The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Saturday, September 02, 2006


Disclaimer: I do not have children. Duma is a "family film" -- one that is intended primarily for a youth audience, but with sufficient story and production quality to be acceptable to adults along for the ride. Since I can only guess at reactions from the target audience, I have to review the movie from an adult viewpoint on its own merits as a piece of filmmaking.

From that perspective, I have to say that Duma is disappointing. The story involves a young boy (perhaps 12 years old) who adopts an orphaned cheetah cub, names it Duma, and raises it on the family farm in rural Africa. He lives a rather idyllic existence with his mother and father until circumstances cause him to make a fateful decision to take Duma back to the wild on an impulsive solo trek to the veldt. His journey is filled with small moments of tension and danger and forces him to accept the company of a man he does not trust.

The story line plays out in a predictable, linear fashion. Again, I want to reiterate that the technique is probably appropriate for children to keep it easy to follow and connect with, but I am not qualified to pass judgment on that. For an adult, the complications and plot devices that are introduced in order to further the action seem arbitrary and too trivially dismissed. Each tension point is immediately resolved within a maximum of four minutes (usually much shorter) so that there is no danger of becoming involved or emotionally invested in the dangers, the interpersonal conflicts, or the apprehension that each should engender.

The acting in the film ranges from inoffensive to melodramatic to amateurish. The best actor, hands down, is the cheetah (of course they used more than one). The boy, Xan, is played by South African newcomer Alex Michaeletos. Michaeletos reads his lines like a school exercise, never finding a delivery that invests them with believability or emotional integrity. Xan's parents are played by experienced actors Campbell Scott and Hope Davis. Unfortunately, both actors hail from the New York/New Jersey area and struggle with their South African accents. They start out sounding much more Australian than South African until they settle down a bit. They also are saddled with characterizations that are written as one-dimensional saints. They are perfect parents in every possible respect and I found them rather boring.

The mystery man that Xan runs into on his travels is played by Eamonn Walker, another noted actor with plenty of drama under his belt. Walker affects a very strong tribal(?) accent that makes some of his line readings difficult to understand. And he tends to play some of his scenes as dramatics rather than drama. I occasionally felt that he was trying to compensate for Michaeletos' flat portrayal with a bit of overacting to pull a scene along.

Director Carroll Ballard uses a style that harkens back to the old Disney nature films of decades ago. Shots of wild animals in different settings are strung together to create improbable continuous pans of interspecies diversity, while animal closeups are edited together to make it seem as though they are relating and reacting to one another. Ballard certainly has an eye for sweeping African landscape shots and I particularly liked some footage of Xan and Duma looking down into a river gorge.

The best work is between Xan and Duma. The boy and cheetah interact closely on screen and they each seem completely comfortable with each other. If the filmmakers used any compositing tricks or matted-out tethers, there is no way to tell it. I got the feeling that the cheetahs were willing actors on the set.

From what I can tell in my research on the web, the movie takes a great many liberties with the story as told in the children's picture book written by the real Xan and his mother. That's fine with me, as the two media are different art forms and can exist independently. But if you are a fan of the book and take the family's account of their time with the cheetah as gospel, prepare yourself to get angry with changes by the screenwriters (starting with what they call the cheetah!). In an interesting casting note, the producers apparently had to cast the boy as older than he was during real events because they were afraid that too small a child might be seen as prey by their cheetah "actors".

It feels strange to add my usual parents' advisory to a movie made for the child market. There is no drug use or swearing and only minimal scuffling violence between some school children. Animal predation is shown in the wild and there is a shot of an eviscerated gazelle that could disturb very young viewers. Kids under the age of about 7 will probably find some of the "danger moments" too intense... For instance, there is a scene where Xan and Duma are threatened by very nasty looking crocodiles that has Ballard using underwater crocodile viewpoint shots reminiscent of Jaws. The movie also features an offscreen human death (not gruesome) that might disturb youngsters.

The DVD transfer is quite adequate and the sound is clear and crisp. Special features are limited to a few extended scenes and the theatrical trailer.

If you are looking for an alternative to silly comedies, superheroes, and cartoons for your kids, Duma will fit the bill. But don't expect to be drawn in as an adult. It's simply not deep or complex enough to merit much consideration.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


In Water, writer/director Deepa Mehta finishes off the third part of a trilogy (with Fire and Earth) that examines issues of love, family, religion, and political upheaval in India. The backstory of Water is at times more interesting than the movie itself, so I will spend some time on the topic before getting to the film as an independent entertainment piece. The more you know going in, the more you can appreciate surprising aspects of the finished work.

Water examines a little-known (at least in America) aspect of strict Hindu religious observance. Widows have three options after their husbands die, according to the religious texts. They may be cremated along with the dear departed, they may marry their husband's younger brother (if available), or they may lead a life of strict asceticism, separated from and shunned by the rest of mainstream society.

Mehta is not particularly supportive of this traditional practice (although of Indian background herself, she now lives in the Toronto area). But she is quick to point out in one of her commentaries that the women who follow this life of religious observation and self-denial do not see themselves as oppressed and disadvantaged. They simply see it as the way things are. A Hindu philosophy of Maya says that any perception of ourselves as separate from the whole is an illusion, so that a sense of self as separated and somehow worse off than others is an error in perception. Mehta shows that the ideal of this concept is not necessarily embraced by all and that a subjective view of the conditions imposed upon the widows can be damning.

Because of her willingness to examine the "widow's plight" from a modern perspective and to have some of the movie's characters condemn these practices and flaunt the orthodox religious teachings, Mehta ran into serious trouble from Hindu extremists. As she began shooting the film in India in 2000, she received death threats, had her effigy burned in public, and eventually was forced to shut down the production due to mob protests around her locations.

It took another four years to remount the production, this time shooting in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka as a stand-in for India. She had to recast several roles and made some updates to her script. Because Sri Lanka does not have the same architecture and cultural background as India, the company created a massive full size set along a river, with temples, walkways, statues, and the like stretching on for nearly a mile. The scale of the construction is impressive and you never get a sense while watching the film that anything is artificial.

The plot of the movie follows an 8-year-old girl, Chuyia, in 1938 India. As still happens around the country (although technically illegal then and now) she has been married off at a very young age to a much older man. The movie opens with her father telling her that she is now a widow (which means as little to her as the fact that she was married). He has her head ceremonially shaved and takes her to an ashram (call it a religious retreat) for widows. There Chuyia will be expected to live for the rest of her life, eating one meal a day, praying, and begging in the street. It's not a prison... the women could leave whenever they want, but honestly, they have nowhere else to go.

Chuyia meets (and introduces us to) the other major characters in the film one at a time. There is the very large and very stern Madhumati, a widow from an upper class who has taken over the position of superiority and "management" of the ashram. Patiraji is an extremely old toothless woman who has been there since she was a child and now dreams of the simple pleasures of eating a forbidden sweet pastry. Shakuntala is a serious and quiet woman of great faith and devotion to duty. And living apart from the rest in a spartan wood shack is Kalyani. Kalyani is a shock. Unlike the rest of the women who have shaved heads, sunken cheeks, and are generally older than 40, she is a beauty in her mid-20's with flowing black hair and perfect skin and teeth. We learn later why Kalyani is special to Madhumati and the upkeep of the ashram. But the important point is that she becomes a girlfriend/older sister to Chuyia.

Chuyia one day is outside the ashram on the main city streets and runs into Narayan, a man also in his mid-20's and a progressive follower of Gandhi (who is just becoming publicly prominent and starting to promote nationalism to take the country out of British rule). Narayan and Kalyani find themselves attracted to each other and eventually they have to deal with their desire to be together versus religious and societal pressures to stay apart because of Kalyani's status.

Most of the movie is played out in a slow and measured progression of events. Information about the traditional Hindu customs, traditions, and practices are doled out in small bites to the audience. Character development is slow and studied as well. Mehta simply shows some of the religious activities without trying to explain them to the audience. There is no voice-over narration or explanatory dialog to help along an American audience, but it is never a barrier to understanding the dramatic story.

Dialog is in Hindi and the DVD offers subtitles in English and Spanish. Strangely, several of the actors did not speak Hindi. The astonishing performance of the young girl, Sarala, who plays Chuyia is more amazing when you learn that she was cast in Sri Lanka and learned the entire script as phonetic memorization! Lisa Ray, the fashion model turned actress who plays Kalyani, had to work on diction and facility with the Hindi dialog since she is another Toronto resident who only speaks Hindi as a second language after English. Both women turn in excellent performances.

The movie is shot as a visual art piece. Colors are filtered to subtly showcase watery blues and greens. Dark interior shots are always easily made out, with soft unobtrusive lighting on the actors' faces so you know exactly who is inside and can see what they are doing. The focus on the widows in the ashram means there is a preponderance of soft washed out colors, since they all wear white saris and live in stone and earth settings. When Mehta contrasts this with a scene showing the Festival of Color (the one day a year when the widows can indulge their visual senses), she super saturates the bright yellows and reds so they practically jump off the screen.

Although the movie is definitely not a "Bollywood musical," Mehta does insert one standard Indian movie sequence featuring a song and shots of the young lovers expressing their happiness in a music video style. It feels jarring and out of place with the rest of the movie to me, but I am not an Indian film fanatic used to seeing musical numbers in every film I see.

Water delivers an important and dramatic story and message. It is visually sumptuous. Production values are of highest quality throughout. The acting is excellent. Thinking back on each aspect of the film, I find myself impressed with each component. And yet I found myself fidgeting at several points during the movie and looking at my watch. There is just something about the overall pacing that didn't work for me. I think it may be the way each sequence in the movie showcases exactly one small relationship or interaction or plot point as an independent concept. I felt like I was watching Mehta laying out the movie as a series of bullet points. The interplay between the various people and events is left as an intellectual exercise for the viewer rather than showing on screen as a cohesive whole. Still, the movie made me want to catch up with Mehta's earlier work. And that is the highest praise you can give a director.

The DVD transfer is very good. Subtitles are clear and easy to read. The English translation is never unintentionally humorous or mixed up. Sound quality is good, but not showy. The surround soundtrack is mainly used for atmosphere rather than effects (there is one thunderstorm with some good booms). Special features include a director's commentary, a four-minute short on the troubles of making the film, and a 20-minute featurette talking more about the production, with comments from several of the actors.

Parents should have no worries about any imagery shown in the film. There is no nudity or violence. But the subject matter is adult in nature and covers issues of sex and death.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Rian Johnson graduated from USC Film School in 1996 with a student film under his belt. Nine years later, he has written, directed, and edited his first theatrical feature. Brick is a curious nod to the classic noir films of the 1940's updated to contemporary settings. Curious, because the characters are modern suburban America high school students.

To Johnson's credit, the movie does not play like a gimmicky Bugsy Malone novelty piece parodying or mimicking the source reference material. The story is written and played completely straight, with the potential for for serious danger and death in the characters' predicaments.

The part of the hard-boiled, relentless private eye has been morphed to a loner at the schoolyard - Brendan - who eats his meals in private behind the buildings. He was once involved in the prevalent drug scene at the school, but seems to have straightened out and broken off from the kids who used to comprise his network. Brendan had a relationship with Emily, but she ended it as she got more and more involved with drugs and the underground hardcore pushers clique.

Brendan is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the youngest of the alien family on Third Rock From The Sun), and he does an excellent job portraying the proper world-weary resignation of a Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade as he digs himself deeper into danger while chasing after a mystery he knows he should probably stay out of. Gordon-Levitt effectively makes you forget about his long running stint as a silly sitcom lead.

Brendan's arch-nemesis is the shadowy character known as "The Pin" (for Kingpin). The Pin is played by Lukas Haas, best remembered as the young boy in Witness. Haas does not come off as well in his Sydney Greenstreet themed characterization as the head of the local drug cartel. The Pin dresses entirely in black, sporting a flowing black cape, a duck-headed walking stick, and an oversized orthopedic shoe on one foot to compensate for a gimpy leg. He is meant to inspire fear and complete obeisance from all around him, but Haas does not have the right physical presence and his costuming seems like a joke.

The rest of the cast members are pretty much stuck in roles that are more caricatures than characters. First there is the mysterious woman who might be in love with the detective or might be a duplicitous schemer. In Brick, the character is Laura, played by Nora Zehetner. She has the right Brigid O'Shaughnessy look for the requisite tender scenes with Brendan, but comes across as a weaker person than the part calls for. Brendan's partner behind the scenes in his investigation is Matt O'Leary as "The Brain" -- a wasted part established purely to let them share expository dialog when necessary to advance the plot. Richard Roundtree shows up in an extended cameo as the Assistant Vice Principal of the high school in a scene intended to reflect the standard noir run-in between the detective and the local police chief. Roundtree overplays it with unexplained malice and anger towards Brendan (see the scene between Schwarzenegger and his chief in The Last Action Hero for reference).

The supporting player who comes off the best is Noah Fleiss as "Tugger," the main muscle for The Pin. What starts out as a cliched bruiser develops into something much deeper and more interesting as events progress.

The problem with all these characters is not so much the situation and plot line as the dialog that Johnson has written for them. He seems determined to prove to the audience his encyclopediac knowledge of 1940's noir lingo. He has his high school students intersperse their standard realistic dialog with modern street/drug slang and 1940's gangster terms such as yeggs, bulls, and "taking a powder." It's difficult writing to deliver and Johnson has his actors speak much of it at rapid fire pace (going for a Howard Hawks approach). Many of the conversations are poorly miked and we find ourselves too often straining to understand what has been said. Add in a tendency to overpack plot points into short speeches and the film can be compared to a badly tuned stick-shift jalopy. It lurches suddenly forward, coasts for a bit, requires a moment in reverse to figure out what just happened, then lurches forward again. The problem is reinforced by Johnson's choppy editing (supposedly done on a home computer) and some dark scenes that are excessively grainy and difficult to make out.

Overall, it's an interesting academic exercise, but I can't recommend it for sheer entertainment value.

Parents notes include adult situations including drug references, violence, death, and implied sexual situations. Older high schoolers might be fascinated if they understand why the characters are talking so strangely.