Dead Poets Society: Special Edition DVD Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Dead Poets Society: Special Edition DVD Review
    SRP: £12.39


    With an accurate 1.85:1 aspect that has been anamorphically enhanced, the image on Dead Poets Society contains a mixture of both the good and the bad ... though, luckily, not too much of the ugly. Firstly, there is some grain apparent and little bit of print damage, though this is only minimal and shouldn't be a problem. Colours, though held in check for much of the film, are actually quite decent. Most of the film possesses a subdued and earthy patina that the disc handles well, the school rooms and the clothing all drained of the vitality that Mr. Keating seeks to introduce. When colour is allowed into the story, however, it allows the exteriors a nice burnished, autumnal sheen, and Knox's bike ride to see Chris as the football team prepares to leave sees some rich reds and other crisp colours finally splash across the screen. Contrast levels are good and this is showcased especially well in scenes when we see light spilling through windows into dark rooms - Ethan Hawke's Todd confronted by the judge and jury of the cold-hearted Headmaster Mr. Nolen during the penultimate confession-signing sequence, for instance.

    But, on the downside, I found that blacks varied from nice and deep to vaguely insubstantial, and that the whole image was on the soft side. And detail, which could often be scrubbed-up to a high degree, could also be compromised at other times. I noticed some slight artifacting and edge enhancement as well, which was a little disappointing when coupled with the softened picture. But, overall, Dead Poets Society was a fine viewing experience.
    Dead Poets Society: Special Edition Picture


    The soundmix supplied with this release is a Dolby Digital 5.1 that makes a reasonable effort at widening-up the film, though it is predominantly housed around the front speakers. It manages to provide a depth and realistic sense of ambience to scenes set in crowded corridors, classrooms and the assembly at the start, with voices, footsteps and hubbub subtly, but effectively, steered. There's a bit of oomph to the team bus as its engines roar out of the left speaker and Maurice Jarre's effective score is buoyant and well presented. But, if you get a little closer to the rears ... just a bit closer ... and listen carefully ... you can hear them saying “Carpe diem ... seize the day,” - only kidding, folks. I couldn't resist. But, to be honest, there are some effects produced behind you that do not draw attention to themselves, with a subtle integration into the overall sound design that is nice but unobtrusive, such as the dripping of water in the Indian cave.

    Not a terrific soundtrack by any standards, but one that fits a slowly measured, dialogue-driven film to a tee.
    Dead Poets Society: Special Edition Sound


    This new edition sports some pretty interesting features, but is marred by one thing - the complete and utter absence of Robin Williams. The star of the movie, albeit amid an extremely impressive ensemble, I cannot help but feel the overall package lacks his input with regards to his recollections about a film that, arguably, revealed for the first time the depth he can bring to a character. Anyway, let's see what is on offer.

    Well, first up is the Commentary Track from Peter Weir, cinematographer John Seale and writer Tom Schulman. The three are recorded separately and there is a quiet lull before each speaker takes his turn, but the track is certainly worth your while. Weir takes the lion's share of the chat and does a very good job of combining his own personal experiences of school-life with the narrative that he sought to portray on screen, and his motivations behind the film's production. There's an interesting moment when he reveals his view the education system - leave school early and learn a trade is his advice, kids - and he likens the routine and tradition of it all to religion, merely an obligation that has forgotten its true meaning. Not always scene-specific he, and the other two (who are equally as entertaining, even if the whole thing sounds a little dry and too-considered) often go off on nostalgic tangents that still manage to bring their collective thoughts into relevant harmony with the production of the film. A good, informative track.

    Dead Poets: A Look Back (26.55 mins) is, as the title suggests, a retrospective observation from a number of the cast, including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Dylan Kussman, Norman Lloyd and Kurtwood Smith. Now, all this appears to amount to little more than a praise-fest for Peter Weir. At least, initially. The modest assortment of stars all have their say and pat Weir on the back for all they're worth. Hawke is very sincere and comes across well, even if his memory does appear to let him down a couple of times. Lloyd still has his Actorly Ego to wrestle with and the girl who plays Gloria in the Indian cave sequence simply fawns over the whole (and in her case, brief) experience. But the boys, all grown up now, have the welcome sense to lace their reminiscences with wit. Smith gives some good insight into how he shaped Mr. Perry and, perhaps, offers the most pragmatic and naturalistic memories. He still has Anthony Head's face beneath that huge Mekon-esque forehead, though. So, in the long run, the fawning session actually comes out on top with many of Weir's filmmaking styles and techniques revealed with affable anecdote and respect, plus a couple of snippets of deleted scenes.

    Raw Takes (4.38 mins) reveals just the one deleted scene, that takes place after Neil's show when Keating finds the boys - and Knox's new girlfriend - in the Indian cave and joins them for a communal sucking of the marrow of life. The sequence ends with the teacher leading them outside to see a frozen waterfall. I can certainly see why this scene was cut, as it would have definitely slowed things down and taken Keating too far into the realm of the new Dead Poets Society.

    Master Of Sound: Alan Splet (11.00 mins) is a tribute to the late sound designer who worked with both Peter Weir and David Lynch. Both filmmakers offer fact and anecdote on the life and times of one of cinema's most talented unsung heroes, and we get to see copious photos of him at work. Weir appears on screen for first third of the feature and then Lynch takes over for the rest in voice-over fashion. Weir on Splet : “Wind ... now that's an Alan area.” Lynch provides a more technical appreciation of his abilities, but then ends the piece with a curious revelation as to the whereabouts of the man's ashes. A nice feature, overall.

    Cinematography Master Class (14.47 mins). This is actually an excerpt culled from a piece with Cinematographer John Seale produced for the Australian Television and Radio School. Literally a step-by-step tutorial in how to light and lens a scene, this uses a dormitory set from Dead Poets Society that we will see being made to look as though the light and shadow of first summer and then the winter are affecting it. Quite technical, but still interesting. Check out the ancient animatics.

    And finally we get the original Theatrical Trailer, running for 2.44 mins as well as previews for Flightplan and Annapolis.
    Dead Poets Society: Special Edition Extras


    I loved the film when I first saw it all those years ago, and I still love it now. It's easy to criticise it for its innate sentimentality and manipulative tugging of the heart-strings, or for Robin Williams' man-child performance that is, being cynical, just an academic Mork, but Dead Poets is still an exquisitely crafted motion picture that takes an unusual subject matter and breathes life into it. For such a quiet film to mingle soaring inspiration with soul-numbing tragedy and yet still cling to its beautifully measured flow and ebb, is praiseworthy in itself. But to do it with such marvellous performances from a collection of young novice actors and a wildcard comedian is nigh on miraculous. A truly great film, whose flaws can, in my opinion, be easily overlooked.

    The new Special Edition of Dead Poets Society would have been much more impressive had it contained some participation from Robin Williams but, despite his absence, this is still possesses a fine assortment of bonuses. Well recommended.

    Carpe DVD ... Seize the DVD.
    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £12.39

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