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Every four years, the world watches as its greatest athletes compete on the global stage. Elite performers from all over converge on a single place in an effort to excel in the name of Olympic gold.

But what happens to these athletes after the cheering stops? Is the price paid to reach the pinnacle too high?

That’s the fundamental question behind “The Weight of Gold,” a new documentary from HBO Sports. In it, filmmaker Brett Rapkin speaks to a number of American Olympians – both Summer and Winter – about the toll their respective quests for excellence took on them. Even the most successful among them had their share of struggles … and for too many, the tale took a tragic turn.

The film – narrated by legendary swimmer Michael Phelps (a featured interviewee and an executive producer on the project as well) – brings together new interviews and archival footage to offer a look into the sacrifices these athletes make to reach the top and the aftermath through which they must navigate after the spotlight fades.

Published in Sports

Have you ever solved a Rubik’s Cube? How long did it take you?

If it was more than a few seconds, then you probably aren’t ready for the world of competitive speedcubing. It’s a world filled with idiosyncratic characters, but there’s no disputing that these people are as devoted to perfecting their craft as any other elite performer. Watching cubing at the highest level is genuinely fascinating – their hands are a blur of speed and motion as they solve cubes in mere seconds.

“The Speed Cubers,” a documentary by Sue Kim, takes a look at two of the greatest competitive cubers ever. The Australian Feliks Demgegs, who spent close to 10 years setting records and winning championships, and the young American Max Park, a prodigy who has spent the past few years shattering many of those same records as he rockets to the top of the scene.

It’s about the unlikely friendship that sprang up between the two rivals – a friendship made all the more moving by Max’s special circumstances. While the cubing itself is certainly impressive, the pure humanity on display is even more striking. It’s a short film – just 40 minutes – but no less impactful because of its brevity.

Published in Sports

When I first heard that Hulu was going to be airing a documentary about Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv troupe co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda and other notables in the mid-2000s, I knew that I had to review the film. I’m not going to say that I’m UNIQUELY suited, but I’d guess that few share these three qualifications:

  1.     I have been a film critic for a dozen years
  2.     I have been an improvisor for over a decade
  3.     I have won the “Downtown with Rich Kimball” Downtown Throwdown rap battle – twice.

So yeah – you could say that this one is in my wheelhouse.

“We are Freestyle Love Supreme” hit the streaming service on July 17 – it was originally scheduled to debut in early June but was postponed. Directed by Andrew Fried, it’s the story of the titular improv group, featuring footage filmed over the course of 15 years and the usual talking head-style interviews; we watch as the fresh-faced kids of the early aughts grow into men. Some of the troupe’s members go on to staggering amounts of professional success, but even those who don’t become household names are clearly wildly talented.

It’s about the show, yes – we get plenty of insight into what kind of show FLS puts on, as well as a sense of just how gifted the players are – but it’s also a look at their growth and evolution. We meet them as recent college grads just looking to have some fun with their friends; by the time we close, we’re watching a years-later sold-out reunion run on Broadway. We get to see the love and respect these people carry for one another and how this goofy little group has impacted their lives over the years.

Published in Movies
Friday, 17 July 2020 13:39

Close encounters – ‘Skyman’

Daniel Myrick knows a thing or two about portraying a fictional story as something real. As one half of the duo that made 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and fundamentally altered the course of horror cinema, he has some experience with presenting fiction as reality.

His new movie “Skyman” isn’t quite the same thing – styled as a full-on faux documentary rather than found footage – but it does capture some of the same energy. It’s a look at a man whose life has been spent chasing an obsession, springing from an encounter with an alien that took place in his childhood. The time since has been spent quietly trying to make sense of that moment, even as most people around him express wary skepticism. It’s about the ideas that take hold of us and simply refuse to let go. It’s about what happens when the world views as false something you absolutely know to be true.

And with a cast of relative unknowns and a documentarian’s stylings, “Skyman” reads as the real thing (or close enough to allow us to embrace the conceit anyway).

Published in Movies

The world of elite competitive sports is a fascinating one, studded with stars and fantastic feats. We watch and we marvel and we revel in the incredible athleticism that plays out on the fields and in the arenas that make up the grandest stage. We LOVE sports.

But there’s another side to that love affair – a side that can be unpleasant, harmful and, sometimes, utterly horrifying.

“Athlete A” – a documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, currently streaming on Netflix – tells a story that reveals just how dark the dark side of sports can get. It’s the story of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, in which team physician Dr. Larry Nassar took advantage of his position to abuse hundreds of girls over the course of decades – and in which the leadership of USA Gymnastics attempted to cover it all up. The film walks the viewer through the investigation, led by reporters at the Indianapolis Star, while also engaging with some of the first women to go public with their allegations of abuse.

Watching this film isn’t always easy – there are some gut-wrenching moments that will land hard no matter how much you already know of the story. But “Athlete A” is important filmmaking, a cinematic document of a story that forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror of our fandom. It’s a reminder that a win-at-all-costs mentality can be dangerous – because some costs are devastatingly, unconscionably high.

Published in Sports

Love – and our ongoing search for it – is one of the fundamental building blocks of our lives. That quest to find the person with whom we’re going to spend our lives is complicated and surprising, often leading us in unexpected directions. Highs can very quickly become lows, and vice versa.

We’re all on our own journey when it comes to love … but most people don’t film it.

Steve Markle is not most people.

The Canadian filmmaker’s new documentary “Shoot to Marry” – winner of the Audience Award at Slamdance and currently available to rent on a variety of platforms – is a filmed record of his own search for love. It is an occasionally rambling, sometimes cringe-y and always heartfelt document of Markle’s quest to find the person who might help him heal his broken heart and give him what he has always wanted – someone to marry. Five years in the making, the film is rife with shaggy DIY charm – Markle was essentially a one-man crew.

While it’s true that Markle is sometimes disingenuous with regard to the motives behind the documentary, it’s also true that he has brought together a genuinely fascinating collection of women from all walks of life, so while his pitch about making a doc about “interesting women” is still the truth, albeit not the whole truth.

Published in Livin'

Full disclosure: I love a spelling bee.

As someone who spent a little time spelling competitively in his youth (three-time school champ with a couple of regional finals appearances, nbd), I will always have a place of affection in my heart for the bee, one of the relatively few competitive scholastic outlets for the academically gifted as opposed to the athletically inclined.

Of course, even at my best, the difference between myself and the true elites of the spellosphere was the same as that between, say, a decent high school baseball player (which I also was) and an All-Star big leaguer (which I decidedly was not).

“Spelling the Dream,” a new Netflix documentary written and directed by Sam Rega, follows a handful of those elite competitors, young people who have the skill and the will to reach the top of the mountain – the Scripps National Spelling Bee. These kids have a lot in common, of course, but this film focuses on something that connects them with a significant number of their fellow lexicographical comrades in arms – their cultural identity. Specifically, their heritage as Indian-Americans.

Published in Livin'

The evolution of sport is a fascinating thing. In some ways, the games we love are trapped in amber. The size of the court or the field stays the same. Certain distances haven’t ever really changed – 60 feet from home to first, 10 yards for a first down, 10 feet from floor to rim.

But in other ways – the ways the games are actually played – have seen significant alterations over the years, even as most sporting stalwarts are staunch traditionalists with regards to how things are done. “We do them this way because that’s the way we’ve always done them” has long been the rallying cry of the athletic establishment.

But there will always be players who challenge the status quo. Players who, for whatever reason, deem it necessary to do things in a different way. Players who see the opportunity to find success by way of something new.

Players like Kenny Sailors.

You’d be forgiven for not recognizing that name, but as you’ll discover in the documentary “Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story” – written and directed by Jacob Hamilton and available for rental at altavod.com – you are almost certainly familiar with his work. You see, there is a sizeable contingent out there that believes that Sailors, a man born nearly 100 years ago, is the inventor of the modern jump shot.

The doc itself is a brisk run through a remarkable life, one that features some names and faces you absolutely will recognize – NBA legends such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry (who also serves as an executive producer on the film) – as well as a number of other NBA figures, former players and league historians. Through archival footage, photographs and interviews, “Jump Shot” presents a strong case that in many ways, Sailors is the progenitor of how modern basketball is played.

Published in Sports

Documentary filmmaking is at its most effective when it finds a way to both educate and entertain. Bringing real people and places to the big screen in service to a message is important, but the reality is that if an audience isn’t engaged – isn’t entertained – that message may well go unheard, no matter how important it is or how skillfully relayed.

It has been a long time since I saw a documentary that so successfully struck that balance as “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Currently streaming on Netflix, the film – directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – tells the story of a summer camp for the disabled back in the early 1970s and the huge impact some of those campers would ultimately have in the decades-long fight for civil rights for the disabled.

It’s no surprise that the film is good – it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and actually won the Audience Award – but I wasn’t prepared for HOW good it was going to be. This is a razor sharp, poignant and wickedly funny film, one that delves deep into a part of our nation’s history that is likely unfamiliar to many. It has as colorful a cast of characters as you could hope to find, as well as a message of struggle and speaking truth to power that resonates just as fully today as it did when the story it tells unfolded.

Published in Livin'
Wednesday, 24 April 2019 12:41

Chill out with ‘Disneynature: Penguins’

There are a lot of different ways that movies can captivate us.

This is an important notion to keep in mind as the shadow of Summer Blockbuster Season begins to loom over 2019. For the next few months, bigger might not be better, but it will definitely be ubiquitous.

It’s also a reason to pay attention to a movie like “Disneynature: Penguins.” We’re about to be overwhelmed by a sea of cartoons and CGI explosions for weeks on end – why not sit down and enjoy a quiet, well-made nature film that just happens to be stunningly beautiful and surprisingly funny.

Producer-director Alistair Fothergill has played a huge part in the Disneynature process, having served in one or both of those roles for something like half of the 13 films Disney’s indie nature doc arm has produced over the past decade or so. He’s as visually gifted as any nature documentarian out there, with a willingness to invest the time and effort necessary to create films that tell compelling stories; “Penguins” is another feather in his cap.

Published in Movies
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