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(1989) (Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard) (PG)

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Drama: At a private preparatory school, a poetry professor inspires a few boys to live lives of their own choosing, and not by what society in its many facets has set forth for them.
At the beginning of a new year at a private boys preparatory school in the 1950s, new students arrive at Welton Academy. There's Neil Perry (ROBERT SEAN LEONARD), who would much rather do anything else than what his unyielding father commands him to do, even to the extent of having him removed from working on the school's yearbook so that he can concentrate on his studies that will lead him to Harvard and a career as a doctor.

Todd Anderson (ETHAN HAWKE) is the brother of a student warmly remembered by the headmaster, Mr. Nolan (NORMAN LLOYD), and told that he should live up to the standards his sibling achieved at the school. But where it might be imagined that Todd's brother was lively and an engaging soul to spend time with, Todd is extremely shy. He prefers to keep to himself, do the work that's required, and let that be that. There's also Charlie Dalton (GALE HANSEN), a jokester, and Knox Overstreet (JOSH CHARLES), who is dropped off by the headmaster for a dinner with some important alumni and immediately falls for their daughter, Chris Noel (ALEXANDRA POWERS).

These boys, along with a few others, relatively minor in comparison, come together ever more closely under the tutelage of John Keating (ROBIN WILLIAMS), a graduate of their school, in charge of teaching poetry. But where the book presented for the curriculum rates poetry as if it was something to be reviewed in Consumer Reports, Keating absolutely refuses to look at poetry that way because to him, it's about the human race.

It's about all the emotions that make up who we are and what we aim to live for, such as love. He leads the boys on many experiences that he hopes will change them, to turn them from unquestioning conformists to men with unique voices, who see that the world presents so much more than what's given to them in the staid atmosphere of their school.

Neil, Todd, Charlie and Knox are inspired enough to resurrect Keating's old group, the Dead Poets Society, which holds meetings in a cave and the members read poetry to each other, ranging from such giant names as Walt Whitman to their own work. But while there's enough inspiration to change the lives and minds of a few of the boys, such as Todd, there are also issues that lead to tragedy.

OUR TAKE: 9 out of 10
Like anyone who watches movies often, I have a list of favorites, and also of favorite actors and actresses, but never favorite directors. I don't know why not, since I'm far more interested in directors than actors (though with no desire to ever become a filmmaker myself), but recently, I've slowly been gathering up in my mind who my favorite directors might be and most importantly, why.

While watching "Dead Poets Society," I realized that Peter Weir is one of them. In 1998, before I really got into movies, I was excited to see Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show," because at the time, he was my sole favorite actor to watch in anything. Today, I always wish that I could go back to that first time because I don't remember if I was taken in by the conceit presented by Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol, that of Truman Burbank living this charmed life, with a steady job at an insurance company, and every day picking up a few magazines from a friendly vendor, not knowing in those moments that his entire life was a worldwide phenomenon on TV. For a few scenes, Carrey was permitted to be what we know him as when it comes to such characters as Ace Ventura, but ultimately, I was stunned at seeing him as a dramatic actor.

Right there is one of Weir's talents, which began with Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." He can easily take an actor known for being funny and with him, shape a role that's awe-inspiring, as it is with Williams as John Keating, a teacher at the Welton preparatory academy for boys, who strives to inspire his students to live more than just the standards set out at the school.

Keating is Williams' most restrained performance, particularly since he's not the central attraction here, even though the influence of his character reaches deep into the boys he teaches about the joys of reading poetry and knowing that poetry represents all that the human race feels. There is a moment in one of Keating's classes where Williams imitates Marlon Brando and John Wayne, but that's as far as he goes. I am absolutely certain that if Weir were to be given Eddie Murphy, or Chris Tucker, or even Tim Allen, you would see a performance you wouldn't believe could come from them before you saw the film.

But that's not all Weir's made of as a filmmaker. Most important to his career is the running theme found in his films. He's interested in examining the lives of men, especially those just discovering or re-discovering themselves (an example of the latter being Jeff Bridges' plane crash survivor in "Fearless"). In the context of "Dead Poets Society," students Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) don't know who they are. They come to this school to learn, to be groomed and prepared for whatever awaits them next in life, but they don't know yet what they want out of life or how they intend to go about it. There's the suggestion by the halls of Welton to face life stiffly, to walk in the straightest of lines, to choose an upstanding, honorable career and never look back to what might have been.

These boys aren't at the stage yet of looking back on what might have been. They haven't even gone forward. Therefore, they have to discover themselves and Weir expertly explores that along with screenwriter Tom Schulman, cinematographer John Seale (the scenes of autumn and winter cause one to be struck silent, admiring that scenery), and this band of notable actors. While they obviously have their separate first and last names, imagine the names like this: "Robertseanleonardethanhawkejoshcharlesgalehansen."

That's how close they all are in their performances amongst each other. You get a clear and detailed sense of what each of them wants and what they're going through, most noticeably with Neil, whose father (Kurtwood Smith) believes he should be nothing more in life than a Harvard man and a doctor. Never mind what Neil wants. That's what his father wants. At the start, Neil has no choice but to accede to his father's wishes. And that's where Keating comes in and where these boys discover that they can have unique voices even though it seems like the world has already had its fair share by the time it has reached them. They can live and discover and love and do all that humankind offers.

It's not only the stories of these boys that are so uplifting, but the possibilities that lie within poetry. I've read poetry over the years, but always hated how a few of my English teachers taught it. "Learn this passage, memorize the words; what's the symbolism? What's the overall meaning? You will be quizzed." The headmaster of Welton, Mr. Nolan, seems to think the same way, looking down at poetry rather than living within the words. There are a few lines heard that are so inspiring, that actually have made me consider Walt Whitman and Robert Frost differently.

That is, not just that they're names associated with poetry who aren't widely read, but that they can be understood as long as one thinks for themselves what a piece of poetry means to them and not what it means to others. No matter the professor who writes a long introduction for a book of, say, Whitman's poems. No matter the pages upon pages explaining the symbolism that said professor sees in Whitman's works. The understanding has to come from us. We must see for ourselves first and foremost, because after all, our eyes are scanning the pages. Our brain is considering the words.

Weir is a thoughtful filmmaker, which perhaps explains why he lets a few years lapse in between each of his films. The only times he made one after another was in his collaboration with Mel Gibson, which produced "Gallipoli" in 1981 and "The Year of Living Dangerously" in 1982, and then "Dead Poets Society" in 1989 and "Green Card" with Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell in 1990. He's carefully selective about what he makes and it shows. Watch "Dead Poets Society" and you'll see the efforts of a filmmaker who has his own loving style in making movies. It's those efforts that rate "Dead Poets Society" a 9 out of 10. (R. Aronsky)

Reviewed off DVD / Posted March 25, 2009

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