Brian Banks


There is absolutely nothing like a mother’s love.

(2018) Sports Biography (Bleecker StreetAldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Libaud, Dorian Missick, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosia Roquemore, Gina Vento, Mytie Smith, Rick Vyper, Edward Parker, Charles Alexandre, Dean Denton, Mary Faulkner, Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Kevin Yamada, Harrison Stone, Monique Grant, Elizabeth Donaldson. Directed by Tom Shadyac

 

There is little doubt that the American legal system is seriously broken. Justice seems to be the sole province of the wealthy and the white. Standards of proof seem to fluctuate depending on the color of one’s skin and the gender of the accuser.

Brian Banks (Hodge) is a 16-year-old kid with an incredible future before him. A star linebacker at Long Beach Poly high school, one of the premier high school football programs in the entire country, he has already been accepted to the University of Southern California and seems guaranteed to be on the fast track to NFL stardom.

That rosy future is interrupted by an accusation of kidnapping and rape by a fellow Poly student (Roquemore). Banks is arrested and indicted, then his ineffective lawyer convinces him to accept a plea agreement that turns out to be a raw deal for Banks, sending him to prison for five years which would be followed by probation for an additional five years – plus being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. Sounds pretty much like justice except for one thing; the rape never happened.

Banks struggles to prove his innocence, reaching out to Justin Barber (Kinnear), founder of the California Innocence Project who gently informs Banks that because he entered a no contest plea, the only way to get his conviction reversed is literally for his victim to recant her testimony.

Amazingly, Banks perseveres even though he is as much a prisoner on the outside as he was in prison. Nobody will hire a convicted sex offender and Banks isn’t allowed within a certain distance of public parks and schools. Every time it seems like Banks finds a ray of hope, some tough-on-crime politician rams through legislation that slams the door shut.

This is meant to be an uplifting, inspirational film about the power of perseverance and believing in one’s self and one’s dreams. Hodge delivers a star-making performance that carries the picture, holding his own nicely against stellar actors like Kinnear and Freeman (who plays a prison teacher whose platitudes help Banks find inner peace). While the true story is compelling enough, it is Hodge that most people will remember best after seeing this film.

Definitely the movie makes some commentary on the gulf in the justice system that exists between black and white. Had Banks been a white athlete, it’s likely that the accuser would not have been believed and even if the case went to trial, the perpetrator would have gotten a slap on the wrist if he did any time at all. Boys will be boys, but African-American boys will be criminals – at least that’s how our legal system apparently sees things.

In the #MeToo era there is a bit of tone deafness about this project. False rape accusations are relatively rare and more often than not, accusers are treated with disbelief and scorn, often being blamed for their own assault. Even though this is a true story, it’s not a typical one and the movie really doesn’t address that.

Still, Banks is an inspirational person and watching Hodge absolutely nail his performance is a treat. That the plot gets a bit maudlin especially in the last half of the film doesn’t help matters. The real Brian Banks couldn’t have asked for a better performance to capture his life; he certainly could have asked for a better movie to frame it.

REASONS TO SEE: Hodge delivers the performance of his career.
REASONS TO AVOID: The script gets a bit soapy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a certain amount of profanity, as well as some adult thematic content and accompanying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least eight of Banks’ teammates on the Long Beach Poly team eventually played professional football either for the NFL or overseas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Seaside

Kung Fu Panda 3


Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

(2016) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Liam Knight, Wayne Knight, Al Roker, Barbara Dirickson, Willie Geist, Fred Tatasciore, Ming Tsai, April Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Allesandro Carloni

Know thyself is a long-standing axiom, but it is hard to know who you are when you don’t know where you come from, or from who. It can leave us with a sense of feeling lost, floundering in a dark sea without any reference points.

You would think Po (Black) has at least some sense of who he is. After all, he is the Dragon Warrior. But he’s also an orphan, raised by Mr. Ping (Hong), the noodle vendor – who happens to be a duck to Po’s panda. Po has just figured that he was the only one.

But there is trouble brewing. In the spirit world, renegade General Kai (Simmons) has been stealing the chi (lifeforce) of all the great masters in the afterlife, which seems problematic at best considering they’re all dead. He’s even managed to grab the chi of Master Oogway (Kim). However, Oogway has a trick up his sleeve, one that is not revealed until later.

The addition of Master Oogway’s chi has given Kai enough power to return to the mortal world where he plans on gathering up all the chi of all the kung fu masters on the planet, culminating with the Dragon Warrior’s. The Dragon Warrior however is very much distracted. Master Shifu (Hoffman) is retiring and he wants Po to take over training the Furious Five, which is disastrous. The appearance of Li (Cranston), who turns out to be Po’s long-lost dad, leads Po and his adopted father Ping to the farthest reaches of China to the secret village of the pandas, where he meets all his long lost relatives.

Po is ecstatic and happy having found not just his people but himself but still has been unable to master chi, something that the pandas were reputed to be masters of. When the news arrives that Kai has beaten the Furious Five save for Tigress (Jolie) and he is on his way to the hidden panda village, Po realizes that there is no way he can beat Kai by himself. He is going to need an army – of pandas. But how to make these lazy, dumpling-eating, hill rolling creatures, as gentle as can be, an army?

The third installment in the KFP franchise has done pretty well at the box office despite its January release date and competition from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, of the three films in the trilogy (and this is supposedly the last one as the studio has revealed no further plans to continue the franchise at present, although the success of this movie leads me to think that DreamWorks might be reconsidering that decision) this is the weakest to my eye.

Many of the characters who made the series a success are limited to essentially cameo roles. Hoffman as Master Shifu is limited to maybe a couple of dozen lines after being essentially a main character for the first two films and the Furious Five are mainly an afterthought, appearing together in just one scene. While there are plenty of new characters to make an impression here (including Hudson as a seductive ribbon dancing panda), Kai as a villain seems no different than either of the first two villains, supernatural origin or no.

Black is earnest enough as Po and continues to center the franchise as a character who is slowly learning to believe in himself, which also is getting a bit tired but I suppose if you’re going to be child-oriented as an animated feature, a simple lesson in self-belief or being who you want to be needs to be front and center. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that there is nothing here that really stands out from any other animated feature out there.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a kidflick, particularly in an auditorium full of noxious little brats who were plainly too young or too undisciplined to be in a movie theater but this one left me pretty flat. In many ways this is not quite as good as the second film which got a similar rating, but I didn’t see enough wrong with this one to go down a notch. I got the sense the kids enjoyed the movie (particularly the little boys) and that the parents were more or less happy that their tykes weren’t at home driving them crazy. And that’s not really what I’d consider reason enough to see a film with the kids, animated or not.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of fun new characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Left me feeling pretty “meh.”
FAMILY VALUES: Some animated martial arts action and slightly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Has the longest time between sequels for any DreamWorks Animation film with five years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tigger Movie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Witch

Mystery Men


Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

(1999) Superhero (Universal) Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, Greg Kinnear, Wes Studi, Lena Olin, Eddie Izzard, Artie Lange, Prakazrel Michel, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Emmy Laybourne . Directed by Kinka Usher

If you have had enough of brooding Dark Knights, angsty-but-noble Spider-Men or of Too-Good-To-Be-True Men of Steel, here are the other guys, the kinds of heroes that would probably show up to save OUR day.

Mr. Furious (Stiller), known for his legendary rages, leads a trio of what local cops contemptuously call wannabes, rounded out by the Shoveller (Macy), the straight man who says modestly “we just fight crime…call it what you will” and the obtuse Blue Raja (Azaria), who speaks in a phony British accent and has not a speck of the color blue in his costume. He throws silverware with uncanny accuracy, although he has trouble flinging knives which is one the things that makes Mr. Furious so hopped-up mad.

When this trio of do-gooders attempt to save an old-folks home from robbery, they wind up having the crap kicked out of them only to be rescued by Captain Amazing (Kinnear), Champion City’s legitimate superhero. It seems Amazing has done his work too well, and there are no real battles left for him to fight. So when his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Rush) is released from the asylum, Amazing hopes for the kind of apocalyptic battle that will bring the Captain’s sinking stock back to the fore. So when Amazing is captured by his mortal enemy, there’s nobody left to save the day except…you guessed it.

Realizing they are woefully overmatched, they try to recruit some additional firepower (which leads to the Superhero Audition, one of the best scenes in the movie). They wind up with the Spleen (Reubens), whose incapacitating gasses are best left undescribed, the Invisible Kid (Kel Mitchell) who can only turn invisible when nobody’s watching, the Sphinx (Studi) who utters semi-mystical phrases of meaningless babble (sample; “If you do not master your rage, your rage will master you”) and the Bowler (Garofalo), who keeps her father’s skull in her bowling ball and carries on conversations with her departed dad that blur the line between neurotic and psychotic but settle into a kind of Jewish angst.

The odds are against them as they find themselves some weapons (which mainly don’t work) and get themselves some snazzy new costumes which do. However, with their backs to the wall they still refuse to walk away, knowing that this fight could very well be their last.

Usher tries way too hard to turn this into a roller coaster ride of comedy and action, winding up with something that tain’t one thing nor t’other. There are car chases and fight scenes, but mostly played with a wink. The set design is memorable, sort of a cross between Gotham City and the overlooked sci-fi flick Dark City. There are a lot of terrific running jokes; only Mr. Furious seems to notice the remarkable resemblance between Captain Amazing and his alter ego, for example. Note the corporate sponsorships on the uniform of Captain Amazing, for another – sort of like a European soccer uniform or a NASCAR suit.

This is definite eye candy, highly entertaining eye candy at that. The action sequences aren’t half bad although they are played with a definite wink.  The cast is formidable, with some of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. Superhero parodies have not traditionally sold well in the comic book store, and this one certain didn’t bust down the box office bank. Still, if you want to get away from the usual suspects of Marvel and DC superheroes, here is the kind of movie that will keep the parents entertained without having their kids squirming in their seats.

WHY RENT THIS: Magnificent eye candy. An alternative from the usual superhero fare. Some fine performances, particularly from Macy, Stiller, Kinnear, Studi and Garofalo.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Comedy and action sequences sometimes clash. A little neurotic in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some rather crude jokes and a bit of comic book violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The comic book from which this originated was began as a spin-off from the Flaming Carrot comic books but only Mr. Furious, the Spleen and the Shoveller made it from the book to the film (the Bowler, Invisible Kid and Blue Raja are all new characters developed for the film). The Sphynx is a Golden Age character in the public domain and Captain Amazing is a substitute for the Flaming Carrot whom producers thought was too bizarre a character for a mainstream Hollywood film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the origin of the comic book series and a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on a $68M production budget; the movie was an unqualified flop.

STATION WAGON LOVERS: The Shoveller’s car is an early AMC Rebel.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is 40