Film Review: Mountain

Impressionistic documentary examines how mountains affect our thinking and emotions.
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By combining music, narration and imagery, Mountain tries to show how humans respond to an often hostile, deadly environment. A free-flowing format lets the documentary skip from peak to peak, from physics to philosophy, from rock climbers to monks. It's a journey held together only by stunning camerawork.

Director Jen Peedom (Sherpa) and cinematographer Renan Ozturk shot on several continents to capture the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes and other ranges. Peedom also drew from the work of dozens of world-class cinematographers and climbers. The visuals in Mountain are extraordinary, from ascents of sheer rock faces to snowboarders swallowed up by avalanches.

Composer Richard Tognetti, a violinist and artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, initiated the project as a piece for concerts; Peedom subsequently oversaw a standalone version for movie theatres.

Peedom and editors Christian Gazal and Scott Gray decided to cut the mountain footage in time to the music, for the most part classical warhorses like Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." So skiers jump and spin to passages from "Winter," for example. Instead of complementing the cinematography, the music and editing are distractions that force an unwanted narrative overlay onto the visuals.

The filmmakers also turned to Robert Macfarlane, an Oxford professor and the author of 2003's Mountains of the Mind, to write a narration. Read by Willem Dafoe, the voiceover adds a layer of pretension to an already heavy-handed documentary.

Mountain sends out mixed messages. By including footage of daredevil mountain bikers, paragliders leaping from cliffs and snowboarders dropping out of helicopters, the filmmakers seem to be endorsing or at least condoning activities that cause severe ecological damage and that inspire copycat lunatics to try ever-more-daring stunts.

At the same time, the filmmakers lament the litter and long lines on Everest (the only peak actually named in the documentary), the commercialism and competitiveness that have infected professional athletics, the devices that have turned the wilderness into a playpen for the rich. So then why are there long sequences of bikers and skiers slamming down trails, or builders toppling forests and blowing up summits to build ski lifts and resorts?

Even the imagery suffers from Mountain's lack of focus. Yes, climbers like Jimmy Chin provide exceptional footage, but after the 20th slow-motion flyover of some unnamed wilderness peak, the visual splendor begins to pall. It's surprising how quickly drones have cheapened standards of cinematography. (Peedom also leans too much on time-lapse montages styled after Koyaanisqatsi.)

If you've never been in the mountains, never climbed a summit or skied a slope, Mountain will give you some idea of their power and majesty. The more you know, however, the less you will be impressed by this documentary.

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