Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, May 30, 2006.

  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

    May 7, 2001
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  2. Rich Malloy

    Rich Malloy Producer

    Apr 9, 2000
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    Thanks for the positive write-up - I wasn't sure if this film would even merit a review given that it's ostensibly a "children's film"! I hope you don't mind if I fill in a bit of the sad back history of this film's (lack of) distribution, and a few of my own thoughts about it.

    In case anyone didn't know, this is Carroll Ballard's latest film ("Fly Away Home", "The Black Stallion"), and IMO it's among his very best. It's not a terribly different tale than that which Ballard's told before, but it has all the hallmarks of his style including a real reverence for kids and the way they view the world coupled with an utter lack of condescension. And visually sublime.

    And athough it's one of those impossibly rare "films for the whole family" that's actually worth watching, it's also something of an unfortunate case in that it's a film you probably didn't even get a chance to see at theaters despite the hard work of certain notable critics:

    David Edelstein: "A few months ago I got a note from the "Dude" himself, Jeff Dowd, the inspiration for Jeff Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski and now a director's rep, on behalf of Carroll Ballard's Duma. Its studio, Warner Bros., had no faith in its ability to find an audience and intended to play it in a few theaters (for contractual reasons) and send it straight to DVD.

    Flabbergasting news! Ballard is a national treasure... Now, the movie has a tryout in two New York theaters. At the preview I attended, the audience got a note from the director saying: If you like this film, please, please tell people. So, I'm telling you."

    Roger Ebert: "Duma" is an astonishing film by Carroll Ballard, the director who is fascinated by the relationship between humans, animals and the wilderness. He works infrequently, but unforgettably. Perhaps you have seen his "The Black Stallion" (1979), about a boy and a horse who are shipwrecked, and begin a friendship that leads to a crucial horse race. Or his "Never Cry Wolf" (1983), based on the Farley Mowat book about a man who goes to live in the wild with wolves. Or the wonderful "Fly Away Home" (1996), about a 13-year-old girl who solos in an ultralight aircraft, leading a flock of pet geese south from Canada.

    The wolf and geese stories were, incredibly, based on fact. So, perhaps even more incredibly, is "Duma." There really was a boy and a cheetah, written about in the book How It Was With Dooms, by Xan Hopcraft and his mother, Carol Cawthra Hopcraft. Even more to the point: This movie shows a real boy and a real cheetah (actually, four cheetahs were used). There are no special effects. The cheetah is not digitized. What we see on the screen is what is happening, and that lends the film an eerie intensity. Animals are fascinating when they are free to be themselves; when they are manipulated by CGI into cute little actors who behave on cue, what's the point?

    How is this film possible? There are shots showing a desert empty to the horizon, except for the boy and the cheetah. No doubt handlers are right there out of camera range, ready to act in an emergency, but it is clear the filmmakers and the boy trust the animals they are working with.

    Watching this movie, absorbed by its storytelling, touched by its beauty, fascinated by the bond between the boy and the animal, I was also astonished by something else: The studio does not know if it is commercial! The most dismal stupidities can be inflicted on young audiences, but let a family movie come along that is ambitious and visionary, and distributors lose confidence. It's as if they fear some movies are better than the audience can handle.

    "Duma" has had test runs in the Southwest. Now it opens in Chicago, and the box office performance here will decide its fate. That is not a reason to see it. Moviegoers do not buy tickets to "support" a movie, nor should they. The reason to see "Duma" is that it's an extraordinary film, and intelligent younger viewers in particular may be enthralled by it.

    Stephanie Zacharek: "Carroll Ballard's "Duma," the story of (among other things) a friendship between a 12-year-old boy and an orphaned cheetah, could stand tall on the beauty of its images alone: Ballard and his cinematographer, Werner Maritz, show us vast green-gold South African plains, deep sapphire nighttime skies with the inky-matte texture of crepe and, most stunning of all, a cheetah moving so fast he appears ready to take flight. These are the sorts of images that draw us to the movies in the first place, and "Duma," in particular, demands to be seen on the big screen.

    But unless Warner Bros. has a change of heart (or, more accurately, a change of business strategy), audiences won't get that chance. "Duma," and the sort of intelligent, visually rich filmmaking it represents, are endangered species. He's the master of a rare kind of movie storytelling; there is no other filmmaker quite like him. Timeless without ever seeming old-fashioned or hokey, his movies feel like ballads that have been passed down from the generations before us, blends of words and images that constitute a kind of cross-cultural visual music."

    ""Duma" is a movie about many things -- about loyalty, about the majesty and danger of nature, about self-sufficiency in the face of the uncertainty and, sometimes, the hardship of childhood. It's also about parenthood, and the things we pass on to our children even when we're not overtly "teaching" them (or maybe especially when we're not teaching them). This is also an adventure tale with lots of danger and suspense, made in a way that doesn't abuse children's emotions or underestimate their intelligence. (Needless to say, adults are likely to enjoy it just as much, if not more.) And it's put together so fluidly that it approaches perfection.

    But before we start rejoicing that a movie like "Duma" can still get made, let's cut to the bad news: Its studio, Warner Bros., doesn't know what to do with it. And unless the company changes its mind, you're not likely to see "Duma" on the big screen, unless you happen to live near Chicago, where it opens this Friday for one week -- possibly longer if it does well."

    "Duma" had a test run last spring in three markets, San Antonio, Phoenix and Sacramento, Calif. (It has also had a limited release in the U.K.) The picture had two showings in New York, at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, where I was lucky enough to see it. The cost of marketing a picture like "Duma" nationwide is about $25 million, and the studio, unsure of the movie's earning potential, isn't sure it wants to make that commitment. ("Duma" cost around $12 million to make.) But after Roger Ebert spoke favorably about the picture, Warner did agree to give it a Chicago release."

    "Duma" never got that wide release,so let us be thankful for DVD. This is a film well worth your time, particularly if you have kids you can watch it with. After all, our kids get enough of the usual commodified BS with the Burger King tie-in and the empty calories and the zero artistic or moral content. Here's something that'll appeal to whatever's left of their sense of wonder. And did I mention the visual sublimity?
  3. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist

    Feb 8, 1999
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    Robert Harris
    Duma is a wonderful film, and comes highly recommended.


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