It's the shotgun approach to the movies this weekend as no fewer than five new movies hit wide release, along with a couple of high-profile limited release films. There's something for everyone this weekend, though there's no guarantee that something will be good.
Weekend Forecast for Aug. 14-16, 2009
By Reagen Sulewski
August 14, 2009
Leading the pack is perhaps one of the stranger candidates for a blockbuster in some time, District 9. Directed by South African newcomer Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson, it's a high concept sci-fi film that takes a different angle towards the alien visitor idea than we've seen in a while. The aliens, a rather insectoid-looking group, are stranded on Earth after finding themselves refugees without a homeworld. Penned in a slum-like area in Johannesburg and feared and reviled by humans, they start to try to find a way home, or at least out of District 9. Enter a bumbling government official placed in charge of their area, who stumbles onto a mysterious alien artifact...
A not-particularly-subtle metaphor for Apartheid and South African racism, District 9 sort of came out of nowhere for the North American public, with a startlingly great trailer, featuring effects that belie its reported $30 million budget. There's a good reason to highlight the director and producer and none of the actors in this production, since virtually all are complete unknowns, unless you're a really dedicated CSI watcher (and I mean really dedicated) or are South African yourself. It's not just an FX reel, though; the film actually seems to have a solid story and something to say.
Much like last year's Cloverfield, it's difficult to predict how audiences will react to something they really don't have a basis of comparison for. In its corner, though, is the fact that it's an action movie that's received outstanding critical support, something of a rarity. I think audiences will give this unusual film a try to the tune of about $29 million on the weekend.
Handling romantic duties this weekend is The Time Traveler's Wife, an adaptation of the best-selling novel. Eric Bana stars as a man who involuntarily travels through time because of a genetic anomaly, bouncing in and out of the life of a girl/woman (played in adulthood by Rachel McAdams) that he eventually (does? Had always? Verbs get complicated in time travel stories) falls in love with.
Something of a tragic love story with a science-fiction twist, the story has the potential to carry some rather hefty metaphors about love, loss and distance in relationships. However, the jury is out as to whether the movie has managed to pull that out of the book and onto the screen.
Reshoots delayed the movie for over a year, and Warner Bros. has shown little confidence in the film, taking an eternity to release a trailer, and then dropping it into this late-summer release slot. McAdams and Bana might have seemed like a much better cast when this started shooting, but audiences have pretty soundly rejected Bana in almost everything, only tolerating him in Romulan makeup. McAdams has seemed on the cusp of stardom forever. And reviews, for that matter, have been terrible, with commercials seem to be trying to make it into a new The Notebook. That's fair enough with the presence of McAdams, but it's unlikely to please fans of the book, and with the rather bizarre premise, it's unlikely to bring in the uninitiated. Name recognition will get them part of the way there, but this is ultimately looking like a flub, with an opening weekend figure of $12 million.
Bandslam goes after those young kids and that rock music they like, complete with one of the stars of High School Musical, Vanessa Hudgens (who apparently has an allergy to wearing clothes around camera phones). A high school comedy, it centers around a new kid to a high school who starts a band as a way to get to a girl (Hudgens, named Sa5m, with a silent 5. L.A. Story wants its name joke back). As the new bandmates work their way towards a local Battle of the Bands competition, tensions rise and relationships yada yada lessons learned and a good time is had by all.
I suspect this will be about as "rock" as the Jonas Brothers, which is to say about as much as a Utah Church picnic (why, for instance, is Vanessa Hudgens halfway into a jazz hands pose on the poster?), but hey, it's Walden Media, and they're meeting you halfway, hippies! Currently, HSM alumni are batting .500 since that series was mothballed, with Zac Efron hitting a home run with 17 Again and Ashley Tisdale striking out with Aliens in the Attic. With this one, well, it's still kind of cheating to stay in a music-based movie. To really torture the baseball metaphor, I think she'll draw a walk with an opening weekend of about $11 million.
Ponyo is the latest from Japan's Walt Disney (although he looks more like Col. Sanders), Hayao Miyazaki. His films, which have included Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, among others, involve heavy use of fantasy and spirituality and just plain strangeness, and have created a devoted fanbase for him both in Japan and around the world.
This hasn't really translated into box office success in North America, with his highest-grossing film here topping out at just over $10 million. Ponyo seems like it might serve as his breakout film, and is being given at least a fighting chance with over 900 screens on its opening weekend. In the film, a young boy, the son of a sailor, finds a goldfish in a jar and rescues it. It turns out that this is a fish princess, and she transforms herself into a human, causing all sorts of problems between the ocean world and land world. Listen, I'm sure it makes sense if you're Japanese.
As for all past Miyazaki films, reviews have been more or less rapturous. The difference now may be that he's finally at the point where we don't have to explain who he is to everyone, and his films will start to attract significant audiences. Getting him into multiplexes is a good start. Look for about $6 million this weekend for Ponyo.
Could there possibly be a less sympathetic profession to make a comedy about right now than car salesmen? Maybe investment bankers, but that's probably it. The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, stars Jeremy Piven as a used-car salesman, essentially a sweatier, more desperate version of his Ari Gold character on Entourage, faced with guiding his wacky sales staff into clearing out a car lot lest he lose it to the likes of Alan Thicke and Ed Helms. Oh, I so care.
A classic "snobs vs. slobs" competition, The Goods also stars a who's who of B- and C-Listers, including Ving Rhames, James Brolin, Ken Jeong, Rob Riggle, Tony Hale and David Koechner, among others. In fact, it's so packed full of character and supporting actors that they forgot to throw in the jokes. Pitching itself as a zany, crude, anything-goes comedy, it's either unable to show what makes it funny, or, well, it's just not. In a way, it almost looks too sincere, like the low-brow, low-budget comedies of the '80s. Look for this to bomb with about $3 million this weekend.
G.I. Joe faces a couple of problems this weekend in returning to the top spot of the box office. Number one is District 9, which goes after much of the same action-seeking market, and number two is that it kind of sucked. You can add a number three in there, really, as it had significant front-loading and midnight screenings, but those excuses kind of fold into reason number two. Don't be shocked at a near-Brüno level of drop to about $20 million.
Julie & Julia was a mild surprise with a $20 million opening for its comedic take on Julia Childs' cooking and a young blogger's attempt to find her purpose through it. This happened despite some rather middling reviews and next-to-no male audience. It may be insulated somewhat from a steep drop, but I don't perceive the film becoming a runaway hit in the weeks to come. Week two should see it earn about $13 million.
The rest of the returning lineup is crashing away a bit faster than expected, with probably only G-Force retaining more than $5 million this weekend. Harry Potter will remain the only film with more than $100 million in the top 10 after this weekend, and a lot of dead weight is going to fall away. It's more or less the standard "all ashore that's going ashore!" call for summer movies; this could be your last chance for a lot of them in the multiplex.