It’s only been half a year since I’ve watched a Johnnie To movie, but Throw Down left a lasting impression and this one flipped a switch and set me frantically into Johnnie To Mode. About 25 lead actors here, 19 of whom I’ve never seen before, in a complex duplicitous undercover plot, and it’s all still thrilling and comprehensible.

Police Captain Honglei Sun (star of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop) and undercover cop Yi Huang bust a busload of drug mules, and while they’re dropping their loads, injured methmaster Louis Koo is fleeing the warehouse explosion that killed his family. Koo is busted, and facing the death penalty he cooperates. Most of the movie is their duplicitous dealings, intercepting meetings between drug traffickers who’d never met in person, pretending to be the one guy, then the other guy, the highlight of this being a laughing dealer named Haha. After the offscreen deaths in the prologue explosions, no shots are fired in the first hour of a movie called Drug War… then all of a sudden, very many shots are fired, as docile collaborator Koo violently switches sides. Raid on a drug factory run by deaf-mutes goes bad, Suet “Fatso” Lam turns out to be the mastermind. Don’t think I’ve quite seen an undercover cop movie with this trajectory before.

Koo:

Cops:

Fatso:

In a dismal grey-brown postapocalypse, Denzel hunts and cooks a cat, robs a corpse then relaxes to listen to his zune. Even babies wear sun goggles in town, the sun deadlier than ever since the nuclear event punched holes in the atmosphere. Local warlord Gary Oldman wants a bible to help control the populace and spread his influence, but passer-through Denzel has the only surviving copy, and is an unnaturally badass fighter, so a showdown ensues. Denzel and Mila Kunis leave town down the fury road, but Gary’s caravan catches up, and more showdowns ensue. The action’s not bad – an early slaughter, backlit under a bridge, puts a reminiscent scene from Resident Evil 6 to shame.

Most importantly, we are in Tom Waits Mode, and he appears in this movie as “the engineer,” aka he runs a barter shop across the street from Oldman’s saloon. He makes an uneasy deal to charge Denzel’s zune, then reappears at the end to open the lock on the bible, revealing that it’s in braille and D escapes to the Children of Men hope island with the entire book memorized. Waits is less pivotal here than in Seven Psychopaths, is mostly around to look cool.

Two great things happened at once: I activated Tom Waits Mode and was downtown long enough to visit Videodrome again. So I have rented two new-to-me Tom Waits movies, and one I haven’t seen in almost thirty years. Here’s one that nobody I know has seen, landing in between McDonagh’s In Bruges and Three Billboards. It’s the perfect connection between those two, with Colin from Bruges, Woody and Rockwell from Billboards, and all the bad behavior from those movies (violence, sexism) with some meta- distance (Farrell is a screenwriter named Marty, criticized for all his violence and sexism).

Michaels Pitt and Stuhlbarg are killed as a gag before I even recognized them. Christopher Walken kidnaps dogs for the reward money, with Rockwell’s help, has a sweet wife in hospital, and I don’t think he’s even a psychopath. Waits plays a bonus psycho, always carrying a white rabbit, eager to tell the screenwriter his story. He’s seeking his partner in crime from back in the 1970’s when they used to be serial killers of serial killers. Unfortunately, in the flashback where she leaves him after burning Zodiac alive, he’s played by a younger actor, but I think the rabbit makes up for Tom’s minimal screen time.

Picture this: you’re an acclaimed animation director following up your sci-fantasy epic with a smaller story, about an urban schoolboy who wishes to be a shoemaker, skipping class whenever it rains to draw sketches alongside a daydrinking woman under a city park gazebo. You have uniquely lovely visual artistry, especially outdoors in the rain, with your photoreal animation of water and light. The gazebo people don’t even know each other’s names, but gradually begin to encourage each other.

Now, do you leave good enough alone, or pivot to a tantrummy third act where she’s revealed as a disgraced teacher from his school and he comes to her apartment and declares he’s in love with her? Shinkai chose the latter. The boy also voiced Haku in Spirited Away, and she voiced the lead in Night Is Short, Walk on Girl.

Really very uninterested in tennis, so of course when I sign up to Metrograph they are showing tennis films, centering on William Klein’s doc The French. I watched Wes Anderson’s intro to that, then moved straight to this mid-length (or long-short) followup to Rat Film, very much a precursor to the electronic surveillance of All Light, Everywhere – what is observable and provable, either by man or by camera/computer, etc.

Then Katy and I watched a beautiful copy of Broadway by Light, and I meant to follow up with the Canadian/Chinese table tennis doc by Marcel Carrière, but instead rewatched Perfect Fifths.

The first couple and last couple minutes of this doc are Sam Fuller’s descendants giving embarrassing performances. Everything in the middle is ace – a well-cast group of sympathetic actors and directors performing excerpts from Sam’s autobiography, illustrated with clips from Sam’s wartime film reels and photography and feature films. I’ve already read the autobio and seen all the pictures, and I think Sam’s just the coolest, so I was glad to review the highlights. Especially nice to see Constance Towers for the first time in decades.

Joe Dante:

I am in my forties, so when am I gonna start making up my own mind about movies? Here’s a doomed-young-love-addiction story that looks and sounds unappealing, like not really my sort of thing, and it makes the year-end lists and I think oh that’s a good movie I should watch, but low priority, and then the sequel is announced for Cannes and suddenly I need to watch it right away, but it turns out somewhat unappealing, like not really my sort of thing. And then a week after I watch it, reviews are coming in for the sequel, a working-through-grief story that looks and sounds unappealing, and I am almost definitely gonna see it.

Me watching The Souvenir II next year:

I do appreciate watching cinema in which characters argue over what is cinema, and also hearing The Fall in a movie. Tilda Swinton’s daughter is charmingly Tilda-Swinton’s-daughter-like, and her mom plays her mom – a lovely moment where she sleeps over and cries with her unhappy daughter. I didn’t get the post-it trail to a car bomb, but maybe that was a typical British activity in the 80’s. Honor’s heroin boy (Tom Burke, just played Welles in Mank) once steals her stuff, then gets her to apologize for being mad about it after some vague excuse that he’s keeping civilization safe, so maybe he bombs cars for the queen. Richard Ayoade MVP.

I finally watched the movie where airport shame-sniffer Tina, who attracts lightning and can detect SD cards full of child pornography, meets Vore, a tailless sex-inverted creature like herself, and kicks out her useless boyfriend Roland to invite Vore to stay over. I cracked the film wide open, writing in my notes: “she works the border, he is her boarder.”

Massive, forty-part series reviewing many of the things that can be done in (narrative) cinema, and ways to do them, only using films directed by women.

It took us a half-year to get through this… I kept no notes or screenshots, so I’m happy to see a few letterboxd lists collecting the titles we saw clips from.

We had mixed results with the narrators and topics and examples, but it is always nice to learn about movies.