A slick biopic of the legendary Wing Chun martial artist who went on to train Bruce Lee, Ip Man (2008) is full of coincidence and elaborations, but it’s enthusiastic, respectful, and very satisfying. It takes place in the village of Foshan during the 1930s and 40s, where Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a modest, noble kung-fu master. When the Japanese invade, he loses everything but eventually shows everyone how things are done in a huge showdown. Director Wilson Yip gives this movie everything he has, and it looks amazing. He shoots for maximum clarity and maximum use of space, taking into account all the various period sets and locations. The martial arts are top-notch, fast-paced, clean, beautiful, and with a powerful impact. The great Sammo Hung choreographed the fight scenes, and then went on to play a supporting role in the equally excellent sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010). Both, plus Ip Man 3 (2015)—starring Mike Tyson—are on Hoopla. [In Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, with English subtitles.]
Microbe & Gasoline
(Tubi, Hoopla, PopcornFlix, Pluto TV)
Michel Gondry’s coming-of-age road movie Microbe and Gasoline (2015) is perhaps his best film since Be Kind Rewind, or even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a ramshackle, gritty thing, and it seems as if it could have fallen apart at any moment, but it latches onto a true sense of friendship, confusion, wonder, and doubt that the teenage years have. It’s warm and summery, heartbreaking and potent. “Microbe”—so nicknamed because he’s small—(played by Ange Dargent) is a dreamer and a doodler whose mother (Audrey Tautou) gives him philosophy books to read. He meets new kid, “Gasoline”—so nicknamed because he’s a tinkerer who can fix his own motor bike—(played by Theophile Baquet). As soon as summer break starts, they embark upon building a strange, very Gondry-ian house-car that will carry them away from their dull existence. Their requisite road-movie adventures are handled with laid-back ease and delight. [In French with English subtitles.]
Directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, the smart, entertaining Moon (2009) features mostly one actor, Sam Rockwell, plus the voice of Kevin Spacey as a robot called GERTY. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who works overseeing a kind of mining operation on the moon. It’s the year 2035; machines dig up powerful gasses, and Sam bottles them up in rockets and ships them to earth. His stint is supposed to last three years, and he’s looking forward to going home. But when he accidentally crashes his moon buggy, he makes a rather astonishing discovery about his job. Making his directing and co-writing debut, Jones creates an effective world of sterile life-support instruments and computers, some a little grimy from years of repeated touching in the same places. He’s also unafraid of shying away from darkness and even cruelty, but that only makes the movie more memorable. It’s also one of those movies that benefits from—and holds up to—repeated viewings.
Although Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (2015) isn’t a traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery as in the Arthur Conan Doyle tales, it’s deep and satisfying in many other ways. The great Ian McKellen stars as an older, retired, forgetful Sherlock, living by the seaside and tending bees. A grumpy housekeeper (an equally terrific Laura Linney) helps out, and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) takes an interest in the old detective (McKellen was aged to 93 with superb makeup). Holmes is haunted by his final case, and struggles to remember it as it really happened, and not as Dr. Watson wrote it down; he even travels to Japan to obtain some “prickly ash,” which is said to jog the memory. Director Condon (Gods and Monsters), sprinkles the thoughtful, low-key movie with flashbacks and memories and uncertainties, revealing slow connections every so often, and leading up to a touching revelation. Nicholas Rowe, the star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), has a cameo as a fictional Holmes onscreen in a movie house.
The Return of the Living Dead
(Hoopla, Tubi, Pluto TV)
Directed by Dan O’Bannon (a co-writer on Alien), The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a surprisingly funny, spunky entertainment. It begins at a medical supply warehouse, where a veteran employee, Frank (James Karen), shows the new kid, Freddy (Thom Mathews), some barrels of government waste, the stuff that apparently caused earlier zombie invasions. Of course, they accidentally open one, and it all begins again. Linnea Quigley plays one of a gang of punks hanging around a nearby graveyard, a red-haired girl punk called “Trash” who does a memorable dance. The film contains many hilarious lines (“send more cops”) unforgettable images (the zombie half-dog), and a soundtrack full of 1980s punk rock songs by The Cramps, T.S.O.L., Roky Erickson, The Damned. John A. Russo, co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead, contributed to the story. It was released at around the same time as George A. Romero’s official, serious zombie movie Day of the Dead.
A Scanner Darkly
Based on a 1977 novel by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (2006) takes place in a dire, dismal future, in which a drug called “Substance D” has a hold. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent who is, ironically, investigating himself, as well as his two roommates, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and junkie girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder). They all take the drug and discuss conspiracy theories, and their visions of reality begin to fall apart. Director Richard Linklater used a similar technique as on his great Waking Life, shooting the film digitally, and then having animators draw over the images. The result is a strange, realistic, but hand-drawn look full of effects like characters turning into bugs. Best of all is Bob’s suit, designed to resist identity scanners. It’s a patchwork of different, constantly phasing ears, eyes, lips, shirts, ties, etc. This is a brainy film, heavy on dialog, but the crazy-quilt visuals underscore it all, creating a truly trippy atmosphere.
The Secret of NIMH
(YouTube Free, Roku, Hoopla, Tubi, Pluto TV)
Don Bluth had been an animator at Disney, working on films like The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, and directing the short film The Small One before audaciously leaving and starting his own, competing animation studio. His debut feature, The Secret of NIMH (1982)—based on a 1971 children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien—is a beautiful, exciting adventure with a distinctive edge of darkness. Mrs. Brisby—“Mrs. Frisby” in the book, but the name had to be changed to avoid a copyright violation—(voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) lives near a farm, where plowing season approaches. She must leave to avoid the deadly plow, but her son is ill and cannot be moved. She consults a wise owl (voiced by John Carradine), who tells her about a mysterious colony of rats living under a rose bush nearby; their “secret” helps save the day. The amazing voice cast also includes Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Aldo Ray, Shannen Doherty, and Wil Wheaton.