Despite dealing largely with dramatic cinema, Peter Weir had the good fortune of working with two of the most gifted American comedians of this (or any) era. He drew out a defining performance from the late Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, casting him as Professor John Keating not for the simple unconventionality of Williams in a “serious” role but more likely because Williams could convey passion in a way most actors of “serious” roles rarely can. Likewise, even though The Truman Show is pretty damn funny at times, Jim Carrey’s career in comedy matters little for his role as Truman Burbank — he’s perfect for it for another reason.
I didn’t always think so. On first pass Truman seemed to have more tragedy in him than the actor was able (or willing) to provide, especially considering that Carrey’s Joel Barish from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fought a similarly paranoid crusade and through it became a beautiful tragic hero for our modern age. In this retrospective light Truman seemed caught in the middle between Carrey the affable goof and Carrey the tragic everyman.
Continue reading The Truman Show (1998)
The Peter Weir we have today is one that seems to take his time releasing new films. It’s been four years since The Way Back, more than ten since Master and Commander, and nearly twenty since The Truman Show. Those most recent films of his are pretty great across the board, and perhaps the time and care taken with each is a major reason why. This wasn’t always the case with Weir, though: he released five films in the 1980s alone (Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, and Dead Poets Society), all of which were fantastic, and he had a pretty productive early ’90s too.
The film that forms the divide between super-productive Weir and less-so Weir seems to be Fearless, a 1993 drama starring Jeff Bridges as a plane crash survivor. For whatever reason, Weir took more time off following Fearless than he had since he first started directing (although one might find it hard to believe it was truly “time off”). From then on, a new Weir film would be all the more cherished for the infrequency now associated with it.
Continue reading Fearless (1993)
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a double feature of Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Robin Williams was an actor who selected his film roles very carefully. Despite his ironclad station as the greatest American comedian of his time, Williams acted in drama nearly as much as he did in comedy. One need only look to the shy Dr. Sayer of Awakenings or to the chilling villains of One Hour Photo or Insomnia to see the acting mastery Williams commanded.
On the surface, John Keating of Dead Poets Society and Sean McGuire of Good Will Hunting are two more of these “serious” roles that broke the mold for Williams the comic. There is no doubt that both helped to establish him as a master thespian regardless of genre. He was nominated for Academy Awards for both roles and won Best Supporting Actor for the latter, beating out the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Robert Forster.
Continue reading Dead Poets Society (1989)
In many ways our Director Series on Peter Weir can be seen as an excuse to write about The Mosquito Coast, which is the logical culmination of the “early stage” of the director’s career and gateway to those brilliant films that would follow (though calling that Weir’s “later stage” makes it sound like his directing career is a slowly advancing disease). Coast would follow Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously – two well-received Australian films that helped launch Mel Gibson into superstardom – and Witness, which would prove to be Weir’s first American film. The greatness of Dead Poets Society would follow. It’s The Mosquito Coast, though, that’s arguably the most ambitious of any of these films.
And that’s fitting, because although Gibson’s Guy Hamilton and Harrison Ford’s John Book and Robin Williams’s John Keating could conceivably all be described as “ambitious” in one way or another, it’s Ford’s Allie Fox that allows his ambition to get the better of him. Fed up with just about every aspect of America, inventor Fox uproots everything and takes his family deep into the South American jungle. They make a new home – “home” a term used liberally here – on the Mosquito Coast, where Allie’s latest creation provides something magical for the local population: ice. Helen Mirren and River Phoenix appear as Allie’s wife and eldest son, who essentially allow themselves to be dragged into the jungle by this iceman simply because they love him.
Continue reading The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weir’s first American film was the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, released to commercial and critical acclaim in 1985. The Australian director was originally set to make his stateside debut with The Mosquito Coast, but a last-minute loss of financing would leave time for Weir to make a very different kind of picture first.
As a “Harrison Ford movie” — a label which immediately evokes Raiders and Blade Runner — Witness probably falls flat. John Book ain’t an adventurer, an action hero, or a possible cyborg (or is he?) and Witness ain’t a popcorn blockbuster. You can imagine the studio executives wincing as they reluctantly finance something that, frankly, looks excruciatingly boring as an abstract. Man goes to Amish country. Protects small boy. Woohoo.
Continue reading Witness (1985)
After their 1981 collaboration on Gallipoli, Peter Weir cast the young Mel Gibson again the following year in his feature adaptation of the C.J. Koch novel The Year of Living Dangerously. The film would ultimately end up being one of the first collaborations between an Australian studio and a Hollywood studio, and thus the most ambitious Australian film to date. Good news for both the director and the actor, then, that the movie ended up being one of the year’s finest achievements. If Gallipoli was the announcement of Weir as a commanding big-budget filmmaker and Mel Gibson as a major star, The Year of Living Dangerously was the solidification of that announcement.
The storyline(s) are admittedly numerous, often incomplete, occasionally downright implausible. The historical accuracy isn’t necessarily…accurate. Yet none of that really matters in the grand scheme of Living Dangerously because the characters and the atmospheric beauty of the picture are so absorbingly irresistible, and because the meandering and multifaceted plot is probably actually more true to life. Lives don’t play out in neat one-two-three act scenarios, and the subplots each of us tends to engage in hardly ever come to definitive “ends”. Love comes and goes, things become more important or less, people we thought were one way act another – all of these expressions are at the heart of The Year of Living Dangerously, and the overall impact far outweighs that of a great number of films preaching straightforward plots and historical accuracy only to forget to leave some breathing room for a little passion.
Continue reading The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Gallipoli is arguably the feature that catapulted both Mel Gibson and Peter Weir onto the international stage. Though both the actor and the director had found success in the years prior – Weir with The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave and Gibson with Mad Max – their first collaboration would prove to bring out the best in both of them. Gallipoli spawned plenty of war films and series that would attempt to ride that wave of popularity, but to this day it still remains one of the greatest WWI films out there.
Gibson stars alongside Mark Lee, the latter of whom actually has the larger role despite Gibson’s mug being the only one plastered across the U.S. marketing materials. Lee is Archy Hamilton, hopeful young sprinter from Western Australia who continually hears of the efforts of the Australian Imperial Force on the peninsula of Gallipoli. He first crosses paths with Gibson’s Frank Dunne during a footrace, after which both men travel together to Perth in order to enlist. Their journey is long and full of joy and laughter, but it eventually takes them to the front lines at Gallipoli. Here they confront the reality of war, attempting to hold onto whatever remnants of home they can in the face of such horror.
To be sure, there are no shortage of “loss of innocence” war films. You could even argue that all war films address this in one way or another, even if it’s tangentially through a supporting character or two as in the likes of The Hurt Locker. Not only does Gallipoli get credit for being a precursor to some of the best WWI films of our era, but it’s also worth paying attention to the structuring of the film as a kind of growing, building framework on which we can hang this theme as the credits roll. First off, the focus is very much on Archy and Frank for the entirety of the movie – we only see the battlefield when they see the battlefield, and any notions we have of the war are stemmed from the opinions of the people they meet and the newspapers they read. In this sense, the war is almost a backdrop for a tale about two friends, and Gibson himself expressed as much in an interview (according to the almighty Wikipedia [so it’s gotta be true!]).
Continue reading Gallipoli (1981)
Peter Weir’s directorial debut The Cars That Ate Paris, like a few other movies from the early career of the Australian filmmaker, tends to defy most attempts at classification and at fitting it comfortably into one genre or another. Most slap “horror-comedy”, a broad and unsatisfying label, onto films like this. While it’s certainly funny and creepily disquieting by turns, shoehorning The Cars That Ate Paris into a genre just so we may talk about it as “this kind of film” or “that kind of film” quickly becomes a useless exercise.
Set in the fictional hamlet of Paris in rural Australia, the film follows young Arthur after his brother George dies in a car accident just outside the town. The Parisians welcome Arthur and console him, but it soon becomes evident that Paris is no ordinary town. Arthur himself hardly seems to notice any questionable behavior apart from a few odd comings and goings – but we become aware very soon that the town of Paris thrives on car accidents from the dangerous outskirts roads, and that the townsfolk engineer accidents for their own benefit.
Silly set-up, no? What characterizes the tone of The Cars That Ate Paris is just that: a silly, comedic set-up that suddenly takes a darker turn, a bubbly Sunday drive turning instantly into a fiery wreck. While calling the entire thing a “horror-comedy” is too easy, it can be said that the tone of the film hinges on those two genres without ever slipping over into either for too long. The pivoting itself can provide comedy or shock, and Weir and Co. bring us back and forth over the course of the film more times than I care to count. The effect turns the film into a kind of tonal collage that’s tough to pin down at any one point in time.
Continue reading The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)