Academy Screenings begin tonight | AspenTimes.com

Academy Screenings begin tonight

Stewart Oksenhorn

Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now" shows Tuesday at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfest's Academy Screenings. (Warner Independent Pictures)

Following are previews of films showing this week in Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings:

Rob Marshall made a splash in his debut as a director; his “Chicago” earned the Best Picture Oscar in 2002, and he was nominated for Best Director. The musical “Chicago” was a natural for someone who came to films as a choreographer. With “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Marshall is working with strong source material, Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel of an impoverished Japanese girl taken from her home to work in a geisha house. The film features two Asian actors reasonably well known to American audiences: Chinese-born Ziyi Zhang, who starred as Jen in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (and was nominated this week for a Golden Globe Award for best actress), and Ken Watanabe, who was featured in “Batman Begins” and “The Last Samurai.”

Sure to get audiences talking, “Paradise Now” tells of two boyhood friends from Palestine, recruited together for a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv. Directed and co-written by Dutch-based Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad, the film takes the viewpoint of the bombers, giving a natural humanizing effect to their story. But “Paradise Now” doesn’t push the terrorist agenda; rather, it explores the dynamics of the decision to become a martyr in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The film, whose poster tag line is “From the most unexpected place comes a bold new call for peace,” earned the Amnesty International Film Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film.

“Murderball,” Henry Alex-Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s film of quadriplegic rugby players, treats its subjects as athletes much more than victims. As one participant says of the full-contact sport of quad rugby, “It’s basically, ‘Kill the man with the ball.'” “Murderball,” which takes its name from the sports’ appropriate nickname, is a touch short on game action. But it does an exceptional job of getting into the personalities of the athletes. Joe Soares is a domineering coach and father who goes to the extreme of moving to Canada so he can take on the U.S. team that once turned him down; Mark Zupan is the aggro sort who would never let a little thing like crippled legs get in the way of a good competition.

Pierce Brosnan, a former James Bond, would seem an obvious choice for the role of a swaggering international hit man. But in Richard Shepard’s “The Matador,” he isn’t there for 007-style action. Brosnan’s Julian Noble is an assassin facing a midlife crisis, and instead of chasing down hot women in exotic locations, he’s commiserating with a down-at-the-heels businessman (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexico City hotel bar. “The Matador” becomes about the encounter of these two strangers from different worlds, and how they influence each other. The comic plot upends most expectations, especially the one that Brosnan could never pull off this sort of role. Early word on “The Matador,” which also features Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker, is that it is an unexpected treat. Brosnan scored a Golden Globe nomination for best actor in a musical or comedy.

In 2001 David LaChapelle, best known for his exquisite fashion photography, had a show of his offbeat celebrity photographs at the Baldwin Gallery. (Pee Wee Herman as a spaceman crash-landing on a suburban lawn was one of the less startling images.) Three years later, LaChapelle’s work showed up again in Aspen, this time in the form of the short film “Krumped.” “Krumped,” a 24-minute visual and kinetic delight about the form of costumed, hip-hop street dancing in Los Angeles known as “clowning,” earned the best documentary award at Aspen Shortsfest 2004.

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Now LaChapelle makes his debut as a director of feature films. “Rize,” an expansion of “Krumped,” portrays not only the dynamic aesthetics of clowning, but also how young people in South Central L.A. have used the form as a means for avoiding drugs, gangs and the violence of the ghetto. The art form was founded 13 years ago, by Tommy “the Clown” Johnson, in response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Viewers will be prompted to wonder: How has this form of expression escaped the public eye till now?

Last year, Paul Haggis earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby,” a surprise critical favorite given a wide release in late January. (Aspen audiences had one of the first looks at Clint Eastwood’s gem, which earned Best Picture honors; it was shown in the Academy Screenings nearly a month before its general release.)

Now Haggis should find out if it is possible for a film released in May to be a serious Oscar candidate. “Crash,” his directorial debut, is every bit as serious, emotional and accomplished as “Million Dollar Baby.” The film wanders through a day in the life of contemporary Los Angeles, finding issues of race and racism in chance encounters among tolerant white cops, Iranian shopkeepers, street thugs and the district attorney and his fancy wife. Using a mosaic style of storytelling, Haggis reveals with breathless intensity that all of his characters are capable of the full scope of emotions and actions. “Crash” demands that we all do some soul-searching, and contemplate how just the right situation will make us jump the track of our best intentions. The ensemble cast includes Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Ludacris, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Phillippe, all of whom give memorable performances.

Let’s hope that the inclusion of “Crash” in the Academy Screenings gives filmgoers some boost of memory, and the recognition that this is comfortably one of the best films of the year. Golden Globe voters seem to have some recollection; Dillon is nominated for a best supporting actor award, and Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco are nominated for their screenplay.

A quite fractured telling of the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale, this animated version is retooled as a crime story, with a crew of cops from the animal kingdom investigating a domestic disturbance at the old Granny’s place. Everyone, from Granny to the Woodsman to the Wolf ” even Red herself ” is a suspect. “Hoodwinked” features the voices of Glenn Close, Jim Belushi, Anne Hathaway and Patrick Warburton. Despite the modern twist on the tale, the film is being promoted as closer to traditional storytelling, and less like the technology-heavy animations of recent years.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Burt Munro, a real-life New Zealander who got the notion, at age 71, to break the land-speed record on a 40-year-old motorcycle. Directed by Roger Donaldson, a New Zealand product who has his own coming-to-America story to tell, “The World’s Fastest Indian” plays like a feel-good story of the foreigner being guided by angels to his desired destination. Hopkins is excellent as the never-say-die Munro, but lacking from the film is any sense of how the character became a septuagenarian bent on speeding 200 miles an hour across the Utah desert.