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King Corn


King Corn

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If there's one thing the documentary world could do without, it's another liberal urbanite throwing on flannels, adopting a folksy tone, and embarking on a gimmicky first-person stunt as a way to illuminate an important issue. King Corn offers two of them: Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, Boston-based college buddies who return to their ancestral home of Greene, Iowa, and spend a year planting and harvesting an acre of corn. Their affable little project represents the spoonful of sugar that makes the corn-industry-factoid medicine go down, as Ellis and Cheney learn about subsidies and surpluses, and the insidious nutritional aspects of an industry that's growing in proportion to America's bellies. And yet King Corn, produced and directed by Aaron Woolf, isn't as officious as it sounds, because Ellis and Cheney are low-key tour guides with a minimum of snark, and the one-acre-farm gimmick doesn't carry too heavy a load.

After providing a helpful tutorial on American corn production past and present, Ellis and Cheney head off to Greene, a farming town of just over a thousand people, to play their miniscule part in the burgeoning corn industry. They learn how government subsidies work, how ammonia fertilizer increases the yield by fivefold over what farmers of earlier generations might have expected, and how the system favors mass production over small family farms. They also get into the ubiquity of corn in everything we consume, from corn-fed beef to the high-fructose syrup that sweetens sodas and other products, all contributing to the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Lest it nibble off more than it can chew, King Corn doesn't get into how the ethanol explosion has transformed an already-burgeoning industry, but its focus on nutrition keeps its argument tight and convincing. Best of all, it doesn't irritate, which puts it a notch above the current invasion of Michael Moore-inspired yahoos.

Key features: Seventeen minutes of deleted scenes presumably (and wisely) cut for being either too wacky or too dry, a fake instructional video about agriculture called "The Lost Basement Lectures," and the worst environmentally friendly packaging since Sting's The Soul Cages.