Hidden Netflix Gems – Mary and Max

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The first feature from Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot, the main creative force behind the Oscar-winning 2003 animated short Harvie Krumpet (which is also superb), Mary and Max tells the true story of young Mary Daisy Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore) a lonely eight-year-old Australian girl who lives with her sherry-swilling, kleptomaniac mother Vera (Renee Geyer) and her taxidermy enthusiast father, a character so sad and dull we never even hear his voice. One day, she decides to pick a name out of an American phone book and write to whomever she finds in this way, in order to ask burning questions about America, such as “Are babies found in soda cans?”

The person her letter eventually reaches is 44-year-old Max Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese, atheistic man living in New York City who, despite his atheism, was raised Jewish and still wears his yarmulke every day, “to keep my brain warm.” Sharing a love of chocolate and a sweet innocence that is far more commonplace at Mary’s age than at Max’s, they begin a 20-year friendship composed entirely of written correspondence. As Mary grows into adulthood, at which point she is voiced by Toni Collette, and Max struggles with his love of “chocolate hot dogs” (chocolate bars housed in hot dog buns) and subsequent gradual weight gain, their friendship grows and develops into something larger than themselves.

In the wrong hands, this material could have become overly sentimental, and detractors might claim that it is too “quirky” (that is, if it had actually made it into theaters and been seen by the much wider audience it deserves), but Elliot’s gorgeous, painstaking stop-motion animation and the excellent vocal work by the two leads (particularly Hoffman, who has never been more convincing) make this a truly remarkable film unlike any other feature I have seen. As in Harvie Krumpet, Elliot brilliantly balances wonderful, whimsical humor with heartbreaking poignancy and creates characters that effortlessly feel more real and alive than at least 90 percent of those found in live-action films.

Throughout the film, as Mary falls in love with her neighbor, Damien (Eric Bana), and becomes a shining star of academia, and Max struggles with his severe social anxiety and learns that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, there are moments of laughter and tears. However, the film never resorts to cheap heartstring tugging; instead, it offers true insight and brilliant poetry, both visually and in the excellent writing. The third act contains each of these in quick succession, first in a gut-wrenching visual sequence involving Mary, and then in a wonderfully narrated letter she receives from Max. The final scene brings both elements together marvelously.

Mary and Max is a treasure that I am happy to have dug out of the ground of obscurity. I highly recommend you take a chance on it as soon as possible.

 

  

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Batman: Year One

DC Comics may be lagging behind its rivals at Marvel when it comes to their live-action movie ventures, but they’ve still utilized their stable of superheroes pretty well with Warner Bros.’ ongoing series of direct-to-DVD animated films. Lately, the studio has been digging into their back catalog to produce some of the label’s fan favorite storylines, and when it comes to the Caped Crusader, there’s no story more revered than Frank Miller’s 1987 miniseries, “Batman: Year One.” Though it actually focuses more James Gordon’s move to Gotham and his fight against police corruption, the tale also tracks Bruce Wayne’s early days as the masked vigilante Batman.

Those who aren’t familiar with Miller’s comic will notice several similarities between “Year One” and Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films — particularly “Batman Begins,” which drew a lot of inspiration from the miniseries. Unfortunately, for as groundbreaking and influential as Miller’s story was during its initial release, it feels too fractured in animated form. The movie is also shockingly short at only 64 minutes, and though the animation is excellent, the voice acting leaves much to be desired. Ben McKenzie is horribly miscast as Wayne/Batman, and while Bryan Cranston was a great choice for Gordon, his line readings are also a little wooden. As a result, “Year One” isn’t as entertaining as it should be, but Batman fans will still enjoy the mostly faithful adaptation.

Click to buy “Batman: Year One”

  

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Phineas and Ferb, The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension

It’s wildly inappropriate to sing the praises of a Disney Channel show by saying that it pisses genius, but “Phineas and Ferb” does just that, deftly blending dry relationship humor with high-concept science and one of the best pop soundtracks you’ll find outside of “South Park” (back when they wrote songs, anyway). Having wrapped their 39-episode (!) second season last fall, their first all-new show of 2011 is the wildly ambitious full-length movie “Across the 2nd Dimension,” and to the surprise of no one, it’s pretty awesome. Phineas and Ferb invent a portal to another dimension, and they discover a world where the nefarious Dr. Doofenshmirtz is a much more successful evil genius than the one in our world, and he plans to use the boys’ portal to take over our tri-state area as well. The producers have a great time playing against type (the other Candace is an ass-kicking resistance fighter, while the boys are timid and never leave the house), but the overall tone of the film is quite dark, which may not sit well with younger kiddos. Thankfully, the movie’s mini-tunes are the ringing pop gems fans have come to expect, to the point where one of the movie’s best songs wound up on the cutting room floor.

The DVD of “Across the 2nd Dimenson” uses the alternate world in a cheeky manner by splitting the bonus features between two title screens (poke around the main screen, and you’ll figure it out). The deleted scenes are quite good, but the two musical numbers, a longer version of “Robot Riot” and Candace’s great “Mysterious Force” (arguably the best song Ashley Tisdale has sung in years) are the winners. They also included the episode “Attack of the 50 Foot Sister,” which each universe in the DVD sporting its own audio commentary, one of which is the voice actors behind Dr. Doofenshmirtz and Major Monogram in character. This should satisfy fans of the show while the producers are hard at work on the show’s third season.

Click to buy Phineas and Ferb, The Movie from Amazon

  

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This Weekend at the Movies: Mutants, Mutants, Mutants

I’d be inclined to declare this whole weekend a massive multiplex fail if it weren’t for the fact that the only major release is actually getting really great reviews. And if you’re looking for something a little more low-key, this weekend is absolutely booming with opportunities provided you live in New York or Los Angeles. So onward we press into summer!

X-Men: First Class


Aside from its surprising ability to draw in very talented actors (its cast includes James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, and January Jones), my hopes for this film were unfathomably low until a couple of weeks ago, when word got out that Matthew Vaughn’s fourth feature (he previously directed Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass) was actually really, really good. I don’t know why it surprised me so; after all, I liked all of his films to varying degrees, but it seems like, at least this once, a film slipped through the famously rigorous Fox development process. Currently boasting an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than any superhero movie has faired since the 2008 one-two-three punch of Iron Man, Hellboy II, and The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class is poised to make a big dent this weekend both culturally and financially. I’ll be wading through the masses tomorrow to find out for myself how it holds up. Join me!

Hit the jump to see what else is coming out this weekend in limited release, including one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

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This Weekend at the Movies: A Second Hangover, Animals Do Battle, and the Palme d’Or Winner

Memorial Day weekend used to mean the start of the summer movie season, but by now we’re already in full swing! Nevertheless, the studios have seen fit to give you two sequels to two massively popular films. And maybe some artsy stuff for the coasts.

The Hangover Part II


And yes, they’re going roman numeral style. This is some classy stuff right here. I saw this on Monday, and while there are a lot of funny moments with the same gang (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis), you will be shocked at how incredibly similar it is to the first. Way beyond the even standard “same premise, different locale” set-up you would expect. It robs it of some of the insanity the first, which I loved, had in spades. Rotten Tomatoes has it at a 32% fresh rating. Nevertheless, it opened to a whopping $10 million on midnight showings alone last night. With a five-day weekend in which to run rampant (Monday’s a holiday!), this is going to do some serious damage at the box office.

Kung-Fu Panda 2


Once known with the much sillier subtitle “The Kaboom of Doom,” this one seems to do what a good sequel should – offer the same delights as the original in a new package. It boasts a 75% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and while some critics fault it for hewing too closely to the original, many were too swept up by its charms to care. Kung Fu Panda became unexpectedly beloved upon its release, and many cite it as one of Dreamworks’ few great films. It’s hard to imagine those fans, and their kids, won’t come to see this in droves.

The Tree of Life


While the latest film from Terrence Malick certainly won’t make the same imprint at the box office as the previously-mentioned films, this is the film event for cinephiles this weekend. That is, if you live in New York or Los Angeles. I have my ticket to the midnight show tonight, and could not possibly be more excited. If you live elsewhere, don’t fret – you’ll be able to see the Palme d’Or winner within the next few weeks, as Fox Searchlight rolls it out across the country. Click here to see when your city is getting it. And although this doesn’t have the mass appeal of your kung-fu pandas or your 30-something frat boys, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of that Cannes buzz fuel it to a respectable hit for Fox Searchlight.

Beyond that, New York gets two art house release – Tuesday, After Christmas, a sparse study of infidelity that received solid reviews when it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and United Red Army, an epic about a revolutionary group in Japan in the 1970s.

Next week, it’s all about the X-Men back on the screen again, while at least a couple of cities will get one of my favorite movies of the year so far. Stay tuned!

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