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Warren Miller's Journey Through the Decades

If formative events count for anything, two altered Warren Miller's life at a young age. As a boy growing up in his native Hollywood, Calif., he delivered newspapers for pocket money — one of his customers was Walt Disney, a filmmaker who embodied both a visionary spirit and financial success while flaunting industry conventions. And when he was 12, Miller traded a pair of roller skates and $2 for a pair of pine skis, initiating his lifelong passion for alpine sport. By 1947 he had relocated to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he lived in a trailer while pursuing skiing full-time. He began giving instruction, and before long he was teaching two Bell & Howell executives, whom he convinced to lend him a camera. That loan and a $500 budget produced 1947's Deep and Light, the first Warren Miller ski film. Since that time, Miller (now semi-retired) founded Warren Miller Entertainment, a multi-million-dollar business that has, among other things, produced a new ski movie every year (with no less than 54 in the filmography as of 2004). The annual arrival of Miller's films, which roadshow across the country, herald the beginning of the ski season for deep-powder junkies, who queue up to catch the latest in extreme-sports filmmaking. But are Warren Miller movies essentially the same, year in and year out? In some ways, yes — the montage of travelogue, humor, and pulse-pounding vertical action is narrated by Miller in his characteristic, low-key manner, marked by his sarcastic wit, tongue-in-cheek chauvinism, and pet phrases after wipeouts, such as "You want your skis? Go get 'em," and "Shut up and get up." But Warren Miller movies have evolved over the decades, as have filmmaking styles, snowsports, and ski-resort fashions. What hasn't changed is Miller's carpe diem ethos. "If you wait until next year to do it," he likes to say, "you'll be one year older."

The 53rd Warren Miller film, Journey (2003), holds to the filmmaker's established template, following not just certain events within the skiing world, but also its gradual development. As usual, Miller's filmmaking team travels the globe in search of skiing locations, known and unknown. At the Heavenly resort alongside Lake Tahoe's south shore, ski icon and mogul-master Glen Plake insists that Californians aren't just a bunch of beach bums, although his colorful 18-inch mohawk gives new meaning to the term west-coast style. A two-week drive leads the team to Portillo, Chile, where an isolated mountain hotel at 10,000 feet marks the gateway to Andean peaks covered with snow in the middle of July. The quartet of extreme skiers who travel to Chamonix, France, to rip up some terrifying Alpine terrain are all over 40 — a typical nod by Miller to illustrate that you're never too old to push the limits, even when that means skiing a 4,000-foot chute with a 50-deg. pitch. Even more extreme is Cordova, Alaska, where a trio of snowriders are heli'ed on to some of the largest peaks in North America — there's no easy way down, and it becomes that much worse for one skier when he's forced to outrun an avalanche caused by his own traverse. For skiers, Warren Miller films such as Journey offer a variety of delights, from sheer rushes of adrenaline to observing the subtle form of world-class athletes at the peak of their sport. But even non-skiers can enjoy a Warren Miller movie, and for many of the same reasons. Miller's humor is always sharp, while the overseas locales are intriguing. And no matter what the genre, the cinematography is unrivaled, both for its composition and our simple "how did they get that shot?" bewilderment. In a Warren Miller picture, green-screens simply don't exist.

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Shout! Factory's Warren Miller's Journey Through the Decades box-set includes 2003's Journey as well as three other titles, selected to reflect the Warren Miller filmmaking style over the years. Ski a la Carte (1978) is the clearest time-capsule of the bunch — Miller returns to his old stomping ground of Sun Valley, Idaho, where a young Mariel Hemingway joins a quartet of skiers on the steep powder of Baldy. A trip to Greece reveals that the country's resorts aren't as sophisticated as those in North America (such as California's massive Squaw Valley), but there's still plenty of terrain to cut up. The fashions everywhere are decidedly colorful, and folks even ski with hats that have pom-poms. Meanwhile, Miller can't resist referencing Star Wars, he visits a resort's discotheque, and in the pre-snowboard era he finds a bunch of kids skiing on their skateboards, to which they've lashed plastic skids. Steep & Deep (1985) introduces a more contemporary ski-era — the terrain is more frightening than the ski-clothes, and along with a return to Sun Valley and visits to Colorado, British Columbia, and New Zealand, we meet the legendary Scott Schmidt. If Miller's films before the '80s were primarily travelogues, Schmidt became the movie star he was looking for. The founder of "extreme skiing," it was Schmidt who was willing to enter triple-black terrain while Miller's cameras were rolling, giving his movies an entirely new dimension while turning the cliff-diving skier into a living legend. Schmidt would appear in eight Warren Miller titles, causing fans around the world to drop their jaws and mumble "ho... ly... sh#t" with each new jump. Endless Winter (1995) fully introduces snowboards into the mix of Miller's snowriders, memorably opening as four daring souls are awakened by a helicopter before sunrise to be ferried to a remote Canadian peak, skis and boards in the cargo hold. Famous resorts on the itinerary include Whistler and Jackson Hole, while overseas destinations include Austria, Bolivia, and Japan. The final location, Valdez, Alaska, includes some of Miller's finest footage ever as four riders descend from a mountain that appears to rest on the remotest corner of the earth.

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Shout! Factory's Warren Miller's Journey Through the Ages box-set includes all four titles on separate discs. The full-frame transfers (1.33:1 OAR) are uniformly good, taken from source-prints that exhibit varying degrees of age. Audio is in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround on Journey, which also has two featurettes, while the remaining titles have Dolby 2.0 stereo tracks. The audio is pleasant, with the exception of Steep & Deep, where it would seem the mix either amplified the music too much or didn't raise Miller's narration to the proper level — at times, Miller's voice collapses under the weight of the music. In addition to the films, the three catalog titles include four featurettes apiece, available on a supplemental menu or as "on-the-fly" content during the feature presentations. Four keep-cases in a paperboard slipcase.
—JJB



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