Sunday, March 27, 2016

Graphic Novel Illustrates Tragic Somali Olympian's Untimely Demise Adrift In Mediterranean Sea

During recent Los Angeles travels, I stumbled in to Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard in search of a new five-ringed graphic novel, "An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar" by Reinhard Kleist.

The store did not yet have this title in stock, but thanks to a review copy from the publishing house, Self Made Hero, and its domestic distributor, Abrams, I did get to read this recent release on the heels of reviewing "Trashed" by John Backderf.

In about 150 pages, Kleist illustrates the too-short and true life of a Beijing 2008 Olympian who competed in athletics, specifically the 200m sprint. "An Olympic Dream" opens on an upbeat note as Yusuf Omar appears on the small screen in her family's Mogadishu living room with relatives and friends gathered to cheer for Samia.

While the Beijing experience inspires the stadium crowd and Yusuf Omar's new dream to return to the Olympic stage at London 2012, her Somali homecoming quickly evolves into a years-long marathon of increasingly awful challenges including gender and faith bias in her war-torn home town. 

Forced to flee Somalia to find safety with family in Europe, and still clinging to her London Olympic dream, Yusuf Omar embarks on an international journey through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya in search of sea passage to Italy. One can only imagine how much worse her final weeks must have been before boarding an overloaded watercraft akin to those in use today by Syrian refugees fleeing to Greece. 

Kleist's illustrations in black pen and/or India ink bring to the page a life that is both hopeful and heartbroken. Yusuf Omar's POV is sometimes portrayed through Facebook posts or texts to family anxiously awaiting updates. Readers may almost smell the burning trash or taste the gritty dust kicked up by African winds and warlords clouding Omar's chances for a happier conclusion.

According to the book's Preface by Kleist, the author learned about Omar's fate as much of the world did following London's Games. 

"Thanks to the help of journalist Teresa Krug, who had befriended [Yusuf Omar], I was able to speak personally with [Samia's] sister Hodan Yusuf Omar, who in 2006 had fled to Helsinki," wrote Kleist.

Kleist also mentioned the Olympian's actual Facebook posts provided content and context, though most of the posts in the book are fictionalized except for Yusuf Omar's plea for help while stranded in Tripoli. Krug provides a detailed Afterword for the text as well.

Though "An Olympic Dream" provides the antithesis of a happy ending for five-ringed-hopefuls, the book does provide inspiration and a look at the struggles tens of thousands still face today in Africa and Asia. Kudos to Kleist for shedding more light on this contemporary Olympic story. "An Olympic Dream" will hit Meltdown Comics and bookstores everywhere starting April 12 (pre-sales available here).

Images via SelfMadeHero.com



Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Olympic Gymnasts Spoofed By 'The Bronze'


The first time I heard about "The Bronze" -- the new comedy that spoofs Olympic gymnastics -- it had just debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Following some studio troubles and distribution issues, it took longer than anticipated to finally see it, but I recently enjoyed a media preview screening just in time for its limited release (pushed back yet again) on Friday. 

It's too bad this five-ringed flick may not get a broader audience; the film is packed with many funny moments, some very funny. 

But over time, "The Bronze" may gain a cult following on par with other sports-skewering late night comedies like bowling's "Kingpin" or golf's "Caddyshack." 

Early scenes introduce viewers to the young Hope Annabelle Greggory, an Olympian from small town Ohio competing at the Rome 2004 Olympics. In case you weren't sure: Unlike other recent releases "Race" and "Eddie The Eagle," "The Bronze" is not based on a specific Olympian, nor are its Olympic scenes based on real-life. 

After Hope's ankle audibly snaps during her televised balance beam routine, the would-be Kerri Strug guts through one more routine to secure a bronze medal and win America's sweetheart status, in the process upstaging fellow U.S. gymnasts who took home the gold.

Flash forward 10 years: Adult Greggory (Melissa Rauch), now pushing 30, has long-since gotten sponsorship offers or appearance fees. Donning her Team USA uniform, she fills her days with trips to the mall in search of free food, shoes and other Olympic hero spoils she negotiated through questionable means (some X-rated).

When she's not cruising the mall or small town Ohio streets in her bronze and rusting Buick, Hope spends time stealing greeting card cash from her postal dad's mail truck and hiding out in her trophy-filled basement room, at times masturbating to stuck landings in her own competition videos.

Getting the picture? America's sweetheart ... gone wild!

Viewers may recognize Hope's father Stan (Gary Cole) from his previous authoritarian role in "Office Space" (yeah, that manager with the TPS reports and great coffee mug).

Though Stan loves Hope, he's reached the end of his rope in trying to nudge her out of the nest. Then opportunity knocks!

Through a series of unfortunate events centered on her former coach's suicide and an unexpected inheritance secretly promised to her, Hope reluctantly accepts a coaching gig to train America's next sweetheart gymnast -- high schooler Maggie Townsend, Hope's heir apparent -- in time for the Toronto 2016 Games.

Though gaining a small fortune is Hope's only real motivation, for her own dark amusement she unleashes a spectrum of awful pranks undermining her naive protege's training through bad diet, condoning premarital sex and bottled water spiked with ecstasy, all while fending off an encroaching U.S. Gymnastics coaching nemesis dead-set on luring Maggie over to his camp.

Refraining from more screenplay details, I'll just state that by the time an intense gymnastics sex scene and the Toronto Games are underway, sportsmanlike conduct is long gone and Hope's back story on her vault from sweetheart to seductress is fully disclosed, with many hilarious if raunchy, er, Rauch-y one-liners delivered. There are a few times when this joke or that joke are just slightly overcooked, but overall most lines aren't forced.

I really took a shine to the dancer-turned-actress Haley Lu Richardson as Maggie, an ever-chipper yet gullible athlete looking to Hope for advice.

Between Maggie's Christian one-liners ("cursing hurts God's spirit") and cluelessly suggestive secret hand signals (finger poking her other hand's encircled fingers) she earned some of the biggest laughs.

My prediction is that others will one day recall this Richardson comedy debut the way folks already reminisce about Jonah Hill in "Superbad."

Thomas Middleditch as the awkward gym owner (and lifetime small town Hope fan) provides a dose of sensitivity that also will make folks smile.

It was fun spotting Olympic cameos by Dominique Dawes, Olga Korbut and Dominique Moceanu, and most of the music is apt. Fans may enjoy Doris Day crooning "Why-o-why-o did I leave Ohio?" and the end credits rolling to a Rauch gymnastics rap ("I'm a bronze ass beeochh!") are nice finishing touches.

"The Bronze" leaves no doubt its "R" rating is appropriate, so some Rio 2016 Olympic hopefuls may have to wait for theatre access. I suspect the DVD will put the "nasty" into artistic gymnastics while leaving room for rhythmic or trampoline sequels.

Images via Sony Classics




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