Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
Military marksman Col. Jim McQuade (Gregory Hines, Running Scared) is called into top-secret duty to neutralize a surveillance robot gone haywire in San Francisco. It won't be easy, because for one thing, the android is undetectable from a human. For another, it has a built-in nuclear bomb that will detonate upon imminent threat.
I plead guilty: My friends and I have goofed around with a camcorder before and made stupid movies, but we were smart enough to know that no one outside ourselves would think they were funny. If only the makers of Caesar and Otto's Deadly Xmas realized the same.
Ramin Bahrani has directed three extraordinary, independently produced
films about characters living on the margins on society. That trio — Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop(2007) and Goodbye Solo(2008) — rightly earned him scads of critical acclaim and excitement about his future projects.
Unfortunately, his latest effort is something of a stumble. At Any Price, which opens Friday exclusively at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial, marks an admirable departure from Bahrani’s comfort zone.
In contrast to his previous works, which featured nonprofessional actors and John Cassavetes-styled improvisation, this offering boasts an accomplished cast (a couple of bona fide stars, even) and a heavily plotted script.
But despite its more conventional storytelling, this melodrama set in the American heartland doesn’t do Bahrani any favors.
Dennis Quaid (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) portrays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer and seed salesman of moderate success but not quite enough to satisfy his craving for respectability and a better life. “Why can’t you be happy with what’s right in front of you?” someone posits to Henry, but there’s no getting through to this Willy Loman of the Corn Belt.
Henry hovers between can-do optimism and tattered desperation. He struggles for the approval of his irascible father (Red West, Safe Haven) while weathering the disapproval of his two sons, the youngest of whom, Dean (Zac Efron, The Paperboy), is more interested in pursuing ARCA Racing than the family business.
Henry navigates between a dutiful wife (Kim Dickens, TV’s Treme) and a mistress (Heather Graham, The Hangover). And on top of everything else, the man is in trouble with the manufacturer of the genetically modified seeds that he sells throughout the Hawkeye State.
That’s a lot of story to chew on, and co-screenwriters Bahrani and Hallie Newton craft some meaty characters and unexpected turns along the way. But what is it about farmland dramas that make filmmakers lose all appreciation of subtlety? Maybe there’s something about the open fields and fresh air that just inspires earnestness, considering how the same malady seemed to have infected Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land earlier this year.
While Bahrani’s prior works have been sparing with dialogue and trusting of his audience, At Any Priceis a bountiful harvest of talkiness. Here the dialogue is clunky and full of exposition. To some extent, the loquaciousness makes sense given Henry’s penchant for bluster, but at some point, the gab feels more like a crutch.
Not that the cast doesn’t sell it as best they can. Quaid, always a dependable player, creates a compelling and sympathetic portrait of a conflicted man. Efron continues to prove he’s got more acting chops than anyone has a right to expect, and Maika Monroe (next month’s The Bling Ring) shines in a small but memorable role as Dean’s girlfriend and Henry’s would-be student. They help At Any Priceremain interesting, if not convincing.