Midnight Special and Demolition

How to do kids in movies without using a phrase like that.


Why you hate sympathetic characters.
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Reported on 25th of July, 2016

Before TV, there was MTV, and I watched it with the same frequency that you internet the internet. As such, I know that ‘Love Shack’ was playing on Club MTV when the power went out for the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. However unrelated, those two events are forever linked without their say-so, and my mind fills in the connections automatically. Did I pogo too hard? Should I have learned another dance? Is the pogo an actual dance or just something to indicate that you’re parodying dancing? Is parodying dancing just someone who’s too afraid to dance? Who’s afraid of dancing alone in front of the TV?

Yes. No. The second. Yes. I am.

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The unjustified connections abound when you see two films back to back, and then try to explain why one was so-so, and the other just the opposite. So with Midnight Special and Demolition, which had me pondering which led me to ponder how kids in films are handled. And yes that joke’s been done to death. Just like the kids! That’s what SVU said!

For the most part, kids are the death of narrative, as when sitcom writers run out of shit around season 6, leading inevitably to Pregnancy Season, Birth Season Finale, Dawning Realization That No One Wants The Show To Change Its Formula Kids At Home And Never Mentioned Again. Season.

Movies have it a bit easier within a finite amount of time and such, but tend to make them either victims, hostages, badges or all three, technically all four when you add that last one. Ant-Man shines as the example of all five (now I’m counting ‘all four’), as the daughter exists primarily to demonstrate that Mr. Rudd’s thief is worth our sympathy. This is in lieu, as per the usual, of writing. It works, but I begrudge its effectiveness.

Midnight Special and Demolition are to be credited as they have kid characters, and rise and fall (and fall and rise respectively) on how they handle same, but it turns out that it’s how they handle characters. Which is much less indictment sounding.

Midnight Special

11 April 2016 @ La Bobine


$2.50 or, if one must be jejune, and one must... 
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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I enjoyed Mud, directed and written by Mr. Jeff Nichols, and I had a good feeling about Midnight Special. That good feeling briefly sustained itself, as the film begins where it should, in the middle of the action. Kid and two adults are on the run. There’s an amber alert. But since the abducted kid is not scared, we know this isn’t going to turn out to be a surprise like, I don’t know, he’s really his father (he’s really his father, by the way).

The two adult characters have genuine conflicts about the ethics of how far they’re willing to go to save the kid, and it adds more weight than the usual shellacked conflicts to which we have acclimated.

The film becomes flabby and convenient about halfway through as soon as the filmmaker is required to deliver on the kid’s superpowers. You’ve got a comparison problem with a road movie about a potentially starmanny Starman who’s trying to return to the other Starmen. As it happens, assuming we haven’t seen the original is not same thing as improving upon it.

Starman is better in at least two respects: in the 1984 Holy Shit John Carpenter Was On Fire film, there’s the little silver balls which determine how many times Mr. Jeff Bridges can use his powers. Yeah, it’s a bit mechanical, but it’s also mechanical. It provides limits, and choices. In Midnight Special our kid’s powers come and go, as when he absolutely can’t go into the sun and then goes into the sun and gets better. In trouble? Damn! If only The Kid had the right power to help! In trouble? Good news – now he does!

It’s not an especially thrilling experience.

But it could have been. Changing the relationship from wife/dead husband to father/son has some potential, if you’re willing to admit that’s what you’re doing. But then there’s that pesky 2010s need to hold back story points to reveal in the end. In the original, Mr. Bridges is going home. You know this up front and it’s relatable. We know what it’s like to feel lost, and we want him to get home.

In Midnight Special, the kid has a special mission, and strangers help him and cars are flipped, and people are either vaguely killed offscreen or inexplicably tied up and not killed when his powers sometimes work. Or maybe they don’t.

With the setup, we’re thinking his powers or meeting will be either earth saving or earth killing, whatever your preference.

It’s the last one, by the way. You want the last one. Don’t worry. Everyone wants that.

Sadly, no such luck here. The convenient twists and turns to get us to the ending (or the gentle graded slopes on a super highway during a backseat nap, if you will) reveal that…he’s going home. Which is weakly disappointing enough, but home turns out to be uninspired CGI architecture which express the limits of what we can imagine these days. It’s not so much looking into tomorrow as it is walking out of Tomorrowland.

Midnight Special: The Take

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Profits!
Inclus the opening, moral choices, etc., the film presents us with a believable cult that has grown up around the kid, which held some interest for a while. Or was that just Sam Shepard?
$7.00
Total Profits
$7.00
Losses!
Thinking of the simple-is-not-the-same-as-ironic dialog, I was put in mind of the terrible, nearly unwatchable Kill Bill. At some point, Ms. Thurman replies to ‘You didn’t think it would be that simple, did you?’ with ‘I guess I did’. That was considered a trailer moment, meaning using producers notes would now be the new wit. Midnight Special falls easily into this trap, with such non-profundity as
‘There has to be a better way.’
‘There’s not.’
‘The only thing I believed in was Eldon.’
‘Elton’ I would have believed in.
$3.50
Total Losses
$3.50

$3.50

Demolition, in contrast begins way too early, in making the mistake of showing our lead as a sympathetic character. To explain that sentence, I’m going to put you through even more wind-up than usual.

Demolition

8 April 2016 @ The Gaumont Rennes


$5.50 or, if one must be prosaic, and one must... 
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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I need money. My visa here in France requires that I make a pledge not to work in France. Pledge is technically correct, as this statement must be written by hand (because it’s 1840), and then xeroxed (because it’s 1971). There’s something charming about a country unable to to pick a era which to update to.

With no skills to speak of, I turn to years ago, when I wrote and sold a very good script called The Second World. I’m taking another crack at it, this time with the mortifying addition of reading those books on scriptwriting that I used to throw across the room. Hey, if I can sit through Jurassic World

The books certainly offer something to argue against, but do offer bits of wisdom here and there and I’m ashamed to admit I’m learning things, and finding additional tips that I agree with.

But we’re not here for that, are we?

No, we’re here to trash conventional wisdom. In this case, it goes beyond my usual adolescent knee-jerk against the norm; some advice here is simply wrong, and helps us understand the failings of these books, and how they in turn ruin our movie going experiences.

It is written that The Lead Shall Be Sympathetic. In the case of Demolition, we are presented with two Jake Gyllenhaals.  Our first rides in the car to work with his She Can’t Possibly Die We Keep Shooting Through The Driver’s Side Window Where We Couldn’t Possibly Expect A Truck Oh There It Is Wife.

Christ help me, if I see that shot one more FUCKING TIME.

Anyway.

We relate to the awkwardness of grief, and not to the image of happiness we so desperately project on facebook. I mean have on facebook. Have.

This Gyllenhaal is movie sympathetic, all nice and gently teasing and utterly forgettable. Our second Gyllenhaal, who appears in the trailer, is a bit more compelling. In front of the hospital vending machine, this Gyllenhaal calls to complain about the failure to get his Milk Duds and reveals that his wife is dead during the call.

The scene works, and all credit to the writing and acting, because it could have fallen flat. But works much better if you don’t know the other Gyllenhaal. This Gyllenhaal is actually sympathetic. You want to know more about this character, and less about the non-entity that preceded it. It’s not completely unlike the saint-child from above. We relate to the awkwardness of grief, and not to the image of happiness we so desperately project on facebook. I mean have on facebook. Have.

This was supposed to be about kid characters. I’m too lazy to go back and rewrite, but not so lazy I won’t cheaply amend: as it happens, there’s a not-uncompelling teenaged son (Mr. Judah Lewis) to the woman that receives said call. As he agedly-appropriately fucks up his life, and Mr. Gyllenhaal inappropriately teaches him to shoot shit, the film’s charm is that has diverted from the unexpected love story that you were expecting, to a short film within a larger one about the actual unexpected relationship between Mr. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Lewis. The fact that this happens at the end makes you like the film more, because our brains are small and you don’t even know the name of the first film I was talking about. Neither do I.

Demolition is good when it apes 1970s character pieces and struggles when it tries to justify making a 1970s character piece to the 2010 executive in its head. The character who has lost everything and acts out our secret moments of inappropriate grief works. Not because we are that person, but because we are fragments of trying to something, at least until the next something. We wouldn’t have Lecter or Norma Desmond or even Bad Santa without those fragments.

Movies prove it and books continue to look the other way: we identify with almost anyone, not just, and sometimes never, the nice guy lead. A character isn’t the totality of us because there’s no such thing. In a situation, in a simplistic representation, in an archetype, a character can be us because it’s a moment.

The three act structure falls about because that’s not how we experience life. It isn’t one story, one character, one arc, but flitting from moment to moment. Many of those moments are dark and hidden, hence the viewing environment. But even in a crowd in line at the bank on uselessly tiny screen, looking outward, we don’t have anything to prove about which is our real fragment. Let us have those moments.

The Take: Demolition

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Profits!
This is simple in a way, and in a way that Midnight Special lacks. The film has humanity, and coasts a great deal on that.
$7.00
There’s a memorable scene where Mr. Gyllenhaal chastises Mr. Lewis for the overuse of the word ‘fuck’, and that in so doing, the word loses its power. It’s nice…
$3.00
Total Profits
$10.00
Losses!
…until he refers to it again. Like Ted 2, it’s as if the writer knew that was his good scene, and he wanted to relive it.
$1.00
Along those lines, Mr. Gyllenhaal’s character of The Truth Teller makes me long for someone with the dialog ability of Mr. James Brooks. Alack.
$3.50
Total Losses
$4.50

$5.50

Thoughts on But then it became about sympathetic characters. I got distracted.

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  1. Sarah Sullivan says:

    The Loma Prieta quake was 1989, not 1990. Get it right, damn you!

    1. Scott Scott says:

      Occurring as it did at the top of the article, it must have been driving you crazy. I fixed it. I mean, it always said ‘1989’. I know, because it’s the year Reagan was elected.

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