It’s showtime in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

It’s showtime in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Cameron Kincaid and Flash Madden wouldn’t be likely to have a good time in Aspen over this holiday season. Cameron is constitutionally opposed to being among the ritzy crowd, and would be on a bus to Rifle in minutes. And Flash ” good lord, if he saw even one movie producer walking the streets with an expensive young piece of female flesh draped on his arm, you’d have to call in bomb squad to defuse that powderkeg.

But Cameron and Flash would have a safe refuge in Aspen over the next few weeks. Make that a glorious refuge, one that would keep them occupied and reasonably content, and might even distract their attention from the parade of fur and faux body parts outside.

They would have the inside of the movie the­ater, and loads of quality films to watch.

While the celebrities, the parties, the limos and the boutiques get the outside attention, film fans know that the best thing about Aspen during Christmastime is the cinema. Yes, the skiing and the scene at the Sundeck and The Little Nell are enough reason to make this the place to be dur­ing this time of year, but a movie-lover need not make a single turn or spot one movie star to think he has entered heaven. For those people who would rather see movie stars where they belong ” on the screen, not scarfing down the burger special at Cooper Street Pier, or berating the clerks at Carl’s Pharmacy ” there is no place bet­ter than Aspen for the holidays.

Aspen Film gets the lead role as Santa Claus, providing a stockingful of treats with its Academy Screenings. The series, which opens its 17th edi­tion Friday and runs through Jan. 2, is intended for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The unassailable logic is that loads of Academy members are in Aspen over Christmas, that they should probably see the movies they are going to be voting for and against (preferably on the big screen), and that it should be made super convenient for them to do so. So Aspen Film takes several handfuls of films considered Oscar contenders (25 this year), and packs them into a two-week viewing marathon.

This year’s lineup looks as strong as ever. Such Oscar contenders as “Atonement,” “The Great Debaters,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Juno” and “The Diving Bell and the Butter­fly” are on the schedule (see related story).

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And this year, there are a few bonus gifts under the tree. The Wheeler Film Series has landed “Man in the Chair,” a touching and fresh feel-good film that has gotten only a limited national release. An extra treat is a featured appearance by Aspenite Robert Wagner (see related story). “Man in the Chair” shows Friday through Monday, and Wednesday, Dec. 26, at the Wheeler Opera House.

“Steep” also gets a limited national release Friday, and one of the few places it will be screened is at Aspen’s Isis Theater (see review). Which makes sense ” “Steep” is a ski film, a heart-pounding and uncommonly well-produced documentary about extreme skiing that includes an appearance by Aspen’s Chris Davenport. It is scheduled to show through Monday, Dec. 24.

Several other highly regarded films also get released nationally, and in Aspen, this week: “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a political dra­ma based on a true story and starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which earned five Golden Globe nominations, including best musical or comedy, opens today. “Juno,” a highly regarded satire by Jason Reitman (a frequent participant in Aspen Shortsfest), opens Tuesday, Dec. 25.

For those who can tolerate a few more hours in the dark, Aspen Film and the Sopris Foundation will present a benefit screening of the documentary “War/ Dance” on Friday, Jan. 4, at the Wheeler. Winner of the Audience Favorite Docu­mentary at Aspen Film last fall, “War/Dance” is the story of children in war-torn Uganda, training to compete in a dance festival. Proceeds from the event go to the African Medical and Research Foundation, which has a scholarship fund for the children highlighted in the film.

So who are Cameron and Flash? They are the odd-couple characters in “Man in the Chair.” Cameron (Michael Angarano) is a wrong-side-of-the-tracks high school stu­dent in Los Angeles, who spends a good deal of his time hiding away in a ratty Hollywood theater that specializes in old classics. But he has also taken action, arming himself with a camera and script, and hopes of winning his high school short-film competition and the full ride to film school that comes with it. Flash is likewise well-acquainted with the cinema, but from the opposite perspective. Played with fierce energy and relish by Christopher Plummer, Flash is an acerbic 80-something boozer, long retired from his work as a movie gaffer. (He earned his name from Orson Welles, after ruining a scene during the shooting of “Citizen Kane.”) Flash has seen way too much of Hollywood, the greedy, philandering producers, the high­minded scripts that got watered down to trash, and it has turned him sarcastic, bitter and destructive.

The two meet in the revival house: Cameron is trying to learn something from Welles’ “Touch of Evil”; Flash is trying to ruin the screening, yelling at the film. (“What’s Charlton Heston doing playing a Mexican?”) Cameron enlists a stubborn Flash into his film project, and Flash, once persuaded, drafts his ancient screenwriter buddy, Mick­ey (M. Emmet Walsh), into the crew. The project brings out the best in Flash ” even­tually, it’s been pretty well buried ” and Cameron gets a firsthand, mind-expanding look at life, in all its glory and misery.

OK, so “Man in the Chair,” written and directed by Michael Schroeder, gets no points for surprises in its plot. Still, for its pre­dictability, the film has a freshness to its style and tone. Plummer and Walsh battle it out to see which old-man actor can be the most intense and unselfconscious without letting the performance spill into the absurd. (Plummer wins, but not by much. And Walsh takes the consolation prize for most memorable moment, when he appears at the door of his ramshackle apartment with his blubber flowing out and around a pair of suspenders.) Plummer and Walsh keep things just this side of cheesiness, and Angarano is a find as the troubled but ambitious Cameron. The film borders on a fairy tale, but Schroeder never hesitates to delve into the darkness. The energy of the performances, matched by the audacity of the script, make “Man in the Chair” a fun film. The measure dose of reali­ty makes it, at times, genuinely touching.

stewart@aspentimes.com