Film reviews: Mary and Max | Involuntary | The Hunter | The Kids Are All Right

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Mary and Max (12A) **** Directed by: Adam Elliot Voices: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries

AUSTRALIAN animator Adam Elliot won an Oscar for his short film Harvie Krumpet and he makes good on that promise with his first feature length film, Mary and Max, a funny, sweetly subversive, adult-oriented claymation about an epistolary relationship that develops between an awkward Australian school girl called Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) and an obese fortysomething New Yorker named Max (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Mary is a lonely girl who picks Max's name at random from a New York telephone directory; Max has Asperger's syndrome, which both helps their friendship develop (her adolescent directness is mirrored by his literal approach to life) and causes all sorts of problems as Mary's navety also triggers panic attacks in Max. What follows is a beautifully observed, complex and melancholic portrait of friendship that niftily avoids the overly cute and sentimental traps into which films about these kinds of relationships often fall. The themes are nicely complemented by Elliot's animation style, which is full of wonky cityscapes and misshapen characters, something that gives this oddball story a lovely, tactile, handcrafted feel.

Involuntary (15)***

Directed by: Ruben stlUnd

Starring: Villmar Bjorkman, Lola Ewarlund, Maria Lundqvist, Henrik Vickman

THIS Swedish satire from director Ruben stlund may appeal to fans of the films of his fellow countryman Roy Andersson, particularly Andersson's deadpan explorations of Swedish life in You, The Living and Scenes from the Second Story. It certainly shares a similar absurdist tone with those films, intercutting as it does five unconnected tales in which minor indiscretions and fateful accidents expose the vagaries of peer pressure in different contexts. Though the situations seem suitably random – a party during which a firework display goes wrong; a coach trip on which a petulant act of vandalism results in a long delay; a couple of teen girls getting increasingly drunk; a teacher witnessing the inappropriate behaviour of a colleague – stlund's rigorous method of recording them with elliptical, single-shot camerawork and a limited number of scenes helps the film build towards an oddly compelling conclusion as each dilemma exerts a surprisingly strong hold. The intricacies and relevance of some of the cultural references may be lost in translation, but the behaviour of the characters is fairly universal and the cast of unknowns do creditable, believable work.

The Hunter (15)**

Directed by: Rafi Pitts

Starring: Rafi Pitts, Mittra HajJar, Ali Nicksaulat, Hassan Ghalenoi

THIS latest film from acclaimed Iranian film-maker Rafi Pitts (It's Winter) has some kind of political message to impart about the intolerable conditions for dissidents in Iran, but working out exactly what that message might be proves a frustrating task thanks to the wilfully impenetrable, unengaging story its writer/director/star has cooked up. That story has something to do with a car factory nightwatchman (Pitts) embarking on a hunt-and-kill revenge mission against the cops who killed his wife and child as they attended a demonstration. This may sound suspiciously like a genre film, but it is resolutely not. More's the pity, as it doesn't offer even a basic driving narrative that might at least have engaged our attention. To his credit, Pitts does have a striking eye for composition and a fog-bound car chase through the winding roads of Tehran's stark woodlands is certainly striking. But the distance at which both Pitts the film-maker and Pitts the actor seem intent on keeping us works against the film by not letting anyone in – save, perhaps, audiences versed in Iranian politics.

The Kids Are All Right (15) ****

Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko

Starring: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska

POKING gentle fun at the family-values crowd, Lisa Cholodenko's quietly subversive comedy The Kids Are All Right offers further proof that left-field American film-making is in robust health at the moment. Set in a sunbaked Los Angeles (the sort of milieu in which Hal Ashby might once have worked), the delicious premise revolves around teenage siblings Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – seemingly well-adjusted kids, if awkward in their own ways – as they invite a little chaos into their otherwise stable lives by tracking down the sperm donor their lesbian mothers Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) used to get pregnant.

Said donor is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a laid-back, free-spirited organic farmer and restaurateur whose easy-going presence immediately catalyses changes that test the their hitherto rock-solid family unit.

Shot through with an easy-going naturalism, and boosted with spiky dialogue delivered as if it were tripping off the tongues of the characters, the film taps into the neuroses of middle-class America without exploiting its premise for egregious quirk value or for dry, tub-thumping agenda-setting.

Warm-hearted, truthful, hugely enjoyable performances from Moore, Bening and Ruffalo also help make it a much breezier film than anything else around.

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