Thursday, December 16, 2010

Double Feature Review: Fast Food Nation and Joyeux Noel

Fast Food Nation

Synopsis: A critique of the fast food industry presented through the loosely interconnected stories of a marketing executive, a teenage counter girl, and a group of undocumented workers in a meatpacking plant.

The bad news first:
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist who wrote a very well-received account of the cost you actually pay for getting a burger and fries in under five minutes. By transferring it to the screen as a fictional story, however, the whole premise is kind of cheapened. A few of the actors are rather well-known, and Burger King and McDonald's are clearly mentioned while the story focuses on a third, fictional major burger chain (a lame knockoff of McDonald's called Mickey's); it creates more than a bit of a disconnect, which serves to blunt the message of the film.

As a whole, the movie is really only able to focus on a few issues: the exploitation of illegal immigrants in dangerous working conditions, the problems of ensuring the quality of beef, and the challenges facing working youth. Other issues related to the industry, such as environmental effects in South America, are never brought up. The focus on the meatpacking plant workers works pretty well, but it suffers from the same problem as the other storylines: the fact that none of these issues can really be blamed on fast food. Aren't there a lot of industries that exploit undocumented workers? Is getting a steak at a nice restaurant any better or worse than getting a burger that was also churned out of a slaughterhouse? Don't all teens hate their jobs?

Promising hints show up here and there, including a few kitchen workers contemplating whether they'll be the latest in a recent series of holdups and determining that maybe they should rob the restaurant. That would have been a great story to follow...and it never materializes. Several other meandering stories or premises also fall apart before reaching a satisfying conclusion.

Finally, it can be a little wordy (or didactic, as the New York Times nicely puts it). The problem here is that there are plenty of instances when you're well aware of how long people are blathering on about some hot-topic issue. It's well-written and realistic enough, but there are times when it starts to grate. Especially in the bullshit sessions of a college common room, whose scenes are made doubly annoying because some casting director thought Avril Lavigne could act.

The good stuff:
As has been mentioned, the story featuring the illegal Mexican immigrants and their experience in the meatpacking industry is the strongest of the bunch. I'm sure I could go onto a message board right now and find someone screaming right-winger about how illegal immigrants don't deserve sympathy, and some left-winger screaming right back at him, but the movie itself never gets tangled up in the numerous issues surrounding this topic. It just shows what can happen behind closed doors.

For the most part, the actors do a good job. Some scenes are also quite enjoyable to watch, such as the discussions between the girl and her mother and especially the later conversations between the girl and her uncle. And the last scene showing real footage of cows being killed and butchered, though again having the effect of making you question eating meat rather than eating fast food, is about as visceral and effective as it can be.

Here's an idea for when you adapt a book by an investigative journalist: make it a friggin' documentary instead of a fictional movie that tries to be one. It's a little tougher to find an audience, but if you do a good enough job they will come. Consider Super Size Me, an excellent documentary that lambasted fast food in general and McDonald's in particular for contributing to American obesity. It made $30 million. Fast Food Nation made one-fifteenth of that.

Joyeux Noel

Synopsis: Scottish, French, and German soldiers hold an impromptu truce on Christmas Day in 1914.

The bad news first:
There's...really not a whole lot. The Christmas Day truces actually happened, with varying degrees of intensity in the fraternization between soldiers. One negative review I came across whined that the movie should have made it clearer that this happened all alone the Western Front, not just in this one unit; another more positive one said it would seem hokey if it weren't for the fact that it actually happened. If those are the only complaints you can come up with, I'd say you just watched a pretty good movie.

The good stuff:
This is one of the more inspiring stories from World War I, and the movie does it justice. The scene in which the opposing soldiers slowly but surely make friendly gestures across no man's land and finally walk out among the debris and bodies to have a few moments of peace is especially heartwarming. It's equally as painful to watch as they slowly restart the conflict, despite the obvious comradery they form in the short time they spend together.

World War I was one of the most pointless fights in history, if not the most pointless one given the much more malignant bloodshed that followed in Europe 21 years after the armistice. The movie drops a few anvils in pointing out this fact, including an opening showing schoolchildren from the three countries reciting hateful speeches against their enemies and a priest reluctantly giving a sermon about how it's God's will that the Scots soldiers kill the Germans. Even if it's heavy-handed at times, it's a point well worth making. There are also some more subtle moments, such as a German soldier saying he enjoyed the brief peace even though he doesn't celebrate Christmas since he's Jewish. We know that even if he survives the fight to return to Germany, it will only be a matter of years before he's persecuted as an enemy of the state.

You should definitely see it. It even works as a non-traditional sort of Christmas movie.

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