Disney-Pixar’s “Onward” Movie Review

You are going to catch feels! Disney-Pixar’s Onward is a powerful animated motion picture that will take you on an exciting and emotionally charged journey. There is such a tremendous beauty in the simple storytelling that explores familial relationships through the conduit of a fantastical quest. Onward reminds me of a classic Spielberg-like coming-of-age action-adventure movie with heart. Interestingly, I am reminded of many DreamWorks movies, including How to Train Your Dragon, in the overall look of the movie. It’s almost as if Pixar saw what DreamWorks was doing right, and in a very Apple way, set out to do it better. Onward is what you get when you take the visual design and themes of DreamWorks movies and pair them with a quintessential Pixar story. Much like Coco provided us with a compelling story that would forever change how we view family tradition and history, this movie explores the relationship between brothers on their quest to bring their dad back from the dead for one day. In a day and age in which relationships between brothers or sons and fathers seem to be largely absent from themes in movies, this is a refreshing look at these relationships in a positive, healthy light. While this is an animated motion picture, it is every bit pure cinema as a live-action counterpart. The great Cecil B. DeMille stated, “the greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Onward is a great story for the whole family! You will encounter joy and warmth in the plot and characters as you set forward and press onward in your adventure along with Ian and Barley. Unlike a typical action-adventure movie, this one does take a little while to get up to speed. But once that second act kicks into gear, you will experience a thrilling good time that will have you laughing and crying in true Pixar fashion.

Two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, go on a journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there, after receiving a mysterious gift from their mother on Ian’s birthday, in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when Barley was little and before Ian was born (IMDb).

Not your usual fantasy movie! While Onward starts out with a voiceover narration providing exposition against the backdrop of a fantastical world of elves, wizards, mythological creatures and more, the prologue lays out the historical piping to provide important context for the modern story that is about to unfold. We are told that the world was once full of magic, but over time, the industrial revolution and invention of technology took the place of magic. Eventually the world simply forgot about its very existence. I love this setup, because it’s a mirror of our own world in which technology has radically altered how we interact with the world around us and even each other. When we rewrite or forget the past, it has a profound impact upon our present and future. I appreciate how this film highlights the importance of not forgetting the past, not forgetting where we came from. Looking to the past, even recent past, can help to shift our focus from ourselves to others. Sometimes we can even find a whole new appreciation of the present by stepping back and realizing the indirect meaning behind actions that have impacted our growth and development. One can even read this as a commentary on art versus commercialization. For the sake of cost and simplicity, much that was once crafted is now churned out on an assembly line. We forget the importance of personal investment of time and energy into everyday elements. Perhaps we can even liken this to film versus digital. Many different ways of reading this analogy!

I often comment in my screenwriting class at the University of Tampa that some of the best movies out there have simple plots and complex characters. For a visualization of what that looks like, think of that little black dress or classic black suit that lives in many of our closets. Those simple outfits can be accessorized in so many different ways to make a lasting statement or impression. There is a beauty in the simplicity. Same with the story in Onward. At its core, this movie is about a quest to find the long lost Phoenix stone in order to bring Ian and Barley’s dad back to life for one day. But along the way, our two central characters encounter conflict after conflict that reveals to us the various layers of our characters. We learn so much about their history, goals, needs, and more in how they each uniquely respond to the same obstacles. Lasting conflict can often be achieved by giving two characters the same goal, but they each have vastly different methods for achieving the goal. This concept is played out over and over again throughout the movie, and it works incredibly well! I also appreciate this movie for just how funny it is! Honestly, this is probably one of Pixar’s funniest movies in a long time! All the action and emotional elements of the Onward are superbly satisfying and work completely in sync, just like all the section of a symphony playing in perfect harmony!

Each and every obstacle that creates conflict between our two brothers moves the story forward; never once do we reach a point in the plot in which we are spinning our figurative wheels. Representing a microcosm of a larger plot structure, each and every scene in a movie is made up of a setup, conflict, and resolution. And the resolution (be it negative or positive) points to the next scene, and the following scene does the very same. Every scene is a piece of the track that points to the end of the movie. With a tight script, Onward is consistently moving us forward to the showdown and realization of this movie. What makes the conflict we witness in the movie all the more relatable is just how common, everyday much of it is. We may be in a world of fantasy, but the problems experienced by the brothers are the same as the ones we experience in real life. Most of us with siblings don’t always get along–certainly in our growing up years, it can be that way–but this movie is a testament to the importance of connecting and appreciating our siblings for what they teach us and how they impact our lives even when we don’t realize it. For those whom may have lost a parent, often times, you can find your parent in the life of your sibling and vice versa. Loving parents leave a legacy in their children.

Visually, the movie is stunning! I love just how “not” Pixar it looks. Ever since Pixar started striving for quasi photorealism, I’ve not been as impressed with the animation. For example, I prefer the look of Toy Story 3 to Toy Story 4. The production design and animation in Onward reminds me of much of what DreamWorks has produced over the years in terms of themes and design. Perhaps DreamWorks will see Onward and think to themselves, “gee, they took a page from our playbook and did it better.” The plot is tighter, the comedy is better developed, and the characters more fleshed out. Essentially, this movie indirectly highlights what is missing in many DreamWorks movies, and that is stronger screenplays. Onward delivers an animation design that is rich with everything that you want to see in a world of fantasy! So many fantastical creatures that feel right at home within their world. And this world feels incredibly believable. In many ways, it looks just like our world in which the modern can be right up next to the ancient, where sometimes historical buildings are at risk for being torn down to make way for something new. Looking across the landscape, you will be delighted at the attention paid to effective world building and the little things that make such a difference.

Don’t think of this as Pixar’s throwaway movie, as some have, this is an outstanding animated motion picture that delivers an engaging adventure paired with an emotional roller coaster that will have you laughing and crying.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Terminator: Dark Fate” action movie review

Linda Hamilton is back! And that’s all you really need to know about Terminator: Dark Fate. Her return highlights what was missing in the sequels that followed the critically acclaimed and immensely popular Terminator 2: Judgement Day that inspired the former attraction T2-3D at Universal Studios Florida. While this action movie clearly seeks to impress you with its phenomenal visual effects, it also goes back to the gritty character driven plot that made the first two Terminator movies works incredibly well and give them that punch that we expect out of these movies. With the return of Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Arnold, in the role that made him a household name, this movie uses nostalgia–not as a way to live in the past and look back at the good ol’ days–but to move forward. No mistaking it, this movie is filled with adrenaline pumping action from start to finish; but the plot is very much grounded in what made the first two so successful: the characters. Despite having so many futuristic elements, Dark Fate’s storytelling is grounded in a science-fiction that never feels completely out of this world. One might even say that the plot is very much grounded in a plausible reality. When this franchise faced eternal damnation in its own judgement day after several flops, Sarah Connor returns to save the franchise from its own extinction. With Cameron providing a vision for this installment, it is the perfect blend of tentpole plot devices and progressive storytelling. Terminator: Dark Fate erases the previous three movies to fit in nicely after T2:3D.

In Mexico City, a newly modified liquid Terminator — the Rev-9 model — arrives from the future to kill a young factory worker named Dani Ramos. Also sent back in time is Grace, a hybrid cyborg human who must protect Ramos from the seemingly indestructible robotic assassin. But the two women soon find some much-needed help from a pair of unexpected allies — seasoned warrior Sarah Connor and the T-800 Terminator. (IMDb)

It should come of no surprise that the number one reason to watch this movie is for the bold, bad ass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor! Her mantra may as well be “have bazooka, will travel.” Even though we witnessed the moment she stepped out of the SUV and onto the highway in the trailer, that moment still packs a punch when you watch it in the movie. Although it’s Davis character of Grace that is sent from the future to protect Dani, it really is Hamilton whom saves this movie and the franchise. Both Davis and Hamilton complement one another very well, each adding that special something that this franchise desperately needed. And that something is great, memorable characters. Not only do we have our two intimidating protectors, we also have a new “Sarah/John Connor” character in Natalia Reyes that will steel your heart. Even though Reyes’ Dani is our central character, it is Hamilton and Davis that have the lion’s share of the screentime. And it’s a good thing to, because it is their chemistry that holds this movie together and grounds it in that same abrasive banter that makes the first two movies so endearing. And yes, Connor has some great one-liners, including the franchise’s best-known line “I’ll be back.” Her entrance will undoubtedly evoke uncontrollable cheering throughout the audience for both her character and the actor herself.

The first two movies had extremely well-developed and executed plots, and then the plots and characters went off the rails. Thankfully, under the guidance of Cameron (whom has a co-writer credit), the plot of Dark Fate goes back to its roots of spending a sufficient amount of time setting up the story that is about to unfold. One of the magical parts of screenwriting is the ability to get away with just about anything–and it be believable–if you set it up early enough in the story. From the moment the movie opens, the central conflict in the plot is already being setup for major deliveries later on in the story. Not only do we hop in the wayback machine to a late 90s Sarah and John Connor, we witness that preventing judgment day did not completely protect the Connors from tragedy. Judgment day appears to be “starting all over” to quote the former T2-3D attraction. Although the overall goal of the plot is to stop Judgment Day from happening in the future, there is a secondary goal for both Connor and Grace. That is to protect Grace because she is the key to stopping the malevolent AI in the future. Not because she is a “Mother Mary” figure (much like Sarah was in the original) whom will give birth to the one who would save the world from the machines, but because Dani is to give birth to her own sense of agency that will cause her to become the leader of the resistance.

The strongest kind of conflict, in a plot, is derived from character relationships. Well developed and setup character conflict provides a near endless supply of drama that will carry the action and subtext of the movie. And the conflict meter reads off the charts between Connor and a particular T-800 (played by the definitive Terminator Schwarzenegger) because of a tragedy that befell Connor in the late 90s. Before you think that this T-800 is still hunting down Terminators from the future, this one can tell you any and everything you need to know about drapery. He’s gone and bought the metaphoric house with a picket fence, got married, and has a kid. Even though he’s demonstrably turned from his CyberDyne ways, Connor has a longtime grudge against this model, and she isn’t afraid to show it–and loudly. While Connor wants to kill him, Dani concludes that she cannot save the world without his help. Watching Connor and Carl (Arnold’s T-800) passionately bicker and verbally fight sounds like it may be there simply for the sake of nostalgia, but it lays the groundwork for how they will be forced to work together during the second and third acts of the movie. It may be grounded in T-1 and T-2, but this conflict moves the story forward. In a sense, these two characters provide the perfect balance between human and machine that was largely missing from the three movies that followed Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

If you’re a fan of the first two Terminators and the former attraction at Universal Studios Florida, then this movie is for you. Yes, it’s also for general audiences, but it’d specifically made for the longtime fans of the franchise that was, up to this point, doomed for extinction. Its got it all: action, a thrilling plot, endearing characters, beautiful visuals, and a memorable score (duh duh duh, duh-duh, duh duh duh, duh-duh). But more than for any other reason, you want to watch this movie to see our combat boot wearing, rock launcher carrying, no nonsense Sarah Connor as can only be played by Linda Hamilton.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Overlord” full movie review

Surprisingly deep! The best kind of bait and switch is when you go in with moderately low expectations and get blown away by how incredibly well an experimental film dances the line between two genres and provides us with rich writing and excellent direction. At the end of the day, it is still a glorified B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that has so many A-list qualities about it. Often when the term experimental is attributed to a film or movie, it is usually because of a particular stylistic choice by the director; however, I chose that description for this movie because it blends the war (WWII) genre with horror and action to create a movie experience that is incredibly thrilling and creepy. Not for the weak stomached, this movie contains quite a lot of war and horror violence, but the gore and violence are never the focus but used to enhance the visceral experience of the movie. The focus of the movie is on the mission of the American soldiers to take out a signaling tower for the Nazi forces, and we never forget that. For all the complexities of the film, the plot is superbly simple and the main characters moderately complex. If there is one singular fault of the movie, it is that the character of opposition (Wafner) is not as interesting as our central character of Boyce. Supporting the lead cast are fantastic side characters who are mostly there for some comedic relief. While the horrors of Nazi medical experimentation led by the sadistic Josef Mengele are still stomach-churning to this day, the end of this movie contains a brilliant payoff that takes what the Nazis may have been doing right before D-Day, and turns it against them. The Nazi’s are defeated by a member of a group that would have been on their extermination list. If you’re thinking that this is going to be another Dead Snow, you would be wrong. Takes what Dead Snow did well and combines it with the best of WWII movies to deliver an exhilarating movie!

Hours before the real life D-Day, a small group of American soldiers survive a airborne battle above France, and must work together, through their differences, to destroy a signaling tower in village near Normandy in order to allow the Allied forces to storm that infamous beach to deliver France from the clutches of Nazi occupation. The US soldiers soon realize that there is more going on than an oppressive Nazi occupation in the village. As the soldiers inch their way toward the former church, now a Nazi camp, they discover that the evil Nazi medical experimentation goes way beyond unethical and even immoral to downright sadistic. In an effort to solidify the Third Reich’s rein over the world, they have developed a serum to make super soldiers that has some horrific side effects. The allied forces must face not only the Nazi forces but the undead as well.

Why does this movie work as well as it does? Easy. The screenplay by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith and direction by Julius Avery. Ray is known for Captain Philips and The Hunger Games, Smith for The Revenant. Avery is still relatively new to directing feature films, but demonstrates a strong ability to work with a blended genre that provides audiences with an exciting big screen time. With Avery still earning his chops for feature films, the fantastic screenwriting and story serve as a solid foundation upon which the other elements are built. At first glance, this movie seems like one that would essentially one that is just schlocky fun, or perhaps one that tries to take itself seriously but fails miserably in a way that makes it painful to watch, and ultimately forgettable. But to great surprise, the movie not only delivers a thrilling WWII horror movie but one that is produced with dimension, depth, and visual precision. Although not writing or directing, J.J. Abrams penchant for incredible visuals and heart-pumping action is seen throughout the movie.

Before discussing the performances and visuals of the film, I want to focus more on why this film is much deeper than it first appears. On the surface, it is a WWII action horror movie but beneath the surface, the screenwriters confront the audience with concepts and questions that are creatively woven into the high concept plot. Chief among these is found in our central character of Boyce. He’s a young black male fighting alongside these hard-hearted soldiers. While his counterparts are mostly jaded, he maintains a morally sound world view amidst the harsh realities of war. The fact that the film depicts a young black male as the hero during a time in our country that was about to experience great civil rights unrest, is a testament to the creative and effective approach to this story. He plays the role that is often given to a white actor, but I immensely enjoyed the charisma and talent he brought to this role that shows a progressive film. Regarding the rest of the American soldiers, each soldier represents a different kind of character, providing audiences one with whom they may be able to identify.

In addition to the fantastic casting choice in Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the screenwriters also confront the audience with the question of what truly separates us from our enemies when the only means to defeat them is stooping to their level. Including a message such as this one allows us to use the situation as an allegory in our present culture that is growing increasingly divided, and hate seems to abound. Where do you draw the line in the course of war or a philosophical battle? Ostensibly giving the middle finger to the damsel in distress, this film delivers an independent badass heroine in Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). Such a strong female character in this movie, Chloe refuses to stay in her home and allow the American soldiers to fight for her. And she is so strong that even the most masculine of the soldiers accepts her tenacity and unbreakable spirit. Fortunately, the movie does not turn her into a love interest for the American soldiers. Many of the solders find her attractive, but she is never objectified by the Americans; however, she is objectified by the despicable Nazis. But fortunately for her, the infatuation the Wafner has with her, eventually brings about his demise.

Overlord delivers it’s visual tension brilliantly. And this is in party to the high degree of visual storytelling in this movie. The action sequences and special effects are extremely well produced. Avery’s movie rises above what we generally expect out of high concept action/horror movies to provide audiences with gritty, gnarly special effects and makeup effects. There is a realness to the atrocities of war felt in this movie that can be greatly appreciated. That realness is achieved by a large percentage of practical effects supplemented with digital effects. As I have pointed out before, relying upon mostly CGI robs the audience and the actors of authenticity. CGI cannot completely replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera. That sound mix, tho! If anything assaults your senses as much, if not more than the gruesome visuals, it is the ridiculous good sound design and mix. Definitely watch this film in IMAX or Dolby Digital (or the equivalent) if it is available in your area.

If you are seeking a horroresque gritty action movie, then this is one that you do not want to miss. It’s got everything you want from a movie that dances the line between horror and action. I cannot think of another horror action movie that does this as well with the exception of James Cameron’s Aliens (though, that one leans more towards action than horror).

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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The Predator (2018) Review

A solid reboot/sequel for the Predator franchise! Don’t pay attention to the plethora of reviews from critics who are hating on Shane Black’s The Predator. With an entertaining action-horror plot, fantastic cast, and excellent pacing, this is the Predator that we wanted and got! And I am not alone in this, several podcasts and even the Roger Ebert site agree on Black’s Predator. The tone of the movie feels like a throwback to the original, while acknowledging the other movies to maintain just enough continuity where you don’t question where this film falls of what has happened prior. I went into this movie with moderately low expectations because of what I read in the initial reviews, but I was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed it. And not only me, all of my friends who were with me between Rounds 1 and 2 of Halloween Horror Nights opening weekend. You get it all, grizzly action, humor, and entertaining kills. Unlike past movies that tried to “improve” on their 80s predecessors, this quintessential action-horror takes us back to what made the 80s horror endure the test of time. Instead of building the movie around the title character, it builds it around the lead human cast. And a memorable cast of characters, at that. Where some reviewers have found irreverence or offensiveness in the fact that many of the characters demonstrate cognitive and emotional disabilities, this is actually what works well for the film. Furthermore, it highlights how emotional, physiological, or cognitive disabilities do not determine someone’s degree of courage, determination, empathy, or sense of humor. Each of the lead and supporting characters in the ensemble cast overcome any obstacles that stand in their way, whether the obstacle comes from within or from the outside. It is a fun, exhilarating horror movie that will keep you entertained!

“From the outer reaches of space to the small-town streets of suburbia, the hunt comes home. The universe’s most lethal hunters are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves with DNA from other species” (IMDb). When US Ranger McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) discovers a crashed space ship and loses his crew to a mysterious alien with futuristic weaponry, he salvages what he can find from the wreckage and mails–in Dr. Henry Jones fashion–it in order for it to not be confiscated by the US government. Unbeknownst to McKenna, the US government is aware of these Predators, and has one sedated for testing in a secret facility. When the US government gaslights McKenna and believes him to be maliciously upholding an investigation, he is thrown onto a bus of other veterans, whom the government does not want to deal with, to be taken to a mental hospital. When the Predator escapes the facility, McKenna teams up with his fellow soldiers on the bus to take down the alien killer before more harm can be done. Meanwhile, the situation is complicated when a boy accidentally triggers the return to Earth of an even bigger Predator, and only McKennas’ ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and an evolutionary biologist can prevent the end of the human race.

Since there isn’t much to analyze here, I am going to keep this one short. What I find most interesting about The Predator, is what it was NOT more so than what it was. It wasn’t another reboot of a past franchise that overly injects vapid dialogue and self-aware humor or a complex plot. The Predator heeds the maxim “simple plot, complex characters.” Moreover, it also wasn’t a parody or satirical piece that was making fun of the genre or source material as if it was no longer relevant to audiences. It would have been far too easy for Black to have made a mockery of this franchise or wrote-directed something that was just complete schlock; but he did what many thought was impossible with this horror creature feature. He revived what we loved about the original, made a few tweaks, and gave us a strong reboot/sequel that was incredibly entertaining to watch.

After watching the movie, I am left with the conclusion that Black was able to recapture what made the first one work so well and actually repeat it, with some exchanges of grizzly violence for humor. But why does this movie work so well? Black started with characters, then derived a plot from those characters with incredible precision and strategic pacing. The tone and rhythm of this movie are remarkable. Yes, remarkable. Black was able to achieve what fans of great action movies love and take for granted, but is highly difficult to pull off effectively. The placement of dramatic beats. The reason the plot of this movie works so well is because Black knew where to place the emotional and action beats, and how to build up to them, and drive them home. He connects to these beats through character-driven development through which plot is derived.

For fans of the franchise, this truly IS the Predator movie that you were hoping for. Even those who are new to the franchise will enjoy the movie because it works as both an homage to and a pioneer in rediscovering the attraction of this iconic creature feature.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Blumhouse’s “Upgrade” movie review

Black Mirror on crack. That is precisely what Blumhouse’s Upgrade can be likened to. Outstanding commentary on the convergence of humanity and technology that provides many thought-provoking moments. Best known for its horror, this action thriller from Blumhouse will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Rooted in classic science-fiction, this thriller will also deliver a healthy dose of dark comedy, heart-pounding action, and acutely shockingly violent scenes. Writer-director Leigh Whannel crafts a brilliant motion picture that is one part vigilante Robocop and another part Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster. On the surface, Whannel’s thriller comes across as a B-movie done well, but it contains prolific content that will likely inspire conversations about the relationship between humanity and technology. Perhaps it was not the intention of Whannel (co-creator of Insidious and Saw) to write a motion picture steeped with commentary on the human condition and a harbinger against allowing technology to fuse with our minds and bodies, but there is certainly material here to discuss those deeper topics. Bumhouse’s Upgrade is certainly a big screen experience, so catch it while it is there!

Set in the not-so-distant future, cars drive themselves, pizzas can be printed at home, and Alexa is built into your house. After dropping off a completely rebuilt 1980s Firebird Trans-Am at a client’s hosue, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is left a quadriplegic following a brutal car accident and mugging that also leaves his wife dead. While recovering in the hospital, Grey is approached by a major tech company owner about an experimental surgery that is theorized to enable Grey to regain his motor skills. It worked! Only now, Grey’s realized that he has cat-like agility and reflexes as well as increased strength. With his newfound abilities, Grey seeks to assassinate those he blames for his wife’s death.

Better have an iron stomach in order to watch this thriller, because Whannel prefers shocking moments in abundance. Whereas this film is certainly not a horror–as the intent of the film is NOT to horrify audiences–it certainly contains elements borrowed from horror films in order in increase the level of threat. A director friend of mine from Germany characterized the film has having tones of a John Carpenter movie combined with Drive by Nicholas Winding Refn. Though set in a possible near-future, the cinematography, score, and lighting are quintessential 1980s. No surprise as 80s is en vogue in our movies and TV shows. Grey’s “everyman” character archetype enables audiences to identify with him quickly, thus root for him as he takes the law into his own hands to avenge the brutal death of his beloved wife. It’s the simple revenge plot that enables Whannel to build a complex character delivering dark humor and visceral violence.

Definitely an entertaining science-fiction thriller! If you enjoy TV shows like Netflix’ Black Mirror and movies like DriveHalloween, Frankenstein, and Robocop, then you’ll certainly like Blumhouse’s Upgrade.