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The angel and the shut-in in $9.99 (Photo: Regent Releasing)

Directed by
Tatia Rosenthal
Produced by
Emile Sherman & Amir Harel
Written by Rosenthal & Etgar Keret, based on stories by Keret
Released by Regent Releasing
Australia/Israel. 78 min. Rated R
With the voices of Geoffrey Rush, Anthony Lapaglia, Samuel Johnson, Claudia Karvan, Joel Edgerton, Barry Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, Leon Ford, Jamie Katsamatsas & Leeanna Walsman   

$9.99 is not the first feature-length film that proves animation is not just for kids, but it is one of the few that uses stop-action animation to create beautiful, full-bodied characters with bemused sophistication and tender charm.

More than 50 of Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s off-kilter stories have been adapted to graphic novels and films, usually in shorts, such as director Tatia Rosenthal’s student work “A Buck’s Worth,” which grew into the opening scene of $9.99. With this film, Keret and Rosenthal imaginatively tie together his tone of yearning humanity and surrealism with specific elements that readers of his story collections will recognize—the cranky homeless angel from “A Hole in the Wall,” the boy lovingly saving his coins in a piggy bank in “Breaking the Pig,” or the young, unemployed man, Dave (with the voice of Samuel Johnson) from the story “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage)” finding the answer to the meaning of life.

These well-meaning characters—all looking for love, hope, or happy endings—now live in adjacent apartment buildings, and pass each other on the sidewalk or espy on another through a window. The angel now argues with a lonely shut-in. Some are having their furniture repossessed by Dave’s flirtatious brother, who begins dating a supermodel with an inordinate interest in smooth furniture. In another apartment, Ron (voiced by Joel Edgerton), abandoned by his fiancée after a fight, enjoys his newfound freedom in a funny Judd Apatow-like fantasy, getting stoned with tiny freedom-loving frat boys.

In this first Australian-Israeli co-production, the imaginary cityscape borrows from New York, Tel Aviv, and Sydney. It’s only momentarily jarring when a fleeting Israeli cultural reference is heard in an Australian accent, but less so than in the Americanized adaptation of Keret’s Wristcutters: A Love Story that lost a lot of the book’s irony about affirming life while under constant threat.

While Keret’s dark sensibility parallels Bill Plympton’s mordant hand-drawn animation, Rosenthal collaborates with an extraordinary team to create a three-dimensional world where the odd becomes sweetly normal. Nine animators from around the world worked on the production, with experience from much bigger budget stop-motion features, such as Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Henry Selick’s Coraline, and at Aardman Animations. However, $9.99 looks like none of those, and is far more naturalistic than Claymation to create expressive characters bubbling with personality and individual quirks who emotionally and physically change. As unique as her style is, Rosenthal fondly pays tribute to renowned animated films for their inspiration—the look of a magician is modeled on Rosenthal’s mentor John Canemaker (The Moon and the Son). The score by Blue Man Group member Christopher Bowen adds to the film’s whimsy.

$9.99 may come with the warning of full-frontal puppet nudity, like Team America: World Police, but these carefully painted and malleable puppets are not marionettes. They are sculptures at 1/6th life-size scale with visible brush strokes, like Barbie dolls made in the style of the Nanas sculpture by the late Niki de Saint Phalle. Stop-motion animation means that the team posed the puppets, took two frames on a still camera, for 12 movements per second of onscreen time, producing four seconds of footage per animator per day over 40 weeks. Each of the characters’ distinctive apartments was built to scale as well.

My mother shrugs at mysteriously mixed-match relationships by saying that the rocks in one’s head match the holes in the other. Whether applied to romances or families, the beauty of Rosenthal’s animation is you can actually see it making lovely literal, if lightweight, sense. Nora Lee Mandel
June 19, 2009



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