Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Two more movies last Thursday, let's jump right in.

We start with my favorite type of doc, the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. HOLY ROLLERS is the story of a team of card counters. Okay, that's not unusual. But a team of devout Christian card counters? Maybe that's a bit unusual. How about a card counting team of devout Christians who trust each other so much that their business model relies on mutual trust (remember, counting cards is cheating...)? Well, that's the church team, and in their brief run (blackjack teams don't last long, as casinos start to recognize the players) they were one of the biggest teams in existence, and took something in the neighborhood of $5 million from casinos (if my memory serves).

Now the first thought when you put "Christian" and "card counter" (or even "gambler") together is "hypocrisy." But they've clearly thought about that conflict enough that it's more appropriate to call them "master rationalizers." There's the argument that it's not really gambling because they have the advantage. There's the argument that they're taking money from casinos, who are evil. My favorite argument is that it's actually the casinos who are hypocrites, because they advertise a chance to win big and then kicks them out for doing just that. And of course, there's the classic 'ends justify the means' that they're putting this money into good, Godly works for their various churches.

As I alluded to earlier, the team business is based on mutual trust. There are three levels--investors (and most members are also investors), team managers (who train, test, and deploy the players), and the actual players. And anyone could steal from all the others--it's trivial for a player to say he played for an hour and lost $1,000 when he really played for 2 hours and won a bit. They rely on trust, but that trust gets stretched and tested when A) they bring a non-Christian on to the team (unfortunately, he declined to be interviewed), and B) they start losing. Now losing is normal--when counting cards you're win probability goes up to 55%, so you still lose 45% of the time, and having long losing streaks is entirely possible (random, independent events tend to "clump" more than you expect, psychologically you expect random events to self-correct, when in fact they just average out over time). But when they run the numbers they find they have started losing more than random chance can account for. So they start retesting, and find that lots of players are making mistakes...

Personally, while it was dramatic, I think the filmmakers pushed the 'agony of losing' angle a bit hard. While it was certainly satisfying (I didn't like much of the characters, so it's fun to see some measure of comeuppance), it's undercut by the fact that ultimately when they ended the team it was still a wildly successful enterprise, and in fact the team managers who started the whole thing teach card counting now. Oh, and since I've sort of been on editing watch this festival (I don't know why, but this year I've been pickier about editing of documentaries), I'm please to say this was a well-edited, well structured, enjoyably brisk-moving film.

Next up was THE FURIOUS FORCE OF RHYMES, a hip-hop globetrotting adventure from 1970's Bronx to modern day...everywhere. It starts from hip hop's roots in 1970's Bronx, and explores how this form of music has inspired and been adopted by the oppressed classes from Europe to the Middle East to Cuba to Africa (and I think we can safely assume pretty much everywhere else). Anywhere anger and frustration needs to be expressed with style, humor, and creativity, it seems to be there. As for the film itself, it's got some beautiful cinematography, that's unfortunately hard to appreciate while trying to also read the subtitles. Damn, hip-hop is fast, and it's hard to keep up when it's not in your native language. Still, even though I'd estimate I only caught about 70% of the movie because of this, the part I caught was very good. Oh yeah, and my favorite song in it was from Africa--now I have "Vagina" running through my head.

Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,884
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