"SEIZE THE BLU-RAY!" @ 27 January 2012 04:23 PM
It is arguable that Dead Poet's Society can be called Robin Williams' best film, or his best performance, but doing so only diminishes much of his other impressive work on film and television (and for those lucky enough to have seen him, on stage). I would go as far as to say that Dead Poet's Society is probably the best dramatic film from the heydey of Disney's then-emerging Touchstone division.

The film's audio commentary (thank you!) is chock full of interesting facts. Screenwriter Tom Schulman talks about how several studio executives held a meeting in which they were going to go over pages of "notes" with endless comments and changes -- then Jeffrey Katzenberg glanced through the pages and told Schulman to go ahead and make the film as written.

The finished film is the subject of some discourse, because what we saw in the theaters back in 1989 is shorter than what appeared on the "director's cut" on laserdisc. Several of the edited scenes (perhaps not all, I'm not sure) are available on the special features section of the Blu-ray. You can make your own decision about whether these scenes should have stayed, but to me, the movie that I saw and never forgot in 1989 is the film as presented here.

Except that when I saw it, the film did not look or sound like it does on this Blu-ray. Director Peter Weir is a very contemplative filmmaker, prone to capturing scenery and moments that establish various moods. Many of these extraordinarily beautiful scenes of Delaware in the fall and winter are downright dazzling on Blu-ray.

Back to the movie itself, though -- it has not lost any of its impact in the ensuing years. Williams' character of Prof. Keating is not the hellbent-for-conflict hummingbird he played in Good Morning Vietnam (though in Dead Poet's Society, he gets just a few minutes to do some of his iconic shtick). There is amazing depth in his silence as well as his inspiring speech, almost an internal battle between what life can be and what life has dealt him (even though we get little hint of that in the narrative).

Every member of the cast rises to the occasion, particularly one of the best actors now on television, Robert Sean Leonard, who artfully plays the best (only?) friend of Hugh Laurie in the long-running series, House.

One of the most thankless performances in the movie is that of Kurtwood Smith, also handled masterfully: as Leonard's immovable father, brings dimension to a very unlikable role. Again, that draws attention to how different an edited film can be from a director's cut -- there is one deleted scene between Smith and Williams from the last act that, had it remained, would have made a huge difference in the perception of both characters. It's helpful that we get a featurette on the bonus materials (clearly from an earlier DVD) in which the creative people discuss how they approached the challenges.

Weir explains that he deliberately avoided clear-cut answers in the film. Keating tells young, impressionable teens to reach beyond their grasp, as did the legendary people he quotes. He doesn't warn them that those visionaries paid their prices in one way or another. When some of these teens take chances, only some succeed, just as in real life. Is it worth it? What a great discussion this opens for parents and their kids.

In its context of late-1950's McCarthyism, perched at the edge of cultural revolution in the '60s, Keating is an outspoken voice before it was cool. In today's world of extremes from one spectrum of propriety to another, as well as political correctness, one might wonder how he would fare.

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