Bryan Singer's 'Valkyrie' (2008)

OK, so I stand corrected. Tom Cruise does not play a Nazi in this film. He is a soldier in the German army. My bad.

When watching Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which details the last assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, I was reminded of another one of Singer's films The Usual Suspects. Both films feature an ensemble cast of primarily men and involve the planning and execution of a complicated, nefarious plot. (Christopher McQuarrie, one of Valkyrie's screenwriters, also penned The Usual Suspects so the similarity of subject matter may not be coincidental.) Even John Ottman's music has touches reminiscent of his score for Singer's 1995 breakthrough film.

While Valkyrie doesn't have a twist ending like The Usual Suspects, it falls short of success for another reason. Where The Usual Suspects has seven or eight clearly defined principle characters, Valkyrie only has a few vaguely drawn ones. These characters are important for the parts they play in the assassination attempt and little more. 'Valkyrie' posterEven Tom Cruise's Claus von Stauffenberg feels underdeveloped. I wish that I understood better what these men objected to specifically about Hitler's Germany. The concentration camps? The nationalism? The eugenics? The military takeover of neighboring countries? The losing war with the Allies? It may sound ridiculous, but I'm really curious what finally pushed these men to attempt assassination and a coup. Without knowing that motivation, the characters seem a bit hollow. (Stauffenberg's motives may have been articulated at the very beginning of the film, and I didn't hear them. The sound mix wasn't very good at the showing I attended.)

Cruise's presence also weakened the film a bit for me because I can't see Tom Cruise as anyone but Tom Cruise. He doesn't disappear into roles, which is problematic in particular for period and historical films. Cruise isn't bad here by any means, he's just Tom Cruise. But he does try something different from the brash cockiness he usually brings to roles. He plays Stauffenberg as a very soft-spoken man, never raising his voice unnecessarily, which creates Stauffenberg as a man who finds strength in his convictions rather than physically imposing power on others. And Cruise does bear a good resemblance to the real Stauffenberg.

Even though the audience knows the ending, Singer does an excellent job creating dramatic tension. However, I wish that the scene in which Fromm calls the Wolf's Lair and someone confirms that Hitler is alive had not been included. I think it would have made the moment when Hitler speaks to Major Remer on the phone even more powerful.

Singer does something I really like in regards to the language of the film. Valkyrie is about Germany and historical German figures who spoke German, but the screenplay is written in English for an English-speaking audience. Most of the time, such films play out completely in English without comment to the language disconnect, but Singer does something different. The film begins with the voices of German soldiers reciting an oath to Hitler's Germany, translated on screen into English over a Nazi flag. The next scene shows Stauffenberg stationed in Africa writing in his journal with a voiceover dictating what he writes. The voiceover begins in German, but after a few sentences the German begins to fade out and a voiceover dictating the same journal entry in English replaces it. For the rest of the film only the dialogue is in English — all written material is in German and never translated through subtitles.

I also really like how Singer filmed the character of Hitler, keeping him at the edge of the frame and never really filming him straight-on. He has little dialogue and only says two lines with his face completely visible on screen. This treatment is effective because it downplays an almost mythic historical figure whose presence could easily overpower the film. Singer also doesn't try to make a mustache twirling villain out of him, letting Hitler's reputation precede him, I suppose. Instead, Singer concentrates on keeping these resistance fighters at the core of the story.

Valkyrie is a Nazi movie that doesn't really try to make a point about the Nazis. Instead, it focuses on telling one particular story related to the Nazi regime, which is actually a fairly refreshing approach to such material. And I always love watching Bryan Singer's work. (Well, I haven't seen Apt Pupil. I may not love watching that one.) I think his films are quietly stylish, and he has a knack for balancing the intimate with the grandiose. Though the characters aren't as clearly drawn as I would like, Valkyrie is a well-made heist film that details an historical event of which many people probably have little knowledge.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': "Triangle"

Jane Espenson and I have a complex relationship. On the one hand, she wrote "Band Candy," "Earshot," and "Superstar." On the other hand, there's "Doublemeat Palace."

And "Triangle" joins "Him" on the Just Godawful list. I mean, this episode offends me.

"Triangle" attempts to soften Anya around the edges a little, but in order to make Anya sympathetic, Willow has to act like a callous shrew. Granted, Willow is not at her most likable during the first part of season five, but I find her behavior in this episode wildly uncharacteristic. She has expressed antagonism toward Anya in the past but never to this extent. And stealing ingredients from Giles? First, I have a very hard time believing Willow would do that, and second, I think that Anya would have had ample time to observe whether Giles occasionally lets Willow use inventory for free, so their argument over the ingredients seems contrived.

Emma Caulfield and Alyson Hannigan are — or at least were — good friends, and it’s obvious that they are having a lot of fun working together. And while both of them do some nice comedic acting, Willow and Anya’s bickering wears thin very quickly. But I do actually kind of like the suggested root of Willow and Anya's antagonism toward each other, namely that Willow fears Anya might hurt Xander and Anya feels a little threatened by Xander and Willow's history. That final argument about Xander does drag on a bit, but it feels like more old-school Buffy with a potentially sentimental moment undercut by the fact that Willow and Anya are yelling at each other and just as they reach an understanding a troll breaks down a door. However, if the writers were going to reach back to season three for the Willow/Xander stuff, couldn't they have pulled out some "Doppelgangland" baggage too? I mean, Willow does punch Anya for using her and joining forces with her evil alter ego to try to kill people in that episode.

I also cringe at Olaf's ultimatum to Xander. In an episode when, for the first time ever, Xander feels like he has to choose sides between his best friend and his girlfriend, he's actually asked to pick between the two women? Boring, obvious, and derivative.

While Willow and Anya's quibbling annoys instead of amuses, the episode's failure is only compounded by Buffy's "I have to keep Anya and Xander together because my needy, insecure boyfriend just left me" subplot. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a pretty decent actress most of the time, but she cannot funny cry or fake laugh. Her attempts here to weep humorously are agonizing, killing any entertainment potential that story might have contained. And though I didn’t really take offense at first, subsequent viewings have made me increasingly offended by this subplot's conclusion. Buffy blubbers about seeing Xander and Anya "good and alive and together" while completely ignoring Willow and Tara, who are also good and alive and together and standing right next to them. I know that Buffy has focused on Xander and Anya throughout the episode because she thought that they might be breaking up. But seeing as though their relationship was never in real jeopardy, her not recognizing Willow and Tara’s good, alive togetherness suggests that Buffy (and the show) doesn’t see the same sex couple as a real couple.
Spike trying to prove himself to Buffy is the only consistently amusing piece of this episode that's trying really hard to be a hour-long sitcom. I love his hopeful approach to Buffy when she arrives at The Bronze and his inability to understand why not feeding off accident victims doesn't win him any points with her. "What does it take?" And Anya does get some good lines when she is taunting Olaf. "Your roar is less than full-throated!"

I have trouble laughing at Olaf's dialogue that suggests the devouring of infants and raping of women. I'm just too much of a humorless feminist, I guess. The gratuitous destruction does not enamor me of this episode either. As I said before, excessive wreckage makes me twitchy.

I do like that Tara interacts with members of the group who aren’t Willow on more of an individual basis. She has two whole scenes alone with Buffy, and I always smile when Xander amends his "two favorite girls" comment to include Tara. But Willow and Tara's dynamic frustrates me. Tara's "I said 'quirky'" bit nicely hints at intimacy, but Buffy and Xander get more play from Tara and Willow respectively than the women give each other. Their "reunion" at The Bronze feels particularly awkward. Sure, Willow didn't know that Tara was worried about her, but she barely acknowledges Tara when she arrives with Buffy. So Tara is left staring at her girlfriend as if she wants to say something or to touch her but cannot because she has been inexplicably forbidden. It's ridiculous and uncomfortable and wouldn't have happened if they were a straight couple.

To compensate for Willow and Tara's lack of touching, Espenson includes two "Willow is gay" comments. The "Hello, gay now" statement annoys me because it oversimplifies gay identity, which the show never dealt with very well when Willow first came out. Also I hope that Willow wouldn’t break up Xander and Anya because, you know, she is committed to her relationship with Tara and learned from past experiences. I know that Espenson is going for a joke, but like most of Willow’s remarks in this episode the "gay now" comment comes across as too glib and facile. The second "Willow is gay" comment delivered by Anya puzzles me a bit. I like Alyson Hannigan’s nod and accompanying "Yep, it’s really true because they keep having me say it" look, but I can’t decipher the meaning of Xander’s reaction. He looks almost depressed by her confirmation of her gayness. Maybe it’s just the broken hand.

As a retrospective nitpick, how is it that Xander is hit repeatedly with Olaf's hammer and suffers only the broken hand while Buffy uses the hammer to pummel Glory in "The Gift"? Also, the blond curl sticking out from the nun's veil in the teaser looks absolutely ridiculous. If they really wanted to go for that extremely pointless mislead, the costume department should have used a postulant's wimple (think Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music), which doesn't cover as much of the head as the veil does. And Buffy looks like an idiot when she hastily throws away her stake after killing the vampire in the nunnery. The nun just saw a man turn to dust and explode and Buffy thinks a piece of wood is incriminating?

Unlike "Him" I cannot entirely dismiss this story concept, which could have been entertaining if the bickering had been characterized differently and no one had made SMG try to funny cry. Oh, wait. They made that episode already.

Joel Hopkins' 'Last Chance Harvey' (2008)

Last Chance Harvey may follow the comfortable formula of a romantic comedy, but it ends up being something more than just another rom-com, and not only because Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson happen to be several decades older than the usual leading actors of these movies. Though the mere presence of actors like Hoffman and Thompson would elevate the caliber of most films, Last Chance Harvey succeeds because of its measured script that doesn't try to be too cute or too funny, and instead allows the actors to develop Harvey and Kate into complicated, fully realized characters.

Writer-director Joel Hopkins' script borrows a bit from Richard Linklater's wonderful Before Sunrise in which two twenty-somethings meet on a train and spend one romantic day together in Vienna, knowing that they will most likely never see each other again. Like Linklater's twenty-somethings, Harvey and Kate get to know each other walking around a city for a day and talking. But despite the notion of last chances that floats throughout the film, Kate and Harvey's time together doesn't have the same sense of urgency as the younger couple's. When they first meet, Harvey is supposed to be on a plane back to the United States the next morning, but he cancels his flight partway through the film. However, their relationship similarly seems to exist in a liminal space because they interact only in public venues.

Indeed, these characters' lives seem to take place in liminal spaces. In Harvey's case, he is insecure at his job, doesn't really have a place in his family, and during the film he is a visitor in a foreign country, staying in a hotel apart from the other wedding guests. When Harvey enters a non-liminal space, namely his daughter's wedding events, he feels out of place and feels as though he is an embarrassment to his daughter and his ex-wife. Kate struggles to separate her life from her mother's. She seems to spend more time at her mother's home than her own, in fact I'm not sure that Kate is ever shown in her home, and is constantly screening her phone calls. She works in an airport, a huge place of transition where she isn't in much danger of forming many lasting relationships. She also reads a lot, escaping into her head and into books. Even though they both exist in the liminal, they pull each other into the non-liminal with Kate convincing Harvey to go to his daughter's reception and Harvey asking Kate not to leave when she tries to slip out of the party.

I worried a little when the "misunderstanding that jeopardizes the relationship" seemed to be Harvey having a heart attack. I thought, "Oh no. He's going to nearly die. Here comes the maudlin." But I was both pleased and surprised when Harvey didn't almost die, he didn't even have a life-changing moment because of an unexpected heart attack. He simply hadn't taken medication for his arrhythmia. Ultimately, that misunderstanding isn't even significant as a crisis to Harvey and Kate's relationship, rather that incident acts as a vehicle for Kate to confront emotions that have kept her from connecting with people.

The only major change that I would make to the film is that the first act should have been considerably shortened. The movie really starts to pick up when Kate and Harvey meet so it would have behooved Hopkins to make that happen more quickly. Hopkins tries too hard to make Harvey seem like a sad sack: he's on the outs at work, no one will talk to him on the airplane, his window blind is broken, he wasn't invited to stay with the rest of the wedding party, his daughter wants her stepfather to give her away... I think all of that could have been conveyed more simply and in a more expedient fashion. Harvey's daughter telling him about the step-dad giving her away on the day before her wedding felt particularly forced. Wouldn't Harvey notice that he hadn't been invited to the wedding rehearsal? The father of the bride is usually there for that.

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson's acting is, as to be expected, first-rate. Supposedly Hopkins wanted to cast them opposite each other after seeing them in a play together, but their chemistry is also apparent in their few joint scenes in Marc Forster's excellent Stranger Than Fiction. I also found Hoffman's chemistry with Liane Balaban equally enjoyable. Hoffman and Balaban give a fragility to Harvey and his daughter Susan's interactions, and neither strays into the tired dynamic of the failed father who tries too hard and the embittered abandoned daughter. These actors manage to convey the twenty-odd years of Susan and Harvey's relationship in the first few minutes of their first scene together.

Hoffman and Thompson are 22 years apart in age and three inches apart in height. Both of these facts receive a mention during the course of the film, though I wish the latter hadn't. If not for an extremely annoying couple sitting behind me in the theater who alternately narrated and tried to guess the plot of the film, I wouldn't have really noticed that Thompson is a good five inches taller than Hoffman when wearing high heels. Well, I might have noticed, but it wouldn't have seemed strange to me if the annoying couple hadn't proclaimed, "She towers over him!" whenever Hoffman and Thompson were shown next to each other. I applaud Hopkins for not attempting to make Hoffman look taller than he is and for the bulk of the film Harvey seems untroubled wooing a woman who "towers" over him. However, in the last scene Kate removes her high heels and says, "That's better," to which Harvey responds with something like, "You're my kind of girl." Kate taking off her shoes seems to have more to do with her own comfort than making herself shorter for Harvey's sake, which is actually a subtle, fitting conclusion to Kate's story arc. Kate is constantly sacrificing her own comfort for others, so it's nice to see her do something small for herself, ignoring the social norms that discourage her. Maybe Harvey's comment is directed toward her walking barefoot in public, but I doubt it. I wish that we could move away from the expectation that men be bigger, taller, and stronger than their female love interests. And stop doctoring movie posters to make it look like men are bigger, taller, and stronger when they really aren't.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': "Him"

Of course some episodes of Buffy are lackluster. "Beer Bad," "Spiral," and much of season seven are equal parts ridiculous and dull. But few episodes, in my opinion, are as embarrassingly, insultingly awful as "Him." If not for its last nine or so minutes, I would easily call it the worst episode of Buffy ever.

First, the writers are ripping themselves off. "Him" is an obvious retread of season two's delightful "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" in which Xander accidentally casts a spell on himself that causes all the women in Sunnydale to love DEATH. (I know that sentence sounds like a crib from a Lifetime promo, but I couldn't resist.) Why does "Him" fail where "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" succeeds? Because the latter is not an exercise in the complete humiliation of every female character on a supposedly feminist show.

In "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" it becomes clear pretty fast that the females are acting strangely due to Xander's botched spell. Xander acts quickly to reverse its effects, and he doesn't take advantage of any of the girls who throw themselves at him. Giles chastises him for his foolish use of magic, and the women's escalating emotions for Xander threaten his well-being. As for the effects of the spell on the women, it causes them to be sexually assertive toward Xander, but none of their initial come-ons make me feel embarrassed for them. And the later mob scenes are so over-the-top that I know they would never happen without the spell.

In contrast, when watching "Him" I wasn't certain a spell caused Dawn's behavior until Buffy starts to hit on RJ, which doesn't happen until halfway into the episode. Sure, Dawn pushing that guy down a flight of stairs is creepy, but I wouldn't put it past her even when she's spell-free. I experience physical discomfort watching Dawn's attempts to win RJ, humiliating herself in front of him and his friends. The petty backstabbing and catfights between girls competing for him is nauseating, but none of it is behavior I haven't seen before on other shows and in movies as representative of how women might actually behave. Despite the girls' degradation, RJ doesn't suffer any ill effects from wearing the enchanted jacket. Because he doesn't seem to know about the enchantment, he doesn't have to learn a lesson about exploiting young women. Both Buffy and Principal Wood give him small lectures but to little effect, and having his jacket taken away by Spike and Xander hardly seems like much of a punishment.

Another important distinction between the two episodes is that "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" provides character and story development for two main characters. Xander gets to show he's really a good guy when he refuses Buffy, and he and Cordelia become an official item when Cordy calls her friends out on being sheep and decides that she doesn't care what they think about who she dates. "Him" doesn't further story or reveal anything new about any of the main characters, though it does prove that Dawn really would win Miss Teen Angst Sunnydale.

I wouldn't give this episode a second viewing if it weren't for the nine minutes following Willow and Anya falling under RJ's spell. I love the shot of Willow and Anya reacting to the love spell because of Alyson Hannigan's wistful expression that morphs into confusion tinged with disgust at lusting after a guy. Much of the following dialogue is very quotable and excellently performed by Hannigan, Emma Caulfield, and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Buffy: "Willow, you're a gay woman."
Willow: (So?)
Buffy: "And he isn't."
Willow: "This isn't about his physical presence. It's about his heart."
Anya: "His physical presence has a penis!"
Willow: "I can work around it!"
Anya: "Well, you're gonna have to do better than that—I'd kill for him."
Willow: (scoffs) "You'd kill for a chocolate bar."
Buffy: "No. Yes! Kill for him. I'm the slayer. Slayer means kill. Oh, I'll kill the principal."
Anya: "Ooh, that is hard to top."
Willow: "Yeah, well, I have skills. I can prove my love with magic."
Anya: "Yeah, right. What're you gonna do? Use magic to make him into a girl?"
(Willow's eyes widen with realization and delight.)
Anya: "Damn!"

The wonderful comedic acting continues with the montage and split-screen of the women doing their things to win RJ's heart, with the exception of Dawn who has to spoil the fun by wallowing on the railroad tracks. Willow and Xander have a fun exchange after he stops Willow's spell ("Will, honey, RJ's a guy." "I know. 'S why I'm doing my spell, 'cause, you know, he doesn't have to be."), which leads to some excellent physical comedy by SMG and James Marsters as Spike tries to take the rocket launcher away from Buffy. I also enjoy Dawn's line about Buffy having "sex that's rough," and Spike and Xander wrestling RJ's jacket off of him and running away. The writers hadn't managed to churn out that amount of continuous comedy for a while, and they don't for the rest of the season. (This moment comes earlier in the episode, but I also like Willow commiserating with Xander that "she is right there with him" feeling disturbed at finding Dawn attractive. It's one of the show's more subtle "Willow is gay" moments.)

This episode includes a lot of callbacks to previous episodes. Dawn wears Buffy's cheerleading outfit from "Witch," Buffy tries to use the rocket launcher from "Innocence," and Xander references the events of the above-mentioned ripped-off episode "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered."

I really like the music in this episode. UPN seems to have made Buffy's music supervisor use songs that people might have actually heard of instead of the California alterna-rock of the first five seasons. I applaud the show for trying to use music from lesser-known, local bands, but sometimes they tended to be indistinguishable from each other. "Him" features a song by The Shins, a song by Coldplay, and a couple from The Breeders, who are playing at the Bronze. The Breeders are one of my favorite bands and I was happy to see them on the show, but their music seems an odd choice for dancing tunes. I also really like the Charlie's Angels-ish music that plays over the split-screen montage. Kudos to Robert Duncan if he composed that score.

Despite this episode's solid comedy and trendy indie music soundtrack, I feel bothered and bewildered (but not bewitched) that the writers thought this story had a place on Buffy. I do not tune in to a show about a young woman with super powers who kills vampires to watch women bicker pettily about a boy and then be saved by two men.

The lady has started a riot, disturbin' the suburban routine

The Ames Brothers - "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane" (1954)

I don't usually write about music on this blog because, frankly, I suck at it, but I heard a song recently that's got my inner feminist itchin' to rant.

The song, called "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane," was written in the 1950s and most famously performed by The Ames Brothers and Archie Bleyer. Aurally, I like the song very much because of its tight vocal harmonies and bouncy boom bada booms, which give it a wonderfully nostalgic sound. However, the lyrics prove problematic for me despite the tune being something of a novelty song.

The lyrics suggest the sexual promiscuity of the "naughty lady" as, "She throws those 'come hither' glances at every Tom, Dick and Joe," and, "When offered some liquid refreshment, the lady never, never says, 'No.'" But despite these bad behaviors, the song assures the listener that, "She just needs someone to change her and she'll be nice as can be." Obviously, the lyrics imply that this "naughty lady" is a grown woman who flirts and drinks and sleeps around, but the last line of the song reveals her to be a nine-day-old infant.

Ha ha, right? It's cute. But I don't think that a song like this one would ever be written about a male child, and even if one were, I think it would be very different. So I can't help but think of this song as evidence of how early society starts policing female sexuality.

There's also a bit of eroticization of children that disturbs me. Four men calling a baby "delectable"? Yeesh.

'Death's Daughter' by Amber Benson (2009)

I'll start by admitting that Death's Daughter isn't something that I would usually read. I have and do read science fiction/fantasy novels but the stories, written by authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler, have had a pretty blatant second-wave feminist social commentary element to them. In fact, I would say that the feminism part supersedes the fantasy part of these novels.

In contrast, Amber Benson's first novel written all by her lonesome, rather than with sometime writing partner Christopher Golden, is very much a novel based in mythology with the fantasy elements at the forefront. Benson has called it a combination of fantasy and chicklit, and that description is fairly apt. Death's Daughter is intended as a fluffy, quick, entertaining read, and it does work on that level to an extent. However, the novel lacks what most engages me in the fluffy novels I usually read: an appealing main character.

Even though Calliope is supposedly in her twenties, her narrative voice sounds more like that of a teenager, which causes the book to read like a young adult novel with too much sex and too much violence. Callie is shallow, whiny, and self-involved, and Benson's choice to give a fashionista slant to her character disappoints because it's unoriginal. The literary world has no need of yet another Carrie Bradshaw or Rebecca Bloomwood, and perhaps because in real life Benson seems to have little concern for designers and labels, all of the name dropping of high-fashion heavyweights felt very artificial. I gritted my teeth and plowed through the first part of the book because I had to believe that Benson was writing Callie as so superficial and selfish so that she could be changed by the experiences that lay ahead. While Callie did show some evidence of character development, she never did transform into someone I liked. However, Benson does beat the crap out of her for 300 or so pages, so that's something to consider.

Eventually I started tuning out Calliope, but I didn't get bored. The story clips along at a good pace, and I enjoyed Benson's take on how Hell works and on Hindu mythology, with a little bit of Greek and Norse thrown in. I liked that she explored how immortality works in regards to the not getting killed. Something I've always been curious about: how do immortal people age? But Benson's version of Kali differs quite a bit from my imagining. I envision her as more wrathful rather than just peevish. I also really liked Runt and Clio, who seems much more mature than her supposedly older sister. Plus, Clio is the "Willow character," and I always have a soft spot for smart, nerdy girls, especially if they wear Buddy Holly glasses.

The chicklit portion of the novel is fairly light. The romance subplot does not conclude as is expected of the genre, and I was pleased that the story's main trajectory was not about Callie getting the guy. Instead, the plot focuses principally on Callie's hero's journey, completing her tasks to become Death and rescuing her father. While Callie certainly becomes more confident as the book progresses, I was disappointed that she never found complete autonomy. I wish that she could have completed one of her tasks by herself.

The male characters, at least the supernatural ones, seem to fall into two categories: diabolical or sacrificial. Vritra, the Devil, Marcel, and Indra all scheme and manipulate women, while Daniel and Jarvis sacrifice themselves to assure that Callie completes her journey. Callie's father is probably the only exception to this dichotomy, but he appears very little in the novel. The human men are decidedly less assertive and heroic with Callie's blind date failing to catch her eye physically speaking and her vegan co-worker fainting after seeing Jarvis. The women in the novel, with perhaps the exception of Clio, are all ball-busters of a sort but that does not necessarily translate to their seeming empowered. Though none come across as helpless, most become victims of men's manipulation.

Benson narrates the novel in a very conversational tone that's a little too familiar for my taste. There were several times that Benson repeated herself, conveying the same information through both Callie's thoughts and subsequent dialogue. For example:

How the hell am I supposed to know what I'm doing? I thought to myself. It's not like there's a book on the subject.

"Hey, you don't have to yell at me. It's not like anyone gave me an instruction manual—"

Just the dialogue would have sufficed. I also disliked Benson's use of the word "bitch" but more on a feminist level. Callie chastises Clio for referring to the Gopi as "bitches" but Callie herself uses the word several times throughout the novel. The sisters use the word differently – Clio refers to women being a man's "bitches," and Callie uses it as a derogatory term for a disagreeable woman – but I personally fail to see the word as anything but oppressive in any context. I vote that women leave "bitch" unclaimed.

But I do not wish to seem too negative. Death's Daughter is Benson's first solo novel, and I'm sure that she will grow as a novelist just as she has grown as a screenwriter. This novel is supposedly the first of a trilogy, and at this point I would be willing to read a sequel. The prose may not be perfect, but Death's Daughter is very readable and, like I said, I enjoyed Benson's take on mythology. My favorite bit: ", and the other Evangelical Christian sinners, would spend your days of punishment sewing sequins on all the gaffs for the Devil's favorite cabaret, The Gay Minority Demons' Drag Show."

Hmmm...but should I be overly sensitive and take that sentence to imply that gay people are demons? Eh, I'll give Benson a pass on that one because I know what an awesome ally she is to the queer community. She has said that she doesn't have any gay characters in this series yet, and of the characters in this novel I would guess that Clio has the most queer potential. I mean, short hair, dorky glasses, owns a white tank top, likes animals? Stereotypes, yes, but sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason. That list describes at least six lesbians that I know. OK, so Clio seems to have a thing for Indra in this book, but I would attribute that to whatever mojo he seems to work on the ladies. Or it would be fine if she were bisexual as long as she didn't turn evil or become an assassin. There's been enough of that already.

How I Met Your Mothers

Oh, Neil Patrick Harris.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': "Who Are You?"

Sarah Michelle Gellar in 'Who Are You'
I wouldn't call "Who Are You?" one of my favorite Buffy episodes, but it's definitely a season-four highlight even though it leads to an appearance of sanctimonious and downright unlikable Buffy in "Sanctuary." I love the dynamic between Faith and Buffy, and even though you know they're stunt doubles, there's just something viscerally appealing about watching these two characters fight. Eliza Dushku tries to play all coy at "Oh, people thought Faith and Buffy had this deep down love for one another, I'm not sure why," but how can we not think that when she's saying lines like, "Let's have another go at it. See who lands on top," so dirty-like.

But as much as I like this episode, I’m always slightly annoyed by the TV conceit that a character’s closest friends and family wouldn’t realize that a body switch happened. Or short of that, that they wouldn't at least realize something was wrong. Especially when Faith is being about as discreet as a foghorn in some scenes. At least Tara notices. I really like Amber Benson’s performance in this episode. I love her delivery of "She was kind of mean," and her small, pained smile after Faith teases her about stuttering breaks my heart every time. But I don't like how Tara confronts Willow about being kept a secret from her friends. I wish Joss had found a less passive-aggressive way to get to the "I am, you know...Yours." But otherwise, Tara is very endearing here and it’s nice that she gets to be the intuitive one, even though it's at the expense of making Joyce, Willow, Riley, and Spike look like idiots. Well, I don't really care that Spike looks like an idiot. Or Riley either, actually. But note to Riley: if your girlfriend starts coming on to you sexually in a completely different way than she has before, even if you can't figure out that her soul has been mystically swapped with that of a self-loathing psychopath, maybe you shouldn't have sex with her. Try talking about it next time.

This episode is obviously a showcase for Sarah Michelle Gellar's fantastic mimicking skills that she puts to use again in seasons five and six with her portrayal of the Buffy-bot. At times in this episode I think she goes a little over-the-top with the physical mannerisms, but they're not too distracting. Her delivery is spot-on, and she even takes a stab at saying "about" the way Eliza Dushku does. (Is that a Boston accent? I've always been curious. It sounds almost Canadian to me.) But SMG doesn’t wear leather pants quite as well as Eliza does. Sorry, Sarah.
Amber Benson & Sarah Michelle Gellar in 'Who Are You'
Yes, Eliza’s performance doesn’t stand out as much as SMG’s, but to be fair Buffy doesn’t have as many obvious mannerisms as Faith does. Buffy puts her hands on her hips a lot when she is speechifying and crosses her arms for various reasons, but that’s all I can think of offhand. Faith is a psychologically traumatized murderer while Buffy is a pretty average college student: these actors can play Faith a little more heightened where Buffy should be more subdued. Buffy also spends half of this episode tied up or semi-conscious, which means that Eliza doesn’t have as much obviously Buffy dialogue as SMG has Faith dialogue. The only time I felt like Eliza really wasn't Buffy was when she threatens to kill one of the Council's goons. I think Eliza rocks Buffy's conversation with Giles, giving especially the “What’s a stevedore?” line a perfect SMG-style delivery.

Ah, the "Passage to the Nether Realm" spell (snigger!), also known as the big flaming O. (OK, but why a "flaming" O? There isn’t any fire. I think it's more of a sparkly O.) I admit that when I first saw this episode I didn’t quite realize the sexual connotation of the spell. I remember thinking, "Huh. That spell is a lot of work. Look how sweaty they are." I was 16 and very naive. Now that I’m, um, more informed, I’m amazed that they got away with it, especially in combination with Faith's pretty sexually explicit conversation with Spike. The spell could have been really hokey, but Joss manages to make it sexy, even though both actors have all their clothes on and are only touching hands. Hmm, a metaphorical lesbian sex scene directed by a man that eroticizes hands? Not bad, Joss. You might even argue that because it's not a literal sex scene Joss could actually show more, i.e. Willow "comes" in a more graphic way than I usually see on network TV.

Though "This Year's Girl" and Angel episodes "Five by Five" and "Sanctuary" don't quite measure up to "Who Are You?" I like Faith's post-coma arc because it leads to the Faith of "Orpheus," the Faith who is trying to make amends. Also, her reappearance in season seven of Buffy was a small bit of happiness in an incredibly boring season.
Eliza Dushku in 'Who Are You'

"It's not ideal...But it allows us to get by."

Since being rudely killed off Buffy, Amber Benson hasn't had much of a presence on television. She only has a handful of guest appearances to her name in the past, gulp, seven years, but she has done some interesting stuff that has been worth seeking out.

Cold Case: "Volunteers"
Amber Benson & Katee Sackhoff on 'Cold Case'
Her first TV appearance post-Buffy was in an episode of Cold Case playing a radical who helped women obtain illegal abortions in the 1960s. I haven't seen the episode, and I'm not sure I ever will because the show has yet to be released on DVD. I've never been able to make it through an episode of Cold Case because I find it overly sentimental, so it's doubtful that I would watch "Volunteers" even if there were DVD box sets. Oh, but Katee Sackhoff is in that episode too... OK, I definitely would watch it now having seen that picture of Amber and Katee. That's the stuff slash is made of right there.

The Inside: "The Perfect Couple"
Amber Benson in 'The Inside'
On Angel writer/producer Tim Minear's short-lived series The Inside, Amber plays the psychopathic girlfriend of an equally psychopathic serial rapist. Not only does Amber sexy-dance with pretty women, but she gets to torment a shirtless guy strapped to a chair. There's also a lot of gross tongue-kissing between Amber and Matt Keeslar, who plays her boyfriend. You know people are really evil if they tongue-kiss.

Now Tara will always have a special place in my heart, but for me it doesn't get much better than watching Amber terrorize Steve Sandvoss with a belt. Vamp Willow would meet her soulmate in Allison Davis, I think. Amber really freaks me out in this role. Allison has a vulnerability reminiscent of Tara, but Amber switches it off in an instant and brings twelve kinds of creepy to the table. The episode as a whole doesn't entirely work for me though, because Keeslar's character doesn't disturb me half as much as Amber's. Roddy is unimaginatively written to begin with, but I also find Keeslar's performance underwhelming. And there's an awkwardly written scene in which Roddy oinks (???) at Allison that doesn't work very well.

Supernatural: "Bloodlust"
Amber Benson in 'Supernatural'
In "Bloodlust" Amber plays a vampire...with a soul! No, not really. She's a vampire...with a chip in her head! OK, so maybe she's more like a vampire with a will to survive who has chosen to stop feeding on humans so that vampire hunters will stop trying to kill her. The episode is all about the gray area between good and evil with Lenore's non-human-eating posse o' vamps obviously challenging the main characters' ideas of what makes someone evil. In this context, I think Amber was really a very smart casting move. While she certainly brings her acting talents to this role, she also brings her association with Tara that many sci-fi fans recognize. Because people connect her with sweet, good-natured Tara, they are likely to sympathize more readily with her character, even though she's a vampire, rather than the single-minded demon hunter who's her foil in this episode, which only further emphasizes its theme.

This performance is my favorite of Amber's guest spots so far. Even though she doesn't have that much screen time, I think she creates Lenore as a multi-faceted character, managing to be both menacing and maternal, which she does through some very effective leaning and touching. I've always thought that Amber was really good at touching people. Not in a naughty way, but in a way that creates a familiarity between her character and others and fleshes out their relationship beyond what the dialogue may convey. It's probably a good part of why I bought Willow and Tara's relationship even though they couldn't show much physical affection. Amber also gives a very good menacing lean.

I was surprised how much I liked Supernatural. It's no Buffy but it's not bad. This episode also represents my "Six (Thousand) Degrees of Amber Benson" because I went to the same high school as Jensen Ackles, one of the stars of the series.

Private Practice: "Finishing"
Amber Benson in 'Private Practice'
I'm happy to see Amber on a TV show that gets decent ratings numbers, but I really don't like Private Practice. I find the characters annoying and the writing not very good, opinions that this episode only reaffirmed. "Finishing" needlessly spans three or four months and gives short shrift to the myriad subplots it attempts to include. Besides the incestuous little goings-on of the main cast, this episode features three client-driven stories, one about a young girl with a heart condition who wishes to end her treatment, one about a woman worried about a miscarriage, and another about a woman (Amber) who was brutally attacked and wants to regain her memory so that she can prosecute the man who beat her. I guess the writers decided that Amber's storyline wasn't as salacious or manipulative as their usual fare because they included only the bare bones of a victim's reclamation of power plot, resulting in pretty generic storytelling. While Amber is fine in her role, it's difficult for her to make much of an impression with such little screen time contained in such short scenes. She looks really horrible (and I mean that as a compliment) in her first scenes though. Nice job, make-up department, but curses on you, wardrobe. Why is she dressed like she's 45?

Amber has hardly been slacking off since leaving Buffy, directing and writing films, writing novels and comics, and appearing in several independent and TV movies. I'm glad that she has been keeping busy and that she seems to be happy with her most recent writing gig. But I miss having her on my TV every week.

Jamie Babbit's 'The Quiet' (2005)

Jamie Babbit's psychological drama The Quiet about a deaf girl who is told a very dark confession isn't nearly quiet enough.

The film follows Dot, a deaf-mute teenager who moves in with her godparents The Deers following her father's death. 'The Quiet' posterThough the family may look perfect from the outside, the walls of their new house contain many dark secrets. Olivia struggles with an addiction to pain pills, and Paul and his daughter Nina share an incestuous relationship. When Nina realizes that Dot has actually been faking her hearing and speaking loss, she confesses to Dot that she plans to kill her father, leaving Dot in a quandary about whether she can and should tell someone.

If a filmmaker isn't going to make a great movie about a subject like incest, then it should be avoided, else the result will most likely be a shallow, derivative presentation such as this one. The material concerning Dot's deafness could have been interesting but it becomes buried by the ultimately superfluous question of "Will Dot tell anyone about the planned murder"? The Quiet does a couple things well, namely showing how characters relate differently to Dot because of her supposed deafness, but not well enough to redeem itself. If you're looking for an interesting movie about incest or deafness, I would pick up Spanking the Monkey, Chinatown, Read My Lips, or Children of a Lesser God before this film.

While the script definitely fails to create dramatic tension, the casting doesn't help matters either. The cast consists of young "up-and-comers," such as Elisha Cuthbert (24, The Girl Next Door), Camilla Belle (The Ballad of Jack and Rose), and Shawn Ashmore (The X-Men Trilogy), and veterans Martin Donovan and Edie Falco. With the exception of Donovan, everyone seems miscast and out of their depths with this material, and ultimately the script cheapens Donovan's sympathetic portrayal of Paul with its hackneyed conclusion.

The Quiet is as different from Babbit's queer classic But I'm a Cheerleader as she can get. I'm inclined to blame Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft's script over Babbit's direction for this lackluster film, but I would suggest to Babbit that she stick with the queer campiness in the future.

Thinking about 'DRONES'

Amber BensonAmber Benson's third film DRONES is in post-production at the moment and will probably be shopped around to film festivals soon.

Unlike her first two films, Benson didn't pen this one – the screenwriting credit goes to Ben Acker and Ben Blacker of The Thrilling Adventure and Supernatural Suspense Hour. She also co-directed the comedy about office employees who might be aliens with significant other Adam Busch.*

Besides the fact that there will apparently be some accordion music, I know very little about the film. In fact, I didn't even know it was about office employees until very recently.

In mulling over the title prior to knowing this office angle, I considered it could be about robots. Or bees. Maybe even robot bees. Hopefully it's not about those little spy planes. My musings eventually led me to the idea of a down-and-dirty musical (à la Romance & Cigarettes) with Amber Benson singing about robots while wearing a bee costume.

Um, could someone please get on making that happen? Because that would be AWESOME.

Adam Busch could also break out his harp and toga (along with some indie rockin') and that wouldn't suck either.

*I was tempted to write "significant other and literal character assassin" but I didn't. The Tara-Warren connection still amuses me even though I'm sure the irony has long worn off for them.

John Turturro's 'Romance & Cigarettes' (2005)

Kate Winslet in 'Romance & Cigarettes'
How do people interact with music in their daily lives? For some it's an escape, a distraction from routine. Some people use music as a means to express themselves in ways that other communication doesn't allow them. For others it's simply noise in the background of their life. John Turturro calls his third outing as a writer-director Romance & Cigarettes a "homemade musical," and it offers a look at how music functions, particularly as escapism, for a working-class New York neighborhood.

While other musicals have had working-class characters, the fact that the stories were about the working class didn't affect the style of their presentation. They still had the talented singers, skilled choreography, and slick production of any other musical. Turturro takes the fact that his characters are working-class and seemingly makes Romance & Cigarettes with the idea of What if the working class made a musical? Several members of the cast have musical or dancing talents: Susan Sarandon appeared in the 1975 cult classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Kate Winslet has sung in many of her films and even released the single "What If"; Christopher Walken was originally trained as a dancer; and Mandy Moore is, of course, a pop singer. However, with the exception of maybe Walken, none of these actors are known as musical theater actors, and lead James Gandolfini has no musical or dancing experience that I can tell. Carrying a tune seems to be the extent of Gandolfini's talents. The lack of professional training amongst the leads and much of the supporting cast gives the musical numbers a delightfully raw yet heartfelt quality. While Turturro does employ professionals as background dancers for some of the numbers, he also recruits actual firemen and shop workers to dance in some chorus lines, which further creates the impression that this is what it might look like if a working-class community suddenly burst into song and dance. There's a lack of polish that's both refreshing and inviting.

Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, an overweight bridge construction worker with cataracts, who is cheating on his wife Kitty (Sarandon). When she discovers the affair, Kitty calls on her cousin Bo (Walken) to help her find Nick's mistress, a dirty-mouthed sexpot named Tula (Winslet). All of the characters feel trapped in their their respective lives. Turturro includes a lot of footage of planes taking off overhead, trains running, but none of the characters are ever on them. Nick spends his whole day sitting on a bridge, something that's supposed to get people from one side of something to another, and yet he doesn't go anywhere. The characters can't seem to make it out of their neighborhood. The Murders' three daughters, two of whom look to be in their 30s, still live at home. The "cool guy" on the block is pushing 30 as well and is trying the same moves he used to pick up older sister Connie to seduce teen-aged Baby. Nick is developing cataracts, losing his eyesight and he feels limited by his failing body, which is why he responds to Tula, who is frustrated by her job selling lingerie to rich, bored housewives, when she says that she thinks he's sexy.
Susan Sarandon in 'Romance & Cigarettes'
With the exception of a couple snippets performed by the Murder daughters, none of the music was written specifically for the film. All of the songs are pop tunes, mostly from the 1960s and earlier, and most aren't very familiar. "Piece of My Heart" and "I Want Candy" were the only ones that I recognized. Many of the songs are used for fantastical music and dance numbers, but some of them are framed as part of everyday life, demonstrating how music interweaves with the day-to-day. Though it does turn into more of a musical number, "Piece of My Heart" as well as another gospel-sounding song are performed by a church choir, and for many people music allows them to express their faith and communicate with god. When Nick is talking on the phone with Tula, he turns on the radio to afford them some privacy. The Murder daughters and Fryburg are in bands, hoping that music might be a means for them to find fame. And when Nick is trying to court Kitty after dumping Tula he sings her a song, both reminding Kitty of a shared experience and expressing his feelings in a way he might not be able to with just words. As for cousin Bo, he obviously idolizes Elvis Presley, a persona that he borrows perhaps to escape his daily life but definitely because it makes him feel good.

Across the board the acting is very solid, but Kate Winslet pretty much steals the movie, affecting what I'm told is a fairly credible Lancashire accent to play dirty-talking, foul-mouthed Tula. She also proves herself to be a pretty good dancer as well. Steve Buscemi also has a memorable but smaller part as Nick's co-worker Angelo. I found it odd that Mary-Louise Parker and Eddie Izzard have such small parts, and I suppose it's a testament to Turturro that they appear in the film. While I can find no fault with his acting, James Gandolfini was a drawback for me because I'm not a big fan of his work. But despite his size, Gandolfini gives a very gentle, non-threatening quality to Nick that surprised me.

The film feels a little uneven in regards to tone, beginning as light entertainment but ending on a very somber note. If Romance & Cigarettes were a boat, one end would be heavier the other, which would cause the boat to sink. I like that the trajectory of the film isn't toward a idyllic, happy ending, but Turturro needn't kill anyone. And while I like Bo, I find the inclusion of his character puzzling seeing as he doesn't have a character arc. I think Turturro included Christopher Walken because of his undeniable dancing talent, but I would have preferred he cast Walken as Nick and cut Bo's storyline. I think Bo cuts into Kitty's character development.

I like that Turturro includes men and women of all shapes and sizes in his cast. Even playing the sexpot, Kate Winslet has a little heavier body type than usual because she had recently given birth to her son Joe. He also presents some refreshing portrayals of gender. None of men are stereotypically masculine and Nick is even a little feminized. Men are criticized for being oversexed, but Turturro shows through Nick that they can be redeemed. The women also seem to have control over their bodies and their sexualities, which is more significant than it may sound. Romance & Cigarettes may not be a perfect film, but from script to style to music it is definitely unique. And sometimes that's really all I ask for in a movie.
James Gandolfini in 'Romance & Cigarettes'

Kate Winslet & Cate Blanchett's gay prom picture

Kate Winslet & Cate Blanchett
This picture must have been taken soon after Cate Blanchett filmed Heaven. She rocks the post-"shaved my head for a part" period just as hard as Natalie Portman, I think.

And wouldn't Cate make an adorable chapstick lesbian?

Robert Zemeckis' 'Romancing the Stone' (1984)

Romancing the Stone, the first and only script of waitress-turned-screenwriter Diane Thomas, is supposedly one of the first movies to mix such a heavy romantic comedy element into an action-adventure movie. 'Romancing the Stone' posterI'm by no means a film historian so I cannot comment to the truth of that statement, but regardless of whether it came first or not Romancing the Stone is definitely one of the better action-adventure-romantic-comedies I've seen, mainly because of its treatment of its characters.

I have come to expect from these types of movies that the female lead will need a lot of saving and the male lead will look really cool as he does it. While that dynamic exists to an extent in Romancing the Stone, it doesn't last very long. Joan, despite what the illustration on the movie poster would have you believe, is not portrayed as a shrieking, frightened, useless wet rag, clinging to Jack at every turn. Joan needs Jack's help in escaping from Zolo when she first encounters him in the wilderness of Colombia, and she definitely benefits from traveling with him due to her unfamiliarity with the region. But Jack's ability to help her has less to do with his sex and more to do with the tools and experience he possesses. Give Joan a shotgun, a machete, and several months' residence in Colombia and she would have seemed equally capable. Joan is not incompetent nor unwilling, she is simply unprepared. The adventurous spirit that Joan channels into her romance novels soon begins to surface when she realizes what is at stake, and she gamely tries to cross a deteriorating foot bridge, hacks away at vegetation with Jack's machete, and steals a car to escape from Zolo's approaching forces. While Jack saves her life at the beginning of the film, she arguably returns the favor when the leader of a drug cartel, who probably would have killed them if not for his love of Joan's books, helps them escape from Zolo. And during the exciting climax, she doesn't need Jack's help in defending herself from Zolo, though he does come to her aide.

Jack is also not the typical action hero. Played by Michael Douglas, he is hardly the muscled, chivalrous, suave man of action that people expect in this type of movie. He initially won't help Joan, who is obviously stranded in the wilderness, until she offers him money to take her to a telephone. And whenever he encounters a sticky situation, he professes that he wishes he had listened to his mother. Rather than Jack calling all the shots, he and Joan very quickly become partners in trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

I'm not a huge fan of Michael Douglas, but he is fun to watch here paired with Kathleen Turner. It's obvious that they are having fun with the material and with each other. This film was important for both Douglas and Turner, establishing them as capable leading actors, and it was also a boon for the career of director Robert Zemeckis, who went on to direct the Back to the Future films. Even though it follows the romantic comedy formula, Romancing the Stone offers some surprises and features engaging performances, making it a pretty entertaining popcorn movie.

John Landis' 'The Blues Brothers' (1980)

The Blues Brothers, born out of a musical sketch on Saturday Night Live, is two parts musical, two parts action movie, and one part comedy.

The musical parts are fantastic, original performances by R&B legends Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, James Brown, and John Lee Hooker as well as The Blues Brothers Band. 'The Blues Brothers' posterCharles, Franklin, and Calloway also get a chance to act and are pretty entertaining, especially Ray Charles as the gun-totin', bilking music store owner.

Most of the comedy works as well because the humor is pretty low-key. Screenwriters Dan Akroyd and John Landis mostly go for chuckles instead of belly laughs though some of the gags are fairly absurd, like the Blues Brothers continually picking themselves up and walking away from explosions without ever considering that maybe someone is trying to kill them. And, of course, the "We're on a mission from God" line has become a classic.

The action pieces consist mainly of car chases, since Elwood is made out to be something of a stunt driver and the Blues Brothers have a knack of pissing off one of group of people after another. There are some impressive car chases in this movie, one inside a shopping mall and one involving at least a dozen-car pileup in the streets of Chicago. They are intricate, destructive, and grandiose in scale.

But even though the three elements of the movie might work well on their own terms, in combination they turn into a big, silly mess. I admit that I didn't like a lot of the action and the comedic subplot of Carrie Fisher trying to blow up Jake because I don't like seeing a lot of destruction. My practical nature kicks in and I start thinking, "What a waste! And who's going to clean this mess up"? The Blues Brothers follows the formula of a lot of silly 1970s comedies that I like, such as What's Up, Doc? and Foul Play, but in comparison to those this movie is pretty long. The studio release was 2 hours, 13 minutes and there is an extended version available on DVD. For me, there just wasn't enough plot to sustain that long a running length and I found myself getting bored. Though I admit that Jake and Elwood Blues are iconic characters, I think The Blues Brothers is something of a niche film, appealing the most to adults who witnessed the creation of The Blues Brothers on SNL and the original theater release of this film. But it's a fun enough popcorn movie that features some wonderful performances by R&B greats.

Amber Benson's 'Lovers, Liars & Lunatics' (2006)

Amber Benson's second film Lovers, Liars & Lunatics shows a lot of growth in her skills as both a director and screenwriter when comparing it to 2002's Chance, her first movie that Benson has described as her film school experience. Filmed on digital video and featuring not just a few actors, wardrobe, and locations from Benson's TV alma mater Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chance does feel like Benson's head-first dive into filmmaking. The film has a very homemade quality, which comes with both its charms and its drawbacks.

While Lovers, Liars & Lunatics is definitely still a "family" affair, the film has a much more polished veneer, due in no small part to it being shot on film rather than DV. 'Lovers, Liars, and Lunatics' coverBut Benson definitely seems more confident in her direction as well. I was pleased to see wider shots (some of the close-ups in Chance are a bit claustrophobic) and Benson uses much more camera movement to good effect. One of the shots really bugs me though. When Elaine keeps turning off Paddy's basketball game, the TV isn't actually in frame so Elaine has to walk in and out of frame to switch off the game, which seems unnatural. My only guess at why Elaine isn't standing next to the TV, which would make more sense given that she turns it off at least 3 times, is that the filmmakers couldn't afford to purchase a clip to show on the TV. Anyway, the pacing also feels a lot more even, which is possibly due to the script as well.

Even though the story takes a little while to get going, the screenplay has a lot more depth and complexity. While Chance is a pretty standard love story, Lovers, Liars & Lunatics doesn't follow any formulas I've seen. I think it's best described as a dark screwball comedy/caper movie, and it has a bit of an old-Hollywood feel since it takes place in pretty much one location. The comedy feels a lot more natural, both coming out of and forming character. And Lovers, Liars & Lunatics is funny. I snicker out loud at least four or five times whenever I watch it, which is unusual for me with repeat viewings. However, the characters feel a little generic. I think that Benson gets away with some genericalness (an actual word!) because of the screwy things going on, but I would have liked to have seen some more character moments to flesh out these individuals further. But the screenplay does do a good job at keeping almost all of the characters busy with their own little subplots. I'm also a little confused by the Viagra subplot. Paddy does take a couple, right? But he doesn't mention having an incurable erection anytime during the course of the film (thank goodness). Are we supposed to think that the Viagra caused his heart attack? It looks like Elaine puts the pills in a vitamin bottle, so I don't think she replaces his heart medication, but Viagra does list "severe hypotension" and "myocardial infarction" as possible side effects.

While all of the performances are solid, Christine Estabrook and Benson are the standouts. I can't figure out why I don't see Estabrook on TV all the time. From what I've seen of her in Benson's films, she has a gift at being funny, ridiculous even, and yet still very human and very real. She kills me every time when she tries to break a window using a toilet brush. As ditzy, sweet-natured Justine, Benson gives some of the best line deliveries in the film, particularly on lines like "Louis, look at the kitty. He's so fat," and "Harlequin romance isn't trash. It's literature." Those lines don't read like they would be particularly amusing, but Benson makes them laugh-out-loud funny. Cole Williams, Benson's co-star in Race You to the Bottom, has a fairly small part here as Gunner, but he always makes me snicker at his sleazy delivery of, "Sally? Baby, it's me." Besides Estabrook, Rayder Woods is the only other carry over from Benson's first film, and James Charles Leary, who played lovable demon Clem on Buffy, is the sole representative of the Whedon-verse.

I find the portrayals of masculinity in this film interesting because three of the main male characters are very much the same. Each character has its own flavor, but Paddy, Louis, and Gunner essentially perform their masculinity the same way. All three are aggressive, controlling, and belittling to women they're not trying to sleep with. Julian, the only male character who doesn't fit that description, has been labeled gay because he performs his masculinity in a way that the other men do not recognize. But by the end of the film even Julian resorts to aggression, punching his oppressive brother. When Paddy and Elaine investigate a noise that they hear in the night, Paddy tells Elaine that he is scared too, and Elaine then says she thought men didn't get scared. I find that exchange interesting because as well as hinting at why Paddy might feel dissatisfied with his marriage, namely that Elaine places expectations for him that he cannot meet, that bit of dialogue obviously reflects a dominant construction of masculinity in popular culture. I won't venture so far to say that Benson intends to comment on the construction and reinforcement of gender roles with this film, but I find it interesting that Louis, Paddy, and Gunner embody the arguable results of that definition of masculinity.
Christine Estabrook in 'Lovers, Liars, & Lunatics'
As with Chance, sex and how it functions in different relationships is prominent throughout the film. In particular, the script explores sex intertwined with manipulation. Gloria uses sex to manipulate Paddy so that she can take his money, and Paddy in turn withholds sex from Elaine. Gunner plies Sally with alcohol and falsehoods ("You can't get pregnant on the first time") to coax her into letting him take her virginity. And in regards to Louis and Justine's relationship, Louis seems to use sex to maintain control over Justine. It certainly appears to be the only time when Louis isn't belittling Justine, and he definitely uses sex to control her body, slapping her behind, and not in a friendly way, as she climbs out of a doggie door. When Louis tries to persuade Elaine to give him money, the first tactic he tries is sex. With the exception of Gloria, women are the victims of sexual manipulation here. Elaine becomes a victim seemingly because she cares about her family (awful!), Justine because she directly communicates her sexual desires (scandalous!), and Sally because she just seems confused (stupid ineffectual sex education!).

All of the main characters seem restrained in some way from really connecting with each other. The Raye Family spends the bulk of the film tied to chairs, but even before the break-in they seem separated, sheltered (or in Julian's case more like confined) in their respective rooms. Even Paddy and Elaine in their shared bed are separated by Elaine's earplugs. During the course of the robbery, Louis even separates them into different rooms because they keep fighting with each other. I also like the image of both Paddy and Gunner walking with chairs tied to their backs, hauling around what prevents them from connecting with their family. With Louis and Justine, their ski masks seem to represent a barrier in their relationship. When they have their tryst in the Rayes' kitchen, Louis has his mask pushed up so that his face is visible but Justine keeps hers on, suggesting that Justine can see all of Louis while he perhaps doesn't see Justine for who she is outside the context of their sexual relationship.

The ending gets a little crazy and, for a comedy, generates a pretty high body count, which includes Benson's character. (Amber. We don't like to see you get shot. We don't like to see you die in general, but we especially don't like to see you get shot. Please stop doing that.) But the ending definitely feels earned by the preceding minutes of the film and somehow strangely appropriate even though it may not resolve everything enough to some people's liking. Overall, I think Lovers, Liars & Lunatics is pretty entertaining and a solid sophomore film from Benson.
Amber Benson & Michael Muhney in 'Lovers, Liars, & Lunatics'

I'm not judging. I'm sure they're nice.

See, Amber, you claim that you're not looking down Alyson's dress, but if you're not staring at her boobs then what are you looking at?