Judge Gordon Sullivan once started a Zombie Dead Poets Society. Then they got hungry.
"Sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone."—John Keating (Robin Williams)
Cocaine, Rick James tells us, is a helluva drug. Robin Williams would know, as much of his early success occurred in part because of the manic persona he presented while using cocaine recreationally in the late '70s and early '80s. He was still a comedic genius after he gave up the white powder, but he seemed to grow dissatisfied with his role as just a standup comic. So he branched out, playing increasingly dramatic roles. This trend culminated in Dead Poets Society, his second Oscar-nominated role in a row (if you don't count his short turn as the Moon in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). However, unlike his nod for Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams' role here was almost purely dramatic, with almost none of the manic mugging that made his fame. Once Dead Poets came out, it was impossible to deny Williams' dramatic talent, and the '90s saw him balancing his comic persona with more dramatic work. Now, however, fans can return to that initial dramatic success with this Blu-ray release, and the results are worth returning to.
Facts of the Case
The scene is an exclusive boarding school in Delaware in the late 1950s. The school's pillars are "Tradition, Excellence, Honor, and Discipline." However, they've got a new teacher this year, John Keating (Robin Williams), who is going to teach English in a new way. Instead of learning rhyme and meter, Keating wants these boys to feel poetry stirring their souls. He makes a special impression on a group of seven particular boys, and they go on to reform a long-dormant group (started by Keating during his time at the school): the Dead Poets Society. Though it may just be a group that gets together to read poetry, the Society encourages the boys to follow their dreams, sometimes with unexpected consequences.
I know I talked about Robin Williams a lot up there, and if you ask most people what they remember from the film, his desk-topping antics will likely rate high. However, returning to Dead Poets Society, I'm struck by how much this film is all about the boys. Robin Williams deserved an Oscar nod simply for his restraint; rather than stealing the show, he lets the ensemble of young male actors take center stage, and they're an impressive group. Though all the members of the Society are excellent, the standouts are Ethan Hawke as the shy younger sibling of an alum, Neil Perry as the artistic son of an overbearing father, and Gale Hansen as the anarchic free spirit. Their acting, both individually and as a group, is really what makes Dead Poets Society a cut above so many other "inspirational teacher" films.
The other thing that distinguishes Dead Poets Society from other "good teacher" flicks is the film's attention to realism. I don't want to give away what happens, but this is not the story of how one teacher and a few students took on the administration and triumphed over stodgy tradition and the unfairness of the adult world. No, the actors and filmmaker strive to make the adults human beings, who, while wrong, are not evil. The end result of everything that happens between Keating and the boys is not some great triumph, but more the subtle realization that it is possible to change what's inside, even if you can't control what's outside.
This Blu-ray release is an update of the previous DVD special edition. This 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer is impressively filmlike. Though fine detail isn't as strong as some contemporary films, the grain structure on display here is more appropriate than razor-sharp views of all the boys' zits. The film features lots of wonderful shots of the Delaware countryside, and they're well-saturated. Darker scenes could have had a bit more shadow detail, but there is no serious digital muck applied to the image. Overall it's a mixed bag visually if we use contemporary films as a reference, but for this film in particular the presentation is about as good as we could ever hope for. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is treated similarly: dialogue is clean and clear from the front channels, and Maurice Jarre's score sounds beautiful. However, there isn't much use of surrounds, nor is there much low end, even for the score.
The supplements are all ported from the previous DVD. There's an audio commentary where Peter Weir, writer Tom Schulman, and cinematographer John Seale are all spliced together. It's a solid track that balances technical info, story background, and production info. The video-based extras start with a 26-minute featurette that interviews the actors about their experience working with Peter Weir on the film. It's a really fun watch, partly to see how some of the boys have grown up (especially Robert Sean Leonard, pre House). Ethan Hawke is especially funny, since he seems stoned half the time and gets a few details about the film wrong. Then we get two short featurettes on the film's visuals and sound that add another 25 minutes of material, and a "raw take" or deleted scene. Finally, the film's trailer is included. It's a lovely little time capsule that tried to see Dead Poets Society as a vehicle for Robin Williams, and it makes the film look much more funny and action-packed than the actual feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think the film's attention to realism—and its following through of the consequences of the boys' rebellions—keeps the film from being saccharine or overly melodramatic. However, some people might disagree. Certainly the film falls squarely into the genre of "inspirational teachers," and those who have no patience for such stuff should avoid the film entirely. There are also a few moments where perhaps it's possible to see Robin Williams' comic persona come a bit too much to the fore in some places. Finally, the TV version of the film includes some 14 minutes of extra scenes which haven't made their way to home video in America.
Dead Poets Society might not be a classic—it's still too early to tell—but it is a remarkable ensemble drama, featuring beautiful cinematography and some of the best acting to come out of teenage boys (and Robin Williams). This Blu-ray release ups the technical ante quite a bit, providing a lovingly filmlike appearance. If the price is right, it is definitely worth upgrading from the previous DVD special edition, even without any new extras.
Yawp all you like, Dead Poets Society is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
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