American Film Institute's now annual (and free, thanks to presenting sponsor Audi and other supporters) festival AFI Fest kicked off last night in Hollywood with the world premiere of Edward Zwick's Love & Other Drugs. Alas, critics were denied admission to the rom com starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, reunited for the first time since Brokeback Mountain five years ago. However, I look forward to attending several other fest screenings between now and November 11 and I've already gotten an advance look at its closing film, the imperfect but still terrific Black Swan (more on that one below).
Despite advance reports that Jake and Anne both show plenty of skin in Love & Other Drugs, there is more GLBT interest behind the scenes of various AFI Fest offerings than on the screen, although Black Swan and Heartbeats, the second film by I Killed My Mother writer-director Xavier Dolan, are notable exceptions to this. The current buzz is that Colin Firth, who lost the Best Actor Oscar last year for his gay turn in A Single Man but headlines festival entry The King's Speech, is virtually a lock to win the golden guy this year. Similarly, Natalie Portman, who gives an amazing performance as a psychotic ballerina with lesbian longings in Black Swan, and GLBT fave Nicole Kidman, as a mother grieving the death of her young child in Rabbit Hole (screening this Sunday), are running neck-and-neck for Best Actress among Academy Award prognosticators.
Rabbit Hole, by the way, is directed by John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus fame. Other noteworthy filmmakers debuting movies at AFI Fest include John Sayles (Amigo); Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in 3D no less); George Hickenlooper (Casino Jack), who unexpectedly passed away just last week; and actor Diego Luna of Y tu Mamá También fame making his directorial debut (Abel). If they don't represent enough star power behind the camera, David Lynch is serving as the festival's first-ever Guest Artistic Director. Lynch will be presenting a selection of personal favorites, among them the sexually charged classics Sunset Boulevard, Lolita and Rear Window.
Despite having polarized critics and audiences — understandably so — at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I highly recommend Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan to more adventurous filmgoers. Aronofsky is one of the best and most intelligent directors working today, as evidenced by his previous films Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler. His "psychosexual" take on gay composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky's classic ballet Swan Lake, starring Portman, has already gotten his leading lady into hot water with her orthodox Jewish father, according to recent news reports. Portman doesn't appear nude in the film, but does have a heated masturbation scene and gets hot 'n heavy with both Vincent Cassel, who plays her demanding choreographer, and company rival Mila Kunis.
The cast of Black Swan, which also includes Barbara Hershey, is excellent, with the exception of a miscast Winona Ryder. I couldn't buy Ryder as an aging prima donna in her brief scenes and it doesn't help that, unlike Portman, we never see Ryder dance. I was riveted by Portman, though, who makes an award-worthy impression that is underscored by her spectacular, increasingly passionate dancing (choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, who also plays the Prince in the Swan Lake scenes). Matthew Libatique's photography and Andrew Weisblum's keep-the-audience-on-the-edge editing are also excellent. The film is scarier than I anticipated and, while some of its "Boo, gotcha!" moments are predictable, at least a couple of them made me jump out of my seat. The Nutcracker, it ain't! Black Swan is scheduled to open in theaters nationwide beginning December 3.
Click here for more information about AFI Fest, running now through November 11, or to attempt to secure any remaining free screening tickets.
Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.