Brian Banks — Review and Interviews

I’m so confused about society these days. Who knows what people will think of this movie? For example, the true story about Don Shirley and Tony Lip that became Green Book, was my favorite movie of the year. But a lot of liberals decided they didn’t want a story about a “white savior” or other idiotic complaints about that wonderful Oscar-winning film. Are they going to feel that same way about this, because it is a white lawyer who helps an African-American football player?

Will people be bothered that the story involves a woman falsely accusing a man of rape, and a narrative might be derailing the rush to judgement in a few #metoo movement cases? My logic to all that is — just watch a movie and see if you’re entertained. Don’t worry about the agendas people have, although…this true story and the important work of the California Innocence Project, is something that will (and should) stick with you.

It’s an amazing score for producers Brian Banks and Justin Brooks, that they were able to get such a great cast. Sherri Shepherd plays Banks’ mother Leonia. Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear plays Brooks. And Oscar winner Morgan Freeman shows up as an influential teacher in prison.

Director Tom Shadyac may have been a surprising choice for this true life story (he did direct Ace Ventura and The Nutty Professor)…but he does a decent job with the material. It’s mostly carried by the strength of the performances. Often times, the film feels a bit too much like a made-for-TV movie, but you can let that slide.

Here’s the story. In 2002, Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge of Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton) was a stand-out high school linebacker in Long Beach. He was a fan of USC, and their famous coach, Pete Carroll, was a fan of his. A verbal commitment was made, and he was set.

While walking the halls at school, he ran into classmate Kinnesha Rice (Xosha Roquemore), who suggested they go to the “700 building.” That’s the place students went to make out. Since there were classes going on, and some teachers had their doors open, Brian got cold feet when things got hot and heavy. He bailed, perhaps bothering Kinnesha. Things intensified when a female security guard caught her. She snarkily said she didn’t want to go there, but some guy dragged her there. That lead to a half-hearted claim that Banks raped her.

The police arrest him at home, a heartbreaking scene of mom crying and screaming for her son.

Despite no physical evidence, and investigators that didn’t even go to the hallway they were at (where they would have been able to tell that her story had holes in it), an attorney suggested that Banks take a plea deal. He did that, not realizing just how long he was going to be in jail, and what that would mean once he got out.

It’s such a great set-up for a David vs. Goliath story. And it was so refreshing that the film stuck with the facts, and didn’t want to play a racism angle. It’s not a story of an African-American being jailed because of the color of his skin, but because of a false rape accusation. 

An interesting aspect of the story happens after Banks gets out of jail. Now, I knew the story from having read the papers when it happened years ago, and I won’t ruin that for those that don’t know. 

Another interesting thing is that the California Innocence Project (CIP), a non-profit that helps wrongfully convicted prisoners, doesn’t seem all that interested in helping him. He has to keep hounding Justin Brooks (Greg Kinear), who tells him he’s already out and should be happy about that. Yet when you have trouble finding work, and are limited in where you can go if you’re a “sex offender” — the plot thickens.

It was always intriguing when a scene would come up that, although you could predict where it was going (a potential new girlfriend, on a first date, asking why he never played football at USC)…it still ended up being moving. Perhaps that’s because it’s a mix of a bizarre real life story, and a great performance from Hodge.

While watching this, I thought about how disappointed I was with the fact that movies like The Post had a lot of scenes of people just researching, shuffling papers, and searching for things on a computer. This movie was more interesting for not going down that path. That doesn’t mean we don’t get a few scenes of Brooks looking at info on his computer, but it’s more concerned with what is more powerful for the viewer — Banks’ facial expressions. He conveys politeness and perseverance perfectly. And he looks like he could mess up a quarterback on the football field, a bully in prison, or a DA that had done him wrong.

There’s also just the right amount of lines that are powerful, but not too cheesy. How can you not like hearing Morgan Freeman say about prison, “One looked out of the bars and saw mud, one saw stars.”

And at least they didn’t have Freeman narrate it, or we’d think we were watching Shawshank again.

The cinematography by Ricardo Diaz wasn’t anything special, and at times a bit bland, but overall, this is a film worth checking out. Such a powerful message of resilience, and a performance from Hodges that would garner an Oscar nomination if this were a bigger film.

3 stars out of 5. My friend Deb who I brought instead of my wife, thinks it deserves 4 stars.

Now, one of the cool things for San Diegans was the fact that the Brian Banks movie had a premiere here, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. It’s the perfect city to host the screening, because the movie would have never been made if it weren’t for the California Innocence Project (CIP), which is a non-profit organization at the California Western School of Law right here in America’s Finest City. They provide pro bono legal services for folks that are (or claim to be) innocent of a crime they were convicted for.

I talked a great deal to Michael Semanchik, one of the attorneys involved with CIP. His character was played by someone in the film that looked nothing like him — Mystie Smith. She’s African-American. He is white, and male. He laughed as he told me who played him, since I thought it was Kinnear playing his character. But my friend Deb knows his father-in-law because they grew up together in Prescott, Arizona. We talked a bit about them, while Deb was grabbing a glass of wine.

Since I didn’t bother getting a press credential for the red carpet, I just hung back and watched the cast show up and do their interviews with all the local news stations. But after director Tom Shadyac finished the gauntlet of cameras, I saw him standing by himself. I introduced myself and asked if I could throw a few questions at him. Since he had directed three Jim Carey films, I was tempted to ask a question about how hard it is to do comedy. Instead, I stuck with questions related to Brian Banks. I asked, “Was Banks’ parole officer really that mean in real life? Because if he wasn’t…” Shadyac assured me he really was that tough on Brian.

I then told Shadyac that I get so sick of movies having the shaky camera, and that I’ve noticed it happening so much more in films these days. I get it, if you’re doing a scene on the football field and want to show the action of the sport, but when two people are standing there talking…why employ that technique? It drives me nuts how often filmmakers do that.

Shadyac explained, “I only did that a few times. There are a few reasons for that. Sometimes in the conversation, a character might be confused. I want the audience to have that feeling, too. Like something is just a little bit off. Also, when it’s a smaller picture like this, it saves a lot of money. You just have one camera on a guy’s shoulder, and you film the scene. They can just move the camera around to whoever is talking at that moment. It’s so much easier. You’re not stopping, and using a different camera at a different angle.”

Now, when Greg Kinnear walked by, I couldn’t just keep my questions to being about the movie. I watched as he stopped to talk with four different TV stations, and a few publications, and basically had to answer the same question over and over. And he has such an interesting body of work. I mean…he played Bob Crane (Hogan’s Heroes) in Auto Focus. He got Oscar nominations for As Good as it Gets and Little Miss Sunshine. He had a great role in a little comedy done by former Scripps Ranch resident Kyle Mooney in Brigsby Bear. He was attached to Matt Damon for an entire movie in Stuck on You. He was in the remake of Sabrina. He was with the incredible comedy duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Baby Mama. Another underrated comedy he did was Mystery Men. And, what an interesting little dark comedy/thriller he did with Pierce Brosnan (The Matador). Instead, I went with what I feel is the best con man/twist in movie history. A film that is as good as The Sting. The movie is called Thin Ice. And as I approached Kinnear I told him I thought it was as good as The Sting. He smiled and said, “Hey, thanks man. I appreciate that.” 

I went on and on about how brilliant the film was. I said, “You were such a weasel in it. David Harbour seemed so naive. Alan Arkin with that accent. I just don’t know why it wasn’t bigger.”

Kinnear said, “I agree. I really like it, and Alan and I talked about that, too.”

I brought up how weird it was that the movie title was changed (I couldn’t remember to what), and how that makes it harder when I recommend the movie to friends and they can’t find it.

He said, “Yeah, they changed it to….what did they change the title to? Oh yeah…The Convincer.”

I mentioned remembering there’s a scene in the movie where his character talks about being a convincer. I then said, “It’s so weird that the writer/director didn’t like the edits made to the movie. I’m assuming she had a problem with the ending, and how you’re in Mexico and it looks like you’re living the good life.”

He said, “Yeah, I think that was it. She probably didn’t like that scene for an ending.”

I replied, “It’s not like you had some great life. You lost your family and your job. You’re selling crappy timeshares in Mexico to tourists. And there’s something about that scene that just worked. It makes it not so dark, and that you hadn’t learned a lesson.”

Kinnear said, “Yeah, I agree with you. I like that scene. But it was one of those deals where the producers wanted one thing done, the director, Jill Sprecher, wanted another. And no matter which way it went, someone wasn’t going to be happy with the outcome.”

I thanked him for coming to San Diego and he said, “No, thank you for coming out to this.”

As I went to find Deb and hoping there were some appetizers left, I heard a fan approach Kinnear and say, “I just want to tell you, that you’re my favorite actor.”

As I walked away, wondering how often every actor, hears from fans, that they’re the “favorite” (which made that line so funny in Misery, with Kathy Bates saying she was his “number one fan”).  And when you’re at an event like this, you really see how annoying it might be for celebrities. Reporters are hounding them with questions, and fans are always hounding them for photos or autographs (I have to admit, I did have Kinnear sign my Thin Ice DVD). Yet they’re expected to just smile and deal with it all. Of course, some will read this and say that making millions to be a movie star is worth dealing with some invasion of privacy and annoying questions. That’s what makes it so much more amazing that Brian Banks was walking around, talking with everyone, smiling, and being so positive. If I had spent six years in prison, for something I didn’t do, I might end up in a tower somewhere with a machine gun. Deb, who was so moved by the movie (and told me we were no longer friends if I gave a review of less than 4 stars), even said she felt like opening her checkbook after watching it. She went up and had a nice conversation with Banks. I approached them and said, “Brian, it was a good movie and I’m glad you’re out, so…I hate to do this to you, but I have a really dumb question to ask you.”

He said, “Oh no.”

I said, “I’ve been playing fantasy football for 30 years, and I want to know if you have any inside scoop on a player I should look out for and possibly draft onto my team. I’m so worried about drafting Ezeikel Elliot or Melvin Gordon if they’re going to hold out.”

Banks replied, “Ya know what? Last year I didn’t watch a single NFL game. I was just so busy. So I don’t even know who to recommend.”

I then asked who his favorite player of all time is. He said, “It’s L.T.”

I replied, “You’re not just saying that because you’re in San Diego right now, are you?”

Banks continued, “No, no. He’s my favorite player. He always has been, since I’m a linebacker.”

I started laughing and said, “Oh wait…you mean Lawrence Taylor! I thought you meant Ladanian Tomlinson of the Chargers. Aren’t you too young to remember Taylor?”

He laughed and said, “I was young, but when I started playing football when I was around 7 or 8, he was still playing. I’m 34, but I remember a lot of those older players. Jerome Bettis. And I loved Reggie White, rest in peace. His mom was one of my teachers in elementary school.”

We talked for a few minutes about our favorite football players. I thought about how an event like this is so great for this guy. Watching him walk the red carpet, smiling as he talked to reporters, like he just won a Super Bowl ring or was showing up at the Oscars

During the Q&A after the movie he was sitting with his adorable 6-month-old daughter on his lap, who kept trying to grab his microphone. It was reminiscent of the Steph Curry press conference a few years ago. At one point when she grabbed the mic he said, “Luckily, I’m still stronger than her.”

As is often the case with Q&A situations, nobody raised their hand. Banks immediately asked the audience what they felt watching the movie, and you heard a few reactions from the crowd, and he talked briefly about the movie. Again, the audience was asked for questions, and nobody raised their hand. I finally did, because I find if they hear someone else ask a question, they’ll feel more comfortable. I asked if there were any scenes in the movie that ended on the cutting room floor, that they wished could’ve stayed in.

The director said, “Brian had years to live this, we had an hour and a half to tell the story. So there was a lot of stuff we couldn’t cover. There are always things in movies that end up being edited out, but I don’t like to focus so much on that.”

Justin Brooks, who was played by Kinnear in the film, had a lot more to say on that. He laughed as he said, “I was bummed about a few scenes that were cut out. One of them had my brother, my wife and daughter.”

The crowd laughed.

He continued, “There was also this scene where Greg was supposed to just improv a bit about CIP not having enough money to pay the bills, and he said ‘Why is the heating always on? We’re in San Diego!’ It was funny, but also…it was the greatest fundraising scene ever for us.”

Again the crowd laughed. 

When Kinnear was asked a question about playing a real life person, who was on the set during the filming, he talked about how helpful it was. He talked about not knowing anything about this organization and the important work they do. He then looked at Brooks and jokingly said, “And a few times, I think he thought he was an acting coach.”

Brooks added to that, saying, “There was a scene where they were filming in my office and I thought of something that would really work. Tom was working on the scene with Greg and as I walked in he said ‘Justin, I love you, but get out!’ So I had to back out of my own office.”

When the director talked about working with Kinnear he said, “This is a guy that has won awards. He’s done comedy, drama, everything. And he really challenged me, and would talk about the character arc. He’s directing movies now, and it felt like he was directing me, so I said…hey, stay in your lane!”

The crowd chuckled.

I didn’t realize the bald guy on stage was the one that wrote the screenplay. His name is Doug Atchinson and he also penned the script for Akeelah and the Bee. Before the screening he was always smiling and talking to reporters about the film.

Someone in the crowd asked Brian if the woman that falsely accused him ever apologized. He sternly said, “No. She never apologized.”

A lawyer in the crowd asked him if he realized when he pleaded ‘no contest’ if it was explained to him he’d have to always register as a sexual predator. It was an odd question, considering the movie covered that ground.

It was interesting when Banks explained to the crowd that they couldn’t charge the woman with perjury, since there’s an eight year statute of limitations. He added, “It’s weird to think that you could stay in prison for 30 years on a sentence from someone that perjured themselves, but after eight years, you can’t charge them. It’s pretty crazy.”

Brooks was asked if he knew the judge would side with them and he said, “We made no assumptions of anything. We realized that if she didn’t show up, we wouldn’t have a witness.

We weren’t sure about the video evidence. We had a good feeling they would’ve conceded, but so many people were embarrassed by this case and how it was handled.”

After the Q&A we went out for some appetizers and desserts, and I was excited by something more thrilling than the cookies and brownies that were set out. I saw Carlsbad actor Dimiter Marinov walking out of the screening. I went over and shook his hand and told him how great it was to see him again. He played Oleg, the cello player in Green Book, who is constantly being picked on by Viggo Mortensen’s character. I said, “What are you doing here? You’re not in the movie.” 

He smiled that great smile I always see on his face when I run into him at events. He pointed to an actress he said invited him.

When I went to find Deb to introduce her, I thought it would be funny, considering the fact that a few hours earlier she told me how she had finally seen Green Book after I constantly badgered everyone to check it out.

By the time I found her, chatting up Brian Banks, Marinov was gone. I feel like making a road trip in a Cadillac up to Carlsbad just to hang with him again.

So I’ll end this piece by saying…if you still haven’t seen Green Book, get it and watch it. If you’re going to the theatres this weekend to enjoy their air conditioning and want to be entertained and learn something about the law — check out Brian Banks. No sense watching any of the preseason football games that are filled with players that won’t even be on the roster in a month.

 

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