by Julian Spivey
In December I saw something called the “12 Movies Challenge” on Facebook. The premise was that you would have 12 months to watch 12 movies recommended by 12 friends. I don’t often participate in such social media challenges but being a movie buff I felt this might be an interesting way to get out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to watching movies.
My Facebook buds gave me some films that I’ve been meaning to watch and I pretty much front-loaded those on the list – though not explicitly stated in the challenge rules I am opting to watch one film a month.
A Best Picture winner like “Out of Africa” is an obvious choice for me to get to at some point – that point is now going to be March of this year. But there are certain movies I’m not really looking forward to all that much – I’m looking at you “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” my August selection. Then there’s the acclaimed stuff that isn’t really up my alley like the anime feature “Spirited Away,” which I’ve scheduled for November. That will truly be me getting out of my comfort zone.
Here are the 12 movies recommended to me and the months I’ve assigned myself to watch them:
January: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
February: “Till” (2022)
March: “Out of Africa” (1985)
April: “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
May: “Legally Blonde” (2001)
June: “The Birdcage” (1996)
July: “Morning Glory” (2010)
August: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966)
September: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
October: “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
November: “Spirited Away” (2001)
December: “The Last Laugh” (1924)
“Out of Africa” was chosen by my friend Patti. I chose to watch it in March as it was the Best Picture winner from 1985 and March is typically Oscars month.
As I say at the beginning of this piece that I attach to these posts every month, “Out of Africa” was one of the 12 movies selected for me this year that I most looked forward to as it was a previous Best Picture Oscar winner and it’s a film I’ve literally DVR’d off Turner Classic Movies multiple times over the years and just never got around to watching. I also believe there’s a copy of it among the hundreds of DVDs on a shelf in a room I hardly ever go into because most things are available via streaming these days. So, I fired up Netflix and watched “Out of Africa.”
Yes, it was one that I had wanted to get around to for some time, but as that time neared I began to dread it just a bit – mostly because of its two hours and 40 minutes runtime (I’ve been growing weary of long runtimes lately – which would make 17 year old me who watched “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” back-to-back highly annoyed), but also it seemed like a film that could easily fall into melodramatics from the very little I knew about it going in.
Its 61 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes among film critics doesn’t help either. I think that makes the film the fourth-lowest score ever on that site – I’ll get to that again in a bit.
“Out of Africa” is the story of Karen Blixen, based loosely on her 1937 autobiography of the same name she penned under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen with additional material from some more of her books, a Danish woman recalling her life in Kenya in Africa, where she moved in 1913, her relationships with three men: her husband Bror Blixen (a marriage of mutual convenience – he was a baron, she had money), a big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (a Brit in real-life, but played by Robert Redford with his natural American accent – supposedly at the behest of director Sydney Pollack after Redford attempted a British one) and Berkeley Cole, a British aristocrat. Karen is headstrong and focused on her endeavors, which include a coffee farm and school for the local Kikuyu children.
Streep plays Karen and this is easily the best Meryl Streep performance I’ve ever seen - though I have unfortunately not seen any of her Oscar-winning roles yet with her two Best Actress wins in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “The Iron Lady” (2011) and her Best Supporting Actress win in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). I, obviously, have additional movies to add to my list.
Streep owns every inch of this film. Redford is billed first in the movie’s credits, which I find gobsmackingly dumb. I realize he was the more senior actor of the two and probably still the biggest name at that time, but it’s Karen Blixen’s story and Redford’s Finch Hatton merely plays a meaningful part in it.
“Out of Africa” is the kind of epic and romance – not necessarily an “epic romance” in that I found the romance to be only a part of the story (though I realize others may disagree) – that you pretty much saw from the dawn of cinema until about the time this film won Best Picture. You don’t really see these kinds of stories much anymore – at least not this successful. As for potential melodramatics, I understand some might see it in the film, but it was not something that bothered me.
The only other Pollack film I’ve ever seen is 1982’s “Tootsie,” which was his prior film to “Out of Africa,” and I can’t imagine two films more different than those two. “Tootsie” is also really good – likely even higher ranking in my book, but it’s been well over a decade since I saw it and I need a rewatch. The two films back-to-back show Pollack’s range.
About that worrisome runtime … Yes, Pollack and his editors probably could’ve chopped a little out of the film, though the fact that I can’t tell you what points to the fact that maybe two hours and 40 minutes was needed for the story. After all, Pollack did win the Oscar for Best Director, and though they didn’t win, his four editors were nominated for Best Editing. The film’s seven Oscar wins were: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (rightfully so, as the majority of the movie was filmed on location in Africa), Best Art-Set Direction, Best Sound and Best Original Score.
Streep lost out on Best Actress to Geraldine Page in “The Trip to Bountiful” (haven’t seen it).
As for the low critical ratings … I can understand why some wouldn’t think of “Out of Africa” as the Best Picture winner – I haven’t seen any of the other nominees that year, but Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” (another film on my “to see list”) was its biggest competition – but I don’t see how anyone could view “Out of Africa” as a bad movie. There’s just too much interesting about Blixen’s life, Streep’s performance, and the beautiful, on-location cinematography to see this as something less than good in my opinion.
Next up on my 12 Movies Challenge is “The Devil Wears Prada,” another film starring Streep. That wasn’t planned. That one seems more fun than prestige. Hopefully fun is what it will be.