LYT vs. AFI Fest 2010: Midnight in the Garden of AFI Fest

As part of AFI Fest’s unusual strategy of cramming all the movies people really want to see into two days, and being sparse the rest of the week, we got three midnight shows, and while I’m not usually a wuss about such things, when you start the day with a lunchtime screening, have a party somewhere in there, and then gotta stay up through a midnight flick, it’s hard. But is it worth it?

Results, shall we say, were mixed.


Friday’s show was CARGO, billed as the first ever sci-fi movie from Switzerland, took 9 years to make, probably because of all the visual effects, but also because the Swiss aren’t used to making sci-fi.

It takes its cues from the best – you’ve seen futuristic cityscapes full of neon billboards since BLADE RUNNER, but have you ever seen one located on the inner ring of a rotating space station? Nope, don’t think so. The plot involves a deep-space voyage to construct a new space station four light years away, from which to build a base of operations to travel to the inhabitable planet Proxima. The spaceship that our main characters are on for this mission is called the Kassandra, which is a really stupid name for a space station. Might as well call it Titanic; I mean, you can’t just take any mythological name and go with it – ‘twould help to avoid the ones associated with doom.

So yeah, things start going bad on the voyage. And there are the usual, inevitable echoes of SOLARIS and 2001, plus even Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE, which cribbed more blatantly.

I’d love to tell you more, but could not stay awake all the way through. I must stress in this case that it was not the film’s fault. I would like to see it again.

Saturday’s midnighter, JULIA’S EYES, came with a surprise...Guillermo Del Toro in the house to introduce it! Had no idea he was the producer. As per usual, he unleashes a string of f-bombs as he talked about his meetings with director Guillem Morales, who kept proposing ideas that Del Toro told him were unfilmable, including sequences that are all sound and no picture. Morales took no notice, went ahead and did them anyway. As a director, he clearly does have good instincts. But I have issues with the script – minor but important ones I’ll be getting to in a moment.

Intended as a tribute to Italian Giallo horror and what Del Toro calls “their strange fetishism,” JULIA’S EYES is “Hitchcockian mystery done brutally in a Mediterranean way.” It begins with a blind girl in the dark – why do blind girls in movies always have the freakiest contact lenses ever? – saying that she knows someone is there, hearing music she hates, and then dying with her neck in a noose.

Her sister, Sara, is not yet blind but has the same deteriorating condition that will leave her so eventually. Upon learning that her late sister had been seen with a mystery man, whose face nobody can seem to remember, she starts investigating to try and find out his identity. Soon, it becomes evident that this man almost certainly was the killer, and now has his sights set on her lack of sight, as it were. Meanwhile, her vision gets worse, and she is assigned a helper to adjust to the inevitable.

There is, of course, a scene set in a locker room for blind women. If your own particular peculiar fetish is for nekkid chicks in scary contacts, your dream movie now exists.

Note to anyone who suspects they might be living inside a horror movie – get rid of that whistling kettle. Seriously. I’ve never known anyone in real life who owns one of those things, and they make for an annoyingly clichéd fakeout, like a cat jumping out of a cupboard.

With that said, Morales has a gift for actual scares as well, and he knows how to be inspired by the best – there’s a chase sequence in the dark involving a camera flashbulb that’s pretty much a crib from the first SAW, but a good one.

My only issue? He piles on too many twists at the end, before a really cloying and lame final grace note. A good ride with a disappointing finish.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday...really, is a midnight show on Sunday a good idea, considering EVERYTHING in that Hollywood and Highland complex closes early? Who knows. Well, I have an instinct...but I wouldn’t say I know for sure. The movie in question? NORWEGIAN NINJA. Supposedly won awards at Fantastic Fest, because it seems that now every movie at AFI Fest comes from another big-name fest, which is perhaps why they don’t seem to care about movies generating buzz for repeat viewings.

To back up...many fests, including AFI Fest in the past, show each movie more than once. Thus, if a first screening goes well, and people write about it and spread the word, it gets “buzz,” and the second screening does better. And this makes the question “What have you seen that you’ve liked?” a lot more relevant. But I guess every selection this year has all the buzz it needs?

Anyhow, NORWEGIAN NINJA is an ‘80s action homage full of blowdried hair, intentionally faded/degraded cinematography, cheesy miniatures, and Cold War imagery, not to mention several deliberate anachronisms (9-11 references, Feng Shui used as a weapon).

The story involves an island of ninjas pledged to “beat the shit out of anyone who messes with the Norwegian way of life.” This pits them against the CIA-backed Stay Behind, a  group that carries out terrorist actions and frames the Soviets for them. That one of their big plans in this film involves ramming a plane into a tall building arguably makes it the first non-documentary 9-11 “truther” movie.

Like BUCKAROO BANZAI, this is a movie so clearly in love with itself that it’s difficult to give it any more. Director Thomas Malling focuses on many of the superficial and horrible aspects of ‘80s cheese without getting the appeal factor down at all; Frankie Latina’s MODUS OPERANDI, which played AFI fest last year, was a far savvier spoof that deconstructed the form cinematically.

As the movie started, the audiences were laughing at everything, especially moments when the main ninja would appear in a puff of smoke. Gradually this enthusiasm waned, and people started to leave. Every character in the movie constantly refers to “the ignorant masses,” and I started to feel like it considered me part of that crowd.

Sometimes it seems like anything non-American that references Gen-X American pop culture gets a pass from the geek-o-sphere; hence the massive appeal of Edgar Wright, for example. I cannot otherwise explain how this movie won acting and directing awards at Fantastic Fest. There’s little “acting” here at all – the characters are opaque. I don’t doubt that Malling has written elaborate backstories for them, but I get very little from what we actually see of them.

Then again, SIX-STRING SAMURAI has its fans too. Just be warned, NORWEGIAN NINJA is a one-joke flick (‘80s action movie set in Norway, and it’s cheesy!). If that joke is inherently hilarious to you, you’ll like it more than I did.

And yes, I stayed awake the whole time for that one.

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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