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.
Transferring short stories by Etgar Keret to an Aussie setting, director Tatia Rosenthal blends character-driven vignettes with magic realism as she weaves through the apartments of a high-rise. The story opens with a gripping encounter between middle-aged businessman Jim, who looks like Bob Hoskins and is voiced by Anthony LaPaglia, and a suicidal beggar (Geoffrey Rush), who later returns as a sarcastic, grizzled angel and self-appointed roommate of a lonely widower (Barry Otto).
The title, however, refers to the price of "The Meaning of Life," a booklet that Jim's directionless younger son (Samuel Johnson) has purchased. That he can't get anyone to listen to the wisdom he's found in its pages might be proof of urban alienation -- or of healthy skepticism.
"$9.99" takes broad, if deserved, swipes at consumerism, notably in subplots involving a compassionate repo-man and a supermodel whose notions of love and décor provide the film's creepiest twist.
-- Sheri Linden "$9.99." MPAA rating: R for language and brief sexuality and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.
'Dragon Hunters' is mindless fun
A French-made animated film, "Dragon Hunters" is nevertheless in English and features actor Forest Whitaker as one of the main voice actors. He is in his quiet and sensitive mode rather than the full-on scenery chewing he has been favoring lately when appearing on screen, so at least that's a relief.
The film's story involves a little girl and some traveling adventurers (that includes Whitaker's character) against an assortment of fantastical creatures that need to be slain, including one called the World Gobbler. (Let's not mention the Farting Dragon.) The animation, directed by Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak, is passable, but with its emphasis on bouncy shapes and rounded, shiny surfaces, seems perhaps slightly behind the times, particularly in the year of the staggering "Wall-E."
"Dragon Hunters" is sort of a lightweight, inoffensive programmer if what you want your children exposed to is mindless and pointless audio-visual entertainment rather than, you know, reading a book or stepping outside.
-- Mark Olsen "Dragon Hunters." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. At Laemmle's Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., Downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268.
'Hania' warms hearts at holidays
"Hania" is a shameless heart-tugger and is all the better for being so. The second feature directed as well as photographed by renowned cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, best known for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Saving Private Ryan," proves to be potent holiday fare.
A young Warsaw couple, Ola (Agnieszka Grochowska) and Wojtek (Lukasz Simlat), have been asked to invite a boy from an orphanage to share Christmas with them in their flat. Self-possessed, bright and imaginative, Kacper (Maciej Stolarczyk) is an instant delight, but his presence brings up Wojtek's unhappy memories of his own childhood, when he was at the mercy of a harsh, authoritarian father.
"Hania," which takes its title from a tree cherished by Kacper, proceeds in a familiar Yuletide groove of gift-giving and feasting only to veer in a daring, unexpected direction. (Not even a gratuitously tinkly hearts-and-flowers piano score does serious harm.) A beautiful-looking film with accomplished performances all around, "Hania" is head and shoulders above most Christmas movies, though is too intense for younger children.
-- Kevin Thomas "Hania." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In Polish with English subtitles. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.
'Timecrimes' is twisted, tiresome
Despite its festival kudos and a planned American remake, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo's low-budget brain-drainer "Timecrimes" is only half as clever as it thinks and even less entertaining.
The film begins intriguingly enough as paunchy, middle-aged Hector (Karra Elejalde) slips down the rabbit hole thanks to a pair of binoculars, a naked woman (Barbara Goenaga) and a scissors-wielding nut with pink head bandages. Before the boorish Hector knows what's sliced him, he's locked inside a most unconvincing time travel contraption and whisked back one hour.
This somehow results in three competing Hectors, each apparently representing a different side of the guy, which might be interesting if we knew anything about him from the start -- which we don't. Havoc, of course, ensues, but this thriller soon twists itself up in the kind of look-at-me pretzel logic that's more tiresome than inventive.
-- Gary Goldstein "Timecrimes." MPAA rating: R for nudity and language. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
'World' tends toward campy
Director Tom Gustafson's musical "Were the World Mine" is nothing if not ambitious. At an all-male prep school in a conservative Midwestern town, a strong-willed drama teacher (Wendy Robie) decides that the class play will be a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She casts as Puck a gay student (Tanner Cohen) who, while self-accepting, is having to deal with what it means to be homosexual in a less than welcoming environment.
While reading the play, Cohen's Timothy becomes intrigued by the recipe for a magical love potion. Timothy mixes the potion and starts spraying it on the unsuspecting, which has the effect of turning them gay. If this sounds a wee bit precious, it is.
On the plus side are Cory James Krueckeberg's lyrics, many drawn from "Midsummer" itself, and Jessica Fogle's pleasing music. Cohen has a fine singing voice as well, but Robie is arch and overly mannered -- even for a drama teacher. "Were the World Mine" is seriously uneven. If it displays considerable imagination and creativity, it also lapses too often into smug, campy silliness.
-- Kevin Thomas "Were the World Mine." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
'Kill You' has an authentic feel
"What Doesn't Kill You," Brian Goodman's directorial debut, opens with the words "This is a true story" -- not "based on," not "inspired by," but the real megillah. The tale of two petty hoods from South Boston, played by Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke, who get the itch to move up in the ranks has an authentic, lived-in feel.
Apart from the leads, which include Amanda Peet as Ruffalo's long-suffering wife and Donnie Wahlberg as a grudge-holding detective, most of the roles are filled by unfamiliar faces of the kind rarely seen on the screen.
Goodman is one of them, as a small-time crime boss who doesn't take kindly to his employees' ideas about upward mobility. His dark eyes darting inside a beefy frame, Ruffalo plays Goodman's stand-in, an arrogant hothead who tumbles into alcohol and crack addiction before a stint in prison straightens him out.
Pro forma gangland business, including an opening armored-car robbery that turns out to be something of a cheat, robs the movie of some of its authenticity, unless we're meant to believe that Goodman's real life bears an uncanny resemblance to "Goodfellas." But Ruffalo's feral vulnerability gives the familiar form a jolt.
It feels, if not like real life, at least like a movie you haven't seen before.
-- Sam Adams "What Doesn't Kill You." MPAA rating: R for language, drug use, some violence and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At the Crest Theatre, 1262 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 474-7866; and the Mann Chinese 6, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-8111.
'Beijing' is a convoluted mess
A successful Chinese businessman decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of writing and directing a movie, for some reason making the decision to have the dialogue be almost exclusively in English, even though he barely speaks a word.
No, this isn't the story told in "Waiting for Beijing" but rather the apparent back story of the making of the film itself, a preposterously inept, fabulously amateurish piece of vanity moviemaking. Somehow trying to cover the ongoing cultural and economic shifts in China, the onset of the Iraq war, the SARS epidemic, a touch of corporate espionage and just a little romance, filmmaker Alan Zhang has created something that would make Ed Wood shift in his seat.
Part of Zhang's overall strategy seems to be "when in doubt, show a landmark," making the film at times a talking postcard, that is until the scene where a young man, recovering from emergency heart surgery, has a dream reverie in which he chases his girlfriend as she heads toward heaven. At this point, it just seems to be beckoning the next "Mystery Science Theater 3000" reunion.
-- Mark Olsen "Waiting in Beijing." MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and a disturbing situation. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At Laemmle Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., Downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268; and Regency Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 655-4010.
Hackneyed action, dialogue
Didn't Kim Basinger win an Oscar not all that long ago? How an actress of her stature and ability could go from a career high like "L.A. Confidential" to a thoroughly junky thriller like "While She Was Out" is probably a story worth telling -- way more than the one slapped together for the actress' latest movie, now making a token theatrical pit stop before hitting DVD bins.
Basinger stars as Della, a jumpy housewife living in gated community oblivion with her inexplicably abusive husband (a wasted Craig Sheffer) and angelic twin children. She takes off on Christmas Eve for the local mall, where she accidentally riles a quartet of young thugs whose psychotic leader (Lukas Haas) proclaims her toast. A tedious, often gruesome game of cat and mouse ensues as Della morphs into a one-woman revenge squad, armed with a lethal set of garage tools. It's as silly as it sounds.
Writer-director Susan Montford eschews all plot and character development for the hackneyed action scenes and grade-Z dialogue, while struggling to stretch the paper-thin story into a feature length film.
-- Gary Goldstein "While She Was Out." MPAA rating: R for strong language and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At AMC's Loews Marina 6, 13455 Maxella Ave., Marina Del Rey, (800) 326-3264; AMC's Burbank Town Center 8, 201 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, (818) 953-9800.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun