As I discovered recently, YouTube is not only an infinitely populated platform for pay-per-view movies both classic and brand-new. It’s also a generous purveyor of free movies easily stream-able on your smart TV through the basic YouTube app.
The bulk of these titles are fairly obscure — what used to be dubbed “straight to video” — but spelunkers of the entire “free movies” catalog may be delighted to uncover prestigious options including Roman Polanski’s entrancing thriller The Ghost Writer, Richard Linklater’s terrific dark comedy Bernie, the cult sci-fi classic Cube, and Woody Allen’s masterful ensemble Hannah and Her Sisters.
There also is an abundance of activist food documentaries, of which there have been countless in the 2000s and 2010s. To borrow an unhealthy food parlance, I binged — or over ate, if you will — on three of them in a row, and here are my takeaways.
Super-Size Me 2: Holy Chicken, Morgan Spurlock’s surprising sequel to his award-winning cautionary stunt of 2004 (also available for free on YouTube), dropped with much less fanfare in its limited theatrical run in 2019. By then, Spurlock had been MeTooed and had lost his CNN documentary series. Nonetheless, the feature finds the director in fine, mischievous form, weaving personal challenges with sobering muckraking.
In the movie’s outset, when he tells a local advertising and branding specialist that for his next project, he would like to start his own fast-food establishment — thus joining the ranks of businesses his breakthrough film sought to expose —he is almost literally laughed out of the room. The irony certainly not lost on Spurlock, Super-Size Me 2 documents his six-month process to do just that, from the ground up: researching industry trends, purchasing a coop, raising chickens from hatchlings, buying a location in the so-called national fast-food test market of Columbus, Ohio, and eventually opening.
Along the way, Spurlock, and we, learn about such cynical marketing ploys as the “health halo” — the crafted illusion that fast-food purveyors have made their products more nutritious by adding artificial char marks to fried chicken and introducing kale to their high-caloric salads. We shake our heads at the meaninglessness of terms like “cage-free” and “all natural,” and the loophole that allows chickens granted a minuscule patch of sunlight and real grass to be classified as “free-range.”
And we appreciate anew the heinousness of factory-farming techniques, which force chickens to grow at 10 times their normal rate, leading some to heart attacks within six weeks. Watching Super-Size Me 2 reveals a nation, and indeed a global populace, of compartmentalizers and suckers who, even when armed with all of this knowledge, proceed to eat this stuff anyway.
So what makes Spurlock anything more than a P.T. Barnum, cynically exploiting the very processes he’s critiquing in order to open Holy Chicken, his own aggressively unhealthy restaurant? You’ll have to wait for the big reveal at the end to see just how much he’s punking us. Suffice it to say that Super-Size Me 2 is an expensive and radical social experiment, and is well worth sticking it out beyond its most hard-to-watch scenes.
Meanwhile, Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, from 2015, employs its own Spurlockian aesthetic of human guinea pigging for a cause. Alarmed at the amount of food that is planted, harvested and delivered to supermarkets only to be wasted or thrown away by consumers, restaurants and food distributors, Canadian filmmakers and married couple Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer pledged to eat nothing but discarded food for six months.
They expected this endeavor to be a taxing experiment in dumpster diving, with touch-and-go periods of scarcely populated cabinets dependent on whims and circumstance. Instead, they found such copious amounts of thrown-away foods — imported pastas, free-trade chocolate, organic produce and other high-end epicurean delights — that they ended up, often, with excess sustenance.
The directors intercut their own story of gleaning and repurposing with talking-head insights from food-waste activists, who critique the Western movement toward food abundance, ballooning portion sizes at restaurants, consumer misunderstanding of expiration dates, and supermarkets that summarily discard aesthetically unpretty, but perfectly tasty, produce.
Just Eat It hews closely to the formula of many an advocacy doc, methodically laying out a societal problem before offering a coda of solutions scored by suddenly uplifting music. Not all of its arguments sound especially revelatory, although the sheer amount of food most of us discard is startlingly high. Mostly, though, Just Eat It stands apart from its peers thanks to the lyrical quality of its cinematography, whether capturing endless fields of green via drone or copter or, in the most impactful sequence, the stop-motion life of a single pepper, from its growth on the vine to its decay in a refrigerator drawer.
For sheer journalistic rigor, though, 2014’s Fed Up delivers the most actionable information in its sweeping 95 minutes. Co-produced and narrated by Katie Couric, it probes the decades-long rise in childhood obesity, soberly identifying its culprits in the shadowy nexus of government policy and the junk food industry — and not in the consumer-blaming “eat less, exercise more” dogma pushed by the very peddlers making us sick.
Couric interviews a handful of families with obese children and teenagers, whose tales of woe are heartbreaking. Director Stephanie Soechtig also trains her lens on nutritionists, policymakers and even lobbyists brave enough to endure Couric’s pointed off-camera grilling.
Weaving historical reportage of key decisions in American food regulation with blunt analysis of their lasting impacts — citing the fast-food-fueled churn of school lunch menus, one expert compares public schools to “7-11s with books” — Soechtig paints an undeniable picture of systemic corruption. This spans from babies weaned on sugary formula to teenagers brainwashed by the unregulated marketing of destructive foods to parents hoodwinked by the deceptive “reduced-fat” myth. And yet at some point, even a film as powerful and winningly produced as Fed Up runs out of arguments, and loses the thread in its own circular structure, repeating points it vividly hammered home earlier.
Its most lasting attribute may be its genuinely nonpartisan condemnations. Couric and Soechtig find blame not just in low-hanging political fruit like Sarah Palin — seen proudly slurping a Big Gulp at the Conservative Political Action Conference —but in senators like Amy Klobuchar, who kowtowed to Big Pizza when she could have taken a principled stand, and even in Michelle Obama, our most beloved avatar of healthy living. The former first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign was, in this doc’s convincing estimation, co-opted by industry, which proceeded to water down her bold initiatives in a Faustian pact.
As this important documentary reminds us, money in politics is, indeed, the overarching issue affecting all other issues — even our illusion of dietary choice.