Die xue jie tou [Bullet In The Head] (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Die xue jie tou</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Bullet In The Head</strong>] (1990)

(On VHS, February 2000) This certainly feels like John Woo’s most personal film, but it’s certainly not a *fun* movie like Hard-Boiled or Face/Off. What it is, instead, is a wrenching, often unbearable Hong Kong view of the Vietnam war, with four protagonists who will be forever changed by the experience. Starts out slowly (it takes nearly an hour before we see the usual Woo shootouts) but then quickly becomes involving at a visceral level. No humour, no relief. Features a POW camp scene that will sear itself in your mind. The film is somewhat of a let-down after that, feeling overlong and forced in its pyrotechnic conclusion. Not a fun pop-corn rental, but nevertheless an essential part of the John Woo collection.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Devil’s Advocate</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, February 2000) Now that’s a pretty good film. I was struck, halfway through, by how well all the subplots seemed to come together, like a good novel. (It *is* an adaptation…) There’s a lot of symbolism too, both of the smack-on-the-head-obvious to the ooh-subtle variety. But beyond that, you get good direction, great performances by Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino (who tears through his role with relish, especially during the last fifteen minutes), a snappy pacing despite the almost-three-hours runtime and a memorable finale. It’s kind of a shame that said finale doesn’t make too much sense in retrospect, or that nothing *more* is done with the central premise, but when it’s so well-done, who can complain? Plus, it would be unfair not to mention the high babe-factor of the film, which shows nearly all the female stars in more-or-less complete nudity at one point or another. (Most of them are worth it.) Not a great film by any means, but quite an enjoyable video treat.

Renegades of the Empire, Michael Drummond

Crown Publishers, 1999, 297 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 0-609-60416-3

Microsoft has grown, in little more than twenty years, from a small unknown company working in a promising but modest field to a symbol of American Business. Through a lot of luck, at least one good decision, questionable market practices and some high-powered brainpower, Microsoft has not only made a lot of money, but had a significant impact on the evolution of contemporary computing. Computer experts curse Microsoft, but that’s irrelevant, because the general public *knows* Microsoft.

As such, it’s almost a given that several books a year are published about Microsoft. Despite ironclad nondisclosure clauses inserted in almost all Microsoft contracts, one can get a pretty good picture of the company’s internal practices through the mass of information published about it.

In this context, Renegades of the Empire is both an interesting read and a disappointment. It stated purpose, at least on its jacket blurb, is to provide an insider’s view of how three lone coders defied the rules of the company, developed a new ground-breaking technology and got it accepted by high management. Fine and well, except that this story, the “DirectX” episode, ends barely a hundred pages in the book. Then it’s on to the “Chromeffects” follow-up, some coverage of Microsoft in court, and such.

The true value of the book is in describing the way projects grow or wither inside Microsoft. A company made of largely genius-level employees cannot work in the same fashion as the rest of American businesses, and so we get an insider’s view of a company where going on vacation might mean finding your best colleagues gone by the time you come back. A company where big-boss BillG might argue with underlings just to see if they can hold under the pressure. A company where throwing books and walking around in Viking regalia might prove your point.

Renegades of the Empire is filled with anecdotes, from wild staff parties (to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars) to renegade demos to outside developers (“I know what you think of Microsoft” says the presenter, as an on-screen graphic behind him shows the Windows 3.1 logo being shot-gunned.) to how one of the book’s protagonist fired off a raucous memo that did exactly what he wanted —get him fired.

But ultimately, the book loses a lot of steam at it goes along. The rebellious streak of the three heroes worked well on DirectX, but even as of this writing, Chromeffects seems moribund at best. Not exactly an happy ending here. This lack of resolution looms over the last half of the book, and might account for the diminishing interest of the book.

Fortunately, Drummond is an able vulgarizer; not only does the technical part make sense to a layperson, but they also make sense to technical people, which is essential to the text’s credibility.

In a domain almost exclusively ruled by instant dispatches on the Internet, a book allows the luxury of lengthy exploration and analysis, as well as a more coherent version of events that is muted when reporting immediate events. Renegades of the Empire contextualizes various events (like the Department of Justice investigation, unfortunately still ongoing as this review is written) in a coherent whole. On the other hand, this synthesis is less than successful given the unfinished state of what’s described in the account. Was Renegades of the Empire published too soon? Maybe.

And how does Microsoft fare in all this, a so-called insider’s account from a third-party publisher? Quite well, actually. The Darwinian business practices at Microsoft are described as kind of a symbol of American innovation. There’s a telling quote where Bill Gates complain that Americans can’t stand help but be suspicious of absolute business success. Microsoft does makes mistakes -after all, that’s why the book title contains the word “renegades”-, but is able to learn from its mistakes.

And that, industry veterans will tell you, is Microsoft’s most valuable asset.

Braindead aka Dead Alive (1992)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Braindead</strong> aka <strong class="MovieTitle">Dead Alive</strong> (1992)

(On VHS, February 2000) This covers a lot of the same gonzo gory-horror/comedy than the first two Evil Dead films, though not with the same sustained level of interest. The first hour is more funny-peculiar than funny-ha-ha, (Your reviewer was heard muttering “What’s this? A Romantic Comedy?”) but things pick up shortly afterward. The sense of humour is definitely warped, and some set-pieces rather more puzzling than enjoyable (what *was* that thing in the attic?) but it’s certainly worth a look for pure off-the-wall weirdness. Not for sensitive stomach, of course; seeing dismembered zombie body parts being used as… well… anything other than dismembered zombie parts isn’t for everyone.

Boiler Room (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Boiler Room</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, February 2000) It’s not every day that you can be engrossed by a financial thriller mixed with a family drama, but that’s what you get here. Of course, the plot is enough to be interesting: A young ex-illegal-casino-owner gets hired in a stock trading firm where he’s guaranteed to become a millionaire in three years. Of course, it’s a scam, and as far as scams goes, this one is pretty clever yet explained in an understandable fashion. The acting is decent, with standouts being Ben Affleck in a scene-stealing quasi-cameo and Vin Diesel as a near-decent trader. Protagonist Giovanni Ribisi is less impressive, however; this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine Edward Norton in the role and bemoan Ribisi’s casting. The script is sharp, with funny interludes and not-so-funny insightful vignettes. The family drama drags a bit, and the protagonist’s “redemption” isn’t effective, but that shouldn’t keep you from Boiler Room, a darn good film.

B gai waak [Extreme Crisis] [Project B] (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">B gai waak</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Extreme Crisis</strong>] [<strong class="MovieTitle">Project B</strong>] (1998)

(On TV, February 2000) This film from what I’ve heard, a typical Hong Kong action film. Terrorists threaten Hong Kong with nerve gas release unless authorities free an imprisoned cult leader. Two rebel cops are left to deal with the terrorists. Many explosions, one great opening car chase and crunchy gunfights make this film worthwhile. Cleanly shot and competently edited too. What makes more interesting than your usual Hollywood thriller, however, is the typical Hong Kong sense of unpredictability: Children and protagonists die, civilians are mowed down and even though the usual action conventions are preserved, they’re done so is such a slightly different format that things remain interesting.

12:01 (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">12:01</strong> (1993)

(On VHS, February 2000) A man is trapped in an infinite time loop; every day is the same day, but *he remembers*. Groundhog Day? Nope! 12:01 came out a year previously, and unlike the Bill Murray comedy, actually wears its SF elements like a badge of honor. Not only does everything makes sense and is played for keeps -this is a thriller rather than a romantic fantasy-, but the character evolution of the protagonists feels real. In fact, the script is an admirable masterpiece of good B-film scripting, what with great dialogue, actions and motivations that make sense, smart characters, plenty of payoffs for all the little setups and some darn good individual moments. Jonathan Silverman makes a great protagonist, and Helen Slater is simply wonderful as the Scientist Babe. Video stores are made for this type of wonderful discoveries you wouldn’t see anywhere else.

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Owl Books, 1996, 208 pages, C$19.50 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-6297-1

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

And so begins Chuck Palahniuk’s exceptional first novel Fight Club. If the above lines don’t already send you rushing off to the bookstore, keep reading.

Most readers, including myself, first heard about Fight Club from David Fincher’s 1999 film, which starred Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. I was lucky enough to see the film at an advance screening, and cherish the memory of a darkly funny, nihilistic yet curiously uplifting piece of cinema. I awarded it the top spot on my “Best of 1999” list, and naturally began to hunt down the novel on which the film was based.

Consciously or not, -after all, this is a story partly about anti-consumerism- Owl Book didn’t re-release Fight Club in sync with the film. I had to wait three months until I finally saw it in local bookstores. I hesitated a few seconds, started to read a few lines to pass the time and soon found myself beginning the second chapter without missing a beat. You can’t ignore a book that pulls you in like that. So, faithful to Tyler Durden’s subversive spirit, I paid by credit card… while also buying a book about Jerry Springer. I can already imagine the face of the government analyst sifting through bookstore credit records: “Oh no, an anarchist who’s also stupid enough to like Springer!”

Reading Fight Club is nearly as memorable as seeing the film, and takes about as much time: At 207 pages, this isn’t a big novel, and yet it feels as substantial as a full 500-pager for the sheer density of good material. Palahniuk writes with panache, but also with concision and the ratio of quotes-to-pages is truly astonishing.

Must most of all, Fight Club is an *angry* book. Far angrier than the sweetened-up version shown on screen. Critical reception for Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB was polarized, with younger critics praising it and older critics hating the “violence” of the film. Well, these older critics obviously shouldn’t even touch the book, because it’s ten times worse. While the film has a body count of exactly one, the book makes no distinction between civilian and enemy, praises guns and exercises no restraint. From page two onward (“shag carpet of people”), Fight Club is one of the meanest books I’ve read.

I was in the mood to destroy… everything beautiful I couldn’t have. Burn the Amazon rain forest. Open the dump valves on supertankers. Put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda. Don’t think of this as extinction. This of this as downsizing. For years, humans had screwed up this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone. I wanted to burn the Louvre. This is my world, my world, and those ancient people are dead. [P.122-124]

It gets worse. So much worse, actually, that even though there’s immense cathartic satisfaction in reading Fight Club, it’s not as comfortable an experience as what I now think of as the “sweet Hollywood version.” The endings are also considerably different: the book packs in an extra punch or two.

Edgy? Certainly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Worthwhile? Absolutely, especially if you’re a twenty/thirtysomething male. See the film then read the book? Yes, in this order.

(One final note: Screenwriter Jim Uhls’ work in adapting Fight Club for the silver screen is absolutely phenomenal, carrying memorable quotes and scenes, adding more material in the same vein and toning it down just enough to make it palatable to audiences. Would have been well-worth an Oscar nomination.)