Thursday, April 15, 2021
Arts + Culture Movies Screen Grabs: They love Israel—at least 'til Kingdom come

Screen Grabs: They love Israel—at least ’til Kingdom come

Plus: My Darling Supermarket, Ski Bum, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and the Mauritanian

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Real life and true stories are the shared element in a clutch of new movies now available for streaming, whether they’re documentaries or fact-based dramas. Among the former, surely the most startling is ’Til Kingdom Come, which is currently available via Roxie Virtual Cinema (and the Rialto’s as of this Friday). It’s Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein’s attempt to grapple with the bizarre fact that so many American evangelical Christians seem to be wildly pro-Israel, even as they continue to believe that Jews and anyone else who don’t accept Jesus Christ as savior are, y’know, damned. 

Yes, yes, we’re talking about the “Holy Lands” here. It’s natural that Christians should think very fondly of the place where all those Bible events occurred (or at least are said to have occurred). But their more extreme enthusiasms—and that enthusiasm has indeed grown more extreme in recent years—aren’t so much about religious history as religious prediction. In other words, this is where End Times prophecies are focused, meaning that the Rapture, the Second Coming, the war of Armageddon and so forth cannot occur if certain elements aren’t in place, like the Jews controlling  “the most important geographical place on Earth.” So really, it’s a one-sided, selfish relationship, with evangelical fully expecting to tell Jews “Thanks for keeping the Holy Lands safe for us! Now be sure to love Jesus or you’ll go to Hell, bye now!” as they Ascend. At least that’s the underlying gist.

Zinshtein focuses on a particularly Israel-obsessive Baptist church in hard-hit Appalachian coal country, where the congregation raises money for Israeli charities despite sky-high local poverty rates. (Its junior pastor seems well-meaning enough, at least when he’s not handling his automatic weapons or saying things like “There is no such thing as a Palestinian.”) We also get a big dose of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which over nearly 40 years has raised well over $1 billion for Israel’s benefit, largely thanks to endorsement from none other than US televangelist wackjob Pat Robertson. 

Just how much these odd-bedfellow goings-on are a matter of real faith (however misguided) vs. deliberate exploitation is hard to say. 

But while some good deeds do get done from the monies solicited, make no mistake: “This is political Christianity,” as one person here says. These alliances have been used to encourage Jewish settlers’ flaunting of law in seizing lands, and even promote violence in the region—because war in the Middle East is seen as essential in the progress towards End Times by evangelicals eager to get Rapture’d up. (A Christian radio hostess in the US flat-out admits news of such conflicts “gives us hope,” no matter the cost in immediate human suffering.) There’s also the fresh travesty of the Trump administration’s recent ersatz “deal of the century,” in which Jared Kushner’s supposed brokering of Middle Eastern “peace” (including the bitterly controversial move of our embassy to Jerusalem) only triggered mass protests and heightened hostilities. 

You’ll witness some nasty pandering seen among participants here. That includes the mantle-inheriting daughter of the Fellowship’s founder, who scrambles to justify her courtship of conservative American Christians she knows full well think Jews like her need to “turn, or burn.” While we sense the director’s personal incredulousness, she seldom openly calls out her subjects. Instead, she gives them just enough rope to hang themselves verbally, though of course they are unlikely to see it that way. ’Til Kingdom Come is eye-opening, sometimes flabbergasting, and more than a little enraging. 

Two other new documentaries are mercifully lightweight diversions by comparison. Tali Yankelvich’s My Darling Supermarket (aka Meu Querido Supermercado), which hits Roxie Virtual Cinema this Friday, takes a playful look at a pre-pandemic Brazilian chain grocery. “People’s lives are not that interesting. Just ordinary people doing their jobs. Who is [the film] for? Would anyone want to watch that?” asks one baffled employee here. But he’s wrong: The closer you look, the more interesting people’s lives become, including their working lives. 

Like any such group labor setting, this Sao Paolo one gradually reveals a wealth of idiosyncratic personalities and dynamics. Amidst all daily slicing, stocking, trash-compacting, cashiering, baking, sign-painting, security-cam-perusing, et al., there is perfectionism as well as repetition; intrigue and fun as well in addition to boredom and exhaustion. Nobody here thinks of themselves as a cog in a machine. 

After a while, we’re hardly surprised when the guy who makes the bread rolls makes a statement like “Every particle that exists in the universe has consciousness.” Nor does it seem odd that another employee likes dressing up as an anime character—which the customers like, too. Droll, philosophical, visually and musically inventive, My Darling Supermarket offers a slice of life diverse even (or especially) when we’re regarding the man literally slicing life (well, recently-deceased life) at the deli counter.

All play and no work make Jack a happy boy…or such was the image promoted by the subject of Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story. While “extreme sport” entertainment is now ubiquitous, So. Cal. native Miller pioneered the field when he began shooting footage at ski resorts in the late 40s. Starting with 1950’s Deep and Light, he then took the results on the road for one-night-stand screenings he humorously narrated live himself. When he started, there were only two chair-lifts in the entire Golden State. But this “Pied Piper of skiing” played a huge role in popularizing the sport, which experienced a boom in the 1960s. His operation grew as his audience did, soon encompassing other cameramen. His curious nature pushed other boundaries, particularly by inspirationally highlighting athletic achievement by people with physical limitations, including missing limbs.

Miller died in 2018 at age 93, getting interviewed at length not long before that for Patrick Creadon’s tribute feature. The carefree life he depicted in his films was only partly true. He certainly enjoyed what he did, but it required intense, globe-trotting workaholism, which in turn stressed his personal relationships. There were major bumps along the road, including a first wife’s cancer death, the bitter pill of near-bankrupting embezzlement by his own relatives, and other setbacks. Still, Ski Bum, which includes plenty of appreciative testimony from world-class skiers, can hardly help but continue to sell the dream of vicarious living from slope to slope. It’s now streaming on Discovery+. 

Two starry dramatizations of serious US government malfeasance—one recent, another in the middle of the last century—are also new to streaming. They’re worthy tales to tell, certainly, but in both cases the artistic results are mixed at best.

Worse by far is The United States vs. Billie Holiday from Lee Daniels of Precious and The Butler, as well as TV series Empire. Contemporary R&B star Andra Day is just fine in her first major screen acting job as “Lady Day,” whose distinctive vocal style she also creditably channels. But this biopic charting the singer’s later years, when she was already famous but dogged by personal and public troubles, is an alternately vague and heavy-handed mess in structural terms. 

Esteemed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is credited as scenarist. Yet at times you may wonder if there was a script at all, as the film lurches from often blunt, preachy setpieces to yet another space-filling montage. Holiday is depicted as at once strong-willed/clear-eyed and hopelessly victimized by her addictions—notably to heroin, and bad loves like Rob Morgan’s abusive husband. Such contradictions require far more nuanced treatment than they get here. Various colorful and high-profile figures from Tallulah Bankhead to Lester Young and Louis Armstrong are so fleetingly portrayed, their appearances will have no meaning for viewers not already familiar with the era. 

Meanwhile, too much attention is given a largely fictionalized black FBI agent (Treyante Rhodes) Billie supposedly becomes involved with (but didn’t, in real life). Openly racist Federal archnemesis Harry Anslinger, who orchestrated many of her busts, is portrayed too one-dimensionally to make an effective villain. There’s room for incongruously graphic sex scenes. Yet the film puts only sporadic emphasis on “Strange Fruit,” the infamous song indictment of lynching that made the government view Holiday as a threat to “race relations,” and which is meant to provide a connective thematic motif here. The film is lush-looking, but so haphazard in other ways, it reinforces a sense that Daniels is an artist who seems to largely work from his instincts—even when they are way, way off. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is currently streaming on Hulu. 

Better but still disappointing is The Mauritanian, based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir of fourteen years spent in US government custody, mostly at Guantanamo—though he was never actually charged with a crime, and lack of real evidence against this alleged “head recruiter for 9/11” (played by Tahar Rahim of A Prophet) finally forced his release. 

Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, the Albuquerque lawyer who decided to take his case on pro bono. Shailene Woodley is her assistant, while Benedict Cumberbatch is the assigned chief Federal prosecutor who himself eventually becomes alarmed at the flimsiness of the case—and at the emerging truth that Slahi’s “confession” was obtained under extreme duress. 

Kevin Macdonald has made strong documentaries. But as a director of narrative features he’s seldom risen above pedestrian competence, despite his worthy subjects and the meaty roles they provide actors. (Most notably Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland 15 years ago.) The results tend to be involving to a degree, due to their factual bases, despite frustratingly mediocre execution. 

The Mauritanian tries to build toward a nightmarish crescendo, as we finally glimpse the physical and psychological torments Slahi was subjected to. But the filmmaking isn’t inspired enough to lend even that horrific content the force one might expect. A tale of injustice this blatant ought to have far more impact than Macdonald manages, though his capable cast try their best. It’s available on most On Demand platforms as of Tues/2. 

1 COMMENT

  1. The Evangelicals believe that part of their mission is to convert the Jews to accepting the fact that Jesus is God’s son and the Messiah. That is part of the reason they are so focused on Israel. Plus if the Jews weren’t there the Arabs would control the holy land which would be horrifying to true believers.
    If only Jesus were around today he could set them straight.

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