BRIAN BANKS (2019) – Inspirational True Story of One Man’s Fight to Clear His Name

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BRIAN BANKS (2019), based on the inspirational true story of Brian Banks, a black man wrongly imprisoned for rape who fought his way back to clear his name and eventually play football in the NFL, offers no surprises.

None.

The story plays out exactly as you expect it to, and yet, this hardly seems to matter because at the end of the day, BRIAN BANKS is a solid, well-told story that makes its point and moves its audience to tears.

Sure, it’s safe and sanitized, the type of movie that easily could have been the TV movie of the week back in the day. It’s not gritty. It’s not R-rated. Some would call this inferior filmmaking, missing an opportunity to tell a story well and make an impact. For me, it all comes down to how a film is executed. I like safe sanitized movies as well as hard gritty ones, as long they do a good job telling their stories. BRIAN BANKS tells its story well.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was an up and coming football star, breaking school records and attracting attention of college football scouts. But when he was 16 years old, he was accused of rape, a crime he said he did not commit. Encouraged by his attorney to plead “no contest” which would be the same as “guilty” but would most likely mean no jail time, the youth agreed, only to watch in horror as the judge slapped a six-year jail sentence on him, as well as requiring him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Most of BRIAN BANKS takes place after Brian has been released from prison, although his prison experience is shown via flashback. As a young man in his twenties, an ex-con and registered sex-offender, Brian struggles to find work, as no one will hire him, and he lives with his supportive mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). He also has to contend with an overbearing parole officer (Dorian Missick) who constantly reminds Brian when he’s too close to a school or playground.

Brian finds it next to impossible to move on with his life, but he knows he’s innocent, and so he contacts attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) who specializes in fighting for people who have been falsely convicted of crimes. Justin empathizes with Brian, but tells him that unless he can come up with some new and extraordinary evidence, his case will not be overturned, and so Brian sets out to do just that.

As I said, BRIAN BANKS offers no surprises. You know where this one is going to go, but since it’s going to a satisfactory place, the predictability of it all is not a problem.

At first, the screenplay by Doug Atchison raised an eyebrow. As Brian tells his story to Justin Brooks, he explains that he and the female student went to the section of the school known as a place where students make out, with the express intent of making out with this girl, but when a teacher walks by, it spooks Brian and not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes his future career, he changes his mind and walks away, leaving the spurned girl to make up the charge of rape.

Well, that’s believable.

Not.

You walked away? On your own? And the girl made the whole think up?

I don’t think so!

But the film covers its tracks by having Brian’s current girlfriend Karina (Melanie Liburd) be a sexual assault victim herself. When Brian first tells her his story, she apologizes and then leaves him alone at a restaurant table. But as she gets to know him, she finds herself believing in him, and eventually falls for him.

BRIAN BANKS really isn’t about the he said/she said of sexual assault. The film never really calls into question Brian’s innocence. He’s innocent. The system failed him. That’s the message of the film.  What BRIAN  BANKS really is about is resilience.

In prison. an angry and bitter Brian meets a wise old man, played by an uncredited Morgan Freeman, who becomes Brian’s mentor. He teaches Brian to let his anger go, and presents him with a creed that states that life is not about what happens to you, but how you respond to life’s adversities.

And that’s really what BRIAN BANKS is about and why the film ultimately succeeds. Brian Banks is a man who simply refuses to give up, who believes that the one thing he can control is how hard he fights for his freedom, and it’s a fight he refuses to give up on. As depicted in the movie, Brian really is an inspirational character.

Doug Atchison’s screenplay deals with sexual assault and the failings of our legal system but largely avoids race issues. The fact that Brian is black is hardly mentioned in the film. More than a story about race, it’s a story about perseverance and the pursuit of truth.

Director Tom Shadyac takes what could have been a hard-hitting gritty story and sanitizes it to the point where it could have been made by Disney. But since Banks’ relentless pursuit of the truth is so admirable, it hardly seems to matter. Shadyac is a director known for his comedies, films like BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994). There’s nothing comedic about BRIAN BANKS, and Shadyak seems quite comfortable telling this story.

Aldis Hodge is solid and sympathetic in the lead as Brian Banks. He captures Banks’ spirit and makes his journey a believable one. Hodge has been in a bunch of things over the years, from HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016) to the TV shows BLACK MIRROR (2017) and THE WALKING DEAD (2014) to name just a few.

Likewise, Greg Kinnear is very good as attorney Justin Brooks, who eventually is won over by Banks and decides to take his case. Although Kinnear has been working steadily, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him on the big screen. I believe for me it’s been since LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Both Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mom and Melanie Liburd as his girlfriend also turn in strong performances, as does Xosha Roquemore as Kennisha Rice, the woman who as it turns out falsely accused Brian of rape.

Likewise, Tiffany Dupont makes her mark as Alissa Bjerkhoel, who works for Justin Brooks and who was instrumental in encouraging Brooks to take Brian’s case.

And Dorian Missick is very good as the hard-nosed parole officer Mick Randolph. Missick has also been in a ton of things, from playing “Cockroach” on LUKE CAGE (2018) to appearances on LUCIFER (2016) and BETTER CALL SAUL (2015).

BRIAN BANKS is the type of film that at first seems difficult to recommend. It’s pretty straightforward, and the direction its story takes is pretty much a no-brainer.

But what it does do well is create a sympathetic and inspirational character, albeit based on a real life person, in Brian Banks, so much so that you can easily buy into his plight, feel his pain, and celebrate his victory.

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GOING IN STYLE (2017) Provides Mediocre Comedy

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GOING IN STYLE (2017) is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name by writer/director Martin Brest that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three senior citizens who decided to spice up their lives by robbing a bank.

This time around, the director is Zach Braff [from TV’s SCRUBS (2001-2010)] and the three elderly friends are played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

I enjoy these three actors a lot, and they’re the main reason I wanted to see this movie.

The story has been updated to 2017, and the plot has as its villain the “evil” bank which is responsible for taking away these men’s homes and their pensions.

Joe (Michael Caine) is unhappy because his bank was less than clear about his refinanced mortgage, and as a result, his monthly payment has tripled.  He can no longer afford the payment, and since his daughter and granddaughter live in the house with him, he does not want to lose his home.

To make matters worse, he and his buddies Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Albert (Alan Arkin) learn that the company they had worked for is shifting its workforce overseas, and as a result it’s cancelling their pensions.

When Joe visits his bank to argue about his mortgage, three masked men burst in and hold it up.  They get away with the money, which gets Joe to thinking:  if he and his friends robbed a bank, his bank, they’d get their pensions back.  Worse case scenario, they go to jail, which for them isn’t so bad since they don’t have a lot of years left to live.  As Joe says to his buddies, in prison, they’ll have a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and better health care than they have in the outside world.

While Willie and Albert don’t agree at first, eventually they change their minds and set their sights on robbing a bank.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before or done better.

In spite of its realistic plot points of the manipulative bank giving Joe misleading information about his mortgage, and the company cancelling its pensions because it’s moving overseas, the film just isn’t very believable, which is surprising because the screenplay, based on the 1979 screenplay by Edward Cannon, was written by Theodore Melfi.  Melfi wrote the screenplay for ST. VINCENT (2014) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) two films that I liked a lot.  His script here for GOING IN STYLE is nowhere as crisp as his work on those other two movies.

The story just never becomes real.  I never believed that these three guys would really rob a bank, or that they’d actually get away with it.  The film is more a set-up to have Caine, Freeman, and Arkin interact with each other.

And sure, they’re fun to watch, but the problem is I’ve seen these actors far funnier in other movies than they are here.  Which brings me to the biggest problem with this movie. It’s one thing for a comedy not to have the most believable plot, but it’s quite another for it not to be funny, and I just didn’t find this film all that humorous.

Sure, there are lots of little bits here and there that caused me to chuckle, and Caine, Freeman, and Arkin did a fine job with these little bits, but I rarely laughed out loud.  Part of the problem is the film is rated PG-13, and so the language is tame, which really works against a guy like Alan Arkin who can be hilariously funny when his humor is untamed. He’s very reserved here, as are Caine and Freeman.

The plot also goes to the syrupy sweet aisle one too many times.  Scenes with Caine and his granddaughter made me want to gag they were so cliché, as well as a subplot where Freeman’s character befriends a little girl during the heist.

Christopher Lloyd is also on hand as another friend, Milton, and he does his loony Christopher Lloyd shtick throughout which like a lot of other parts in this film, seemed old and tired.

The most energetic performance in the film clearly belongs to Ann-Margret who plays a woman trying to seduce Alan Arkin’s character, and this provides the film with its most unintentional  laugh as he resists her!  Who in their right mind would resist Ann-Margret? And at 75, she still looks amazing!  I was flabbergasted by how good she looked in this film.  Wow!

Joey King is okay as Caine’s granddaughter Brooklyn, and Peter Serafinowicz does a nice job as Caine’s ex-son-in-law. John Ortiz plays a man name Jesus who teaches them how to rob a bank.

Matt Dillon also appears as a less than intelligent FBI agent.  Like the rest of the film, his performance is nothing I haven’t seen him do before and do better.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but sadly it didn’t possess enough biting humor or a believable enough story for it to completely work for me, even with the presence of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

It’s a strictly by-the-numbers comedy that could have benefitted from both sharper writing and directing.

A little more style would have been greatly appreciated.

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