Friday, March 13, 2015

Goal Horns Blaring for 'Red Army'

The first time the ice hockey film “Red Army” caught my attention in November 2014, an NPR reporter teased the documentary’s many attributes.

The New York Times also ran a positive review, and I enthusiastically geared up to see this Olympic-centric story without knowing a long, patient wait-time would ensue.

The three-month hold provided a taste of time inside a rink-side penalty box. Lots of action “out there” for would-be patrons of the film, but no way to engage. 

The long wait is finally over as “Red Army” finally reaches the big screen in Atlanta this weekend (March 13-15) for a limited engagement at Tara Cinema 4 (see other city premiere dates here). Fortunately, with the help of the film’s publicity team I was able to screen the film last week.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Red Army” and recommend it for many reasons. Though it starts with a slow-ish pace that initially rolls like an ESPN “30 For 30” episode, “Red Army” gains momentum about 40 minutes in, stealthily setting up several “a-ha” and cheer worthy moments like the masterful on-ice goals crafted by the film’s star players.

These stars are Slava Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak and other Russian hockey legends who – under the tutelage of domineering state-employed coaches – emerged as the Soviet Union’s biggest hockey heroes. The narrative is mostly built around Fetisov, who first appears stating he is “busy” while studying text messages on camera. He sternly gestures “the bird” to his interviewer who did not take the hint to please hold questions.

The director and interviewer is Gabe Polsky, whose bio states he’s a Chicago native and son of Soviet immigrants. His resume blends college hockey experience with big screen know-how. 

As Polsky chuckles about Fetisov’s middle finger, the hockey star’s career creds fill the screen by the dozen; here’s a guy who knows hockey and may be history’s greatest player of the game.

Viewers learn how the rink sport emerged as the most watched athletic spectacle of Soviet culture and how the national team grew to dominate international tournaments through innovative training techniques including study of chess and ballet.

The touchy-for-Russians subject of Team USA’s “Miracle On Ice” victory at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, displayed through tightly edited cuts of archive footage with Al Michaels’ famous play-by-play, brings viewers to a Soviet hockey “reset” moment that forever changed the lives of Fetisov and his teammates, mostly for the better but often with personal turmoil at the hands of  coach Viktor Tikhonov, who managed four Olympic teams to three gold medals in 1984, ’88 and ’92. He’s the main bad guy (among several, including top brass of the Soviet military) who would not go on camera for “Red Army” before his death in November 2014.

I loved learning more history of the final decade of Communist Russia on ice, its evolution through the early ’90s and transformation in recent decades and the hockey players’ roles as knights or rooks (but mostly pawns) influenced geopolitics, Olympic hockey and the NHL.

It was also fun to see how the “Red Army” team set up later sports moments including Russian stars of the Atlanta Thrashers and other NHL team selections. And I had no idea Fetisov later played for the Detroit Red Wings with a former Team USA foe from the Miracle On Ice in the same locker room.

The motion graphics created for “Red Army” really pop, and their use helped me understand aspects of hockey I did not previously notice. The player and coach “trading cards” with Soviet era colors and animation also helped this viewer keep track of several unfamiliar Russian names and faces.

But the biggest payoff may be the lessons in perseverance and personal relationships – it was pleasant though not surprising to find Werner Herzog, a champion of stories about innovators under duress, shared an executive producer credit.

Watch for the lifelong friendships put through the wringer, and for a mid-century icon who reemerges to save one’s spirit in the nick of time, as bonus takeaways.

Bottom line: Skate on over the blue line and score a win with tickets to see “Red Army” a great film about hockey and several extraordinary lives. 

Images via Sony Pictures Classics except the Sarajevo gold medal photo from this site.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Help Bring Olympic History to Light on the Silver Screen in Time for 2016

Olympic movie and history buffs have an opportunity to help get a potential five-ringed gem to the silver screen in time for next year's film festival season and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Through the crowdfunding site Seed & Spark, now through March 17, anyone may contribute funds to help complete the documentary "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice" by Atlanta-based filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper, whose team seeks to bring to light the seldom-heard stories of African American Olympians who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympiad.

For more specifics on the donation process, click the links above or scroll to the base of this post, post-haste.

Paraphrasing the film synopsis: "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice" will be a feature length documentary exploring the trials and triumphs of 18 African American athletes who represented Team USA in Germany.

Set against the strained and turbulent atmosphere of a racially divided America -- torn between boycotting Hitler’s Olympics and participating in the Third Reich’s grandest feat of propaganda -- the film follows 16 men and two women as they prepared for, traveled to, competed in and returned from Berlin.

With an Olympian-level blend of grace and dignity, these athletes represented a nation that considered them second class citizens, and their competitions took place in a nation that rolled out the red carpet in spite of an undercurrent of Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism.

I spoke with Riley Draper, who explained the idea for the film started with research of a jazz singer from Chattanooga who later was reportedly interned by the Nazis. Articles on the musician included references to African American Olympians who competed in Berlin, and as Riley Draper gained some Olympic experiences and interest during a U.S. Track & Field assignment at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the seldom-heard stories of these athletes stuck with her.

Though many know the story of Jesse Owens' feats on the track in Berlin, the other 17 black athletes'
experiences are known to comparatively few.

"I wanted to bring to light these heroes who created a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement," said Riley Draper.

Research for "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice" yielded that the 18 athletes came from across the U.S., with attendance at big colleges as a common thread among the "great student athletes" selected for Team USA. Some medaled in Berlin, though with considerably less fanfare than Owens.

Riley Draper said some of the athletes also made the cut, while more did not, for the original Olympic documentary film, Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia." And in one case, the German filmmaker
stirred the political pot in the 1936 Cultural Olympiad by displaying images of black U.S. athletes she snapped as artsy photographs during her trip to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

One U.S. athlete set as part of the new film is Jack Wilson, the silver medalist in boxing. Another is Archie Williams, who won gold in the 400m race.

And in high jump, Cornelius Johnson and David Albritton earned gold and silver, respectively, while teammate Delos Thurber also made the podium for bronze (a clean sweep). As rising stars, Albritton and Owens lived parallel lives as rural Alabama natives who succeeded on the track.

I personally look forward to learning more about Johnson and all of the athletes to be profiled through “Olympic Price, American Prejudice.”

Back to the film’s synopsis: "The athletes experienced things that they were not expecting -- applause, warm welcomes, an integrated Olympic Village and the respect of their competitors. They were heroes on the world’s stage who returned home to find only short-lived glory. Their story is complicated … a vital part of history as relevant today as it was almost 80 years ago."

Riley Draper and her team plan to “utilize the wealth of newsreel material, newspaper articles, photographs, personal interviews and never-before-seen footage as well as resources from the personal archival collections of Olympians and Foundations in both the U.S. and Germany.”

She also said research to date included a wealth of detail provided by archives managed by the LA84 Foundation, the National Archives and the Avery Brundage Collection at the University of Illinois.

When I asked the extent to which the International Olympic Committee/Olympic Museum, U.S. Olympic Committee, International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) or travels to other domestic or international archives are on the filmmaker’s wish list (as part of their fundraising goals), Riley Draper said she was open to additional sources but travel to Berlin to capture in-stadium footage -- and more interviews of surviving athletes or spectators -- tops the list.

The crowdfunding site lists several types of equipment needs, expenses for everything from insurance and narration to image licensing, and travel items.

Donations of as little as $1 or in the form of Delta Air Lines SkyMiles are accepted, and donor who provide at higher levels may opt-in to pre-release perks (including an on-screen credit as a supporter). For readers who choose to contribute, please consider doing so by selecting this blog and/or blogger as the source providing referral to Seed & Spark.

Thank you for your part in bringing “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” to the big screen. Additional information is also available via the film’s official site,

Images via

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sentimental About Sochi

Time flies, too often at an Olympic sprint pace. It hardly seems possible the Sochi Olympics opened one year ago.

Reflecting on February 7, 2014, brings back many fun moments from the day (including a visit to USA House at the Olympic Park), the electric buzz of Putin and the Olympic Torch Relay passing through Central Sochi, and finally the spectacular Opening Ceremony.

For this blogger, the early ceremony video highlighting the Cyrillic alphabet (see below) was one big takeaway -- I've spent many moments of the last year referring back to it and studying the many historic references it includes as clues to Russian culture.

I was also impressed by the technology used to create the parade of nations pathway with details on each national Olympic committee as its athletes entered the stadium. And it was fun to see Maria Sharapova carry in the Olympic flame.

Many Russian friends met during the Sochi experience posted their own photos in honor of the anniversary, indicative, I think, of the national pride the event bestowed (I'm kind of down on the post-Games naysaying about the venues and too-expensive government investment, though I acknowledge and concur the excesses should lead to an evolving list of reforms).

Anyone reading this also have a favorite Sochi memory to share? Please post in comments.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Celadon Icon Coming Soon to the High

Ranking the world's most recognized logos or icons, few are on par with the Olympic rings.

And when it comes to most recognized brands, Coca-Cola is also tough to beat.

Coke is also known for famous product packages -- starting with the "contour bottle" -- and the South's leading art museum is preparing to host an exhibition in celebration of the container's 100th anniversary.

As noted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and via museum press materials, the exhibition “The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100” will open Feb. 28.

It's all happening in the home town of the Atlanta-based beverage giant, in the galleries of the High Museum of Art (a client).

Since its inception in 1915, the Coca-Cola “contour bottle” became one of the world's most recognized icons. Originally designed by a team at the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Ind., the bottle emerged as a distinct package for an already ubiquitous product launched in 1886.

The design was the result of a competition challenging bottle manufacturers to develop a container recognizable even if broken or touched in the dark.

The winning design’s curves and celadon-tinted glass ultimately had an outstanding impact on 20th-century visual art and culture (the term "bottle green" eventually followed in the realm of color nomenclature). 

The exhibition features over 100 objects, including more than 15 works by Andy Warhol and dozens
of photographs inspired by or featuring the bottle. The items will be arranged in sections by history, photography and pop art (no pun intended).

When I first learned of this exhibition, it intrigued me given its overlap with the World of Coca-Cola's year-long exhibition of Howard Finster folk art works featuring, inspired by or painted on actual contour bottles of varying size.

It also surprised me the High is not including its own Finster/Coke item (a hand-painted, oversized contour bottle) from the museum's permanent collection in the exhibition. But then, Finster's painted items don't fit the trio of exhibition sections.

Another permanent collection item -- a vintage magazine illustration (ad) featuring a couple with two six-bottle cartons -- also remains behind-the-scenes, as does a 1974 bottle-free Elliott Erwitt image of a Coke vending machine positioned with several rockets.

Only time will tell whether the High will mount the permanent collection Coke items in tandem with "An American Icon at 100" (I hope they do).

Briefly getting back to the Olympic rings, their creator -- modern Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin -- first sketched and hand-colored the design in 1913 and 1914 as a single row of intertwined circles, just a year or two ahead of the guys in Indiana embarking on their bottle contest entry.

Whether de Coubertin was inspired by five pre-contour bottle condensation rings (on his desk or table as he sipped a Coke while sketching) is one iconic backstory we may never know.

Images via the High Museum of Art. Image credits:

-- nendo (Japanese, founded Tokyo, 2002) Bottleware, 2012. Photo c. The Coca-Cola Company. Diagram courtesy of nendo
-- Jan Saudek (Czech, born 1935), Broken Bottle, 1973. Collection of Joyce Linker. c. Jan Saudek
-- Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), Three Coke Bottles, 1962, silkscreen, ink and graphite on linen, The Andy  Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, Inc., 1998.1.20 c. 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tocha Olímpica Tease

It may not be the biggest Olympic Torch Relay in history, but when the 2016 flame caravan touches down in the host nation in May next year, it will be the most Brazilian.

Today organizers at Rio 2016 announced a few, teasing details of their Olympic Torch Relay, which will begin roughly 100 days before the Opening Ceremony on 5 August.

By the numbers, the light brigade will include:
  • Visits to 250 cities and towns
  • Routes connecting urban and rural dots across 26 states and the Federal District
  • Capital cities to be visited: 27
  • Ten to 12 hours per day in transit
  • Proximity to more than 180 million of Brazil's nearly 203 million residents (about 90 percent
    of the host nation's population may see the relay in motion)
  • More than 10,000 torchbearers on foot
  • Over 20,000km driven by caravan vehicles (per vehicle)
  • At least 10,000 airline miles as the Olympic flame is delivered from Greece to Brazil
  • Tens of thousands of torchbearer nominations anticipated (process to be announced)
  • One amazing new torch design (to be unveiled later this year; press materials state the torch relay logo "hints" at the chosen torch design)
  • Three official presenting sponsors: Coca-Cola, Nissan and Bradesco (Olympic torch relay beverages, buggies and banking, respectively).
I'm excited by the possibilities afforded by this South American Olympiad.

Will the flame get pulled up an Amazon Basin hillside atop a 300 ton "Fitzcarraldo" steamship? (Wait, no, that took place in Peru.)

Will Wonder Woman and other Amazon women take part in the exchange of torches? (Only if they do so in Greece, where  that Amazon character originated.)

How will the monumental architecture of Brasilia get its due, along with São Paulo landmarks and those at Foz do Iguaçu? (Amazing torch-inclusive photo opps await!)

Stay tuned for updates!

Relay images via Rio 2016; Brazil map photo via @Rio2016. Fitzcarraldo photo via this blog.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Proof Is In The مهلبية

Many have heard "the proof is in the pudding."

For "American Sniper" fans, critics and anyone wondering the truth about the so-called "Olympic sniper from Syria" portrayed as "Mustafa" by the actor Sammy Sheik, the blog post that follows affirms the proof is in the mahalabiya (مهلبية).

And like variations of this Arab world recipe, the pudding du jour is both sweet and nutty while officially condemning the creative work of Oscar-nominated "American Sniper" screenwriter Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood.

The condemnation comes all the way from the president of the Syrian Olympic Committee, in writing and officially stamped by his staff.

On a hunch noted on this site last week, and from research completed by a fellow International
Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) member Brian Carberry and myself since seeing "American Sniper" in theatres, I took time to write a letter to the Syrian Olympic Committee to ask specific questions as to the facts surrounding their competitors -- specifically shooting athletes -- entered in the Olympics prior to the early 2000s.

In an email reply received January 25, 2015, the executive director of the Syrian Olympic Committee provided a formal response signed by Gen. Mowafak Jomaa, president of the Syrian Olympic Committee, dated 22 January 2015.

The complete email correspondence (formatted as JPEGs to suit this blog posting template and to protect privacy/emails/phone numbers for the writers) is included with this post.

But I'll take a moment to quote Gen. Jomaa here:
"... we herewith assure you that the claimed Olympic shooter in the 'American Sniper' who is named 'Mustafa' is just a fictional character since we have no Olympic shooter as you tracked and your research as well."           
Gen. Jomaa continues with some direct feedback about the creative process chosen by the Oscar-nominated screen writer Jason Hall for "American Sniper" (specifically, the invention of "Mustafa").
"... using such a hint is an attempt to ... involve sportsmen in politics and the current situation in Syria. We strongly believe that sport should be separated from politics and war."
The letter goes on to condemn Hall, Eastwood and the film's involvement of the Olympic Family:
"We reassure that none has contacted our office and this character is merely a media propaganda to distort the Olympic movement in Syria ... (a) matter that we condemn."
Now, once upon time in Atlanta, I actually ran into Clint Eastwood (as reported here) while he was in town directing another sports film (sadly, a lesser film than "American Sniper" -- for the record, I again state the latter film is excellent in this blogger's opinion).

Boy, howdy. It sure would be interesting and make my day to get Eastwood's two cents on this Syrian Olympic Committee letter (not to mention Hall's response). So I'll next be typing notes addressed to Hollywood. Does anyone have Eastwood's email address handy?

"American Sniper" publicity still via Fandango. Other images are screen grabs of actual correspondence formatted for this site by Nicholas Wolaver. These images are copyright Nicholas Wolaver and may be used only by written permission.

Jason Brown Delivers

The 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships concluded Sunday with the men's final.

It was fun to see 2014 Olympian Jason Brown rack up a score of 274.98 to win his first U.S. gold, while Adam Rippon achieved the silver and Joshua Farris won the bronze with 272.48 and 267.98, respectively.

The experience writing from the event was eye-opening and good fun. Got reacquainted with several Olympic reporters while making a few new friends with deep knowledge of figure skating. And the Greensboro locals and volunteers were courteous and helpful.

It was my hope to speak briefly with Tara Lipinski and/or Johnny Weir while in attendance. Unfortunately, Tara was busy as there was no Weir to be found except with her in the NBC booth overlooking the ice -- maybe next time.

I did, however, have the pleasure of spotting and introducing myself to Brian Boitano, an approachable and friendly Olympic champion. It hardly seems possible next month marks 27 years since his gold medal performance in Calgary.

There are still a few unanswered questions from the overall experience:

-- When audience members toss plush toys, flowers or other gifts onto the ice for competitors, why do the girls and boys who retrieve these items (to clear the ice) skate with their arms extended like Stretch Armstrong?
-- When will coaches and female athletes at last retire the music and costumes of "Carmen" from competitive figure skating? For this blogger, Katerina Witt was the first, last and only skater to pull this off, so why not honor her by not "going there" with lesser versions?
-- Speaking of music, why are so many of the long program tunes -- for men and women, and even pairs or dancing -- so somber? During the weekend I heard melodies from "Danse Macabre" and "Adagio For Strings" to "Schindler's List" and "Titanic" theme songs -- isn't the audience done with iceberg-inspired soundtracks by now?

Looking forward to future competitions including the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul and the 2016 World Championships in Boston.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver


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