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Freeze Frame is a weekly show reviewing the latest movies from Hollywood’s best films to independent and arthouse movies.
Freeze Frame: “Black Panther” (PG-13), “Early Man” (PG), “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (R) February 16, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
Marvel’s superhero “Black Panther” finally gets his proper feature-length movie introduction and it’s a rousing, involving adventure. The fact that most of the folks in front of and behind the camera are black makes it all the more compelling. Chawick Boseman plays the king of a mysterious, highly advanced African nation who must rise to the occasion and save his country, and the world, from a rival cousin, played by Michael B. Jordan. The cast is solid, the story has interesting social implications and Ryan Coogler displays a deft hand as director. While it runs a bit too long for its own good, “Black Panther” is a worthy addition that enriches the Marvel Universe.
“Early Man” is the latest stop-motion animated farce from Aardman, the folks behind Wallace and Gromit. It purports to relate the origins of soccer, pitting cavemen against the Bronze Agers. It’s all very silly, but good fun for the little league set.
The final days of Oscar-winning actress Gloria Graham provide the background for the low-key drama “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Annette Bening and Jamie Bell star in this story of a May-December romance between Graham and a young and struggling British actor. The story only scratches the surface of Graham’s fascinating life, but the actors it worth a look.
Also opening this week, "Samson" is a faith-based production about the Biblical strongman. “The Scent of Rain & Lightning” is a contemporary Western drama that was an award winner at last year’s Kansas City FilmFest. “The Female Brain” is a comedy about modern romance written and directed by standup comic Whitney Cummings. “Golden Exits” is a drama about a young Australian girl whose arrival upends the lives of folks from two Brooklyn families. Emily Browning and Jason Schwartzman star. “Poop Talk” is a documentary featuring a number of comics telling funny stories about poop.
FREEZE FRAME: “Fifty Shades Freed” (R), “Oscar Shorts” (not rated), “Happy End” (R) February 9, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
The final chapter in the big screen adaptation of E.L. James’ kinky S&M bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy finally hits theaters this week. Like its predecessors, “Fifty Shades Freed” isn’t bad enough to be campy fun and is about as erotic as a cold shower. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are back in this absurd wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s just a gaudy soap opera dressed up with snappy production values. The best thing to say about “Fifty Shades Freed” is that this is actually the last installment.
The 90th annual Academy Awards take place the first weekend of March. “The 2018 Oscar Short Film Programs” celebrate this year’s nominees that represent best the genre has to offer. There are three separate showcases, “The Animated Program,” the “Live Action Program” and the “Documentaries Program.” As always these compilations are a mixed bag, but there’s plenty of creativity and artistry on display.
And speaking of Oscars, the latest film from Oscar-winning Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is “Happy End.” In this French language offering, Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant play members of a self-absorbed French bourgeois family. “Happy End” is a dark social critique about the indifference of the elite towards the masses. It’s smart, but also slow and gloomy and as self-absorbed as the classes it’s trying to skewer.
Also opening this week, “The 15:17 to Paris” is director Clint Eastwood’s drama about the three American tourists who took down a terrorist on a French train in 2015. The actual heroes play themselves. “Peter Rabbit” uses a mix of live action and computer animation to bring to life Beatrix Potter’s famous characters. James Cordon and Margot Robbie provide voices. “Still/Born” is a horror film about a supernatural entity trying to take the one surviving twin baby from its mother.
FREEZE FRAME: “Black History Month” movie suggestions February 2, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
February is “Black History Month,” and people have asked me to put together a list of movie suggestions to commemorate the annual observance. So, here are some films that are, I believe, apt viewing choices.
“12 Years a Slave” won the Best Picture Oscar for 2013. Inspired by a true story, it tells the harrowing tale of a free man, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was captured and sent into slavery on a Louisiana plantation in the 1800s. It’s hard to watch, but packs an emotional wallop.
David Oyelowo gives a stirring performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 2015 film, “Selma,” about the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that was met with a violent crackdown by local authorities. The event helped cement passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The 2013 film “The Butler” provides a historical overview of social change seen through the eyes of a butler named Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, who served in the White House beginning with the Eisenhower administration and lasting through the Reagan years. It’s restrained but dignified.
Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning performance propels the sentimental1963 comic drama, “Lilies of the Field.” Poitier plays a laborer who helps out some immigrant German nuns who are trying to establish a small chapel for their rural Arizona community. In this story, the leading character’s race was irrelevant, making “Lilies of the Field” all the more unique for its time.
New in theaters this week, “Winchester” is a horror thriller starring Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke that was reportedly inspired by true events. “Vazante” is a Portuguese language period drama dealing with slavery in 1820s Brazil. “Victor Crowley” is the third entry in the “Hatchet” slasher film series. Kane Hodder returns as the titular, supernatural serial killer.
FREEZE FRAME: “Hostiles” (R), “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” (PG-13) January 26, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
The clichés and stereotypes that populate most Westerns are upended in “Hostiles,” a brutal, challenging and beautifully filmed drama. Christian Bale leads a terrific cast in the story of a war weary Army captain who, in the late 1800s, reluctantly escorts a group of Cheyenne prisoners on a torturous journey from New Mexico to Wyoming. Wes Studie plays a dying Cheyenne war chief and Rosamund Pike is a woman whose family was brutally murdered by renegades.
Writer/director Scott Cooper makes some potent statements about the cycle of violence that permeated US history. But many of the scenes in this ultraviolent and drawn out saga continue to linger, hammering home their points long after they’ve been made. While the sentiments presented in “Hostiles” may be way overdue, the drama of “Hostiles” is way overlong.
And speaking of overlong, the third and supposedly final chapter in the “Maze Runner” saga has finally arrived. “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” completes the dystopian sci-fi story about a bleak future affected by solar flares, disease, zombies and wicked pseudo-governmental agencies. Dylan O’Brian is back as a young man leading a ragtag group of teens fighting for their lives while trying to figure out what’s going on. You’ll have a hard time figuring it out, too, if you haven’t seen the other entries in the series…and maybe even if you have. Loud, busy and exhausting, “The Maze Runner: The Death Cure” probably marks the death of this franchise.
Also opening this week, “The Road Movie” is a documentary comprised entirely of car wrecks and other mayhem recorded from Russian dashboard cameras. “Freak Show” is a comic drama about a teenage boy who decides to run for homecoming queen. Trudie Styler, best known as the wife of Sting, produced and directed.
FREEZE FRAME: “12 Strong” (R), “Phantom Thread” (R), “Call Me by Your Name” (R), “Small Town Crime” (R) January 19, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
Chris Hemsworth moves from superhero to war hero in“12 Strong,” a tale inspired by the true story of the Green Beret soldiers who were the first sent into action in Afghanistan after 9/11. Historians may quibble about the accuracy of the proceedings and some may find this standard action flick a bit jingoistic, but it’s a suitable tribute to those brave men who willingly put themselves in harm’s way.
“Phantom Thread” is reportedly Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film appearance and, as always, he delivers an imposing performance. He plays a British fashion designer in the 1950s who uses and misuses his young muse, played by Luxembourger actress, Vicky Krieps (creeps). Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is sumptuously and meticulously made, but has some grating plot elements lessen its impact.
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer star in “Call Me by Your Name,” a gay coming of age story set in Italy in the early 1980s. Chalamet plays a conflicted teen who falls for a grad student visiting his family’s 17th century Italian villa. There are a couple of excellent scenes that help make up for some of the duller ones. Overall, it’s well acted and beautifully filmed…but perhaps a bit too subtle for its own good.
Fans of gritty shoot-‘em-ups should like “Small Town Crime,” a violent and suspenseful drama starring John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer and Anthony Anderson. Hawkes plays an alcoholic ex-cop who puts his family’s life in danger when he strikes out on his own to pursue the killer of a prostitute. An excellent cast and zippy pace help propel this decadent thriller.
Also opening this week, “Den of Thieves” is a bank heist flick starring Gerard Butler and 50 Cent that was hidden from the critics. “Mary and the Witches Flower” is a Japanese anime offering. “Midnight Man” is a low budget horror entry starring Robert Englund.
FREEZE FRAME: “The Post” (PG-13), “The Commuter” (PG-13) January 12, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
One of the year’s most acclaimed movies has finally gotten its Kansas City release. It's hard to imagine a timelier movie about freedom of the press than “The Post.” Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in Steven Spielberg's riveting drama about the Washington Post's behind the scenes struggles leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Streep once again shows why she’s our greatest actress playing The Post’s troubled publisher, Katherine Graham. Tom Hanks adds another notch on his belt as the paper’s grizzled editor, Ben Bradlee.
One of the most difficult things for a filmmaker to accomplish is to build tension and suspense in a story where most of the audience already knows the outcome. Spielberg and company pull it off in “The Post,” and that’s no small feat.
It’s nice to see guys in their 60s who are still able to kick some backside. Liam Neeson’s latest action thriller is “The Commuter,” the tale of an insurance agent/former policeman who is blackmailed into hunting for a murder witness on a commuter train. Neeson teams up for the fourth time with action director Jaume Collet-Sera and while there are plenty of eye-rolling coincidences and ridiculous plot holes, there’s enough action to please fans of the genre.
Also opening this week, “Paddington 2” is the sequel to the popular mixed live action and CGI kid’s comedy from 2015. “Proud Mary” is a throwback action flick about a hit woman with a conscience. Taraji P. Henson stars.
Downright Creepy’s annual Panic Fest takes place January 26th through the 28th at the Screenland Armour. Over 20 horror, thriller and sci-fi films will be featured. More information is available at panicfilmfest.com.
FREEZE FRAME: Russ’ Top Ten Movies of 2017 January 5, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
As we leap into 2018 it’s time to look back the best movies the year had to offer. Here’s my list of the cream of the cinematic crop.
10) THE FLORIDA PROJECT (R)
The poor who live on the fringes of society are the focus of “The Florida Project,” a realistic slice of life drama set in the seedy shadow of Disney World.
9) WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (PG-13)
I’m not monkeying around. The third installment in the "Planet of the Apes" franchise reboot, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” is a visually spectacular and riveting drama.
8) WIND RIVER (R)
Jeremy Renner stars in Taylor Sheridan’s smart contemporary Western, a very dark and disturbing thriller about a murder of a Native American woman on a frigid, remote reservation.
7) BABY DRIVER (R)
Decadent, violent, profane…and wildly entertaining, “Baby Driver” is a zippy heist film fueled by a kinetic soundtrack that should appeal to both Baby Boomers and Millennials.
6) LADY BIRD (R)
"Lady Bird" is a funny, realistic and insightful comic drama about teenage angst. It's beautifully acted and a welcome entry in the coming-of-age genre.
5) THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI (R)
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” has a very dark “show me” attitude. Expect multiple Oscar nominations for this bitterly funny and profane comic drama that's smart, disturbing and vividly told.
4) GET OUT (R)
Jordan Peele's horror entry "Get Out" is an effective social commentary as well as a potent creepfest. “Get Out” is this generation’s answer to “The Stepford Wives.”
3) DUNKIRK (PG-13)
“Dunkirk” is an engrossing WWII epic from filmmaker Christopher Nolan about the evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches of France. Instead of a tidy plot, Nolan immerses the audience into the action to provide a visceral, impressive 'you are there' experience.
2) THE POST (PG-13)
It's hard to imagine a timelier movie about freedom of the press. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in Steven Spielberg's riveting drama about the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
1) THE BIG SICK (R)
My favorite movie of the year may not make it to the top on other lists, but "The Big Sick" is a smart, hilarious and touching comic drama with a terrific cast. If it doesn't move you, maybe YOU need to check into the hospital.
FREEZE FRAME: “Molly’s Game,” “All the Money in the World” December 29, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is best known for his machine gun dialogue for movies like “The Social Network” and “A Few Good Men.” It should be no surprise that he also takes a rat-a-tat approach for his first effort as director, “Molly’s Game.” The method fits the subject matter perfectly. Jessica Chastain stars in the true story of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic-class skier who ran a multi-million dollar poker games. When the FBI busts her for unwittingly allowing Russian mobsters in the game, lawyer Charlie Jaffey, played by Idris Elba, comes to her defense.
Chastain and Elba are more than up to the challenge of Sorkin’s quick-witted repartee and it’s an arresting true story. There are moments, however, when you want Sorkin to take a break from the lightning chatter because all of the characters start to sound the same. Still, “Molly’s Game” will fill the bill for people who want something to think about when they go to a movie.
The fact that director Ridley Scott got his movie “All the Money in the World” into theaters by the end of the year is a more impressive an accomplishment than the movie itself. At the last possible minute, Scott re-shot all of the scenes that featured Kevin Spacey as billionaire J. Paul Getty, replacing him with Christopher Plummer. It was a good move. Plummer perfectly embodies the skinflint oil mogul who refused to pay ransom for his kidnapped grandson in 1973.
Michelle Williams is equally good as the boy’s harried mother who had to contend with kidnappers, indifferent police, a meddling ex-CIA operative played by Mark Wahlberg, as well as her greedy father-in-law. “All the Money in the World” is a sad but involving drama about the ultimate consequences of greed.
Also opening this week, “Faces Places” is an acclaimed French documentary about the friendship between filmmaker Agnes Varda and photographer JR.
Freeze Frame: “The Post” (PG-13), “The Greatest Showman” (PG), “Downsizing” (R), “Darkest Hour” (PG-13) December 22, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
It's hard to imagine a timelier movie about freedom of the press than “The Post.” Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in Steven Spielberg's riveting drama about the Washington Post's behind the scenes struggles leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It's suspenseful even though we know the outcome. That’s no small feat.
If you're a lover of musicals, Hugh Jackman has a Christmas gift for you. "The Greatest Showman" is a colorful, whimsical fable based on the life of famed circus founder, P.T. Barnum. It may take you a moment to adjust to hearing contemporary pop tunes sung by characters in the 1800s, but like "Moulin Rouge," it somehow works. There's little that's historically accurate here, but a talented cast, creative filmmaking and tunes from the guys who gave us "La La Land" add up to cinematic joy for fans of the genre. If you DON'T like musicals, stay far, far away, because you'll think the rest of us are all suckers.
A rare misfire for filmmaker Alexander Payne, "Downsizing" is an awkward sci-fi fable about people, like Matt Damon, who are shrunken to doll size to help the environment. It's neither an entertaining comedy nor an effective social commentary. Don't believe the ads.
Gary Oldman's electric performance as Winston Churchill is the main attraction of "Darkest Hour," a drama about Britain's internal political turmoil leading up to WWII. The narrative takes some ill-advised turns, but it's fairly effective thanks to Oldman's inspired turn that works even under a ton of latex makeup.
Also opening this week, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” is an uncalled for sequel starring Dwayne Johnson. “Pitch Perfect 3” is yet another sequel about the a cappella singers who reunite for a USO tour. “Hangman” is a serial killer thriller starring Al Pacino and “Pitch Perfect 3’s” Brittany Snow.
Freeze Frame: “The Shape of Water,” “Wonder Wheel” December 15, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"
You can always count on filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to deliver visually arresting and atmospheric cinema. “The Shape of Water” is no exception. This adult sci-fi fantasy is really an oddball love story featuring an aquatic humanoid creature and a cleaning woman in 1960s Cold War America. Sally Hawkins leads a terrific cast as an emotionally damaged mute who works at a top secret US government research facility. She befriends and eventually becomes romantically involved with a captured monster that resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The top-notch supporting cast includes Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. “The Shape of Water” is ravishing to behold and works in spite of, or perhaps because of, its stubbornly eccentric sensibilities.
Late in Woody Allen’s latest movie, a character played by Kate Winslet yells, “Enough with the bad drama.” My thoughts, exactly. “Wonder Wheel” is set in New York’s Coney Island amusement park during the 1950s. Winslet plays an unhappy waitress married to a boorish, boozy carousel operator played by Jim Belushi. She carries on an affair with a lifeguard and wannabe playwright, played by Justin Timberlake. Trouble is, Justin is attracted to her comely stepdaughter, played by Juno Temple. The dialogue is unusually stilted for a Woody Allen movie, and it plays like “Tennessee Williams Lite.” The talented cast imbues his screenplay more heft than it deserves, especially Winslet who gives an inspired performance. Too bad it’s wasted in this dramatic misfire.
Also opening this week, “Ferdinand” is an animated offering about the gentle bull with a big heart. It features the voice talent of John Cena. “Kaleidoscope” is a British psychological thriller starring Toby Jones. Oh, and also, there’s a little indie offering called “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” popping up in theaters. I’ll have my review next week.
Russ Simmons is an award-winning film critic whose work has been featured on television and in print for nearly two decades.