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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.

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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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