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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Out of Africa (1 Viewer)

Kevin EK

Senior HTF Member
May 9, 2003

Studio: Universal
Year: 1985
Length:  2 hrs 41 mins
Genre:  Period Drama/Romance
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
BD Resolution: 1080p
BD Video Codec: AVC (@ an average 20 mbps)
Color/B&W: Color
DVD side of the disc has a 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer (same one as on the “Collector’s Edition” DVD)
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 4.0 mbps)
French DTS 5.1
DVD side of the disc has an English Dolby Digital 4.1 mix and a French 2.0 mix
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish (Blu-ray side), English SDH (DVD side)
Film Rating: PG (Some Sexuality)
Release Date: April 27, 2010
Starring: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer
Based on the works of Isak Dinesen and the biographical works by Judith Thurman and Errol Trzebinski
Screenplay by: Kurt Luedtke
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Film Rating:    3/5  
Before I begin the proper review of this title, I must first acknowledge the serious picture quality issues that have been raised both here by Robert Harris and at other websites. The short of it is this: If you intend to watch this title on a large HDTV (say 50” or larger), you will see the same problems of digital processing that plagued some earlier Blu-rays like Patton and Gangs of New York. I also noted a visual jitter in the picture for about 45 seconds (from 1:48:30 to 1:49:15) and varying levels of grain in different shots throughout the film.   If this is your primary concern about this title, I recommend jumping ahead to the Video Quality section here, or simply reading Mr. Harris’ comments within this area of the forum. You may find them here. I will add that while the packaging indicates that this is a 25th Anniversary Edition of the film, what you are actually getting here is a repackaging of the 15th Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD originally released in 2000. The Blu-ray side of the disc offers HD transfers of picture and sound, along with some of the DVD extras, while the DVD side is actually the DVD from 2000. I’ll get into this as we go through the review, but I thought I should provide a heads-up for readers and forum members wanting to cut to the chase.
Out of Africa is a fine example of the careful, classy filmmaking that marked Sydney Pollack’s career. It features some beautiful photography and music, some great star power from Meryl Streep and regular Pollack collaborator Robert Redford, and a solid literary base in the works of Karen Blixen.   (The short summary of the story is that it follows Streep as Karen Blixen from Denmark to Kenya, where she falls in love with both the country and with a free-spirited safari man named Denys Finch Hatton, played by Robert Redford.) And yet, for all the scope, size and budget of this film, it never finds the “breathtaking passion” the packaging on the disc wants you to think is here. The reality of the film’s history is that it was a safe and classy choice to pick up seven Academy Awards at the 1986 ceremony, but it was never thought of as the Best Picture of 1985 by any means. Keep in mind that this was the same year that saw the theatrical releases of Brazil, Ran, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, all of which are deeper and more challenging works. The first two of those have arguably had a much richer life than Out of Africa, and are understandably higher on the “Best Film” lists we have seen since the 80s. But this was also acknowledged at the time. 
Watching the film again today, I am reminded of the beauty of David Watkins’ cinematography, and the sweep of John Barry’s score.   (I for one miss the sound of his string sections in modern films – he has a distinctive sound that almost immediately gives an epic quality to many of the films he scored.) And I am reminded of the clever work of Klaus Maria Brandauer, who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in.  (Sydney Pollack is correct that only Brandauer could have made his character as charming while being a complete rogue. With this actor, you can understand how Karen Blixen could still be friends with the man after everything he did to her.) But I am also reminded of the crucial lack of heat between Streep and Redford. Scenes that should smolder between them simply never do. Part of this is due to the difference in performance style. Redford and Pollack appropriately refrain from inserting a British accent into Redford’s established screen persona (thus avoiding the mess that happens in The Jackal with Richard Gere), but this is countered on screen by the Danish accent carefully adopted by Streep as Blixen.   The two performances feel as if they come from different periods in time, and we never feel as though they are in the same film. The most effective scenes with Streep are where she is working without Redford to convey Blixen’s difficulties trying to operate a coffee farm and exist with the locals on her own.   And yet, I must acknowledge that the film does create several moments that are quite moving near the film’s close, two powered by Streep’s performance, and one that stems from the image of two lions on a hilltop.
Out of Africa has previously been released on laserdisc and on standard DVD, with a Collector’s Edition in 2000 including a commentary by Sydney Pollack and a documentary called “Song of Africa”. (I have spent the last several days trying to track down the Signature Collection Laserdisc to confirm what content was on that release. In watching the “Song of Africa” documentary on the disc, I note a copyright date of 1999 while the Signature Collection Laserdisc was released in 1996.) The Blu-ray side of the disc contains both the documentary and the commentary, and adds about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, presented in non-anamorphic standard definition.   But when you turn the disc over, there’s an interesting catch – the DVD side of this Blu-ray actually IS THE 2000 COLLECTOR’S EDITION, INCLUDING THE MENU. I proved this beyond all doubt when I switched between the DVD side of the Blu-ray and my copy of the 2000 release. My player has a memory function that will pick up where it left off with a standard DVD, but it has to be the same DVD, of course. When I replaced the DVD side of the Blu-ray with the 2000 DVD, the player immediately picked up the scene I had just been watching.
Out of Africa is presented in a 1080p AVC 1.85:1 transfer that has some serious quality issues that have already been voiced on this forum by Robert Harris. I will add to this that I believe that this transfer comes from the same print that was used for the 2000 DVD. My proof of this comes at the 1:48:30 mark in the movie, in an outdoor scene where Redford and Streep are discussing the idea of him moving his things into her house. For about 45 seconds, from the travelling master shot, through the close-ups in that direction, there is a noticeable jitter in the image that is extremely distracting. (Looking at the SD transfer on the other side of the disc, the jitter is present, but far less pronounced.)   At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the wider shots of the scenery, particularly in the various travelling and flying sequences are still quite beautiful to see. The HD transfer also makes obvious two moments where rear projection has been used – an early scene of Streep and Brandauer sitting in a snowy field clearly uses close-ups filmed in front of a process screen, and the cockpit shots of Redford and Streep are obvious process shots that almost detract from the spectacular aerial footage.   I should note that I am watching the film on a 40” Sony XBR2 HDTV. If anyone is watching the film on a larger monitor and is having issues, please post them on this thread.   The original anamorphic transfer of the movie is available on the SD side of the disc, which provides a useful comparison with the new transfer.
Out of Africa is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, and a standard DTS 5.1 mix in French.   (The SD side of the disc includes the previously-available Dolby Digital 4.1 mix in English, along with an French Dolby Digital 2.0 mix.) The new DTS-HD mix is mostly a frontal affair, but it does put the surround channels to good use with John Barry’s score. There’s some use of the surrounds for atmospheric effects, but it’s really the score that gets the most use out of them. I admit needing at times to turn subtitles on to understand what some characters are saying, but this is primarily due to thick accents or quietly spoken dialogue leading to the inevitable “WHAT did she say??”
The Blu-Ray presentation of Out of Africa comes with the usual BD-Live connectivity and My Scenes functionality, along with the commentary, the documentary, the deleted scenes and the movie’s trailer, all presented in standard definition.  The SD side of the disc, contains the complete Collector’s Edition DVD.
Feature Commentary with Director Sydney Pollack –  Sydney Pollack’s scene-specific commentary is carried over from the 2000 DVD, and it is still effective, although it lapses into silence at many points. Pollack discusses everything from the life of Karen Blixen to his production process to the problems he dealt with in filming lions. Some of his comments overlap what he says on the documentary. Listening to him on this commentary, it’s hard to believe he’s been gone for 2 years now.
Song of Africa– (1:12:45 Total, 480p, Full Frame) - This documentary, culled from the 2000 DVD, is broken into 20 chapters that can be accessed individually or via a “Play All” function. The documentary mostly follows the real lives of Karen Blixen and the men in her life, but through the prism of the making of the film. Clips from the film and on-set photos are intercut with interviews with Pollack, Streep and writer Kurt Luedtke. These in turn are intercut with photos (and some film footage) of the real Karen Blixen, interviews with biographer Judith Thurman, along with readings from Blixen’s works. There’s some interesting material here, both about the making of the film and about Blixen’s life and death.   Meryl Streep is in an appealingly wry form here, with her stories contrasting sharply from those of Sydney Pollack. (The two absolutely disagree about whether the attacking lion in one scene was on or off the leash when they were filming…)
Theatrical Trailer– (3:00, 480p, Full Frame) - The film’s original trailer is included here in standard definition (and in somewhat distressed condition).
Deleted Scenes– (15:02, 480p, Non-Anamorphic) - THIS FEATURE IS ONLY FOUND ON THE BLU-RAY SIDE OF THIS DISC – About 15 minutes of deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic standard definition, with most of them being additional bits of exposition that were not necessary to the film as a whole. One late scene with Shane Rimmer as the coffee farm manager at least explains what happens to his character, as he just disappears in the latter part of the film.
The complete Collector’s Edition is on the DVD side of the disc, including the trailer, the commentary and the documentary, but not the deleted scenes. Added to this are the 2000 DVD’s Production Notes, Cast & Filmmaker Notes and Reel Recommendations, as well as the Universal Web Links function.
BD-Live - The more general BD-Live screen is accessible via the menu, which makes various online materials available, including tickers, trailers and special events. Part of this functionality includes the downloading of various trailers when you first fire up the disc in your player.   On my last viewing of the disc, I was presented with a DVD trailer for It’s Complicated, along with a trailer for Green Zone
My Scenes - The usual bookmarking feature is included here.
The usual promotional ticker is present on the main menu, but can be toggled off at your discretion. The film is subtitled in English, French and Spanish on the HD side of the Blu-ray, and English only on the SD side. The usual pop-up menu is present.   There is an identical chapter list for the movie on both sides of the disc.
Out of Africa is a well-crafted film, and one that continues to show the careful, classy filmmaking of Sydney Pollack. The movie continues to have the same effect I recall from seeing it 1985 in the theater – beautiful to see and hear, but not that involving when you get down to it. The Blu-ray presentation of this movie unfortunately is saddled with a picture quality issue that one hopes can be addressed and corrected.  
Kevin Koster
April 28, 2010.

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