Out of Africa (1985)

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When you think of Africa, I’m sure your first thought is of the poor white people who struggled to eke out a living on a massive plantation during the colonial era.  If they’re really good white people, they might condescend to allow their African tribal neighbors to work on their land, even if, say, they have an infection on their leg. That’s just the kind of wonderful white people they are.

I now feel confident in my ability to categorize Oscar films into particular genres, and this one falls decidedly in the “white savior does something nice for a non-white person and now they’re a goddamn hero” camp.  It’s the only way minorities tend to feature in films, as objects of white characters’ narrative arcs.  I’ve heard this, and read criticism of it, and maybe even occasionally thought about it myself when watching films in moments of greater cultural consciousness.  But I suppose it’s a more striking lesson when you finally see it yourself.

The movie is based on the writing of Isak Denison, whom I’ve never read and didn’t know anything about prior to watching the film.  Her memoir of the same name described her experience trying to run a coffee farm in Kenya in the era of World War I.  Since reviewing accounts is pretty boring, most of the story actually focuses on her budding romance with the ruggedly handsome big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who sounds like the poshest Brit in Buckingham Palace but is actually the basic equivalent of Crocodile Dundee.  You’ll be surprised to realize that Crocodile Dundee does not make the best of boyfriends, especially when he’d rather spend his time wandering around the wilderness instead of with his ladyfriend.  At least, as long as he can store his crap in her house rent-free.

Like most three-hour films, my attention flagged somewhere in the middle, which turned out to be just the point when something interesting happened with the plot.  The last thing I remember, the lovebirds were flying around in Finch Hatton’s aeroplane, which he picked up somewhere.  Then all of a sudden Isak was moving out because her farm failed.  Oh, and somewhere in the middle she opened up a school for the local tribe’s children – not the worst idea in the world if the curriculum were not based only on what she deemed fitting for the kids to learn.  Crocodile Finch Hatton thought so, anyway.

This is one of a handful of Best Pictures that holds a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the most recent film with that honor.  It makes sense.  Though I would certainly rate quite a few highly-regarded movies on the list as rotten, Out of Africa is fairly egregious in the same traits that other movies pull off better.  The scale is epic, but its story doesn’t support the length.  It’s sort of a romance, but you don’t need three hours to tell a love story.  Though the lead actors (Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who even I recognize as among the best) are skilled, their characters don’t have much of a spark.

Bottom line:  it’s not the worst thing in the world to get out of Africa.

 

 

Theme:  Rotten

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Not owners, just passing through.

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The Sting (1973)

 

Before anything else, I’d just like to acknowledge a minor role in this movie, played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl.  His voice bears such a striking resemblance to his son’s famous baritone that I literally spent the first twenty minutes trying to place it before caving and looking it up.  He plays the likeable character Luther, who trains his protégé Robert Redford in the fine art of the street con – before they cross paths with the wrong mobster.

Also on the subject of family relations, there’s a bodyguard in this movie who is a dead ringer for Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  I will never be convinced that he is not actually Flea’s father.

  

Oh, yeah, also starring is the famous duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  Quite a few years ago, I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I must have been too young or something to appreciate it because I found it decidedly boring.  Oddly enough, though, I swear there was a makeover montage scene in that movie that was a dead ringer for the one in The Sting.  Was there just something about Newman and Redford that inspired shots of them being kitted out in fancy new duds in every film they were in together?

It is, in fact, my experience with films like Butch that have made me cautious about watching other classic movies because I inevitably seem to find them less than they’re cracked up to me.  However, I knew next to nothing about this movie (I do my best not to read much about an unfamiliar movie on the Best Picture list before I watch it in order to allow myself the freshest viewing possible.  Hey, you try shielding yourself from spoilers of decades-old movies.)

There’s a particular kind of film where a character who’s not exactly a good guy becomes sympathetic because he’s placed in circumstances where he’s the enemy of an even nastier guy.  In real life, you probably wouldn’t root for a con man, but if he looks like Robert Redford, anything goes.  I think the other appealing part about the story is that you can support the underdog, the guy who’s in over his head and now has mob bosses and cops all after him.  You kind of want somebody like that to catch a break.

Beyond that, I probably don’t speak only for myself when I admit that stories about poker and gambling are appealing in a vicarious way because I’d like to believe that I could be a poker master, despite an utter lack of evidence of any talent or innate ability in this area.  The actual work of memorizing probabilities and reading faces and all that is not nearly as attractive as the general sense of what it might be like to be able to, say, shuffle cards without awkward stray flutters.  We all want to be card sharks.  Or is it sharps?  I’ve heard it both ways.

With so many of the films on this list taking themselves way too seriously, it’s nice to watch something that just ends up being a fun romp.  Why is it, these days especially, that a movie is only considered Important if it’s serious enough to put you to sleep?

 

Theme:  crime spree

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Wins by a nose