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by Mel Valentin

"A peculiar mix of magical realism, surrealism, and whimsy."
4 stars

"$9.99," an Australian-Israeli co-production directed by Tatia Rosenthal from Etgar Keret’s ("Wristcutters: A Love Story") screenplay is a stop-motion animated film, where the words “family-oriented” don’t apply or at least not in the way general audiences have come to understand the term (as innocuous, all-ages fare). The fifth animated film to be released this year, after LAIKA’s "Coraline," DreamWorks’ "Monsters vs. Aliens[/i], Pixar’s "Up," and Blue Sky Studio’s "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," "$9.99" is, in its concern for relationships and character interactions, unmistakably an indie film in tone and subject matter, but its wry humorous take on human foibles makes it worth seeing at the first, or more likely given its limited distribution and minimal time on movie screens, second opportunity.

Altmanesque in its focus on intersecting lives in a Sydney apartment complex, $9.99 initially follows Dave Peck (Samuel Johnson), a twenty-something semi-slacker who lives with his father, Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), a harried businessman still hurting from the departure of his wife several years earlier. Dave purchases a book (the $9.99 of the title) on the “meaning of life” from a mail order company, but repeatedly fails to convince anyone to listen to him.
Jim’s other son, Lenny Peck (Ben Mendelsohn), works for a repossession company. Albert (Barry Otto), a lonely widowed pensioner, lives in the same building as Jim and Dave. The relationship between Ron (Joel Edgerton) and Michelle (Claudia Karvan), a twenty-something couple, falters on the shore of commitment (she wants to get married, he doesn’t). A soccer-obsessed boy saves money to buy an action figure, but becomes attached to his piggy bank.

On his way to work, Jim encounters another, seemingly desperate person, a man who claims he’ll kill himself if Jim doesn’t give him a dollar for coffee and a cigarette. Jim calls his bluff, to disastrous results. Traumatized, Jim retreats into the haze of his daily routine. He continues to encourage Dave, however, to find a job, any job, even if it’s working with his brother’s repossession company. Dave seems content to cook and clean for his father, but agrees to a one-day tryout with Lenny. Dave’s compassion for an elderly magician quickly ruins his employment. Lenny enters into an odd relationship with Tanita (Leeanna Walsman), a model who prefers her lovers “smooth” (as in completely shaved from head to toe). Albert thinks his prayers are literally answered when a man with wings (Geoffrey Rush) appears on his doorstep. The angel, however, is less interested in comforting Albert or describing heaven than he is in taking advantage of Albert’s good nature. If the unnamed angel is any indication of his brethren, they’ve fallen, in more ways than one. The unnamed angel may have wings, but he’s grounded in a self-abnegating existence, subsisting on the kindness (or guilt) of strangers.

Each story, Dave’s, Jim’s, Lenny’s, Albert’s, Ron and Michelle’s, and the boy’s, moves toward a moment where they each have to make a choice, a choice between accepting what they have (or don’t have) or trying to reach for something more. Contrary to his father’s wishes, Dave wants to live in the moment, not plan for the future. Jim can’t get past the many disappointments of his professional and personal lives. Ron hallucinates three pint-sized characters, who just want to party. Albert’s experience is more grounded in magical realism, in the extraordinary (i.e., a fallen angel) becoming mundane, but the choice is still the same: live in the past or attempt to find something, anything to give meaning to his last years. Lenny’s future takes a bizarre, Kafkaesque turn, one where he has to choose between his individuality and literally subordinating himself to Tania’s desires.

Stop-motion animation often looks rougher and less polished than computer animation and traditional animation, and "$9.99" is certainly no different. The characters don’t glide as much as stumble, but given their search for personal meaning, it’s apt. Character designs share little (or actually nothing at all) with computer animation or traditional animation. They look sculpted and shaped, probably because they are. The animation "$9.99’s" is closer to Aardman Studios’ clay animation output (e.g., "Flushed Away," "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," "Chicken Run") than to anything by Pixar or DreamWorks, but while that might be a net positive, it limits "$9.99’s" appeal among general audiences, as does "$9.99’'s" peculiar mix of magical realism, surrealism, and whimsy.

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originally posted: 07/10/09 18:03:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-Jun-2009 (R)
  DVD: 23-Feb-2010


  DVD: 23-Feb-2010

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