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Featured Blu-ray Review: Robin Williams Double-Shot: Dead Poets Society and Good Morning, Vietnam

January 15th, 2012

Robin Williams Blu-ray Double-Shot:
Dead Poets Society - Buy from Amazon
Good Morning, Vietnam - Buy from Amazon

During the eleven year span from the release of Good Morning, Vietnam till the release of Patch Adams, Robin Williams was one of the biggest movie stars around. He was in eight films that reached $100 million domestically. He was also in more than a few bombs during that time, while his star power eventually declined when people grew a little tired of the repetitiveness of his schtick. It is this second point that is the most troubling for me. When looking back at his older work, will I be reminded of what made Robin William a big star? Or will it feel stale and dated?

Dead Poets Society

The film begins in 1959 at Welton Academy prep school, where we are introduced to this year's graduating class. We meet Steven Meeks, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet, Todd Anderson, but the student we are most focused on is Neil Perry, whose on a path to become a doctor. A path set by his father, however, Neil wants to be an actor.

When we see the boys in their classes, all their teachers are stiff and authoritarian. All of them except John Keating, the new English teacher. He begins the first class not by assigning homework or making them repeat facts till memorized, but by leading them out of the classroom to teach them the concept of "carpe diem", which translated from Latin into English means, "Seize the day". Clearly he's a teacher who is more interested in inspiring his students to want to learn, rather than cramming their heads with facts. The next lesson he attacks the purely analytical approach to poetry that is taken in their textbook and tells the kids to tear out that page. This new approach really inspires his students, even if it puts him at odds with some of the more stoic members of the faculty.

Shortly after the book ripping incident, Neil does a little background check on John Keating by looking up his yearbook from the library and finds that when he was a student at Welton Academy, he was a member of something called the Dead Poets Society. However, there's no other mention of the group in the yearbook. When his students ask him about it, Mr. Keating explains it was a society that met to read and truly experience poetry. Neil becomes infatuated with this idea and decides to reform the club, without letting the current faculty know about it. This inspiration helps the students fight against the rigid system they are forced to deal with. However, this causes problems for them, and for Mr. Keating.

Many actors known primarily for their comedic work eventually branch out into dramatic films in order to win awards that they just won't win for their comedic work. (I would like to point out that comedy is harder than drama, which makes the situation so unfair.) Dead Poets Society was one of Robin Williams' numerous such films. In fact, he did it so many times, it became a bit of a running gag. Hopefully this doesn't prevent people from seeing this movie, as he gives an excellent performance in the film. He is supported by a number of great young actors, many of whom have gone on to star in excellent films and TV shows. This film is worth watching for the acting. Robert Sean Leonard is as important to the film as Robin Williams is. If he didn't shine in the film, then the story would not be engaging.

On the downside, the film is not exactly unique. There have been many, many films about inspirational teachers who help students fight against a system that is too restrictive. Ironically, for a film which is about being a free-thinker and not being bound by tradition, it follows the formula just a little too closely. That said, while you will be able to predict the general arc of the film from the beginning, the movie still has a lot of emotional impact.

The Extras

The Blu-ray is Shovelware, but there are still quite a few extras to be found on the disc. Things start with an audio commentary track with the director, Peter Weir; the cinematographer, John Seale; and the writer, Tom Schulman. Dead Poets: A Look Back is a 27-minute long retrospective and it is the meatiest of the extras. It features nearly everyone from the main cast, as well as the director, talking about the film, and praising Peter Weir. There are also two making of featurettes, the first focusing on the Alan Splet, who was the supervising sound editor on this film and who tragically passed away just a few years after making this movie. The second is on the set design. Finally, there are eight minutes of deleted scenes.

As for the technical presentation, it's a mixed bag. The film is close to 25 years old and wasn't a big-budget visually impressive film to begin with. There are a few too many scenes that are soft, or that have a little too much grain, or that have colors that are muted, etc. That said, when called upon, the video does present a lot of detail (mostly in close-up shots, which is common), has strong color, deep blacks, etc. Also, there are no real problems with compression issues or digital manipulation. The audio is solid, but uncomplicated. The surround sound speakers will be mostly underutilized, and this includes the bass, but it has clear dialogue and that's the most important part of the film.

The Blu-ray costs $15 on, which is within the price range I consider exceptable for shovelware. It has more extras than most similar releases, while the upgrade to high definition is solid, given the source material.

Good Morning, Vietnam

In this film, Robin Williams plays John Keating, I mean Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer, who travels to Vietnam to be a DJ on Armed Forces Radio Service, but whose irreverent style causes him to butt heads with the more stodgy higher-ups. He was hired by Brigadier General Taylor to liven things up on the radio and boost morale of the troops. However, while Cronauer immediately makes friends with Private First Class Edward Montesquieu Garlick, he makes instant enemies in Second Lieutenant Steven Hauk, his immediate superior, and especially Sergeant Major Phillip 'Dick' Dickerson, who runs the radio station. His sense of humor and his taste in music make him a hit with the troops, but are alienating his superiors to the point where they might take drastic action.

Things in Vietnam do improve for Cronauer when he meets Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), a Vietnamese lady, as she's walking past Jimmy Wah's, a local bar / restaurant. It's love a first sight, at least for Cronauer. He follows her to her school where she is learning English. He even bribes the teacher, Mr. Sloan, into taking over the class. However, if he wants to date Trinh, he will have to convince her brother, Tuan, that he's not like the typical American soldier. In trying to win Tuan's trust, he takes him to Jimmy Wah's, to show him he's friendly. This backfires after two soldiers try to physically throw Tuan out of the bar and when Cronauer tries to intervene, he accidentally starts a full scale brawl. That puts him on even thinner ice with his bosses. One more mistake and he's off the air. That mistake comes quickly.

Good Morning, Vietnam is basically three movies in one. The first is Robin Williams doing his stand-up, but with early Vietnam era references and period music thrown into the mix. The second is a war movie involving someone who is clearly not fit for military life, but doing his best to survive with humor. And finally the third one is a more serious look at at the Vietnam conflict and how it affected the people, which we see through the eyes of someone who has genuinely fallen in love with one of the locals. The good news is all three parts work, for the most part.

Robin Williams is arguably at the top of his game with this performance and if you were a fan of his, there will be more than enough to make you laugh. On the other hand, if you have really grown tired of his schtick, it might be hard to get through some of his bits. The second part deals with a subject dealt with in many, many movies. (War is insane, so to survive, you have to be a bit crazy yourself.) But it does so in a way that's better than most similar movies. However, there are a few flaws, most notably, Sergeant Major Dickerson's act of villainy in the end is way too cartoonish given the rest of the movie. It's hard to imagine he would really send Cronauer and Garlick into enemy hands. The final part of the film, the romance / more serious look at war, is more unique. I appreciate taking a look at the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese, who are normally little more than nameless bad guys in these movies. Sometimes the change in tone from the goofier bits of Robin William's stand-up to the more serious parts of the movie are a little jarring, but overall it still adds to the film rather than detract.

All three elements work, and while sometimes the transition from one to the other is a little rough, it still adds up to an excellent film.

The Extras

Again, the Blu-ray is shovelware, this time with basically two extra features. The first is called Production Diary and it has a running time of 34 minutes. It's split into several sections on the origins of the movie, the filming, the improv, the music, etc. The second is called Raw Monologues, which runs for 13 minutes. It begins with a minute-long introduction by Barry Levinson, while the rest is a full cut of Robin Williams' improv.

Like the previous film, this movie doesn't have a whole lot of sharp details, nor do the colors truly pop. The blacks are deep, but there's more digital manipulation here, with DNR showing up a little too heavily in some scenes. Compression is not an issue, nor are there any signs of print damage. The audio is again solid but mostly uncomplicated. There are some scenes with good use of surround speakers for ambient sounds. Occasionally the base it called into action, but for the most part, this is a front-heavy dialogue driven audio track.

Finally we get to the price, which is $15 on This is inline with expectations for this type of film.

The Verdict

Both the Dead Poets Society DVD and the Good Morning, Vietnam DVD are worth owning. Both films are great while the DVDs are good for catalog releases. On the downside, both Blu-rays are Shovelware, while at $15 each, the price is best described as acceptable rather than bargains.

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Filed under: Video Review, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society