Romy Shiller

Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category


In Fantasy, Film, review on November 10, 2015 at 8:40 am

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.


Director:  Daniel Barnz
Writers:  Daniel Barnz (screenplay), Alex Flinn (novel)
Stars: Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens and Mary-Kate Olsen

Okay. I want to be upfront about this. I have a problem with fairytales, especially Beauty and the Beast. I also take issue with certain representations of high school in film.  I find representations of youth that are idealized, unbelievable usually. Maybe another reviewer won’t filter this film through the same sieve.

Plot: A modern-day take on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale where a New York teen is transformed into a hideous monster in order to find true love.

It’s nice for guys in fairytales because they can be ugly but the girl has to be a beauty. Imagine if the Vanessa Hudgens character in this film was ‘ugly’. I don’t think so. (and if you think that Fiona in Shrek breaks this mold think again.) In my article Ogre-Drag I say, Women are often with “less desirable” partners, especially in fairytales. Women are supposed to be good looking. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example. A beautiful woman can be with a beast. She cannot be the beast if he is good looking.”

I’m all for recognizing beauty on the inside but usual depictions of this are flawed (The transformative television show Glee challenges conventional representation). See, if the film simply focused on inner beauty that would be great but gender is at issue here. Not only that, but Vanessa Hudgens resonates with the High School Musical films where teenagers are expected to look a certain way – oh, don’t get me started.

In my book You Never Know: A Memoir I say; “Difference is something that most people avoid. Fitting in becomes a goal. Personally, I think difference is valuable. It is the “same” that irks me. Variation is not the same as inconsistency. One can be incredibly multi-tonal and consistent.” (Shiller, p. 23.)

So, Vanessa Hudgens’ character Lindy says that she prefers substance over style but she doesn’t do the cursing, a witch does.  There is a tradition here.  “Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wicked, ugly witch in Stardust on a quest for beauty and eternal youth.” I do not think that Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) is ugly but Kyle does. So, again, the “ugly” person does the apparently bad thing.

In the traditional fairytale Belle (means ‘beauty’ in French) satisfies her father’s dept by willingly living in a palace governed by a beast. At the end of the story her absence almost kills the beast and she cries upon returning. Realizing that she loves him her tears transform him into a handsome prince. She agrees to marry him.

In this film, Kyle Kingsbury is rich, handsome, and popular. He runs for the president of his high school ’green’ committee but he has no interest in the environment – it will just look good on his transcript. His slogan is ‘embrace the suck’. He says that how you look is proportional to how you are treated. He says that it sucks to be ugly. Kyle is ugly on the inside.

As a mean joke he asks this girl Kendra to a dance he already has a date for. Kendra reveals herself to be a witch and punishes him for his cruelty by condemning him to live as a beast. A girl, Lindy, he met before his transformation falls in love with the “beast.”

Two things interfered with my expectations. First, I thought that the “beast” was hot, and actually better looking than before. See preppy, clean-cut boys are not my thing. I dated someone for two years that looked very much like the beast in this film. Secondly, I identified with the beast in terms of transformation. Now each of these things is worthy of an article but I’ll stay on track – I think.

Okay, back to the first…a good-looking beast. In high-school, if you wear a long black coat, like Neo in The Matrix, you probably have a gun and want to shoot people. If you are different in any way you are shunned.  In many ways this film reinforces that it is better to be the ‘same’ – not fringe.  I wanted the beast to stay as-is but that’s not the fairytale. As in Titanic we know what to expect. The beast goes back to being the pretty-boy. But with a heart to match – he is nice now.

This Beauty and Beast theme is repeated a lot in films in different ways for example, in Titanic it is rich vs. poor. In Tootsie it is the real vs. fake. In City of Angels it is human vs angel. etc.  It might seem harsh and a woman I saw the film with asked me ‘if I could JUST watch a movie’. I guess that critical analysis will always be a part of it. I cannot put myself on hold.

It is hard for me to see this film in a different light. I looked to reviews and found the following: “The film tries desperately to be an homage to the fairytales that came before it. In many ways, it succeeds, but this off-putting hybrid of accepting society, yet deforming it with Aesop Fable logic just doesn’t work. The characters are like viruses attacking an immune system, and as virtuously as the white blood cells fight them off, something never quite feels right.”

There seems to be a problem with this movie. If you like fairytales you still might have an issue with this film. If you idealize high school it follows a prescription but…

Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online

Into the Woods and its nominations for the 87th Academy Award

In Fantasy, Film, Mashup, Musical on April 10, 2015 at 8:55 am


ABOUT: Into the Woods is a 2014 American musical fantasy film produced by Walt Disney Pictures. It is directed by Rob Marshall, and adapted to the screen by James Lapine from his and Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award–winning Broadway musical of the same name. It features an ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, and Johnny Depp. Inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’ the film is a fantasy genre crossover centered on a childless couple, who set out to end a curse placed on them by a vengeful witch.

PLOT: Set in an alternate world of various Grimm fairy tales, the film intertwines the plots of several Grimm fairy tales and follows them to explore the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. The main characters are taken from of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’ as well as several others. When a Baker and his Wife learn they’ve been cursed childless by a Witch, they must embark into the woods to find the objects required to break the spell and begin a family. The film is tied together to the original story of the baker and his wife, their interaction with the Witch who has placed a curse on them, and their interaction with other storybook characters during their journey. What begins as a lively irreverent fantasy musical eventually becomes a tale about responsibility, the problems and consequences that come from wishes, and the legacy that we leave our children.

If you are like me, you kind of need to dismiss the absurdity of characters breaking into song and fairytales in general. Any bias I might have is left at the door in favour of a legitimate film review. I take my reviews seriously so I really make an effort not to cloud them. My opinions reflect the universe of the film and if that universe is a musical fairytale mashup – so be it.

Are the actors talented? Sure. The cast includes Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, MacKenzie Mauzy, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, James Corden, Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen, and Emily Blunt.

Can they sing?

Yup. Anna Kendrick is a pop star/actor and Meryl Streep played the lead in the musical-film ‘Mamma Mia.’ Tracey Ullman says, “I know, I was a one hit wonder here in 1984.  ‘They don’t know about us, baby.’  We were talking this morning and Anna [Kendrick] went, ‘You really?  You had a …’  ‘Yeah.  Google me, honey.  I was on top of the pops with Boy George and Duran Duran and U2.  I was with Stiff Records with Elvis Costello back in my day.’  Yeah, I know.  I can carry a tune and I’ve loved singing all the way through my career and in my shows and things.”

There is a huge problem with consistancy though. Given that this is a mashup, I would expect certain anomalies but the inconsistencies are flaws not anomalies. It is fun to see characters from different stories interacting and the emphasis, like the extremely popular animated film ‘Frozen,’ is child empowerment – commendable but unfortunately, I see the flaws. says; Casting actors who don’t identify as singers in musicals is always a gamble, whether it’s on Broadway or the latest film adaptation. Nobody likes it when talent is traded for name recognition…

Sondheim often writes for actors and actresses who can’t sing as strongly as the big Broadway belters. Sure, The Witch was originally played by powerhouse diva and infamous back-phraser Bernadette Peters…

The acting is what counts, and different characters call for different ranges. agrees that Johnny Depp is fine as the Big Bad Wolf but his voice is the weakest of the cast. MacKenzie Mauzy plays Rapunzel but her singing is very limited. Christine Baranski as The Wicked Stepmother is fabulous in that role but her singing just isn’t memorable. Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother is great and so is her voice.

Anna Kendrick is so wonderful here I almost forgot she was Cinderella [a compliment]. Lilla Crawford plays Little Red Riding Hood. She played Annie on Broadway and although she is talented, she needs to sing in many different roles because she is recreating Annie here. James Corden is a butcher and is very good here. Chris Pine plays the Prince mockingly. I wish the entire cast did this. Meryl Streep as the Witch is better suited to this role than her role in Mama Mia. I do not imagine that she will get any awards here but you never know. Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince is better than Chris Pine. Sorry. Emily Blunt as the Butcher’s Wife is good but her aspirations are limited to having a child… Daniel Huddlestone as Jack [and the Beanstock] was amazing.

I am disbelieving that I am going to say that many of the themes here are relevant – especially child empowerment, strong female characters and less than ideal, fairy-tale happy endings… Common Sense Media says, A lascivious wolf preys on a young girl, children lose and are separated from their parents, sympathetic characters die, handsome princes aren’t all they appear to be, and there’s no promise of happy ending for anyone. Mashups are a popular contemporary stylistic device and lately there is a flurry of musical film.

Cinderella sings to Little Red Riding Hood near the end, “Witches can be right/Giants can be good/You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good.” The emphasis is not a black and white definition of certain roles. It would be a mistake to view this film as ‘feminist’ though. It’s absolutely not. Most of the female characters are 1 dimensional and most of the feminine quests involve youth, beauty, marriage, children etc.

I did like this film and would recommend it for children and their parents.


87th Academy Awards

Colleen Atwood is nominated for costume design.

Dennis Gassner is nominated for Production Design

Anna Pinnock is nominated for Set Decoration


Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

In Drama, Fantasy, Film, review on December 13, 2014 at 4:01 pm


About: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a 2014 American black comedy film co-written, produced, and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The film stars Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts.

Plot: Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster movies, before leaving the multi-billion-dollar franchise. More than 20 years after Birdman, Riggan wants to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The play is produced by Riggan’s best friend/lawyer Jake (Galifianakis), and stars Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first-time-Broadway-actress Lesley (Watts), and Mike (Norton). Riggan’s daughter Sam (Stone), a recovering drug addict, serves as his spunky, bedraggled assistant. In order to afford Mike as a replacement actor (after Riggan supposedly tries to kill the first actor by causing a spotlight to fall on him during a rehearsal), Riggan refinances a house that should belong to his daughter, Sam, rendering him flat broke. Throughout all of this, Riggan from time to time hears his voice as Birdman either mocking or bolstering him; he also performs small feats of telekinesis and levitation when he is alone.

I liked this film but it is a wee bit pretentious. I am generally a fan of films that push the boundaries of cinema. The thing is, even within difference there is a spectrum of good and bad. Birdman falls right in the middle. I liked that I read the French philosopher Roland Barthes [mentioned in the film], I liked that I knew that a homeless man was reciting Shakespeare, I liked that I knew that some of the drumbeats were ‘diagetic’ but at the same time I was like, so? None of these things were necessary, you didn’t need to recognize any of this – It was more like a wink to those in the know and that, my friends, is pretentious to me.

We review many films here that are action or fantasy or started out in comic books etc. so it is very interesting to see the angst of an actor who made oodles of money in a big action/fantasy blockbuster but who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.

The story is interesting in that it emphasizes ‘reality.’ These are actors in a drama about actors in a drama. Notions of fantasy vs. reality are underscored by Riggan who played Birdman and might be a superhero or not. Edward Norton, as a Method actor, lives his role. Emma Stone, plays a drug addict, which calls into question her perspective etc.

The behind-the-scenes perspective and wonky personalities of celebrities or actors are priceless really. There is an unflattering commentary on reviewers and journalists. In Time magazine, the director Alejandro Gonzalez claims that the portrayal is not personal but “true to the universe of the film.” He says; … the critic represents what he has been fearing all this time, which is to be judged. And I think that in the theater scene, it’s not a secret that a few people have the power to finish a production. It’s a reality and everyone knows it. It’s almost like a dictatorship, represented by Lindsay Duncan playing a critic who has enormous power and incredible disrespect for what Riggan Thomson represents. She tells him she hates him and what he represents — they are polar opposites. What she says to him is right, and it’s powerful.

Entertainment Weekly says; the 63-year-old actor [Michael Keaton] plays the former star of a superhero franchise, now begging for a comeback. It’s a role that seems custom-crafted for the guy who used to be Batman, and the kind of mesmerizing meta-performance that milks Oscar votes. But Keaton isn’t buying (or selling) that story.

I too thought of the similarities, briefly, but they just didn’t stick. Keaton says, “In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character than Riggan.” I guess that I resonated with the difference.

Anyhoo, we spend much of the film listening to the voice of Birdman, who is our hero’s inner monologue. This voice is contentious because we don’t know if it really exits apart from Riggan’s imagination. He also displays remarkable physical feats. No one sees these feats and when his manager walks in on one, we still are uncertain about the manager’s perspective. Maybe others are not allowed to witness these feats…

Edward Norton co-stars in “Birdman” as a prima donna actor who joins Riggan’s play as a last minute replacement. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s rehabbed daughter. She is an angry waif with an attitude. They are brilliant.

After seeing that most of the cast, the director and the film have been nominated for many awards, I am in complete agreement.

Only Lovers Left Alive

In Drama, Fantasy, Film, review, Romance on May 6, 2014 at 10:50 am

Tilda Blood 

About: Only Lovers Left Alive is a 2013 British-German romantic drama vampire film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, and Jeffrey Wright. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Hmmm. I have seen pretty much every vampire-themed film and television show, My bible was ‘The Vampire Chronicle’ books by Anne Rice. So yeah, I’m kind of a vampire expert if I do say so. There is a darkness or alternative feel to most good vampire fiction. To me the Swedish vampire film ‘Let the Right One In’ (2008) was the best followed by ‘The Hunger (1983).’

This film is very good, there is a blending of art, beauty and music: Yes, another vampire movie. But Mr. Jarmusch is not Stephenie Meyer, Ms. Swinton is not Kristen Stewart, and, despite its title, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ is less about sex than about art. Vampirism, in other words, serves in this film as a metaphor not for insatiable desire (as it has, to different effect, in the “Twilight” movies and the HBO series “True Blood”), but for passionate creativity. Mr. Jarmusch imagines the tribe of the blood-consuming undead as a kind of aesthetic aristocracy, counting in their ranks most of the world’s geniuses of painting, fiction, cinema and music. Byron and Shelley are name-checked, a careful selection of books (including “Don Quixote” and “Infinite Jest”) are packed into Eve’s suitcases, and Adam’s walls are hung with portraits of Buster Keaton, Mark Twain, Robert Johnson and others.

Plot: Set against the romantic desolation of Detroit and Tangier, an underground musician, deeply depressed by the direction of human activities, reunites with his resilient and enigmatic lover. Their love story has already endured several centuries at least, but their debauched idyll is soon disrupted by her wild and uncontrollable younger sister. Can these wise but fragile outsiders continue to survive as the modern world collapses around them?

Someone I saw the film with remarked upon the slow pace: When you live for hundreds of years without the inevitability of a natural end, there is no reason to hurry, and Mr. Jarmusch is a practiced hand at slow filmmaking. What sustains “Only Lovers Left Alive” is less a story than a sensibility, an attitude of nostalgic and somewhat cranky connoisseurship. Plots are for squares, which is not to say that nothing happens.

As I’ve said, the metaphors for the vampire are clear: Ideas such as eternal youth, beauty, strength and never ‘dying’ – in the sense of being gone forever are prominent. The vampire embodies the cultural desire for youth [creams, Botox, plastic surgery etc.] and strength [gyms] in addition to other things.

This film is chock full of metaphors and names borrowed from literary fiction and elsewhere: One of Eve’s passports has her name as Daisy Buchanan. The Great Gatsby reference is not lost on me. The literary allusions are plentiful. Watson is the name of a doctor. Adam calls himself Dr. Faust when obtaining a blood supply from a hospital. The actual Christopher Marlowe is a close friend of our leads and there is talk of Shakespeare. There are biblical references – our leads are called Adam and Eve… There are scientist references and Adam makes a Quantum Theory analogy, there are musician references etc.

Adam and Eve are not the type to go out and bite necks: They purchase their nutrition from medical professionals (including one played by Jeffrey Wright) and drink it from long-stemmed, shapely goblets. But the film does not hesitate to make another familiar metaphorical link — one between vampirism and addiction. After these vampires taste blood, their heads roll back and the room starts to spin. And when supplies dwindle, things grow desperate in a hurry. It is also clear that not everyone manages the habit as well as Adam and Eve, as demonstrated when Eve’s wild sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up for a visit.

The soundtrack is incredible. This is by far, the most original mixture of film music I have ever heard. Yes, EVER. We have goth, classic rock, middle-eastern music, classical, jazz etc:The brooding NYC rock outfit SQÜRL, (Jim Jarmusch, Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback) have created an epic score in collaboration with Dutch composer Jozef Van Wissem of stoner riffs, minimal orchestration and haunting vocals, courtesy of guest appearences from Zola Jesus, Yasmine Hamdan and Madeline Follin of Cults. It pulses with vigour and romance, much like Jarmusch’s film itself.

What’s wonderful here is a tapestry or aesthetic … a blend of high art, music, sensibility and fragility. Immortality is very uncertain here and an appreciation for beauty is like breath on a spider-web.