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Dead Poets Society: Special Edition DVD Review

Dead Poets Society: Special Edition

March 7, 2006

Director: Peter Weir,
Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, Dylan Kussman, Gale Hansen, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Alexandra Powers, George Marti,

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DVD Review

Dead Poets Society (1989) is significant in Robin Williams’ career in that it was his most dramatic role at that point. Also, it was a film in which he did not have the most screen time. His character is not the central focus; rather it is the boys who play the students in his class that get the bulk of the screen time for it is their story. The film is the in the tradition of other classic prep school stories like A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye that are poignant coming-of-age tales that feature conflicts between individuality and conformity.

The film takes place in the 1950s at an all-boys private school in the United States. We meet a tight-knit group: the sensitive and shy Todd Anderson (Hawke), Neil Parry (Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), Cameron (Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Knox Overstreet (Charles), the romantic and Dalton (Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything. Their first class, with Professor John Keating (Williams), is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase Carpe Diem (Latin for seize the day) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give them an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day.

Keating shatters all of their preconceived notions with his unorthodox teaching style, like getting his class to tear out the introduction to their English textbook because it stifles creativity and restricts an appreciation and understanding of poetry. He hopes that they will learn to think for themselves. How could you not be inspired by someone like that at such an impressionable age? However, Keating is not saying that all other disciplines are less worthy – on the contrary, they are often crucial to our day-to-day existence – but a love of literature is good for the soul and enriches our lives. The film’s primary focus is on two students: Neil and his desire to become an actor and how this brings him into direct conflict with his father (Smith) and Knox’s attempts to woo the girl of his dreams.

Williams is quite good and very believable as an English teacher. Director Peter Weir reigns him in and not once does the comedian go on one of his trademark manic tears but still has his funny moments. More importantly, he evokes a passion for literature and this in turn inspires his students who resurrect an old tradition of his when he was a student at the school – The Dead Poets Society, a group of boys who met, after lights out, at the old Indian cave and recited their favourite poetry and even some of their own.

The cast is uniformly excellent and believably convey the kind of familiarity and friendship that exists and forms in a boarding school environment. Even though they play archetypal characters, their performances move beyond the cliches into well-nuanced, three-dimensional people that we grow fond of and care about.

Weir perfectly captures the look and atmosphere of the northeast in autumn with orange and brown coloured leaves on trees or lying on the ground as winter approaches. He also accurately depicts the rarified atmosphere of private school life: the camaraderie of the boys, the secret breaking of the rules, and the strict adherence to tradition. He shows us glimpses of the day-to-day goings on: chapel first thing in the morning, classes where one learns the standards (Latin, Trig, etc.) and the participation in sports like rowing.

Dead Poets Society would earn Williams a much deserved Oscar nomination and launch the careers of Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles who are still working in prominent movies to this day. The film would go on to inspire and influence subsequent boarding school movies like School Ties (1992) and, more recently, Mona Lisa Smile (2003).

Special Features:

“Dead Poets: A Look Back” features cast members Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Kurtwood Smith and others praising Weir’s skills as a director. They observe that even though he had his own unique vision he was also open to collaboration. Weir took all of these young actors and gave them complete freedom as artists which made a huge impression on them that still resonates today. They talk about how they got their roles, take us through the rehearsal process and tell good filming anecdotes in this fascinating retrospective documentary.

“Raw Takes” features unedited footage of a deleted scene from the movie that takes place after the suicide with one last meeting of the Dead Poets Society with Keating in attendance.

“Master of Sound: Alan Splet” is a tribute to this incredible sound designer who passed away many years ago. Weir first worked with him on Mosquito Coast (1986) and learned so much from him. Splet did his most memorable work with David Lynch who speaks of the man’s knack for creating organic sounds that were perfect for his films and tells a great story about how they first met.

“Cinematography Master Class” with John Seale takes us through how he lit a scene from the movie by recreating it on a soundstage and demonstrates how important camera placement and lighting is in creating a specific effect on film.

Also included is an audio commentary by Weir, Seale and screenwriter Tom Schulman. Schulman talks about his personal experiences with private school and how it informed his screenplay. Weir also went to a private school as a boy but did not look back at it with any fondness and was glad to get out when he did. He also talks, in detail, about the creative process and how he is open to spur of the moment ideas. All the participants speak very knowledgably about their respective crafts and the movie itself.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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