(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) As someone who like cinematic form experimentation, there’s no way I wasn’t going to be interested in Le Violon Rouge, a Canadian film tacking not a single character, but a single object through centuries. Here, the story begins in the late seventeenth century, as a grieving violin-maker coats a new violin with a substance of particular meaning. From that dramatic starting point, we follow the violin through Vienna (1793), Oxford (1890s), Shanghai (1960s) and Montréal (1997) as the violin changes hands, creates passions and undergoes surprising changes in fate. As a concept, it’s quite lovely—there are a lot of novels of the sort (or close to it—see the bibliography of James A. Michener and Edward Rutherfurd) but for obvious reasons it’s a much harder form to do as a film—juggling several time periods is a nightmare in itself, not to mention the added production costs. As a result, I can’t help but compare the potential of Le violon rouge with its execution and being slightly disappointed—more time periods, stronger dramatic ironies, perhaps a longer running time in the form of a miniseries could have done the best justice to the idea. Still, what we do have with the finished film in 131 minutes isn’t negligible—the editing hopping back and forth between 1997 Montréal and earlier time period is admirable enough, but writer/director François Girard’s juggling of a large cast of character and five separate languages is an amazing feat in itself. Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Sandra Oh, French-Canadian cinema fixture Remy Girard and none other than Canadian director Don McKellar (who also co-wrote the film) are only some of the names in the ensemble cast. While Le violon rouge does have flaws, it’s also quite an interesting experiment in cinema itself and does warrant a look if that’s the kind of thing that interests you.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) I had reasonably high hopes for this sequel to the 2009 bilingual thriller Bon Cop Bad Cop. The original was a clever look at Canada’s two linguistic communities, straddling language and culture in the service of a comic thriller. This sequel manages to get both Patrick Huard and Colm Feore to reprise their roles (no mean feat, given both actors’ busy schedules) but seems to forget much of what made the original work so well. The theme of the original film, so cleanly focused on French/English relationships, was clear and compelling—the sequel, alas, muddles along with a half-hearted look south of the border. Taking the plot to the United States is a logical step forward, but some of the America-bashing does get cheap and tiresome. The character work is fine in theory, except that we don’t particularly care about many of the secondary characters, and the film has the bad idea of giving a terminal illness to one of its protagonists, leading to one good death-wish scene but a whole lot of cumbersome emotional baggage to the film’s conclusion (not to mention a possible third film). Bon Cop Bad Cop 2 also falls prey to the easy lure of police brutality—it’s hard to cheer for nominally sympathetic and comic protagonists when they start manhandling and torturing suspects. Too long for its own good, Bon Cop Bad Cop 2 ends up feeling like a chore rather than a fun film … and given that the point of it is a fun film, the disappointment is palpable. I still like much of the film—Huard and Feore are likable, Mariana Mazza makes a remarkable (but almost overdone) appearance as a hyperactive computer specialist and some of the stunts are spectacular enough. But there is a lot of untapped or misplaced potential in the film’s execution as it loses its way, sabotages some of its own goodwill and ends up on a less than fully satisfying note.
(In theaters, June 2004) Oh no; here I am, twisted between a bad film and a genre I love, a ridiculous script and a director who knows what he’s doing. In some ways, this film is the epitome of dumb people’s conception of bad SF. Would I be inclined to melodramatic statements, I’d probably say something like how it “sets back the general public’s perception of SF by decades”, except that Battlefield Earth already damaged the genre’s perception for years. On the other hand, I’ve professed my admiration for David Twohy just about everywhere else, and there’s no denying that he’s attempting something very ambitious here. Too bad that it’s pure bargain-basement nonsense: despite some nifty details here and there, this movie rarely makes sense and is content to rely on tired clichés (the Furian prophecy, the easy “victory by killing the head vampire”, etc.) rather than bring forth something new. It doesn’t help that the direction is just about as original as the writing. Scientifically, it’s all trash (don’t get me started on the impossible weather patterns of Crematoria), but that hardly matters given that the film veers more often in science-fantasy territory. As such, there’s something admirable about the grandeur of the visuals: even though the film’s design is singularly ugly, it’s big and bold. Much of the same could be said for Vin Diesel, who once again turns in a serviceable return performance as bad-boy Riddick, though he’s nowhere near the impact of his turn in the prequel Pitch Black. Judi Dench and Colm Feore spend the entire movie slumming in undignified and humourless roles. Still, there’s an undeniable appeal in seeing scorched-hot Thandie Newton vamp around in a snake-tight outfit, or even Alexa Davalos do her best with the usual “tough chick” shtick. So there I am, twisted between dull directing, bad writing, a love of the genre and respect for Twohy. What’s a critic to do?
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Some movies improve upon a second viewing and some don’t. This one not only doesn’t, but actively suffers from the supplement of information that is to be found on the DVD. Sure, some of the action sequences aren’t bad, the art direction is imaginative and Vin Diesel has a screen presence that can do much to compensate for the material. But nothing can raise the quality of the atrocious script, nor make sense of the ridiculous excuse for a science-fiction story. In fact, the more information is presented to us, the less sense the film makes. Yikes. Don’t listen to the audio commentary!