FAST FOOD NATION (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Images, Strong Sexuality, Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater, Eric Schlosser

(based on the book FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser)

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano

Far more on the dramatic side of things than the documentary SUPER SIZE ME bringing attention to the same problems, FAST FOOD NATION is told through multiple connecting narratives that revolve around the greasy food industry. A good way of describing this storytelling style is that this is TRAFFIC with the drugs swapped out for burgers and still set around a corrupt broken system. What makes NATION so much more intriguing as a film is that writer Eric Schlosser, who penned the non-fiction book that this film takes its name from, joins director Linklater on the screenplay. The commentary and messages aren’t subtle in the slightest, but everything is solid enough to bring plenty of weight to the everything being said. Well-written characters make the film work as a drama, even if some of the stories themselves come off as one draft away from being completed. I can safely say that this is an interesting and intelligent movie saddled with a fair share of pitfalls.

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Don Anderson is a marketing representative for Mickey’s (a fast food restaurant chain) and has been informed of a very disturbing test result. A popular new menu item called “The Big One” has been found to contain some cow manure in the meat itself. His boss politely addresses it as “There’s shit in the meat.” So Don is sent to a small Colorado town to investigate the company’s meat-packing plant, but he’s suspicious that everything is being sugar-coated for his visit. In the very town that Don is visiting, Sylvia and her fellow illegal immigrants are working in the very same meatpacking plant. Soon they find that the job is not without significant risks, both from unsafe conditions and a belligerent supervisor. Finally, there’s Amber, a young Mickey’s employee. Amber works in a Mickey’s to earn cash needed to get by, but she’s faced with moral dilemmas popping up at her unhealthy workplace.

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There’s plenty of intriguing details in FAST FOOD NATION. I enjoyed watching it as a whole and appreciated the brutally honest nature. If you do some research on fast food as a whole, you’ll find some pretty disturbing stuff. Enough to make you question why people would bother to put that stuff into their bodies. The graphic visuals are unapologetically disgusting and though I don’t know for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the filmmakers used real cow carcasses in the meat-packing plant scenes. It’s clear that Schlosser is co-writing this screenplay with director Linklater, because it almost seems like stretches of words right off the page of his book have been turned into dialogue for the characters. It’s not annoying or forced in any way. These are some very realistic people brought to the screen. Ethan Hawke shows up for a few scenes in a minor role, but makes a big impression.

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Undeniably, the best part of the movie comes in one conversation with Bruce Willis’s scene-long character. He delivers a lenghty monologue and the shocking statements coming out of his mouth most likely reflect the empathetic feelings of heads of these big fast-food chains. After all, why should McDonald’s change a damn thing if they keep serving billions around the world? This is all regardless of the disgusting discoveries made at plenty of their restaurants (watch the stellar documentary SUPER SIZE ME for more details on those). The same can be said of any huge fast food chain. The food is crap and they know it’s crap, just like the people eating it know it’s crap. They still eat it (it’s quick and convenient) and the fast food industry is still booming. Willis’s amazing dialogue drives every point of this home and I felt that scene should have been the conclusion of the entire film. This final moment would have sent everything off with a powerful bang.

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Instead, FAST FOOD NATION is a mess when it comes to the organization of the three plot-threads. Kinnear’s character of Dan is front-loaded into a majority of the first half and as a result his story concludes at the halfway mark (with Willis delivering that awesome speech). Then the viewer is left with one very solid thread and another plot that goes on well enough, but builds to absolutely nothing as there isn’t a proper conclusion given. This all comes as a result of Linklater and a screenplay focusing far too much on significant stretches dedicated to one specific plot-thread out of the three. The final cut suffers in being uneven and winding up as a good movie, but one with some baggage that’s hard to ignore.

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I did think that FAST FOOD NATION is a film that was worth my time, in spite of the aforementioned problems. I might even revisit this one in the future. If all three threads had been balanced out more and one specific storyline had been given a couple of scenes to conclude in a satisfying manner, then this would might have been a great-bordering-on-fantastic film tackling important issues. Instead, it’s a good flick with some interesting things to say, but it ultimately winds up suffering from those damn screenplay problems.

Grade: B-

A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug and Sexual Content, Language and a brief Violent Image

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater

(based on the novel A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane

I remember seeing the commercials for A SCANNER DARKLY when it was coming out. It looked to be a trippy sci-fi story with an unusual animation style being applied to it. The film was shot live action and then animated over by a group of various artists. The source material is the acclaimed novel of the same name from famed science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Sadly, A SCANNER DARKLY is a textbook case of style over substance. The visuals are very cool, but the story being told might have benefitted from a real world approach with a more engaging screenplay. There’s a kernel of an awesome, brooding tale lying within the movie, but it’s undercooked.

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Set seven years in the future, a super addictive toxic pill known as Substance D has turned 20% of America’s population into addicts. One group of law enforcement is working to win this escalating war on drugs and an undercover officer named Bob Arctor is in the middle of a secret operation. He’s living as a tweaker with a group of Substance D users in order to fry some big fish that they might be linked to a few of his friends. In order to keep his identity a secret, he roams around his office environment in a specialized suit (known as a Scrambler) that keeps his identity a secret to his fellow agents. After some unexpected evidence comes in from one of Bob’s friends (also donning a Scrambler), he finds himself investigating himself. Things get stranger as the side effects of Substance D (which Bob has become hooked on to keep up appearances) is having nasty side effects on his brain. As the film’s tagline states: Everything is not going to be OK.

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The ideas behind A SCANNER DARKLY are good ones. I have admittedly never read a novel by Philip K. Dick, but the man seems to have great premises that are most described by fans as hardly ever getting a proper treatment onto film. This piece of unusual animated visual art is a prime example of a concept not reaching its full potential. I did appreciate that the animation on display has a bizarre disorienting effect that puts the viewer into the same unhinged mental state as the junkie characters. The artwork is a neat gimmick, but ultimately the movie should rely on more than just the unique visual process that it went through (taking a production time of over a full year to complete). The script begins with a promising set-up and then wanders without point or purpose for about two-thirds of the run time before concluding on a creative note that echoed a certain 70’s dystopian film (to give a specific title would be a spoiler).

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This admittedly cool conclusion did work in the film’s favor, but it also left me completely unsatisfied that nearly everything else in the storyline was tedious and damn near pointless. The movie plays out like a living graphic novel and there were a few instances (involving some weird hallucinations) that couldn’t have been replicated nearly as well in a live-action format. Besides four brief surreal moments, I can’t think of a single reason why A SCANNER DARKLY was executed in this oddball animated style. It’s a talking heads story done in an experimental fashion and the talking heads don’t have nearly enough remarkable or interesting things to say.

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As far as the cast goes, Rory Cochrane and Robert Downey Jr. were the two stand-outs. Cochrane’s character ultimately winds up (like so many other plot points in this film) being useless, but I got a solid laugh out of the fate of his storyline. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be having fun as a philosophy-waxing junkie that keeps you on your toes. You never quite know what to expect from his character, especially as the film comes to the conclusion. Everybody else is either underused or just plain bland. Woody Harrelson is another worthless character that provides some cheap comic relief and contributes nothing else. Winona Ryder is hugely underused as Bob’s girlfriend and then there’s the man playing our protagonist: Bob. This would be Keanu Reeves. Reeves has become widely reviled for not having much of an acting range and he’s just as wooden here. It’s not aggravating to watch, but I feel that almost any other notable actor could have gotten real emotional responses out of me in what little journey this character takes.

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A SCANNER DARKLY has been a polarizing film since its small release. People either love it or absolutely hate it. I’m stuck in the middle of the road. I enjoyed watching it on a purely visual level, but I’d never subject myself to it again. It’s a beautiful, hollow experience. Pure spectacle around a subject matter that really doesn’t lend itself to spectacle. I enjoyed some aspects about it, but it ultimately suffers from many pointless scenes that play out like filler and an underdeveloped story (which might be attributed to the fault of Philip K. Dick himself). The tagline states that “Everything is not going to be OK.” Sadly that also applies to this movie which is underwhelming to say the least and mediocre to say the most.

Grade: C

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