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“Mary and Max” and “Burma VJ” on DVD

“Mary and Max” and “Burma VJ” on DVD (photo)

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There’s something unearthly and hilarious, all too familiar and vividly unhuman, about caricatured claymation when it’s done well, and that qualmy, hypnotizing something oozes out of Adam Elliot’s “Mary and Max” like a ruptured yolk. Elliott, an Oscar winner for animated shorts, is easily the peer of the Aardman herd, and his textures and visual wit are relentlessly fascinating, scene after scene — if he could claymate my credit card bill, I’d pay it twice.

But “Mary and Max” is also rather shocking in the depth of its story and the frankness of its scalding subject matter. The film was given a minimal theatrical release in the U.S., and despite its dazzling ingenuity it is not difficult to see why — this is a movie focused on a child, but it is not for children, and without a reliable Pixar demographic spread, to whom would it be sold? An epic, bittersweet tall tale about child neglect and alcoholism and New Globalism and Asperger’s and loneliness and death, Elliott’s film is based on a true story — it would have to be true, to be this unlikely and specific and grim. Is this the first claymation film based on a real-life news item? Why would there ever be another?

06142010_MaryMax2.jpgElliott’s strategy is Aesop-like — the entire story is told as a river of wizened, sympathetic narration (read by Barry Humphries), rich with an understatement and irony that complements the film’s handmade visuals like sugar in very black coffee. Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore) is an eight-year-old Australian girl lost on her own in a scruffy suburb with a drunkard kleptomaniac mom, no money and no friends.

She has an overactive imagination, and she cares for herself, badly, and is eventually motivated to make a friend by picking a name out of the Manhattan phone book at the post office. The name she nabs, sending off a letter of questions and a candy bar, belongs to Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese, isolated 44-year-old with debilitating Asperger’s and eating habits (chocolate bar hot dogs) that make Mary’s (condensed milk with a spoon) look robust. A correspondence, as they say, begins, and lasts years.

So far so good, but look at Elliott’s bum’s rush of visual ideas — Mary is a pear-shaped midget with button eyes, but Max is a masterpiece, a squashed pumpkin of a man with a pin head, the jaw of a humpback, a visage stricken in a permanent state of nervous worry, and giant, sweaty, shuddery eyeballs that run the risk, when the world becomes a little unpredictable, of rolling right out of their loose sockets. Elliott has a gift for luridly intense portrayals of anxiety, and his puppets have fabulously neurotic faces.

06142010_MaryMax3.jpgEvery character and animal is “drawn” for maximum impact (Elliott’s cats, chickens and fish are all just as baffled at the world as the humans), and while Australia comes in 15 shades of excrement, Manhattan is a colorless urban nightmare that would fit in to a chapter of “Sin City.”

Add to this Hoffman’s brilliantly affected, disjointed Noo Yawk reading of Max’s letters, which are just as learned and wordy as they are gnarled up with Max’s handicapped worldview, and “Mary and Max” is nothing if not an accumulation of a thousand eloquent, wickedly imagined textural details, and those details are just as funny as they are convincing and resonant.

Mary grows up, of course (into Toni Collette’s sparely used voice), and the epistolary relationship expands, deepens, complicates, self-destructs and heals, and life deals both of the eponymous misfits a big ration of shit. Best not to spoil it — but be prepared for nastiness and cruelty, depicted as if it were a fairy tale. Though tragic, the film ends up exhilarating and buoyant, thanks to Elliott’s unfailing inventive energy.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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