DVDs of the Week – ‘Flight of the Red Balloon’ and ‘Stuck’ – October 21, 2008

As the art house industry of foreign films and genuine American indies is being chipped away by the so-called Hollywood Indies of the studio boutique divisions and explosion of successful documentaries, DVD has been the place for film fans to turn for the kinds of films that are disappearing from the theaters. Here are a couple that deserve a look.

The shadow of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 fantasy The Red Balloon hovers over Hou Hsiao-hsien’s lovely drama Flight of the Red Balloon. The magical balloon with a mind and a heart of its own tags along after a young boy (Simon Iteanu), placidly and wistfully looking in on the gentle child and his nanny (Fang Song), a Chinese film student, while its image is echoed in paintings and other references during Hou’s lovely tour of Paris. At the center of the film is single mother (Juliette Binoche), a puppet theater artist pulled apart emotionally by an absent boyfriend and a deadbeat tenant while trying to stage a new production. Her life is as cluttered as her loft apartment, yet even at wit’s end and artfully disheveled under a tangle of blonde hair, Binoche glows. It only makes her distress more painful.

Hou’s first film made outside of Asia is his most emotionally turbulent, yet he remains, like the balloon, outside looking in, a compassionate but distant observer capturing it all with a graceful restraint and floating beauty that ultimately carried me away with it.

Stuart Gordon made his reputation bring H.P. Lovecraft to the screen with a mix of creative metaphysics, kinky sex and gorey black humor (see Re-Animator and From Beyond) and has had a hard time getting people to notice that there’s another side – in fact many other sides – to the director. After bringing David Mamet’s misanthropic Edmund to the screen in 2005, he turns a true story into the unfairly neglected drama Stuck:

“It’s not my fault,” whines Brandi Boski (Mena Suvari), a caregiver at a nursing home whose hit and run results in a homeless man (Stephen Rea) stuck in her windshield. She hides the crime – and the dying man – in her garage, waiting for him to die and the problem to go away. Inspired by a true incident, it’s a lacerating portrait of an otherwise generous human who turns herself into the victim to justify her heartless actions.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series was originally released as a Time-Life exclusive last year. Now it goes wide for the 2008 holiday shopping season (a gift for the suave cold war secret agent that has everything).

For four years, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, top agents of U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, of course) and TV’s coolest cold warriors. Hatched in the era of James Bond (creator Ian Fleming came up with the name of star agent Napoleon Solo) and The Manchurian Candidate, the show mixed espionage plots and high-tech gadgetry with a trace of sardonic humor and the continental charm of Vaughn’s dashing Solo. McCallum’s Kuryakin began in mere support as Solo’s Russian sidekick but soon became an equal partner thanks to the influx of fan mail, and Leo G. Carroll practically reprised his North by Northwest role as their unflappable boss, Mr. Alexander Waverly.

The series began as a hip spy show with lightfingered plots and a shadowy B&W style and become more tongue-in-cheek as it continued on through the subsequent color seasons. All four seasons of the cult series – 107 episodes on 41 discs – are creatively packaged in a box set designed as a secret agent attaché case.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: The Strangers and the new live-action The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton as the mild-mannered scientist who transforms into a big green stomping machine:

It’s part sequel to Ang Lee’s The Hulk and part wholesale reboot of the comic-book movie franchise. This time around, Banner is the unwitting victim in biological warfare experiments (all duly established in the credits sequence) by military zealot General Ross (William Hurt as a pitiless warmonger) and hunted down like an errant lab animal by team led by a new super-soldier guinea pig (Tim Roth). It’s a perfectly workable film, with all the seriousness a modern graphic storytelling fan could want and slick action direction by Louis Letterier.

TV: The complete run of the canceled sitcom Back to You (with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton) and the first season of the family sitcom According to Jim:

Jim Belushi is the lovable slob of a husband and father of three in this modern incarnation of the classic family sitcom where father doesn’t know best – in fact, he gets into hot water in pretty much every episode – but he manages to get out of the doghouse thanks to his sense of humor. Being a modern sitcom, he still has the hots for foxy mom (Courtney Thorne-Smith) and has little else sex on his mind, at least when he’s chasing the little whirlwinds of sugar-rush activity he call his daughters around the house. Or eating. Or napping.

Special Releases: the four-disc set  Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women, the six-disc collection Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection Volume 4 and Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 6:

The gems on this set belong largely to the oddities and one-shots: Robert Clampett’s 1942 adaptation of Horton Hatches the Egg (in a style more Looney Tunes than Dr. Seuss), surreal infant comedies Rocket-Bye Baby and Goo Goo Goliath (with a Martian and a giant infant, respectively) and oddball experiments from the sixties (Chuck Jones’s experimental Now Hear This and the truly unusual Norman Normal).

Blu-ray: Bond. James Bond. Times six.

The James Bond series gets its Blu-ray makeover with six initial offerings, three of them featuring Sean Connery, the first and still the best Bond. He gave birth to the cinema’s most cruelly charismatic cold warrior in Dr. No (1962), Bond’s first big screen appearance. It’s lean and hard edged, far from the glitzy, gadget laden sequels, but it establishes one 007 standard when Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl, makes her entrance rising from the Mediterranean sea in a bikini. From Russia With Love (1963) is 007’s second and perhaps finest outing, a high energy trek through the Iron Curtain with a blonde, buff Robert Shaw as Bond’s most ruthless nemesis, and Thunderball (1965) climaxes with an elaborate underwater battle that still impresses.

Live and Let Die (1973), For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Die Another Day (2002) completes this first wave.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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