Warren Miller’s Fifty (DVD)

This movie will give your face goggle-shaped tan lines.

Some artists find their niche and stick with it. That’s the case with director Warren Miller. Since 1949, Miller has made a name for himself with his skiing documentaries, churning out an average of one a year. In celebration of his 50th year as a filmmaker, Miller and his team released Fifty, which combined his latest jaunts around the world with classic footage from past years. So strap on your skis and let’s check it out. But remember: I get first tracks.

The action starts out in Alaska, with footage of borderline-insane skiers leaping out of a helicopter with their skis on to speed down an uninhabited mountain’s perfectly vertical slopes. From there, it’s on to hanging out with famous professional skiers in resorts such Vail, Crystal Mountain, Lake Tahoe, and Breckinridge. International slopes are featured at well, with treks to Ecuador, Austria and France. Plus, there’s a side trip to Wisconsin, where two teens have created their own gigantic ski resort on their grandparents’ farm. In between these segments, we get a look at Miller’s personal history, and some of his favorite moments from past films.

The obvious statement to make is, “If you’ve seen one Warren Miller ski movie, you’ve seen them all.” But that doesn’t have to be such a bad thing. All of Miller’s usual tricks are on display in Fifty. There are slo-mo shots of skiers speeding downhill with powder flying all around them. There are slapsticky shots of skiers taking a fall. There are long shots of a lone skier on a desolate mountain, dangerously racing down a gigantic, untouched slope. These are what we expect from a Miller picture, and he delivers.

Cinematography junkies will love all the big moments here, especially the opening helicopter shots of the seemingly endless mountains, and the slow motion shots of the skiers weaving in and out of trees and rocks. Miller and his crew deserve credit for filling the movie with these shots without it ever feeling repetitive.

But then, if these idealistic “extreme sports” scenes were the entire movie, it would indeed get dull after a while. Instead, Miller’s love of skiing takes him to the resorts with the tourists. Here, we’re in the world of chair lifts and bunny slopes. More than a few beginners take a fall. But this is never presented in a mean, Jackass kind of way. The tone here is more of a playful one, and although plenty of skiers take spills, no one is seriously hurt. The occasional nosedive into the snow is all a part of the skiing experience, and Miller is right there to capture it and have some fun with it.

Then there’s the older footage, collected from several decades’ worth of skiing films. Some humorous scenes from the ’70s show girls with Charlie’s Angels hair saying “Hot Dog!” while watching good-looking guys ski past. In the early ’80s, Miller surprised many young people by introducing them to a newfangled device called a “snowboard.” More surprising, though, is some footage from the ’50s that shows a skier using a sled in a snowboard-style fashion. Maybe it was Marty McFly.

Although he rarely puts himself in front of the camera, Miller’s personality shines though in his relaxed, friendly narration. His enthusiasm for skiing and his admiration for the folks he’s filming comes through as clear as always. If the movie were just skiing footage without Miller’s narration, it wouldn’t be much of a movie at all.

Along with the real-life slapstick and a few gentle wisecracks from Miller, there’s another comedy aspect to Fifty. A few times during the movie, either the skiers or Miller’s crew act out a few scripted comedy skits, and they’re horribly unfunny. Fortunately enough, these bits are short and not numerous, but they still stand out.

The picture is full frame—its original aspect ratio—and it’s a good one, with bright vivid colors throughout. The older footage looks equally good, to the point where if it wasn’t for people’s hairstyles, you’d never be able to tell the differences. The sound benefits just as well, emphasizing the music, with songs from the Barenaked Ladies, Counting Crows, the Dave Matthews Band, and more.

The main bonus feature is a short behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, focusing on Miller’s son Kurt (the film’s executive producer) and the crew. Warren Miller himself is suspiciously absent, leaving one to wonder who really made the movie. Also included is a lengthy trailer.

“If you don’t go skiing this year, you’ll be at least one year older when you do.” That line is repeated several times in Fifty, sometimes with other activities sitting in for the words “go skiing.” This seems to be the philosophy of Miller and his fellow black diamond-ers. It’s as good of a moral for a film as you can find. If you’re a skiing fan, or just looking for some lighthearted entertainment on a snowy afternoon, give it a try.

The Verdict

Not guilty. See you next year.

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