Saturday, October 21, 2006

Review: Fast Food Nation (2006)

Fast Food Nation
130 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

In food terms, Fast Food Nation the book is a nutritious and delicious meal, full of nutrients and fresh ingredients, lovingly and carefully prepared by the finest and friendliest staff. Fast Food Nation the movie is a cheap, artery clogging value meal, not naturally tasty and not terribly appetizing; seemingly thrown together by uncaring and underpaid employees. The book is an Allen Brothers fillet mignon. The movie is a McMuffin.

The book in question is Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-selling expose of America's fast food industry and the many parts of life that it directly and indirectly affects. Released to great fanfare and critical acclaim, the book is a sprawling and intricately detailed examination of the various facets of America's fast food enterprises. Along with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel And Dimed, it is one of the best non-fiction volumes of this decade.

But it is not written as prose, so the likely avenue for adaptation would be a documentary. Director Richard Linklater has chosen to make a fiction film, but it is a misfire of the highest order. The major issue is the choices that Linklater makes in regards to what aspects of the book to use. Much of the most interesting and worthwhile pieces of the original text are ignored in favor of a generic intertwining storyline.

The first (and best) story concerns an executive at the fictional Mickey's burger chain. After tests prove that meat coming out of a major Colorado packing plant contains animal feces, Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear, again proving that he's the finest talk-show host turned actor in the history of the medium) is sent to investigate. This brings him in contact with various people in the town, including an old farmer (Kris Kristofferson) who represents how things 'used to be done', and a slick but realistic representative of the meat factory (Bruce Willis).

Unfortunately, this amusing and entertaining story, which deals in detail with several of the more important ideas from the book, literally disappears for the second half of the film, leaving us with two far lesser narratives, one of which barely touches upon the book. That story concerns a high school girl who works at the local restaurant. Inspired by her uncle (Ethan Hawke) to do something more with her life, she eventually joins up with a group of incompetent animal rights protesters. And that's about it for a third of the film. The conclusion of her arc is mildly amusing, but it feels as if Linklater is apologizing for the progressive left-wing nature of his story by showing those who take action as moronic misguided youth.

The third major narrative concerns several illegal immigrants who sneak into the country and end up working for the offending meat plant. Readers of The Jungle will be displeased to notice that the conditions of meat-plants and their employees has not improved all that much. There, the employees are subject to meager wages, long hours of backbreaking and gruesome labor, constant sexual harassment, and utter and complete disregard for their well-being. While tragic, the film treats this as a new and shocking concept.

Linklater has taken a detailed and intricate study and presented only the most obvious and localized concepts (as if only this small Colorado town is affected). What, you mean fast food isn't made under the best conditions and large corporations have badly hurt the family farm? What, you mean fast food restaurants employ young people and don't pay them all that well, inspiring feelings of uselessness and resentment among said employees? And illegal immigrants are often mistreated on the job and screwed out of their share? And, 'most shocking' of all, Linklater ends the film with a montage of the process of animals being killed and sliced up at the plant, with footage that serves no purpose other than to shock in the most pandering fashion.

Schlosser's book was far smarter, using these obvious points as a jumping point to discuss an entire society addicted to food that they know is terrible for them. Despite being R-rated, Fast Food Nation rarely rises above the level of grade-school discourse. In fact, it is far outclassed by Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary that deals with much of the material in a smarter and more entertaining fashion. That Linklater chose not to make a documentary should not be held against him. His sin was to make a boring and unintelligent fictional film based on such smart material. rarely rises above the level of grade-school discourse.

Grade: C-

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Review: Running With Scissors (2006)

Running With Scissors
116 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Harrison Ford often tells a story about his earliest days in showbiz. Meeting with a producer after a small role, he was told that he didn't have what it took to be a star. The producer told him that when he looked at (I think…) Paul Newman playing a grocery bagger, he would say, "that guy, when I look at him, he looks like a star!" Ford dryly responded, "I thought you should be saying 'gee, that looks like a grocery bagger'?"

It is unfortunate in this day and age that what passes for great acting is often showy and over-the-top while subtle character immersion is often dismissed if not outright criticized. In our film world, over-the-top showboats like Roberto Benigni and Angelina Jolie win Oscars while actors who refuse to be larger than their characters (such as Ford, Keanu Reeves, and Kevin Costner) are constantly attacked as being wooden or un-charismatic.

The reason I bring this up is because most of the press involved with Running With Scissors is focused on Annette Bening's allegedly Oscar-worthy leading role as a mentally ill, fame-seeking, delusional, hysterical mother to the lead character Augusten Burroughs (it is his memoirs upon which this movie is based). Bening is fine (she's rarely been less than fine) in what's actually a supporting role, but most of her many 'big scenes' have the whiff of 'acting' to them, as if the words 'for your consideration' should be burned into the film as a running ticker. Ironically, she is the lone weak point in an otherwise stunningly acted film, with terrific performances compensating for a muddled, disjointed narrative.

The plot… Augustus Burroughs (Joseph Cross, who is in nearly every frame of this film and finally crosses into leading man territory) is born into a most dysfunctional household. His mother is mentally ill and obsessed with being famous to the point of emotional child abuse. Augustus's father (Alec Baldwin, nearly stealing the film with about fifteen subtle, heartbreaking minutes of screen time) has had enough, spending his days teaching then coming home to a wife who inexplicably resents him and a son who takes her side. "I really don't see anything of myself in you," he states to his ten-year-old son, and it rings true not as an insult but as a self-lacerating acknowledgment of his own futility and failure as a father.

As he reaches adolescence, Augustus is puzzlingly sent to live at the home of his mother's equally insane psychologist (Brian Cox, slightly over the top but entertaining as always). In this large, completely unkempt home lives Dr. Finch, his two daughters (the rebellious and emotionally wounded Evan Rachel Wood and the religious and obedient Gwyneth Paltrow), his schizophrenic thirty-four year-old son who lives in the barn (Joseph Fiennes), and the doctor's emotionally shattered wife (Jill Clayburgh).

That's really all the plot one needs, as the film then becomes a character study as all the various freaks and bystanders try to come to grips with their psychoses in an occasionally sitcomish fashion. It is Jill Clayburgh who truly owns the movie with her devastatingly sad portrayal of a normal woman who has resigned herself to an unhappy life as a den mother of uncaring freaks. Bening may win the Oscar (if Helen Mirren doesn't deservedly win for The Queen), but it's Clayburgh who will make you shed tears.

As for the non-acting components, the film is a bit of a mess. While these damaged souls are treated sympathetically, our sympathy is far more tied to the bystanders (Cross, Wood, Baldwin, and Clayburgh), whose chances for a normal and happy life have been sabotaged. The biggest problem is that the film really has no reason for being, nothing to teach or explore beyond the train-wreck factor, along with the relief that your family wasn't this freakish and hurtful. We watch as these insane people do insane and damaging things to each other, merely passive observers to the chaos. There is no clear focus as to whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy and there really is no overriding theme to the whole adventure. Also problematic is the entire third act, which has no less than four false endings.

The film is an acting treat, with a quality cast of character actor veterans doing their thing with meaty character parts. Cross is fantastic, as are Clayburgh and Baldwin. Bening, Cox, and the rest all do what they must. They take a muddled and overly pointless movie and make a film that is, in the end, worth seeing.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 6, 2006

Review: The Bridge (2006)

The Bridge
93 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

One of the great tragedies of losing your life in a major and famous event, be it natural or man made, is that your life instantly pales in legacy; overshadowed for all time by the manner in which you died. When someone dies of old age, publicly or privately, it is easier to think of that person in regards to their quality of life and quality of personality. However, for those unlucky enough to die publicly, the stigma is forever. They will always be known in history primarily as 'died in Columbine' or 'perished on Pan Am flight 103' or 'jumped to their death off of the Golden Gate Bridge'. At least those in the last example chose their end.

The Bridge is a relatively hopeless film, both in tone and content, as well as construction and quality. It is, allegedly, a probing documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge and its penchant for being used as a suicide device. Apparently, it is the world's most popular destination for suicide. The film states that in 2005, twenty-four people leaped off the bridge to their demise. Of all the millions of people worldwide who choose to end their own lives, the fact that twenty-four souls chose the same spot is not exactly a revelation.

This film is not about the bridge and its history as a choice of suicide. It does not feature statistics, experts, historians, or anyone with any amount of exceptional knowledge. It is simply an observation of several suicides and those that did or did not try to help them, and the scars that the survivors now keep. The effect eventually becomes one of monotony and annoyance, especially due to the constant ignorance, in regards to depression on display.

Pretty much every person profiled was a sufferer of mental illness, from garden-variety depression to paranoid schizophrenia. What aggravates is that many of the stories basically involve surrender. Surrender to illnesses for which there is quality treatment available, surrender to misconceptions about various kinds of mental illness, and surrender to doing less than what could be done and then decrying the results. One story involves parents who basically allow their young son to commit suicide because they don't think they can stop him and want him to choose his own path. We never even discover whether that child was mentally ill and what steps were taken to help him in the first place. One of the main threads involved a young musician who waited till his mother died of cancer before ending his life. We learn much about his friends, who tried their best to be his family. But the film offers up ridiculous excuses (he was upset because he couldn't find love) and absurd what-ifs (the day he died, he was about to be approved for a job that he wanted), as if these simple events were catalysts or preventions in waiting.

To be fair, it is not the disagreeable attitudes and actions of the characters that makes this film so awkward, but rather that the film really has no focus. The film is not about the bridge, it's not about suicide per se, and it's certainly not about mental illness in any real or accurate way. It is, basically, ninety minutes of survivors discussing their grief over their loved-ones' untimely ends. Yet the overreaching theme seems to be that many of them really did not do much to prevent said tragedies, yet now are upset that their friends dared to end their own lives. Many of my friends suffer from varying degrees of depression and there is plenty of quality treatment available to render their conditions almost invisible. Yet, time after time we see someone bemoaning how his or her friend couldn't just shake it off or get over it. Yes, it is the responsibility of the actual suicides in relation to their actions, but the 'it's all in their heads' attitude about mental illness that most of the interview subjects seem to share says a lot both about them and, perhaps, about the filmmakers.

In the end, The Bridge is a portrait of grief, but without any real reason to hear these stories. Their lives were not defined by the bridge that they lept from, nor even from their final actions. It would seem that their lives were defined by the ignorance of those around them, in regards to the mental illnesses that eventually killed them. In many ways, the film is just as ignorant.

Grade: C-


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