Monday, April 14, 2008

Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” reads like Harry Turtledove and Mordecai Richler conspired to remake the movie “Chinatown”. (And maybe they consulted Philip K. Dick along the way, with just a dash – just a dash, mind you - of Clavell’s “Shogun”.)

It’s an alternate universe tale, set in the 21st Century on an Earth where the attempt to establish Israel in the late 1940’s failed. Routed by the Arabs, the Jews fled to North America, where a territory was set aside for them on the Alaskan Panhandle. But there’s a catch, the District of Sitka, as it’s known, is only temporary. As the story opens, the 60 year lease on the land is about to expire and residents face another Diaspora.

It’s also a classic gumshoe tale, the story of Detective Meyer Landsman, crack homicide investigator, trying to solve the murder of a heroin-addicted chess genius who lived just a few floors below him in his seedy hotel. To do so, Landsman has to navigate his way through powerful crime syndicates, religious conspiracies, revolutionary dreams, government intrigue and plain old bureaucracy.

And it’s the story of a man trying to redeem himself. Landsman is a manic-depressive alcoholic who bucks authority and lives in a ratty apartment. He’s mourning a failed marriage and a dead sister and has unresolved issues from his childhood.

There is a pervasive sense of loomings (to borrow from the title of chapter 1 of Melville’s “Moby Dick”) in this book. The mountains, forest and sea hem-in the District on all sides. Time is running out for the District as the settlement expiry draws near and a people are unsure of their fate. Shadowy forces conspire for their own ends. There signs of passage indicating the divine may have been lurking about. Men are haunted by their childhoods. Amidst all this, how is one man supposed to sort out his own shit? Yet he doggedly moves in that direction, towards rebuilding himself. Landsman’s story becomes one of survival, and so, in a way, the story of his people.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a methodical book that plays out it its own time, like two old friends facing-off across a chess board.

But while I found the story interesting, it wasn’t compelling. I just couldn’t seem to care much about Landsman. And not because of cultural differences either. It was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe Landsman was too down-and-out to draw me in. Maybe his character was, in many ways, too much of a rehash of Rick Deckard (as much as from Scott’s “Blade Runner” as Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”). Maybe the book itself was a little too clinical. Maybe it’s because gumshoe stories, while I’ll read one or watch a film once in a blue moon, are not my favourite. I dunno. The book just didn’t demand that I come back to it right away after dinner. It was good, but it wasn’t great. It was, to borrow a little Yiddish, “nisht geferlekh”.

Special thanks to my good friend David Berner, author of David Talks/The Berner Monologues, for the Yiddish lesson.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Hyperion Falls to Warner Brothers

Normally I don’t discuss movie news at length until the flick is released and there’s something to actually talk about. What’s the point of wasting air speculating on a lookahead story when any number of things could come along to derail production or release? But in this case, when it involves one of my favourite stories (SF or otherwise), I can’t help but get drawn into the news. The boys at SF Signal highlighted a story from the Hollywood Reporter the other day about Warner Brothers giving the green light to a movie based on Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (“Hyperion” and “The Fall of Hyperion”).

This feels like years ago when New Line announced it was bringing “The Lord of the Rings” to the big screen. On one hand, it would be immensely cool to see a “Hyperion” movie if it was done right – if it was done right. That leads to the other, much more likely possibility, that it’ll be gutted and worthless.

Peter Jackson treated LOTR with love and respect, and understood that it had to be done as a trilogy to preserve its depth and scope. But early indications about “Hyperion” aren’t inspiring a lot of confidence in me. The HR article says the plan is to make a single film and that screenwriter Trevor Sands has taken “a selective approach to the two novels’ multiple points of view in a way that managed to coherently and unconfusingly tell the story.” Sounds to me like they’re considering dropping or severely stripping-down some of the characters and story lines and most likely favouring a single type of narrative style. I worry that what’s left might be a typical Hollywood slasher flick with a sci-fi backdrop. Lame.

“Hyperion” isn’t a confusing story. It’s demanding, certainly. There’s a lot going on that requires not only a reader’s attention to the plot, but a lot of thought about the philosophical issues raised. And a single film, even one allowed to stray into the 2-3 hour range, just wouldn’t cut it to cover all that.

A proper treatment of the Cantos needs, at the very least, a 3-5 part miniseries (like the Sci-Fi Channel’s great adaptation of “Dune” and “Children of Dune” a few years ago) with each part consisting of minimum 2 hours run time. Ideally, it should have a full TV season to properly flush it out. Here I’m thinking of HBO’s plans for George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Think about it, there are seven pilgrims who embark upon the journey to the Time Tombs, each with vastly different stories told in completely different narrative styles, and each having crucial bearing on the final outcome of the Cantos. Granted, Het Masteen doesn’t play much of a role directly and doesn’t really share his yarn, but by the second half (“The Fall of Hyperion”), you’ve got the Keats cybrid playing a central role. To have a faithful adaptation of Simmons brilliant work requires patience. The Cantos would need an introductory episode, followed by separate episodes for each of the pilgrims’ tales in order for them to be told in enough detail to make any sense and for them to have relevance to the “current” action. You’d then be up to speed enough to play out the events of the second act over the course of several other episodes. And because the perspectives and types of storytelling would change, such a series would offer a completely new experience within itself with every episode. This isn’t an extravagant budgeting of time either. Believe me, I’ve cut enough tape over the years as a reporter that I know you can pare a story down pretty significantly to get to the focus and still make it good, but ultimately, there’s a point where if you hack at it like the Shrike, if you don’t leave the necessary details, if you remove crucial perspectives, then you don’t have a story anymore. At least, not a good one.

I hope I’m wrong, but the more I think about this WB film in development, the more I become resigned to the fact that it will probably be a simple monster movie.

But, since we’re spending time speculating about a movie that hasn’t even started production yet, let’s follow the SF Signal lead and have some fun playing the casting game. Since they’re going ahead with this flick, who would be the best actors to play the key roles in “Hyperion”? Here are my picks:

Martin Silenus – Danny Devito
Father Hoyt – Edward Norton
Colonel Kassad – Oded Fehr
The Consul – John Cusack or Nathan Fillion (Fillion might be better as Endymion from the sequels)
Brawne Lamia – Rosario Dawson
Sol Weintraub – Gene Wilder (watch “Murder in a Small Town” if you don’t believe me)
Father Dure – Robert Duval or Sir Ian McKellen, maybe Al Pacino
Het Masteen – Chow Yun Fat
Rachel Weintraub – Jessica Brooks
John Keats – Jamie Bamber
Meina Gladstone – Lauren Becall
Sad King Billy – Terry Jones
Theo – David Tennant
Shrike Cult Bishop – Bill Duke

Who am I leaving out? More importantly, who would you cast, if you had the time and the resources to make “Hyperion” right?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Round 2 of the Aurora Voting

Now that the list of finalists is out for the Aurora Awards, it’s time to choose the winners. Aurora Awards Committee Chair Clint Budd reminds us there are a couple of different ways to cast your ballot:

You can vote online at:

Or you can download a form to send by snailmail:

Here’s the catch on these two options though… it’ll cost ya five bucks to vote.

Or you can vote if you’re attending Montreal’s Congres Boreal (May 9-11) or at Keycon 25 in Winnipeg (May 16-19). Keycon is the con that’s hosting the Auroras this year.

Good luck to the finalists!

Heston Dies

Actor Charlton Heston died on Saturday at the age of 84. Heston starred in a number of memorable SF movies, including “Planet of the Apes” (as well as a cameo as an ape in the Wahlberg remake), “Soylent Green” and “The Omega Man”.

Personally, I think his best performance was in (no, not “Ben-Hur”) a remake of "Treasure Island" where he starred as the crafty old pirate Long John Silver.

I can’t say I approved of his politics vis-à-vis firearms, but I will say he was a solid actor.

And Speaking of Battlestar (again)

Warning: Spoilers (spoilage factor: about the same as that cookie you’ve left in your office desk drawer, saving it for a snack later, just a couple of days too long)

What an explosive way to kick-off season 4 of Battlestar – literally! Of course we knew it would pick-up where season 3 left off, but that was one-heck of a no-holds barred battle sequence to open the show with. Certainly a great space dogfight, but it went far beyond a simple SFX candy fix, surpassing anything sci-fi has served up on the big or small screen in a long time (way beyond the slugfest at the beginning of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”) because of the emotional punch of the group of characters who’ve just discovered they’re Cylons and have just been thrown into a battle before they’ve even settled their identity turmoil. That fact that they’re not sure about themselves or what they should do and sometimes need to give themselves a shake – or have someone else give them a shake – to snap-to and get on with things made this sequence especially strong. This isn’t just a pat one-shot plot twist where characters make a change, shrug, and get on with what they’re supposed to be doing, this realization is a psychic blow that leaves them reeling and unsure of not only themselves, but of their actions or inactions during the fight.

If there was a weakness to the episode, I’d say it was the Adama-Starbuck relationship. At first viewing, it seems as though Adama is a little more comfortable with Starbuck than you’d think he should be. Sure, he loves her like a daughter and some part of him desperately wants this to be the real Starbuck so she’ll be back in the family, but given his tendencies over the past three seasons, you’d think he’d be more likely in this situation to have his guard up (like when Sharon returned), suspecting another betrayal, and thus be at least a little more hostile. Although some might argue that this seeming indulgence of Starbuck on Adama’s part shows the cleverness of the writing here in illustrating just how human the Admiral is, and how prone to making a possible mistake out of the need to have a loved-one back.

All in all, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing this final season play-out.

Another Lucky Bastard

A buddy of mine was at a Canucks game the other night (no, that’s not what makes him lucky – the level of play from the damn Canuckleheads is far too inconsistent [with the exception of Luongo, who rocks] to make seeing one of their games lucky) and got to hang out for the whole evening with Aaron Douglas – Battlestar Galactica’s Chief Galen Tyrol. My buddy was watching the game in a corporate box with a couple of other guys, one of whom, the box-getter, is a Battlestar fan. Apparently Douglas was in a regular seat nearby, and one of the arena staff, knowing of boxboy’s fandom, asked Douglas if he’d like to come up and be their guest. Douglas accepted and ended up spending the game with them. My friend said Douglas was a pretty good guy and it was (aside from the game sucking) an enjoyable evening shooting the breeze. Wanna know what the irony is? This friend of mine (not the boxboy, mind you) isn’t a Battlestar fan himself. He hasn’t gotten around to watching the series yet. The luck of some people…