The Netflix Report

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

Try Netflix for Free!

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.


At 9:33 PM, Anonymous Temple Stark said...

No good films out after this :-)

At 11:11 PM, Blogger Ken said...

Ah, thank you for caring!

I've been going through a period of self-doubt on the added value to the public of shoving yet more film reviews onto the internet. It just seems like there are so many, and I found that I was starting to oscillate between repeating consensus views without any new insights and acting as a contrarian that nobody much cared about. I try to put serious thought, effort, and time into each review and it got a bit exhausting.

For the record, here are some quick thoughts on films that I have rented since my last formal review:

Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006 - Very interesting (and infuriating) documentary about the “conspiracy” to bury the fully working electric car. Recommended.

An Inconvenient Truth, 2006 - Very good (and depressing) documentary about global warming. Delivered by Al Gore. Better than you’d think for essentially a big slide show. Recommended.

Strangers with Candy, 2005 - Only sporadically funny. Kind of a one-joke film based on the canceled TV show. Not recommended.

Wordplay, 2006 - Documentary about people who make and solve crossword puzzles; Specifically the New York Times puzzle. Includes the championship competition. More interesting than you might think and more heartwarming and inclusive than the similar recent documentaries on spelling bees and Scrabble. Recommended.

The Notorious Bettie Page, 2006 - Not as interesting as it should have been. Dramatized history of Bettie Page, the pinup girl from the 50’s. Gretchen Moll does a good job, but it is ultimately a fairly boring story. Some nudity, but not sexual. Not recommended.

Fire, 1996 - One of a trilogy of reactionary Indian films by Deepa Mehta (along with Earth and Water). This one explores two women in loveless marriages who turn to each other. Some sexuality. I loved it. Debbie was lukewarm. Recommended.

Kinky Boots, 2005 - Based (somewhat loosely) on real events. A conservative British shoe company switches to making thigh-high boots for transvestites, helped by a saucy cross-dresser. Moderately entertaining, but not memorable.

Everything Is Illuminated, 2005 - Comedy/drama about a young introverted Jewish man from America who travels to Russia to find his grandfather’s old village. He is guided by a wacky local tour guide and a grumpy older man. “Along the way everybody learns valuable lessons… about themselves.” I liked this more than Debbie did. Recommended.

Life in the Undergrowth: 2005 - Another of the superb “Life” documentaries by David Attenborough. Incredible photography and information. As usual. All his TV documentaries are must-see. Recommended. Your cat will also enjoy watching.

Akeelah and the Bee, 2006 - Constructed for a younger audience than I had expected. Rather formulaic story about a young disadvantaged spelling prodigy who takes on the challenge of going to the national spelling bee. Somewhat predictable, but sweet enough. Mildly recommended.

The Island, 2005 - Sci-fi action flick that rips off “Logans Run” and several other films. Attractive leads, entertaining while watching, but ultimately more fun as an exercise in spotting the 437 plot holes, inconsistencies, and impossibilities placed in every scene. Recommended when you want some serious cheese.

Earth, 1998 - Another in Deepa Mehta’s societal trilogy. This examines the societal upheaval when Britain gave India its independence and separated Pakistan into its own country. Shows the internal sectarian and religious conflicts that became very bloody and continue to current times. A strong lesson for Iraq’s probable fate. Recommended.

Thank You for Smoking, 2005 - Entertaining through most of it, but ends weakly. A comedy with a message about big business getting rich off “vice” pleasures such as smoking and how conscience has no place in the business. Mildly recommended.

Tsotsi, 2006 - Academy Award winner for foreign film. Tells about a young shantytown thug who has to develop a conscience and responsibility, much to his chagrin. Powerful. Recommended.

Lucky Number Slevin, 2006 - Fun thriller with lots of plot twists, but violent to the point where you will be uncomfortable. Recommended, but not for your tastes.

V for Vendetta, 2006 - Sci-fi morality tale about revenge and the need for the common man to demand responsibility and ethical behavior from government. Interesting and entertaining, but probably too violent in places for you. Recommended, but not for your tastes.

Bollywood / Hollywood, 2002 - Another Deepa Mehta film, this time set in modern Canada, looking at the clash between progressive youthful assimilation and their more traditional parents and expectations. Terrible, unfunny, and a mess. Not recommended.

The Life of Mammals: 2002 - More brilliant nature documentary from Attenborough, but because we are most familiar with mammals, the least “Wow factor.” Still better than most of the fictional entertainment available.

Why We Fight, 2005 - Very important and depressing documentary about the intertwining of the commercial defense industry, government, and the military in America. War has become an economic priority and necessity for those in charge, to be justified to the public with whatever lies are needed. Highly recommended.

The Wild, 2006 - A thoroughly awful and tedious alternate take on the same story line and plot development of "Madagascar." Not recommended.

Little Miss Sunshine, 2006 - I'm the only reviewer in America who didn't like this film. I felt the humor was cribbed from other, better comedies that came before. The characters were written as walking caricatures with idiosyncracies layered on with a trowel. Dramatic setups were left to die, with no payoff or resolution (or any sense that they mattered). And every so often the filmmakers would introduce practical impossibilities as a device to get a laugh or propel the plot. They harmed the naturalistic tone of the rest of the film. But the actors were great.

Find Me Guilty- This is the one that stopped my reviews cold. I went out and ordered the hard to find book recapping the actual trial this movie is based on, just so I could figure out what was real and what was made up. For a movie covering a well documented piece of history (and sold as a true story), a depressing amount was fictionalized. Still an engaging and enjoyable film, but I felt duped afterwards.

Monster House, 2006 - A great story, great animation, great voice work. Way too scary and intense for very little kids (even though everything comes out all right in the end). A good old fashioned ghost story like you might tell around the campfire, told from the kids' viewpoint. Highly recommended.

A Prairie Home Companion, 2006 - Boring! Mortality was obviously much on Altman's mind, for good reason as it turned out. I thought Keillor's script was completely incapable of developing the themes that were obviously on his mind (although that could also be attributed to Altman's working style of improvisation and lots of cutting). Kevin Kline was ridiculous with his Inspector Clouseau inspired interpretation of a dimwitted Guy Noir. His slapstick was out of place with everything else in the movie. Virginia Madsen certainly reined in any predisposition to act with her tight lipped portrayal of a mysterious angel. Lindsay Lohan was generally embarrassing. Lily Tomlin looked scary and sounded even scarier when she tried to sing. For me, the only breath of fresh air was Meryl Streep. She overplayed the pathos bits (again, lousy overdramatic writing), but every time she smiled her whole face lit up the screen.

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Temple Stark said...

Here's an idea. I run a bi-partisan Political Web site / group blog that is just starting to get back off the ground. Part of it is a section called "Political Arts" designed for reviews of movies and books and ??? centering around political or US-centric political issues.

I get e-mails every day asking if I want screeners or DVD copies etc. I can't do them all (and haven't started yet but I have five Random House books sent to me I'm getting through), I could more with help.

The site is I view it as a serious look. I want it more than it is.

My e-mail is temple (well that's one of them).

- Best Temple
PS Can I take you off my blogroll :-)

At 6:00 AM, Anonymous netflix offers said...

It just seems like there are so many, and I found that I was starting to oscillate between repeating consensus views without any new insights and acting as a contrarian that nobody much cared about.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home