Photo by Erik HeinlaPassing Glory, a TNT movie about basketball, civil rights and the generation gap in 1960s New Orleans, unites and returns to the little screen Andre Braugher and Rip Torn -- late of Homicide: Life on the Street and The Larry Sanders Show, respectively -- and for this alone you might want to send Ted Turner a nice note or fruit basket. Both actors possess the compressed energy of pre-cosmological matter; both achieve big effects with a minimum of movement; and each plays a variation on the role for which he took home an Emmy. Braugher's history-teaching, team-coaching, consciousness-raising Father Joseph Verrett, like Homicide's Jesuitical Detective Frank Pembleton, has made his turf the jagged space between the strictures of God and the ways of man; like Pembleton, he is provocative, confrontational, impatient and not a little self-righteous -- and from Baltimore, whence he has come, as if from Mars, to catch Louisiana up with the civilized world. "If you sit in the back of the bus too long," he says, marching off into a white diner, "you think you belong there." As Father Robert Grant, his mentor and boss at St. Augustine High, Torn is more or less a holier version of Arthur, the ironical interference-runner and voice of wisdom he played on Larry Sanders, though he manages to take care of business without saying "fuck" twice every other sentence. While it is a shame, in terms of pure thespian delight, not to have them cast as adversaries, their flinty cooperation strikes sparks enough. And there are plenty of other flashpoints in this lively, satisfying film.
"You got to learn to pick your shots; you got to make them count," grandma Ruby Dee tells hoops hotshot Sean Squire, who will learn, as have so many young men of the movies before him, that in social movements and basketball alike individuals inspire, but teamwork carries the day. Even though most every conclusion here is foregone -- the film's themes and practical aims, the traditions of sports drama and the inarguable evil of American apartheid demanding a certain conclusion, or a more complicated, more downbeat artwork than this means to be -- it's nevertheless an involving, even suspenseful film, well built from stem to stern, subtly detailed and polished to a high gloss. Though born lacking the gene for sports (I may be the only person on Earth who has to ask, "Is that Michael Jordan?"), I do appreciate their theatrical flow and metaphorical universality -- every sort of human striving, limitation and transaction finds its analog on the gridiron, diamond, pitch, field, rink or court -- and the effectiveness of a Big Game as cinematic Big Finish. This one -- a historic first match between the city's best black and white teams -- is elegantly staged, viscerally convincing and exciting in all the usual and necessary ways. As well it might be, with Magic Johnson as executive producer, Hoop Dreams director Steve James behind the camera and screenwriter Harold Sylvester, the first African-American to receive an athletic scholarship to Tulane University, modeling the script on his own true-life experience.
Showtime's Free of Eden, while also clearly designed to uplift the race and anyone else with a shred of empathy, fails utterly to convince or excite, due in large part (if not entirely) to a screenplay composed of refrigerator magnets, cookie fortunes, needlepoint samplers, rusty springs and shredded self-help books. Riddled with points that could not be made more explicit were they presented as pie graphs and bar charts, suffocated in righteous purpose and ready to sacrifice probable human reaction for narrative convenience, set not in a world of sharp details but only of fuzzy suggestions, it offers an urban-crisis retelling of the one about the teacher who transforms the student who transforms the teacher (Pygmalion, anyone?), as big-businessman Sidney Poitier refloats his deflated soul, thanks to the projects girl -- played by his homonymic daughter Sydney -- who elects him to tutor her out of her limiting circumstances. (This setup usually plays best as romantic comedy, but that's out in this case for obvious reasons.) From a social-action standpoint, it makes sense to portray self-improvement as not prohibitively difficult; it is doubtless hoped that the film will inspire some viewers to go back to school. But the lesson plan here is pretty light, long on koans and short on facts, and the GED Sydney earns in next to no time seems as unlikely as the reconciliation she engineers between Sid and ex-wife Phylicia Rashad (of Cosby, and pissed off for a change), in the pokey for offing her abusive second husband, or the new trial she helps swing.
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Poitier, the man who made the world safe for Denzel Washington, is more than an actor -- he's historical, monumental, the Jackie Robinson of movie stardom, and the many indifferent films he's made over the years have not dimmed his supercolossal luster. Nor will this. He's still big; it's his movies that got small. (Which makes him look, logically enough, bigger than ever, and slightly uncomfortable besides.) Sydney Tamiia Poitier, meanwhile, is life-sized and lifelike, and could I send you to some better film to see her work, I would forthwith, but so far this is it. She's what you call radiant, and director Leon Ichaso (Sugar Hill) makes the most of it; the camera hangs on her regard like a spaniel. Pigtailed and wide-eyed, she recalls a Brooklyn Dorothy Gale (Garland model) in an Oz of self-discovery -- and indeed, there's something of "Scarecrow, I'll miss you most of all" in the movie's happy-happy-happy, right-things-done, getting-gone, loose-threads-bow-tied finale. She doesn't quite dispel the fog of polemical premeditation that hangs about the place, but what fresh air there is comes in with her.
The Tenement Effect -- poverty and prejudice as builders of character, or of the lack of it -- figures as well in Lansky, an HBO biopic of the Mob's idea man, which piques the interest primarily by the participation of actor Richard Dreyfuss, who rarely does television; writer David Mamet, who (barring a couple adapted stage works) never has; and director John McNaughton, whose CV includes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things and several episodes of Homicide. This meat has, of course, been ground before, previous screen Meyer Lanskys having included Mark Rydell (Havana), Ben Kingsley (Bugsy) and Patrick Dempsey (Mobsters). It was partially the stuff of Once Upon a Time in America and The Godfather, Part II, with Lee Strasberg Lanskyesque if not the man outright. Why are we here again? Well might you ask.
The film, which ranges across seven decades and two hemispheres -- from Polish shtetl to the Lower East Side, Vegas to Miami, Havana to the Wailing Wall, as Lansky in his golden years seeks refuge in Israel under its "Law of Return" -- suffers some from budgetary constraints, though by and large a lot is suggested with a little, but more seriously from the usual compressed historical base-covering, which tends to crowd out actual drama and emotional detail and allows time for ideas to bake only halfway. Illeana Douglas, as Lansky's first wife, shoots by like the Lexington Avenue express; we see a little more, but not a lot, of Eric Roberts (as best friend Bugsy Siegel), Anthony LaPaglia (best Italian friend Lucky Luciano) and Beverly D'Angelo (wife two). Not surprisingly, given the author, the film is liveliest in its longer speeches; it's a monologue manqué, almost, a potential one-man-show crumbled and scattered within a "real" movie that seems at once well made and yet only partially formed. An unnecessary trip with patches of fine scenery (which Dreyfuss, very good, mostly declines to chew). Pointless, yet accomplished. Not a total waste of time.
PASSING GLORY TNT Premieres Sunday, February 21, 8 p.m. FREE OF EDEN Showtime Premieres Sunday, February 21, 8 p.m. LANSKY HBO Premieres Saturday, February 27, 8 p.m.