Friday, May 03, 2013

"At Any Price": The patent trolls will destroy family farms, and people can destroy themselves

At Any Price” (directed by Ramin Bahrani), released by Sony Pictures Classics as a high-profile “serious” mainstream “independent” film for the larger arthouses, has the widescreen prairie look of some other big dramas about the environment or farm policy.  You might think it has been sponsored by Participant, but I didn’t see that company mentioned.  Unfortunately, as much as one might like and root for the main characters, their moral flaws – ability to really to the right thing when no one is looking – can lead them to fall on their swords.  Instead, there is an Alfred Hitchcock-like setup and coverup and it’s not clear there is any moral payoff.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a veteran farmer in Iowa (although the film was shot in Illinois and New York State) with a family farm passed down through the generations.  His rebellious son Dean (Zac Efron, who seems too nice for the role) scoffs at his dad’s gift of his own plot of land and wants to continue stock-car racing.  (There’s a stock car event in the Metrodome, 250 miles away, once a year – I know because I volunteered at one.)  But, as we have known since the 1980s, the family farm has become increasingly threatened by unstable commodity prices and agribusiness. 
Henry has planted some bioengineered seed, not taking seriously a contractual provision that he not reuse the seed next year in a natural manner, as he was used to doing for generations.  The film explains well that this is like DMCA-based DVD copy protection: the seed company has to keep selling new seed to afford to pay back researchers for its patents.  And, just like the Internet, it seems that the farm business has its own real-life patent trolls, looking for farmers who have made enemies in this good Lutheran country.
But Dean complicates matters.  He is not above petty crime to meet his own ends, and little crimes generate bigger ones. His unstable character leads to the Hictchcock-like complication toward the end of the story. 
The link for the official site from Sony is here

The opening credits are shot in black-and-white on old (4"3) aspect ratio, segmenting this part of the film from the main story (which is shot in full "Cinemascope" and natural color).  

I saw it at the AMC Shirlington this evening before a small crowd.  The curved screen is huge, but this older theater doesn’t seem to have digital projection yet.  Maybe a renovation, and a new space connected to the nearby Signature Theater (stage) would make a great entertainment center for South Arlington VA.   (PBS-WETA’s production facility and auditorium is also very nearby.) Is AMC planning a new facility there?  Everywhere around this building there is condo, retail and office development.  The end is inevitable.  

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