At Any Price is a movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but it fails to leave a mark. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani's fifth feature film is a family drama that combines the desperation of the middle class businessman trying to stay afloat with the hot button issue of genetically modified crops, then throws in a chafing father/son relationship and the everyday disappointments of growing up. Somehow, it's both too much and not enough.
The Whipple family and their problems encapsulates the predicament of Midwestern famers who are driven to desperate measures to stay afloat. This isn't the same homestead that the ancestors of Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) once farmed; it's big biz agriculture, which means Henry's out hustling genetically modified seeds and snatching up land from graveside families of freshly dead farmers. His Glengarry Glen Ross-style exhortations to "Always Be Closing" is emphasized by a sort of sweaty and pathetic performance from Quaid, who manages to be both charming and loathsome.
Naturally, Henry has a favorite son, the athletic and handsome Grant (Patrick Stevens), whom Henry and his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) actually roll out a red carpet for in anticipation of his return. (Surprise: He's more interested in traveling the world than returning to Henry's clutching embrace.) That leaves Dean (Zac Efron) to take over the family business, even though he'd much rather hang out with his sh*tkicker friends and race cars and make out with his hot girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe).
The cinematography is sweeping and beautiful; those amber waves of grain sway hypnotically, lulling us into the sort of complacency that makes it perfectly acceptable to eat food that was tweaked out in a lab. Efron and Quaid are a perfect father and son pair: the Type A aging golden boy versus the fiery-tempered teen who eventually trades his sleeveless T-shirts for a nicely pressed button-up. Of course, dressing like your dad and actually having an affair with his mistress (Heather Graham, in a role as thankless as Dickens') is another. T
The core idea of At Any Price is to put a human face on the changing nature of agriculture, and not just how it affects the food on our shelves but the farmers who've had to change the nature of their livelihood to keep pace. Trying to build a drama around an idea is difficult, especially such a big and political one. The dynamics between Henry and Dean are nothing new or interesting; the only time you really feel the pain of intergenerational disappointment is when Henry meets with his father and you see that it's all a game of trying to live up to a father figure that will never be satisfied.
At Any Price also deals with the shadier nature of the corn business, but it's a dramatic development that lacks the sort of urgency that the title of the movie implies. Although on paper it would seem the stakes are high in At Any Price, documentaries about subsidized farming or GMO crops are far more alarming.
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Like Mom always said never talk to strangers and never accept a package containing a vintage ventriloquist dummy unless you know who sent it. Sadly young married couple James (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa (Laura Regan) ignore the latter piece of advice and pay dearly for it. While James is out picking up dinner Lisa makes their pintsized doll feel right at home. When James returns home however he finds his pretty wife has been fatally well doll-handled. Thus begins a full-scale truth mission for new widower James: He seeks to prove the doll's guilt and his innocence in Lisa's homicide as well as learning of the doll’s origins. He heads to Ravens Fair a small town of (apparently) perpetual nightfall and low-hanging fog—a literal and figurative ghost town. With a suspicious cop (Donnie Wahlberg) tracing his every step James finds out about the doll’s er mother Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) and her fondness for silence. And that this doll is one tough resilient S.O.B.! In a movie about ghosts and such it’s fitting that The Office star John Krasinski’s doppelganger (or long-lost twin) is the lead actor. Up-and-coming actor Kwanten (Flicka) is serviceable and wears the crucial “Where have I seen this dude before?” look quite well but he’s hardly anyone you’ll remember after the movie. And if he has hopes of consistently landing roles beyond the scope of teen-aimed TV dramas and low-budget movies he’ll have to up the liveliness of his performances. Outdoing him are basically all of the remaining G-list actors starting with Saw mainstay Wahlberg an actor who seems oddly cozy atop the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole. As the constantly shaving Det. Lipton Wahlberg at least livens up the proceedings a bit in contrast to his screenmate Kwanten. As Kwanten’s brand new stepmom model-turned-actress Amber Valletta (Hitch) also becomes a piece of the puzzle. The creepiest performances though come from the old timers (veterans Michael Fairman and Joan Heney as a mortician and his tortured wife) the dead (Roberts as the ghostly Mary Shaw in flashbacks) and the seemingly inanimate (that damn doll!). If Saw masterminds Leigh Whannell and James Wan really want to go all progressive-horror on us they might want to try an actual silent film. That would’ve been doubly beneficial here because not only is their latest effort an homage to yesteryear’s similar horror tales (complete with stock-footage scenes and the ancient Universal Studios company logo sequence) but also because the dialogue is atrocious and a silent Silence might have actually worked better. The writing from Wan and Whannell is not without its clever twists and the direction from Wan boasts some genuinely disturbing images even when you expect it—but any number of their Hollywood peers can scare up a few screams here and there. In the end these guys don’t do much more than merely perpetuate the Chucky (from the Child’s Play movies) theory: Dolls can be scary! And Silence is but a cheap stopgap between their annual Saw movies.