(On Cable TV, October 2017) The mid-nineties were a surprisingly good time for solid thrillers, and Sleepers works not because of its atypical revenge plot or unobtrusive direction but largely because it managed to bring together an impressive group of actors. In-between Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and the always-compelling Minnie Driver, it’s a nice mixture of generations and styles. It helps that the script is built solidly around an unusual conceit, with an ambitious lawyer doing his best to lose a case but make sure it’s widely publicized to take revenge upon childhood enemies. A blend of courtroom thriller and working-class drama, Sleepers may or may not be based on a true story, but it works well as fiction. Despite revolving around difficult subjects such as child abuse, Sleepers manages to be slightly comforting in how it ensures a victory of sorts for its characters, present a solid underdog story in an accessible fashion, and largely depends on familiar actors doing what they do best. Director Barry Levinson mostly stays out of the way of his actors, and the result is curiously easy to watch despite harsh sequences.
(On DVD, June 2011) There’s something almost earnestly old-fashioned about Conviction, a film that has few scruples about belonging to the “inspiring story based on true events” category. Here, a woman puts herself through law school for the express purpose of freeing her wrongfully accused brother. It ends pretty much like you’d think. Still, Conviction is more polished than you’d expect: the setup is handled efficiently, and the early structure of the film seamlessly meshes two levels of flashbacks to explain how the characters got where they are. This is the kind of film that showcases actors, and Hilary Swank is very good in the lead role, with a strikingly transformed Sam Rockwell as her wrongfully accused brother. I almost always, for some reason, enjoy seeing Minnie Driver on-screen, and she gets a lot of screen time as a sidekick to the protagonist’s legal investigation. For a film of its genre, it’s curiously restrained until the very end, and clever about how it takes us from one detail of the case to the next. It doesn’t necessarily spring Conviction up and away from typical TV-movie-of-the-week fare (it will live best on DVD than it did in theaters), but it does pretend to be a dramatic awards contender, and it’s not misplaced in those ambitions. It all piles up to amount to a satisfying film, but not an overly memorable one.
(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version. It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments. I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen. That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together. While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible. Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it. Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale. It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo. It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable. Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.