Thursday, February 2, 2017

Split, The Founder, Gold, 20th Century Women Reviews

Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
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We may be witnessing a comeback for M. Night Shyamalan, or what I like to call it: the "Shyamaissance." Having gone from being touted as the 'Next Spielberg' to ruining a beloved franchise and becoming a literal laughing stock (I distinctly remember his producer credit for Devil alone eliciting laughter in theaters), M. Night has found a new lucrative partnership with Blumhouse Pictures - the studio known for making profit-turning low budget horror flicks like the Purge and Sinister films. Starting with last year's surprisingly good The Visit, Shyamalan is slowly working his way back up the ladder, with Split being an encouraging mega-success, making $105 million at the box office on a $9 million budget. However, just because he's no longer in artistic jail doesn't mean he's working at the same level as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Split is a solid b-movie and I'm glad to see a fallen-from-grace director pick themselves back up, but it does have its share of issues - not the least of which is its questionable depiction of a real mental illness.

The film follows high school outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who one day is abducted along with two girlfriends during a birthday dinner that she was extended a pity-invite to. The abductor is "Dennis" (James McAoy), who, after suffering from abuse as a child, has developed 23 distinct personalities - ranging from a 9-year old boy to a high heel-wearing woman. Trapped in his basement, Casey and her two naive friends have to "10 Cloverfield Lane" their way out of the situation, all the while McAvoy is slowly descending into madness, afraid that a demonic 24th personality - "The Beast" - will take over his mind.

The MVP of this movie is James McAvoy, who takes a character that could easily have been a Razzie-worthy cringe-fest and makes him both genuinely creepy, sympathetic, and even at times funny - all depending on which personality is on display. His personalities aren't just McAvoy doing a series of vocal impressions; his entire body and facial nuances change as each new "character" comes to the front, and he switches between them seamlessly. My only disappointment with McAvoy is that we don't actually get to see all 23 of his personalities, we only get a "sample platter" of them. Anya Taylor-Joy is also continuing to prove her talents after her starring roles in The Witch and Morgan, appearing quietly thoughtful and calculating in every scene as she attempts to outsmart her captor. Split is also shot noticeably well considering its budget, thanks to cinematographer Mike Giolakis (It Follows) who helped imbue the film with a creepy, unsettling, claustrophobic tone.

All that being said - Split handles some of its delicate subject matter in troubling ways. The first of which is that this film, instead of using some fictional disorder, mentions that McAvoy has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which is a real condition. This movie, similar to Ben Affleck's portrayal of autism in The Accountant late last year, infers that those with a mental illness are inherently dangerous and prone to becoming psycho-killers. I wouldn't have as much of a problem with it in this film if Shyamalan didn't focus so heavily on the countless, exposition-heavy, narrative-halting pseudo-scientific therapy sessions McAvoy's character holds with his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), which suggests an air of legitimacy to an affliction that is clearly an over-the-top fantasy. Hollywood has always had an issue with depicting mental illness in film, but I think critics are coming out of the woodwork for this in particular because of how specific they try to be.

Split also presents some troubling notions of trauma, suggesting at one point that only men and women who have experienced horrific suffering in their past can be strong, and that they are "superior" to others. I don't want to spoil anything, but Taylor-Joy's character's strength seems only to come from a terrible experience in her past - and while it's great that she is able to overcome her demons a bit, it almost feels like the film is saying you can't be "special" or "powerful" without something like that happening to you, essentially exploiting abuse victims for a cheap thriller concept. Although this concept of a victim rising against their captors is a horror cliche (the "final girl" trope), for some reason it felt more reprehensibly opportunistic here.

I came out of Split with mixed feelings. While I enjoyed "the ride" as it was happening, so many of its problems are highlighted in my mind as I think back on it. Unlike many other critics online, I was actually not a fan of the "twist" ending (which I consider to be more of a "tease" than a proper "Sixth Sense" revelation), and though I can't discuss it here, I will say that I personally felt unsatisfied by the way the characters were left by the end. All in all, I'd put this movie in the same league as last year's Passengers - it's an entertaining-enough high concept movie that has some unfortunate and weird implications underneath the surface. I guess you could say my opinion on this movie is split.

Rating: B-

The Founder
Dir. John Lee Hancock
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It's hard to watch The Founder in today's age and not think about our current president. President Trump made it all the way to the White House a great deal because of his ruthless, capitalistic, business-man mentality, which is seen as a positive thing to a good deal of the American public. This film is about another ruthless business-man who made it to the "top" via questionable ethics: Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), who took a small family business, McDonalds, and turned it into the fast food empire it is today. Although exposing the dark side of the "American Dream" is hardly a novel concept in film, The Founder is still a fascinating biopic of a persistent narcissist who built an empire on the backs of those he stepped on to get there.

The story almost has a Breaking Bad quality: Kroc's journey begins as a pathetic, but quaint, small-town American salesman (of the "snake oil" variety) desperately trying to sell his milkshake mixers to drive-ins around the country. However, his outer Leave It to Beaver skin slowly begins to shed, with Kroc more and more embracing a "dog eat dog" mentality after partnering with the only establishment that would bite: a little family-run business in Santa Barbara called McDonalds. Its owners are brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman, sans mustache), who have come up with the first super-fast food delivery system. Kroc is impressed, and offers to help the brothers extend their brand into a cross-country franchise. All seems well and good at first - it's just good ol' American bootstrap-pullin' - but slowly but surely Kroc starts to connivingly take over the business, making decisions behind the brothers' back and taking credit for ideas that aren't even his.

I'm surprised this movie isn't getting more buzz considering how relevant its themes are right now. The Founder is a solid re-telling of a story that could potentially prove to either be a warning against or a re-affirmation of capitalistic values, depending on your personal viewpoint. Some people might consider Kroc in this film to be a kind of hero - persevering, not giving up hope, etc - while others may think he represents the worst aspects of the American business world. Either way, it's an interesting and alarming conversation starter, and Michael Keaton is fantastic in the lead role.

Rating: B

Dir. Stephen Gaghan
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Spoiler warning ahead for real life events!

Like The Founder, Gold is a similar story about a somewhat pathetic man's rise in business and the disillusionment of the "American Dream." It's about a Reno-based prospector, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), who has bigger ambitions than he's currently living with his loving wife (Bryce Dallas Howard). After a dream tells him to check out Indonesian jungles for gold, he teams up with a jungle guide and fellow gold-digger Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), who go out into the wilderness of the island of Borneo and strike it rich. However - what I didn't know going into this movie (that's based on true events, so I should have) is that this was all a big scandal. Kenny was duped by Michael and there really was no gold, forcing Kenny to take the fall while tons of investors lost money and Michael went into hiding.

The one thing I can say I liked about Gold was McConaughey's committed performance. McConaughey elevates pretty much any material he's in - to the point that his commercials for Lincoln automobiles have become iconic. Like Christian Bale in American Hustle, he transforms himself here into a potbellied, balding cartoon character, apt to be seen wearing cheap sunglasses, a crooked-toothed grin, and a dirty pair of tighty whities. McConaughey smartly plays Kenny as not just a greedy sleazeball, but someone who is naive and doesn't necessarily want the girls or the cars or the what-have-yous that comes from being rich - he simply wants the reward of finding the gold itself. To Kenny, gold and money are two completely different things, and his personality makes him a figure prone to be suckered and manipulated.

However, other than its central performance, Gold just comes across as a really limp imitation of a Scorsese movie. More than half the film is spent in Wolf of Wall Street-esque sequences of business guys cheering that they've hit the jackpot. Very little of the film is actually spent on its most interesting aspect - the scandal itself. What you're left with is the acting equivalent of McConaughey sifting through some pretty dull material looking for those nuggets of gold.

Rating: C

20th Century Women
Dir. Mike Mills
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20th Century Women is more or less Mike Mills' (Beginners) personal exploration of his relationship to his mother. The film follows a dysfunctional "free spirited" household with a single mother at its center, Dorothea (Annette Bening), struggling to raise and understand her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 California. Dorothea is also renting out her "fixer upper" house to a couple boarders, including a punk-loving photographer (Greta Gerwig) and a hippie car mechanic (Billy Crudup). Also frequently popping in is a promiscuous neighbor, Julie (Elle Fanning), who likes to sneak into Jamie's room at night just to talk, much to his adolescent frustration.

While I found all of the performances here to be strong (I often felt as if I was just watching people "living life," similar to Transparent), admittedly I found the film's ultra-specific viewpoint limiting emotionally. It was grating to me how every line sounded like it meant to be some profound observation about life. It's basically the same complaints I have about Boyhood, trying to force some kind of universality out of a specific experience, but for some reason I struggled more with this one. Unlike, say, The Edge of Seventeen, I just couldn't relate to this family's bohemian lifestyle. It's not what I grew up with, and the film didn't work for me because I couldn't identify with any of the characters in this mostly plot-less film. The film shoehorns in all kinds of specific "hipster-friendly" cultural references to music and feminist literature that often went over my head and I had little frame of reference for.

While I can see why this stylized "slice of life" drama would be enjoyable for a certain sliver of audiences (it's unabashed hipster-porn), I just found its forced profundity off-putting. 20th Century Women also feels like a man desperately trying to prove he's a feminist, repeatedly reassuring his audience that he understands women.

Rating: C+

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