Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A Tale of Two Documentaries and a Teen Comedy: Fahrenheit 9/11, Supersize Me, & Saved! (All 2004)

Perhaps if I had seen Fahrenheit 9/11 when it was first released to theaters, I would have found it to be more earth-shattering, but having read and heard all the reviews, accolades, fact checking nitpicks and so forth, watching the DVD on the small screen turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic. For reference, I must state that I strongly believe that George W. Bush has proved in his four years in office, to be one of the worst presidents ever, as bad as Richard Nixon, if not more so. What he has done to damage the environment, the economy, every social program you could name, and turning the surplus back into all-time record deficit would be bad enough in and of itself, but his actions in response to 9/11 have hurt our standing in the world, encouraged more terrorism, and as a result have left us less secure as a result with a very uncertain future. The degree to which he has looted the U.S. treasury and mortgaged the future of our children and grandchildren to pour untold sums of money into the coffers of companies owned by his cronies in an invasion and occupation of a country that was likely unneccesary, is enough to make any patriotic American's blood boil.

The factual material presented in this movie would be totally damning and maddening without any editorial spin; it hardly needs the Michael Moore hard sell. My initial reaction was that Moore's narration seems to overstate the case and was not only not necessary, but served to undercut the impact of the factual material, making it seem more like propaganda. However, after further review, and considering that even now at this late date the papers are calling the presidential race a "dead heat" it would seem that the American public is way more stupid than we ever imagined possible, and I resign myself to the thought that Moore's sledgehammer approach is not only appropriate but absolutely necessary. So, at the risk of being called a flip-flopper, I must give Fahrenheit 9/11 thumbs up, without reservation. I still maintain that the Cannes Film Festival prize was due more to the politics than to the quality of the moviemaking, statements to the contrary at the time by the festival jury notwithstanding. Other recent documentaries have seemed to me to be much more well made movies, including The Endurance, Crumb, American Splendor, Woodstock, and the movie I will describe next.

While on one level, the subject matter of Supersize Me would seem irrelevant in comparison to the life and death issues of Fahrenheit 9/11, the sad fact is that the majority of Americans are probably more interested in hearing about fast food than about Bush's failed presidency. Which is not to denigrate the fine work of writer/director Morgan Spurlock. Supersize Me deals with the obescity epidemic in America, the issue of what and how we eat and the health implications, how we educate and protect our kids (or not), and some of the business and cultural impact of McDonalds in a film that is constantly interesting, informative, and entertaining. The writing and onscreen presentation by Spurlock are first rate.

Even though the fast deterioration of Spurlock's health caused by his three meal a day regimen of McDonalds food shocked his doctors, Spurlock almost understates his case, allowing you too to be shocked without having your reaction spoon fed to you. Although some stomach-turning scenes give the movie a bit of an edge, Spurlock's story is delivered with plenty of humor and pathos, and a more than fair and balanced presentation, giving plenty of screen time to the denizens and proponents of McDonalds food without being overly judgemental. The interviews are skillfully produced by Spurlock to humanize those who appear; his vegan chef girlfriend provides just the right amount of emotional grounding and reality check without falling into obvious anti-fast food cliche.

Unlike many DVDs, the bonus material included with Supersize Me is all essential viewing, especially a lengthy interview with Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser who for some reason was unavailable to be in the film. The killer extra is a piece called "The Smoking Fry" in which about eight McDonalds menu items are placed in bell jars to decompose and the results are both funny and disturbing. Supersize Me is one of the best documentaries I've seen and well deserving of the awards it won at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Saved! provided a nice humorous antidote to all the documentary heaviosity. Written and directed by Brian Dannelly, Saved! establishes a comedic tone that makes fun of religious hypocrisy without specifically making fun of religion, which is not an easy tightrope to walk, especially for a first time director. The cast is wonderful, especially Jena Malone as the lead character who begins her senior year of high school with the discovery that she is pregnant from a failed attempt to "cure" her boyfriend from being gay (with Jesus' approval, of course).

Singer and actress Mandy Moore shows some range in a portrayal of a less than endearing character who serves as the poster girl for hypocrisy and intolerance in the name of religion. Eva Amurri is funny as the only Jewish student at the Christian school. Macaulay Culkin's performance even manages to overcome the somewhat disturbing onscreen image of a deep voiced older guy with the face of the kid from Home Alone. Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) also does a nice job as the son of the preacherman. The music used throughout is enjoyable, especially Mandy Moore's version of "God Only Knows" that accompanies both the opening and closing credits. For some unknown reason, a soundtrack album seems not to have been released. Saved! is good spirited fun and you don't have to be religious or a teenager to enjoy it.

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