Out of Africa


Out of Africa

Actors will do just about anything to be in a movie with Meryl Streep.

(1985) Drama (Universal) Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Malick Bowens, Joseph Thiaka, Stephen Kinyanjul, Michael Gough, Suzanna Hamilton, Rachel Kempson, Graham Crowden, Leslie Phillips, Shane Rimmer. Directed by Sydney Pollack

 

Africa is a place that stimulates the imagination. It is a continent largely untamed in our imagination, full of wild animals and exotic tribes. Those who travel there find sometimes that it exceeds the imagination; to others it is a savage, uncivilized place. There are those who hate the heat and the culture of Africa; others fall in love with it and retain a kind of obsession.

Karen Blixen (Streep) was a young Danish woman who found her life in Denmark lacking in adventure. One of her friends, Baron Bror von Blixen (Brandauer) was single and similarly bored. They decided to marry, even though Bror had misgivings about his ability to remain faithful.

They decided to buy a dairy farm in what is now Kenya in the Ngong Hills outside of Nairobi. Bror was sent on ahead to set things up with Karen following thereafter. When she arrived in Nairobi, she was met by Farah (Bowens), an even-tempered member of the Kikuyu tribe who would become her personal servant. Farah escorted Karen to her new home. She is surprised to discover that Bror had purchased a coffee plantation rather than the dairy farm they’d agreed upon. This irks Karen mainly because it was her money he had used to do it.

Neither Bror nor Karen knew much about the coffee farming business and quite frankly the land they had chosen wasn’t really conducive to growing the plant but with the help of their plant overseer Belknap (Rimmer) they manage to at least make a go of it. However, Bror isn’t really interested in being a plantation owner; he is more interested in big game hunting and womanizing, which leads to Karen contracting syphilis which at the time was incredibly dangerous. She is forced to return to Denmark and undergo a painful and debilitating treatment which ends up with her being unable to have children.

She returns to Africa where she meets Denys Finch Hatton (Redford) and his friend Berkeley (Kitchen). She regales them with stories and they provide her with some company during Bror’s absences which aren’t all due strictly to big game hunting. At last she asks him to move out when it becomes clear that his philandering isn’t going to stop. In the meantime she has developed feelings for Hatton which lead them to move in together and become lovers.

However, Denys proves to be as untamable and elusive as Africa herself and the coffee plantation, never a money-making proposition, is on the verge of bankruptcy. A good harvest could save it, but in order to make a relationship with Denys work Karen will have to give up much of what is important to her. Can she make both the plantation and her relationship work?

I have always considered this the last great Hollywood epic. Sure, there have been other movies with the same sheer scope and grandeur as this one, but these days it’s achieved with CGI and other digital trickery. Out of Africa is a bit of a throwback to movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind in that the size is achieved by set design and a lush backdrop.

The cinematography here is nothing less than spectacular. Vistas of veldt and plain, meadow and mountain show the beauty that is the Dark Continent. Lions and other wild animals inhabit this world much more comfortably than man. Set designer Stephen Grimes took a year to build a replica of early 20th century Nairobi and of Blixen’s home (not far from where it actually stood) and the look and feel is authentic.

Streep’s performance was virtually flawless. She captures the essence of Blixen – who would become better known as author Isak Dinieson – as a strong woman used to bending to the men in her life, which was not unusual for women of the time. She is determined and at times stubborn but at the same time she is lonely and wistful. She is not above dropping to her knees and begging when the occasion calls for it. She was by all accounts an amazing woman and Streep brings those qualities to life. There is a scene late in the movie where Bror informs Karen of the death of someone she loved very much. She says nothing for a moment but brings a cigarette in shaking hand to her lips to smoke. Everything is in her eyes and in the movement of a single hand but the gesture alone tells you everything you need to know. It’s as amazing a piece of acting as I have ever witnessed.

Redford once again proves himself a charismatic movie star. Although Finch Hatton was in fact British, Redford plays him as an American and almost as a cowboy in a lot of ways. Self-reliant to a fault, Denys values his freedom above all else and that makes a relationship with someone who values commitment very difficult. The two don’t seem to be a good pairing but the chemistry is undeniable and when you have two great actors in roles like this, magic is bound to happen – and it did.

Brandauer, better known in Europe, plays Bror with a playful twinkle. Even though he is a bastard at times, Brandauer is so likable we can’t help but see why Karen was so affectionate towards him even after everything he did. It’s a terrific performance and it is a shame that Brandauer hasn’t done a lot of American movies since. There are many that would have benefited from his participation.

This is a classic movie that stands the test of time. While Streep’s curls are more reminiscent of the 80s than the early 20th century, still this looks like a Hollywood film that could have come from the 50s and 60s just as easily. It is a great romance and a great adventure rolled up into one and represents the best of what Hollywood was and still can be. This is the type of film that you can get nostalgic for – and should.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the last great epic films. Outstanding performances by Streep, Redford and Brandauer. Gorgeous cinematography and score.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too feminine-oriented for those who like a little more testosterone in their films.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality as well as some light violence and mature themes. There are also a few choice words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep was originally not considered for the role because she wasn’t “sexy” enough. She showed up at the audition wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra and won the part. Streep would study recordings of the actual Karen Blixen reading her own works in order to get the accent and rhythms of Karen’s speaking voice down.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a documentary about Karen Blixen and her time in Africa. There is a collector’s series Blu-Ray with a “digibook” that contains behind-the-scenes photos, script excerpts and personal letters which is fairly expensive.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $128.54M on an unreported production budget; given the adjustment for inflation, I’d bet this was a blockbuster in its time.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dr. Zhivago

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Matchstick Men

Made of Honor


Made of Honor

Monaghan and Dempsey dance cheek to cheek.

(Columbia) Patrick Dempsey, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin McKidd, Kathleen Quinlan, Sydney Pollack, Kadeem Hardison, James Sikking, Busy Philipps, Whitney Cummings. Directed by Paul Weiland

The secret to a successful romantic relationship is to marry your best friend. Sometimes, that logic escapes even the brightest of us.

Tom (Dempsey) is a serial lady-killer who operates on a complicated but nonetheless rigid set of rules guaranteed to prevent a serious relationship from sprouting up from the sex. At a collegiate Halloween party during the Clinton era he accidentally climbs into the bed of Hannah (Moynahan), a bookish co-ed when he meant to get busy with her cousin Melissa (Philipps). He gets sprayed in the eyes for his trouble and Moynahan, finding him curiously fascinating despite his male chauvinist pig attitudes, nurses him back to sight and points him in the direction of her cousin, who doesn’t handle liquor very well.

Fast-forward a decade and the two have become best buddies. His collegiate tendencies have blossomed into a full-blown lifestyle; he is able to afford this because he invented the coffee cup holder, which has made him rich. She works as an art buyer and is heading for Scotland on business. Tom still has the company of his buddies, including pal Felix (Hardison), and boasts that he has the best of all worlds; a different woman in his bed every night and Hannah during the day to hang out with. However, Tom realizes the longer that she’s gone that he really likes hanging out with Hannah and that he wants more than a platonic buddy relationship with her. He resolves to tell her so, but unfortunately for him, she returns with Colin (McKidd) in tow, the near-perfect man – a Scottish noble with medals for valor and achievement on his perfect manly chest, and a nice guy to boot. She informs a shocked Tom that the two have set a date to be married and she wants him – Tom – to be her maid of honor. Tom does what all men in that situation should do; knock over a waiter with a full tray of food. Ah, hilarity.

Tom is reluctant to go to Scotland to watch the woman he now knows he loves wed another man but Felix convinces him that the best way to subvert her nuptials is from the inside. He decides to go ahead with the plan, not realizing that among the bridesmaids is grown-up cousin Melissa who has an absolute hate on for Tom, and who secretly thinks she should be the maid of honor.

Tom tries to prove himself the best man for Hannah by being as perfect at everything as Colin is but as is usually the case in romantic comedies, events (and the very vindictive Melissa) conspire against him. Will true love triumph in the end?

Romantic comedies are a kind of fantasy, particularly as practiced by Hollywood. The formula is pretty much the same; an unlikely couple gets together and discovers a growing feeling for one another. Things go well until one of them makes a critical error and the two are separated. Usually a third party becomes involved and one of them looks headed for a lifetime relationship with the wrong person until the one he/she should be with saves the day.

That’s all fine and good for the movies but it doesn’t really work that way in real life. Now, I’m all for escapism but I just wish that Hollywood rom-com writers could put some variation in the formula to make these just a tad more interesting. After all, the plot here sounds suspiciously like My Best Friend’s Wedding, except that movie had Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney as a couple and there was more chemistry between those two than Dempsey and Monaghan any day of the week.

There really isn’t much here that makes this movie worth seeing, other than a pretty good-looking cast and the beautiful scenery of Scotland. One notable exception is director Sydney Pollack in his last acting role before his death in 2008 from stomach cancer. He plays Tom’s oft-married dad (undergoing wedding number six to American Idol Kelly Clarkson) who is negotiating a pre-nuptial agreement that is essentially a license for prostitution. It’s one of the few sequences that really stand out.

It’s hard to buy why the allegedly bright Hannah would find anything remotely in common with the terminally shallow Tom, who seems to represent everything in life she is against. I guess that the odd couple formula had to be filled out one way or another.

I will be the first to admit I have a great deal of fondness for a good romantic comedy. Some of my favorite movies of all time – Love, Actually comes to mind right off the top of my head – fall into that genre. However, the sad truth is that the studios seem incapable of making a good one and it’s been a bloody long time since I saw anything better than average come out in the genre from a Hollywood studio. It seems that Hollywood can churn out the special effects to make you believe an alien planet is real but can’t find a writer that will make you believe a romance is real. How sad is that?

WHY RENT THIS: Another harmless rom-com without ambition to be much more than that. The fine-looking cast is easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If your expectations are slightly higher, there are movies with similar themes done far better.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild sexuality and a bit of harsh language but otherwise suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming was done at Dunvegan Castle on the Island of Skye, the oldest continuously-inhabited castle in Scotland and the ancient home of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod. The Highland Games sequence was filmed here, as well as a sentimental scene between Hannah and Tom.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Gigantic

Avenue Montaigne


Avenue Montaigne

Jessica is a tourist in Paris and in life.

(THINKfilm) Cecilie de France, Valerie Lemercier, Albert Dupontel, Sydney Pollack, Claude Brasseur, Christopher Thompson, Dani, Laura Morante, Suzanne Flon. Directed by Danielle Thompson

Life imitates art, it is often said but the reverse isn’t always true. From time to time, art – and the artists who make it – is completely at odds with reality.

Jessica (de France) is a wide-eyed innocent who was orphaned at age four and was raised by her delightful grandmother (Flon), who had a taste for luxury but unfortunately not the pocketbook for it. She contented herself by being a ladies room attendant at the Ritz Hotel, able to rub elbows with the very rich at least indirectly.

Now on her own, Jessica comes to Paris looking for a job but without much experience. She talks her way into a job as a waitress at a café on the Avenue Montaigne, a center of the arts in Paris. At the Bistro, the famous and the lowly come to eat from the stagehands and ushers to the stars of the theater and the concert hall across the street.

Three events are taking place three days from her first day; a recital by Jean-Francois Lefort, a world-famous classical pianist (Dupontel) who has grown weary of his lifestyle and yearns to play for a less discerning audience, despite the fact that his adoring wife and agent (Morante) has him booked for the next six years. There is also an art auction as a businessman and connoisseur named Jacques Grunberg (Brasseur) is selling off the contents of his former life, which irritates his estranged son Frederic (Thompson, the son of the director) who sees his father dating a much younger woman he once had an affair with (unbeknownst to the father) and leaving the legacy of his mother behind.

Finally, there is the performance of a farce at the theater starring Catherine (Lemercier), a star on a wildly popular soap who yearns for more substantial roles. She hopes she might get one in a biography of Simone de Beauvoir that an American director (Pollack) is putting together. Although the casting director for the film hates her, she still hopes she can win the director over.

Jessica moves in an out of their lives like a sprite, befriending the elderly concierge (Dani) who is retiring after the performances. With no place to live and knowing nobody, Jessica sleeps in the dressing room of the concert hall and befriends the performances so guilelessly that they can’t help but feel comfortable with her. But as things move towards the night of the performances, each performer feels the weight of their demons moving in. Can the show go on when the showman doesn’t have the will to perform any longer?

Director Thompson (Jet Lag) has crafted a typically charming slice of life in the French capital as it relates to the arts on the Avenue. This is not a love letter to Paris – although the beauty of the city is well on display, the movie takes it more as a matter of fact that you love Paris. And who wouldn’t? Even the neuroses are charming.

De France carries the movie effortlessly, a pixie in a sidewalk café who flits from situation to situation with enough pluck to make her adorable. Lemercier also captures the neurotic television star with the right mix of frenetic kinesis, nervous tics, self-loathing and blind ambition to make her believable, but with enough heart to make her worth caring about. Dupontel is also solid as a pianist who is a prisoner of his own talent and fame.

The one drawback is that it is hard to feel much sympathy for people who are so successful, so famous, so wealthy. Not that people with success, fame and wealth are without problems, but one must take them with a grain of salt.

There is also a subtext about the relationship between the young and the elderly, starting with Jessica and her grandmother but also including Jacques and his son and Jessica and the concierge. I actually kind of liked it; too often we dismiss the wisdom of our elders because of our own arrogance. The fact is we don’t freakin’ know it all.

Any movie that takes place in a French café had better be prepared to charm the pants off of you, and Avenue Montaigne accomplishes that. This isn’t something that is going to give you remarkable insight; rather it is a fluffy entertainment, a meringue if you will. Nothing wrong with that, so if you like your movies light and charming this just might be your ticket.

 WHY RENT THIS: A delightful slice of Parisian life in the arts as seen by a wide-eyed innocent from the provinces. Some timely themes about ageism and class distinctions.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is occasionally hard to feel sympathy for people who are successful and adored but are miserable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and some salty language but otherwise fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Suzanne Flon passed away shortly after filming was completed. As the end credits begin, we see a tribute page to her with the actress, offscreen, repeating a line from earlier in the film stating that she had a good life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Frozen River