Monday, June 29, 2009

Silver Star Mountain Resort: it sort of reminds me of Albania!

What possibly could be the connection, you might ask. It's the colours...the use of colour to create a particular sense of place. In Albania, it was the brainchild of Tirana mayor Edi Rama, an artist who decided to create a new civic pride by painting the city's decaying buildings in an almost unimaginable range of colours and patterns (see my July 3, 2007 blog entry, or my Vancouver Sun story which is now posted on the Tirana Municipal website at,58,1502).

At Silver Star, I'm told it was an early planning decision to use colour to help create a delightful place. I had never been to Silver Star in the winter, but was recently there to look around, (and visit a daughter who was pretending to be a doctor for a month in Vernon).

While it is somewhat 'Disneylandish' I was still impressed with what I found. Although the place was somewhat deserted (I was told the summer season really starts on Canada Day), the use of colour was truly delightful. So here are some pictures, and thanks to our good friends who made our stay in Silver Star so very pleasant.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thank You Think City

According to the Think City website, "since 2002, the Think City Society has helped citizens understand the issues facing their communities while developing collective solutions to protect the environment, strengthen local economies, advance democratic rights and ensure access to quality public services."

I first became involved with the organization during the last municipal election campaign. It organized a workshop and subsequent candidates' debate (moderated by the Georgia Straight's Charlie Smith) addressing housing affordability, community participation in the planning process, and electoral reform. I was impressed.

I was therefore pleased to accept a recent invitation to submit an article on my proposal to provide interim affordable housing using factory built modules. Below is my 'op-ed'. You can learn more about Think City at

By Michael Geller

I have been interested in the idea of using factory-built relocatable modules as affordable housing since 1970 when I won a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) traveling scholarship.

That was the year of "Operation Breakthrough," a US government initiative to promote factory built housing, and my travels included visits to housing factories across America. I subsequently developed this idea as my university architecture thesis. Today, I see the opportunity as follows:

Throughout Vancouver there are vacant sites that could be used for interim housing for the homeless and others seeking affordable housing. These sites vary in size and location. Some are 'infill' locations along urban streets; others are larger undeveloped 'brownfield' locations. Some are privately owned; others are publicly owned.

While each property will ultimately be developed at some time in the future, many could be available for short term use with certain incentives. The resulting housing would not be a replacement for permanent homes. Rather, it would be an interim solution which could be available until adequate permanent homes are developed. Thereafter, the housing modules could be put to other uses.

I see an opportunity to develop different housing solutions including:
• a modified version of 'workforce housing' with individual sleeping rooms, shared bathrooms and cooking/living areas;
• small units comprising a sleeping/living area and a private bathroom; and
• self contained units for singles and families with cooking facilities

In addition to the housing units, there would be communal living spaces and live-in manager/support units, where appropriate.

This housing could be owned by government, non-profit organizations, or private companies and installed on private and publicly owned lands. Support services could be provided by the same non-profit organizations that are currently providing services to those in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and other more permanent forms of housing. While priority would be given to those who are homeless, the communities might include other households, resulting in a broader social mix.

In terms of design, the units need not look like 'trailer parks' as some critics fear. The housing could be one or two storeys in height and very attractive with a variety of exterior design treatments to fit the neighbourhood. One approach might be to create decorative murals, such as a forest or urban views over metal siding. The units would be designed to applicable provincial and municipal building codes.

Based on my research with two major modular housing companies in the lower mainland, I have determined that the housing would cost approximately $110 per square foot. When one adds in the costs of installation, site servicing, consultant and other fees, the cost per unit ranges from $37,000 to $46,000 depending on unit size and bathroom arrangements. Design, approvals, construction and installation would take approximately four months.

In summary, this is not the solution to house the homeless. However, it could be a cost effective and speedy solution for many people desperately seeking decent shelter.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades’ experience in the public, private and institutional sectors.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Rock Band Wish List #3: Phoenix

A lot of the songs I want made available as Rock Band download tracks appeal to me as possible challenges, probably because many of the tracks I looked forward to most have turned out to be depressingly easy. That's not the worst problem in the world, but just as some gamified songs have revealed levels of songcraft that I hadn't fully appreciated, simple songs make some of my heroes seem like charlatans. This is a mistake on my part, as Nirvana's talent often lay in the oppressive atmosphere and visceral impact of their sound, not in intricacy. Only when repurposed for acoustic did their songs become nuanced. When in their raw form, they were often a barrage of sounds, which is not as much fun to play, though still great to listen to. (N.B. I'm not just picking on Nirvana because I'm impatient for a future release of Lithium, Come As You Are, and Smells Like Teen Spirit, plus all of In Utero. Not at all.)

Nevertheless, when I spend precious Space Dollars (© Warren Ellis) I want the songs to tax me. That's probably why I play Blue Sky by The Allman Brothers Band so much. That enormous solo is pure joy from start to finish. A lot of Nothing's Shocking by Jane's Addiction is a test of dexterity, and my current favourite purchase is Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan, where all of the guitar tracks are difficult to finger-annihilatingly hard. Coughing up the big bucks for that whole album is the smartest frivolous purchase I've made in a while.

And then there are the songs I want just because they are outrageous fun. We recently fell in love with Green Day's Know Your Enemy after seeing them play some blistering versions of it on The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien and Saturday Night Live. This would definitely have been on the Wish List, but we don't need to now that the imminent release as part of a three song track pack has been announced. And this excitement from someone who never took Green Day seriously? That's how much fun that song is. So, with that sorted out to our satisfaction, I'm exhorting Harmonix and MTV Games to make 1901 by Phoenix available as soon as possible.

I never got the appeal of Gallic popsters Phoenix before, but their latest album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is undeniably the album of the summer. It's a multi-hook pile-up on the joy highway, and I'm begging all readers to chase it down immediately. Just like previous summer albums from my past, like I Should Coco, Ill Communication, and Dig Your Own Hole, it feels like it's made of pure sunshine, and 1901 is the track that immediately caught my ear on first listen. Buy that album and you get a free suntan just by standing in front of your speakers. It's that good. Here's 1901 as a taster.

Gamify this immediately, gaming people, and I'll be playing it as often as other grin-inducing uplift-providers as Nine in the Afternoon by Panic At The Disco, Use It by The New Pornographers, and Dead on Arrival by Fall Out Boy. And that's a promise.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

IFC Films on DVD, Round 2 + Akerman + Petzold - Michael Jackson

Though you might have other things on your mind, I thought I'd post another DVD update. Through their new deal with MPI, IFC Films announced their second round of DVD releases after that Blockbuster/Genius drought. Unfortunately, all of their titles so far have been part of their Festival Direct package and not their theatrical releases (The Last Mistress, The Duchess of Langeais, A Christmas Tale, Hunger, Gomorrah, My Winnipeg, etc). On 15 September, look for Spiros Stathoulopoulos' single-take thriller PVC-1 and Baltasar Kormákur's White Night Wedding [Brúðguminn], which stars the Icelandic director's frequent actor Hilmir Snær Guðnason. On 29 September, Madonna's wretched directorial debut Filth and Wisdom and the Spanish thriller Fermat's Room [La habitación de Fermat] will be released.

Icarus Films has set a release date for Chantal Akerman's acclaimed, little seen From the East [D'Est] for 6 October, as well as David Barison and Daniel Ross' documentary The Ister for 3 November. Kino will release a double-feature of sci-fi/horror films from director Graham Reznick, I Can See You and The Viewer, on 28 September.

Cinema Guild will follow Project X's July release of Christian Petzold's The State I Am In [Die Innere Sicherheit] with his latest Jerichow on 27 August. And finally, it appears as if the elusive Phantasm II will make its way onto DVD on 15 September (though I can't back this up) from Universal. I know you've been waiting.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

(Sort Of) End Of Season Review: Dollhouse

::Disclaimer - It's hard to write a definitive End of Season Review for a show that, technically, has not aired all of its episodes. The thirteenth episode of Dollhouse has been held back for DVD release as a result of Fox's meddling with the original pilot, with the hint that it would be shown in foreign markets. That means England, right? And it's on Sci Fi UK? Hence my tardiness with this, waiting to see if it would air on UK TV. Of course, I won't know until Sci Fi updates its website, which is still saying they're only showing nine episodes. Well done, website.::

When I was trying to figure out how to begin writing about the almost completed season of Dollhouse, the only approach that seemed to give the proper background seemed to be the "Harry Knowles Approach", where I recount a long and disjointed series of anecdotes (linked by ellipses, of course) proving that whereas you, the reader, for example, might think that you are the biggest Joss Whedon fan, in fact it is I who is the biggest fan, and have the most Whedon-related memorabilia, and so I am more qualified than anyone to take on this task so there. If you don't believe me about Knowles, this is just one example of his weird impulse to be the biggest expert on every subset of fandom going. Or the man who has the biggest obsession with oral sex and defecation.

Of course, I'm not the biggest Whedon fan in the world, as I have yet to stalk him or name one of my children Xander or Illyria. I do have a cat called Zoe, named after Gina Torres' character from Firefly, but naming cats after TV characters, products, concepts, or smells is not weird or stalkery. However, I would not be here writing this blog about various TV shows if it wasn't for Whedon. Who knows, I might be doing something more constructive, like snowboarding, or rock-climbing, or being an alcoholic. So I owe my bones and my liver to Whedon, at the very least. At the very most, there is my immersion in the TV-obsessed corner of the internet, which has given me good friends, lots of interesting chatter, and a wonderful wife [who is also obsessed with Whedon -- Canyon].

I'd long been excited whenever a show ventured into long-form territory, but before Buffy, DVRs, and DVD boxsets, it was rare to see it in anything non-soap opera. Star Trek: TNG did it every so often, and of course there was Murder One, which was pioneering and unpopular. Buffy was lucky enough to have it both ways, with your monster of the week format plus a close-ended arc running through the season. Around the time that I fell in love with Buffy (a few years after smarter people than I had already figured out how good it was), 24 came along with the same approach to season arcs, and with The Sopranos mopping up awards everywhere, the format finally got enough critical, popular, and nerd acceptance to become the next big thing. N.B. Babylon 5 did it as well, with a five-year plan not dissimilar to that of Lost. I'm aware of that. Despite its rabid fanbase, it never captured the popular imagination. Though Buffy was a show with only a cult audience, it is still referenced by popular culture maven in a way J. Michael Stracsynski's show isn't. By the way, "maven" is the plural of "maven", right?

However, it's been a long time since Whedon did any TV stuff. Angel was cancelled about five/six years ago, and since then I've become obsessed with a number of different shows, some of which are more "respectable", but less fun. I've also been bitten by the Lost bug, a show that has become so complex and ambitious that almost everything else feels like Dallas in comparison. Happy though I was about Whedon's return, I felt a certain amount of ambivalence, partly because of concern that his style of show would seem clunky after experiencing the scope and eccentricity of Lost, but also, of course, because of the Curse of Whedon. A high-concept sci-fi show on Fox? As soon as the pilot was reshot and the show was relegated to a Friday night slot, in an echo of the way Firefly was treated, it was obvious that getting attached to it was a really bad idea.

To make things worse, the pilot left me totally cold. As part of the infamous Fox Fuck Five episode stretch, with Whedon apparently spaying his show at the behest of Fox executives, it looked cheap and poorly conceived, a world away from his last major directorial effort (Serenity), and in terms of audience satisfaction, not a patch on his last "minor" directorial effort (the epoch-shattering masterpiece Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). The next four episodes were worse, with episodes two and five vying for worst of season. Or is it two and three? Or four and five?

What was so bad about them? Many of the negative points of that opening stretch of episodes have been picked at for months now, but I have to say I agree with pretty much all of them. Dushku-as-lead was never going to work out, even with the formidable Sexy Faith Dance on her side (she cracked that bad boy out in the pilot, just for sexiness fans everywhere). As a dramatic guest star she worked wonders on Buffy, but with zero range and saddled with the part of an identity-shifting woman of many faces, several early scenes felt like pranks being played either on us or on Dushku herself.

As Canyon said many times while we were watching Dollhouse, Sarah Michelle Gellar was no Streep (hell, she was no Jennifer Garner), but at the very least she was appealing and could sell a joke, and even had a few stand-out episodes (I think she did some great work in Buffy seasons five and six). Dushku has an even more difficult job: making the audience care about someone who has no personality for us to empathise with. There are some skillful actresses out there who might have stood a chance, but Dushku does a terrible job. From what I gather, we weren't the only viewers who tuned out whenever she appeared.

She wasn't the worst thing about that opening stumble. For a while the show feels like some kind of bizarre hybrid of Alias and Joe 90, an adventure show about secret operatives operating secretly, doing various odd jobs around LA. As we're to assume our characters will be working for some benevolent organisation, it's jarring to see the Dollhouse staff doing things that are morally repellent. With Boyd Langton (the ever-excellent Harry Lennix) representing the conscience of the show by questioning the motives of the Dollhouse, we realise we're meant to be rooting for the Dolls, not their bosses, but the show doesn't go far enough with that at first. We just get a sense that this is something the show will address in good time, once the benevolent adventurey stuff slows down a bit. Though Whedon does a good enough job of introducing some of that moral complexity in the pilot, the next four episodes are so formless that our disgust over the concept of removing the "self" from a person and replacing it with another isn't allowed to crystallise earlier. It didn't help that the first thing we see is Dushku willingly signing herself over to the Dollhouse. If that's the way it works, then it can't be that bad, right?

The "monster" of the week concept didn't work either. With Echo traipsing off to do various good things (such as saving a hostage, or infilitrating a cultist compound), we get hints that there is a bigger story to be told, especially as we see FBI loser Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) investigating the mysterious organisation. Perhaps it's because we also tuned out whenever Penikett and his Scrunched Up Face Of Impotence lumbered onto set [with his Constipated Ken Doll Walk, no less - Canyon], but this thread felt malformed as well. Hints and winks were one thing, and it was great to know the show was obviously building to something, but I got the sense that Whedon, after years of watching Battlestar Galactica and Lost gain the nerd fanbase he once owned so completely, realised that the old format, of a large amount of MotW episodes sprinkled with liberal amounts of long-form soap operatics and season-arc revelations, was due for a spruce up. Dollhouse's greatest early flaw was that it didn't get the season arc moving fast enough, which we can lay at the feet of Fox.

With only thirteen episodes, Whedon needed to get cracking, and instead we got museum robberies and bodyguard duty for some obnoxious singer. Fringe was luckier with more episodes, and still squandered about 65% of the season on nonsense. Dollhouse didn't get that luxury, and yet for almost half of its run it danced on the spot. That episodic format was a poor fit from the outset, a piss-poor attempt to attract viewers who enjoyed the week-by-week simplicity of pre-Buffy TV, which is why I couldn't help but compare early episodes with Bionical Woman (please forgive me for that, but it's true).

Sadly, Fox didn't realise that we're not just post-Buffy now: we're post-Lost. That show has rewritten the rules for what audiences are willing to tolerate. Yes, the show has lost a lot of the viewers it had in its first season, but as Cuse and Lindelof have said in interviews, Lost was never meant to be a ratings-crusher. And yet, despite that shrunken audience, it's still a bona-fide hit, watched around the world by millions, and discussed and debated more than any other show on TV. The likely audience for something as wilfully peculiar as Dollhouse has been watching Lost and Galactica for years and is not interested in that old way of telling a tale any more. Dollhouse could have been setting itself up for the long haul right away, and would have retained its modest initial audience. Instead, the show felt outdated and slight straight away, and that loyal audience departed in droves. A singularly depressing outcome for those of us who were still hoping the show would come good.

And yet there was hope. Early on in promotional interviews, there was talk of the mythical Sixth Episode, the game-changer that would make us all feel bad for doubting Whedon. This made me feel very uncomfortable, coming as it was from people involved with the show. In addition to thinking that playing up chatter about how the network had finally stopped meddling with the show was, to put it mildly, ballsy and suicidal, I just couldn't see how the show could pull itself out of its tailspin. Whedon had always managed to weave comedy and drama brilliantly, but Dollhouse's first five episodes were clunky, lifeless and laughably unmoving.

And yet it was I who was the fool, as Whedon -- who, I should never forget, is one of my five favourite writers in any medium ever for the very good reason that he's a trillion times smarter and funnier than me -- slapped me in the face with that sixth episode like a fish (though a fish with Patton Oswalt attached to it), and showed us all what the show was supposed to be after all. Viewers had several criticisms of the show, and after Man on the Street, almost all of those criticisms blew away like the chaff they were. Here's a quick rundown of what I thought were the failings of the show, and how they were addressed in the second half of the season.

1) You can't care about the Actives because they are just shells.

This was, for the first half of the season at least, a major concern, and seemed like the major dealbreaker for the series. Whedon may have started the pilot with Caroline giving herself up to the Dollhouse, but this glimpse into who she is before having her personality extracted isn't enough to create a bond with her. Dushku's flat performance certainly doesn't help. If anything, prior to episode six, the only real reason to give a damn about her is because Boyd does, and Lennix nails that caring mentor role so well we want Echo to prevail just so Boyd's day isn't ruined. As for Sierra, Victor, and the others, they're shit out of luck. For instance, Victor's affection for Sierra just seems creepy, especially as we realise how she is being abused.

The miraculous second half of the season solves that brilliantly, but not straight away. Episode six makes Echo seem like even more of a puppet, and episode seven adds confusing detail to Caroline's past, but episode eight, Needs, shows the core attributes of each Active and finally generates that empathic core we need in order to care for these people. Echo was heroic already, Victor was caring and traumatised, November was unable to cope with grief, and Sierra was defiant, though it was this trait that doomed her to a horrific fate.

That episode was so strong, and so brilliantly conceived, that from that moment on it was impossible not to root for these characters, but just to make sure, we see that the "soul" of the Active can bleed through the construct downloaded into their brain, as both Alpha and Echo become what they were always meant to be in the final episode. And yet people still complained about not caring about the characters by the end! I find this utterly baffling.

2) The show doesn't seem to be about anything, or know what it's about.

In an interview conducted after the show began its rise, Whedon uncharacteristically and undiplomatically carped about the interference with his show while it was still airing (he usually waits for his work to be finished and released before complaining). Even more surprisingly, he admitted that he was upset that some episodes of the show hadn't been about anything, and singled out Tim Minear's True Believer, saying it wasn't about anything. He later explained that his quote was taken out of context, and said he had to apologise to Minear, but even so, he hit the nail on the head, albeit inadvertently.

Up until the sixth episode, Dollhouse ironically suffered from an identity crisis. It wasn't just that the show had turned out to be a hodge-podge of action/adventure sub-genres (she's a bodyguard! She's working with the ATF! She's a cat burglar!), though that was confusing. It also had an ill-defined core idea. For the first five episodes it was a caper show that left a bad taste in the mouth, hinting at the ethical and scientific ramifications of Dollhouse technology but burying that enquiry under A and B plot business, as well as using up valuable TV real-estate setting up hints about the future. A lot of effort was being expended, but with the empathy gap listed above, Dollhouse needed to grab the mind while the heart was out of reach. Sadly, the first five episodes were unfocused and over-complicated, and without a sense of conceptual continuity from week to week, it felt as unsatisfying as late-series Battlestar Galactica, except with the added narrative complication of trying to get Dushku into as many fetishy costumes as possible.

Again, the sixth episode saved the day. With unusual but welcome directness, Whedon used a series of vox pops in which people discuss the urban myth of the Dollhouse, and its ramifications for society and humanity. Even though we had seen the Dollhouse through the disgusted eyes of Ballard, we're seeing his reaction, and therefore have our own reaction to his reaction. Is he just in this because of a fixation on Caroline? How much of his search for the Dollhouse is motivated by a need to prove his superiors wrong? With the sixth episode, we get context to realise that the Dollhouse truly is an awful place, and the tech is evil, to the extent that it could possibly poison the human condition irrevocably. Such a thought is available if you ponder it long enough, but having a fictional scientist say, out loud, that this is the worst thing in the world, and will ruin everything, is a sobering moment. Of all of the things I loved about this first series, it was that moment I remember most clearly. It shook me up.

3) Hold on. So, the Dollhouse is actually evil?

It's inevitable that sci fi action/adventure shows on network TV will focus on the heroics of a bunch of photogenic ladies and gents, as that is the acceptable story we identify with the most. Though villains and anti-heroes have their place, it's rare to see something from the point of view of the bad guys. Of course, Whedon has, in the past, explored dodgy morality in his heroes. Angel in particular explored the pros and cons of doing business with evil, and former show producer Shawn Ryan based an entire show (The Shield, obvs) around a bad man, and that resulted in seven brilliant seasons of TV.

However, the seemingly incomplete explanation of what the Dollhouse does meant we were never really sure if the Dollhouse was doing something good or bad. I'm not sure if this was intentional or an unwanted side-effect of the pilot reshoot. Ballard might maintain, from the very beginning, that the Dollhouse is a bad place, but he's such a self-righteous blowhard that it's difficult to side with him. Plus, Tahmoh Penikett has one facial expression -- extreme disgust -- so for all we know, he thinks PopTarts or living room furniture or friendly neighbourhood hotties are sickening.

Over time we begin to understand that the Dollhouse almost certainly is evil, but that jibes with the idea that we're watching an action adventure series, certainly in the early episodes. Thankfully, with the sixth, the action adventure format mostly drops away, leaving us with a fascinating moral puzzle to unravel. Brilliantly, the show keeps pulling the rug out from you, making sure the viewer remains unsure about those motives in a way that would make Lost showrunners Cuse and Lindelof proud. Painting ostensibly evil characters like Adele and Topher as lonely souls who use the Dollhouse to connect with other people humanises them, making it harder to see them as carton villains, though Fran Kranz' performance is so irksome that I only "sympathise" with Topher at a remove. Olivia Williams' performance is so much more nuanced that it genuinely becomes hard to see her saddened in later episodes.

Other characters are shown to have weaknesses. Dr. Saunders is obviously a tragic figure, disfigured by Alpha and seemingly appalled by much of what goes on in the Dollhouse, though later revelations about her character call some of those feelings into question, not to mention the actual workings of the Dollhouse tech (I'm trying really hard not to spoil here). As for Ballard and his relationship with Mellie, you can see that the writers had great fun making Ballard as big a douchebag as possible. Even though Angel was a character capable of good and evil, he always had a nobility, even when he became Angelus. Ballard is just a sleaze. For those who have yet to see the entire series, there is a great fight scene coming up. If you dislike Ballard as much as I do, you'll enjoy it greatly.

So, our notions of good and bad are tossed up in the air on a weekly basis, but even then, I cannot get Needs out of my head. When I found out why Sierra is in there, it settled something for me. No matter what the purpose of the Dollhouse is, I want to see it burn to the ground just for what they've done to her. Of all the things I've seen on TV this year, even including the finale of The Shield, nothing has upset me as much as that revelation. Fuck the Dollhouse, and fuck Adele for going along with it.

4) Is this actually going anywhere?

More than anything else I've said here so far, it hurts to admit that, in the first five episodes, I got the distinct feeling that the show had no plan for the future. It wasn't just the confusing concept, either. Even Whedon admitted in those interviews linked to earlier that he had not come up with a good enough reason for people to hire Dolls when they could just hire normal people. I remember fanwanking that, in the pilot, someone would want not just a good hostage negotiator but the bestest negotiator EVAH, but midwives? That just made no narrative sense, other than to have an action adventure show with a greater variety of possible scenarios, instead of just a spy show (how many times can we see Sydney Bristow trying to recover a MacGuffin of some kind? Hence, double-triple-agents and Rambaldi devices).

After episode six, the episodic format pretty much faded away, not just to provide some momentum heading into the season finale, but also to show that the Dollhouse writers were telling a different story. Instead of Bionical Woman resets at the end of each episode, it became apparent that a mythology was being created, with clues being littered everywhere. Things that seemed ambiguous early on began to be addressed, such as the revelation of the mole's identity, the reasons why the main Actives are in the Dollhouse, and what Alpha is. Even though we don't get the answers to everything, we now get the sense that things will be revealed at a pace somewhere between Fringe-fast and Lost-slow, especially as the introduction of Omega suggests that this season was merely prologue to the real story.

5) Is this format too much for Eliza Dushku?

Upon hearing about the concept behind the show, many people joked that Dushku would not be up to the task of playing multiple characters, as much of her work had shown she had minuscule range. Regrettably, the first five episodes did nothing to dissuade viewers' fears, with Dushku playing the various personalities with little tweaking other than changes to the level of sassiness or concern on her face. Thankfully, the sixth episode came along and...

...Sorry, don't know what I was thinking there. Not even that episode could fix her performance, which continued to be the weakest link in the show. What it could do was allow the other actors on the show to take up some of the slack.

Sadly, this is a mixed blessing. Scenes involving Tahmoh Penikett and Miracle Laurie are painful to watch, with her line readings garbled and his face scrunched up in eternal anger. Fran Kranz' Topher starts out obnoxious and overplayed, and continues to be obnoxious and overplayed right to the end. Dichen Lachman has difficulty projecting anything other than half-hearted sexiness or vulnerability a la Dushku, which is annoying and limiting especially when Needs reveals her tragic backstory.

Thankfully there are some terrific actors onboard who save the day. The ever-dependable Harry Lennix is superb as Echo's handler, effortlessly projecting machismo, authority, and tenderness. Olivia Williams' performance as Adele starts out well and becomes more and more compelling as new and unexpected character traits are layered on. Reed Diamond's Dominic has less to do at first, with some peculiarly broad villainy early on, but by the time Needs rolls around, he is firing on all cylinders, and is the only cast member who walks out of the egregious "comedy" episode (Echoes) with his head held high.

The real revelations are the performances by Enver Gjokaj, as Victor, and Amy Acker, as Dr. Claire Saunders. I was always a fan of Acker on Angel, even during her early, unsubtle hours with the broad accent. Though her character, Fred, annoyed many (including Canyon, who has never been able to fully accept Fred into her heart [she's not Jesus! -- Canyon]), Acker silenced a lot of her critics in the final episodes of Angel, as she became Illyria. Sadly, she only had a few episodes to show what she could do, but in Dollhouse she does excellent work as the agoraphobic medic. It's depressing to see her paired up with the fidgety and "quirky" Topher, though her sour stillness is a nice contrast. She particularly shines in the final episodes of Dollhouse's first season, as we find out more about Saunders and how Acker's character came to be the way she is.

And where the hell did Gjokaj come from? His laughable accent in the first couple of episodes made me ignore him whenever he appeared onscreen, but with the third-episoode reveal of his Dollhood, Gjokaj began to pretty much own the show, especially in Needs and Omega. As for his "impersonation" of another actor on the show, all I can say is wow. Of all the Dolls, Gjokaj is the only actor who has figured out how to make them sympathetic and distinct even though he is required to play different people each week. It's always a pleasure to see someone break out, and if Dollhouse had failed to get a second wind, I would still have been grateful to it for alerting me to the presence of this actor. Let's hope that, if the show only manages one more season, we get to see a lot more of Gjokaj.

There is another terrific actor on the show, though not for long. I shall keep quiet about that, even though the majority of the Internet knew about his casting about four seconds after it happened. Suffice to say, Mutant Enemy fans in the UK will be thrilled out of their minds when they see him.

6) Is this show going to be worth sticking with?

If the points above don't convince you that I think it is, then nothing will. I cannot deny that, even after the sixth episode, there is some shakiness. Echoes is embarrassing to watch, and desperately misconceived. Whedon fans know that he likes to challenge his actors and make them do things they wouldn't normally, but we don't know these characters well enough to respond to their "wacky drunk" selves. Other than Reed Diamond's unexpectedly funny turn, I'd much rather that episode didn't exist. Tim Minear's finale is also disappointing, with only the memorable scene showing Alpha's "Frankenstein's monster"-esque birth working well. Though it is packed with fascinating revelation and intriguing set-ups for the second season, there is some unforgivable reliance on cliche and coincidence, much of which neuters the drama. Also, Dushku is forced to share the screen with two actors who make her look even more foolish than usual.

However, this is nothing to be concerned about. The second half of the season features at least three instant classic episodes, filled with philosophical enquiry, rug-pulling narrative trickery, and action. Though all of Whedon's shows have had depth, this could turn out to be his deepest and most thought-provoking show yet. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it's going to be worth the effort, because months ago, I was despairing. Considering how I once unironically compared this to Bionical Woman and Knight Rider, it's testament to Whedon's formidable storytelling and showrunning skills that I now think that -- if allowed to continue for more than one season -- Dollhouse has the best shot of replacing Lost as the smartest and most challenging sci-fi show on TV. Let's hope it stays around long enough to prove me right.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

...Where I Try To Defend Michael Bay, And Can't Even Convince Myself

Canyon once asked me if I defend Michael Bay just to be difficult and controversial, and I admitted that the most all-caps-boldiest exclamations that I trot out are just nonsense. If I were to rank directors in a huge list from good to bad (don't tempt me to do that. I probably would if prompted), he'd be nowhere near the top, but more importantly he'd be nowhere near the bottom either. He's lazily blamed for everything that is stupid and awful about spectacular Hollywood product, and for tainting the cultural well so much that the whole world suffers. The hatred aimed at him is startling. I halfheartedly defended him on the AV Club once, and was told by another commenter that I obviously knew nothing about cinema, and should keep my opinion about everything else to myself. I'll admit I'm no Bordwell or Thompson, but my opinion on Bay is a little more nuanced than, "Me like when hot broads dance and the house blow up".

Any filmmaker who becomes successful enough to achieve name recognition status is bound to attract critical dismissal, and that will intensify if the filmmaker has annoying quirks that are overused. For example, Paul Haggis' inability to keep subtext subtextual, instead making his characters voice motivation or revelation out loud, drives me up the wall. Even his rewrite work on Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes that mistake. Tarantino's magpie tendencies irk a lot of critics, especially when he steals from disreputable pop culture artifacts that they already dislike. Spielberg has had his knocks many times in the past. I can imagine he's never going to invite Henry Jaglom around for dinner, as the guy has been bitching about him being a poor filmmaker for decades now.

Bay is a different beast altogether. He's directing movies by a set of rules he has made up for himself, and that style bears only a passing resemblance to the work of others. As if brought up watching nothing but early Tony Scott movies, he seemingly has no idea of how the big picture will flow, choosing instead to focus on each individual shot, making them pop as much as he can. As a result, it's not just the whole movie that doesn't flow. Even relatively short scenes are haphazardly paced. This car chase from The Rock has great individual moments, but stops and starts with no understanding of how jarring that must be for the viewer.

I would never think to defend Bay as a man who makes great films in entirety. Even my favourite Bay movie, Armageddon, is full of embarrassing, and indefensible, flaws. Even so, he's no Robert Luketic, or Shawn Levy, or Jon Avnet, three directors right off the top of my head who have never been responsible for even a single memorable shot, let alone scene or film. Of course, he's also not James Cameron (I make this point because True Lies is on ITV2 right now, and, as shaky as that film is, the action scenes are almost perfection). I think Bay's movies are fascinating, and with regards to the criticism he draws, Drew McWeeny brilliantly (and, obviously, accidentally) summed up how I feel about him in a Tweet I just spotted.

[To another Twitterer] How can you rail against the excess? Bay is what we have PAID Hollywood to evolve into. We reward the escalation of the absurd, then cry about it when it reaches its logical conclusion.

In the interest of not misrepresenting McWeeny, I'll point out that he later adds that he doesn't think he's the best action director in Hollywood. Neither do I, but he is the most spectacular director in the whole world, a Cecil B. DeMille with subscriptions to Guns & Ammo and FHM. When Bay gets to do his thing right, you are getting to see something that no other filmmaker on Earth would or can do. He shoots fast and loose and spends his money on the outrageous stuff, and can conjure up images that sear themselves into your brain.

As McWeeny says, this is not the same as saying he's a good filmmaker. He's just a unique one, and I feel an obligation to articulate my conflicted feelings, especially considering almost all critics are dismissing his movies with such kneejerk vehemence that they're not even bothering to fact-check, which is often a sign that the reviewer considers the movie beneath contempt. I've reviewed films in an almost professional capacity before, and I've had press packs, so I know most of these errors can be avoided*. (Though being annoyed by overly complex plots that make little sense are another thing: see below for my own problems with T:ROTF.)

So I was desperate to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, mostly because I was hoping he would get right the things he got wrong in the first one. As those flaws were the usual things (pacing mistakes, clunky humour, Jazz being a terrible racial stereotype, etc.), I was basically hoping that this would be Bay's best movie, removing some of the clutter but keeping the crazy. That's the key: keeping the stuff that he does better than anyone. Even though I want other filmmakers to create coherent movies with a steady, escalating pace, I want Bay to do what Bay does best. The worst thing he could do would be to play into the hands of those critics who say his movies are all BOOM and no plot, racing from one scene to another without a pause, doing nothing more than amping up every moment with no concern for character development. Sadly, that's exactly what he has done with T:ROTF, and the result is a deeply frustrating experience.

For the first ninety minutes, I was absolutely amazed at what I was seeing. Even more so than the shocking and ramshackle Bad Boys II, Bay is throwing the kitchen sink at the audience (and then shooting it with a sabot round). The first scene in the movie features a tribe of Cro-Magnon fighting early Cybertronians, for crying out loud. Okay, so they look more like they should be hanging out with Zoolander than hunting bison, but still, kudos to the man. For the next section of the movie, the film throws so many peculiar and outrageous visuals and concepts, that I drove Canyon crazy with my various quiet exclamations of joy. By the time Megatron and Starscream hang out on one of the moons of Saturn (seriously), I was convinced that this was going to be my favourite movie of the summer.

And then it all goes horribly wrong. The moment that the action abruptly shifts to Egypt, the movie slams into neutral, with scene after scene falling flat. The novelty of the early scenes disappears, replaced by a tedious crawl across numerous deserts, seemingly to showcase the cars that have been mostly missing by this point. Several scenes could be excised completely, and should have. It was nice to see Deep Roy as the ha ha ha so tiny border guard, but the movie would have been so much better without it. This is not the first time he's made this mistake, but usually he doesn't put so many of these extraneous and excruciating scenes in the final hour.

In fact, the endless trek from Egypt to Jordan and back again (I think that was the route) seems to only be there because, for some baffling reason, Bay and the writers thought that having the characters just appear at the Pyramids for the big finish would somehow be unbelievable, so we have to see their full trip. Why is he getting squeamish about this now? I don't care how they get there, especially if the trip seems to have been filmed in real time. If I want a travelogue, I'll watch a Michael Palin show. This is a Bay movie. If you're going to use a "Space Bridge" to teleport the main characters to Egypt, then teleport them to the exact spot needed to maximise the action. And yet no. Because audiences have been clamouring to see National Lampoon's Egyptian Vacation.

The desert setting also steps on the toes of the earlier film. Transformers had a perfectly fine and short action scene set in a desert, as the survivors of the opening base attack fight against Scorponok. It was about five minutes long, had Tyrese bellowing "BRING THE RAIN!" into a walkie-talkie, and featured a bunch of exploding buildings. Those wide open spaces worked well for a mid-movie action scene, and made the final city scenes even more exciting, as we got to see a bunch of robots fighting in contrasted dark and cramped streets with no respite. That scene remains one of my all-time favourites.

The finale of Transformers 2 just looks like a bigger version of that desert scene, with little of the original's intensity, though it does have some fun stuff involving the Pyramids¹. Sam and Mikaela make their way very slowly through a village, with intercutting of Josh Duhamel looking frustrated. No one says BRING THE RAIN!, though it does crop up on a napkin or something earlier on. Everything seems to move at normal film speed, which is like half Bay-speed. At this point in the movie my ass was really hurting from sitting in the crappy Waterloo IMAX seats, and instead of being riveted I just kept fidgeting. Yes, I use my ass as a guide to how exciting a movie is.

More exasperating than the inappropriate locale, even though Bay's movies have not been known for their well sketched character arcs, the finale is littered with momentum-robbing scenes such as the whole "I love you" thing between Sam and Mikaela (really? This is a big deal?), Kevin Dunn telling his son to go and do the right thing (an emotional beat that makes no sense as Dunn, at the start of the film, couldn't care less about his son leaving), and Sam's "death", which reflects the big "death" midway through the movie (I won't spoil it). Why does Bay suddenly care about these things? I can barely remember The Island, and maybe there was an arc in that, but I don't even think there was one in Pearl Harbor, the most conventional movie he has made. I expect tonal errors from Bay, but this was worse than usual.

Only after leaving the cinema with a deflated heart (it sounds like a deadly condition, but the only symptom is whining on the internet) did I realise that there was a lot more wrong with the movie than just the broken finale. McWeeny recently hinted that the first sentence in his forthcoming HitFix Motion/Captured review would be, "I have never felt more like a third nipple than I did, as a screenwriter, while watching Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen." I can't wait to find out what he means by that, though I think it might have something to do with how the excessive plot -- and I do mean excessive -- is crammed into about three five minute-long scenes filled beyond breaking point with insane amounts of exposition, while huge stretches of the movie would probably, on paper, look like a list of fight scenes. It's that rare kind of movie that is simultaneously overcomplicated and embarrassingly simplistic.

Instead of just trying to come up with a simple way to orchestrate some robot fighting, we get tons of backstory. Cybertronians have visited Earth before, and one of them was going to destroy us in order to harvest energy, but a civil war broke out and then there were a bunch of Primes, and they are magic or something, and the All-Spark is in Sam's head, or it's something else, and there is a key, and a cipher, and a Matrix of Awesomeness, and an afterlife, and probably a bunch of elves, and... It's absurdly complicated stuff, with one very silly plot-thread (Megatron demanding the world hand over Sam so he can extract his brain, or something) that takes over the latter half of the movie. For every quirky moment and fun concept, there's ten stupid complications that mean nothing. By the time Jetfire turned up for his shot at the Exposition Of The Year award, I had completely lost the plot, not helped by my efforts to guess the identity of the British actor playing the elderly robot².

To me, these are big problems, even when taking Bay's singular style into account. However, it's becoming clear that the biggest problem people are going to have with the movie are Mudflap and Skids, the comedy relief duo who shuck and jive through much of the finale. Why am I using this outdated African-American phrase? It seems apt considering that these two robots are the most startling racial stereotypes I've seen on the big screen since Crash, only this time they're meant to be funny and not "educational".

While sitting in the cinema I had huge difficulty reconciling what I was seeing with what I thought Bay was trying to do (have a couple of affable idiots break up the tedium of the cross-country trek with their wacky exploits), and for a while after I wondered if they were meant to be a spoof of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence from Bad Boys (a Bad Boys II poster is on display in one character's room, and their banter is as forced as that between Smith and Lawrence). Now, with hindsight, that I realise that's even worse than just two racist caricatures. Is he personally attacking two people he has worked with before? And the guy doing the voices for them is white? We're talking about Jar-Jar Binks-esque wrongness on an epic scale.

The disconnect I suffered during the movie was similar to the shock I felt during Star Wars: The Clone Wars when Ziro the Hutt appeared, but my overall opinion of that character is astonishment that Lucas could have thought that was all right. With Mudflap and Skids, I was uncomfortable during the movie, and now I'm outright pissed off. It's made the dreadful caricaturing of Jazz in the first movie (a black Transformer that breakdances and then gets ignominiously killed in the final act) seem even more glaring. Bay deserves the shitstorm that's heading his way.

I mean, it's becoming fairly obvious that he has a real problem with women, so much so that you could almost forget it's happening until the camera shoots so far up plastic "hottie" Alice's skirt that it qualifies as a proctological exam. Megan Fox does little more than pout and get dragged around the desert by LaBeouf and Duhamel, not even getting a hero moment like she did in the first film³. Other than Fox and Isabel Lucas, the only other female characters with any dialogue are the holographic women on the transforming motorbikes (ZOMG is Bay saying women are bikes?), and Sam's mother, played by Julie White.

Being the only non-simpering non-hottie in the film, she has to do several unglamorous things, usually involving pratfalls. One scene with her getting high on hash brownies is particularly uncalled-for. Nevertheless, she deserves all the credit in the world for managing to make these stupid moments work. She might give the best performance in the film. Maybe, in future, Bay should consider giving more roles to women who have talents beyond looking orange and pouty.

So, it was a washout, right? Except that for a while, as I said earlier, the film flies. Even with the inclusion of the awful Alice subplot, and lots of shenanigans involving kitchenbots, there is a lot to enjoy. The new set-up for the Autobots, working in conjunction with the humans to fight rogue Decepticons, is hugely promising, and the opening in Shanghai is astonishing and ambitious. Even better, the forest fight between Optimus and three Decepticons is one of the film highlights of the year, especially as it is filmed in full IMAX.

Seeing Optimus to actual scale is something I won't forget any time soon. Much is made of Bay's direction of action, and how the rapidly moving camera and quick cuts serve to render all of his scenes incomprehensible, but there are many worse action directors out there. Considering how overwhelmed I was by the terrible action in Eagle Eye, or by the much better but still swooshy Star Trek (both of which I saw on IMAX), this didn't upset me at all. That was something I was not expecting.

There is even some evidence of playfulness from the notoriously grouchy man. Considering his parodic sense of patriotism, it amuses me greatly that he manages to destroy Paris again (the first time was at the end of Armageddon, a scene that got a cheer here in England each time I saw it on the big screen), and I can imagine all sorts of noses being put out of joint by his destruction of a library about an hour in. If you're responsible for some of the most successful movies of the past fifteen years, you can afford to poke fun at your image like that.

As I've said, I did like a lot of it. I saw one person lazily Tweeting this morning that they thought this was as bad as Batman and Robin. Don't believe it for a second: this has much much more to recommend it, even if just as an occasionally exhilarating aural and visual assault. Also great: Glenn Morshower returning, this time as General Morshower (seriously); Tony Todd doing some great voicework as The Fallen, a robot with a fantastic gangly design; trying to catch sight of the cast on poor Shia's hand in early scenes; terrific sound editing, far better than critics are saying; a greater sense of the robots as actual characters, especially Starscream and Megatron. Plus, even if the finale is not perfect, it does feature some mind-boggling moments. I'm really hoping that the previous Academy snub of the Transformers effects team is not repeated. They've topped themselves this time out, especially as they're operating in IMAX for some of the most complicated moments.

Even so, it's a movie that wouldn't let me like it as much as I wanted to. If I'm going to defend Bay in future, the guy has got to meet me halfway. The awful Ebonicbots and the Auton women have got to go. Right now, I'd rather he tried to make another movie in the more sober style of The Island than keep this lower-than-lowest common denominator stuff going. It's becoming hard work waiting for him to grow up, but then, if we lose the racism and misogyny (which I'm sure he doesn't see as such), will we lose the rest? And is "the rest" worth keeping if the man is going out of his way to perpetuate bullshit jock philosophy like this? All of a sudden those Bay films in my collection look a little less appealing. Let's hope his next movie is either an adaptation of The Beauty Myth or a remake of Amistad.

* In fact, one of the first movies I ever saw at a press screening was Bad Boys. Maybe that's why I'm forgiving of Bay's films.

¹ Full disclosure. As soon as I saw the first trailer with shots of the Pyramids, my heart sank. A project I have been working on for some time had a big finale in the shadow of the Pyramids, and so I guess I have to scrap all of that. A shame, as it would have been so awesome that brains would have melted while watching it, even though the project involved a C-list comic character that no one likes. Nevertheless, my disappointment with the finale was not rooted in this, as I got over that frustration a long time ago.

² Amazingly, it's Jon Turturro.

This means he spends a lot of his screentime arguing with himself.

³ Though, to be honest, LaBeouf gets little more to do other than run into danger and get blown up. Another flaw of the film: adding human characters and not really knowing what to do with them, which particularly irks when you like LaBeouf, as I do.

ETA: Here is McWeeny's review of T:ROTF. Of all the reviews I have read in the past few days, this might be the only one that actually addressed specifics of what the film is like. Trust someone as perceptive and fair as McWeeny to watch the movie and review what he is seeing instead of just scribbling "Michael Bay is a douchebag" in his Moleskine a thousand times.

The 20 Most Influential People in Residential Construction are:

I was very flattered to recently learn that I was included on a list of influential players in BC residential construction. It was compiled by BC Homes Magazine and the Canadian Home Builders' Association.

The 20 Most Influential People in Residential Construction are:

Honourable Gordon Campbell, Premier of British Columbia
Honourable Rich Coleman, Minister of Housing and Social Development
Larry Beasley, Beasley and Associates, Planning Inc.
Patsy Bourassa, CHBA Central Interior
Norm Couttie, Adera Development Corporation
Casey Edge, CHBA Victoria
Maureen Enser, Urban Development Institute
Chris Erb, SupErb Construction Ltd.
Michael Geller, The Geller Group
Eric Gerrits, Homescape Building and Design
Philip Hochstein, Independent Contractors and Businesses Association
Richard Kadulski, Richard Kadulski Architect
Cameron McNeill, MAC Marketing Solutions
Cameron Muir, BC Real Estate Association
David Podmore, Concert Properties
Shayne Ramsay, BC Housing
Peter Simpson, Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association
Joe Van Belleghem, Three Point Properties
Ray Windsor, National Home Warranty
Doug Wittal, DW Builders

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend a special presentation luncheon this past Friday at the Westin Bayshore, but do want to thank whoever thought to put me on this list. I'm both flattered and honoured. Congratulations to all the other 'winners'!