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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Mary and Max

Falling somewhere between Nick Parker’s charming “Wallace and Gromit” shorts and Tim Burton’s more adult stop-motion films, the 2009 Sundance hit “Mary and Max” is a hilarious and poignant tale about two very different people from separate sides of the world. Eight-year-old Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced as a child by Bethany Whitmore and as an adult by Toni Collette) has no friends in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia, so one day she randomly selects a name out of the United States phonebook and writes them a letter to ask where babies come from.

That person is Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44-year-old overweight New Yorker who also has no friends apart from the imaginary one he created as a kid. Against his better judgment, Max decides to answer Mary’s question, thus jumpstarting a 20-year long pen-pal friendship that explores everything from love, religion, and even mental illness. Though the film is told in a storybook manner with narration by Barry Humphries, “Mary and Max” has some surprisingly mature messages at its core. Mary may only be a child, but that doesn’t stop Max from speaking bluntly, which as we later learn is a result of his Asperger’s Syndrome. Pretty heavy stuff for Claymation, but thanks to a wonderful script by director Adam Elliot and key performances from Whitmore and an unrecognizable Hoffman, this is one animated film that every adult fan of Pixar should rush out and see.

Click to buy “Mary and Max”

  

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It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas

The trio behind “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” has cooked up some of the most unpolitically correct humor in the history of TV, but for “A Very Sunny Christmas,” they’ve dialed it down considerably, instead relying on more gratuitous tactics – like language, nudity and gore – to score laughs. Split up into two stories, the holiday special follows the gang as they prepare for Christmas Day. While Dennis and Dee try to teach Frank a lesson by taking him through his own version of “A Christmas Carol,” Mac and Charlie try to cope with the fact that their Christmas memories aren’t as great as they remember them. The episode culminates with a Claymation musical number that features Hermey the Mischief Elf, Sam the Snowman, and the California Raisins dressed up as KKK members.

Though the former subplot definitely has its moments (a sweaty, naked Danny DeVito not being one of them), the latter is easily the funnier of the two, whether it’s Mac losing his temper or Charlie going nuts on a mall Santa. Still, for a show that’s just beginning to earn an audience beyond its cult fanbase, it takes a lot of nerve to release a 42-minute Christmas special straight to DVD. Though you can’t really blame the creators for making this kind of executive decision (this has Fox’s greedy little fingerprints all over it), the show itself really could have been a lot better. Instead, you get a mediocre extended episode for about five dollars less than the cost of an entire season. It’s not exactly a great way to win over new viewers, and certainly not the way to treat old ones either. This is strictly for diehard fans only, but even they may have issues with ponying up the cash for something that FX is bound to air for free eventually.

Click to buy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas”

  

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