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    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Review of $9.99

The great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen once said, “The stop-motion process provides a unique form of fantasy that is difficult to analyse because it provides an atmosphere of a dream world rather than fake reality. If you make it too real the fantasy can be broken.”

999_1Most stop-motion follows this philosophy: this style of animation is best suited to either fantastic beings or stories impossible to tell in live action. So when a stop-motion film like $9.99 comes along with its postmodern tone, realistic characters, and meandering, slice-of-life narrative, it’s simply hard to know what to make of it.

$9.99 plays like an animated Robert Altman film. We drift in and out of the lives of several characters, who are connected only by the apartment complex where they live and their collective existential angst. All of the characters struggle to overcome the impersonal, empty world in which they live to find their own form of happiness.

Middle-aged businessman Jim Peck (Anthony LaPaglia) questions himself as a father when he realizes neither of his two sons has fulfilled his ideal of manhood. Jim’s younger son Dave (Samuel Johnson) can’t hold down a job and seeks the meaning of life in mail-order self-help books (care to guess how much these books cost?). Jim’s elder son Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn) is a superficial, materialistic repo-man who revels in taking people’s possessions.

Lenny seems to find the love of his life when he meets self-obsessed model Tanita (Leeanna Walsman), but Tanita quickly begins to manipulate Lenny into taking extreme measures to please her.

Schoolboy Zack (Jamie Katsamatsas) is obsessed with a soccer action figure, so his father tries to teach him a lesson by giving him a piggy bank. When the pig is full, they will break it and buy Soccer Jack. Soon, though, Zack grows to love the pig more than the toy.

We also meet elderly widower Albert (Barry Otto), whose guardian angel (Geoffrey Rush) begins hanging out with him for no apparent reason. And when late twenties slacker Bisley (Tom Budge) breaks with his fiance, he goes on a bender and starts partying with a few two-inch tall fraternity boys.

999_2One thing we can’t take away from $9.99 is its peculiarity. It’s a noble experiment to create a stop-motion feature film around such characters and issues. A project like this is so unique and laborious that I want badly to support it. If I’m being honest, though, I have to admit that it just doesn’t work all that well.

If this were an Altman film, it would be on par with A Prairie Home Companion. At times it’s amusing, at others poignant. But let’s face it, we remember A Prairie Home Companion mostly because it’s Altman’s last film. Despite the outstanding animation, the low-key tone and nonsensical flights into fantasy will fade $9.99 from memory much more quickly.

The only character in $9.99 that really grabs us is Zack. He’s a charming, sweet little boy who already seems to know more about life than the adults. None of the other characters engages us, and the whole thing expresses nothing about happiness that we haven’t seen many times before.

The only difference between $9.99 and all other meaning-of-life films is the stop-motion form, which lends absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s a distraction. Rather than buying into the characters, I couldn’t stop wondering why in the world this story was told in animation at all.

We are living through one of the greatest eras in animation history. Computer-generated animation has matured and secured a bigger share of the annual box office than ever before, stop-motion technique hit a new visual benchmark with Coraline earlier this year, and recently both Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis reached surprisingly wide audiences. And now two more imports that stretch the possibilities of their medium, $9.99 and Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, come to U.S. theatres during the same week.

For animation fans, this is a glorious time. But hey, every golden age has its missteps. Despite giving loads of credit to director Tatia Rosenthal for doing something unique, $9.99 is little more than a curiosity.


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