At Any Price

May 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Maika Monroe
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”)
Written by: Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”) and Hallie Elizabeth Newton (debut)

Creating drama based on topics most people wouldn’t find that dramatic to begin with is a tough challenge for any director. In recent years, filmmaker David Fincher perfected it in 2010 with his masterpiece “The Social Network,” a film about the creation of Facebook. Director Gus Van Sant ran into storytelling problems with his 2012 film “Promised Land” about hydraulic fracturing. In “At Any Price,” a film that makes corporate farming and GMO seeds its narrative base, proven filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo,” “Chop Shop”) doesn’t seem to know where to go once he kicks his tractor into high gear. Part agribusiness fraud tale, part father-son relationship melodrama, “Price” never gets any real guidance to define the type of film it would like to be. By the end, we’re left with a film of flawed design.

Dennis Quaid (“Soul Surfer”) stars as Henry Whipple, an Iowan farmer being investigated for illegally cleaning and reselling genetically modified seeds (GMOs) throughout the state. Henry works in the extremely competitive agricultural world, so he is committed to doing anything he can to keep his farm afloat. Although he is running a family business, his two sons aren’t very interested in following in his footsteps. His son Dean (Zac Efron, who seems to be doing an impersonation of James Dean) has his sights set on racecar driving. It’s a cliché rebellious teenage character we’ve seen hundreds of times before and Efron does nothing remarkable to let it stand alone.

Aside from a forgettable performance by Efron, the complicated relationship Bahrani attempts to create between Henry and Dean isn’t interesting or nearly as complex as it thinks it is. We have a young kid rebelling against his father during a very stressful time for everyone. Things are bound to get a little testy at times, so how is that different than any other family scenario? The controversial seed story would’ve been the way to give the film a bit more life and distinction, but Behrani and first-time screenwriter Hallie Elizabeth Newton toss those ideas to the side in favor of more emoting.

Quaid is adequate enough as a father trying to keep everything from falling apart, but Behrani and Newton add some questionable traits to him that seem out of character. For example, why is he cheating on his wife with a floozie named Meredith (Heather Graham in a role that could’ve easily been left on the editing room floor and not made any difference)? Henry seems like a good guy despite lacking business ethics, but he never comes off as the type of sleezeball it would take to sleep around with the town whore.

In any case, Bahrani proves the family is a fairly dysfunctional one, but gives us little reason to care about what happens to them under their own roof much less in the cutthroat world of farming. Behrani sows the cinematic seeds, but yields nothing.

“At Any Price” was screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Playing for Keeps

December 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid
Directed by: Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Seven Pounds”)
Written by: Robbie Fox (“So I Married an Axe Murderer”)

When all of the tepid romantic comedy crap bobbing along aimlessly on the surface of “Playing For Keeps” finally boils away, the movie is left asking one question: are you, the viewer, okay with an innocent man being screwed over and heartbroken for the sake of the film’s hero? Are you fine with a decent guy having his entire life upended for no reason other than the fact he happened to fall in love and enter into a mutually committed relationship with a woman (and her young child he appears to love and care for) who happens to have an ex that the rom-com gods have determined is worthy of inexplicably winning her back? Is awful human behavior like this actually romantic to you?

“Playing For Keeps” stars Gerard Butler as George Dryer, a retired international soccer star who has fallen on hard times both personally and financially. George moves to Virginia in order to be closer to his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax) and his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel), hoping to be a better father and rekindle the relationship he ruined years ago by actions unclear.

As luck would have it, Lewis is on a pee-wee soccer team in need of a real coach, a job George is perfectly suited for. Along the way George attracts the attention of a bevy of eager soccer moms (including Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Uma Thurman) who want to get into his Scottish knickers and a lecherous loudmouth soccer dad (Dennis Quaid, amazingly both hamming it up and phoning it in at the same time) who wants…well, someone to loan his Ferrari to, I guess? That relationship is hard to figure out. And all the while Stacie and her fiancé (James Tupper) express disappointment in George’s parenting at every opportunity.

Director Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) turns in a real hack-job, filled with choppy editing, abandoned plot points, and cringe-worthy performances. While Butler and Biel end up acquitting themselves with passably inert takes on boring characters, the supporting players fare much, much worse. Greer, Zeta-Jones, and Thurman all play horrible cartoons instead of real women, throwing themselves sexually at a puzzlingly chaste Butler during scenes where the music is working overtime to tell us all of it is supposed to be funny. None of them come close to the awfulness of Quaid, though, who seriously looks to be reading cue cards over Butler’s shoulder in some scenes.

And that brings us back to where this review started: in order for the film to end as telegraphed from the first frame, with Butler and Biel reuniting, an unsuspecting man (Tupper’s Matt, weeks out from his wedding!) will have to have his life shattered. Sure, stories of true love being rekindled after time apart have been around for centuries, but littering the story with characters subject to collateral damage caused by our heroes with absolutely no consequence is irresponsible bullshit masquerading as romance.

Footloose

October 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid
Directed by: Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”)
Written by: Dean Pitchford (1984’s “Footloose”) and Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”)

Director Craig Brewer’s remake of “Footloose” opens as the original did, thumping along with the rousing kinetic energy of Kenny Loggins’ title track from the ’80s guilty pleasure. Only instead of shots of dancing feet against a “Cosby Show” backdrop, Brewer uses it to kick off the film’s narrative with the first of many genuinely exciting dance sequences.  As fun as the scene is, some cognitive dissonance sets in when you realize the characters are actually dancing to the song “Footloose” made famous by the movie “Footloose” that is being remade here. So what made the song famous in this universe? Does the original “Footloose” exist for them? Are these people aware they share the same names and life events with people in a fictional movie made 26 years ago?

The plot unfolds differently, however, taking the opportunity to play out a scene only referenced in the original film. Immediately after leaving the party, five teenagers, buzzed on liquor and dance, are killed in a head-on collision with a semi truck. One of the teens is the son of local preacher Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) who copes with his personal tragedy by leading an effort to save the children of Bomont, Georgia from themselves by setting out to criminalize loud music and public dancing.

Three years pass by the time Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) sets foot in town. Having just lost his mother to leukemia, Ren is taken in by his kindly aunt and uncle. Already on the town’s radar as a troublemaker after getting pulled over for playing his music too loud, Ren is introduced to Reverend Shaw and his daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) at Shaw’s church. It’s here that city boy Ren learns about the small town’s Draconian restrictions on his right to dance, igniting his rebellion.

If you’ve seen the original film, you know what happens from here. Somewhat surprisingly, Brewer sticks to the original screenplay nearly word for word, although changes have been made to accommodate the evolution of society. The casual drug use has been relegated to the “bad guys” and the existence of non-white people has been acknowledged, most notably in an electric reboot of the dance sequence at a diner set to hip-hop instead of ’80s cheese pop.

While welcomed in some respects, stripping away the insulating layer of cheese of the original exposes this updated film’s flaws. Hough oozes enough sex appeal in her dance sequences to derail a freight train, but falls flat when called upon to emote effectively. Wormald also captivates while in motion, but no one is going to forget Kevin Bacon’s take on the role. The same goes for Quaid’s Reverend Shaw, whose kinder take on the role pales in comparison to John Lithgow’s stern presence. Throw in odd plot distractions like Ren’s acrobatic punch-dancing in an abandoned warehouse and a school bus demolition derby (that replaces the original’s just-as-puzzling game of tractor chicken) and you begin to wish you had the guilty pleasure excuse to fall back on while watching.

Legion

February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson
Directed by: Scott Stewart (debut)
Written by: Scott Stewart (debut)

Apocalyptic thrillers are a dime a dozen, but “Legion” is one of those rarities. It manages to take a sub-genre, which usually promises nail-biting action, and suck all the fun out of it. It’s one of those movies that a mainstream first-time director/writer like Scott Stewart will be embarrassed of 20 years from now if his or her career actually goes somewhere other than the predictable horror avenue.

The Express

October 22, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson
Directed by: Gary Fleder (“Runaway Jury”)
Written by: Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”)

As far as inspirational true-life sports dramas go, there haven’t been too many in the past few years able to distinguish themselves from the rest. For every modern classic like “Friday Night Lights,” we are blitzed with less effective films like “Remember the Titans” and “Glory Road” unable to dodge formulaic plot points and over-emphasized sentimentality.

In “The Express,” the football drama takes the usual route toward forced emotion by unavoidably playing the race card for a majority of its runtime. Yes, the true story of footballer Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) takes place in the late 50’s when racism in America was at its most alarming, but screenwriter Charles Leavitt spoon-feeds so much black-versus-white verbiage and unnecessary conflict, you’ll think he’s been studying Paul Haggis’ cliffnotes on thematic overkill.

Based on Robert C. Gallagher’s book “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express,” the film follows Ernie’s collegiate football career (he was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy) and short-lived life, which ended during his rookie year in the NFL after being diagnosed with leukemia.

As a young boy, Ernie realized his passion for running would take him anywhere (a la Forrest Gump) when his quick feet save him from a group of white, troublemaking kids looking for a fight. His natural athletic ability would later lead him into the college football ranks where Syracuse University and Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) manage to lure him away from his other suitors with the recruiting assistance of Syracuse alumnus and Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson).

Ernie’s not quite comfortable being helmed the second coming of Brown (Coach makes him wear No. 44, Brown’s old jersey number), but as a fan of Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson when he was a child, he understands the positive influence an upstanding and talented black man can have on a repressed black community, and is starstruck when Brown shows interest in his running game. As one of only three black players on the team, however, it’s no easy task to integrate as older teammates take offense to him being on the varsity squad and when his ambiguously bigoted coach calls him into his office to give him the “white girl speech,” which basically forbids him to date outside his race.

While “The Express” continues to hammer the obvious elements into an already unstable script (every white character acts like they’ve been ripped from “The Jerry Springer Show”), the film is less concerned about pounding the ball down the field and capturing authenticity between opposing teams. It tries to be gritty with cinematography tricks, but “The Express” feels lax and imitative. There are some action sequences on the gridiron that actually feel like 30-second Super Bowl spots with all the overproduced sound effects (do I hear buffalo stampeding during kickoffs?) and a stale score featuring military cadences. All this leads up to an anticlimactic and longwinded fourth quarter that would have benefited from some skilled editing. While Davis’ biography is extremely noteworthy, even he knew running up the score while you’re ahead isn’t very sportsmanlike.

Smart People

April 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page
Directed by: Noam Murro
Written by: Mark Poirier (debut)

Director Noam Murro isn’t director/writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”) when it comes to scathing witticism between family members, but in his feature film debut “Smart People,” he manages to get in a few solid shots below the belt to give his characters enough spirit to last them through the entire fight.

In “Smart People,” Murro and screenwriter Mark Poirier tell the snarky story of the dysfunctional albeit intellectual Weatherhold family, who are well aware of their above average intelligence and carry themselves in such a manner.

Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), is a tenured college professor who doesn’t really like teaching anymore and always seems on edge probably because his manuscript is continually being rejected by important publishing houses. His daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), is basically the mirror image of her father – bookish, lonely, and a tad mean. Her only worries in life include the number of academically-admirable extracurricular activities she can add to her resume and scoring a 1600 on the SAT. There’s also a brother character, but his role in the film is inconsequential except for the childish arguments he has with his sister.

When Lawrence suffers a seizure after falling from a fence while trying to illegally retrieve something from his impounded car, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Paker) orders him to follow the law and stop driving for six months. With no one in the family willing to step up and become their dad’s chauffer, Lawrence’s slacker (and adopted) brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) moves in despite objection from Lawrence who knows the only reason he is volunteering is because he wants something.

With everyone under one roof, the family dynamic becomes more uncomfortable as Chuck attempts to get his niece out of her shell and Lawrence jumps into the dating scene again by asking the good doctor Hartigan out for dinner. At times, it almost feels like “The Royal Tenenbaums” with less snappiness and stylistic fervor.

The film hosts a wonderful, offbeat cast especially with Church as the cool, middle-aged uncle who smokes out and buys beer for his teenage niece. Call Church officially reestablished in the industry. With a gem like “Sideways” and now this, he can be a nice addition to any cast. The same goes for Page, who is coming off her best year as a young actress for her Academy Award-nominated portrayal of the titular character in “Juno.” In “Smart People,” she’s just as charming, but in a depressing and Republican sort of way.

In all, “Smart People” is a cleverly-written little picture that will probably slide under the radar unless your part of the indie house crowd. If you’re not, you’re definitely missing out on a stark, character-driven dark comedy that anyone with a bit of a snobby side can enjoy.

Vantage Point

February 20, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Pete Travis (debut)
Written by: Barry Levy (debut)

Car salesmen. Reality TV show producers. Toothbrush designers. These are some of the only people that can get away with having a gimmick run their livelihood. Unfortunately, for their first time out of the gate, director Pete Travis and screenwriter Barry Levy throw all their energy into technique and forget about fundamentals.

Just in time for more presidential primaries, “Vantage Point” follows the attempted assassination of the U.S. President (William Hurt) during an international counter-terrorist assembly in Spain. Although it might seem like a full-length feature in theory, “Vantage Point” is actually about a 15-minute film told from the point of view of five separate people.

One of these characters is Thomas Barnes (Quaid), a Secret Service agent recently back on duty after taking a bullet for the President only six months prior. As cliché as cliché gets, Tom blames himself for the attempted murder of the Commander in Chief and questions whether or not he is ready to return to the line of duty (Quaid’s shifty eyes do most of the talking at this point).

Then there’s Howard Lewis (Whitaker), a bystander at the political gathering who is videotaping everything as the events unfold. But not even the all-powerful digital camera can catch all that is happening in this grassy-knoll-of-a-script. Secondary storylines weigh in on the conventional plot but become blurred as Levy repeats the scenario by rewinding to the beginning. It’s not clever, has been done before and in a much viewer-friendly way, and bets everything on a payoff that turns out to be a yawner.

An insane amount of time is wasted introducing us to would-be assassins when the actual assassination becomes insignificant midway through. As the web of characters gets thicker, it’s harder to feel any sense of mystery or how tense these individuals should actually be. Instead, the film is sliced and diced into an unrecognizable mess and then somehow devolves into a panicky car chase lead by an indestructible Quaid (who would have known the guy can Tokyo drift?)

Although the interweaving tricks may bring you to think of such films as “Run Lola Run” (a film that does it right) or “Timecode” (a film that does it wrong), “Vantage Point” is stale entertainment any which way you cut it. Trying to piece the thing together is like working on a puzzle where the finished product is a picture of a cloudy sky. It’ll get done sooner or later, but how dull is getting there and the outcome?