Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter, Shaun White, Henry Rollins (narrator)
Written by: Kevin Harrison
Directed by: Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and a momentary drug reference
Running Time: 110
Date: 03/19/2013

First Descent (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Chairmen of the Board

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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What's the point of watching tiny figures sliding down a vast field of lumpy white? After all, the novelty of seeing things on film move for the sake of movement wore off about 100 years ago.

The new documentary First Descent works, because filmmakers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison go to the trouble to imbue their tiny figures with personalities, so that each run takes on its own individual significance.

Set around a gathering of five top snowboarders in Alaska, First Descent also acts as a primer for viewers -- like this one -- who know diddly about this sport. Every so often, the film cuts away from the present-day story and introduces us to the protagonists: Shaun White, an 18 year-old rock star in the snowboarding competition arena, so famous that he's asked to grand marshal a NASCAR event; Hannah Teter, 18, a tough Vermont girl, forever competing against her four older brothers; Shawn Farmer, 40, a good ol' boy from Missouri who mismanaged a potential snowboarding career; and Terje Haakonsen, 30, a Norwegian who is arguably the greatest snowboarder on earth.

Our host is Nick Peralta, 39, who plays "den mother" to the others while up on Alaska's scary mountain peaks. Unfortunately, the film neglects to provide a flashback for Peralta, so he remains a bit of a mystery.

The film goes on to interview a host of snowboarders about the sport's evolution, from its awkward combination of surfing, skateboarding and skiing to its induction as an official Olympic event in 1998.

Not originally allowed on the ski slopes, it was always an outsider sport, practiced by punk rockers and hearty partiers. Snowboard videos circulated among the hardcore, depicting not only savage stunts, but also raucous revelry. In essence, First Descent is like a much tamer big screen version of these little homemade videos.

Returning to our five players, they take turns dropping off the sheer sides of powdery cliffs, avoiding avalanches and scooting over the tops of jutting rocks. Directors Curly and Harrison provide a printed onscreen name for each participant so that we can appreciate each approach and each style. Unfamiliar with mountain boarding, youngsters Hannah and Shaun look to the veterans for help in finding their footing, while Farmer gets reckless. Terje performs an amazing move in which he appears to pause for a second on the side of the mountain before tearing down to the flats below.

The killer wipeouts and gnarly runs will please fans, but thanks to the filmmakers' generosity, amateurs can appreciate them too.

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