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The Films Of Peter Weir: A Retrospective

The Films Of Peter Weir: A Retrospective

Lord knows, we Playlisters love a cinematic polymath: a director whose interests seem unconstrained by the strictures of any one particular genre and who instead leaps nimbly, if not always successfully, from sci-fi to epic to thriller to comedy — think Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom or Ang Lee. Peter Weir is almost one of these — his feature film resume boasts everything from mystery to horror to romcom to historical epic, but he falls just short of true all-rounder status because a glimpse at his back catalogue really suggests that while he has dallied with various genres, he’s more comfortable staying within shouting distance of ‘human drama.’ In fact, you get the impression that Weir only crosses genres because he is following his particular thematic preoccupations (fish-out-of-water scenarios, man vs. nature struggles, etc.) where they lead, rather than because of some kind of intellectual compulsion to kick against his limitations through experimentation.

The word, ‘almost’ can crop up a lot when talking about Weir — he is almost A-list, he has made several almost-classics, and he can almost always be relied upon to spin a good yarn, if nothing else. But there is a feeling that he falls just short of making the greatness on display in his best work — the lovely and strange “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the still-fascinating “Witness,” the underseen “Fearless” — his default setting, and on occasion he becomes slightly anonymous behind the camera, allowing story or spectacle to power along seemingly under their own steam. It’s probably to his credit that he does not seek to put some sort of obvious authorial stamp on everything he does. He is maybe the least show-offy director around, but we know he can do solid, well-observed, convincing and emotive with his eyes closed; however to his best work he brings a unique quality of cerebral, outsidery oddness that we want to see more of.

The Way Back,” which opens tomorrow in limited release, is not his best work. Our reviewer was much more positive about it, (read the review here) but this writer was underwhelmed by the episodic nature of the narrative, thought Jim Sturgess an uninspiring lead and found, bizarrely for a film with such epic, continent-spanning scope, it felt small and even stagey at times. So with that said, and the difference of opinion within the Playlist ranks duly noted, let’s take a look at Weir’s feature films and trace how he has, over the years, cemented his reputation as almost one of the best directors out there. – JK

“Witness” (1985)
Culture clash romantic thriller “Witness” may be gorgeously shot (thanks to Weir and DoP John Seale of “The English Patient”), but what’s most remarkable isn’t the rolling landscape of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Instead it’s the performance Harrison Ford gives, which netted him his only Oscar nomination to date. Before “Witness,” audiences primarily knew him for his blaster-shooting and whip- and wise-cracking skills in action franchises. He does get to shoot a handgun or two (thanks to his role as a cop who falls for the mother of his young Amish witness), but he’s most believable in the film’s quieter moments. Set to Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” our favorite scene features Ford’s cop dancing in a barn with Amish widow Kelly McGillis, and he plays it low-key, displaying both his character’s eagerness and his reluctance to charm. Ford has worked with the best directors in the business, but no other filmmaker got a performance out of him that feels as authentic as his work with Weir. [A]

“Fearless” (1993)
A man walks away from a devastating plane crash unscathed and consequently develops a godlike belief that he can’t be killed: the logline is high-concept, but this is about as far from a brainless popcorn movie as it’s possible for a mainstream film to get. Instead we get a smart, absorbing and heartfelt meditation on the nature of redemption and salvation (both in the non-religious sense) and an incredibly human, and humanist drama to boot. The cast (Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Hulce) are uniformly excellent, but it was the usually grating Rosie Perez who got the lion’s share of the notice, winning several critics awards and a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, for her turn as a fellow survivor who loses her baby in the crash: yet another example of Weir pulling a great performance from an unexpected quarter. The film could’ve easily veered off into melodramatic histrionics in a less intelligent director’s hands, but Weir’s restraint grounds the proceedings to give us a rare bird indeed: an absorbing drama, structured like a thriller with an eerie sense of foreboding throughout, that is not afraid to tackle some profoundly philosophical issues with grace and wisdom. It’s the kind of film that usually falls apart in its last third, lapsing into cliché or contrivance as the story struggles to answer all the questions asked in the opening acts, but here the ending is perfectly calibrated and delivers a deeply satisfying conclusion to an unusual and ambitious story. Masterful. [A]

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975)
While there’s no concrete evidence that Sofia Coppola’s career was influenced — at least in a sideways direction — by Weir’s moody, creepy drama about a group of schoolgirls, and their sometimes intimidating teachers, who mysteriously vanish after being drawn towards a peculiar rock formation in early 1900s Australia, the beautiful sunstroked photography of innocent yet enigmatic pubescent girls and the ethereal dreamlike sheen that permeates the picture surely must have made some kind of lasting impression. In fact it wasn’t until Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” or maybe, to a lesser extent, fellow antipodean Peter Jackson‘s “Heavenly Creatures” that we saw again such a heady brew of adolescent female sexuality and friendship, blended with the uncanny. The connection probably ends there, though, because Weir’s picture doesn’t center on female teenage alienation and instead ventures off into territories and finds tenors that Coppola has yet to explore — most notably a disquieting and eerie sense of unease and impending doom that makes you shiver just to think about. No, ‘Hanging Rock’ is not a horror film in the traditional sense or even a psychological horror, but the ghostly soundtrack (some music by Zamfir), unresolved ending and ambiguous aura make for a truly disturbing picture that may induce the subtler kind of nightmare. Helen Morse, Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray star and the spectral mystery is an enigmatic headscratcher that will stick in your mind like gum to your shoe and will haunt you long after it’s over. [A]

Gallipoli” (1981)
Long before Peter Weir had earned himself six Oscar nominations — four for Best Director (“Witness,” “The Truman Show,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” one for Best Original Screenplay (“Green Card“), and one for Best Picture (“Master and Commander“) — the filmmaker was a key member of the heralded late ‘70s, early ‘80s Australian New Wave and “Gallipoli” appeared smack dab in the middle of that period (other Aussie New Wave talent included Mel Gibson and Judy Davis, and directors George Miller and Gillian Armstrong). A friendship/war-is-hell drama, the picture (Weir’s first collaboration with Gibson) centers on a promising Aussie track star (Mark Lee) whose career is interrupted when he’s forced to face the brutal realities of war after being sent to fight in the Turkish Gallipoli campaign of World War I. His wayward friend (Gibson) — also something of a burgeoning, but rebellious runner — doesn’t want to fight, but his buddy eventually convinces him to do the right thing and enlist. They’re spit up, put into different regiments and are eventually reunited all the while slowly losing their sense of innocence when they come face to face with the horrors of war, in what was in real life, a particularly horrific and bloody campaign. Engaging and well-executed, it’s another sturdy entry in Weir’s body of work, but Australian film composer Brian May’s (not the Queen guitarist) ’80s-tinged synth-score (he also scored “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior“) is woefully out of place; so much so that for contemporary viewers it actually causes a pretty awesome level of unintentional comedy during the running sequences. Still, a small quibble. [B]

Green Card” (1990)
By his own admission, Weir wrote this, his one and only romantic comedy, while in a state of depression following the commercial failure of “The Mosquito Coast,” and while it’s by no means the worst example of the on-average fairly-dire genre, it certainly finds Weir at his most workmanlike — almost as though he had consciously decided to try to make the film as unobjectionable as possible to win back audience favour. The plot, revolving around a marriage of convenience between polar opposites, is pretty standard fare, though it features some laudable elements that elevate proceedings slightly, namely a pervasive off-tempo realism that stops things getting too sugary and Gerard Depardieu. The only problem with the latter is that he’s cast against the entirely bland Andie MacDowell who, in a genre that should be marked by some sort of equality between the central couple, is practically obliterated by the Frenchman’s frame-filling charisma; a bunny in a force 10 gale. Ultimately, aside from a few nice touches and a bittersweet ending in which, in defiance of genre conventions, only one of our characters heads for the airport, “Green Card” shows a director on autopilot. Weir fans find it a frustrating experience to watch the director try to fit the square peg of his serious concerns into the round hole of the romcom, and fans of the genre are likely let down by the resolutely unfairytale-like tone, so the irony here is that in trying overtly to make an audience-pleaser, Weir leaves all of his potential audiences unsatisfied. [B-]

“Dead Poets Society” (1989)
How much this film will sucker punch you in the gut will depend on when you first saw it. If you were an impressionable young whippersnapper all full of the emotions and wild mood swings of puberty, “Dead Poets Society” was your crack cocaine. But viewing it later, you see that all it really does is hit the usual manipulative buttons, albeit with flair. A better-than-average entry in the “inspirational teacher” genre, the film stars Robin Williams as John Keating, a new English teacher assigned to the boys of stuffy conservative prep school Weldon Academy. He shakes up their young minds, encouraging them to seize the day, write poetry, follow their dreams and tear the pages out of their textbooks. Of course, this doesn’t sit right with the straightlaced administrators and hard-nosed parents and it’s inevitable that clashes arise while hearts are moved. The film boasts one of the better dramatic (though comic at times) turns by Williams and the movie is notable for its particularly strong cast of young thesps including Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard. Yes, it’s predictable cheese, but it’s well-made predictable cheese (that went on to earn four Academy Award nominations, and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and we’ll be damned if we don’t still shed a tear at the “O captain, my captain” salute. [B]

The Mosquito Coast” (1986)
While we’re just as grateful for Rick Deckard, Indiana Jones and Han Solo as the next guy, some of Harrison Ford’s most interesting work came in the mid-to-late ‘80s (including Polanski’s “Frantic”) and in two of what are arguably his career bests as far as acting is concerned, (“Witness” being the other) he was directed by Peter Weir. In this Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) -written drama, Ford plays the disillusioned libertarian patriarch — also a highly eccentric and dogmatic inventor — who sells his house and takes his family to Central America to build an ice factory in the middle of the jungle to get away from the festering cultural disease that is the U.S. Helen Mirren plays his wife, and a young River Phoenix plays the eldest son — the story is told through his eyes — who idolizes his genius father, but has to watch his hubris turn their lives into a jungle-bound hell. In many ways, there’s a “Heart of Darkness” tone to the picture and the always-moody score by Maurice Jarre (a longtime Weir associate who worked on several of his pictures) does have an “Apocalypse Now”-ish atmosphere as well. While this forum and subject matter give Schrader the opportunity to write some of the most pedantic dialogue to ever spout from his pen, Ford is brilliant in his role and as a picture that followed immediately after “Witness,” it illustrated that the Ford/Weir collaboration yielded excellent results. If only it could have continued this way with the duo ratifying a pact that stated the star would never appear in anything George Lucas-related again. [B+]

The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982)
Before Harrison Ford became Peter Weir’s mid-to-late ‘80s muse, and before he was known to all as a total racist persona non grata, Mel Gibson was Weir’s leading man of choice. The Aussie director’s fifth feature film was an early career apex for the two men that led to golden opportunities outside Oz for both — including Weir’s first foray into Hollywood with“Witness,” which directly followed “The Year of Living Dangerously“; while Gibson had just appeared in the Aussie “The Road Warrior” and was only a few films away from his first “Lethal Weapon.” A political drama-cum-love story, “The Year of Living Dangerously” centers on a cocky young Australian reporter (Gibson) attempting navigate the turmoil of 1965’s Indonesia during the dictatorial rule of President Sukarno with the help of a diminutive photographer (Linda Hunt; who played a man in the film and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Essentially about foreign correspondents in Jakarta on the eve of the attempted coup that led to violent reprisals by military-led vigilante groups who slaughtered thousands of people, the picture vacillates between that serious drama and the dilemma Gibson’s character faces when he meets a fetching British Embassy officer played by Sigourney Weaver. Their love is tested when she passes on critical information about the Communist regime’s plans that could affect his life and he instead tries to use it for journalistic gain. About loyalty and morality as much as it is love, by today’s standards it’s not quite Weir’s best work, but it’s still a very solid entry in his oeuvre [B].

“The Truman Show” (1998)
As Peter Weir’s most commercial feature to date (inching out 1989’s “Dead Poets Society” by about $30 million, inflation aside), “The Truman Show” is surprisingly heady. This is largely due to Jim Carrey’s second strongest dramatic performance of the ’90s (this writer’s numero uno goes to the following year’s “Man on the Moon”) as Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life has been fabricated for broadcast since birth. His social sphere, indeed his whole world, is enclosed within a gargantuan dome overseen by Christof (Ed Harris, Oscar-nominated) …until Truman begins to see the cracks in the facade. Weir keeps a firm hand on the proceedings and Andrew Niccol’s script is heartwarming and thought-provoking. Carrey’s Truman is a charming and upright character and the actor thankfully keeps his facial distortions and histrionics almost to a minimum, wisely understanding that the film has no real use for them.Though Carrey and Harris never share the screen, Christof’s attempts to prevent Truman from exiting his giant set of a world anchor the film and keep it from spinning off into more prototypical blockbuster bombastics. [B+]

“The Cars That Ate Paris” (1974)
In Weir‘s first full-length feature, the filmmaker focuses on the bizarre fictional town of “Paris,” a community which causes car accidents for the well-being of their economy. Arthur (Terry Camilleri who played Napoleon in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) is a victim of their economic exploits, losing a brother in the process and unable to leave town due to a mix of post-traumatic stress and lack of ambition. He claims to have witnessed vague wrong-doing right before the accident, but the shifty residents brush his accusations aside to protect their secret, more worried by renegade youths and out-of-town insurance claimants than anything else. Those who have seen the original “Wicker Man” will find this to be similar, but whereas ‘Wicker’ is shrouded in secrecy until the final disturbing moments, this picture’s mystery is apparent from the get-go. Without that underlying current of dread or confusion, things tend to drag save for a quirky scene here or there. The idea is coated in an unavoidable “cult” label right off the bat, and while it never lives up to its attention-grabbing premise, the aforementioned wacky scenes include: the opening crash involving an unnamed couple, shot with an amusing emphasis on product placement; hospital patients/accident victims that are tested on and eventually brought to a bizarre community dance; and an ending sequence (featuring a car covered in spikes) of car vs. man that feels like a demented spin on demolition derbies. Unfortunately there’s some patience required for the rest as we follow the meandering protagonist through this odd small-town mystery, and though it establishes the director’s offbeat sensibilities for his subsequent (and far more successful across the board) “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave,” this one isn’t really required viewing unless you’re a completist. [C+]

“The Last Wave” (1977)
In a logical next step from the moody mystery “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the director decided to revolve a thriller entirely around the Australian Aborigine culture, one that employed dissonant, unnerving sound design and an ADD-infected camera that often defected from the general plot, instead focusing on running water, orange skylines, and tribal symbolism. Through this looseness, Weir‘s able to concoct a spooky, dark atmosphere as he follows David (Richard Chamberlain), an Australian lawyer assigned to the defense of four Aborigines accused of murder. Things get a bit more complex as he soon finds himself a victim of deadly and mysterious premonitions, and getting further tangled in dangerous tribal customs. Chamberlain’s subtle performance carries the narrative effortlessly, but the real meat is the scenes involving the accused and their culture, which reference their takes on, among other things, the dream world and spirituality. Weir noted in a recent conversation that these are the parts that interested him the most, and expressed a feeling of regret that he hadn’t delved deeper into their culture instead of holding onto the narrative. We don’t necessary agree with him: the film as it stands is a triumph (and manages to be on par with ‘Hanging Rock’), but perhaps if the director had strictly focused on Aboriginal life and beliefs in the same avant-garde way he did for select scenes, it’d truly be an experience like no other. Then again, it’d be an entirely different movie, and we’d would lose the current, really killing finale, which follows David through a sacred site and ends with him coming face to face with a possible apocalypse. Given its already offbeat subject and experimental sequences, we should be glad such a film exists at all. [A]

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)
Peter Weir made this film way back in 2003 when Russell Crowe was one of the hottest leading men in the world, and a studio could take a chance on an expensive supposed series starter. Based on Patrick O’Brian’s novels, this seafaring adventure benefits hugely from the apparent authenticity of its depiction of life on board a bulky man-of-war, and the men of war who crew it and call it home. Crowe delivers one of his most assured turns as Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a natural born leader sharpened by years of experience but still plagued by doubts. He squares his intellect against, and finds a constant friend, in Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, fantastic) while his ship, the HMS Surprise, pursues and faces off against a capable opponent, the French warship Acheron. The excellent cinematography, courtesy of Russell Boyd (who won an Oscar for his work), captures with equal skill vast expanses of ocean and, in a late sequence, bloody close-quarters combat in what must stand as one of the best seafaring setpieces of all time. While ‘Master and Commander’ occasionally feels overlong, the game cast and minutely observed facets of everyday life on the water stay fascinating, no doubt due to Weir’s considerable skill behind the camera. [B+]

Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Kimber Myers, Mark Zhuravsky, Christopher Bell, Kevin Jagernauth, 

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