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Out of Africa

In honor of Veteranís Day, I guess we can do a movie nominally about World War I. (Maybe I should have saved Best Years of Our Lives or Wings for today. Oh well.) We turn to Sydney Pollackís 1985 winner Out of Africa.

Meryl Streep plays Baroness Blixen, originally from Denmark, but she owns a farm in Africa, or so she tells us in a voice over narration about fifty times. Itís a coffee plantation in Kenya she runs with her husband, a man who she married to spite his brother, with whom she had been having an affair back in Denmark, but who was marrying someone else. The Baroness and her husband arenít in love, leaving her to fall in love with a guy who doesnít really love her, a safari guide named Denys played by Robert Redford.

In the midst of all this the war happens, she comes down with syph, she shoots a lion, and the coffee business takes a hit. Thereís also something in there about her starting a school, but itís some point about colonialism that kind of gets lost in the mix. Eventually Denys dies, and the Baroness gets a diverse and moves back to Europe, and the sheen is rubbed off of the entire continent.

This movie reminds me a whole lot of the Almasy/ Katherine story line from The English Patient, which as I explained ten months ago was the less interesting part of that movie. They even throw in an airplane and the two lovers first connecting in part due to a car breaking down in the middle of nowhere. Now granted this movie predates The English Patient by an entire decade so I canít hold that against Pollack, but it does make me respect the best picture of 1996 a whole lot less, especially considering the novel on which it was based didnít even come out until 1992, seven years after a certain Robert Redford/ Meryl Streep movie.

Now anytime you have a movie set in Africa, youíre supposed to show off the scenery and all the wonderful exotic landscapes. Pollack never got the memo, it seems. Much of this movie could have been filmed in Des Moines and no one would have known the difference. Sure, we get a couple scenes, mostly involving Denys in his plane, but a lot of this is set indoors, or in some not too exotic ranch or grassland. Whatís the point of even setting the thing in Africa if you only show the inside of some club and a few locales that could be just about anywhere? In most movies set in Africa, the continent itself becomes a character. That is simply not the case here. Sure, the baroness visits a tribe and sees some of the local animal life, but that takes up very little of the movie.

I do like the recurring theme towards the end of the movie of the end of Africaís time as an untapped wilderness. Denys flies over portions of Kenya towards the end seeing tire tracks and bemoaning the loss of Africaís innocence, but the baroness quickly jumps into some argument about the status of their relationship and the magic of the moment is lost.

Redford is up to his usual skill level here, and Streep does a remarkable job of pulling off a convincing Danish accent (which not every performer would have tried, Walter Pidgeon, Iím looking at you, buddy). The interplay between them is good, but nothing all that spectacular.

Other nominees that year included Witness, Prizziís Honor, and Color Purple, the kind of movie that seems to be screaming out for Oscar attention, a category for which Out of Africa is the poster child. The non-nominee group is more memorable and includes the very fun Back to the Future, Terry Gilliamís 1984 adaptation Brazil, two of the better off-the-wall comedies ever made, Real Genius and Spies Like Us, and the John Hughes masterpiece that one day would inspire Jay and Silent Bob to seek out the mythical town of Shermer, Illinois, the Breakfast Club. Now, as we all know Oscar hates laughter. If the academy voters were fair and balanced and admired comedies even a little, they would have seen the true genius of Real Genius. Val Kilmer was still early in his career at the time, but is wonderful as the wacky know-it-all Chris Knight, who wears antennae on his head, because if he wore it anywhere else is would chafe. The dialogue throughout is brilliant (nearly every line Kilmer delivers will make you laugh) and the sight gags step it up a notch as well. Back to the Future is a lot of fun to watch, and Brazil is brilliant, but Real Genius is both. Plus, it wonít induce yawning, like say Out of Africa.

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