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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh, Manohla!

- I don't read all that many film reviews these days because I find that they give away too much of the plot. Between that and the trailers, there's hardly need to even bother seeing some of these movies at all! So I skim the first and last paragraphs to see if they liked it, and then come back to them after seeing the movie if I'm inspired to do so. But of the ones I do read, those by the Times' Manohla Dargis are amongst my very favorites. Wonderfully articulate, Manohla not only cuts through all the hype and fanboy BS, she bludgeons them to death and judges films on what they are and not what they're cranked up to be.

So, when she unceremoniously trashed The First Saturday in May, even this racing fanboy gave pause, and briefly contemplated passing in favor of someday watching the DVD, or maybe seeing it on TVG At The Movies (Schrmmppff: Two thumbs way up). However, better judgment prevailed, and the Head Chef and I saw it at Cinema Village last night. I counted 17 people in attendance, including an elderly couple who entered late; the woman was repeating lines and subtitles back to her companion, making me feel as if I was watching Carnac the Magnificent.

And as I should have expected, the film proved to be a delight. The six trainers featured provided an interesting and eminently watchable contrast of styles and personalities, and the Hennegan brothers obviously made them feel totally at ease in front of the camera. They devoted just enough time to each one's background to make them seem familiar without bogging us down with details. I thought they did a fine job juggling the stories, spending an appropriate amount of time on each, and creating the kind of intimacy by which we wanted each and every one of them to succeed.

Why Manohla felt compelled to criticize the film for not exploring the issues around drugs, or for providing an in-depth tutorial on the methods of training, I'm not really sure. Reading it again, it almost seems as if she had an agenda, like if she's a paying member of PETA. Those are worthy subjects indeed, but not the point of this particular film. Perhaps it had to do with her unfamiliarity with the sport. The Head Chef pointed out, correctly I think, that if someone only vaguely familiar with baseball saw a comparable documentary on that sport, he/she may very well wonder out loud why it didn't deal with steroids. Horse racing has created its own bad publicity, and perhaps it manifested itself in this case. It also obviously didn't help that Barbaro was amongst the subject horses; his presence raises issues of fatal equine injuries that are addressed only tangentially at the end.

In fact, one of my two criticisms of the movie has to do with that ending. I didn't feel it was necessary to provide an addendum dealing with Barbaro's breakdown and subsequent passing, and it made for an awkward conclusion in my opinion. It felt like an add-on; the movie was about the Derby, and could have ended right there. We all know what happened to Barbaro, and his death could have been noted with a simple subtitle, just as the fates of the other horses were (though not of Achilles of Troy, an oversight there). Sometimes, a tragic event can seem even more poignant when framed in the same terms as everyday happenings.

My other critique is one beyond the filmmakers' scope - even in a documentary, there can be tension regarding how the story will turn out. But in this case, the movie lacked that drama since we all knew how it would end.

But those are minor quibbles to be sure. I have to say that I don't even agree with Manohla's technical criticisms - I thought that the filming was fine, I didn't find any of the scenes to be pointless, and the fact is that trainers really do spend a lot of time staring off into the distance. And I liked the scenes filmed on Derby day, especially the Deputy Glitters fan. I also want to add a shout out for the editing, which I found to be crisp and timely; one touch I particularly liked was a quick cut from Aqueduct out to Dan Hendricks in California marveling after watching Jazil's rally for second in the Wood on TV.

So, as one might write in a real film review, The First Saturday in May was a winner. You can visit the Hennegan brothers' blog here, and, starting on May 1, pre-order the DVD here.

- I got home in time to catch the overtime between the Flyers and Caps. I believe that 7th game sudden death overtimes are hazardous to one's health and that they should be abolished. I've gone through two of those as a Rangers fan, once, in person, against the Devils in the Cup year of 1994, and the other watching on a fuzzy illegal TV hookup (anyone remember WHT?) ten years earlier when the Islanders eliminated the Blueshirts in what was, that year, a best-of-five series. The Rangers outplayed the Icelanders from start to finish of that series, and I obviously still haven't completely gotten over it.

So I totally sympathized with the stunned Capitals fans when Joffrey Lupul scored a power play goal six minutes into OT for the winner. Man, what a devastating loss, despite the magical finish to their season. The two veteran referees let an obvious tripping penalty on the Caps go early in the period; it looked otherwise as if the Flyers would have been off on a 2 on 1. So, when former Ranger Tom Poti committed a similar foul shortly later, Paul Devorski whistled him off, and the Caps could not survive. You had to feel for Poti, who was unfairly savaged by Ranger fans during his time here, and for owner Ted Leonsis, who looked like he wanted to cry. I wouldn't have blamed him; I know I would have if I was him.

So, it's Rangers - Penguins, and it starts on Friday night...


Anonymous said...

I thought the Derby day scenes were some of the best in the movie, especially the footage from the walk over, which was so well edited and really gave a sense of how overwhelming and exciting those few minutes must be.

Anonymous said...

Someone at the N.Y.Times with an agenda.

Tell me it isn't so!

Warstone said...


Thank you for the review. I read the NYT one and it really turned me off the movie. It made me think that it was really bad from a technical point of view which is about the only reason I would be turned off from a movie on horse racing.

Anyway...I hope to see it this Friday unfortunately it seems I don't have to purchase tickets in advance that NYT review did the movie no favors and if it is as good as you say it is very unfortunate fo the filmakers...