Witness (1985)


We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

Gallipoli (1981)

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How fast can you run? How fast are you going to run? How odd that in 1981 two period  films about athletes should have a contemporary soundtrack for the running sequences … for this was the year that also brought Britflick Chariots of Fire with a Vangelis score, released 6 months earlier. It’s World War 1. Teenage Western Australian sprinter Archy (Mark Lee) persuades rival Frank (Mel Gibson) to join up with him and an extended period of time focuses on their training for the ANZACs in Egypt. When we get to the Turkish battlefield we can feel the heat and dust and our immersion is in no little part due to the production and sound design and editing, a marvel of achievement. There might be those who carp at some historical inaccuracies about the Battle of the Nek but for Australians this episode of senseless killing looms large in the psyche and was revisited recently by Russell Crowe in his directing debut, The Water Diviner. Playwright David Walliamson’s screenplay was inspired by a book by Bill Gammage on the subject: we can infer that the purpose of the sprinters in the trenches to communicate with the Poms has an allegorical function beyond the immediately dramatic. Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene is used to extraordinary effect amongst all the other classical pieces and new music by Brian May (the Australian composer who scored Mad Max). Russell Boyd’s cinematography is simply superb. Gibson of course became a megastar on the strength of this and Mad Max. It was a tough film to get funded and Weir’s initial proposed story did not go down well. Rupert Murdoch came to the rescue. Peter Weir is a great director who makes incredibly poetic mainstream films and doesn’t work enough as far as I’m concerned. I love everything he does. You will not forget the freeze frame finale in a hurry.

The Last Wave (1977)

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To be both prescient and portentous is a terrible thing, apparently. You end up making beguiling films, like this one, in my mini-Peter Weir fest. Tony Morphett and Weir’s screenplay (there’s another credit to Petru Popescu who presumably did a rewrite) bears all the hallmarks of a man who’s been writing little TV shows for too long and is relishing the prospect of something truly cinematic. Richard Chamberlain is the tax lawyer who winds up defending an Aborigine (David Gulpilil from Walkabout) and his friends in a tribal murder case in the heart of Sydney. He is beset by premonitions and meanwhile there are weird floods occurring all over the shop.This is Marmite cinema – you either buy it or you don’t. And considering one of my favourite movie is Wolfen, to which it bears some similarities, this is for me. Try it. You might like it.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

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Valentine’s Day demands homage at least in the western world. So why not do what 50% of the population wants women to do and watch some of them disappear?! This is what apparently happened in 1900 when some of the pupils of Appleyard Academy went on a day trip to a million-year old rock formation in Victoria. A lot of people thought this was a true story when the film came out but Joan Lindsay had written an entirely fictional novel (it happens). She herself did some acting, starting in her 60s. Here we are graced with Vivean Gray (the horrible aunt Mrs Jessup to the wonderful and sadly late John Walton in The Sullivans; Mrs Mangel in Neighbours), the beautiful Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda, Jacki(e) Weaver as Minnie and as Mlle. de Poitiers,  the fabulous Helen Morse, who was quite the star in Aussie cinema at the time. Remember Caddie? And of course, Agatha. We don’t see enough of her but maybe she was stuck in period roles to her detriment. Dominic Guard has a supporting role.  This is stunningly shot and is possessed of a rarely sustained tension. It terrified me when I saw this as a child, courtesy of BBC, when they used to have a mandate to show decent films. Great soundtrack and a fascination with landscape and the animal kingdom used to distinguish Peter Weir’s films. It is a very beautiful piece of work. Written by Cliff Green.