Richard Eyre's 'Notes on a Scandal' (2006)

A movie starring two actors like Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench inspires high expectations. The first two-thirds of this film deliver on those expectations, but sloppy writing and poor direction cause the latter part to falter.

Notes on a Scandal offers a compelling portrait of two desperately lonely women, who become consumed by their respective obsessions. Screenwriter Patrick Marber and director Richard Eyre risk losing the audience's sympathy in creating two deeply flawed individuals. It's a credit to both Blanchett and Dench that neither character becomes completely off-putting. Dench uses her commanding presence in an unusually evil turn as Barbara, while Blanchett lends an ethereal presence to Sheba. The sex scenes between Sheba and her young paramour are appropriately uncomfortable, but Blanchett brings such an earnestness to her performance that the viewer does not disconnect from her experience.

After a certain plot point occurs, the movie quickly descends into histrionics and melodrama, featuring some marvelous bits of scenery chewing by Michael Maloney, Bill Nighy, and even Cate Blanchett in a very badly directed scene. The ending returns to the subtlety of the first of the film, but the last few minutes cannot undo what precedes them. While imperfect, Notes on a Scandal provides some effective psychological exploration and features some strong acting, which makes it worth a viewing.

Amber Benson's 'Chance' (2002)

Amber Benson & James Marsters filming 'Chance'
Amber Benson's debut as a writer/director tackles issues of sexuality and relationships to a less than successful end. But considering this film in its context — a completely unschooled young actor's first attempt at film making — I see a lot of potential. Most of the film, while choppy, is entertaining, and the characters are engaging. Shedding their Buffy personae completely, Benson and James Marsters tackle their roles with enthusiasm. Christine Estabrook also gives a strong performance, and scenes with these characters generally work. Lara Boyd Rhodes also turns in a nice little supporting bit, playing a one-note character with a really marvelous note: "I type." But the last twenty or so minutes kind of fall apart in a spectacular fashion.

Chance explores sex and how it functions for different people and in different relationships. Because of a previous bad relationship in which her boyfriend used sex for manipulation, Chance has stripped sex of its meaning. Insecure about his body, Simon shies away from any kind of interaction, so he needs to feel a real connection to a woman to become intimate with her. Jack sees sex as comforting, a way to connect with people. The film also plays at reversing gender roles with the male characters -- Simon, Rory, Malcolm -- needing emotional connection in their sexual relationships, while the female characters experiment sexually and are sexually aggressive, with Chance possessing something of a "get some, get gone" attitude. More obviously Chance and Simon literally switch gender roles for the day when Chance's mother visits.

Good narration is nigh on impossible to write. Off hand, I can only think of a few movies that do it well, rather than simply not embarrassingly: Notes on a Scandal, The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Opposite of Sex, which actually satirizes traditional narration. While Chance's narration does have a snappy line or two, the voiceover mostly dwells in over-explanation. Benson relies on the narration to tell the viewer about a character's traits, like Simon's obsession with time, instead of just actually showing the viewer. The narration also needlessly informs the viewer of things readily apparent, like Chance's love of tormenting Simon. Probably the strongest, or at least my favorite scene of the film — a conversation between Chance and Simon in the bathroom as she gets ready to go out for the evening — is narration-free and allows the actors and dialogue to define the relationship between Simon and Chance. I think it's really a very good scene in general, not just within the context of this film. Besides the narration, the other part of the film that really does not work for me is the inclusion of the troubadour. While the songs themselves are fine, the performance bits just do not seem to mesh with the rest of the movie.

Simon doesn't receive quite the character development that he deserves. One of the earlier scenes that I believe Benson intended to provide character development functions as a better introduction for the nameless couple whose presence in the film could have been edited out completely. The scene does establish Simon's approach to interacting with people, namely firmly removed from the conversation, but I think that the scene would have worked better for me had one person in the couple been Simon's co-worker. The scene needed a little more context than just "outside some building."

The introduction of the strange neighbor is rather cartoony, and the story would have been better served if his first appearance occurred more naturally, for example, in the scene in which he helps Simon scare away the pizza delivery guy. I see the purpose of including the neighbor, but the conclusion of his story arc is bungled as he delivers a Heartfelt Lesson About Herself for Chance. That scene should have been excised from the film — Benson could be looking at a lawsuit for all of the anvils that drop during that exchange. But she looks fabulous while they're falling.

Jack also is underused and underdeveloped, though serving an important purpose in the latter part of the film. His dialogue is also extremely awkward, though consistently so. Perhaps Benson intended for Jack to make poor conversation?

The conclusion of the film isn't earned and lacks dramatic tension. The appearances of Neighbor Guy and Grocery Store Guy attempt to distract the viewer from the fact that Chance IS JUST SITTING AROUND for the last twenty minutes of the film, but the scenes are so odd that they create the opposite effect. The characters also begin making broad generalizations and statements about themselves and each other that the preceding minutes of the film do not support.
Amber Benson filming 'Chance'
I like Amber Benson. I respect that she realizes the significance of Willow and Tara's relationship to the LGBT community and she treats her relationship with that community, that she maybe unknowingly forged, with some gravity. I also admire her steadfastness in refusing to super-skinnify herself just to win roles. I think she has a lovely figure and it is refreshing to see an actress with actual hips. I look forward to viewing her second film, Lovers, Liars, and Lunatics, to see how she has grown as a screenwriter and director.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': "Lessons"

  • Dawn is surprisingly likable in this episode. I love her little walk away from Buffy: "Bye. I know. You never know what's coming. The stake is not the power. To Serve Man is a cookbook. I love you. Go away!"
  • Very obviously, this episode attempts to return the show "to the beginning" with the reopening of Sunnydale High. I think thankfully the dialogue is quippier ("Let's just start with dead and pissed," "Dead guys? Resentful dead guys?") than the dialogue of season six and the Evil Of The Week easily defeated. However, it seems like the show is trying too hard to be season one without acknowledging that these characters are not the same people who they were six years ago.
  • I like the scenes between Willow and Giles in England. I think that Alyson and Tony do a wonderful job of conveying from where Willow has come on her journey toward recovery. I wish that Willow had stayed in England longer because A) more Giles and B) I love Willow and Giles together.
  • How maddening that in the first episode of supposedly Buffy of The New Leaf she hides the fact that she saw Spike in the school basement. Her protection of Spike is never explained even though people keep challenging it throughout the season, and I still don't understand her attachment to her manipulative, would-be-rapist ex-boyfriend.
  • While the reintroduction of The First isn't particularly creepy, I did find it interesting on the first viewing. I loved seeing The Mayor again — Harry Groener is simply a genius in that role. However, I knew from that last scene that The Big Bad of the season would be The First from "Amends." I'm disappointed that the writers did not attempt to hide that plot point longer.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': The Dark Willow Arc


  • HATE the Dark Willow storyline. And what a boring start to the mini-arc this episode provides. Thanks a lot, Marti Noxon. I really tend to dislike the episodes that you write. Oh, that's right. I went there.
  • I hate the mislead of Buffy's shooting that allows Willow not to tell Xander and Buffy about Tara's death until 20 minutes into the episode. Everyone knows that Buffy won't die -- all the shooting does is prevent someone from sharing significant information with their friends, as all television characters tend to annoyingly do.
  • I really like post-"Hell's Bells" Anya, and I love that she shows compassion and tries to dissuade Willow from draining the black arts books.
  • I hate that Willow shows up at the hospital to heal Buffy and that she changed into more appropriately evil clothing. (She uses her white, blood-spattered shirt later in the episode to find Warren. Why couldn't she change then?) I would find Dark Willow, um, darker and more convincing if she had immediately pursued Warren. She could have saved Buffy when she walks out of the Summers' house as Buffy is being taken to the hospital and then went on her merry, "I'm going to kill Warren" way. But, again, ideally Buffy would not have been shot because, hello! We know that she won't die.
  • And speaking of inappropriate hair and wardrobe changes, Buffy takes the time to curl her hair when she knows that Willow is trying to find Warren to kill him? I hate how Buffy, Dawn, and Xander sit around and discuss the ethics of murderer killing and where Dawn can hide when, again, Willow is trying to find Warren AND KILL HIM.
  • I'm sorry to say it, but I hate Alyson Hannigan's acting choices as Dark Willow, especially in this episode. She was so great as Vamp Willow in season three that viewers expect a lot from an evil Willow. But I think that she did not want to retread Vamp Willow's gleeful, sexy evilness. Because Willow finally relinquishes her dark magic with an outpouring of emotion caused by connecting with her humanity, I suspect that Alyson chose to play Dark Willow as suppressing all emotion. But she comes across as lifeless and boring rather than menacing. I like her portrayal better in "Two to Go," but all the characters keep saying that Willow is running on fury and I think the fury would have been a lot more interesting. We rarely get to see Willow really angry.

"Two to Go"
  • I hate that Dark Willow chooses to go after Andrew and Jonathan. They didn't do anything to her, and I really doubt that Willow would care. I know I don't. Well, about Andrew at least.
  • I hate the incredibly useless and inept Sunnydale police who wave their guns at a woman tearing bricks from the side of their building and then wave their guns around again when she levitates above their heads. And why didn't Willow just walk up to Jonathan and Andrew's cell? Is she that big on the showmanship?
  • I hate the car chase. What exactly was Willow's big plan? Bump them to death?
  • I hate that Buffy doesn't let Jonathan help translate the anti-magic spell, especially since he helped her in "Seeing Red." And what motivation would he have to screw himself over?
  • I like the scene with Dark Willow and Rack. Rack? So creepy. The sexual tension between Rack and Willow is palpable and Rack's repeated line about Willow tasting of strawberries implies that he uses her like a drug dealer uses a "strawberry." That she reverses their roles and "rapes" him ups the creep factor considerably.
  • I love the scene in which Dark Willow threatens to turn Dawn back into energy. Alyson Hannigan is at her creepiest and I actually buy Dark Willow as a threat.
  • I love the fight between Dark Willow and Buffy, mainly because I am a champion of all things Willow and Buffy gets on my nerves. A lot. And Sarah Michelle Gellar seems like kind of a diva.
  • I hate the "get off, super bitch" line. I suppose Doug Petrie is trying to recall Warren calling Buffy "super bitch" in "Seeing Red" to...I don't know. Draw a parallel between murderer and victim? Maybe.
  • I hate that Anya is hiding in such plain sight doing the anti-magic spell. The Magic Box has a basement, you know, Anya. You who co-owns the shop.
  • Anthony Stewart Head is so sexy.

  • I hate that Xander, Dawn, Andrew, and Jonathan's strategy to elude Dark Willow is walking sorta quickly.
  • I hate that Xander derides himself for usually being so good at running. What? Xander never runs away to an almost irritating extent. He is idiotically brave.
  • Like "You're always saving everyone. It's kinda pesky." Hate the "Fly, my pretty, fly" and "See what I did there?" lines. Who wrote this crap for Dark Willow? Why did the writers make her so chatty? Didn't they learn from Adam and Glory that talky villains just aren't that menacing? Oh, yeah. The First. I guess not.
  • Uh, why did Willow's green blobs of whatever energy she fires at the temple have to come out of her boobs?
  • Oh, and the yellow crayon speech? Aly and Nick do some good acting, but how trite is that crap? And really, Joss? The evil lesbian has to be stopped by heterosexual man-love?
  • And the maudlin continues with Buffy promising to show Dawn the world and the montage under "Prayer for St. Francis." The dulcet sounds of Sarah McLachlan worked at the end of "Becoming, Part Two," but they ain't working here.
  • Man. The only two characters who don't annoy me in this episode are Anya and Giles. If only they had made out!