Review: ‘Olympics Dreams’ Goes for the Gold

One of my two first sports memories from my childhood was the Miracle on Ice victory of the US Olympic Hockey Team defeating the Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Ever since, it has been a quadrennial ritual of mine (and now my family’s) to watch with great intensity all of the drama that unfolds as champions from every nation in the world battle it out in their respective sports on the frozen slopes,rinks and tracks.

Olympic Dreams brings us to the world of the Winter Olympics in a way that has never really been seen before. It is the first film to ever be shot in the Olympic Village during an actual Olympics – the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While this games was not without it’s nail biting moments (reference the shootout gold medal victory of the US Women’s Hockey Team) Olympic Dreams brings a different type of drama, one much more subtle although no less impactful.

Penelope (Alexi Pappas) is a cross country skier at her first Olympics and clearly is out of her element. She is adrift and alone in the Olympic Village, morose at a time when most 22-year olds would be living it up. Even though she is part of one of the largest delegation of athletes at the games, she awkwardly tries to connect to others without much success.

Away from the hustle and bustle that the athletes experience, we find 37-year old Ezra (Nick Kroll), a volunteer dentist from the US, who is equally adrift. Unsure of where to go and whom to see to get settled, Ezra, too, tries his best to fit in with the rarefied set of folks participating in Pyeongchang. He nervously admits to an athlete he’s giving a check up to that he and his fiancee are on a break as she doesn’t understand his desire to travel and experience new cultures and places. And as would have it in a film, he connects with Penelope while eating in the cafeteria setting up the arc of the rest of the film – two misfits meet…will they get together, or will they fuck it all up?

Penelope is isolated, not just being in South Korea so far from the US, but from her teammates, her coach who isn’t there with her and her family. She receives phone calls from her coach and father, but she is never at ease, emotional and clearly lost. She spent her entire childhood, training endlessly for this one shot missing out on so much to be at the Olympics, but in the end she’s alone. Hell, even her event, the 10km Freestyle, is 25-35 minutes of pure solitary hell. When she finishes, there are no fans, coaches or teammates there to greet like the other skiers with nothing but a personal best to show for it. She never got her Jessie Diggins moment. Was it really worth it? On the flipside, Ezra himself stuck in limbo between continents while his relationship is on hold, flounders in the same way that Penelope does. The budding relationship is akin to that of Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation.

I was surprised by this film and was really taken with Pappas who also co-wrote the film with Kroll and husband/director Jeremy Teicher. Her embodiment of Penelope opened up a narrative of an Olympic athlete that I hadn’t seen nor really considered before. She herself is a former Olympic long distance runner and I have no doubt that’s why her performance felt so authentic and visceral. It’s hard to separate Kroll from his previous bombastic roles in shows like The League and Parks and Recreation so his performance didn’t carry the same weight as Pappas’. They vibed well together in their scenes, but I was left with asking, why him of all people when it is no secret that the Olympic Village is a hot bed of lascivious activity.

All of the behind the scenes shots that Teicher was able to incorporate into the film were also fantastic. The scale of the Olympics is so huge and his direction made them seem so much more accessible through these characters. The inclusion of Olympian skiers Morgan Schild and Gus Kenworthy was also a really nice touch.

This is a film I really enjoyed. It’s a great film for the Valentine’s Day weekend. Would this film win the gold? Maybe, maybe not, but I think it might make the medal stand.

Olympic Dreams opens today in select cities and is also available on demand.

Review: Sara Newens & Mina Son’s Documentary ‘Top Spin’ Is an Engaging Look Into the World of Competitive Table Tennis

top spin_posterLast year, I reviewed the documentary Touch the Wall about Olympian swimmers Kara Lynn Joyce and superstar Missy Franklin and really enjoyed it. I loved the journeys that were shown for both women as one tried to make a fourth Olympic team while the other tried to make her first. Swimming is a well recognized sport and those depicted in that film are familiar to a fairly wide audience all things considered. So when I began watching Sara Newens’ and Mina Son’s Top Spin about competitive table tennis/ping pong, I wasn’t sure what to expect as someone who doesn’t follow the sport. Hell, I didn’t even know that it was an Olympic sport until watching, However, the journeys of the films’ subjects, Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang and Michael Landers were every bit as compelling as those of Joyce and Franklin, perhaps even moreso.

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Newens and Son seem to have unfettered access to three subjects of the film. Hsing, Zhang and Landers are all three American teenagers vying for their one true dream – representing the United Stats at the 2012 Olympic games in London. All three, despite their young age, are the best in country, but they have a grueling process in which they have to compete in order to make the team. They first must win tournaments to qualify for the US team, each team consisting of four men and women. But that’s not it…they have to compete against the Canadian National Team to secure one of three spots granted to North America.

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Zhang and Hsing have cultivated quite a rivalry leading into the Olympic trials. Hsing has beaten her twice to claim the National Title, but even through this they are friends outside of the table. They root for one another because they can empathize with each others dreams. Both girls have very supportive families and both are allowed special schedules at school to allow for their training. Zhang only goes to school until noon each day so she can spend 5-6 hours/day training. Hsing‘s father devotes himself full-time to helping coach her and get her prepared for tournaments and the Olympics However, through all of this, the girls appear to maintain fairly normal lives, being with friends and doing things that most kids their age do. Zhang is far more successful in this arenathough. Hsing is shown hanging out with titans Warren Buffett (whom she calls Uncle Warren) and Bill Gates. She has a high profile, and rightfully so as the US Champion. You never get the creepy feeling about their parents and their motives like you do from something like Toddlers & Tiaras, where delusional parents clearly live vicariously through their young children. What we see here is a team effort on the part of the players and their parents. The win together, they lose together, they share in the joy and pain together.

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Landers on the other hand is a different case. He is more of a rockstar than the two girls. He likes the limelight and is completely dedicated to his craft as a table tennis player. He doesn’t go to traditional school, but takes classes online at home to better accommodate his training regimen. We get glimpses that he still has somewhat of a social life, but not to the same degree as the two young ladies. He is being courted by major sponsors (he even gets his own Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cereal box) and his mother hints that if he makes the Olympics, that David Letterman is interested in bringing him on the show. He goes to the hip table tennis club Spin in New York City. All these things paint a different picture of Michael although he is no less a fierce competitor than Ariel or Lily. Michael is able to go to train in China where the best table tennis players in the world reside and who have taken 12 of 21 men’s gold medals,15 of 21 women’s gold medals both of the team gold medals awarded.

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This film trumpets the rigors of competitive table tennis and the heart and dedication of these three talented youths and their support networks. It is a film that is careful not to judge these kids and their parents who devote everything they can to help them achieve their dream. While some might see this dedication as over the top or overbearing, it’s clear that these kids are keeping perspective on their durability in what is a tough sport as well as future goals outside of the sport. Landers, who dedicated his entire youth to table tennis, has an easy time letting go of the sport and embracing what life has to offer after his run at the Olympics. With Ariel and Lily, we will have to wait and see because they are both younger than Michael. I would love to see a follow up to this film picking up where this one left off because I believe that there is more story to tell here.

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With a running time just under 80 minutes, this film packs a tremendous amount about these three kids in. I never felt like one got more screen time than the other and that there tales were fleshed out enough that we really got a sense of who they are so kudos to the Newens and Son for that. Ariel, Lilly and Michael‘s stories are worth telling and frankly this is a refreshing look at kids competing in the highest levels of sports with all the tension and drama you might expect from a fiction film. I experienced their highs and lows, triumphs and defeats right along with them and when a film can place me asthe viewer in those situations, you know it’s successful.

While many people don’t know much about table tennis outside of the table they have in the basement, this film demystifies the appeal of the sport and the many facets of the game. I really enjoyed this film and was completely taken by these three teens. I would certainly recommend this film of the vast wasteland of films in theaters now. Get there, people!

For those of you fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, this film has its world premiere today at the Laemmle Theaters and being distributed by First Run Features.

 

 

Jeremy’s Review: Igal Hecht’s ‘The Sheik’ About Wrestler The Iron Sheik Puts Jabronis in The Camel Clutch

the sheik posterI will admit to being one of the more nostalgic people that I know. Perhaps it is a flaw, but I think it serves a great purpose. While I’m happy to live in the moment, the things that I’m nostalgic for, and reflection upon them, help keep that past as close as possible, which can’t be all bad, right? Especially when we are talking about people like The Iron Sheik, the former WWF bad guy who helped usher in the era of Hulkamania and the golden age of wrestling as entertainment. While many people today only know The Sheik from his exceedingly humorous Twitter feed, his backstory, which Hecht draws out in this film, has remained largely uncovered. The Sheik gives us the whole gamut of the wrestler’s life, up to and including his foray into becoming a social media star. Read More →

Jeremy’s Review: ‘Touch the Wall’ Is an Awe-Inspiring Profile of Swimmers Kara Lynn Joyce and Missy Franklin Run at the 2012 Olympics + Interview with Kara Lynn Joyce & Directors Grant Barbeito and Christo Brock

Passing the torch. Rise and fall. Student bests teacher. All of these are oft repeated themes in films, especially in sports films from He Got Game to Hoop Dreams to Bull Durham. Sometimes these themes bring out the best in people, other times they bring out the worst. In a cutthroat world like sports, where ego, money and self-promotion usually trump all, it’s rare to see a film of any kind run counter to these notions. But in Grant Barbeito & Christo Brock‘s documentary Touch the Wall, we see the best of the relationship between two athletes, Olympic swimmers Kara Lynn Joyce and Missy Franklin, who are at opposite ends of their career spectrum – one a champion trying to hold on and the other a phenom up and comer trying to make her mark. What unfolds over the multiple year filming is heartfelt, emotional and really a triumphant journey of these two women who, in and out of the pool, exemplify how best to deal with adversity, fame, victory and defeat. Read More →