Judge Gordon Sullivan thinks of Monopoly tournaments when you say, "big game."
Based on a true story.
One of the few things I miss about the world of VHS was the lack of double dipping. Ever since studios convinced consumers that DVD was the superior format they've been trying to convince us that various editions are superior or will be the definitive version of a particular film. This tactic has left many consumers wary, afraid to upgrade because the promised new extras include a few fluffy featurettes. Then, along comes a double dip that's actually worth it. Not only that, but it emerges less than two years after the first release. Such is the case with Out of Africa. The much-maligned 2010 Blu-ray for the film's twenty-fifth anniversary was plagued with transfer problems. Now Universal have released a new Out of Africa (Blu-ray) as part of the 100th Anniversary Collectors' Series and the results are worth an upgrade for fans of the film.
Facts of the Case
It's 1914, and Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada) moves with her unfaithful husband to a coffee plantation in Kenya. Used to the good life, Karen is afraid that the rough African landscape will provide her scant comfort. However, it isn't long before she finds herself falling in love with the land, the people, and a big-game hunter named Denys (Robert Redford, The Natural).
The above summary sounds like a fantasy, an African version of Doctor Zhivago. One of the more amazing things about Out of Africa is that it isn't a fantasy. Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen was a real historical figure who did live in Kenya in the twilight of the British Empire; Out of Africa is based on a book of her recollections with the same title. The historical dimension grounds the epic feel of Out of Africa in a way that other "epic" films can't claim. There's an attention to detail in both the performances and the creation of the world of 1914 Kenya that's impressive and only makes the grand sweep of the romance even more plausible.
Sydney Pollack seems like an odd choice for director. Films like The Way We Were hint at his ability to deal with romance, while Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor show he can deal with "bigger" films and show a landscape sympathetically. In fact, he's the perfect choice, largely because he doesn't let the landscape overwhelm him. Instead, he makes the Kenyan landscape into another character, one we could believe that Karen would fall in love with. More importantly, perhaps, we too fall in love with Africa, reinforcing the sense of a lost Eden that Dinesen describes in her memoir.
Sydney Pollack is actually the perfect choice for Out of Africa because of his ability to work with actors, especially Robert Redford (with whom he's worked several times previously). Obviously Meryl Streep is a formidable actress, as her numerous award nominations attest, but her chemistry with the iconic Redford here is perfectly orchestrated by Pollack. Though Streep gets things like accent and mannerism right, there's a humanity to her performance that's inspiring, and it's no surprise that Streep was nominated for her role here. It's also no surprise that Redford wasn't; he's been playing these kind of charmingly rugged men for decades by 1985, and Denys is just one more. That's not to play down his performance, but it's hard to see how good he is because he's so consistent, and Out of Africa is no exception.
As the Best Picture winner of 1986, Out of Africa deserved a really knockout debut in hi-def, especially for its twenty-fifth anniversary. What it got was a so-so transfer on a flipper disc, with the extras on a DVD side of the Blu-ray. Universal have changed all that for this 100th Anniversary Collectors' Series. Now we get a digi-book style presentation, housing a Blu-ray and DVD, with a booklet in between that contains essays, trivia, and pictures from the film. The great improvement, though, is in the 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Gone are the vast majority of edge haloes present in the previous Blu-ray, and the use of Digital Noise Reduction has been turned down. The result is more natural grain and better fine texture detail. Colors, though, are were this transfer pops. The rich greens of Africa, and the subtle tones of the different skin colors are perfectly rendered. Black levels are consistent, with appropriate shadow detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, however, is from the previous Blu-ray release, and that's okay. Dialogue is clean and well-balanced, and there's a decent amount of presence to the voices. The surrounds don't get quite as much use as I'd like, but there's plenty of atmospheric sounds to be heard, creating an enveloping presence.
Extras start with a masterful commentary by Sydney Pollack. He discusses everything from the source text to casting and the challenges of filming in Africa. He takes up the whole two hours and 40 minutes covering everything a fan would want to know, and it's an impressive feat. If that weren't enough, we get a 72-minute making-of documentary that weaves cast/crew interviews with behind-the-scenes footage. It also includes plenty of info on the real-life stories that form the basis for the book and film. It's a wonderful companion to the film. We also get 15 minutes of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Out of Africa is a long, epic romance. Those not disposed to those kinds of films will not be swayed by this film. Even those with an appreciation for the kind of grand story might find a few slow spots in the 160 minutes of this film. Also, those heavily invested in Dinesen's text might find the choices made by Pollack and his screenwriter Kurt Luedtke to be poor ones compared to the fullness of the book.
It's nitpicking, I know, but getting the documentary and deleted scenes (or even the trailer!) in HD would be really great. Since there is extra footage of the African landscape, I think that most fans would appreciate a hi-def upgrade on this material.
This edition of Out of Africa improves on the previous Blu-ray in just about every way. Fans of the film can buy this version with confidence, and even those who own the previous Blu-ray should seriously consider an upgrade. Anyone who's a fan of Streep or Redman who hasn't seen this flick should also make the time, and it's worth a rental at least for fans of epic romance.
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