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Peter Weir
Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith
Writing Credits:
Tom Schulman

He was their inspiration. He made their lives extraordinary.

In an age defined by crew cuts, sport coats, and cheerless conformity, he not only broke the mold ... he reinvented it. Academy Award winner Robin Williams delivers a brilliant performance in one of Hollywood's most compelling and thought-provoking motion pictures of all time. Williams stars as English professor John Keating, a passionate iconoclast who changes his students' lives forever when he challenges them to live life to the fullest and "Carpe Diem" - seize the day! Keating's unconventional approach meets with irrepressible enthusiasm from his students, but the faculty at staid, exclusive Welton Academy prep school is, to put it mildly, not amused. Featuring a star-marking performance by Ethan Hawke and over three hours of never-before-seen bonus materials, this Special Edition of Dead Poets Society will captivate and inspire you again and again.

Box Office:
$16.4 million.
Opening Weekend
$340.456 thousand on 8 screens.
Domestic Gross
$95.860 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 129 min.
Price: $19.99
Release Date: 1/10/2006

• Audio Commentary with Director Peter Weir, Cinematographer John Seale, and Writer Tom Schulman
• “Dead Poets: A Look Back” Featurette
• Raw Takes
• “Master of Sound: Alan Splet” Featurette
• “Cinematography Master Class” Featurette
• Trailer
• Sneak Peeks


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Dead Poets Society: Special Edition (1989)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 10, 2006)

Robin Williams took home his second Oscar nomination for his work in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. The Academy previously honored him for his role in 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam. Though Williams won awards for neither effort, I saw a crucial difference in these nominations: he only deserved one of them. While his work in Vietnam did little more than recycle his usual manic shtick with a side order of condescension, Society actually required Williams to act.

Happily, he proved up to the task in this memorable film. Set during the late 1950s at an exclusive prep school called Welton, Williams plays John Keating, the facility’s new head of the English department. A Welton alum himself, Keating quickly establishes himself as a massive departure from the rest of the school’s staff. While they’re stuffy and restricted by tradition, he encourages his students to take chances and think outside the box.

We see Keating’s effect on the kids as we focus on a few students. We meet Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), a wannabe actor whose father (Kurtwood Smith) runs his life and relentlessly pushes him down a predetermined path toward med school. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is the new kid who must live up to the legend of his older brother, a former valedictorian at Welton. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) falls for Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) and tries to figure out how to woo her away from Chet Danburry (Colin Irving). Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) embraces bohemia and turns into a beatnik type. Inspired by a similar group back in Keating’s day, these kids form the Dead Poets Society and recruit a few others. The movie follows what happens to them and their new organization.

Back in the fall of 1989, I completed my student teaching assignment. During that semester, I learned I wouldn’t make a very good teacher, but at one point, I got fired up enough to really think I should give it a full-time shot. This brief surge of passion faded, but for a short period, I thought teaching might just be the field for me.

Dead Poets Society caused that blast of energy. I saw it over my Thanksgiving break, right when my assignment was at its lowest point. I had a rough semester, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the effects of Society helped me finish the term.

I don’t think I’d seen it since 1989, and I worried that I’d now see it as sappy or mawkish. I’m pleased to report that it still holds up quite well. Much of the credit goes to the turn from Williams. He probably didn’t deserve a Best Actor nomination, as he takes on more of a supporting part, but he overcomes his usual flaws to prove very convincing and true.

I suppose my only complaint about Williams’ performance comes from the odd use of his typical comic shtick. No, he doesn’t go manic as usual, but his mix of impressions and wacky remarks seems a bit out of place here. Those elements don’t distract badly; they just don’t mesh well, and they feel like attempts to pander to the actor’s audience.

Still, director Peter Weir reins in Williams well and ensures the actor delivers arguably his best performance. Williams lacks the smug superiority that mars most of his dramatic performances. He comes across as well-meaning and intelligent but without the usual superiority complex.

A solid cast of young actors bolsters matters, but Weir is the one mainly responsible for the movie’s success. The tale of Society is nothing new. We’ve seen flicks about inspirational teachers for decades, so this one doesn’t tread any truly new territory.

Nonetheless, it seems fresh, largely because Weir avoids most of the usual traps. Clearly we’re supposed to side with Keating and the kids, but Weir never turns the Other Side into demons. Granted, he comes close, as both Nolan and Neil’s father fall perilously close to villain territory.

They certainly act as the movie’s heavies, but I don’t see them as bad people. The film posits that they may be misguided due to their conservative beliefs, but it doesn’t really condemn them for that. We feel these characters truly think they’re doing what’s right. This may not turn out well, but the personalities don’t actively attempt to cause harm.

Society also soars because Weir infuses true life into scenes that easily could have faltered. Consider the sequence in which Keating draws poetry from the timid, introverted Todd. Weir spins the camera around Williams and Hawke like Michael Bay after a six-pack of Jolt Cola and runs into some potentially absurd dialogue. Damned if this doesn’t turn into arguably the film’s most thrilling moment. The sequence evokes goosebumps, as does its climax.

That’s what makes Dead Poets Society a special film. Nicely understated but also very emotional, the movie conveys a real spirit of living absent from most efforts. Many attempt to deliver this attitude but fail. Society grabs its viewers and shakes them up, all in a quiet, unassuming manner. It’s the best kind of inspirational film, one that even works on bitter cynics like myself.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C+/ Bonus B+

Dead Poet’s Society appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The transfer rarely excelled, but it usually seemed perfectly acceptable.

This resulted in some iffy definition. Most of the time, sharpness looked acceptably concise and accurate, but more than a few exceptions occurred. Some shots came across as tentative and slightly mushy. I noticed no signs of jagged edges or shimmering, but mild edge enhancement popped up throughout the film. Print flaws caused a few distractions. A little grain was apparent, and occasional instances of specks and grit marred the presentation. These weren’t overwhelming, though.

The palette of Society favored muted tones, which made sense given its low-key production design. However, I’m not sure they should be as drab as they often looked. Deep reds and browns dominated and seemed fairly flat much of the time. Occasionally the tones pepped up a bit, but the film’s rusty Eighties roots came through via the generally bland colors. Blacks also were a bit inky, while shadows tended to be somewhat murky. The film looked better in daytime exteriors, and those allowed it to earn a “B-“. During interiors, it presented a pretty dreary picture.

Matters improved somewhat with the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Dead Poets Society, but things remained unremarkable. That was to be expected from such a quiet film, and the mix opened matters up only sporadically. The audio concentrated strongly on the front. Maurice Jarre’s synthesizer score usually demonstrated solid stereo imaging, though a few scenes collapsed to mono. The rest of the mix showed decent ambience. That was about all we got most of the time, as the quiet setting didn’t lend itself to theatrics.

Audio quality was reasonably good, though the mix occasionally showed its age. Speech demonstrated somewhat thin and reedy qualities, and I heard some edginess at times. The lines were acceptably natural in general, though, and they remained intelligible.

Music worked fine. The score offered decent depth and range. Effects didn’t play a huge role, and they occasionally seemed a bit tinny. However, they mostly sounded clear and accurate. This was a restrained soundtrack that seemed fairly average for its era.

The supplements start with an audio commentary from director Peter Weir, cinematographer John Seale and writer Tom Schulman. All three sit separately for this edited piece. We find an unusually thoughtful discussion here.

The participants touch on issues such as personal experiences and their influence on the film, other inspirations, cinematography and shooting challenges, sets and design, cinematography and editing, writing and refining the script, and casting and performances. We learn a lot about the personal issues, as we hear many notes about childhood topics that get reflected in the movie. We also find out about Robin Williams’ improv and many other useful tidbits. More introspective and intellectual than most commentaries, this one fleshes out Society well and becomes a memorable listen.

Next we find a documentary entitled Dead Poets: A Look Back. In this 26-minute and 55-second piece, we get the usual mix of movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from actors Melora Walters, Norman Lloyd, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, and Kurtwood Smith. Apparently shot around the year 2000, the program covers impressions of Weir and his style, auditions and casting, rehearsals and character development, changes in scenes, and the impact the movie had on the participants.

I worried that “Look” would be a simple lovefest, especially after a start in which everyone acclaims the greatness of Peter Weir. Happily, however, it turns out to be much deeper than that. We get many nice reflections on the filmmaking process and receive good insights into the production. Hawke’s faulty memory also offers some very amusing moments like his recollection of his initial meeting with Weir: “I remember that he was Australian and that he talked funny”. This is a fine little documentary.

In the Raw Takes area, we get four minutes and 40 seconds of material. This essentially includes an uncut sequence from a deleted scene in which Keating leads a meeting of the Society after Neil’s play. We hear about this during the commentary, but it’s interesting to actually see it.

The DVD follows this with two featurettes focused on technical areas. Master of Sound: Alan Splet runs 11 minutes and includes comments from Weir and filmmaker David Lynch. They discuss the late sound designer Splet. We learn about his preferences and personality as well as the work he did in the movies. Long-time collaborator Lynch also provides some personal memories. This show offers a nice memorial to Splet and gives us some good information about his style.

For the final featurette, we get the 14-minute and 48-second Cinematography Master Class. This Australian program focuses on Seale and offers lots of shots from the set. We see Seale at work and learn about his production choices. It can become a bit technical at times, but it offers a nice little education in the work of a cinematographer, and all the shots taken during the production aptly illustrate Seale’s decisions.

In addition to the trailer for Society, the DVD opens with some ads. We find promos for Annapolis and Flightplan. These also appear in the Sneak Peeks domain.

As I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time in 16 years, I felt like I was 22 again. The movie delivered a shot of momentum to me back in 1989, and I got the same buzz from it this time. Inspirational but not pandering, the film avoids genre pitfalls to soar with grace and spirit. The DVD presents fairly average picture and sound along with a solid collection of extras. While we don’t find an extensive set of supplements, all are very high quality. Dead Poets Society is a memorable movie and a DVD I recommend.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3953 Stars Number of Votes: 43
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