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Freeze Frame

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Freeze Frame is a weekly show reviewing the latest movies from Hollywood’s best films to independent and arthouse movies.




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FREEZE FRAME: “Graduation”
April 28, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Ten years ago, the harrowing Romanian abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” marked the arrival of a major new talent, filmmaker Christian Mungiu (Chris-tee-ann Mon-JEEW). His latest effort, “Graduation,” won him the Best Director Award at the most recent Cannes Film Festival. Starkly realistic and involving, “Graduation” examines what occurs when good people compromise their principles when faced with a moral dilemma.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo, a middle-aged doctor who wants only the best for his bright and ambitious daughter, hoping he can get her out of repressed Romania and into a prestigious British university. She can get a scholarship if she aces her high school exit exams. Just before exams day, however, she’s sexually assaulted and the emotionally drained girl underperforms on her tests. Her frustrated dad decides to pull some strings that could help her cheat on her follow-up tests.

Mungiu’s naturalistic story is complex and compelling as it fills us in on the details of Romeo’s life. The tension mounts as we come to understand his motives and put ourselves in his shoes. Would we act differently? What are the compromises we might make to ensure the success and safety of our children? “Graduation” is an intelligent drama that will stick with you.

Also opening this week, “The Circle” is a thriller starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks about shady goings on at a powerful social media company. Surprisingly, critics were not allowed to see it in advance…usually a bad sign. “How to Be a Latin Lover” is a broad comedy that features Salma Hayek and Raquel Welch. “After the Storm” is an art house Japanese entry about an author turned private detective who tries to reconnect with his estranged family. “The Transfiguration” is a low budget thriller about a troubled teen with a fixation on vampires.

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FFREEZE FRAME: “The Promise,” “The Lost City of Z”
April 21, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

It’s no accident that “The Promise” is the second war drama to open in the last few weeks that’s set in Turkey during the run up to WWI. The earlier film, “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” gives the Turkish point of view, minimizing the cost of the conflict to the Armenian people. “The Promise” supports the view of an Armenian genocide. “The Promise” is a romantic triangle about an Armenian medical student, played by Oscar Isaac, who falls for an Armenian nanny, played by Charlotte Le Bon. Problem is, the nanny’s boyfriend is an American journalist, played by Christian Bale, and the Turks are about to wipe them all out. Beautifully acted and produced, this respectable historical epic is far better than “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” but still never quite catches fire, romantically or politically.

“The Lost City of Z” is based on the true story of a British explorer who may have been the inspiration for Indiana Jones. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, the man who risked life and limb to repeatedly explore the Amazon rainforest in the early 1900s in order to prove his theory that an advanced civilization once thrived there. A slowly paced epic that clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes, “The Lost City of Z” focuses on intellect and mystery instead of thrills and adventure.

Also opening this week, “Free Fire” is a violent throwback action flick set in the 1970s. “Unforgettable” is a drama about a wacko ex-wife who goes after her ex-husband’s fiancee. Disney returns with another nature documentary about wildlife in the Far East. It’s called “Born in China.” “Phoenix Forgotten” is a sci-fi flick involving UFOs in 1997. “Their Finest” is a WWII drama about the production of British war movies. “Cezanne et Moi” involves the impressionist Paul Cezanne and his pal Emile Zola. “David Lynch, The Art Life” is a behind the scenes documentary about the cult classic, “Eraserhead.”

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FREEZE FRAME: “The Fate of the Furious,” “Gifted,” “Colossal”
April 14, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

When “The Fast and the Furious” debuted in 2001, it was inspired by a true story about LA street racers. Now that we’re on the eighth entry, the series has morphed into an over-the-top sci-fi action extravaganza that makes James Bond adventures seem like realistic documentaries by comparison. In “The Fate of the Furious,” Vin Diesel’s Dom Torretto has gone rouge, joining forces with villain Charlize Theron in an attempt to steal nuclear codes and take over the world. It’s all an excuse for well staged cinematic mayhem, most of it computer generated. While it’s rousing and goofy fun, it all can be summed up in the name of one of its stars: Ludacris.

Young McKenna Grace gives one of the best child performances you’re likely to see in “Gifted,” the story of a seven-year-old math genius whose guardian uncle, played by Chris Evans, tries to help her fit in while fending off her meddling, manipulative grandmother. Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate and Lindsay Duncan round out a fine cast. The performances elevate this touching tale that, in lesser hands, could have been as corny as a Lifetime TV movie.

“Colossal” is a well-acted cinematic experiment that doesn’t always work. Still, you have to give it credit for originality. Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway and KC’s Jason Sudeikis star in this sci-fi drama about an alcoholic woman who discovers that her movements manipulate a giant monster that’s destroying Seoul, Korea. It’s an allegory as overwhelming as its destructive creature, but it’s thoughtful even in its weaknesses.

Also opening this week, “Bokeh” is a sci-fi drama about a couple on a romantic vacation in Iceland who suddenly find that they’re the only people left on Earth. “My Life as a Zucchini” is a stop-motion film from Sweden about an orphan boy struggling to find his way. It was an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature.

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FREEZE FRAME: “Going in Style,” “The Void”
April 7, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

There are three Oscar winners in the buddy comedy, “Going in Style” and their presence gives this broad, shopworn farce a very big boost. A loose remake of the 1979 George Burns movie of the same name, “Going in Style” stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin as three retirees who, faced with financial difficulties, decide to rob a bank. Director Zach Braff takes a very lighthearted approach to the material and, as a result, it’s less credible than the thoughtful original. But, thankfully, the three stars bring innate likeability and class to their roles. “Going in Style” may lack style, but it’s a crowd-pleaser.

It’s clear that the grisly horror flick “The Void” was inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter. But this derivative gore-fest was clearly written as an excuse for its filmmakers to showcase their skills in over-the-top makeup effects. In a small, isolated town, members of a murderous cult surround a hospital where an evil entity has taken over the bodies of innocent folks, transforming them into hideous beasts. This deadly serious ode to 80s horror movies could have used a dose of humor, but it delivers the shudders for fans of the genre. The real void is in the script.

Also opening this week, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is the latest from the little blue elves, featuring the voices of Demi Lovato and Julia Roberts. “The Case for Christ” is a faith-based movie adapted from Lee Strobel’s bestseller. “Your Name” is a Japanese anime offering about a boy and girl who suddenly switch bodies. “Frantz” is a post WWII drama about the relationship between a German woman and a Frenchman. “Donald Cried” is an unrated comic drama about a man-child who reconnects with a childhood friend.

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FREEZE FRAME: “Ghost in the Shell,” “Land of Mine”
March 31, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

The first live-action adaptation of the phenomenally popular Japanese manga comic and anime series “Ghost in the Shell” finally reaches the big screen. Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who is given cyber-enhancement after a near fatal accident. She’s then recruited as a crime fighter, but like Jason Bourne, seeks to recover her true identity.

This fantasy is a step up for filmmaker Rupert Sanders, best known for the over the top TV commercials. His last effort was the big budget opus, “Snow White and the Huntsman.” He captures the comic's strange, dark tone of paranoia, but "Ghost in the Shell" is uniquely Japanese, so they should have cast it that way.

“Land of Mine” is an Oscar-nominated Danish drama about one of the shameful moments in Denmark’s history. Right after WWII, a group of German POWs, mostly boys, was forced into what was essentially a suicide mission. Their task was to remove hundreds of active mines on the Danish coastline that were left there by German troops. Although it is a wrenching and disturbing film to watch, it underscores how hatred and bitterness can cloud our thinking. It also shows that it’s possible to grow out of it.

Also opening this week, “Personal Shopper” is an art house horror thriller starring Kristen Stewart as the shopper for a European celebrity. “T2: Trainspotting” is the long-awaited sequel to Danny Boyle’s acclaimed drama about Scottish heroine addicts. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” stars Jessica Chastain in the true story of a Polish woman who worked with the Resistance during WWII. “Boss Baby” is an animated spoof voiced by Alec Baldwin. “The Devil’s Candy” is a haunted house flick starring Ethan Embry.

The 20th annual Kansas City Film Festival takes place April 5th-9th at the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza. Info is available at

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FREEZE FRAME: “Life,” “The Last Word,” “Wilson”
March 24, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Is there life in “Life?” This sci-fi thriller features Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds as astronauts who confront a deadly new species on their voyage to Mars. The film owes a bit too much of its inspiration to the classic “Alien,” but thanks to a good cast and competent execution, “Life” nearly overcomes most of its genre clichés.

Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine is perfectly cast as a nasty old lady in the comic drama, “The Last Word.” Since no one has anything nice to say about her, an unlikable octogenarian hires a writer, played by Amanda Seyfried, to pen a flattering obituary. The actors are fine, but the effort seems labored. “The Last Word” misses the opportunity to mine an interesting, original premise.

Woody Harrelson plays the misanthropic title character in “Wilson,” a bleak, R-rated adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel. The film attempts a very uneasy mix of mean-spiritedness and cloying sentimentality. While the cast is terrific, the characters in this dark comedy are so clueless and unlikable that their actions elicit more groans than laughs.

Also opening this week, “Slamma Jamma” is a faith-based drama about a wrongfully imprisoned ex-con who attempts a comeback through a slam-dunk competition. Chris Staples stars. “Song to Song” is a Terrance Malick drama about struggling songwriters. Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman star. “The Lure” is a Polish film about two mermaid sisters in a love triangle. “Personal Shopper” is a horror flick with Kristen Stewart as the titular servant to a celebrity. “Power Rangers” is a live action revival of the 1990s kids TV show. “CHiPS” is a raunchy, R-rated reboot of the 70s TV series.

The 20th annual Kansas City Film Festival takes place April 5th-9th at the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza. Info is available at

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FREEZE FRAME: “Beauty and the Beast” (PG), “Sense of an Ending” (PG-13)
March 17, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

It’s a tale as old as time, but when Disney goes back to the well it’s usually worth the trip. The 1991 animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” gets a rousing ‘live-action’ reboot, although I use the term “Live-action” loosely when there’s this much computer animation involved. Emma Watson steps out of the world of Harry Potter and into the role of Belle, the provincial French beauty who warms the heart of a cursed beast, played by “Downton Abby’s” Dan Stevens.

The production values are first rate, the terrific music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is mostly well delivered, but the addition of some unnecessary new tunes by Menken and Tim Rice slows things down, ballooning the running time from the original’s 85 minutes to two hours and nine minutes.

Yet, there’s plenty of movie magic and heart-tugging sentiment in this $160 million 3-D extravaganza. While it doesn’t live up to the standard of the Oscar-winning original, this new “Beast” has a “Beauty” all its own and hits an emotional bull’s-eye.

Can a youthful mistake be amended in one’s old age? What if the memory of it is unreliable? These are the central questions behind the British art house entry, “The Sense of an Ending.” Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent plays a man whose former girlfriend’s mother leaves him a mysterious diary in her will. Problem is, the old girlfriend refuses to give it to him. While the movie never quite mines the depth it seeks, it’s an interesting effort that’s impeccably acted.

Also opening this week, “Wolves” is a drama about a high school basketball player whose meddling, unethical father, played by Michael Shannon, threatens to upend his dreams before they even begin.

The 20th annual Kansas City Film Festival takes place April 5th-9th at the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza. Info is available at

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FREEZE FRAME: “Kong: Skull Island,” “The Ottoman Lieutenant”
March 10, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

There are those who may think that Hollywood has given us way too many giant monster movies already. But I felt like a giddy kid at an old-time Saturday matinee when I saw “Kong: Skull Island.” This action-packed fantasy adventure employs eye-popping state of the art special effects to create believably scary creatures and an exotic environment. But, most importantly, establishes a sense of wonder and the feel of genuine peril.

A team of explorers, led by an obsessed John Goodman, travel to an uncharted island in 1973. He’s the only one who realizes the real dangers that lurk there. The terrific cast also includes Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson. But John C. Reilly nearly steals the movie as a shell-shocked WWII veteran who miraculously survived for on the island 30 years.

But the real star is the movie’s titular colossus who protects the natives and his dangerous turf from a wild assortment of gigantic monsters. It’s violent enough to more than earn it’s PG-13 rating, but “Kong: Skull Island” is also funny and involving even if it’s script adds nothing new to the genre. I give this Kong four out of five giant bananas.

“The Ottoman Lieutenant” is the kind of sweeping historic romance that Hollywood seldom makes anymore. Unless they do it better than this, we may not see many more. During the early days of WW I, a Christian American nurse working at a rural hospital falls in love with a Muslim Turkish officer who is assigned to protect her. The lead actors have no chemistry or charisma and the horrors that transpired in this part of the world are mostly glossed over. Where are Julie Christie and Omar Sharif when we need them?

Also opening this week, “Kedi” is a documentary about the wild cats that inhabit the streets of Istanbul.

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FREEZE FRAME: “Logan,” “The Salesman,” “Table 19”
March 3, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

In what is being touted as his final big-screen appearance as “Logan,” aka Wolverine, Hugh Jackman is back as a tired, aging and worn out mutant, a far cry from his glory days with X-Men. In the ultra-violent flick “Logan,” he reluctantly protects a young girl who may be his daughter as well as the sickly Professor X, played by Patrick Stewart. This R-rated blood-fest has plenty of action and more depth than most superhero movies, but some may question the ethics of children participating in the sadistic carnage.

“The Salesman” is the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Asghar Farhadi’s intriguing suspense drama involves a couple that gets more than they bargained for when they move into a new apartment in the middle of Tehran. It’s intricately plotted, skillfully acted, realistic and heartbreaking. Once again, Farhadi demonstrates why he’s one of the world’s finest filmmakers.

An appealing cast and some amusing moments may not be quite enough to make “Table 19” worth a sit down. Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are among a group of misfits that get stuck together at the worst table at a wedding reception and find out that, for various reasons, aren’t really welcome at the party. Overall, the material sitcom material isn’t quite strong enough to sustain a feature length movie.

Also opening this week, Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington star in “The Shack,” a drama about a spiritual journey, based on the Christian bestseller by William P. Young. “Catfight” is a black comedy about former friends Sandra Oh and Anne Heche who wind up in the titular brawl. “Headshot” is a martial arts thriller from Indonesia. “Before I Fall” is drama with a “Groundhog Day” type structure where a young woman lives the same day over and over.

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FREEZE FRAME: “Get Out,” “A United Kingdom,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “The Girl With All the Gifts,” “Bitter Harvest”
February 24, 2017 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Comic Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame makes his directorial debut with a surprisingly effective, full-blooded horror film, “Get Out.” Daniel Kaluuya plays a young black photographer who goes to meet his white girlfriend’s parents in rural suburbia, where things go horribly wrong. An effective social commentary as well as a potent creepfest, “Get Out” is this generation’s answer to “The Stepford Wives.”

David Oyelowo from "Selma" and Rosamund Pike from "Gone Girl" star in the true historical romance "A United Kingdom." Oyelowo plays the heir to the throne of Botswana who creates international chaos in 1947 when he takes a white, British wife, played by Pike. It’s a handsomely produced, beautifully acted and involving drama.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a compelling and penetrating documentary about the late author James Baldwin and his perspective on three men he knew well: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who were all assassinated. It’s a sobering, resonant and timely work.

“The Girl with All the Gifts” is yet another zombie apocalypse flick, but this one is particularly smart and effective. Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton lead the strong acting ensemble, but newcomer Sennia Nanua steals the show as a child zombie who retains her emotions and an extremely high level of intelligence. It’s an interesting twist on the genre.

“Bitter Harvest” is a bitter disappointment. This romantic historical drama is set against the backdrop of Stalin’s suppression of Ukraine that led millions to starvation in the 1930s. It’s a ham-fisted and artificial entry that squanders its chance to bring this shocking story to a wide audience.

Also opening this week, “Rock Dog” is an animated offering about a music-loving pooch and “Collide” is an action thriller starring Felicity Jones that’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years.

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Russ Simmons

Russ Simmons is an award-winning film critic whose work has been featured on television and in print for nearly two decades.

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