A TSJ #ShortMovieReview

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a well-crafted and fast-paced film with a fantastic cast and a compelling story. It’s a cozy mystery with a unique setting, a wonderful director, and filmed in an old-fashioned and restrained style. Not only that — it’s family friendly. No real gore, no extreme or graphic violence, and I don’t recall much cursing either. It’s highly entertaining and a really great time at the movies. Director Kenneth Branagh put the focus where it belongs: on Agatha Christie’s timeless and engaging story, featuring an ensemble cast and a mystery you likely won’t be able to decipher.

If you’re looking for a movie to see this holiday season, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS won’t disappoint.

Even better, a sequel has just been announced, also featuring Hercule Poirot: DEATH ON THE NILE.

TSJ’s rating: 8.5/10

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Where Has the Character-Driven Action Film Gone?

#Thriller #Action #Movies

First, I have to define the concept. A “Character-Driven Action Film” would be a sub-category of the action genre, set in any time or place that focuses on the character and history of the leads as much as it does on the action elements of the story. Simple enough, right? Right.

So where have these movies gone?

Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit. There are action films released every year that focus minimally on the history of the protagonist and invest some time developing the lead characters. Many of these films have high-concept set pieces with some massive action sequences, but the development of characters doesn’t really exist except to manipulate the leads into arriving at that particular time and place right at the point where the viewer begins watching. Convenient, no? A character-driven action film, on the other hand, invests an equal focus on character and action.

So let’s look at some famous examples of character-driven action films from my creative formative years, and see what sets them apart from action films of today.

DIE HARD, 1988

This is one of the greatest action movies of all time, and it will likely never leave that place in my mind. It has it all — a charismatic star, one of the greatest and most likable villains of all time, great directing, adult themes, adult language and situations, great action and humor, and a compelling story. But make no mistake, John McClane and his failing marriage with Holly Gennaro is the core of this film. Everything revolves around that. It’s the reason McClane is in Los Angeles, the reason he’s at the Christmas party, and it’s his purpose in the film — to rescue Holly and save his marriage. This movie is a perfect mix of action and character, and it really pays off. It was a brilliant effort by John McTiernan, a master of this genre. He directed PREDATOR just before and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER immediately after, creating perhaps the greatest trifecta of action/adventure films by a director in filmmaking history (and perhaps a focus of a future blog …?)


If you’ve seen this, you understand what I mean. The movie features a man reeling from the death of his wife and suffering the trauma of war. He’s an alcoholic undercover cop on the verge of suicide. It’s a wonderful concept for a character. They say that in ancient Japan the Samurai were brutally difficult to defeat in combat because they thought themselves already dead. How do you hurt someone who doesn’t care if they live or die? If they don’t fear being hurt? Martin Riggs in LETHAL WEAPON is the same type of character. He’s riding the razor-thin edge of life in this film, and his relationship with Murtaugh and family pull him back from the brink. The drug dealer and psycho assassin Gary Busy are secondary to the character development in this film. This is Mel Gibson’s story, and he is brilliant in it.


I wrote about the emotional elements of THE TERMINATOR here. The relationship between Reese and Sarah is what drives this film. The stakes are huge, the action is great, the terminator itself is a lethal villain, but the character development is what counts here, and the audience is pulling for Reese and Sarah to not only defeat the T-800, but to come together in the process. Reese’s backstory is developed through flashback (or flashforward?) and his pain is palpable. Scars and burns from a life of combat cover his body. He describes women of his time as “good soldiers,” and he confesses his virginity to Sarah in the Tiki Hotel. And at the end, as Sarah dictates her thoughts into the recorder while driving her Jeep (a Renegade edition no less,) we learn what the two meant to each other, despite the short time they actually spent together. “We loved a lifetime’s worth,” she says. This is a character-driven film with fantastic Science Fiction elements and action.


Wow. This one caught me completely off guard when I saw it back in the 80’s. I was expecting an outright action film — and I got a lot of that — but the themes of PTSD and a man suffering the effects of a terrible and brutal war were elements that I don’t recall in the advertising. This movie is about the hurt and pain that Rambo is experiencing as he wanders from town to town, searching for comrades from the Vietnam war. He’s looking for peace and quiet and for something to ease his suffering through his relationships with his war buddies, but it isn’t helping his pain. And when he stumbles into Sheriff Teasle’s sphere, the sh*t hits the fan. It’s a grand hunt in a savage wilderness, a bloody quest of revenge, and Rambo makes the Sheriff pay for his cold and cruel lack of sympathy. And the cathartic scene between Rambo and his former commander Colonel Sam Trautman is haunting. Rambo breaks down in hysteric tears, and it’s an unexpected moment in an action film. It brings the movie to a whole new level, and it’s the reason it was a success, the reason it exploded at the box office, and the reason it spawned a franchise. The character elements in FIRST BLOOD are inescapable.


Graphic violence and gore, wicked humor, and amazing action pieces populate this movie. ROBOCOP is also a brutal satire and commentary on the military industrial complex. Military weaponry is infiltrating civilian lives through the politics and economics in the Detroit of the future, in this case the underfunded and therefore ineffective police force. ROBOCOP is now considered visionary in terms of what has happened with the militarization of police forces throughout North America and the privatization of security forces in conflicts overseas. But the real driving forces of this movie are the events that affect Peter Weller’s character — Alex Murphy. Murdered on the job by gangster Clarence Boddicker, the suppressed memories of this incident drive Robocop to uncover his past and reconnect with his humanity. This film is more than a character-driven action film; it is a multilayered and vicious social commentary.


This is a perfect movie. There is nothing wrong with it, not a single flaw in its entire runtime. It further develops Luke, Leia, and Han’s character backgrounds and their purpose in the story, but at its heart it’s a love story between the princess and the rogue, and a journey of discovery for Luke. In the first film, A NEW HOPE, Luke was on a mission to follow in his dad’s footsteps, fight the rebellion, and achieve the greatness that he believes his dad achieved during the war. In this movie, however, it all falls apart for him. He learns the terrible truth, which sets up a conclusion to his remarkable personal journey. Now the viewer wonders whether Luke will indeed follow in his dad’s horrible path. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK has amazing action pieces, a fantastic confrontation with Darth Vader, great humor and a standout performance by Harrison Ford — perhaps his best performance of all time. If you doubt that statement, check out this film again. This is Harrison’s movie, and it’s impossible not to love him in it. Ford’s performance and character is iconic, and this movie is the principal reason.


Perhaps this is lighter on the character than the others on my list, but there’s no doubt a hidden history exists between Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Dillon (Carl Weathers) in the film, and a wealth of background is hinted at amongst the special forces team that Arnold leads, as well as other teams they’re familiar with (Jim Hopper and his Fort Bragg green berets.) The ongoing character struggle between Dutch and Dillon permeates the film, giving it a layered fabric of action, humor, and character. This is a near-perfect movie.


Incredible action, espionage and intrigue combined with a … a foundering marriage? This movie is a love story expertly disguised as a thriller. It features Harry Tasker, a US agent combatting terrorists around the world, who’s also working at hiding his professional life from his wife while his marriage is crumbling. Tasker, to save his marriage rather than tell her the truth, involves her in his current assignment, though somewhat unintentionally. Humor permeates the movie, and it’s easy to get caught up in the rekindled and growing romance between the leads. TRUE LIES is most definitely a character film and a touching romance, with kick-ass action set pieces throughout.


Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m so fond of the 1980’s — I was a teen through this decade — that I remember these movies as being a source of creative inspiration and perhaps I’m looking too deep into these movies. But I don’t think so. I searched lists of action films from the 90’s and 2000’s and just don’t see the same character development in the films. Sure, there are some great movies in that era — 300, TAKEN, V FOR VENDETTA, THE MATRIX, LIVE DIE REPEAT — but the character development is secondary to the action sequences in the films. There have been some notable exceptions — JJ Abrams, for instance, took the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series in this direction with MI: 3, where he delved into the personal life of Ethan Hunt and made his relationship with his wife the primary focus of the story. It had shades of TRUE LIES — everyone noticed at the time — but that was a good thing. His Star Trek (2009) dove into Kirk and Spock’s backgrounds (see my review here.) I recently saw WIND RIVER, a fantastic character film with glimpses of action. It is a beautiful and poignant movie with a clear message. Not quite an action film — but kudos to writer/director Taylor Sheridan for doing such a great job with Jeremy Renner’s character.

One main element I noticed while writing this blog entry is the tremendous amount of humor in many of these films. TRUE LIES, DIE HARD, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ROBOCOP and PREDATOR all contain healthy amounts to keep the audience engaged and provide an engrossing and entertaining experience.

Maybe it’s not that I’m biassed toward films of the 80’s … maybe the problem is that they just don’t make them that way anymore. If that’s the case, they should. Or, maybe the type of movie I’m looking for has just migrated to a different genre and I haven’t been paying attention. Are the MARVEL and DC films of the last two decades the new character-driven action films? Did Christopher Nolan start it all with BATMAN BEGINS? Did John Favreau take the genre into IRON MAN 1? Are the superhero origin stories the reservoir of the new character-driven action? Or, maybe they’ve migrated to Netflix and specialty channels and now exist in the ten or fifteen-hour season format. GAME OF THRONES, THE WALKING DEAD, and so on.

I just don’t know. I’ll leave it to you to ponder.

And I’ll wait around for the next PREDATOR, the next LETHAL WEAPON, the next TERMINATOR, and the next STAR WARS. They’re all on the way, and I’ll keep hoping that what once was, will be again.

Or maybe I’ll have to find other ways to recapture my youth.

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I watched THE TERMINATOR on the weekend.

I had to.

It was calling me.

I use the phrases “watershed film” or “watershed book” quite a lot. That’s the point of this entire blog. What are the movies/books/tv shows that influenced me in the years leading to my first attempts at writing fiction? Hell, even the name of this blog — “Life After Gateway” — is a nod to my favorite Science Fiction novel. This blog is dedicated to the books and movies that inspired me in my creative/formative years. A few TV series, some fantastic authors, and a small selection of short stories helped along the way. Certain teachers were invaluable too.

THE TERMINATOR is one of those properties. I remember the first time I saw it. Maybe that sounds weird, but I can say the same thing with more than a handful of movies. I watched it in 1985 during a free weekend on The Movie Network. Remember those? The movie channels would normally be scrambled until one of those special times. The final movie on the Sunday evening was the biggest movie of the lot, to try and convince people to rent descramblers and join up. That weekend, the movie was THE TERMINATOR.

I was fifteen years old. I hadn’t seen the movie yet. It was a restricted film, and my older brother hadn’t yet rented it to show me (as he did with THE THING a few years earlier,) so I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. But I knew I had to see it. I’d seen the commercials months earlier during the theatrical run, after all. This movie was screaming my name.

“Phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.”

We all know the story. The world of the future is at war with artificially intelligent machines, and the AI enemy is on the verge of total defeat. To prevent the inevitable, they launch one more attack — into the past. Aimed at the leader of the resistance — John Connor — before he is even born. It was a fantastic concept for my teen brain to mull over, and I sat in rapt attention at my friend Melanie’s house as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor ran from Schwarzenegger’s maniacal cyborg, a T-800 Model 101 from the 21st Century designed to infiltrate and kill human beings. It had one mission in this movie: to find and terminate Sarah Connor.

In recent years I’ve learned more about the film. About how Arnold was originally offered the role of Reese, but thought the villainous and determined killing machine better suited him. About James Cameron’s long struggle in low-budget films as a matte painter and f/x artist before he could get this movie made. When he finally completed and released the film, critics labeled it a “sleeper hit.” It wasn’t a huge success at first, but its creativity and emotional story resonated with viewers. It paid off, and the rest is history as they say. Or “future history” perhaps, as Isaac Asimov would have said.

I sometimes meet with aspiring writers or story-tellers and talk about the importance of finding the emotional core of the story. Movies come and go, some good, some bad. The ones that stick with us, however, and cavitate on through the years as we age, are the ones with that emotional center that keep calling to us. Cameron clearly possesses that skill. He can reach out to his audience and tell a kick-ass story, but at the same time make us empathize with his characters and feel the pain and hunger and hardship and agony that they’re going through. Yes, acting and directing counts a whole hell of a lot, but if that emotional core isn’t there, It’s game over man! The audience — whether it’s of a book, movie or television show — has to be emotionally invested, or there’s no point to it all. His movies become experiential, and it’s a goal I’ve set for myself with my own novels.

Which brings me to THE TERMINATOR. Cameron does a wonderful job at making us feel Sarah’s uncertainty toward her own destiny. We feel Reese’s pain as he tries to tell Sarah what she means to him … even if it was only because of a picture he looked at while longing for something or someplace better than the terrible future in which he lived. And when each of them realizes the importance of the other — for Sarah, she’s finally found meaning in her life, a direction, a place to go, even if she doesn’t want it; and for Reese, he’s found the most important mission of his life and a way to escape the madness of the future — it’s emotionally cathartic and a big payoff in this creative and highly original Science Fiction Thriller.

“I’ll be back.”

The film was wondrous to experience again. The effects are sketchy by today’s standards, but it hardly matters anymore because the emotion is there. That’s what counts. As a viewer, you’re fighting for Sarah and Reese to persevere and defeat this relentless monster. And the stakes are massive; it’s more than the end of Sarah. It’s the end of everything. The end of humanity should she die. And Cameron is just killing it with every frame. Everything’s ticking at full speed, and it’s Cameron still in his formative years but rapidly growing as a filmmaker. The flirtatious meetings with the T-800 early on are just enough to whet the appetite for what’s to come. There’s the shootout at the TechNoir. The attack on the police station featuring character actors Lance Henrickson and Paul Winfield — both of whom eventually became veteran actors in genre films. The running battles through the urban jungle of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. And the final fight in the factory with the unflinching, unfeeling machine that just won’t give up. And the T-800’s end was more ironic than I first understood at the age of fifteen.

As Sarah drives off in that Jeep into the sunset, toward the coming storm, you can’t help but smile and feel that despite the pain and danger on the horizon, at least she’s found the meaning in her life. Isn’t that something that anyone can latch onto and sympathize with? Even though it isn’t necessarily a happy ending, and that the life ahead of her is going to be filled with a crapload of torment and agony, isn’t that something an audience can really get behind? She knows where she’s going.

And she has a purpose.

At least, more of one than she had before she met the T-800.

THE TERMINATOR has it all. A great SF story, some great action, charismatic actors, a wonderful villain, a creative and original tale, a pulse-pounding score, but most important, it has that emotional center that everything else revolves around. It’s the single most important element in stories. The audience needs to be invested, and this movie certainly does that to them. To make it even better, it’s a movie for grown ups, with adult concepts and language and the reality of (future) war, and how people will cling to each other to find those basic human emotions to relish, even if it’s just for a glimpse of a past that never was, or of a future that might never be. And for a fifteen year old who was just discovering how great Science Fiction Thrillers can truly be, it came into my life at the perfect time. The movie is damn near perfect. In James Cameron’s resume, other films like AVATAR or TITANIC or TERMINATOR 2 will eclipse it, but this was his masterpiece. It’s the one that started it all.

I’ll never forget THE TERMINATOR. I owe James Cameron and that T-800 a hell of a lot.

TSJ on Writing First Lines


#Writing #AmWriting #ScienceFiction #Thriller #Horror


The first line of any story is the most important sentence you’ll write.

The first page of the story is the most important page you’ll write.

The first chapter of the story is the most important chapter you’ll write.

I can’t overstate the importance of these three points. Often in this business you’ll hear aspiring writers say, “Wait until you get to page thirty! It gets so good!” The thing they neglect — and this is important — is that by the time the editor, agent, or intern (yes, sometimes the people you submitted your book to aren’t even reading it) gets to the end of page one or two, they’ve already made up their minds. Because of this, we have to make sure that the first line and first page are utterly captivating. You have to lay out the story and dilemma right from the start, get the reader’s attention, and never look back.

It’s easier said than done.

In fact, it’s damn hard.

Let’s check out five of the best first lines ever written. Keep in mind that these are filtered through my mind, and through nearly fifty years of enjoying stories of all types. But my particular tastes are distinctive to me, and so are the lines I’ve picked. My genres are Science Fiction, Mystery, Horror, Thriller. Someone else might read these lines, shrug, and think nothing else of them. But if you’re into these genres and you’re hoping for a book of the type these signify, then these are something else.


1. “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” — Dan Brown, ANGELS & DEMONS (2000)






2. “I found the eyeball fifteen minutes before I found the rest of him.” — Richard Milward, KIMBERLY’S CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (2012)






3. “The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, NEUROMANCER (1984)






4. “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” — Stephen King, IT (1986)




5. “The small boys came early to the hanging.” — Ken Follet, PILLARS OF THE EARTH (1989)








Notice a trend there?

Yeah, I do too. My genres. I like a dark and twisted turn to my stories. I like the thread of a good mystery in there, and I enjoy the notion that something is coming that’s going to give me a restless night. I want to experience the thrill of the plot with the protagonist as he or she tries to uncover the mystery, survive countless dangers, and escape death by the slimmest of margins. And most important — I want to keep thinking about it for weeks/months/years later.

Each of those lines above has an element within that signifies something mysterious and sinister. Follet’s masterpiece took place in a decidedly savage period in our history. Yes, there were happy people and there were good times, but mediaeval England/Europe was also notable for torture, public executions, extreme poverty, poor sanitation, and bizarre (and painful) healing practices.

The other lines I’ve picked showcase burning flesh, three decades of terror, a grisly murder, and a technological dystopia signified by static on a (dead) television screen.

Here’s a line that nearly made my list, from George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Why did he write thirteen?  There are a few explanations.  First, it just doesn’t happen.  Clocks that ring don’t do so more than twelve times.  This indicates that something is wrong, and that everything else that occurred before should be in dispute or questioned. It signifies a society that is struggling or perhaps in survival mode.  The second reason is the more obvious one:  the number thirteen signifies bad luck.  Another might be that there’s no way all the clocks should be striking thirteen at the same time.  It couldn’t be happening, therefore something is terribly wrong.  Yet another reason is perhaps the most significant, considering Orwell wrote the novel in 1948.  In 1942, Adolf Hitler said, “I make it a principle not to stop until the clock strikes thirteen.” This is a particularly disturbing connection to a clock striking thirteen.  As a result, Orwell set the tone of unease, disquiet, and foreboding right from the very beginning.


One of the watershed books I read while growing up was William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST (1971.) It made a tremendous impact on me. I was twelve when I read it. Its first line:

“Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.”


If horror is what you’re looking for, Blatty is basically screaming at the reader — You’ve come to the right place! And boy, was he right.

I had nightmares for years.

If you’re an aspiring writer, look at that first line in your stories. Why did you write it? Why did you choose the words for it? What mood have you established? What mystery exists? What hardships are the characters going to experience in the next hundred thousand words?

It’s a challenging skill to develop.  Go look at your favorite novels and read the first lines of each.  Why did they resonate with you?

Good luck!  And keep on writing!

TSJ on the Imposter Theme in Science Fiction

John Carpenter’s THE THING, 1982

In 2013, coinciding with the release of my first novel, THE FURNACE, I wrote an essay for John Scalzi’s website on the Imposter Theme in Science Fiction.  It’s a common plot element in the genre, and I encountered it repeatedly in my formative years.  The novels INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE PUPPET MASTERS feature the theme.  John Carpenter’s THE THING had a massive impact on me when it was released, and THE FURNACE is actually an homage to it and the novella it was based on, WHO GOES THERE?

But why is this theme so popular in Science Fiction?  And why did THE THING leave such a profound mark on me?

From my essay:

In 1938 the Imposter theme made its first appearance in Science Fiction.  The work was Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.  Other authors advanced the premise over the next several decades, increasing its popularity immeasurably.  Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), along with Campbell’s novella, are the most well-known literary iterations of the theme.  Since then it has appeared on both the silver and the small screen, in shows such as Star Trek (both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), The X-Files, and the short-lived Invasion just to name a few.   There have been three movie versions of Campbell’s novella, one of Heinlein’s novel, and a whopping four big screen versions of Finney’s, the most recent being The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

I sometimes reflect on this theme, wondering why I was so driven to tell a story that embraced the idea that there could be intruders close to us masquerading as people we knew.  I’ve read Finney’s book multiple times.  I’ve watched every movie mentioned above.  The 1978 take on Finney’s novel, starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, is one of my favorites.  Even poorly made versions of the premise keep me riveted and wanting more.

But why is the theme so popular with fans of Science Fiction?

Read my full essay on the Imposter Theme, the books and movies that have contributed to it, and how my own self-esteem played a part in the theme HERE.  




On Horror and Science Fiction Influences

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of participating in a radio program with host Gail Barker.  I spoke about Horror/Science Fiction movies and how they inspired me to write.  Movies like ALIEN and THE THING.  In the 1980’s, during my most formative years developing my creativity, a wave of slasher films hit theaters.  Parents hated them, but believe it or not, they taught me about the importance of emotion in all stories, regardless of genre.

Consider:  what makes a “slasher Film” like HALLOWEEN or FRIDAY the 13th successful?  What is it that John Carpenter channeled into his film that turned HALLOWEEN into one of the most successful film franchises of all time?  Why do some slasher films succeed and others fail?  It’s a twenty minute interview.  I love talking about my genre, and I hope you enjoy listening.


Life After Gateway — The TSJ Blog

So here it is.  A blog.  It’s taken years for me to decide to finally do it.  You see, I’ve been so busy working and writing books that I never thought I’d really have all that much time to say anything here.  And yet I’ve discovered during that period that I do seem to find enough time.  It’s always there.  Maybe late at night (like now,) after I’ve finished editing for the evening, or maybe early in the morning before I get to work, or maybe on a weekend with a hot cup of coffee at my side and a cat (or two) at my feet.  I’ve noticed that I do indeed have the time to write about SF-related properties, either books, movies, or television.  After all, I’ve managed to recently put up more than a few movie reviews on Facebook, open letters of praise for recent novels I’ve also (somehow) found the time to read, as well as the odd obituary as heroes from my youth pass on.  These seem to increase in number every year, and it guts me every time.  But I do seem to find the time for writing things other than novels, and it’s because of this genre that I love.  The genre that I grew up with.  The one that played a massive role in forming my creative energies.  It made me who I am, and I can’t help but want to talk about it as much as possible.  I realize now, after all these years mulling it over, that I need this.  It’s an important outlet, to share my thoughts about Science Fiction and other related genres, like Mystery and Horror.  I want to talk about the movies and books that made me who I am.  Maybe it’ll have some sort of impact on someone, somewhere in the world.  Even if it’s just one person … that’s enough, isn’t it?
And so finally here I am.  Here you are.  Welcome.  I can’t promise much other than my thoughts on past, present and future Science Fiction / Thriller books and movies.  But then again, that’s a whole lot of awesome right there.  Enjoy!