Ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Academy Awards best picture, The Artist. Spoiler alert. It won’t make my top 20 movies of 2011. I hesitated watching last year’s best picture for a while because the premise wasn’t all that appealing. I finally decided the time had come. I didn’t view it with drudgery nor with anticipation of seeing the best film of 2011. Enough time had passed since it was released that I felt like I was coming at it fresh. And without further ado, my review.
Some like to defend their behavior based on (for lack of a better term) the Robin Hood principle, which is taking from the rich and giving to the poor. It is not uncommon to hear this defense when someone is caught in an illegal activity but the person is known to contribute to their community. Enter Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians minus the illegal shenanigans. None of the blackjack playing Christians come out and say they are modern day Robin Hoods but they also don’t hesitate to express their disdain for the casinos, all while thriving in those very same villainous caverns for their bustling business.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the rationale behind the team of Christians performing their own modified version of Bringing Down The House (or 21 in movie form), the success of the documentary rests on telling a good story with compelling characters. The main narrative is relatively straight forward and well told. A couple of guys learn how to count cards, learn there is money to be had at the blackjack tables, and eventually expand on that revelation by finding investors on the one side and players on the other. Before you know it, there is over a million dollars flowing into the hands of a team of card counting Christians. The method to the madness is all based on math. The theory is you put the odds in your favor by keeping the count on the cards. Every card represents either -1, 0, or 1. The higher the count, the better chances there are that you’re going to beat the house. It’s more complex than that when it comes to placing bets, etc. but the theory is so strong that casinos disallow it. Counting cards is not illegal but the casinos will see you out the door if they think you’re turning the odds in your favor.
The characters making up the team are not so interesting. The team managers come off as smarmy if not outright dull. The players spend most of their time justifying their actions and don’t offer much more than that throughout most of the doc. The only other person who shares much screen time is a game room manager of a casino. He explains the casino’s point of view. There is so much time spent on Christians feeling guilty, or at the very least on the defensive, they explain away their time at the casinos. Little to no time is given to those who oppose their business venture. It’s as if the players are swinging at windmills. Of course there is plenty of real opposition to what this team of statistically driven blackjack playing Christians is up to, but almost none of it is represented on the screen. We’re left with rather mundane personalities running a less than mundane operation.
The guilty consciences never seem to wrestle with the all too real dilemmas their card counting gets them in. Casinos kick them out. They keep coming back. Casinos kick them out even quicker. They come back in disguises. Casinos kick them out some more. They take on fake identities. The cycle continues. There is a lot of talk about accountability within the group and how they couldn’t do this if they all weren’t believers in Jesus Christ. However, no one seems to flinch when they have no choice but to either give up the gig or use deceitful means to continue. There is no choice for most, at least that is how it is portrayed. You do what you have to do. After all, they’re taking down the big bad casinos. Granted, it’s a business, with investors expecting a rather high return on investment (35%). Robin Hood may have messed up when he spread the wealth around. He should have gotten some investors and paid dividends. Eventually the money would get back to those in need.
Possibly the worst moment, which should make every Christian cringe when they see it, is when the team goes on a long losing streak and suspicion of theft within the team heightens. The team has allowed at least one non-Christian to join. The team starts losing and guess where the blame goes? Yep, the man in black. Literally. The non-Christian is shown in a long sleeve black shirt when the accusations are made on camera. The suspicion comes from one particular team member who says God spoke to him and told him the non-Christian was stealing. Bam! Goodbye bad guy. Was he stealing? We don’t know and there is really no way of knowing. Every player is given large sums of cash to bet at the blackjack tables. They track their wins and losses. Who’s to say a loss was to the dealer or the player’s wallet? There is no way to know. And the director doesn’t help shed further light on the mystery. He instead follows a team member who begins questioning his participation on the team. After that we’re left with the team managers hitting the casinos in order to break the losing streak.
Holy Rollers is a generally well paced documentary with a solid soundtrack. Unfortunately there aren’t enough interesting subjects and the opportunities to counter the defensive stances from the team are never taken. The story is well told though it doesn’t need more than an hour to tell it. For non-Christians, the film will likely only further suspicions of those who hold to the Christian faith. And for Christians, there are likely to be many conversations and looks of befuddlement as they try to work out exactly what the purpose of the doc was.
I’m glad I’m not a parent living in New York City. As Nursery University shows us, there are a lot of parents living in NYC who have lost their minds, and it’s all over enrolling their child into the perfect nursery school.
The documentary follows several families in New York City wading through the treacherous waters that are procuring a preschool for your soon to be toddler. Each family comes at it from a slightly different perspective and situation. By the end, it is clear – they’re all lost in the mire. The filmmaker (Marc H. Simon) does his best to maintain composure. While it would be easy to make the subject matter feel like a Christopher Guest mockumentary (think Best in Show), Simon refrains and lets the characters represent themselves on screen – warts and all.
The odds of getting into a nursery school of any standing are slim. For every open spot there can be over a hundred applicants. Making matters worse is the sticker shock. Numbers are thrown around early in the film that made me wonder if we were talking about college. It was not unusual to pay $20,000 and up for nursery school. Some were as high as $50,000 per year. Nursery school. This is the place where kids go to drool on one another and maybe learn to hold a crayon, right?
Even parents who did not grow up wealthy and in this hyper competitive setting of schooling for tikes have bought into the lie which says your child is ruined if she does not get into the right nursery school. In fact, one consultant (yes, they have consultants for getting into nursery schools in NYC!) made reference to a child getting into the right preschool, which leads to the right kindergarten, grade school, high school, university and eventually lands them a plush job at Goldman Sachs. Remove the first piece to that long chain of schooling and the child never achieves success as a prestigious mover of digits from one electronic account to the other. The documentary captures the insanity of this thinking quite well. Where it falls short is thinking this topic has 90 minutes of entertainment value. Because it aims to be fair and not mock the easily mockable, the second half of the film feels stretched thin. Some of the subjects are fairly likable, none are truly abhorrent, and therefore none are entertaining enough to hold interest for a feature length film. Their plight is not one we can empathize with. We’re left with watching the absurd attempt to turn into suspense about whether Johnny gets into the $30,000 per nursery or the $40,000 nursery.
Tackling a topic that seems surreal to everyone outside of it should be an easy win. It’s unfortunate that the narcissism on display never goes completely overboard to the point where it’s so sad it’s funny. And that is likely the result of a director who holds back on highlighting the truly ridiculous nature of his subject matter and the subjects themselves. Being fair to those who’ve let you film part of their lives is admirable, yet two rather famous documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog prove it’s possible for directors to walk the line between fair and exploitative for great results. Nursery University walks too closely to the safe side and ends up giving an informative and somewhat entertaining film.
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven shows what remained of the director’s interest in more traditional forms of storytelling. Like his more recent films, beautiful cinematography and stream of conscience voice over narration are dominate. Missing are the elements that some would label as self-indulgent. I won’t go quite that far, but let’s just say that Malick has a way of testing an audience’s patience at times.
Whether intentional or not, Days of Heaven borrows its main narrative straight from the Bible. Possibly a mix of stories between Moses and Abraham. Set in the early 1900’s, Bill is a steel-mill worker in Chicago who leaves abruptly after accidentally killing his supervisor. Bill heads south for Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and Abby’s younger sister. It’s the younger sister whose voice we hear narrating much of the movie with her distinctive Chicago accent. It’s a voice that contrasts with the beauty of the scenery on display – like a rusty spoon dragging across a chalkboard.
Bill does what any outstanding gentleman of his day would do which is pretend his girlfriend is his sister. He and his “sister” find work in a wheat field that belongs to a rich farmer (Sam Shepard). The farmer notices Bill’s fake sister and makes it known that he wouldn’t mind if she stayed on past the harvesting season. Around this same time Bill overhears the farmer’s doctor say that the farmer is dying. The setup is perfect for Bill, a man who has proven himself to be less than upright so far. He tells Abby that she should accept the farmer’s invite to stay. She’ll marry the farmer, Bill and the Abby’s little sis will get the run of the house as they wait for the farmer to keel over. Ah yes, the best laid plans.
Everything starts to fall apart when the farmer doesn’t die. A bit of conflict arises as a result and the whole thing ends rather practicably. In the midst of this simple story is sparse but generally solid acting. Malick will never be accused of letting his actors run rampant with dialogue. The tension that should result from the story and character conflict within never resonates. Instead, the film feels as though it’s never sure what is more interesting, the characters and their developing plot or the gorgeous scenery around them. As a result, the end is inevitable more than tragic. A beautiful film that is too distant from its emotional drive.
Capturing the raw emotion of two people who believe they’ve found love at first sight is no small challenge for any film. Like Crazy attempted to do it on a relatively slim budget. And let there be no doubt, capturing the feelings of a couple who fall in love and then struggle to cement that relationship over a long distance between them is Like Crazy’s overarching goal.
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) fall in love at college in LA. Anna is from London and has to return. She delays the inevitable and violates her visa in the process. On her attempt to make it back to Jacob she is denied access due to the violation. Apparently no one told Anna just how hard it is to travel in and out of the USA these days, no matter if you look as though your puppy dog eyes and quivering lips could melt even the coldest of border control’s hearts. The couple is left with a long distance relationship. Or are they? Why doesn’t Jacob, a recent college grad, chase after the girl who’s stolen his heart? Because he started a chair building business and that would be too hard to do in London. Right, I don’t get it either.
The two live their lives apart and attempt some semblance of a relationship separated by the Atlantic but it’s not working. Jacob seems to come to this conclusion before Anna and it’s not long before he finds someone new and she moves in with him. That someone just happens to be the star of another small film, The Hunger Games. Yep, somehow Jennifer Lawrence plays the smallest of roles as Jacob’s consolation prize, Sam.
The story continues of first loves never able to forget one another and reconnecting. The strength of the film is not plot or dialogue. It is more like an artistic feature film length music video. Emotion needs to be conveyed in every moment Jacob and Anna are on the screen. For the most part it works. It’s done well enough to make one forgive the contrived plot points and a sloppy editing job in the third act that had me questioning whether I was watching the same timeline or something from the past.
Like Crazy is appropriately titled. The obstacles our young love birds must overcome are absurdly small when put in any perspective. Jacob and Anna are driven by their feelings in some bizarre ways, but never driven enough to see things through to one conclusion or another. They chase feelings from one fleeting moment to another only to find that it leaves them feeling empty. An artful tale that falls short but serves a good study for all who feel in love but have little more than emotions to lean on.