CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Intriguing Doc ‘Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians’
CHICAGO – One of the best things that can be said about Bryan Storkel’s documentary, “Holy Rollers,” is that it features Christians who don’t fit the profile of religious stereotypes. Their morally questionable line of work does raise some provocative questions, but Storkel resists any opportunity to condescend to his human subjects. His evenhanded approach results in a picture that could be interpreted by some as a recruitment video and by others as a cautionary tale.
Not to be confused with Kevin Asch’s 2010 crime drama of the same name (about an Orthodox Jewish youth-turned-ecstasy dealer), this film centers on the real-life escapades of an all-Christian blackjack team that took millions of dollars from casinos throughout North America. These players voice their hatred of casinos and yet they choose a career devoted to high-stakes gambling. Their victory is ultimately a hollow one since it amounts to little more than personal gain, but the group (dubbed “the Church Team”) insists that their work is indeed righteous.
With the exception of co-founders Ben Crawford and Colin Jones (who also serve as the film’s co-producers), team members are credited only by their first names. It’s a testament to Michael Weinreich and Bryan and Amy Storkel’s editing that the characters’ individual personalties don’t exist in a vacuum. One of the most compelling people in the film is Mark, a card counter who regards casinos as “a black hole,” and ends up wrestling with feelings of emptiness after spending so much time within their gaudy walls. On the flip side is the charismatic Crawford, who cites David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth’s book, “How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling For a Living” as his chief inspiration. There are some terrific animated breakdowns detailing the actual process of “card counting” and how money is dispersed between the managers, investors and players. Cinematographer Brian Liepe mixes an abundance of talking heads with slickly photographed imagery of the gamblers’ glittering environment, as well as some candid hidden camera footage of the games as they unfold. The audience is invited to share in the excitement of the bankroll dinners that are held after $100,000 has been acquired, and the disappointment that occurs after a team member is identified and booted out by casino security.
Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians premiered March 6 on Video On Demand.
Photo credit: Connell Creations
Storkel’s camera even ventures behind the scenes at a few key locations, such as Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, where table games director Ken Reed replies that he’s never had any trouble with politely ousting card counters. His claims are juxtaposed with a title card stating that he detained three Church Team members in the backroom “against their will.” Of course, Reed and his fellow casino managers are just doing their job, and the Church Team’s criticisms of casinos are weak at best. I doubt that most casino players are unaware of the fact that the house always has the statistical advantage. You’d have to be pretty naive to buy into any casino’s messages of hope and promises of fortune. Yet when judged on a moral hierarchy, gambling establishments naturally register as an easy villain for the team to wage war against. The film is not without its amusing moments—many of which spawn naturally from the team members’ playfulness while preparing for another big night. Crawford’s array of disguises are as elaborate as they are convincing. Card-counter David earns a laugh with his costume of a stereotypical Republican that manages to age his youthful features several decades simply because of its conservatively dull style. David quips that the costume “explains why I have a lot of money and why I’m bad at tipping.”
The most problematic sections of the film occur in its second half, as the Church Team’s winnings fall to an all-time low, and players start speculating as to whether one of their peers is robbing them blind. Eventually fingers start pointing toward the one glaring outsider in the group, who also happens to be a non-Christian. What evidence do the accusers have on him? Not much…apart from a message sent by “the Holy Spirit.” Though the suspect’s refusal to participate in an interview with the filmmakers certainly doesn’t help his case, the circumstances under which he was fired remain frustratingly vague. An agonized Crawford lets it slip that the alleged robber was the most obvious culprit because he didn’t “fit the profile” of the team.
Ben Crawford dons various disguises in Bryan Storkel’s Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians..
Photo credit: Connell Creations
“Holy Rollers” is technically superb and consistently entertaining, though I would’ve liked to see Storkel probe a little further into the minds of his characters, and the eyebrow-raising contradictions that lie at the heart of their lifestyle. One of the challenges facing documentarians is gauging the degree to which they can explore unflattering aspects of their real-life characters without making them feel as if they were duped. Storkel simply presents the information and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. By not including further investigation of the reasons behind the team’s stagnation, the filmmakers lose an opportunity at building higher dramatic tension. Yet the picture does prove to have a strong aftertaste, and the issues that it raises are worthy of debate. Does the Bible encourage its followers to make a profit? That’s the interpretation taken by one empowered player, who quotes a verse as proof. Of course, the very belief in being moved by forces that are mightier-than-thou can be quite a confidence builder at the card table.