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Cheers for Weir.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 15, 1998:  Peter Weir is one of those relatively anonymous directors who hangs around for years making imaginative, entertaining, and mostly profitable movies without ever denting the public consciousness. The Truman Show might finally push him a little more into the spotlight, but Weir's already got a back catalog to brag about. You might not know his name, but you've probably seen his films. And you've probably enjoyed them.

So have I (with the exception of Dead Poets Society, which I still think is the dopiest movie about intellectualism ever made). Although the Australian director's career spans 24 years and a number of genres, his movies have several distinguishing characteristics: lush, evocative cinematography (think of the wheatfields at the beginning of Witness); a fascination with inter-cultural relations (Witness again, as well as The Mosquito Coast and The Last Wave); a desire to transcend the self-imposed boundaries of daily life (The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Fearless).

Oddly, Weir's debut film shared little if any of that. The Cars That Ate Paris (1974, R), a cult film that helped inspire the Mad Max series, is a weird little low-budget comedy about a small Australian town that has made a cottage industry of car crashes. In its auto fetishism and fascination with meat and metal, it's a smarter, funnier, and more inventive vision than David Cronenberg's ridiculous Crash, which covered some of the same ground.

More typical of Weir is his last Australian film, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, PG), an ambitious, engrossing drama that's equally part political thriller and stormy wartime romance. Mel Gibson is an Australian reporter covering the 1965 civil war in Indonesia; Sigourney Weaver is the woman he falls in love with; Linda Hunt steals the movie (and won an Oscar) as Gibson's cynical but idealistic (and male, come to think of it) photographer. The film, which traces Suharto's rise to power in Jakarta, is especially worth a look on the heels of his recent ouster.

Since coming to the U.S. in the '80s, Weir's made a half-dozen films. My favorites are Witness, which just about everyone saw, and Fearless (1993, R), which nearly nobody did. Fearless, which opens with a breathtaking scene of a plane crash in a field, is about two survivors trying to adjust to post-crash life. It's Weir's most visually arresting movie, and—with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez as the leads—one of his most powerful. In its study of self-discovery and the fragility of existence, it's also a clear precursor to the musings of The Truman Show.


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