Aussie/Israeli stop-motion animated pic gets a mixed reception
30 Mar 2009 - 5:41 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 10:33 PM

Launching a movie at a festival is often a risky move: positive reviews can stoke awareness and want-to-see when the film hits cinemas, while a critical drubbing can torpedo its chances.
So it's hard to know whether the ambivalent reviews will help or hinder Australian animated film $9.99 after it premiered at the New Directors/New Films program, staged March 25-April 5 in New York by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Centre.

The first ever Australian-Israeli co-production, the stop-motion, adult-oriented film was directed by New Yorker Tatia Rosenthal, based on short stories by Israeli author Etgar Keret. Filmed over 40 weeks in Sydney utilising nine animators, it's an urban fairy tale centring on the search for happiness among a group of residents, portrayed as puppets, in an apartment building. It boasts a stellar voice cast headed by Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Samuel Johnson, Barry Otto and Claudia Karvan. Among the oddball characters are a lonely old man who strikes up a conversation with a foul-mouthed avenging angel, and a repo man who falls for a supermodel.

Regent Releasing acquired North American rights when the movie screened at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and it will open on limited screens in the US in June; Australian distributor Icon hasn't set a release date yet.

The New York Times' A.O. Scott referred to the movie in passing as an “odd meditation on love and chance.” IndieWIRE's Howard Feinstein was dismissive, noting, “Engaging puppets play various residents of a single Tel Aviv building, but that narrative trope has been done to death. Don't expect another Waltz With Bashir.”

The review by Slant's Joseph Jon Lanthier used lots of big words without giving thumbs up or down, describing it as a “deceptively gentle collection of menacing vignettes that form a mordantly post-colonial adaptation of English social satire. Alternating between moments of palpable verisimilitude and wry phantasmagoria, the interlocking stories exude the imaginative whimsy of proletariat despair as though it were a genre (imagine a chunky hybrid of Mike Leigh\'s observational wit and the blithely ghoulish prints of Edward Gorey).”

The Los Angeles Times' Sheri Linden opined, “Like most films that crisscross among a handful of city dwellers to mull contemporary ennui, $9.99 is less than the sum of its parts. The connective tissue of its episodes and set pieces -- some of which pack a memorable punch -- is not a compelling story line but the painterly physicality of the movie\'s stop-motion animation.”

Reflecting these insecure times, many of the films showcased at New Directors/New Films focussed on the connection between home and often troubled individuals, according to Feinstein.

Variations on that theme included Switzerland's Home, the tale of a family living next to an unused highway who awake to an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like assault by hard hats and paving trucks; Mexico's Parque Via, in which an old servant flips out when the upper-crust owner sells her house; and Russia's The Fly, which follows a resentful teenager whose biological father moves into her home: she burns the place down after drugging his tea.