Movie Review – Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society (1989)
Written by Tom Schulman
Directed by Peter Weir

Dead Poets Society was undoubtedly a box office success and garnered much positive acclaim from critics. In college in the early 2000s, I met several people who loved this movie, especially fellow English majors. You might love this movie. I didn’t watch it for the first time until around 2006, and so this was only my second watch, but…this is such a cheesy ass movie, not in a good or charming way. I was astonished that Weir would direct this, and he was working towards making Green Card when Jeffrey Katzenberg reached out to him about Dead Poets Society. I find the movie to be some of the worst examples of maudlin shallow sentiment and a film that began Robin Williams’ path down, making ridiculous pseudo inspirational tripe.

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Movie Review – The Mosquito Coast

The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Peter Weir

Peter Weir was going to make a movie of Paul Theroux’s novel. Weir bought the film rights as soon as it was published in 1981 and was in pre-production when he was sidetracked with Witness. Unlike Witness, a side project for Weir, which gained massive critical and audience acclaim, The Mosquito Coast is considered a box office failure. Even critics were unsure what to make of this very different, bleak film. Harrison Ford was cast completely against type, one of the movie’s most interesting elements. But apparently, moviegoers and critics wanted something less abrasive, so Weir was dealt the first of several blows in the middle part of his career.

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Movie Review – Witness

Witness (1985)
Written by Earl W. Wallace, Pamela Wallace, and William Kelley
Directed by Peter Weir

Peter Weir was in the middle of pre-production work on The Mosquito Coast when backing fell through. He’d return to the project, but Paramount offered him the director’s chair for a picture they had trouble courting someone for. Witness, based on an episode of Gunsmoke, had been circulating in Hollywood for years. It was 182 pages (about 3 hours in movie time) and was critiqued by some executives for focusing too much on the Amish lifestyle rather than the thriller elements. Harrison Ford had already shown interest, so Weir’s first American film was a bit of a gamble but certainly helped by his star’s prominence in the industry.

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Movie Review – Gallipoli (1981)

Gallipoli (1981)
Written by David Williamson & Peter Weir
Directed by Peter Weir

Set around a decade after Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli continues his interest in looking at the so-called “wonder of civilized society.” He does it this time by making a war film that spends a large chunk of its time looking at the characters on their way to the war. His purpose is to examine ideas closely related to white Australian culture that might not be immediately familiar to people outside of the continent. One of these is the idea of ANZAC, the belief that Australians and their cousins in New Zealand possess unique traits that set them apart from their ancestral lands. In many ways, this is the myth of American exceptionalism Down Under. Weir also knows that you cannot talk about war in this era without addressing male friendship and how profound that love can be and how easily it is abused.

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Movie Review – The Last Wave

The Last Wave (1977)
Written by Peter Weir, Tony Morphett, and Petru Popescu
Directed by Peter Weir

Australia has been a land profoundly defined by its colonialist nature. The divide between the descendants of European settlers and the indigenous people is the story at the continent’s core. The Last Wave attempts to examine how even “well-meaning” Australians are simply never going to fully understand the complexity of Aborigine society, and that is simply how it is. This is related to the cultural roots of the settlers in punitive, authoritarian religious movements while the Aborigines live under a much more esoteric system of beliefs. But, more importantly, the film is about how Aborigine spirituality prepares its people far better for the chaotic shifts of the universe than the dogmatic Christian religions.

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Movie Review – Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Written by Cliff Green
Directed by Peter Weir

The Australian New Wave was an explosion of cinema from the Land Down Under that lasted from 1970 through 1990. Many of the filmmakers involved branched into cinema outside their home country like George Miller (Mad Max) or Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof-Fence). Peter Weir is arguably the most successful of these directors, having had a very lucrative career in Hollywood through the 1980s. However, the gap between Weir’s projects grew as the years went on. His last film was The Way Back, released in 2010. I plan to look at his film catalog to figure out his familiar themes and techniques as a means to fully appreciate his work. 

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Double Feature Theater: Walkabout/Rabbit Proof Fence

This is a new feature I’ll be doing alongside Hypothetical Film Festivals. The thought behind Double Feature Theater is to pair two films that share some similarity; be it thematically or actor or, even most interesting, the two films contradict each other in some way. Hope I can provide you with some ideas for your own double features.

Walkabout (1971, dir. Nicolas Roeg)
Starring Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Luc Roeg

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002, dir. Phillip Noyce)

Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil, Kenneth Branagh

The relationship between the Australian aborigine and the Australian settler has been as volatile, if not more than, the Native American/American settler relationship. The aggression seems to have come mainly on the British side of things, as the indigenous Australians seemed quite helpful to the settlers in the early days. Each of these films chronicles the interaction between the two cultures and shows high points of cooperation and low points of conflict.

In Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout we’re introduced to the world of the Australian Outback through violence. An unnamed teenage girl and her younger brother are taken for a picnic by their father deep into the wilderness. Once there, he suddenly begins shooting at them, having what appears to be a complete nervous breakdown. As the terrified girl and boy hide in the nearby rocks, their father sets himself and the car on fire and burns to death. The siblings journey farther into the desert and eventually meet a young Aborigine boy on his walkabout. The Aborigine takes a liking to them and helps find water and food, while experiencing deepening feelings for the teenaged girl.
Nicholas Roeg is one of the great editor-directors of all-time. The way he intercuts scenes to emphasize connections between characters or actions is masterful. There is one sequence where the Aborigine hunts, kills, and butchers a kangaroo which is mixed with quick cuts of footage of an English butcher at work. There are constant shots of the flora and fauna of the Outback and Roeg seems intent on getting across to us how alive this place is. Despite its arid conditions, so much thrives here. One of the key themes of the film is communication and our inability to do so effectively. As the content becomes more abstract, the line of communication begin breaking down between the Aborigine and the girl until she becomes unnecessarily frightened of him and they must part ways. The sadness of these characters is how impossible it is for them to get across their thoughts and feelings despite standing in front of each other.
While Walkabout tells the story of the Aborigine/settler relationship through a lens of abstraction, Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence takes a more factual, historical approach. Based on the novel by Doris Pilkington, the film follow three girls from the Jigalong village in southern Australia. The three girls are taken by Australian police as part of an effort at the turn of the century to breed the Aborigine peoples out of existence. They’re taking to the Moon River Settlement, north of Perth to be trained as part of a servant class, but escape and begin a 1,500 trek home on foot through some of the brutal conditions the Outback can throw at them.
On the surface, Fence highlights a great injustice that was done to the Aborigine people which the government of Australia has been slow to make reparations for. Kenneth Branagh plays A.O. Neville, the government official assigned to oversee the Aborigines and believes in some twisted way is protecting them through these inhumane policies. On a deeper level, the film is meditation on the contemporary Aborigine’s connections to their ethnic roots. Author Pilkington is the descendant of the girls in this story is based on and the retracing of their steps through the narrative is a retracing of the history of the natives of Australia. In addition, Fence’s cinematography is a stunning achievement. Every thing about the wilderness has a dreamlike veneer over it, causing this world to be both familiar yet eerily alien.
Both films, tell the story of a group of people we rarely hear about, and do so in very different, yet equally interesting ways. If you have an interest in learning more about the fascinating continent of Australia or have an interest in global human rights, I highly recommend these pictures.