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.