This week at the Academy Screenings |

This week at the Academy Screenings

Terry Pheto, left, and Presley Chweneyagae star in the South African film "Tsotsi," showing at Harris Hall on Friday as part of Aspen Filmfest's Academy Screenings series. (Blid Alsbirk/Miramax Films)

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

Monday, Dec. 26, 5:30 p.m.

Stephen Frears is high up on my list of automatics in the movie business. If Frears directed it, I’ll see it. The 61-year-old Englishman has made an American romantic comedy (“High Fidelity”), a thriller about the underground London immigrant scene (“Dirty Pretty Things”), an American mob movie (“The Grifters”), a Western (“The Hi-Lo Country”) and a period comedy (“Dangerous Liaisons”), all of them excellent, or at least intriguing.

With “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Frears is back in London, back to comedy, and back in time. The musical film is based on the real-life Mrs. Henderson (played by Judi Dench), a society matron in pre-World War II London with a risque vision for the faded theater she adopts. Dench and Bob Hoskins, who co-stars as her collaborator, both earned Golden Globe nominations, and the film is up for a Golden Globe for best comedy or musical picture.

Monday, Dec. 26, 8 p.m.

Director Terrence Malick takes on the legend of the rebellious Capt. John Smith and Pocohantas, the favored daughter of American Indian chief Powhatan, in the early 17th-century settlement of Jamestown. Malick’s fictional account focuses on the exotic romance, and the changing face of the new land and its people. Colin Farrell stars as Smith, with newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher earning positive reviews as Pocohantas.

Tuesday, Dec. 27, 5:30 p.m.

It barely needs to be said to keep an eye on Amy Adams in “Junebug.” Adams gives a high-octane performance as Ashley, a sheltered North Carolinian whose dream of the big-time is about to come true: She’s getting a visit from her sophisticated, art-dealer sister-in-law. Directed by Phil Morrison, “Junebug” is a smart cultural-exchange story that avoids cliches, or observes them with more wit and honesty than is usual. The film gains depth and insight as it gets past the meet-the-in-laws stages. But easily the most indelible component is Adams, who earned an acting prize from the Sundance jury.

Tuesday, Dec. 27, 8 p.m.

Sixty years after the liberation of Europe, the Holocaust still makes for compelling cinematic material. “Fateless,” the directorial debut by noted Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai, is the story of a teenage boy sent to the concentration camps. Koltai’s straightforward, visually captivating film simply lays out the horror, and the ending invites contemplation of happiness, the human spirit and how the Nazis brutalized not just the dead, but the living as well.

Wednesday, Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m.

Noah Baumbach, co-writer of last year’s very fictional “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” moves much closer to real life. “The Squid and the Whale” draws on Baumbach’s upbringing in 1980s Brooklyn, where his parents, both writers, shared joint custody of him and his younger brother. The characters, especially the father – played by Jeff Daniels in a revelatory performance – are bitter and self-absorbed, yet Baumbach extracts no end of humor from them, and even reveals compassion for their fumbling ways. The film is a bit slight, at just 88 minutes, but earned Baumbach top honors at Sundance for both writing and directing, and is up for a handful of Golden Globes.

Thursday, Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m.

Given the gritty, tough-guy roles Tommy Lee Jones is usually associated with, it’s appropriate that Jones has chosen a Western for his directorial debut. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is set in Jones’ native Texas, a place divided by the conflicting values of the old and new West. Jones has tapped an interesting mix of talent for the film: The script is by Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga, whose past works include the exceptional Spanish-language production “Amores Perros,” and the English-language “21 Grams.” The cast includes moderately recognizable films stars (Barry Pepper, January Jones), Mexican-born actors, and a pair of singers (Dwight Yoakam, Levon Helm of The Band). Jones himself stars as Pete Perkins, a throwback seeking both to avenge his best friend’s death and to give him a burial in his native Mexican village.

Thursday, Dec. 29, 8:15 p.m.

World War I was known as “the war to end all wars,” conveying a sense of merciless brutality. So the event on which the French film “Joyeux Nöel” is based is almost unfathomable in this current time of seemingly unending war. On Christmas Eve 1914, on a battlefield in France, a German soldier was moved to sing “Silent Night,” prompting the French, German and Scottish troops to declare a night of peace, lay down their arms, and celebrate the holiday. The film has been both criticized and praised for its rose-colored view of war and its combatants, but it has picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign-language picture. “Joyeux Nöel” was screened by Aspen Filmfest as the Surprise Film at this past fall’s Filmfest.

Friday, Dec. 30, 5:30 p.m.

The South African film “Tsotsi” is making waves on at least three continents. The crime drama earned the two top prizes at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, and two major awards – though not the main prize – at the Cape Town World Cinema Festival. Presley Chweneyagae stars as the title character, a ruthless criminal forced to confront himself by the accidental fallout from one of his crimes. The Aspen audience gets to help build the buzz; “Tsotsi” has one of its first U.S. screenings here, and is not due for general release until late February.

Friday, Dec. 30, 8 p.m.

“The White Countess” promises more action than such sedate films as “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End,” also directed by James Ivory. The setting here is 1930s Shanghai, populated by refugees, international businessmen, military forces and a lively underworld. Here, a blind American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) develops an odd relationship with an aristocratic Russian refugee (Natasha Richardson). The bond between the two plays out in the White Countess, a nightclub the diplomat has opened to seal himself off from the world.

Saturday, Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m.

Johnny Depp continues his run of loopy characters (J.M Barrie, Ichabod Crane, Hunter S. Thompson, his perverse Willy Wonka). In “The Libertine,” Depp portrays John Wilmot, the 17th-century Earl of Rochester, who partied his way to an early death, but earned posthumous acclaim for his poetry. Playing alongside Depp is another ever-interesting actor, John Malkovich, as the high-living King Charles II. Samantha Morton is the stage protegee who knocks Wilmot from his debauched ways.

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