic forever. During her highly attended coronation years later, Elsa accidentally unleashes her magic, freezing Arendelle and becoming both the evil queen and the persecuted beast.

While “Frozen” bills itself as the “best film since ‘The Lion King,'” the movie’s appeal lies in the retelling of universal stories — a formula Disney has mastered. The beloved “Lion King” is, after all, an animated (pun intended) retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Frozen’s” inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Buck, Morris and Lee drew from the Disney canon, amalgamating half a dozen fairy tale classics; composer Christophe Beck re-writes the musical medleys of yesteryear into ‘wicked’ soundtracks. (Menzel’s voice is chilling, isn’t it?)

The result is as expected: another satisfying crowd-pleaser guaranteed to melt any frozen heart.

“Frozen” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Shane Morris. It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’: charismatic cast brings you down memory lane

I hadn’t though of that first day of high school in years, but I couldn’t help reminiscing while watching writer and director Stephen Chbosky’s film, Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Chbosky’s film — which is based on his coming-of-age novel — follows introvert and high school freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman), as he befriends seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie, whose best friend committed suicide in the past year before enrolling in high school, relays his story by writing in extremely personal letters addressed to a “dear friend.”

Like Chbosky’s book, Charlie is brutally honest, and that confessional narration allows the viewer to empathize with the protagonist. After all, can’t we all remember feeling like an outsider?

Lerman captures Charlie’s earnest charm. He’s awkward as he shies away from attention in class or at a dance, and naïve as he mistakenly swallows marijuana-laced brownies at a party becoming the butt of a prank. But his underdog status is part of his appeal. Lerman’s face is open and easy to read; yet subtle gestures convince the audience of his honesty. His lips tug upwards in a genuine grin as he laughs. His fingers drum nervously as he confesses traumatic experiences, although his voice is as nonchalant as if he’s talking about the weather. Lerman has grown up since he played Ashton Kutcher’s younger, seven-year-old self in The Butterfly Effect eight years ago, but Lerman retains a sweet innocence as the upperclassmen introduce him to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and dating. Although Lerman had a more explosive role as a smart aleck in The Butterfly Effect, Lerman’s nuanced performance in Perks of Being a Wallflower is certainly as memorable.

Yet Lerman isn’t the only charismatic young actor in the cast. The loving friendship between Patrick and Sam is palpable and infectious that one can see why Charlie sought the two. Your eyes are drawn to Miller, who can be flamboyant and outspoken, and Watson, whose smile is incandescent. As the two tease and banter with each another and welcome Charlie to their group, the viewer vicariously feels invited. Both Miller and Watson enrapture the viewer that you soon forget their past résumés.

While Miller also played a high school student in Beware the Gonzo, he appears naked in Perks of Being a Wallflower — serving his vulnerability on the silver screen as he relays his experiences of trying to sustain a relationship with a closeted, gay football player (Johnny Simmons). The fact that Miller tries to joke around as he’s holding back quivering tears makes his performance more genuine. It’s sad but realistic that you feel yourself grabbing for tissues as tears stream down your face.

Meanwhile, Watson transforms from the bushy-haired girl from the Harry Potter franchise. Her short hair and American accent further separate her from Hermione. While it’s hard to see Elijah Wood as anyone other than Frodo from the Lord of the Rings series, Watson shows that she can be independent of the franchise that gave her her fame. She’s spunky as Sam, and while she’s authoritative as the high school upperclassman (and nowhere near as bossy as Hermione), she is also vulnerable as she cries, “I want people to like the real me.”

Besides the impressive acting from the talented 20-something-year-old cast, Chbosky’s film has that same relatable quality that endeared his book to quiet and confused high school wallflowers. You realize that you’re falling in love with Lerman, Miller, Watson and Chbosky’s words. And as the script provides the time capsule to your high school self — that even though you may “forget what it’s like to be 16 when you’re 17” — Perks of Being a Wallflower reminds you that for “right now, these moments aren’t stories” and you’re alive.

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” was written and directed by Stephen Chbosky based on his novel.

‘Les Miserables’ Lives On

For an audience used to seeing “Les Miserables” on stage for the past 25-plus years, Tom Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography may seem strange.

Their film adaption of the musical, based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, is about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French convict who served 19 years in jail over stealing a loaf of bread. After Valjean is released on parole, he is caught stealing silver from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who gave him shelter. Instead of accusing Valjean, the bishop says he gave Valjean the silver. Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by trying to protect Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother passes away. Meanwhile, his parole officer Javert (Russell Crowe) hunts Valjean for not returning from parole.

While the story of “Les Miserables” has already been adapted in book, stage, radio and film form, Hooper and Cohen’s film brings the musical closer than ever before. Cohen’s camera zooms into Jean Valjean’s face as he is singing. The camera is shaky, as if Cohen is shooting on monkey cam, with the camera slung over his shoulder, rather than on tripod.

Meanwhile, Jackman is breaking the fourth wall of the boxed proscenium stage, staring directly at the camera while backlit by the sky or the bright, ornate church décor. It’s a bold choice — and it’s unsettling to see an actor’s face blown up — with their eyes piercing into your soul — on the silver screen while they sing their soliloquy. But although Cohen consistently zooms into an actor’s face so they are staring at the camera and confronting the viewer, this filming technique is both a hit and a miss throughout different segments of the film.

The most effective use of this technique is when Hooper is telling Fantine’s story. The subjective camera captures Hathaway’s pain as she pleas for money for her daughter. The close-up shots show Hathaway’s vulnerability, nakedness and despair when she loses her job at the factory, her hair when she’s begging for money, and her virginity when she is raped as a prostitute. The closeness and immediacy of the camera enhances Hathaway’s performance.

Meanwhile, Hathaway’s high piercing voice conveys a range of emotion as she sings the renowned title song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” through a stream of tears. At times it’s frail as she whispers her words. At other times, her voice is laced with venom and rage for the overwhelming unfairness of her situation. From pleas and gasps to fire and anger, Hathaway’s performance changes how you hear “I Dreamed a Dream” — and for the first time, you begin to understand what the song really means.

The closeness of the camera also forces the viewer to confront filth and poverty. After all, how can you refuse poverty when they stare you in the face and beg you to listen? The film shows the fingers of the poor and homeless reaching out for you as the undercurrent of rebellion and the French Revolution boils. Meanwhile, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is singing, “Think you’re poor? Think you’re free? Follow me! Follow me!” Watching the French resistance of the 19th century, you can’t help but think of the residue of fire in the Occupy movement who crowded the parks of New York City just a year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen shine as the gaudy carpetbaggers, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the greedy innkeepers who keep Cosette until her mother Fantine can settle her debt. Both Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are known for their over-the-top roles with Bonham Carter playing slightly mad characters such as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” films, and Baron Cohen playing absurd and comical characters such as Borat and Bruno. Although both actors may be typecast as the Thenardiers, the two work well together. While Bonham Carter is making out with guests in their number “Master of the House,” Baron Cohen is patting down guests while pick-pocketing them. Combined with lunacy and ridiculousness, the two are perfect for the role.

Yet while the Thenardiers are supposed to be ridiculous and over-the-top, the camera work and editing is ridiculous, making the audience very aware that this is a film and not a play. Even though the actors may hear the orchestra in their ears while singing live during each take, the dizzying aerial shots and the extreme close ups of the actors sometimes overshadow the actors’ talent. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, Cosette’s love interest, appears as a lovesick Romeo whose talent is being pretty for a majority of the film. However, after Marius is wounded and Redmayne is singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Redmayne releases more genuine waterworks. For such a morose scene, it would be fitting to tell the story with longer and slower shots. However, the nice profile shot of Redmayne is quickly replaced by a shot of Redmayne crying at the camera, staring directly at you. Then you see a shot of Redmayne singing in an empty room with empty chairs and empty tables. While Redmayne is bearing his heart and mourning the death of his friends, the editing makes Redmayne’s distress look cheap rather than subtle. Instead you are bludgeoned with multiple shots and camera angles that seem too intrusive on his pain, when all you want to see is Redmayne’s still profile as he is quietly mourning. The scene seems even cheaper and even more out of place when Amanda Seyfried suddenly appears and the two get married. The drastic shift between sadness and happiness causes vertigo, just as the shaky camera movements and badly framed shots showing actors with their foreheads cut off, bring you out of the story.

But in the end, the camera work doesn’t matter. You may be upset about why Jackman is back lit as he is pacing or how Cosette’s appearance seems to stifle Redmayne’s grief, but in the end, you can’t help being swept away by the music, which washes over you like a familiar wave. You can’t help but feel the solidarity as all the actors return to sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing.” You only wish the actors would run and return on the stage to sing an encore.

After all, isn’t the music all that matters? The Broadway musical hasn’t been translated into 21 languages and played more than 47,000 times to audiences of more than 60 million people worldwide for nothing.

‘The Hobbit’: A Road Still Travelled

Old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is telling young Frodo (Elijah Wood) a story, carefully crafting his words, while we are either intruding on a private moment and hobbit hole in the Shire — or perhaps we are Frodo, listening to Uncle Bilbo’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” After all, it is an extraordinary story — complete with marvelous kingdoms and fantastic beasts (from dragons and orcs, to dwarves and elves, to goblins and trolls). But just as Bilbo Baggins is teasing you with how fire-breathing dragons destroyed a dwarf kingdom in the first minute of the movie, director Peter Jackson takes you away from the scene and places you into the idyllic greenery of the Shire — home of Mr. Bilbo Baggins himself.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” based off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again,” is the first of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy and the prequel to his three “Lord of the Rings” films. The first of three chapters introduces Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a fretful hobbit concerned about handkerchiefs and his ancient china. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up on his doorstep with about a dozen dwarves including Thorin (Richard Armitage) — son Thrain, the son of Thror, the king of the besieged dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain — Gandalf recruits Bilbo on a journey to reclaim the land the dwarves lost.

Unlike “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is much lighter, without any Grim Reapers or Ringwraiths casting long shadows like Dementors over the traveling party. At times, the dwarves’ folk songs make you wonder if you’ve fallen into a musical. After all, the dwarves gleefully goad Bilbo when singing, “Blunt the Knives.” Other times, you wonder if you’ve entered the ideal Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where a band of friends work together to accomplish a common goal. Along the way, there may be heroes — but it’s the performance of everyone in the production that carries that campaign and film.

Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, fussing over his material goods while the lively dwarves rearrange his furniture and pillage his pantry. It’s amusing to watch how frustrated Bilbo appears as he helplessly watches dwarves invade his home. From an anxious individual to a courageous companion, one of the highlights of the film is watching Bilbo grow as a character, reluctantly accepting the journey, and leaving the comfort of his books and maps. In one pivotal moment in the film, Bilbo is facing Gollum (Andy Serkis) with a life-or-death game of riddles. Quick in both feet and thought, Bilbo is seen confronting his fears, rather than deny the challenge.

The screenplay, written in collaboration by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, also develops Thorin’s character well beyond Tolkien’s words. Bearing a wooden branch as a shield, Thorin is frequently seen as David facing a pale and monstrous Goliath — a pale white orc almost three times his side. Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin is as a strong, prideful and courageous leader, whose honorable goals have won the respect of both dwarves and audience members alike. Even though Armitage is seen criticizing the tag-a-long hobbit in his company, Armitage’s nuanced portrayal of the dwarf prince allows us to understand him. Thorin and his band of merry dwarves will protect Bilbo with their lives despite how many times Thorin may quip about how burdensome the hobbit is.

The screenplay also makes Gandalf’s role as the deus ex machina very apparent in the film. Every time the company of miniature men is about to be killed or roasted alive, Gandalf’s mysterious and god-like appearance saves the day with his magic. Once again, McKellan adopts the role as adviser and protector — but at times, you find yourself shaking your head and smiling as the underdogs escape death again and again. Compared to an audience that may be used to more modern epic narratives like the “Game of Thrones” books or HBO series — known for author R. R. Martin’s fondness for killing favorite characters — the constant saving seems cheap.

However, Jackson’s story is very true to Tolkien’s book, albeit some embellishments. While Frodo never appears in “The Hobbit,” fans of the LOTR franchise will be thrilled to see Wood’s cameo in the first part of the film, which bridges “An Unexpected Journey” with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of “The Lord of the Rings” saga. With Frodo nailing up party signs, we are witnessing the eve of Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party and seeing the story of his adventure.

The 3D brings the adventure to life so you feel as if you’re immersed in the journey. Gold and rocks fall on you and the traveling company. The beauty of New Zealand is dazzling in its crispness. Despite the expansion of these moments with technology, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is just shy of three hours — and the tale is far from over. The first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy only tackled the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s 300-page book. While Jackson could have told the tale in the first minute recap of the film where he introduced the fire-breathing dragon who housed himself in a dwarf kingdom, Jackson expands the film to span three movies — each probably amassing about three hours in length.

While neither the 3D nor the length are strictly necessary to tell the story of “The Hobbit,” Jackson sums up his argument in Gandalf’s words: “All good stories need embellishment.”

And “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is certainly a good story.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” 

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.

From Harry to Haunted: Daniel Radcliffe stars in ‘The Woman in Black’

The trick to making a good horror film is to tease the audience — show the elongated shadows on the walls, play the creaks and moans in the woodwork. Fill in a creepy soundtrack; sudden jarring noises; a stupid but lovable and brave hero or heroine and the imagination will fill in the rest.

This is why director James Watkins’ new film “The Woman in Black” works. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, “The Woman in Black” follows single father Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young, widowed lawyer who lost his wife (Sophie Stuckey) in childbirth four years ago. Kipps’ job sends him from London to Crythin Gifford to settle the paperwork of the late Dablow family of Eel Marsh House, when he discovers the secret behind the mysterious woman in black (Liz White).

Like any true Gryffindor, the Harry Potter star tries to overcomes his legacy as the boy-who-lived by confronting new ghosts head-on. Radcliffe looks vulnerable and sometimes child-like while wandering alone in the dark, dwarfed by the sinister crevices of the Eel Marsh House. Radcliffe’s big blue eyes and past tenure as the lovable Harry Potter adds to the audience’s sympathy when his character approaches a long darkened corridor or greets violent thumping noises behind closed doors.

But his tender scenes with his adorable, real-life godson, Misha Handley, who plays Radcliffe’s four-year-old son, Joseph Kipps, separates him from his wizard, silver screen counterpart. The scenes between Radcliffe and Handley are endearing and genuine, such as when Joseph presents Arthur with stick-figure drawings of the two (Radcliffe’s stick figure sports a prominent frown). While the film does play up the father/son relationship at times by reminding Radcliffe that he has a son to go home to and featuring the pale faces of other little girls and boys, the acting is believable, taking the film beyond the average cheap horror film and making it more comparable to Juan Antonio Bayona’s 2007 Spanish mystery thriller “The Orphanage” — a film which also features beautiful outdoor scenery, elaborate spooky interior house décor and children.

“The Woman in Black” shows how palpable death is among both the young and old — lingering in cobwebs, gravestones, shadows and the pale faces of the children and superstitious townspeople of Crythin Gifford. The new adaption of “The Woman in Black” is designed to keep you tense in your seats and your children close.