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Dead Poets Society Blu-ray Review

Dead Poets Society (1989) movie poster Dead Poets Society

Theatrical Release: June 2, 1989 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: PG / Music List

Director: Peter Weir / Writer: Tom Schulman

Cast: Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron), Allelon Ruggiero (Steven Meeks), James Waterston (Gerard Pitts), Norman Lloyd (Mr. Nolan), Kurtwood Smith (Mr. Perry), Leon Pownall (McAllister), George Martin (Dr. Hager), Joe Aufiery (Chemistry Teacher), Matt Carey (Hopkins), Kevin Cooney (Joe Danburry), Jane Moore (Mrs. Danburry), Lara Flynn Boyle (Ginny Danburry - scenes deleted), Colin Irving (Chet Danburry), Alexandra Powers (Chris Noel), Melora Walters (Gloria), Welker White (Tina)

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For a while there, Robin Williams was to film what Brad Pitt and George Clooney are today. No, Williams wasn't being proclaimed sexiest man alive or having his romances plastered on tabloid covers. But back in the late '80s and early '90s, Williams was practically an annual fixture at the Academy Awards.
He earned three Best Actor nominations in the course of five years, for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King. That same period also included Awakenings, which drew three nominations including Best Picture.

The Oscar attention came at commercially successful films, a somewhat uncommon occurrence both then and now. As Williams' box office appeal rose to new heights, his blockbuster comedies tended to be recognized only in minor categories, like music (Aladdin), make-up (Mrs. Doubtfire), and art direction (The Birdcage), if at all (Jumanji). Williams would finally win his first Oscar by getting dramatic in 1997's Good Will Hunting, and that supporting actor award seemed to change the path of his movie star career, as he left behind surefire successes in favor of darker, more challenging material (like his 2002 hat trick of Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and Death to Smoochy).

In the years since, Williams has made movies big and small, having only one clear mid-range box office hit as leading man (RV) and a few bona fide blockbusters in supporting roles (the first Happy Feet and both Night at the Museum movies). And yet, the accolades have been few and far between, especially compared to that earlier phase of his career. The film offers seem to have slowed down for Williams, who turned 60 last year. He has one major release scheduled for this year and though the cast list is rather promising (Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton) and high-profile (Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried), the title (The Wedding), premise ("A long-divorced couple fakes being married as their family unites for a wedding"), timing (opening October 19th), and studio (Lionsgate) drain most artistic and financial hopes. At least, Williams is still working, something few actresses his age can claim with a comparable degree of visibility.

Robin Williams opens young minds in "Dead Poets Society" as Welton Academy English professor John Keating.

Last week, for no apparent reason, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, the video division of the Walt Disney Company, decided to revisit Williams' two most acclaimed and attended films of the 1980s, the career-elevating Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, with their very first Blu-rays. Released to theaters seventeen months apart, the two differ in genre; the first is a comedy with dramatic elements, the second is a drama with comedic elements. But both cast Williams as an inspiring anti-establishment figure near the middle of the 20th century. Whereas Vietnam gave Williams the freedom to play a hip, hilarious military DJ in 1965 Saigon largely as himself, Dead Poets dialed him down to play John Keating, an English teacher you can believe would be hired by an elite all-boys New England prep school in 1959.

An alumnus of the boarding school, newly-hired Keating is expected to uphold the four principles of Welton Academy: tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence. But, as his Ivy League-bound students soon find out, Keating values another principle more highly. He leads the boys out of the classroom and into the hallway to look at the class photos of now-deceased Welton pupils of yore, the point being "Carpe diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary." Though they're caught a bit off-guard, Keating's students quickly warm to his lessons in freethinking, gladly obliging as he advises them to rip out a dubious textbook introduction and line up for a leap off his desk.

A look at Keating's old yearbook inspires the class to discover the "Dead Poets Society" he has listed among his activities. Keating describes the organization to them and the most focal of the students decide to secretly reopen it, convening in caves in the middle of the night to read the poems of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and themselves. The positive effects of Keating's lessons and this unsanctioned extracurricular club are almost immediate. Knox (Josh Charles) works up the nerve to pursue Chris (Alexandra Powers), the pretty girlfriend of an alumnus' son. Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) defies the rules of his strict father (Kurtwood Smith, "That '70s Show") to secretly feed his passion for acting by landing the role of Puck in a nearby student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Even the super-shy Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) starts to come out of his shell a bit.

When they catch wind of the boys' fraternizing and Keating's unorthodox classroom (often out-of-classroom) manner, the powers that be frown. When tragedy strikes, Keating's job is instantly jeopardized.

Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) reads some poetry to The Dead Poets Society gathered in a cave. Welton headmaster Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd) gives Keating (Robin Williams) grief over what he has been teaching.

It's tough to believe a period prep school drama domestically grossing $96 million, which inflation adjusts to $192 million today. Dead Poets Society was released at the height of the summer season, in the weeks between Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II, Batman, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Whether you chalk it up to successful counterprogramming or the power of Robin Williams, the movie performed insanely well for its nature, ending up in tenth place among 1989 releases. It drew crowds all summer long and the notoriously myopic Academy had no trouble remembering it the following winter, nominating the film for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director (Peter Weir) and awarding it Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman).

I remember not being crazy about Dead Poets Society the first time I saw it. I think inspirational films are inherently uninspiring to youths. There's an obvious romantic appeal to standing on your desk, questioning the status quo, opening up and following your heart. But a movie like Dead Poets Society requires some distance and maturity. It's kind of like high school itself; many of us go through it not crazy about the experience, but then it passes, never to return, and you look back with fondness and realize just how much it shaped the person you've become. While this movie is not quite that kind of life-changer, it definitely improves with each viewing. This review brings me at least up to three, in which my estimation of the film has risen from drastically overrated to sterling.

John Keating is not my preferred Robin Williams. That would be the more outrageous, volatile work of Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin, two films that cemented me as a fan, which I still consider myself. Keating is decidedly less flashy, which to a young person translates as a bit boring. But Williams is anything but boring when you look back and really understand the meaning of his words and the sincerity with which he professes them. The young cast that in many ways is more prominent than Williams is solid too, though I suspect they didn't fully appreciate the film's value until later in life.

The film's haunting climax is strange, jarring, and unexpectedly bleak for the PG rating. Without it, though, I'm not sure the lessons sink in as well and you certainly wouldn't have closure.

Dead Poets Society Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.0 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 17, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $20.00
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Still available as Special Edition DVD ($15.99 SRP; January 10, 2006)
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Dead Poets Society looks very good, but not quite great on Blu-ray. The clean element is full of detail, doing nothing to hide the young cast's acne. It gives us a nice look at a golden Delaware fall (the film was shot from November '88 to January '89). The photography is a bit on the soft side and the colors don't quite pop, but that is consistent with my viewings on the two preceding home video formats. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is one of the more reserved entries to that lossless format. Sound almost entirely derives from the front channel and for the most part at a low volume. The score by Maurice Jarre commands your attention in a few places and is nicely presented. The dialogue that drives the film remains fairly crisp as well. In short, this isn't a mix that anyone will cite as a personal favorite, but one doubts there is much room for improvement on the low-key production.

Kurtwood Smith (better known as Red Forman) recalls director Peter Weir's accommodating ways in "A Look Back." Knox (Josh Charles) gets a kiss from Chris (Alexandra Powers) in this raw take of a deleted scene set by a frozen waterfall. Late sound designer Alan Splet is paid tribute by Peter Weir and David Lynch in "Master of Sound."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

On Blu-ray, Dead Poets Society is joined by all of the bonus features from its 2006 Special Edition DVD, some of which appear to have been recorded around 2000 based on comments made within. All remain in standard definition here.

First up is "Dead Poets: A Look Back" (26:55), which collects individual interviews with seven cast members, but not director Peter Weir, as the case again erroneously states, and sadly not Robin Williams either.
Interviewed here are Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Kurtwood Smith, Melora Walters, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, and Norman Lloyd (who is still alive, now 97). After celebrating Weir for some time, the speakers reflect on getting cast, finding their characters, coming together and becoming acquainted with 1950s culture, and their sometimes spontaneous filming experiences. Less slick than other retrospectives, this piece is nonetheless chockfull of valuable information.

Next, we get four "Raw Takes" (7:57) of a deleted sequence that brings Keating post-Midsummer Night's Dream to the new chapter of the Society, where he joins the revelry to a frozen waterfall. It's interesting to see, though tough to make out. Disappointingly, this barely skims the surface of the film's deleted scenes, as those who have caught the film on cable television might already know. An old-fashioned website called The Peter Weir Cave has a section titled The Lair of the Sweaty Toothed Madman which holds super low-resolution QuickTime clips of nine deleted scenes integrated into USA Network airings. It's a shame that the Blu-ray excludes this content, as the Special Edition DVD before it also did.

"Master of Sound: Alan Splet" (10:59) briefly does interview Peter Weir, before turning to audio of eccentric director David Lynch, who joins Weir in paying tribute to late sound designer Splet. Lynch describes meeting Splet, working with him, and the importance of sound design. Oh, and he casually mentions the fact that Splet's ashes lie under his office console.

As if by magic, lens flares punctuate John Seale's lighting measurements in the AFTRS' "Cinematography Master Class." The Dead Poets Society title logo is placed above a sweet autumn sunset in the original theatrical trailer. Quotes and clips float by on the Blu-ray's menu.

"Cinematography Master Class" (14:47) is a rare licensed extra for Disney. Resembling a TV show, this 1993 technical workshop piece comes from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and finds cinematographer John Seale lighting a seemingly Dead Poets Society-inspired scene in different conditions. It's unusual but good.

Dead Poets Society's original theatrical trailer (2:45) is kindly preserved. It's notable for exceeding the 150-second modern standard which the MPAA requires of all but one designated release per studio per year.
Interestingly, this worn-out preview begins emphasizing the comedic aspects of the plot with some rock music, but it comes to reveal the dramatic and inspirational qualities as well.

Last but not least is a feature audio commentary by director Peter Weir, screenwriter Tom Schulman, and cinematographer John Seale. Schulman and the Australians are all recorded separately, but the track doesn't seem to suffer much for that, nor at all for their combining. The most interesting remarks tend to be about the personal experiences that shaped the film, many of them from Schulman, who essentially made his debut here. The description of the only instance of studio notes vetoed by Jeffrey Katzenberg is an interesting story and there are others like it. It's not a bad listen for those who are fans of both the movie and of audio commentaries.

Clips and quotes float by while score plays against a golden backdrop on the fitting menu. The only insert inside the standard Blu-ray case is a dated booklet promoting Touchstone Blu-rays with clunky cover mock-ups.

An 18-year-old Ethan Hawke plays Todd Anderson, a shy student with an older brother's large legacy to live up to. John Keating (Robin Williams) makes a heroic exit before his grateful pupils.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I no longer feel that Dead Poets Society is overrated. It has been endlessly praised and remains one of the defining films of the inspirational teacher subgenre. If you can enter without those elevating your expectations, you are likely to enjoy this substantive, soulful drama. The film's Blu-ray is pretty much a drag and drop of its solid Special Edition DVD extras alongside a fine if unspectacular 1080p presentation of the film. I don't know that there are many clamoring to own the film with better picture and sound, but anyone who considers it an all-time favorite and is passionate about Blu-ray should be happy to pick this disc up. It also makes for a fine first-time purchase.

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Ethan Hawke: White Fang Brooklyn's Finest New York, I Love You | Dylan Kussman: Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken | Josh Charles: After.Life
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Dead Poets Society Music List: The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra - Handel's "Water Music: Suite III in D 'Allegro'", Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9", Wilhelm Kempff with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, OP. 73 'Emperor'", David Hykes - "Rainbow Voice", "The Fields of Athenry", "The Battle of New Orleans", Wanda Jackson - "Let's Have a Party", "Ridgeway Fight Song", "Sound Off", The Cadets - "Stranded in the Jungle", Professor Longhair - "Hey Little Girl"

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Reviewed January 27, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1989 Touchstone Pictures and 2012 Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.