Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Film Review: Easier Said Than Done

This is a tough review to do.  I have a number of reasons to be invested in this film.  Most importantly I am a stage rally motorsport participant and fan.  I'm not a superfan, following the ins and outs of every WRC event but I have a significant interest in the sport overall and particularly in the sport's success/development in North America.  Secondly, I was a (very) minor contributor to the film itself in that I gifted $75 towards the film as part of its Kickstarter project that got the film across the finish line and into the hands of consumers.

Additionally, I acknowledge that ANY criticism of the film is likely to be welcomed like the the kicking of a puppy in the middle of Times Square.

All that being said, I still cannot come away from watching the film and say that I feel upbeat about the experience.

I'll begin on a positive note and start with what I found to be good about the film.  Mr. Johnston certainly knows his way around a camera.  Much of what he captured on film be it on the ground or in the air is of a superb quality at or above the level of anything you'd see broadcast via traditional media.  The color and definition is crisp and clear.  Further, the actual images presented are in your face, "you are there" and capture the remoteness and beauty of the landscapes these races take place in.  Slow motion is frequently used but is not over-used.  When details of a spinning wheel/tire or spraying dirt can add to the film Mr. Johnston offers the viewer a closeup and slow motion view of the action.

The film also covers a wide range of environments from the snow of northern Europe to the gravel of the Northeast US to the dirt of the Northwest.  Likewise the film covers a wide range of competitors/participants from the exceedingly well known like Petter Solberg and Ken Block to the well known but generally only in educated American rally circles Chris Dupplessis and on down to the more obscure (but far from unheard from) John Vanlandingham.

So we got all the bases covered right?  Hold on for a moment...

Motorsports (and "action sports" films in general) films more or less break down into two categories and a film can succeed in its own right at either.  On one hand you have a non-fictional or fictional film that attempts to tell a story (see Rush, Senna, Dust to Glory, Endless Summer II, Touching the Void, etc.) on the other hand you have what I will dub "action porn" films like those produced maybe most famously by Warren Miller within the ski industry and more modern brethren like Teton Gravity Research and local to me in the Northeast, Meathead Films.  Within the motorsports arena you can throw stuff like the Dezert People series or Nitro Circus into the mix.  Most often this second type of motorsport film is produced frequently, annually even and their titles make "UFC 157" seem like an original and well thought out title.  They skip from location to location, give the participants a brief subtitle of their name and then we're on to the "action" as it were, usually with lots of blaring music and rapid cuts before we move on to the next set piece.

Now belonging to either one of these categories is neither good or bad as both can be done very well (I'd throw Dust to Glory in as one of the best in that first group and films done by TGR in the second group as ones that are done well).  Its just that they have two separate aims.  One attempts to tell a story and uses the inherent tension within motorsports or action sports to assist in that storytelling.  The other merely serves as eye-candy, looking to drop the jaws of the viewer and provide examples of how exciting a sport, event, location, style, method, etc. can be.

Easier Said Than Done can't decide which of these it wants to be and thus fails at both.  Certainly its not an "action" video as no action videos spend 1/2 their time with a static camera looking into the eyes of an individual discussing mundane things like sponsorship and travel plans.  Nor is it an actual story with an arc that the viewer travels along.  Instead what we have is a series of very tangentially connected vignettes.

Here we have John Vanlandingham toiling away in a Seattle garage with his cat, there we have a random restaurant, somewhere and for some reason kinda connected to stage rally, while over here we have Antoine L'Estage and last but certainly not least we have Chris Duplessis and Ken Block and their efforts.  "But Dan", you'll argue, "they are all key members of the North American rally community...THAT is the story here" are all members of the rally community but there is little or nothing (certainly no storyline) that connects them together.  Chris Duplessis and the filming around him is the closest we get to a "story" here but even that feels more like its done out of the filmmaker's ease of access to Chris and his codriver than it is an actual storyline that is carried across the work.

One Mr. Bill Wood in his blog states "rallying is a character study like this" (remarking on the film) and that the film "is full of character development".  Unfortunately, merely saying it, does not make it so.  There is next to no character development here.  We get neither a background or context on any of the characters involved nor do they "develop" or change during the course of the film--see...THAT'S what character development involves...characters don't develop merely by a change of circumstance or location.  Nor does dropping characters into a vignette without any support helpful to the film.  There isn't a single character here that I CARE what happens to--and I've met Mr. Duplessis in person and he couldn't be a nicer fellow--but you can't just pick him up, drop him off in random places and circumstances and get an audience that doesn't know him to care (and that's what a film should strive for).

Petter Solberg?  Anyone outside of the rally community know/care who he is?  Nope--and that's the difference between what a good film is and what a film made merely to cater to those already within the niche that you are targeting looks like.  A novice/noob/neophyte would sit down and say "Who is this funny looking guy with the strange accent and cool garage?"  And a good film would explain it--and make you care about his circumstances.  Here, he's just a throwaway rich guy who was fast talking enough to get a bank to lend him $100K for no reason at all....great...but certainly not someone I'm really interested in---unless I'm already part of the Rally clique.

My last critique here, though not my last critique overall of the film, is in regards to a very specific editorial choice by the filmmaker.  Though not a story in and of itself, there is one common characteristic to each section of the film and each character that is introduced.  So one might say that there IS a single dominant character to the film and though it never appears on film, it is mentioned ad nauseum.

Money.  And the lack thereof or the over abundance thereof...The film gives off the correct impression that in Rally there are the "haves" and the "have nots".  The "haves" are those like Solberg and Block who either grew up in a land that was fond of the sport and thus gained commercial backing through his success or have become independently wealthy enough via their prior business practices to fund their hobby on their own.  In North America outside of the miniscule (what?  one or two, maybe 5 at the outside) individuals fit into this category...that's it....The rest of the competitors have virtually nothing and even should they succeed in the sport (like Duplessis) they are faced with decisions like--Do I go and fund my motorsport dreams or put food on the table for my wife and baby?  Anyone seriously questioning which direction you should take in this decision shouldn't be getting married or having children...But its that level of depressing decision making that is carried throughout the film from beginning to end.  Nearly EVERY scene contains some mention of a lack of money/funding or some other "woe is me" tale of how if "only" they had more money, if "only" they had corporate backing, if "only" rally was more popular and on and on and on...

Now I don't know for sure but I suspect that participants in the sport of Curling don't go around saying "Oh...if only Curling was more understood by the mainstream, I could get sponsorship or someone to pay for me go to Norway for the International Curling Championship" (I have no idea if there is such a thing of if there is, if Norway is where it is held, but it sounds good anyway), or "I'm good enough at Curling to make the Olympic team but I just don't have the name recognition to be invited".  Nope, instead they participate in their sport at a level which meets their economic and sporting reality--taking pride in trips to Wisconsin and winning a local tournament while garnering the praise their respective friends, families and Curling aficionados and being HAPPY with that.

Which is really why I think this film fails in the end.  Its not HAPPY.  The racers sound fairly miserable, toiling away in anonymity with no hopes of every achieving their dreams, throwing away countless sums of money that could be going toward something more practical and reasonable, sacrificing their family and lives (in essence) tilting at windmills.

I'm sorry, I wish I could say I loved this film but I just can't.  It doesn't make me want to rally more or spread the word or show the video off to friends (who frankly would likely find the film kinda uninformative and depressing).  All it makes me want to do is make sure I reassess my priorities and make sure I actually enjoy this beautiful, hard, complicated, frustrating, expensive, fun (yes I did say fun, there's definitely not enough fun in this film) sport as my choice of hobby.  Afterall...that's the point isn't it?  Or is it fame, fortune and podium girls you're after?  Cause if you're not in it JUST for the fun of the adventure and can't drop it when the mortgage payment comes've picked the wrong hobby or are just plain dim...

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