Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan returns to his early form with “Split,” the story of three young women who are abducted by a man with multiple personalities. After early successes with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan seemed to go steadily downhill with his twist-heavy approach to filmmaking. Indeed, for a while it seemed that the best way to watch his films, such that they might seem to be improving, was to watch them in reverse order.
“Split” upsets that pattern, and may be the best of his work since “Unbreakable,” with a neat, relatively simple concept. Many kidnapping storylines involve playing one kidnapper off against another, except that here those different characters inhabit a single person and the victims need to determine which might be most sympathetic to their plight. James McAvoy is effective in conveying those disparate personalities, although we only spend time with a few of them – dependent on who is “in the light” at any given point in time.
My impression of Shyamalan’s work over the years has been that he’s better at story ideas than execution or that he might be better off if he didn’t try to do everything himself. He seems to be a technically adept director but perhaps not as good at working with actors who need more direction. In “Split,” the main performances are pretty solid but some of the supporting performances lag a little – not least when Shyamalan himself takes his customary but distracting turn on screen.
He’s at his best working with talented actors and with plots that are surprising, perhaps, but not overly convoluted. And the central premise here, as well as the work of McAvoy, manages to stay mostly within those parameters. Given that, and the promise of things to come that this movie suggests, and it seems like a welcome entry in the positive column.
Annette Bening heads the cast of the impressive “20th Century Women,” which examines the relationship between an older single mother (Bening) and her teenage son Jamie. She’s worried that she’s not especially well equipped to raise a young man in 1979 Santa Barbara, and so she enlists the help of two of the tenants in her sprawling house. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s unrequited love interest and Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a photographer recovering from cancer. The household is completed by William (Billy Crudup), a mechanic and general handyman who, amongst other things, meditates and makes his own shampoo. It’s an interesting dynamic between the characters and the strong cast, with Sacramentan Gerwig just off another fine supporting performance in “Jackie.” But the story largely revolves around Jamie, played by relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, in a performance and with adult material that is occasionally reminiscent of the equally inexperienced (at that time) Patrick Fugit’s role in the wonderful “Almost Famous.” As such, it’s another of those films that demonstrates the importance of the people doing the casting. “20th Century Women” reinforces the short but impressive resume of writer/director Mike Mills (“thumbsucker,” “Beginners”) and is well worth checking out.
Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDonalds into a household name and worldwide franchise in “The Founder.” Kroc was a struggling, hustling entrepreneur when he stumbled upon the McDonalds brothers, in San Bernardino, and their unique “speedy system” approach to making hamburgers. Seeing the potential, he convinced them to franchise the concept and to allow him to find new franchisees across the country, setting in motion a story for which we know the ending (or at least the current chapter). It’s a fascinating look at the birth of the new company, in brief moments feeling a little like a dramatized documentary. Kroc is shown as a man who finally has a winning concept he can play to his advantage, and play it he does – albeit often at the expense of the people with the ideas. It doesn’t paint him in a sympathetic light, other than as an opportunist of the highest order, and might make you lose your appetite for the company’s products (assuming you had one to begin with). But, in that sense, it perhaps misses out on the side of the story in which the individual restaurants are owned and operated by countless, hard-working people, many of whom have more in common with Dick and Mac McDonald than Ray Kroc.