Mention the subject of "CliffsNotes" and those with little memory of their earlier secondary education may think you're referring to mountain climbing instructions or perhaps what John Ratzenberger's character on the TV show "Cheers" used to keep such vast amounts of useless trivia in his head.
Ask any high school or college student, however, and they'll quickly tell you exactly what they are. Beyond implying that they're an educational godsend for the academically lazy or rushed who don't have the time and/or energy to read novels and plays, most young people will probably state that such notes are good for a blow by blow summary of what occurs in such works.
In exchange for summaries and brevity, though, such "cheat sheets" give up the meaty substance and the heart and soul that made those original works so popular, well respected and chosen for such academic purposes.
As such, the film, "I Dreamed of Africa" could be viewed as the cinematic CliffsNotes of the real life Kuki Gallmann's 1991 novel of the same name, that detail her first decade or so of experiencing life and raising a family in the Dark Continent.
While Gallmann's true story is quite intriguing, simultaneously tragic and uplifting, and certainly sounds like it's great source material for the big screen, the film covers most of her experiences in such a cursory and superficial way - save for two moments late in the story- that you'll feel as if you've been subjected to the condensed highlight reel of this woman's life.
Indeed, it's been quite some time since I last saw a film where the scenes were thrown at the viewer in such a rapid-fire and haphazard fashion where the only apparent congruity between them was a progressive temporal quality.
Although the film does meet the requirements of a movie's academic definition - a story told with moving pictures - and could be easily followed sans the soundtrack, most of the scenes come and go so quickly that they rarely have the opportunity to develop and/or have much of an impact on the audience.
From the opening sequences that race by with the apparent sole purpose of introducing the story and then getting it and its characters into Africa as quickly as possible, to many other scenes that initially seem to be significant but are then quickly jettisoned or forgotten altogether as the story chronologically moves forward, director Hugh Hudson ("Chariots of Fire," "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes") rarely allows the film to grab ahold of the viewer.
Yes, the landscapes and vistas and wonderful to behold thanks to cinematographer Bernard Lutic ("Midnight Express," "My Life So Far"). Perhaps that's what gives the film its intrinsic hook that makes it relatively easy to watch despite its problems. Beyond the incongruous and episodic way in which the story unfolds and thus makes the tragic elements just that much more melodramatic, the film also includes some rather stilted acting and dialogue, the latter courtesy of screenwriters Paula Milne ("Mad Love") and Susan Shilliday ("Legends of the Fall," TV's "thirtysomething").
Beyond being guilty of some moments of such acting (that's probably exacerbated by the film's hodgepodge-like assembly and rough editing), Kim Basinger (an Oscar winner for "L.A. Confidential," she also appeared in films ranging from "Batman" to "Wayne's World 2"), who reportedly appears in all but two of the film's scenes, does a decent job playing Gallmann.
Nearly always radiant despite - or perhaps because of - her surroundings, Basinger possesses that movie star quality that partially helps the film compensate for some of its deficiencies. Vincent Perez ("The Crow: City of Angels," "Swept From the Sea") doesn't fair quite as well in the shadow of his attractive costar (due in part to a less than adequately developed character), but delivers a believable enough performance to make the role work.
Liam Aiken ("Stepmom") and Garrett Strommen (making his acting debut) are generally okay but not particularly noteworthy as the son at different ages, while Eva Marie Saint ("On the Waterfront," "North By Northwest") inhabits the standard well-to-to socialite mother, but can't do much to transcend the stereotypical trappings of the role. For a film set in Africa, the performers playing the natives, including Lance Reddick ("Great Expectations," "The Siege"), are pretty much shoved into the background as nothing more than miscellaneous ancillary characters.
Overall, most viewers will probably have the same wish that the film had more substance to accompany its attractive leads and environs. While the picture works in its most basic form, the fact that it never takes the time for most of its scenes to develop as they race from one to the next, means that the film's big emotional moments don't have the payoffs one would expect.
Had the filmmakers opted to jettison some of the source material and individual scenes (instead of seemingly jamming every last one into the film), and then allowed the remaining ones to grow and flourish, the resulting picture may have been far more impressive. Not horrible, but certainly neither as good nor the moving epic it wants to be and could have been, "I Dreamed of Africa" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.