My Year With Meryl: A Cry in the Dark (1988)

“The dingo took my baby!!!!” Or “The dingo ate my baby” as it’s better known now, even though that second line is never actually uttered in the movie. How often have we heard these phrases? When I was an intern at Phoenix Pictures in 2006, I asked one of the executives why his AOL screen name was thedingoatemybaby. “If you have to ask,” he said, “you don’t deserve to know the answer.”

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Naturally I looked into the matter and discovered that the phrase stemmed from a real life tragedy that took place in Australia in August 1980. A nine-week-old girl, Azaria Chamberlain, was taken by a dingo near Ayers Rock and killed. Her mother Lindy was later wrongly convicted of murder, and she served three years in jail. She was finally found innocent when the baby’s jacket was found in a dingo den, and it wasn’t until June 12, 2012 (!) that the cause of Azaria’s death was officially listed as a dingo attack. It’s a sad event that unfortunately has turned into a funny one-liner over the years—even Nora Ephron cracked a joke about it at Meryl’s AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony—but it fortunately also spawned a compelling 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark, re-uniting Meryl with her Plenty director Fred Schepisi and co-star Sam Neill.

Despite my love for Meryl, before starting this project there had been a few of her movies that I’d missed, and one was A Cry in the Dark (also released as the awkwardly titled Evil Angels in Australia). Therefore, it was thrill to finally check it out, the last of the films that Meryl received an Oscar nomination for that I hadn’t seen. Despite some slow stretches, and a few overlong court scenes, A Cry in the Dark is the most engaging of the four dramas Meryl made between 1985 and 1988, with a true-life story that offers sometimes more questions than it does answers. Director Schepisi’s matter-of-fact storytelling, which hindered the slowly-paced Plenty, works much better here, showing the ups and downs of two parents who not only have to deal with their loss of their young daughter, but untrue allegations made about them that ultimately land Lindy in prison.

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At the start of the film, only smiles are to be had on the main characters’ faces. Lindy (Meryl) and her husband Michael (Neill) take a camping holiday in the Outback with their two young sons and their new baby girl. One night, the family is enjoying a barbecue, as the baby sleeps in the zipped-open tent. Lindy returns to the tent to see a dingo running out of it, with something in its mouth. When she discovers her baby girl missing, she screams the immortal line: “The dingo took my baby!” Everyone at the camp joins forces to search for the baby, to no success. Michael is a religious man, and that night he questions God’s intentions, asking why he would bestow onto them to gift of a daughter, only to snatch her away mere weeks later. As Lindy and Michael deal with their immense grief, the allegations begin: the story about the dingo is made-up, the last name Azaria means “sacrifice in the wilderness,” the parents decapitated their baby with a pair of scissors as part of a religious rite. After initially being discharged from any wrongdoing, Lindy is pulled back into an investigation about Azaria’s disappearance, and is eventually found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A Cry in the Dark is maybe not as well shot as Out of Africa or has the attention to detail in the production design of Ironweed, but it is certainly the most riveting, easy, of these three films. Even though I was aware of the outcome of Lindy and Azaria’s story upon sitting down to watch this movie, it still had me in its grip for most of the running time. Sam Neill is always excellent, and it was a joy to see him and Meryl together in a second project. His part is just as complex as Meryl’s because he is playing a man totally committed to his religious faith, yet, like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs, a tragic accident occurs that makes him question what he believes. His commitment to his wife, even in the most trying of times, is also a refreshing change of pace, considering that their marriage, for dramatic purposes, could have been played more strained and contentious.

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One of the main joys of watching a Meryl movie week after week is seeing how she will surprise me next. She’s so gifted at creating wholly original and three-dimensional characters on the screen (even in lesser material), and her performance as Lindy has to be considered one of her most astonishing. With her black bob of a haircut, she looks almost unrecognizable, and, even more impressive, her Australian accent is so spot-on that within minutes of the movie you naturally assume that’s how she talks, no questions asked. Meryl is famous for her accents, and she delivers one of the best in A Cry in the Dark. But going deeper than that, she hits so many notes with Lindy, playing hysterics, grief, anger, resentment. One of her best scenes comes toward the end, in her revealing court scene, when she doesn’t play on the jury’s sympathy about the loss of her baby girl, but instead appears emotionless on the stand, tired of all the allegations and the rumors and wanting nothing more than to get the trial over with and move on with her life. Courtroom scenes are so common in the movies, but Meryl manages to make this one a truly original and captivating moment.

A Cry in the Dark closed out a remarkable run in the 1980s of dramas that scored her a whopping six Oscar nominations, her last of which pitted her up against Glenn Close for a second time, ultimately losing to Jodie Foster for The Accused. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, and won the New York Film Critics Circle and Australian Film Institute awards for Best Actress. When the film was taken to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1989, not only was it nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, but Meryl won the Best Actress award of the entire festival, six long months after A Cry in the Dark’s US release. By 1989, Meryl had proven her worth to audiences all over the world, so maybe it was Meryl herself who decided to give some other actresses a shot at the limelight, while she concentrated on a brand new genre few would have ever expected her to tackle—comedies!

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Film Review: Oculus

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The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.

Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.  Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.

One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline was jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.

The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed. Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012′s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.

three-stars

 

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Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Marvel’s newest blockbuster is easily the studio’s most thrilling and engrossing chapter yet, lacking the humor that traces the Iron Man films and The Avengers, and instead packed with more visceral excitement that reminded me of The Dark Knight. While the second Captain America film isn’t quite on the level of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, it is still a terrifically effective studio tentpole that will rival anything that comes out this summer.

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (who are much more known for TV shows than features) could have made a mediocre, routine sequel—this film probably would have made hundreds of millions regardless—but they raised the bar as to what a movie like this can be. At times I felt like I was watching a tension-filled thriller from the 70s, what with Robert Redford and the DC setting.

The first Captain America movie was fun but this one has a more resonant and exciting story, with Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) teaming up with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsen) battling a Soviet agent that gives Captain America his most powerful foe to date. Samuel L. Jackson gets more to do this time around as Nick Fury, and it’s particularly fun to watch Redford, who was so beautifully subtle in last year’s All is Lost, play a vile villain.

Evans is probably the blandest lead actor in all these Marvel movies but his chemistry is strong with Johannsen and his character’s personal story is so interesting that Evans comes off much better here than he has in previous Marvel films. There is still the problem in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that I’m seeing more and more these days in blockbusters, of too much CG, too much destruction, too many hundreds of faceless bad guys getting shot down.

But for most of the running time, this is a great action thriller that is well-worth seeking out not at home, but on the big screen.

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Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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I have had a love/hate relationship with Wes Anderson ever since his 1998 film Rushmore failed to impress me when I was in high school, when pretty much every film fanatic around me praised it to the high heavens. I find The Life Aquatic  intolerable, and his Darjeeling Limited disappointing. I did, however, enjoy Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, as well as his debut Bottle Rocket. Until 2014, I only truly loved one of his films, but now we can finally add another to the list. Easily Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a thrilling, hilarious, and hugely imaginative roller coaster ride of an art film, adding Ralph Fiennes to Anderson’s collective of actors in a rousing performance as M. Gustave. Seemingly every great actor in Hollywood has been packed into this movie, from Edward Norton to Jeff Goldblum to Tilda Swinton to the Anderson staple Bill Murray. Some of these performances add up to mere cameos, while others breathe life into characters that have a lot more to do than you might expect. I especially loved Willem Dafoe’s devilish Jopling, as well as Tony Revolori, totally winning as M. Gustave’s lobby boy. Adam Stockhausen’s production design is, in all capital letters, REMARKABLE, and I loved the different aesthetics used by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman to capture the jumps back and forth in time. While the plot occasionally moves too fast, sometimes losing potential moments of intimacy and heart that made The Royal Tenenbaums such a treat, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a splendid time at the movies.

three-and-a-half-stars1

 

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Film Review: Noah

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The rock monsters. Oh, I know somebody who would love the rock monsters in Noah, but that’s another story. Noah is a film that played for me, oddly enough, like the Coen Brothers’ mediocre 2004 film The Ladykillers. It doesn’t happen like this very often, but it happened with Noah: for about forty-five minutes I was bored stiff, mostly uninterested in the movie, but then a change occurred, and once the characters became stranded on the ark, my interest in the story finally kicked in. I was scared going in, since the only Darren Aronofsky movie I haven’t liked is his big-budget The Fountain, with Hugh Jackman; it seems that the smaller the budget, the better his movies. The bloated Noah did worry me for part of the running time, but when the action slowed down and Aronofsky focused more closely on the family unit, I found myself much more involved. It helped, of course, that Russell Crowe here gives one of his best performances of late—no singing in this one also helps. Emma Watson and Logan Lerman are fine in supporting roles, and the ending is satisfying. Two weeks after seeing it, I don’t remember much about it, haven’t really reflected on the experience at all. It doesn’t come close to Aronofsky’s two masterpieces, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. But Noah is definitely worth a look on home video.

two-and-a-half-stars

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Film Review: Divergent

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When I read Veronica Roth’s runaway YA bestseller two years ago, I was one of the few unable to be swept away in her story and prose, so color me surprised when I had a great time watching the new film. It starts off in a similar fashion to The Hunger Games, but once Tris picks Dauntless, the film’s pacing ramps up and rarely lets up for the remainder of the running time. Shailene Woodley brings just the right amount of vulnerability and strength to the lead role of Tris, and Theo James is both hunky and remarkably relatable as Four. The only performance that disappointed me here was, oddly enough, Kate Winslet’s take on Jeanine, who always seemed a touch too nice when I wanted Winslet to go into full-scale villain mode. Winslet has never played a baddie before, and not until the very end of the movie did her character show true menace. I also found it distracting to see Ansel Elgort play her brother (he plays her love interest in The Fault in Our Stars) and Miles Teller play another member of Dauntless (he plays her love interest in The Spectacular Now). This isn’t the movie’s fault, but aren’t there more than three young actors in Hollywood? Overall, though, Divergent was an entertaining, if not entirely original, yarn that kept me interested from beginning to end, and I’m intrigued to check out the sequel when it drops next year.

three-stars

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My Year With Meryl: Ironweed (1987)

If Plenty was slow, Out of Africa was overlong, and Heartburn was disappointing, Ironweed has to be considered one of the most downbeat and depressing films of Meryl’s career. Though well-acted by Meryl and especially Jack Nicholson, in a rare non-showy starring role, Ironweed is a miserable viewing experience—slow, overlong, and disappointing, all in the same movie. While the film received acclaim upon its release in 1987—Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it “two thumbs up” and Meryl and Nicholson both received Academy Award nominations (her seventh, his ninth)—it is ultimately a head-scratchingly dull experience that has only the occasional fleeting moment that draws you in.

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Unlike their previous film, Heartburn, Ironweed is much more Nicholson’s movie than it is Meryl’s. It opens on an impressive long shot of Nicholson’s character Francis Phelan walking down a dirt road, in 1938 New York. He’s a bum, always dirty, wearing the same clothes day in and day out and sporting a large hat that covers most of his face. He digs graves at the local cemetery, and entertains himself at night by going out drinking at the local bar, where he meets the pale and sickly Helen Archer (Meryl). Francis eventually tracks down his wife and children, and, for the first time, meets his grandson. He’s also haunted by ghosts (one played by an effectively creepy Nathan Lane). Any of this making sense yet? The film is sprawling in its ambition but unfortunately plays like paint drying on a stretch of fence five miles long.

Ironweed marked a rare occasion, two major films stars reuniting after their previous film, only to then never go on to make another film together for the rest of their careers. Everyone knows the winning pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, as well as Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, who teamed up in the modern classic Pretty Woman and to less success in Runaway Bride. There’s Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed and The Lake House, too, but looking further back in history you have a pair like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who appeared in nine movies together over the course of twenty-five years. What’s significant about Nicholson and Meryl’s pairing is that they teamed up in 1986′s Heartburn and 1987′s Ironweed, but never before or since. Also, the genres of their two films are so different—one a modern comedy-drama with flourishes of romance, and the other a historical, more downbeat drama that never (despite the film’s misleading poster) puts the two in a romantic relationship. Despite the flaws in Heartburn and Ironweed, the two are always magnetic together on-screen, and it’s too bad in their long, eventful careers they never were able to find the right project to do together.

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Nicholson is so often over-the-top in his movies—he followed Ironweed with his most energetic performance ever in Tim Burton’s Batman—that it’s refreshing to see him play a calm, beaten-down individual who only rarely breaks a smile. While the 1970s saw the best acting Nicholson ever did, in films like Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his output in his later career was always best when he played subtle, like in his last great performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. In Ironweed he never gets a storyline truly worthy of the acting prowess he brings to the character, but he tries his best to give the character humanity and dimensionality in a movie that always feels like it’s making things up as it goes along.

Meryl is brilliant at what she does with an underwritten role here, showing us in just a look and a tiny grin the kind of person she’s playing. She spends most of the film sporting the same outfit, a large green jacket and bowl-shaped red hat that covers messily cut blonde hair. Her face is robbed of any make-up, her teeth are dark yellow, and she talks in a realistic Irish-American accent. Meryl is known to disappear into her roles and in the case of Ironweed, she disappears so deeply that at times you’re rising up out of your chair to get a closer look at the screen, just to try to see Meryl’s face! If the film revolved around Helen and spent more time dramatizing her plight, Ironweed might have been a more effective film. But unfortunately the film’s screenwriter William Kennedy (The Cotton Club) and director Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman) yank her character out of the narrative too often throughout the movie to get us to truly care about her. The tragic end to her character, for example, is too little, too late.

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The best scene in Ironweed takes place about thirty-eight minutes in, when Helen takes the stage to sing “She’s My Pal.” Up until now, the film has been told from Francis’s perspective, but here we get to spend a few minutes in Helen’s subconscious, as she sings the song to a large crowd at the bar. It’s always a pleasure to hear Meryl sing in a movie, accent or not, and her shining moment here is the emotionally draining rendition of a song that is usually more hopeful. She finishes on a tremendous note, everyone claps, and Helen and Francis share a kiss, in a moment that seems like it may signify a positive change for the two main characters. But then Babenco cuts back to the stage, where Helen finishes singing the song, for real this time, with the pitch way off, and with barely a single clap in the audience when she finishes. This five-minute scene is extraordinary, and the best example of her unrivaled talent in the movie.

Meryl might have been hitting Oscar-drama fatigue with Ironweed because after her next film, A Cry in the Dark, she broke off in a new direction, by appearing in four back-to-back comedies. Doing heavy drama has to be difficult for any actor; doing half a dozen back to back, with Meryl having to adopt different accents for each character, had to have eventually taken its toll on her. While Ironweed is one of Meryl’s lesser movies, and easily one of the least fun to watch, Meryl did receive another Oscar nomination (but no Golden Globe nomination, oddly enough) and yet another stunning and original character to add to her growing mantle of memorable screen creations.

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My Year With Meryl: Heartburn (1986)

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Sandwiched in between her serious, occasionally effective dramatic work — 1985′s Plenty and Out of Africa, and Ironwood and A Cry in the Dark, released in 1987 and 1988, respectively — was a lighter piece of entertainment directed by Mike Nichols and written by Nora Ephron, based on her novel. Nichols, Ephron, and Meryl had collaborated on Silkwood three years prior, and this time the gang came together to tell a much more personal story to Ephron, as well as to see if sparks would be captured on screen when Meryl played off Jack Nicholson on screen for the first time. What Heartburn ultimately turned into was a film that marked one of Meryl’s few critical duds of the 1980s, a movie deemed a major disappointment by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and one of the few Meryl made in this decade that didn’t receive a single major awards nomination (the lone award the film won was Best Actress for Meryl, at something called the Valladolid International Film Festival).

Of course having sat through the slow-moving, more Oscar-friendly Plenty and Out of Africa in the last two weeks, I was more than happy to settle in for a less important and immensely watchable Ephron-scripted comedy with Meryl and Nicholson. And for the first hour, Heartburn is a winner, an episodic but engaging examination of two intelligent, hardworking New Yorkers who meet, fall in love, get married, and have children. Sure, there’s nothing entirely original about the proceedings, but there is an instant chemistry between Meryl and Nicholson, and any scenes in the movie that allow the two of them to just sit and talk to each other work wonders. A kiss they have on a New York sidewalk is so romantic in its simplicity, and the moment that follows — the two sharing a huge bowl of pasta in bed — is wonderfully tender, especially considering that two characters just spent their first night together. Another director might just have shown us the sex; Nichols, rightly so, was more interested in showing us the after-sex conversation.

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Meryl plays Rachel Samstat and Nicholson plays Mark Forman, and only a few more minutes of the movie pass before the two are getting married. Rachel lays on her bed, curled in a ball, knowing full well that since her first marriage didn’t last that this second one won’t either. But she finally commits to the man she’s had a whirlwind romance with, and it’s not soon after that they’re buying a house, getting pregnant with girl number one, and then girl number two. But the movie eventually has to go somewhere, I guess, and so Rachel discovers that Mark is cheating on her with another woman, while Rachel is still seven months pregnant. The scene where Rachel stomps out of the bathroom, throws a drawer against the floor, and lashes out at Mark for his infidelity is a memorable Meryl moment. She walked out of a salon in mid-haircut, and so she looks completely and appropriately out of her mind in this scene.

Unfortunately, the rest of Heartburn isn’t nearly as fun. Rachel heads home to stay with her father for awhile, and while there are still a few exciting moments in the later half of the movie — Kevin Spacey, in his film debut, robs Rachel and her friends, and even takes her wedding ring — the film eventually starts to feel like Ephron ran out of ideas for where to take the narrative. It’s not a secret that her novel and later screenplay were based on true life experiences — Ephron said at Meryl’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, “the true stretch (for Meryl), if I do say so, was playing me, in Heartburn.” Sometimes writers are able to infuse even more honesty into their work when the experiences of the narrative come from their own lives, but other times, writers get so close to the real events that they struggle to give the story personality, or any surprises. Heartburn is a case in which another ten years might have given Ephron distance to write a more biting, satirical story. As it plays now, Heartburn is like a roller coaster that climbs and climbs but never descends.

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This is not to suggest that I think Nora Ephron is a lackluster writer. She’s one of my all-time favorites, actually. When Harry Met Sally is my favorite romantic comedy of all time, and I have great affection for Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Her non-fiction writing is laugh-out-loud hilarious, especially the last two books published before her untimely death in 2012 — I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I Remember Nothing. And of course Silkwood is solid. But Heartburn — both her screenplay and the novel itself, which I also read — misses the mark. The novel is written mostly in ranting big block paragraphs, with occasional recipes mixed into the narrative, and at just over 100 pages (in the Most of Nora Ephron edition), it doesn’t leave a lot of room for character growth.

The film is the same way. Rachel is in a different place in her life at the end of Heartburn than she was at the beginning, but Ephron nor Nichols ever give us a reason to care. Is a pie in Mark’s face in the film’s conclusion supposed to make us laugh? Make us cheer for Rachel? It’s too ambiguous. But nothing in the film is worse than the very last scene, of Rachel singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with her daughter, the plane they’re on zooming up toward the sky. It’s a non-ending on the level of 2013′s disappointing August: Osage County, the kind that doesn’t leave the viewer fulfilled (although the closing song Coming Around Again, sung by Carly Simon, is quite nice). Thankfully, after Heartburn, Meryl and Ephron teamed up one more time, in Ephron’s final film as writer and director, 2009′s enchanting Julie & Julia, which showed that with a better script and character for Meryl that the two could make something great together.

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With all its flaws, though, Heartburn is in no way a waste of time. As stated before, the first hour is engrossing, in both the big and small details. The first half-hour is involving because Nichols allows us to watch two of our finest actors play together on screen, sometimes in scenes that play out in one long take. Two successive scenes in which Rachel and Mark sing all the songs they can think of about babies are examples of spontaneous moments I wish there had been more of; the second scene that has Mark belting out another song to Rachel while she’s trying to sleep marks Nicholson’s most charming minute in the movie. But, of course, Mark isn’t supposed to be charming. The film is told from Rachel’s perspective, so once she discovers his infidelity, we follow her to a different city, and Nicholson’s screen-time, sadly, dissipates for the remainder of the running time.

Nichols always assembles stellar casts for his movies — just look at The Birdcage, or Primary Colors, or the absolutely stunning ensemble of Catch-22 — and Heartburn, his second of four collaborations with Meryl (and his third of four with Nicholson), plays out like a who’s-who of great actors. It’s always fun to go back to movies made thirty years ago, and see major talents now who were given smaller parts then. Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Richard Masur, Stockard Channing, Milos Forman (the director of Amadeus), and the great Catherine O’Hara all pop up in supporting roles. Daniels is particularly charming in an underwritten role (his lack of interest in the wedding while Stapleton cries in front of him is one of the film’s funniest shots), while O’Hara does what she can with a somewhat air brained character that might have under another director been played by a less comedically gifted actress. Natasha Lyonne and Tony Shalhoub were both uncredited in bit parts, and then of course there’s Kevin Spacey’s effectively creepy and slightly humorous aforementioned two-scene role that literally steals the show.

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But in the end, this is Meryl’s show all the way, much more than it is Nicholson’s, and she’s, as always, able to elevate mediocre material into a movie that is always entertaining, even when the narrative seems to have no idea where it’s headed. In the beginning, she wears her hair brown and short, the way she wears it in 2004′s The Manchurian Candidate, and is instantly believable in the affection she has for Nicholson’s Mark. Whenever the film makes big jumps in time, Meryl plays the character more assured, more confident, and it’s only when the discovery of the infidelity unravels everything she thought to be true that we see the flailing, vulnerable side of Rachel. The long shot that slowly zooms in on her face in the hair salon is an example of her brilliance, the way she can slowly transition from lighthearted banter with her hair stylist to the horrifying realization about the man she loves.

Meryl is so strong in Heartburn that it’s a shame a more focused, sharply plotted narrative isn’t allowed to unfold. By 1986, Meryl had proven that not only was she one of our finest actresses, and not only was she able to effortlessly jump back and forth between historical and modern films, but that she was also able to elevate routine, sometimes unremarkable material that in the hands of another actress would have never made an impression of any kind. Even in her lesser movies, Meryl commands the screen like no other actress of her generation, so when she’s in something truly great, there really is no telling the magic that can be made.

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My Year With Meryl: Out of Africa (1985)

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Meryl is universally considered the greatest living actress currently working in film today, and she has spent more than thirty-five years proving her talent in movie after movie, now more than fifty in total. She has been nominated for eighteen Academy Awards — by far the record — with surely many more nominations in her future.

And yet it might be surprising to learn that of all the films she’s made over the decades, and of all the acclaimed performances she’s given, only a small handful of her movies have actually gone on to be acknowledged in the top categories at the Academy Awards. Her film debut Julia, in 1977, racked up a whopping eleven nominations, and two films she did soon after that won Best Picture — The Deer Hunter and Kramer Vs. Kramer. But following that 1979 film, only two more of her films to date would go on to even be nominated for the big prize. The Hours was nominated, in 2003. The only other film she appeared in that was not only nominated but also won? 1985′s Out of Africa.

Sydney Pollack’s sweeping two-hour-and-forty-minute epic had all the makings of an award-friendly movie. It tells an epic true story, set in 1916 Africa, filled with warmth and heart and romance and tragedy. It paired two of our finest actors — Meryl and Robert Redford — in a film for the first and still only time (although Redford directed Meryl in his 2007 disappointment Lions for Lambs). It’s the kind of film Academy members love, and it was honored with many of the top prizes, despite intense competition that year from other great films like Prizzi’s Honor, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Color Purple, Spielberg’s terrific achievement that scored eleven nominations but won nothing. (Of course many, including myself, would consider The Breakfast Club and Back to the Future as the two greatest movies of 1985!)

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Out of Africa won seven Oscars, including Best Score, Best Screenplay, Best Director for Pollack, and Best Picture of the year. But is Out of Africa one of Meryl’s best pictures? Has it held up well all these years later? While there is more interest to be found here than in the somber, slow-moving Plenty, Out of Africa remains one of Meryl’s most overrated films.

She plays Karen Blixen, a Danish baroness who establishes a plantation in 1916 Kenya, Africa. Like in Plenty, she is torn between more than one man — in this case, there’s the husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer, in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) who she married out of convenience, and the valiant, free-spirited hunter Denys (played by Redford). Based on the writings of Blixen herself (published under the pen name Isak Dinesen), Out of Africa shows in great detail the many ups and downs of Karen’s complicated life, like troubles on the plantations, war, schooling of the natives, and catching siphilis from her husband, which nearly takes her life and prevents her from ever being able to bear children. But of course there’s always Denys, who ultimately changes her life for the better. Will the two walk hand-in-hand into the sunset together? Or will their love end in tragedy?

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Director Pollack initially didn’t even consider Meryl for the part of Karen Blixen. He thought she wasn’t sexy enough to play the character, and probably assumed she wouldn’t have the right chemistry with the handsome leading man Redford. And Meryl, who has fought hard for more roles than one might think, went to a meeting with Pollack wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra—and the rest is history. Even though she never comes across as all that sexy in Out of Africa, she does give the richer, fuller performance in the movie. and while both stars are top billed, this is definitely much more Meryl’s movie than it is Redford’s. Those who haven’t seen it in awhile might be surprised to see Redford missing for most of the film’s first half, a clever tactic used by Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke to keep them from getting involved romantically for as long as possible.

Of course Redford sticks out like a sore thumb in this period movie — Gene Siskel in his original review rightly says that Redford never manages to create a character here we think of as anything but himself — but Meryl is her typical transformative best. Nominated for her sixth Academy Award (in just eight years!), she sports brown curly hair and a realistic as usual accent, this time Danish. While Plenty, released the same year, provided a rare character she didn’t really disappear into that much, she plays the kind of character in Out of Africa that yet again makes us forget we’re watching Meryl up there on the screen. She shows pain and sadness, love and longing, and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, pure unadulterated terror, when a lion approaches her on dangerous terrain. And the reaction she displays upon learning of the film’s closing tragedy is subtle and effective.

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However, too much of the film, same as in Plenty, drones on and on. Let’s consider 1985 as the year of the overindulgent Streep. Plenty and Out of Africa both have a few terrific moments, but if it weren’t for Meryl’s stellar performances, these movies would register hardly at all. Out of Africa includes sumptuous Oscar-winning cinematography by David Watkin, incredible views of the African countryside, but to what end? The film is too episodic in its first half, with too many scenes of strained dialogue and lack of excitement, and by the time we arrive to the central relationship between Meryl and Redford it comes off as more awkward than tender — not as awkward as Meryl and Sting in Plenty, but awkward nonetheless. While Meryl and Redford probably would have made a great couple in a traditional ’80s modern romance, they never quite gel here.

While Meryl would go on later in her career to branch off into different genres, budgets and scopes in her work, she focused arguably too much in the 1980s on important, slow-moving historical dramas, many of which netted her Oscar nominations, but few of which offer emotionally involving experiences. Even Sophie’s Choice, probably her best of the ’80s historical dramas she starred in, is flawed, and a bit on the long side. She would go on to make Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark but finally took a break from dramas to make a string of four light-hearted comedies in a row. While by 1985 Meryl was considered one of the best, audiences had no idea yet just what she was capable of.

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My Year With Meryl: Plenty (1985)

Has Meryl Streep ever made a boring movie? She has made the occasional lackluster drama over her thirty-five-year career, but she always manages to give even her lesser films her special spark. Ironweed, her 1987 period film with Jack Nicholson, is an example of a slow, rather uninvolving movie that still manages to entertain due to Meryl’s amazing performance. There’s One True Thing, and Music of the Heart, and Lions for Lambs, and even The Iron Lady, which despite the Oscar for Meryl is one of her most uneven films.

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But whether uneven or well constructed, whether packed to the brim with action or loaded only with scenes of people talking. Meryl’s films are almost always endlessly watchable. But… then there was Plenty. It’s not a terrible movie. The performances are fine. Meryl does what she can. But I would argue that in a career of more than fifty films, the most boring of them all would have to be Plenty.

1985 was a stellar year for Meryl. She was coming off of three back-to-back Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a row, which included a win for Sophie’s Choice, and she had not one but two films come out. One was Out of Africa, the superb Sydney Pollack historical drama co-starring Robert Redford that went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the year. And opening a few months before Out of Africa was the less popular but still well-reviewed historical drama Plenty.

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This is a film that was not brushed aside like her 1996 misfire Before and After, or the highly anticipated but quickly discarded 2007 disappointment Rendition. Plenty was given two thumbs up by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, it received a pair of BAFTA Award nominations, and the legendary John Gielgud was awarded two major honors, from the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, for his short but excellent supporting turn. It was essentially overshadowed that awards season, though, by Out of Africa, the same way Mud was overshadowed by Dallas Buyer’s Club in 2013. And again, while it’s well made and not completely lacking of merit, Plenty is definitely one of Meryl’s least essential films.

Directed by Fred Schepisi, who also directed Meryl in 1988′s A Cry in the Dark, and written by David Hare, who adapted his award-winning play of the same name, Plenty stars Meryl as a young Englishwoman named Susan Traherne who spends twenty years trying to make a life for herself during post-World War II England. Yes, Meryl ages twenty years throughout the movie, and yes, she does so convincingly, living different kinds of lives with different kinds of men. As the film opens, she is irreparably altered by her experience as a fighter for the French Resistance, and after the war ends, she returns to England and tries to be someone she’s not.

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The main issue with Plenty is that it rarely comes to life on the screen. At two hours in length, it at times feels longer than the three-hour Deer Hunter. It doesn’t help that Meryl plays a main character who is so rarely likable, often reduced to scenes of bickering and shouting, shooting bullets at the wall, and making out and having sex with one man after another. When she romances a man named Lazar (Sam Neill) toward the beginning, their making out feels entirely warranted. When she’s riding Sting’s penis on a couch—definitely in the top three most awkward Meryl Streep scenes ever—any good nature one might have had toward her character is tossed away for good.

The cast of Plenty is superb, and it’s sad that the material doesn’t live up to the great talent that was assembled. In supporting roles, some big and some small, Charles Dance, Tracey Ullman, John Gielgud, Sting, Ian McKellan, and Sam Neill all make appearances throughout the film’s running time. Sting is surprisingly quite good, playing one of Susan’s lovers Mick, and McKellan is so strong in a brief scene that it’s a shame his character wasn’t utilized more. It is especially interesting to see Ullman in a rare dramatic role, one that she was given to her early in her career. But again, few of these actors make much of an impression, because the characters are given so little to do.

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Meryl, in the lead, of course gets a lot to do, but even she feels a bit lost throughout the film’s running time. She has the occasional effective moment, like when she lashes out at the guests at a fancy dinner party, and when she runs away from one of her (many) lovers, only to treat the man’s injury after he breaks his nose upon slamming it against a closed door. Her British accent is stellar, as expected, and she does feel like a different woman toward the end than she did at the beginning. She took over the role from Kate Nelligan, who originated the character on the stage in London in 1978 and reprised her character in the first New York City production in 1982. Who knows what Nelligan could have done with the part in the film, but ultimately this is one of the rare dramatic lead performances Meryl has given that leaves little of an impression.

Ultimately, Plenty lacks focus, and its ending, which leaves a luminous Meryl on an English countryside taking in a gorgeous view, feels like something out of a different movie. This might have been courageous and energetic and thought-provoking viewing on the stage, but as a film, most of the scenes feel stilted, like something is missing. Plenty offers another solid Meryl performance but in a career that includes such incredibly moving dramas as Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Bridges of Madison County, the underrated Marvin’s Room, and The Hours, Plenty just doesn’t make the cut.

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