‘King’s Speech,’ Others Use AFI Fest as Awards Springboard

Geoffrey Rushes in, Harvey Weinstein beams … and other glimpses at the first few days of AFI Fest 2010

The AFI Fest isn’t generally used to launch awards campaigns, or debut serious Oscar contenders, or unveil movies that’ll take the critics by storm.

But AFI Fest 2010, which with its eight-day and 80-odd screenings is considerably smaller than Los Angeles’ other main festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, is giving Angelenos a chance to see a few contenders, a spate of acclaimed foreign films and a handful of big stars – and they can do so for free thanks to fest sponsor Audi, at least if they have the patience and the luck to navigate the AFI Fest’s famously ineffective mess of an online ordering system. 

Colin Firth Tom Hooper and Geoffrey RushFor the industry, and for the awards game, AFI Fest serves as a chance to remind viewers (and voters) of films that had generally been unveiled previously at Toronto or Telluride or Venice or Cannes. And occasionally a movie can use AFI to reinforce the idea that it’s bound for glory – a situation that may well have happened Friday night at the AFI Fest gala screening of “The King’s Speech.”

Director Tom Hooper’s deft, sure-handed telling of the relationship between Britain’s King George VI and his Australian-born speech therapist (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush) played as fast, as funny and as touching at Grauman’s Chinese Theater at it had in Toronto and reportedly in Telluride. And with a number of Academy members in attendance, the packed screening and ensuing ovation reinforced that Harvey Weinstein had good reason to be beaming as he stood at the entrance to the Weinstein Company’s post-screening party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

The screening was preceded by a salute to Hooper, Firth and Rush (above) and a brief Q&A conducted by Leonard Maltin. Rush was the surprise guest of sorts: he was originally supposed to be detained in Hawaii filming the fourth installment in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, until the schedule unexpectedly gave him 48 hours off.

At considerable expense to the Weinstein Company, Rush made it to Los Angeles in time for the gala, where a clip package of scenes from his films had been thrown together in a couple of hours to accompany more considered tributes to Hooper and Rush. Pity, then, that Maltin only aimed one question in Rush’s direction during his rather pro forma  Q&A.

At that Q&A, both Hooper and Firth puzzled over the film’s strong reception by the limited number of U.S. audiences who’ve seen what might appear to be a quintessentially British story, dealing as it does with royal succession on the eve of World War II.

“Deep in the DNA of the American people is the story of standing up to the British king,” said Hooper, who won acclaim for his HBO miniseries “John Adams,” which dealt with the American revolution and its aftermath.

Brits are not quite as monarchy-centric as Yanks might assume, added Firth. “We don’t go ‘round talking about the royal family all the time,” he said with a grin. “In some ways, we’re probably as removed from it as you are in daily life.”

The story, said Hooper, has less to do with royalty than with the act of communication – the struggle of a man “who had to speak on the eve of a war in which rhetoric was being used in completely new ways. Hitler was using it to hypnotize the masses …. ”

Barney's VersionElsewhere during AFI Fest’s first few days, Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal showed up to kick off the festival with “Love & Other Drugs”; director Derek Cianfrance and star Ryan Gosling came out for their upcoming "Blue Valentine," with co-star Michele Williams stuck in London playing Marilyn Monroe; and a slew of stars from the seriocomic “Barney’s Version” – including Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Minnier Driver and Jake Hoffman, right – gave that Sony Classics entry a moment in the spotlight.

A couple of the 65 entries in the Oscar foreign-language sweepstakes also touched down at AFI. The more heralded of the two was “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” the Cannes Palme d’Or winner from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethekul.

Glacially paced and trance-inducing and filled with deadpan absurdities, the film played to a few yawns but a resounding round of applause afterwards. As for its Oscar chances – well, it’s probably safe to say that that Palme d’Or may well be its ace in the hole. If Oscar’s foreign-language voters don’t make it one of their top six choices – and given the challenging nature of the film and the conservative bent of that group, I doubt that they will – then its Cannes cachet could well cause the Academy’s foreign-language executive committee to make it one of the three picks they add to the voters’ six in compiling the shortlist.

The other foreign-language entry that screened at AFI, though, may need no such help. “The Human Resources Manager,” an Israeli film from director Eran Riklis, is a road trip movie about family and humanity and doing the right thing – and while it sustains a light and almost jokey tone, it’s also unexpectedly moving. This one could well score highly with voters, as it did with the AFI audience.

Before every AFI Fest screening, meanwhile, the giant face of the festival’s Guest Artistic Director, David Lynch, addressed the audience in a short filmed intro. In the film, AFI grad Lynch lists all the ways in which the American Film Institute helps filmmakers and film lovers – and then, after a pregnant pause, he concludes in his best Jimmy Stewart-from-Mars drawl, “I love  AFI!”

Time after time, and no matter what film was being shown, that line got the biggest laugh of the screening.

(Photos by Getty Images. “The King’s Speech”: Frazer Harrison. “Barney’s Version”: Kevin Winter)