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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“MA” Horror Movie Review

A delightfully disturbing and thought-provoking Carrie meets Misery horror movie. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer delivers an outstanding performance; however, the movie is unfortunately hampered by a weak screenplay with flat characters. In short, the reason to watch this movie is for the terrifying performance by Spencer, solid world-building, and commentary on high school bullying and teen sexual assault. Tonally, MA is a throwback to 70s and 80s slasher horror complete with the slow-burn windup, off-beat comedic schticks, and a descent into gnarly violence. Not all the kills cause you to wince as the screen holds your eyes hostage in the pleasurable unpleasure, one of the kills will leave you cheering–no seriously, it will. Built upon the premise of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children, the screenplay does not hold back when taking us to some very dark places that fester with anger, fear, and resentment. With so much going for it, it’s unfortunate that the movie suffers from on-the-nose dialogue, leaving little room for subtext. Furthermore, most of the characters lack significant dimension that could have propped up this movie. Some interesting relationship dynamics and backstory are touched on, but never followed through in a meaningful way. While Spencer is truly the glue holding this movie together, there are some highlights worth discussing.

A lonely middle-aged woman befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth. (IMDb)

While most of the characters lack any true dimension (except Ma), the ensemble cast is comprised of some highly relatable characters. At the forefront of the cast is our title character of Sue Ann (or Ma). If you are coming to this movie as a single individual over 30, then you will likely identify with her by empathizing with her backstory and understanding what it’s like to feel that life is a parade passing as you wave it by. Furthermore, Sue Ann suffered repeated bullying, rejection, and even teen sexual assault that left a lasting psychological trauma. Or maybe you are the former popular high school Erica who moved away from her jerkwater town to Los Angeles, lived a wealthy life, just to wind up a divorcee and back in your hometown as a cocktail waitress. Perhaps you are the new girl at school Maggie, who grew up in Los Angeles but now is back in dismal Ohio during your junior or senior year of high school because your dad left your mom (Erica) for another woman. You could be the Regina of your group of friends, the dude bro, or the all American boy with a touch of geek. Whatever your high school experience or how it affected your adulthood, there is likely a character with whom you can identify.

Although the film could have commented more on the PTSD associated with high school bullying in a more meaningful way, and derived even more horror from it, it does serve as an exploration of the real, lasting effects on the psyche. A brief character analysis of Sue Ann reveals someone who is trying to capture that which evaded her in high school: the parties, the romance, the care-free friends. Because of the abominable treatment of Sue Ann by many of her classmates in high school, she suffered a trauma that mitigated her ability to socialize properly and psychologically mature. Therefore, as she grew older, she was constantly reminded of that which she could not experience in high school. So, when she saw a moment to reconnect with her youthful self in being needed by the group of teens outside of the gas station to buy alcohol, she seized the opportunity. Of course, the fact that our all American boy Andy is the son of the guy she crushed on in high school, definitely helped her make the decision to help. Unfortunately, her high school crush was responsible for the sexual assault she endured. A sin for which both father and son would pay. It doesn’t take long for the teens to see the cracks in Sue Ann’s fragile veneer. While the teens enjoyed Sue Ann’s party house and the charismatic Ma, things were fine. When they rejected her, things took a grave turn for the worst. And just like that, she was reminded of the torment from their parents in high school and began to plot her revenge on both the teens and their parents. In this respect, she is a little like Freddy Krueger because in A Nightmare on Elm Street we have the concept of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children.

If you went or are going into Ma with the desire to see a terrifying horror movie from start to finish, then I need to warn you that this is a slow burn horror movie. Not, that slow burn is without its intrigue and suspense, after all, this is where the world and relationship building happens. However, this movie does not reach its horror status until the third act. But once the horror hits, it hits hard–gnarly even. Even the kills/tortures that you saw in the trailer still pack a powerful punch. Most of kills are nightmarishly real. Very little visual effects here; you get the benefit of some highly authentic practical effects. Yes, even the lip sewing scene. Probably one of the most disturbing torture and kills involves animal blood; this moment is nice homage to both Misery and Carrie, but not a copy of either. There is a poetry to the tortures and kills. No one is targeted out of sheer happenstance, but targeted because of whom or what they represent. The sins by which Sue Ann judges the teens or parents are directly connect to or represented in the manner in which they meet their demise. More than the creativity in the actions of Sue Ann, the reasons why she feels the way she does are the most interesting. Even though we should be disgusted at the actions of Sue Ann, we cannot help but empathize with her because of her troubled history and past trauma. She wants what any of us want: to love, have our love returned, and be accepted.

Is it a great horror movie? No. But is is a solidly good one? Yes. If for no other reason, you watch Ma for the outstanding performance by Octavia Spencer! She is absolutely captivating and will leave you with many WTF moments. Interestingly, this is not Spencer’s first time in a horror movie; she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. I hope that we get to see her in more horror movies in the future because she did such a fantastic job with this one. If you’re looking for a fun, popcorn horror movie that–to its credit–does have some thought-provoking content, then you’ll enjoy Ma.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

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!

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“Instant Family” brief movie review

Surprisingly good! You’ll want to adopt this movie into your heart. Have you ever seen a trailer for a new theatrical release and just assumed it was another generic Hallmark or Lifetime movie making its debut on the big screen? That is precisely what I thought of Mark Wahlberg’s Instant Family. In fact, the only reason I watched it last night was because there wasn’t anything else (and I didn’t want to see the neutered Deadpool cash grab). But, I am glad that I decided to watch it! Not for reasons that it’s a “great film,” but because it was a heartwarming, inspirational story told effectively! There is a refreshing unapologetic approach to familial conflict that holds nothing back. It’s a no-holds-barred dramedy that addresses the mountains and valleys of fostering/adoption, specifically sibling fostering/adoption. If I was to liken this movie to one that we are largely familiar with, I would compare it to Parenthood, but one that is for the 21st century and concerns itself with the foster system. The movie, through the trailers, sets itself up to be an over-the-top comedy, but it was far from being a farce or slapstick comedy. When Instant Family comes from the same director of Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2, you already have preconceived notions of what the experience of this movie is going to be. Fortunately for audiences, this movie is far from the former two. And why is that? The short answer is that there is a sort of flawed humanity underscoring everything. No pretense about any of the characters. If you’re looking for authenticity, a realness about true-to-life characters, situations, and conflict, then you will definitely want to catch Instant Family.

When Pete and Ellie decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of foster care adoption. They hope to take in one small child, but when they meet three siblings, including a rebellious 15-year-old girl, they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hope of becoming a family. (IMDb)

While there is a lot of satire in the movie, there is never a moment that you lose your empathy for Pete and Ellie. They come from families that could very well be your own, with all the jabs, competition, and patronization that comes along with them. Even the adoption center and fair scenes, there are elements of the conversations and experiences that may be exaggerated for comedic purposes, but they are all still very much grounded in reality. Pete and Ellie are extremely eager to do a good job, and even employ some of the same approaches they use for flipping houses, but in stead use them to flip people. Some of the irreverent jokes are hilarious! There is one about rebranding foster children as rescue children like the pound for animals was rebranded rescue. The movie also takes audiences behind the faces at the adoption center to reveal the tragic, hard lives that the children and teens come from. Truly highlights the importance of looking at becoming a foster or adoptive family in order to give a child a nice home. Beyond the social commentary on the adoption and foster system, there is also a lesson to be learned that can apply to any number of areas of our lives. Such as knowing precisely why you want to do something, not just the fact you feel it’s what is supposed to be done. The movie will hit you with thought-provoking moments that will force you to face what you think of foster kids and the foster system. I also appreciate the movie for depicting difference kinds of parents–quite the modern bunch! So much diversity is represented, and each prospective parent(s) is inspired by ones encountered by the writer-director Sean Anders’ own journey as he and his wife adopted three siblings.

This is a shorter review because I am getting busy with the end of the semester, but I wanted to provide some brief thoughts on it anyhow. After this week, I’ll be back to my regular article entries.

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 Shape of Water” film review

Absolutely enchanting! Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a beautiful modern fairy tale told through a classical means. From the provocative first scene to the endearing final moments, this film explores the human condition in an innovative way that highlights the spirits of kindness, generosity, and love. In a film that could have so easily played out like many other-worldly science-fiction love stories, this story demonstrates the power of cinematic storytelling full of brilliantly developed characters and excellent direction from Del Toro. Positively gripping. The Shape of Water provides audiences with a fresh perspective on the “monster movie” genre by taking you on a whimsical journey into the belly of a government research facility during the Cold War where you meet characters you love and love to hate along the way. As with many of his other films, Del Toro once again crafts an imaginative experience through the creation of memorable characters grounded by solid writing, direction, and cinematography. It seems like “genre films” are becoming a thing of the past, because so many want to exist in multiple planes; however, for all the elements at its heart, The Shape of Water is a classic monster genre film but breaks new ground.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mostly isolated mute young lady who works in housekeeping at a remote, underground government research facility near Baltimore. With only her starving artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to keep her company at home and her close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to watch over and speak for her at work, she leads a rather mundane life but longs for music, adventure, and romance. Taking place during the Cold War in 1962, Elisa’s encountered the strange and questionable over her time in and out of cleaning labs. Her nondescript life will be forever changed when she discovers the lab’s newest secret–a mysterious amphibian-like creature who lives in an aquarium tank. Over the days, Elisa feels compelled to visit the creature as the two of them develop a trusting bond. When the creature’s very life is at stake, Elisa must work quickly to construct a plan for his safe evacuation.

The Shape of Water has one of the most innovative openings to a film in that it juxtaposes a serene, calming yet mesmerizing sequence of underwater shots during the opening title sequence against a rather provocative first scene. Del Toro will successfully have your attention for the entirety of the film. It isn’t often that we get fairy-tale like narration at the beginning of a monster movie, and Del Toro’s choice for the beginning narration was absolutely perfect. It not only provided strategic exposition, but set the tone of the film. What we are about to watch may contain elements of monsters and mysteries, but it is a modern romantic fairy tale. Horror and science-fiction have often been used as conduits for filmmakers to explore the human condition and all its imperfections and growth; so by combining elements from both to create an innovative monster movie, Del Toro provides audiences with a fantastic opportunity to use the film’s diegesis as a mirror to our modern lives. Although the “beauty and the beast” style love story is central to the film, the film also comments on topics such as race, marriage, and class during the 1960s. There is also a side story that alludes to how members of the LGBTQ community were treated in the workplace and within the community. An incredibly comprehensive plot that never loses focus on the main story.

What an excellent cast! Sally Hawkins brings such endearing and powerful subtlety to her mute character. Her commitment to Elisa is so exquisite that you will swear that you can hear her voice through her sign language. Much in the same way we explored interspecies communication in last year’s Arrival, we witness just how the movement of hands and facial expressions know no bounds when establishing relationships with those with whom we cannot verbally communicate. In many ways, this movie is a combination of Beauty and the Beast, TV’s Swamp ThingArrival, and a little Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hawkins’ exceptional performance may very well land her an Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a win. Doug Jones’ creature is a brilliant combination of monster and lover. From the moment you encounter him, you will feel a human-like connection to his character. Like with Hawkins’ Elisa, Jones’ creature exhibits the power of subtlety. That seems to be a common element of this film: subtlety. So often the techniques of the pioneers of cinema are forgotten. Hitchcock proved over and over again that the camera itself can create suspense. Of course, he took many of his techniques from silent cinema where the camera was instrumental in visually communicating so much. Del Toro utilizes this power of the camera to not only visually create emotions but to work through actors to allow subtle powers of character to enhance the experience of this movie.

Beyond our central characters, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) have mini-movies of their own. And indirectly, their mini-movies have an impact on the larger story; however, these side stories never eclipse the central plot and only serve to bolster the overall experience. Spencer’s character enables audiences to explore marriage in the 1960s and Jenkins’s character provides a platform for discussion regarding how ostracized members of the LGBTQ community were before more modern times. There is also a scene where a classy looking black couple was denied seating at a diner. So many societal themes that can be used as a framework through which to understand the time in which this story takes place, and now the characters can be used to explore modern themes as well. Each and every chiefly supporting player has a significant impact upon the central diegesis of The Shape of Water. Del Toro took special care in integrating every element and making sure each aspect of the story was never just filler or for shock value. Each character, each scene, each camera angle moves the story forward.

The reality of love and relationships juxtaposed against an imaginative backdrop grounded in a literal view of life in the 1960s comprise this world created by Guillermo Del Toro. Whether you enjoy an excellent monster movie or old-fashioned romance, you will enjoy The Shape of Water. The brilliance of this film can be found in how this modern fairy tale is told through classical means. I also enjoyed the references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and dramas that can each be seen in the plot of this film. No image is ever wasted in Del Toro’s film. If there is one negative critique, the second act is a little drawn out and could have been trimmed a little, and some added suspense would have been appreciated in the second act as well.

“Gifted” movie review

A cute paint-by-the-numbers heartwarming drama. Although Gifted may be in the vein of a Hallmark Original, it doesn’t shy away from nor sanitize the real problems faced by adults and children. Fresh off the Spider-Man series, director Marc Webb switches gears from superhero action movie to family drama. However, this drama stands out from its counterparts due to the organic feel of the dialog and in how it follows a blockbuster formula. Webb is certainly not new to directing cinematic dramas; he directed the wildly popular 500 Days of Summer which has a cult following in and of itself. Diegetic contrast can easily be drawn between Gifted and 500 Days of Summer in the simple fact that the former is chronologically out of order–but it can easily be said that the movie would not have the artistic or emotional impact that it did if it were told in order–whereas the latter is traditional in linear storytelling. If it were not for Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer’s billing in the film, this one would likely go by the wayside. Over the course of a director or writer’s career (although not limited to those roles), there are occasionally films that provide audiences with a glimpse into a director getting in tough with his or her roots, and this is one of those. More polished and comprehensive than a typical Hallmark movie, Gifted is satisfying enough but does not leave a lasting impact.

Faced with raising his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) after the untimely death of his sister, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives a modest, hardworking life in a small coastal town in Florida. Mary is no ordinary child; she is a mathematics prodigy. Against the advice of friend and neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary in a typical elementary school. When Mary’s unparalleled, brilliant mathematical skills come  to the attention of Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and principal, her school encourages Frank to enroll her in an exclusive school for cognitively gifted children. With a deep desire for Mary to have a normal, fun childhood, Frank declines the full-scholarship. News of Mary’s ability and the scholarship soon reach Frank’s mom Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), a genius in her own right. After failing to reason with her son, Evelyn takes him to court in order to secure parental rights. Throughout the custody battle, skeletons come out of the closet and the reasons for Frank’s decisions become clear.

Paralleling the brilliance of Mary’s cognitive abilities, a trait that runs through the entire family, the most notable element that stands out in Gifted is the casting. Child actors playing characters who are atypically outstanding in a particular field can come across as precocious, if not just plain annoying. Whether a kid genius, musical savant, or prima ballerina, attributing adult-like qualities to a child can create a character that comes across as out of touch with the majority of the audience. Not so with McKenna Grace. With her wide eyes, missing front teeth, and refreshing spontaneity, she provides audiences with a relatable character who just happens to be brilliant. This relatablity can be attributed to her down-home charm and humble demeanor. When he’s not saving the world, Captain America is raising his niece in a non-discript small coastal town outside of the bustling Tampa-St. Pete metropolitan area. While many actors become type casted after bringing an iconic character to life, Evans is working to prevent this by appearing in lead roles that are in stark contrast to his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sporting a perpetual scruffy beard, love for the outdoors, and a boyish-fatherly charm, Evans demonstrates his ability to successfully transfer his acting prowess to other genres in cinema outside of his famous Captain America.

Supporting the two leads are Spencer’s Roberta and Duncan’s Evelyn who are interestingly mirror characters in that they are the antithesis of one another. Although her screen time is limited, Roberta’s appearances are strategic and greatly support the emotional pull of the movie. Wise beyond her likely formal education, Roberta cares nearly as much about Mary’s well-being as does her father-figure uncle. Spencer’s charisma is easily seen in this chief supporting role and I cannot think of another female actor who could have done this role justice as well as Spencer did. The character of Evelyn is an interesting one to evaluate. On one hand, she is a monster of a grandmother who wants to control her granddaughter and protect the family’s academic legacy; but for fear of smothering her like she did her own daughter, tries to be as loving and concerned as she can. Although at first I thought that this was a role better suited for Jessica Lange, I do not feel that Lange could have captured the vibrant love that Evelyn has for her family–tough love maybe–but sincere love for and desire for her children to be successful. Evelyn is both an enlightened academic and tough-loving mother and grandmother.

Gifted does its best to be a tear-jerker, but it never quite hits that emotional peak. There were times that I was close to tearing up, but there was just a little something extra missing that prevented the tears from rolling down my face. The plot of this film was as structured, precise, and predictable as a chalk equation on a blackboard, but it still has a charm that will assist it in beckoning patrons to watch it at the cinema when it hits select theaters this week with a wide release predicted in the near future.

Written by R.L. Terry

Written by J.M. Wead