Poker has rarely been a part of the cinematic experience. Some may look at "The Cincinnati Kid" as one of the best poker movies ever but, since the seminal 1998 film "Rounders" was released, poker has rarely stepped outside of the casinos or television sets. Producer and director of independent films M. J. Loheed is looking to change that with the excellently done "Freeze Out".
The film has already captured some notable praise from the independent film community. It won the award for "Best Feature Film" during the 2005 Westwood International Film Festival in Los Angeles and will also be featured on the website Cinequest Online (cinequestonline.org) during the Cinequest Viewers' Voice Online Festival. By going to the website throughout the month after February 1st, you'll be able to view the film and vote on it in that category.
As any poker player knows, a freeze out tournament is played down until only one player stands. In the tournament poker world, usually it means that someone takes down a large first place check, with others earning at least their buy ins back. In the home game setting, however, it means that one person walks away from the table with their friend's hard earned money. This is the angle that Loheed has decided to come at with a well told story that could actually mirror what happens in home games around the world.
The movie centers on the home game that John (Tom Sharpe) has been running from his home and the friendship and camaraderie that brings his compatriots to the table. Among the intriguing assortment are John's ex-girlfriend Sarah (Laura Silverman, best known for her voiceover work on the cartoon "Dr. Katz", her guest appearances on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and her starring role with Lisa Kudrow on HBO's "The Comeback"), Nick (excellent stand up comedian and actor Greg Behrendt) and various other friends that cross intellectual, professional and financial realms. They come together for a simple home game, comfortable in their small stakes game, the drinking and the moment of oneness that poker brings.
But John isn't happy with the way his friends look at him during the game. After taking their hodgepodge of abuse and general disregard, he yearns for their respect. He then settles upon an idea: a winner take all, freeze out Dealer's Choice tournament, with each participant going to their wallet for $100, far above the levels they have ever played before. What happens after they agree on this is the true draw of the movie, including the play of differing games of poker through the tournament.
During the tournament, we learn the back stories of the players involved. Each brings their own peccadilloes and issues, which are revealed as the game plays out. Tim (Eddie Pepitone) is facing eviction from his home; Nick reveals an expensive drug habit that he can't afford. John even finds out during the play of the event that his ex and one of the other player's have started into a sexual affair (which also is a textbook demonstration of how tilt can affect your game). You really are able to feel for the particular players that you are viewing, perhaps even see that maybe one of the player's are much like you or perhaps someone you know in your home poker game. It is all brought to the viewer in an excellent mix of comedy and drama that will keep you interested in the outcome of the film.
If you come to "Freeze Out" for the poker, you won't be let down there either. Surprisingly, Loheed has given some excellent tidbits of information for playing poker throughout the film. John does what many professionals do before approaching a table, breaking down the particular styles of each of his friends and devising a strategy for play against almost all of them. He leaks some strategy thoughts throughout the film as well, including why "serious" poker players never play wild card games and an analogy of the usage of the all in play to what former President (and avid poker player) Harry Truman's thoughts were behind the usage of the atomic bomb, among other things.
The play of the poker is also well done and believable. Because many odd "dealer's choice" poker games are played, there are more dramatic draw-outs than normal, but it is a part of the appeal of multiple wild card games that lends this excitement. While playing Seven Card Stud as a "no limit" game is a little bit of a stretch, it fits into the style of the "friendly" home tournament format. Even the actions of the players themselves at the table are believable and help tremendously with viewing the picture as a poker player.
"Freeze Out" is definitely a film about poker, but it does bring in so much more than that. In a way, it is very much like Kevin Smith's "Clerks" in that it focuses on the lives and experiences of its characters, brought together in the singular setting of a poker game, and adeptly develops the storyline from that setting. It is an entertaining, funny and dramatic film that everyone should enjoy, not just poker players. It's ending is also a surprise, worth the ninety minutes spent to reach that point.
We'll learn more about "Freeze Out" in the second part of this story when we talk to M. J. Loheed (who is a rather good poker player himself, as I found out), the man responsible for the film. For now, be sure to view the film and vote for it during the Cinequest competition at cinequestonline.org/2006/theater/detail_view.php?m=664. You'll have to register to be able to download and watch the film, but you should find that "Freeze Out" is well worth the time spent viewing.