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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The 2010 Primetime Emmy nominations are in!

Bright and early this morning…by which we mean 8:40 AM EST / 5:40 AM PST…the nominees for the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards were announced by Joel McHale (“Community,” “The Soup”) and Sofia Vergara (“Modern Family”). It ended up being a worthwhile gig for one of them, at least, with Vergara pulling in a Supporting Actress nod for “Modern Family.” Maybe that’s why McHale seemed so stone-faced. (Seriously, did someone tell McHale that he wasn’t getting paid if he didn’t keep his smart-assery in line ’til after the nominees were read? The only time he cracked anything approaching a joke was when he preempted Vergara’s mangling of Mariska Hargitay’s last name.) Anyway, here’s a list of who got the glory…and, in the case of Best Actress in a Drama, who got the shaft.

Outstanding Comedy Series:

* Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
* Glee (Fox)
* Modern Family (ABC)
* Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
* The Office (NBC)
* 30 Rock (NBC)

My Pick: “Modern Family.” There’s no question that “Glee” is award-worthy, but not necessarily as a comedy, which is also where “Nurse Jackie” falters in this category. I feel like “The Office” and “30 Rock” coasted in on their past merits this year, but “Curb” got a huge boost from the “Seinfeld” storyline, so it’s the only real competition here. Still, the buzz on “Modern Family” is all over the place. I can’t imagine it won’t bring home the glory.

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United States of Tara 2.3 – Skating on Thin Ice

“I don’t know what Buck’s been doing over there, but it can’t be good.” So says Tara to her trusty video recorder, and, boy, she ain’t kidding. Buck’s giving pedicures…? I never thought I’d see the day. But, then, he’s also making with the sex, so it’s not like there isn’t an appropriate trade-off involved. Still, this is a strange change in dynamic for that particular alter, to say the least. And, yet, Max tells her that she’s the best she’s ever been, and he’s so happy that she can’t bring herself to tell him that she’s transitioning between personalities. Of course, it’s not like he shouldn’t have figured out that something’s up. I realize he’s diving headlong into the renovation of their recently-purchased house (formerly known as Casa de Hubbard), but this is taking obliviousness to a ridiculous degree.

Marshall and Courtney: game on…? “Yeah, that makes sense,” says Tara. “On Opposite Day!” The relationship is clearly doomed. The big question, therefore, is how long until the doom begins to kick in. Surely Courtney’s hopes aren’t but so high when it comes to the duration of her pairing-off with Marshall. It seems pretty clear that she’s a horny teenager…yeah, I know, like every teenager isn’t horny…who’s going after a cute and clearly gay guy because he’s arguably the least intimidating person at the school who’s likely to give her a chance at having sex. “Dogs in a bathtub“? Shit, I’m 39 years old, and this is the first I’ve ever heard of that phrase. There’s something very weird about watching the characters trying to get each other off while backstage at a Shakespearean production – though, of course, everyone knows that’s where all the action is – but the sexuality of the moment is defused by the humor of the moment. Between Courtney’s excitement that she’s good at giving handjobs and Marshall’s uncertainty about whether he’s “getting warm” (not to mention Courtney taking a moment of thought to consider if he was close or not), it was probably my favorite scene of the episode because you could very easily imagine it taking place in the real world.

This was an educational episode all around: I also never knew that straight women go gay because of menopause. The scene between Jackie, Charmaine, and Neighbor Ted in the bathroom was pretty funny, particularly Ted’s assertion on determining one’s sexuality (“You’ve got to get up in it!”), as was watching Jackie try to turn herself into Buck without actually transitioning, although it obviously became a far more serious scene in the end, with Pammy sobbing on Tara’s shoulder about how she never gets the guy. Was I the only one who was completely blindsided by Pammy’s decision to hijack the P.A. system and declare her undying love for both Buck and Tara? Also, I haven’t been ice skating in years, but is it really possible that the music they play at the rink hasn’t changed in two and a half decades, or is this just wishful thinking on Diablo Cody’s part?

So Linda’s check bounced. What a shock. She wouldn’t have been on the collection agency’s hot list if she was the kind of person who’d just stroke a check every time someone came looking for payment. I don’t know that there’s any more to the character of Ricky the Trustifarian than a great name and a source for weed, but, seriously, the name is awesome. It’s a strange relationship developing between the two of them, a kindred-spirits sort of thing…or is it more? Either way, it was totally worth it to see Kate in the Princess Valhalla outfit.

Patton Oswalt’s back! I loved Max’s assurance that, even with Charmaine kicking him to the curb, there are still lots of lovely ladies on eHarmony.com just waiting for a shot at him. It was pretty tragic to see his face when he realized that she was engaged, but it still didn’t tarnish that incredibly funny groan he offered up to get her attention when she first walked in. The fact that Charmaine could barely be bothered to stop ogling her ring and considering an upgrade long enough to feel bad about how she’d made Neil feel…man, that just felt cruel. I say again: she’s totally going to fuck things up long before the wedding day arrives.

So Pammy’s declared her love before God, country, and the patrons of the Paul Bunyan Skating Rink, Max is so pissed off that he’s kicking the living shit out of Sully outside his kid’s birthday party (and, to be fair, it’s a well-deserved shit-kicking), and as soon as we got the shot of Tara not knowing whether to go into the “Ladies” or “Gentlemen” restroom, I knew we’d be seeing Buck within moments. I guess we’re shaping up for next week to find Buck crashing with Pammy, Max hanging loose in the old Hubbard house, and the kids fending for themselves. Good times.

Random moments of bliss:

* Kate’s suggestion for a new organization: Adult Children of Moms You’d Like To Fuck.

* Charmaine’s delivery of the line, “Her name was Gretchen, and she was very proud of her vagina.”

* The shot which established that Tara and Bartender Babe had been to Fun World together…and if you saw the episode, then you know that’s not some sort of euphemism.

* Marshall’s soon-to-be-reversed declaration that “I’m not into weed; it makes me like action movies.”

  

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United States of Tara 2.2 – Baby, I’m Your Man

Okay, I admit it: when I ended last week’s blog by suggesting the possibility that there might’ve been sparks between Buck and the bartender, I’d already seen Episode 2.2, so I knew full well that it was going to be kicking off with a shot of the two of them in bed together. I have to imagine that many a viewer laughed at the sight of Tara offering up a “what died in my mouth?” face, given the obvious implications, but in my case, that quickly gave way to surprise over the fact that it wasn’t Tara. It was Buck. Have we ever seen Tara wake up with an alter in control? If so, I can’t remember it. I have to presume that this is an occurrence of note, as opposed to simply being an excuse to let Buck look proud of himself. Either way, Tara quickly took over again, returning home to find Charmaine unabashedly flashing her new engagement ring.

It’s so hard to maintain excitement for Charmaine, given Tara’s history of fucking up everything in the lives of her family, but her enthusiasm is so freaking infectious. Still, the idea of Charmaine staying at Casa de Gregson is clearly going to make for some rough going particularly given that Tara can’t even remember what lies she’s spinning about her past whereabouts. Also, in Charmaine’s hesitation to believe that she’s actually found a good man who truly loves her, she offered up a comment that struck me as possibly relating to Tara’s condition: “We were raised to believe we should eat dog shit, so you get used to dog shit.” This is presumably a metaphor rather than a description of their actual childhood, but it strikes me as telling. It may, however, not have anything to do with Tara at all. It may just mean that Charmaine’s so used to expecting the worst from her relationships that she’ll end up sabotaging this one because she can’t believe she’s good enough for it…and I thought that before she started obsessing over the engagement ring to an unhealthy degree.

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United States of Tara 2.1 – I Get Up, I Get Knocked Back Down Again

It may surprise you to see me kicking off a weekly look at Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” given that my DVD review of the show’s first season wasn’t exactly what you’d call glowing. If you can’t be bothered to click on the preceding link, allow me to summarize: I gave it a mere three stars out of a possible five, and the pilot alone left me in such a sour mood that it infiltrated my feelings about a great number of the subsequent episodes. Still, I plowed through the entire season – 12 episodes – and, by the end of the experience, I’d found that, although I still wasn’t necessarily a full-fledged “Tara” booster, I’d fallen for the storylines of the other characters (if not so much those of Tara and her alter-egos) enough to be intrigued about what Season 2 might hold.

Now, I’m not saying that the publicity department at Showtime read my review, but whether they did or didn’t, screener discs for the second season of “Tara” arrived in my mailbox last week…and since they’re here, thereby giving me the chance to watch and write about the episodes in advance of their air date, it’s too tempting an opportunity to resist. As such, I’m blogging about “United States of Tara: Season 2.”

So let’s get started, then, shall we?

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