Watch this movie: Predestination

Time travel story plus great performances minus a creaky plot equals a stylish, though flawed, film.


It took me about 20 minutes into Predestination, the new sci-fi film starring Ethan Hawke, to figure it all out. Predestination is a movie that tries to shroud itself in mystery, but that mystery is pretty evident to anyone who pays attention. If it wasn’t for the stylish visuals and strong performances by the two main actors — Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook — Predestination might have ended up being nothing more than a silly time-travel flick that falls apart too quickly.

But it’s not.

The plot, or as much as I can share, is this: Hawke plays a time travel agent who has been hopping around the latter half of the 20th century in an effort to stop the so-called Fizzle Bomber. When he’s on a stakeout as a bartender in a NYC dive in 1970, he meets a surly patron who proceeds to tell him a wild tale.


That’s about all I can say without giving anything away. Predestination, based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein, brings one huge thing to the table for me: time travel. I love the conceit. I don’t care that time travel stories are inherently unstable, full of logical paradoxes. They’re fun. Predestination isn’t especially groundbreaking in its use of time travel. But at least they didn’t spend too much time trying to explain it. Part of that was a conscious narrative choice. This is a tightly told story. It sticks very close to certain characters. Just like them, we never get the bigger picture.

What sets Predestination apart from other movies of this genre is the performances. Ethan Hawke has been around long enough now — the man knows how to act convincingly. He is solid throughout. Sarah Snook, who plays a tough but lonely girl named Jane, is something else entirely. I’ve never heard of Snook, but I can’t imagine I won’t be hearing from her again. She had a tough role to play, and she was simply amazing. Her emotions ran the gamut, and she pulled them off convincingly and movingly. As played by Snook, Jane is a tragic character who you can’t help but relate to.

Sarah Snook

Despite all this, Predestination is stuck in B-movie land. The plot, especially toward the end, just could not carry the movie to the point of greatness. Nevertheless, Predestination is worth the time.

Read this book: After Dark

In the hands of this fiction master, After Dark is nighttime Tokyo reimagined as a surreal noir-ish dreamscape.

after darkI was in one of my favorite bars in Jersey City talking to the bartender Tom about the new insomnia-themed sci-fi novel Black Moon (which is on my shortlist). After a quick tour of books — others and mine — he threw one title at me: After Dark, by Haruki Murakami. Tom said it was strange, offbeat and captivating.

So I tried it. Tom was right.

The best words to describe After Dark is The Twilight Zone. The classic TV series often featured stories, settings, and characters that weren’t outright sci-fi or horror, but were just off-kilter enough to not be truly of this world. That describes After Dark.

The novel is set in a not-so-safe district of Tokyo. The narrator brings us in with a swooping eagle-eye view of the city (pretty after dark altmuch literally). Murakami uses an interesting technique where the narrator is our guide. He is nearly a character himself, though one who is never named or described. Instead he is the all-knowing, all-seeing, and he lets us have a glimpse.

What exactly do we glimpse? A pair of protagonists in their late teens chatting in a Denny’s after midnight. Mari is a 19-year-old student who doesn’t want to go home. Takahashi is a jazz musician on his way to an all-night practice. Mari and Takahashi met months earlier when Takahashi’s friend went on a date with Mari’s beautiful sister Eri.

What we get is a lot of talk between the two — on life, loneliness, alienation. After Dark almost reads like a play. We don’t get much action, but it doesn’t matter. These two characters are compelling.

Once Takahashi leaves Mari the action picks up. Mari gets tangled up with the manager of a “love hotel” where a Chinese prostitute has been beaten. We get glimpses of the dark side of this city, and it’s fascinating.

two girlsThe real strangeness comes when we get to the story of Mari’s sister Eri, the breathtakingly beautiful model. Eri sleeps through the whole book. Except for when she becomes trapped inside a TV.

Yes. That’s right. Trapped in a TV. The brilliance of Murakami is that he could write that and pull it off.

If you choose to read After Dark — and you should — don’t expect plot-twisting thrills. What you’ll get instead is a haunting story about young people on the edge.

(Two Girls image courtesy of


Read this book: American Gods

ImageAmerica, an immigrant country… America, thick with immigrant gods.
What is America? And who are the gods who roam this country? Those are the questions raised by Neil Gaiman (himself an immigrant) in his iconic novel American Gods.
This is Gaiman’s America: a sprawling landscape, larger than any one set of peoples or beliefs, where the land and nature are more powerful than any of the gods, old or new.
This is not a novel about the world’s America, or Hollywood America. It’s not about glamorous/gritty New York City, or the quirky/tragic south, or golden California. Gaiman takes us to the smaller places – the airports and fast food joints, the motels in midwestern towns, the off-road tourist traps, and the second-city walk-ups.
The premise: a war is brewing between the old gods and the new. A man named Shadow, an ex-con of mysterious origins with a faithless wife, is conscripted to join the battle by a huckster named Mr. Wednesday. Together they travel through the overlooked places of the country rounding up gods for a final battle to come.
So, how did these minor deities (and not just deities, but leprechauns and elves) come to live their decreasingly powerful lives in the new world? As Gaiman deftly describes in chapter-length interludes, immigrants who come to America carry with them their beliefs in their old-world gods. These gods take physical form and live on. Only their power diminishes when people no longer believe in them. They linger, but largely without purpose, living quiet lives performing parlor tricks, a “shadow” of their former selves. 
The human Shadow of the book is clueless regarding all of this, almost to a fault. As a battle between the old gods and the new ones (gods of computers, media, etc) is joined, Shadow ambles along, more of a spectator than a vital player. For part of the book, he’s hidden away by Mr. Wednesday in an isolated midwestern town. At this point I was confused by this side trip. In the end we return to the town and we get to the heart of this subplot, but it kept me waiting and wondering why we’d even gone there in the first place. My problem with Shadow, as written, is that he’s often reacting, rather than acting. It’s a problem I  struggle with in my own writing: if you have an ordinary man thrust in extraordinary situations, how do you have that character drive the action? In this way, Shadow is similar to Richard Mayhew, Gaiman’s hero in his novel Neverwhere. Gaiman’s huge talent, though, is his ability to create a sprawling, fantastic universe that captivates the reader regardless.
There’s a world full of minor gods packed into these pages. Who are they? How do their personalities translate into their human forms? Would have enjoyed it more or less if I’d known something about these minor deities. There’s no glossary, and I’m unsure whether it would be revealing too much if there was. 
Nevertheless, Gaiman presents a thrilling take on America. The land itself is nearly a character in its own right. And as for the people and their fading gods, I wanted to keep reading, even when it ended.