This week at the movies, we’ve got an alien nation (District 9, starring Jason Cope and Sharlto Copley); a high school musical (Bandslam, starring Gaelan Connell and Vanessa Hudgens); a goldfish/human hybrid (Ponyo, with voice work by Cate Blanchett and Noah Cyrus); an ill-timed love affair (The Time Traveler’s Wife, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana), and some renegade salesmen (The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, starring Jeremy Piven and Ving Rhames). What do the critics have to say?
The summer movie season may be winding down, but it still has some thrills in store. Exhibit A: District 9, a sci-fi/action flick that critics say is uncommonly thoughtful – and intense. Set in an alternate-reality South Africa, District 9 is the story of a group of aliens who have been quarantined and victimized by prejudice and hatred from human oppressors. But why? It turns out the aliens have something the humans want to get their hands on – weapons of war. The pundits say District 9 is both a potent allegory and an exhilarating action film, with outstanding performances and an uneasy sense of reality. District 9 isn’t just Certified Fresh, it’s also one of the best-reviewed wide releases of the year.
Bandslam is a Disney film about awkward teens who find themselves through the transformative power of music. Sound familiar? Well, critics say this high school musical is a surprise, with more wit and bite than one would expect. Gaelan Connell stars as a David Bowie-obsessed kid who’s asked to manage the band of a would-be singer-songwriter (Alyson Michalka). Will falls for one of the band’s new members (Vanessa Hudgens), and finds he must navigate the minefield of his emotions while preparing his charges for a battle of the bands. The pundits say Bandslam isn’t the most original film on the block, but the performances are uniformly strong, and the movie manages to be emotionally true while slightly tweaking teen movie tropes.
Hayao Miyazaki is already one of the most celebrated filmmakers in Japan, and the legendary animation director has achieved some success outside his home country with films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which won the 2002 Oscar for Best Animated Feature. This weekend, with Disney’s enthusiastic support, Miyazaki introduces American audiences to his latest, Ponyo, and critics have so far embraced the film. Ponyo is a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and centers on a young goldfish who embarks on a quest to become human. Miyazaki’s trademark stunning artwork and animation are on full display here, say critics, and the film delights in its sense of wonderment and sweet energy. Ponyo is Certified Fresh. (Check out our Tomatometer retrospective of Miyazaki’s filmography in this week’s Total Recall.)
Time travel is a dicey premise to employ when telling a story, and while some find success in bringing a film to life through this mechanism, others are unable to overcome its inherent obstacles. Unfortunately for The Time Traveler’s Wife, critics are largely classifying the film as the latter. Based on Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel, Wife stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as a star-crossed couple whose love must withstand a genetic anomaly that causes Bana’s character to hop unpredictably through time to different periods of his own life. While sentimental and endearing, critics say the film’s plot contrivances and lack of narrative logic ultimately hamper its effectiveness.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard would seem to have everything in place to generate laughs: it’s a raunch-fest about used car salesmen, with an embarrassment of comedic talent in its cast. Unfortunately, critics say The Goods ends up being a hard sell, with an erratic tone and too many gags that fall flat. Jeremy Piven stars as Don Ready, a master salesman who’s called in to save a failing used car dealership. He and his charges prove to be masters at moving clunkers, but Don soon finds there’s more to life than just selling. The pundits say The Goods has its moments, but it’s largely a missed opportunity, succumbing to a juvenile, crass sensibility and a lack of comic focus.
Also opening this week in limited release: