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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: “Glass” (PG-13), “Burning” (R)
January 18, 2019 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

The films from writer/director M. Knight Shyamalan are always a crap shoot. When he finds his stride, as he did with “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” his movies create an effective and otherworldly atmosphere. When he loses his grasp, as with “The Last Airbender” and “The Happening,” it’s hard to believe that it’s the same filmmaker. His latest thriller is “Glass,” a dark comic book movie that provides the conclusion to a trilogy that also includes “Unbreakable” from 2000 and 2017’s “Split.” As you might expect, the results are a mixed bag.

Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson return from “Unbreakable” and James McAvoy reprises his brilliant role as a man with multiple personalities in “Split.” Shyamalan’s complicated plot amounts to a thesis on comic book superhero origins. It requires an inordinate amount of time and dialogue to explain, turning the actors into narrators instead of characters. Even though the movie is overlong, there’s little real character interaction.

While “Glass” isn’t bad, it just a disappointing conclusion to an ambitious premise that became too convoluted for its own good.

For patient viewers, the Korean film “Burning” offers many rewards. A sure thing for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, “Burning” is both a thriller and an effective character study involving a young man whose girlfriend returns from an African trip with a rich, enigmatic stranger who disrupts their lives. The wealthy stranger is played by Steven Yeun, best known for his role as Glenn Rhee on “The Walking Dead.” There’s a lot going on in this low-key drama that effectively builds tension as our protagonist attempts to solve the mystery of his girlfriend and the secretive stranger who admits to a love of burning down abandoned greenhouses. In “Burning,” filmmaker Chang-dong Lee offers an effective slow burn.

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Freeze Frame: Russ’ “Best and Worst Films of 2018” list!
January 4, 2019 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

It’s time to take a look back at the movie year. Here is my list of the ten best movies of 2018. (Scroll down to see my list of the WORST films of the year!)

2) ROMA (R)

Russ’ WORST films of 20198, the ones to avoid adding to your streaming list:


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Freeze Frame: “Vice” (R), “Holmes and Watson” (PG-13)
December 28, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Looking for a cheery comedy for the holiday season? How about a movie featuring the warm and loveable former Defense Secretary and George W. Bush Vice President Dick Cheney? “Vice” is an offbeat political black comedy from the mind of writer/director Adam McKay, the guy behind the 2015 satiric civics lesson “The Big Short.” As you might guess, “Vice” is a scathing take down of the Republican operative who was, arguably, the most powerful Vice President of all time.

Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale does an uncanny impression as the enigmatic Chaney, Amy Adams is his pushy and ambitious wife, Lynne, Sam Rockwell plays a clueless George W. Bush, Steve Carell is the conniving Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry is repressed Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Like “The Big Short, “Vice” is smart, episodic and often darkly funny. But “Vice” isn’t as successful, partly because Cheney is a very guarded, somber and emotionally cool individual, not a magnetic lead. “Vice” delivers its point of view with a sledgehammer, so it’s unlikely to win any hearts and minds. If you already dislike Cheney, “Vice” will reinforce your point of view. If you like Cheney, “Vice” will strike you as a sneering hatchet job.

Still, “Vice” is Shakespearian compared to “Holmes and Watson.” This broad comedy reunites Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly who had success together with “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights.” This time out, they play the famed detective duo attempting to unravel the mystery of an attempt on the life of Queen Victoria in the early 1900s.

Ferrell and Reilly try hard, maybe too hard, to breathe some life into director Etan Cohen’s juvenile script. While there are a couple of funny moments, the effort seems pretty desperate. “Holmes and Watson” is a bona fide contender for worst movie of the year.

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Freeze Frame: “Mary Poppins Returns” (PG), “Aquaman” (PG-13), “Ben is Back” (R), “Vox Lux” (R), “Mary Queen of Scots” (R), “Shoplifters” (R), “Welcome to Marwen” (PG-13)
December 21, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

The 1964 classic “Mary Poppins” was practically perfect in every way. Although Disney’s cheery sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns” I nearly a slavish remake, Emily Blunt is delightful. “Mary Poppins Returns” goes down nicely with or without a spoonful of sugar.

Jason Momoa is a likably lunky lead in “Aquaman.” Sadly, he has to battle a leaden script and enough CGI overkill to fill an ocean. He may be in the Justice League, yet his movie isn’t quite in the same league as “Wonder Woman.”

“Ben is Back” is half of a great movie. Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are excellent in the story of a teen in drug rehab who shows up on his mom’s doorstep on Christmas Eve. The first half examines some intriguing family dynamics. The second half loses its way as it morphs into an improbable thriller.

“Vox Lux” is an interesting idea in search of a movie. Natalie Portman stars as a self-indulgent pop star who rose to fame as the result of a tragedy. It’s ambitious, but a bit dull and off-putting.

Saorise Ronan and Margot Robbie give “Mary Queen of Scots” the royal treatment, but their performances can’t make up for the movie’s inconsistent tone.

“Shoplifters” is a Japanese entry about a likable family of petty thieves. This sweet-natured and sad film is also a heartfelt and touching social commentary.

Steve Carell stars in the quirky drama, “Welcome to Marwen” which incorporates animated dolls to tell the tragic story of real-life photographer Mark Hogancamp. It’s an interesting experiment but a movie misfire.

Also opening this week, “American Renegades” is an action flick about Navy Seals and sunken treasure. “Second Act” is a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez. “Bumblebee” is the latest in the Transformers franchise. “Anna and the Apocalypse” is a zombie Christmas musical!

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Freeze Frame: “Roma” (R), “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (PG), “The Favourite” (R), “Mortal Engines” (PG-13)
December 14, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón can go ahead and make space on his mantle for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar he’ll receive for “Roma,” a fond recollection of his childhood in Mexico City. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio leads the film as Cuarón’s beloved nanny, Cleo, an indigenous woman with more than her share of problems. There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, but it’s a heartfelt and beautifully photographed black-and-white cinematic memoir.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a wildly imaginative, energetic animated Marvel epic that finally captures Spider-Man's cheeky humor. This is as close to a comic book come to life as you're likely to ever see on the big screen. Involving and fun, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the best animated film of 2018.

Olivia Coleman's splendid performance as Queen Anne is the best thing about “The Favourite,” an over-directed period piece that plays like an 18th century version of "All About Eve." Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are also fine as two ladies of the court who employ Machiavellian means as they vie for the queen’s favor. It’s a nasty battle of wits and wills.

“Mortal Engines” is an oddball cinematic spectacular based on Philp Reeve’s sci-fi novel. In a steampunk post-apocalyptic future, a movie gets swallowed whole by its own gargantuan production design. There isn’t a moment in this spectacle that is the least bit interesting. “Mortal Engines” is the first novel of a quartet. Let’s hope they leave this overwrought opus a solo.

Also opening this week, “The Mule” is the latest drama from filmmaker Clint Eastwood. He stars in the true story of a 90-year-old man who becomes an unwitting drug runner. “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a PG-13 re-edited version of this year’s earlier R-rated Marvel hit, “Deadpool 2.”

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Freeze Frame: “At Eternity’s Gate” (R), “Maria by Callas” (PG), “Asher” (R)
December 7, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

A strong performance by Wilem Defoe is the main attraction of the eccentric biopic "At Eternity's Gate," the story of the last days in the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Filmmaker Julian Schnabel is also a renowned artist, so this ambitious arthouse entry may have special appeal to aesthetes.

While lofty pretentions aren’t a bad thing, Schnabel’s instance on herky-jerky camera work and glacial pace gets a little tiring. Individual scenes work beautifully, particularly a conversation Van Gogh has with a priest, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who must decide whether or not to release the troubled artist from an asylum.

But “At Eternity’s Gate” may be a bit too affected for its own good.

The most acclaimed operatic diva of her time is the subject of the documentary "Maria By Callas." Footage from TV interviews and home movies allows Callas to tell her own story. Callas' letters are read by famed soprano and KC native Joyce DiDonato. The film covers her insulated youth, her rise to fame, the heat of the spotlight and her on-and-off romance with Aristotle Onassis. “Maria by Callas” is intriguing even for non-opera fans.

Ron Perlman plays an aging hit man in "Asher," a violent thriller that also stars Famke Janssen as a woman he falls for. While it's competent, there are more than a few moments that stretch credibility and the whole affair seems a bit too familiar. "Asher" just misses the target.

Also opening this week, “Never-ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki” is a documentary about Japan’s most famous and acclaimed anime director. “The Mercy” is a drama that tells the true story of an amateur sailor’s disastrous attempt to win a solo around-the-world yacht race in 1968 in a desperate attempt to save his failing business with the cash prize. Oscar winners Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz star.

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Freeze Frame: “Mirai” (PG), “The Guilty” (R)
November 30, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Fans of Japanese anime will find much to love in "Mirai," a beautifully produced epic that takes on grandiose philosophical ideas in the guise of a simple family film about the importance of sibling ties. Problem is, its themes will probably fly over the heads of most kids.

The movie has received rapturous reviews in many circles, but to my mind, it concentrates a bit too much on pushing its viewpoint without breathing enough life into its characters. Part of this is due to the flat nature of the animation that makes facial expression an afterthought.

"Mirai" is for older kids and adults only. Small children aren't really the demographic. They'll probably be confused and bored. "Mirai" is an animated arthouse effort that has plenty to offer for audiences with lots of patience and an affinity for thoughtful, abstract ideas.

“The Guilty” is a riveting Danish thriller about a police officer confined to an emergency dispatch room as a disciplinary action. He desperately tries to help a caller who turns out to be a panicked kidnap victim in imminent danger. Essentially a one-man show, all of the action in “The Guilty” takes place in two rooms at the emergency dispatch center as the officer works to resolve the tense situation while wrestling with his own demons. Jakob Cedergren is excellent as the conflicted officer and Gustav Moller’s writing and direction is taut. It’s a favorite for a best foreign language Oscar nomination. “The Guilty” is a textbook example of what one can do with limited financial resources when there’s an abundance of talent and intelligence available.

Also opening this week, “The Possession of Hannah Grace” is yet another exorcism horror flick. It’s been carefully hidden from critics.

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Freeze Frame: “The Front Runner” (R), “Green Book” (PG-13)
November 23, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

The strange story of the rise-and-fall story of 1988 Presidential candidate Gary Hart should have been a riveting political drama. "The Front Runner" is workmanlike and well-acted but lacks the dramatic arc that would have made it a winner. Hugh Jackman stars as the Democratic contender who was riding high until he challenged journalists to follow him around if they thought he was doing anything wrong. They did…and it became clear that he was having an affair. Jackman and Vera Farmiga are fine as the Harts and the writing is intelligent, but the movie is pretty much a one-note affair and just isn't as gripping as it should be.

Need a feel-good movie for your holiday viewing? Look no further than "Green Book." Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are terrific in the true story of African-American concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver from the Bronx, Tony Lip. They experience some severe ups and downs on a tour the Deep South in 1960. While the movie doesn’t dig too deep, the actors are extremely appealing. They start out on an antagonistic note but ultimately ingratiate themselves to one another and then, to the audience. Oddly, the movie comes from director Peter Farrelly, best known broad comedies like “Dumb and Dumber,” but makes a welcome change of pace here. “Green Book” is a funny and touching crowd-pleaser.

Also opening this week, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is the follow-up to the 2012 Disney animated hit “Wreck-it Ralph.” “Creed II” is the sequel to the 2015 hit from the Rocky universe, “Creed.” Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone return. “Robin Hood” is yet another adaptation of the action chestnut. Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx star. And finally, “Border” is a Swedish chiller about a border agent with strange abilities.

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Freeze Frame: “Widows” (R), “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald” (PG-13), “Instant Family” (PG-13), “Boy Erased” (R)
November 16, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

KC native screenwriter Gillian Flynn might finally get the Oscar love that eluded her for "Gone Girl." "Widows" is a fierce and gritty heist movie that is also a potent, beautifully acted social drama with powerhouse performances from Viola Davis and Daniel Kaluuya. It's disturbing, realistic and easily one of the best movies of the year. If “Ocean’s 11” had had a social conscience, it would have been “Widows.”

The second in the Harry Potter prequel series is pretty much what you'd expect. "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a beautifully produced but rambling adventure with dark overtones. Johnny Depp returns as an evil wizard who gives Eddie Redmayne and the other good wizards a run for their money. The multiple plot threads aren't woven together successfully, but there's enough movie magic to please most fans.

Mark Wahlberg's family comedy "Instant Family" is a pleasant surprise, based loosely on director Sean Anders’ own experiences. This story about foster parenting and adoption has more meat on its bones than most movies in this genre and manages to be a genuinely touching experience.

An outstanding cast and thoughtful execution make "Boy Erased" a winner. It tells the true story of a teenager, played by Lucas Hedges, who is sent to a gay conversion therapy camp. It makes a strong point without casting stones. Expect to see Oscar nominations for Hedges and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his conflicted parents. Filmmaker Joel Edgerton might get some notice, too.

Also opening this week, Rosamund Pike stars in “A Private War,” a biopic about famed war correspondent Marie Colvin. “Monrovia, Indiana” is a new documentary from the master, Fredrick Wiseman. “Prospect” is a sci-fi entry about a teen girl and her dad going to an alien moon to strike it rich. “The Clovehitch Killer” is yet another serial killer flick.

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Freeze Frame: “The Grinch” (PG), “Wildlife” (PG-13)
November 9, 2018 | Noon on "Arts Magazine"

Shakespeare said it best. "Brevity is the soul of wit." The classic 1966 animated TV version of Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Chuck Jones proves that Shakespeare was right. “The Grinch” was perfect at 26 touching minutes. While the new computer-generated adaptation is pleasant enough, at 86 minutes, it seems a bit padded.

Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice of the Grinch and other voice talent includes Pharell Williams, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury and Keenan Thompson. It comes from the filmmakers behind the “Despicable Me” franchise and they know how to do cute, attempting to flesh out the run time of the story with kid-friendly humor. The visuals are dynamic and its heart is in the right place...even if the heart of this Grinch is two sizes too small.

Actor Paul Dano makes his directorial debut in an austere adaptation of Richard Ford's melancholy novel, "Wildlife." It tells the sorrowful story of the deterioration of a marriage from the perspective of the couple’s 16-year-old boy son. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent as the bickering parents as is young Ed Oxenbould as the perplexed boy. Dano also adapted the screenplay along with his partner, Zoe Kazan. “Wildlife” is a very slow-moving but involving tale bolstered by the accomplished acting ensemble and sharp 1960s period details.

Also opening this week, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is a thriller that continues the story of Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. Claire Foy stars. “Overlord” is a horror thriller about zombies set in Nazi occupied France. “Here and Now (Blue Night)” is a character study about a successful singer. Sarah Jessica Parker stars. “River Runs Red” is an action thriller starring Taye Diggs and John Cusack. “Welcome to Mercy” is a supernatural thriller set in Latvia.

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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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