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“Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition”

“Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition” (photo)

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What is it that Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien does, exactly? Characterize it however you can, Hou-ness has the delicacy of a paper butterfly, and can easily be squashed by impatience or insensitivity. Let’s begin by dumping the unhelpful category “minimalism” — Hou films, as with Ozu’s and Tsai Ming-liang’s and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s and Abbas Kiarostami’s and Carlos Reygadas’, can hardly be summed up as having relative dearth of material within them; usually, they are spectacularly rich and sometimes inexhaustible. As viewers in this rigorous corner of film culture — the cinema of real time and actual space and mysterious unseen forces — we help drive the bus, we are not merely passengers. (As J. Hoberman wrote about “Flight of the Red Balloon,” the new Hou film “encourages the spectator to rummage.”) Hou is very much the paradigm’s Renoir, its master of lyrical sympathy. His slow-moving camera (never dictating the action but, rather, cautiously circumscribing it), his long observational passages, his respect for real behavior (so real people often simply play themselves), his modest metafictional slippages, his daunting evocation of off-screen space — all of it amounts to arguably the most humane vision at work in today’s moviescape. That’s what passionate Hou-istes are getting at when they kvell about films that might seem — to dedicated fans of “The Dark Knight,” say — to be films about next to nothing: they’re talking about an understanding of life, not a distraction from it.

“Flight of the Red Balloon” is a slightly different kind of Hou movie — shot in Paris as a commissioned project to remake Albert Lamorisse’s beloved 1956 short “The Red Balloon.” But in the watching, it’s Hou distilled, indulging the rambling metaphor of the self-motivated balloon as an observer — like Hou, and like us — of a random slice of modern urban life. This wedge revolves around an emotionally rocky actress/performance artist (Juliette Binoche), her rather Scotty Beckett-ish grade school son (Simon Iteanu), her absent husband, her goldbricking tenants (in a second apartment downstairs) and Taiwanese film student Song Fang, playing herself, who begins as the boy’s workaday nanny, as she simultaneously remakes Lamorisse’s film herself, with a handheld DV camera.

10282008_flightoftheredballoon2.jpgThe nuances in this mishmash of relationships are gradually revealed, but none of it amounts to high theater — it’s just life, full of disappointments and incidentals, piano lessons and crepes, petty frustrations and wholesale raptures (Binoche’s hot-blooded mom, coming apart at the seams under the strain of not knowing whether or not her husband will ever return from his artistic pilgrimage, gets lost in her theatrical vocals for a Chinese puppet performance). The manner in which Hou shoots this weft is inherently kind: at a relaxed distance, from room to room, patiently, nonjudgmentally. In almost every way, the film climaxes with a breath-robbing eight-minute one-shot scene in which the mom handles a phone call from her college-age daughter in Brussels, a blind tuner attends to the family’s pivotal piano, the tenants disrupt the cluttered apartment’s equilibrium, and the little boy tries to ignore it all. Hou’s camera tiptoes around like a tolerant family member, shifting perspectives, and the purpose of every reframing is compassion, not dramatics.

So many critics, so lost at sea. “Flight of the Red Balloon” may not be overwhelming Hou, relatively speaking, but it’s still prime rib at a buffet of gruel. It’s hardly about “loneliness,” as even the ardent reviewers have claimed (the minor-key loneliness found and often obliterated in even dysfunctional families is a factor, but one of many). Nor is it about “the spirit of childhood,” pace the Times‘s A.O. Scott, writing about a film in which the child character rarely gets a close-up and is not the primary point of view. Hou is that rare animal, a filmmaker who creates his own way of invoking reality, and the American mainstream’s fluency with nuts & bolts three-act formulas does not help us come to terms with him.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.