RETRO REVIEW: “Days of Heaven”

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Released in 1978, “Days of Heaven” was Terrence Malick’s second film which came some five years after his debut “Badlands”. Much like his first movie, “Days of Heaven” had a lengthy production time full of delays, budget issues, and departures from crew members frustrated with Malick’s idiosyncratic, hands-on approach to filmmaking. After finishing “Days of Heaven” Malick would all but vanish from public view and it would be twenty years until his next movie.

The film was immediately recognized for its superb photography, something that was a focal point for Malick. Cinematographer Néstor Almendros worked hand-in-hand with Malick framing one stunning shot after another. Haskell Wexler took over shooting after production delays forced Almendros to leave for a prior commitment. Almendros would win an Academy Award for his work but an understandably irked Wexler was left out.

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The sheer magnificence of the photography was universally heralded, but the story had its share of critics. It wasn’t until years later as people began reevaluating the film that a new appreciation for what Malick was doing sprang up. For me, its story is a strength when looked at through the proper lens. This is a story of a young girl and we watch it unfold through her optimistic and sometimes addled perspective. She doesn’t appear as the main character but she’s clearly telling us this story.

The film features a voiceover from young Linda (she’s played by Linda Manz). You can’t help but notice in her voice a strikingly peculiar mix of big city street-smarts and youthful naiveté. While there is a focused central story playing out, Linda looks at things in her own unique way. For example the film begins with Linda’s older brother Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally killing his steel mill foreman after a heated altercation. With no money or place to go, Bill flees with Linda and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). The three hop a train bound for the Texas Panhandle and the reason is obvious to us. But Linda describes and their nomadic lifestyle as “looking for things, searching for things, going on adventures“.

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The three are hired on as seasonal field workers by a wealthy, reserved farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister to steer clear of any problems, but it ends up causing more trouble than it avoids. Abby instantly catches the farmer’s eye which leads to a love triangle filled with opportunism and deception.

Still we look at it all through Linda’s young eyes. That’s one reason I believe Malick doesn’t dive as deeply into the Bill, Abby, and farmer dynamic as he could have. One effective technique is the use of frequent fade-to-black transitions between scenes. They relay the idea that what we are seeing are recollections from the storyteller (in this case Linda).

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A lot more could be said about the film’s visual beauty – its predominant use of natural light, the way it captures nature and wildlife. But the camera isn’t working alone. Alongside the unforgettable cinematography sits Ennio Morricone’s soulful, aching score. It is impeccably in tune with Malick’s vision and is among some of the late composer’s most timeless work.

But for me it all comes back to a young girl whose hope and happiness ends up being threshed like the wheat of the fields. Still she moves forward doing all she knows to do – accept the hand she’s dealt. Yet despite her (and all mankind’s) plight, nature remains steadfast and indifferent, an idea Malick will continue to explore in several films that follow. “Days of Heaven” is a beautifully tragic introduction to that exploration.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Dick Johnson is Dead” (2020)

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It may not sound like it but “Dick Johnson is Dead” may be one of the most unique love letters ever put on screen. This unusual documentary mixes together a near morbid playfulness with genuine heartbreak. Through its off-beat process the film becomes an uncomfortably funny and strangely cathartic mediation on mortality. And it’s examined through an intensely personal lens – that of a daughter chronicling the decline of her ailing elderly father.

Documentarian Kristen Johnson puts the camera on her father Richard Johnson, a happy, gentle, and well-respected clinical psychiatrist. When we first meet him “a few years ago” Richard is still seeing patients in his Seattle office. He’s still driving to work and living by himself in the family home. So why is his filmmaker daughter from New York making a movie of his life? Because her father has been diagnosed early stage dementia. “He’s a psychiatrist. I’m a camera person. I suggested we make a movie about him dying. He said yes.”

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Lest you think this is a simple personal video journal, the movie quickly differentiates itself in the strangest of ways. It’s encapsulated in one particular scene. Richard is walking along a downtown Seattle sidewalk carrying an Amazon package. Suddenly a window air conditioning unit falls down striking him in the head. And just like that “Dick Johnson is Dead”. Or is he? Well no. Actually it’s one of several staged accidental deaths that Richard happily participates in. Anything for his daughter.

You might (understandably) ask why the younger Johnson would want to film this subject in such a provocative way and why the elder Johnson would go along with it. We get a good idea in a brief moment where Kristen talks about her mother who also died of Alzheimer’s. Kristen laments that the only video memories she has is footage taken well after the disease had taken her mother’s mind. This film allows Kristen to document and conserve the memories of her father, his playfulness and his lovingkindness. For Richard it provides ample bonding time with his daughter, full of laughter and fun as both brace for the inevitable.

It may sound cold but it’s actually far from it. Yes, we do get some jet-black humor such as Richard praising the comfort of his soon-to-be coffin in his church’s sanctuary. But the humor ultimately takes a backseat to the humanity of it all. For all of the elaborate (and sometimes graphic) renditions of death or surreal stage sets of heaven, we get far more poignant moments of deep emotional truth. It may be a quiet moment in a clothes closet where Kristen shares some personal feelings or Richard expressing concern over the burden he is on his daughter.

A key to the movie’s success is its ability to make us feel like we truly know Mr. Johnson. We can’t help but be charmed by his kind spirit and jovial demeanor. We learn of his love for chocolate, Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein”, and his favorite black leather chair. All of this captures our emotions which become inseparably linked to his situation. So it’s painful to watch this lively lover of life begin showing real-life signs of decline – forgetfulness, uncertainty, and at times fear.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

But Kristen Johnson doesn’t allow her film to wallow in dread or sorrow. Instead she showers it in a cascade of unfettered love. There is an unshakable warmth in the daddy/daughter relationship at the movie’s core but also in the way she shoots it as a filmmaker. As she tells her father when asked why she makes documentaries, “Real life is often more fascinating than what you can make up.” She brings that conviction to every scene, every closeup, and every conversation.

“Dick Johnson is Dead” takes an honest look at the inevitability of death, coping with loss, and making the most of the time we have with those we love. It does so with a wacky yet infectious sense of humor and moving clear-eyed observations rooted in intimate human attachment. It takes some time to get in a rhythm, but once it does you’ll find yourself laughing and holding off tears. You also can’t help but admire both the audacity of Kristen Johnson the filmmaker and the loving admiration of Kristen Johnson the daughter. “Dick Johnson is Dead” premieres October 2nd on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Da 5 Bloods” (2020)

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Whether you’re a fan or not, everyone seems to pay attention when a new Spike Lee movie comes around. There is always a bit of uncertainly that comes with the 63 year-old Atlanta, Georgia native. A nagging question going into a Spike Lee joint is whether he falls into the trap of being too heavy-handed and preachy or if he trusts his material and his direction to do the talking for him. When he finds that balance his movies can be pretty special. When he loses sight of it things get a little messy. Regardless, the director always has something to say.

Hot off of a Best Screenplay Oscar win for “BlacKkKlansman”, Lee sets his eye on another tumultuous time and provocative subject – the Vietnam War. “Da 5 Bloods” is easily one of Netflix’s biggest releases of the year and it sees Lee doing his thing – enlightening through a deep dive into the black American experience and stoking a fire or two which always benefits his message while sometimes hindering his storytelling.

With “Da 5 Bloods” Lee has one foot in the past when black GIs were fighting in Vietnam while a war for their civil rights was raging back home. The other foot is firmly pressed in current day where four former platoon mates, a “brotherhood of bloods“, go back to Vietnam still haunted by ghosts from the war and scarred by their post-war struggles. While the scenes from the war are mostly flashbacks, they powerfully reverberate throughout the entire film effecting nearly every modern day scene we get.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

After a tone-setting montage the film introduces us to the four vets as they meet up in Vietnam with a very specific mission in mind. They are Otis (Clarke Peters), the platoon medic and the guy with important contacts in the area, the wealthy Eddie (Norm Lewis) who financed their mission, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the easy-going jokester, and Paul (Delroy Lindo), easily the most damaged of the group but also the most complex. During the war the men served under Stormin’ Norman (a terrific Chadwick Bosman), the rare black squad leader, who inspired them to persevere with power but with honor. Together they formed the film’s namesake – the five bloods.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn the bloods were given a mission to secure a downed C47 deep in the jungle. While investigating the wreckage they discovered a crate of gold bars that was to be given to the native people. Norman convinces the bloods that they should keep the gold and distribute it to their people as payment for years of injustice (the initial irony of taking gold from the hurting indigenous group due to injustice is striking). They manage to bury the crate but are attacked by the surrounding Viet Cong forces. Norman is killed and the rest of the bloods barely escaped with their lives.

That sets up the story for “Da 5 Bloods” as the four surviving friends head back to ‘Nam to retrieve the gold and find Norman’s remains. Lee and his writing team of Danny Bilson, Kevin Willmott, and Paul De Meo pack so much into the film’s 150+ minutes yet the story still seems to wander in the third act before weirdly devolving into an 80’s style ‘back to Vietnam’ shoot’em-up, the very thing Lee takes a shot at earlier in the film. Except this time instead of rescuing POWs it’s millions of dollars in gold bars at stake.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Lee’s storytelling manages to be poignant, eye-opening, perplexing, and frustrating sometimes within the same scene. His four bloods, their camaraderie, their shared pain, it’s all explored and detailed through some really good on-screen chemistry which Lee smartly utilizes. The best of the group is Lindo and by far he is given the meatiest material to explore. He’s a puzzle both as a character and as a Lee construct. Lindo digs in deep and Lee has him go big, showing PTSD in its rawest and truest form. He’s given even more layers after his son David (Jonathan Majors who was so good in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) arrives, worried about his father and unearthing more details about Paul’s trauma.

There is also power in what the four men represent, both as Vietnam war veterans and as black men growing up during the Civil Rights era. Lee says a lot through them about black life (past and present) as well as the ravages of war both psychologically and socially. Each of the four bloods (minus their steady stream of obscenities that would make Richard Pryor recoil) can often be seen as expressions of deeply felt sentiments rooted in real-life experience. Yes Lee occasionally crosses over into political pettiness, but if you look past those impulses you’ll find many weighty and worthy themes.

As for the meat and potatoes of the story itself, “Da 5 Bloods” isn’t as sturdy. The nostalgic B-movie vibe can be fun even if some of its parts aren’t that effective. Lee throws in a shady French money broker (Jean Reno), an international group of landmine activists, a half-baked romance between David and a young French women named Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), and a band of Vietnamese mercenaries who (like many of the Asian characters) cover a broad range of caricatures. None of them bring much for the story.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Add to that some far-fetched plot points including some unintentionally hilarious strokes of luck that are narratively convenient but hard to believe. Also it can be hard to tell which is more important to the four vets, getting their share of the gold or finding Norman’s remains and bringing him home. This is foreshadowed in one character’s warning “Gold does strange things to people. Even old friends.” But there are times when the film itself seems confused, putting far more emphasis on the gold than their fallen brother.

Spike Lee’s films stir up a wealth of conversation and debate. Often lost among it all is his proficiency behind the camera. Lee is a student of cinema and he has never been afraid to flaunt his influences. Here we get so many blatant and unashamed nods to other movies. “Apocalypse Now” rushes to mind as a riverboat snakes through the dense jungle to “Rise of the Valkyries”. Meanwhile impressions of John Huston’s classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” are everywhere (we even get a character who literally says “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.“) But he also brings plenty of his own signature style seen mostly in his use of period music, camera framing, sudden interjections, etc.

Spike Lee has a knack for getting people to overlook the messiness of his movies. For me that’s a challenge, yet his value as a filmmaker is unquestionable and the subjects he tackles are personal and relevant. “Da 5 Bloods” fits all of that. It’s a fascinating buffet of potent themes and meaningful social commentary, soaked in rich style and classic cinema flavor. Yet its story is a potpourri of highs and not-so-highs, always keeping your attention, but never fully gelling into something you can call great.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Deerskin” (2020)

DeerPOSTERI would bet most stateside moviegoers only know Jean Dujardin from his Oscar-winning performance in “The Artist”. It’s unfortunate because he’s a seasoned actor who has shown a dynamic range throughout his nearly 25 year career. The French actor has dabbled in nearly every genre, arguably shining brightest in the area of comedy. He’s a captivating leading man who can do some of everything.

His latest film “Deerskin” may not be the best movie to use as an introduction to Dujardin’s work especially for mainstream audiences. But man is it one entertaining and utterly bonkers ride. Writer-director-editor-cinematographer Quentin Dupieux isn’t up to much of anything nor does he have a lot to say. That’s crucial to understand because I can see “Deerskin” totally confounding those who scour its lean frame for any deeper meaning. Instead it’s 77 minutes of hypnotic deadpan absurdity –  a conscious-free black comedy with a wacky dash of grisly horror. Nothing more, nothing less.

Dujardin makes the entire thing work. He plays a middle-aged sad-sack named Georges who has recently separated from his wife. He drives out to an old man’s house in the hills and spends every dime he has to buy a used deerskin jacket. The old man (knowing he has scored big) tosses in a “slightly used” camcorder. Georges tries on the jacket, gazes into the mirror, and utters with unbridled satisfaction “Stoking. Killer style.”

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Photo Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

One of the early signs that something’s not right with this man is in his belief that the jacket actually looks great. The dated brown suede with its fringed highlights seems perfect for a hippie from Woodstock or Daniel Boone. Georges, not so much. Aside from being a modern day fashion faux pas, it barely reaches his waist and tightly hugs his slightly chunky torso. But Georges is smitten, overcome with ecstasy and full of newfound yet thoroughly misguided confidence.

He stops at a small alpine inn to stay for a while. But with no money he’s forced to begin building his house of lies. It starts in the local tavern where he meets the impressionable Denise (Adèle Haenel, so good in the Dardenne brothers’ film “The Unknown Girl”). She’s stuck in a dead-end job as a bartender but aspires to be a film editor. When Georges proclaims himself to be a filmmaker who’s in the area to shoot his new movie, the naive Denise is instantly intrigued.

In the meantime Georges develops a ‘personal’ relationship with his jacket. The two begin carrying on conversations with Georges weirdly voicing each side. Turns out they both share similar dreams. The jacket wants to be the only jacket in the world. Georges want to be the only person in the world wearing a jacket. So they essentially set out on a mission to make both of their dreams come true, by any means necessary including violence.

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Photo Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Dupieux’s screenplay fully embraces the absurdity of its idea even as the goofiness eventually gives way to the macabre. Through it all, Dujardin’s straight-faced performance and complete conviction sells the humor and the unease. One minute you’ll be giggling at one of Georges’ ludicrous tall tales which grow more and more far-fetched. At the same time you’re taking a dip into madness, watching a man’s mid-life crisis turn him into a full-blown sociopath.

“Deerskin” will baffle some, probably bore others. It’s unquestionably weird and off-beat, pretty shallow when it comes to story, and has a twisted final act that could be seen as off-putting. But if you come to the movie on its own terms and just go with the nuttiness, you’ll find a wickedly entertaining and devilishly funny yarn that plays by its own bizarre set of rules. And Dupieux, a filmmaker who has a movie about a murderous car tire to his credit, is certainly no stranger to his own bizarre rules.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Darkman” (1990)

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I don’t remember if I felt it at the time, but “Darkman” is very much a superhero movie. Even more, it’s a superhero movie much in the same vein as those we regularly get today. Yet this was a whole decade before “X-Men” broke through; 18 years before the first MCU film. There had been the Superman movies of the 80’s and Tim Burton had just released “Batman”. But “Darkman” is uniquely its own thing despite fully embracing key elements of the genre.

One of the joys of rewatching “Darkman” was remembering all the things I had forgotten. First on the list – Sam Raimi. I had forgotten that Raimi directed and conceived the story. It was his first film following the success of his “Evil Dead” pictures and it was a completely original project. There was no adaptation to follow, no franchise obligations, no interconnected cinematic universe to fit into. Raimi had creative freedom to tinker with archetypes and create characters befitting of the world he was creating.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The film stars Liam Neeson and who would’ve thought he would make a great avenging angel? He plays Peyton Westlake, an ambitious and seemingly self-employed scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough. His life’s work has been creating a viable cellular-based synthetic skin. But his inability to stabilize the cells results in the skin melting after 99 minutes. Still he presses on knowing that success would reverberate throughout the medical and science communities.

The only thing Peyton loves more than his work is his attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand). While doing some legal work she discovers a memo linking a corrupt real estate developer named Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to payoffs to zoning commission officials. Strack sends his strong-arm, the dastardly Robert Durant (played by seasoned movie bad guy Larry Drake), to retrieve the memo which is in Julie’s possession. Peyton ends up caught in the middle, dumped in a vat burning chemicals and left for dead in his ransacked lab as it is blown up by Durant and his goons. What a way to go!

Believed to be dead but miraculously alive, a severely disfigured Peyton sets up shop in an old condemned factory. He rekindles his experiments, this time with personal motivations – to be with Julie once again. But he’s not the same man. Besides the charred skin, he has elevated strength, heightened emotions, and the inability to feel physical pain. This leads to episodes of uncontrollable sorrow but also burning rage against those who took his life from him. His new thirst for vengeance gives birth to Darkman.

While this plays out much like a superhero origin story, Raimi has other things on his mind. For example, he has fun playing with the idea of secret identities and coexistence. Can Peyton and Darkman co-exist within the same person? Is Peyton still there or did that side of him die in the blast? Is Darkman his new true identity?

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

And Darkman doesn’t fit you standard superhero mold. He’s a tortured soul driven by fury rather than some upright moral code. The black trench coat, bandaged face and fedora look cool but they tell more about the person underneath than you may think. He’s smart and highly intelligent. But he’s also a pained, violent man as evident from the R-rated revenge he doles out on the thugs who wronged him. Again, it’s Raimi developing a character, not strictly from a comic book blueprint, but with his own identity and demons.

You could consider “Darkman” to be a lot of things: an action flick, a love story, a horror film, even a tragedy but with a sense of humor. It all fits. And to think Sam Raimi concocted this subversive and thrilling superhero movie thirty years ago. After all that time I still find myself loving it for its fresh storytelling, big action, even bigger Danny Elfman score, and characters so in tune with the world they exist in. Oh, and that’s not even counting one terrific cameo near the end. But I’ll leave it for you to discover yourself.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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RETRO REVIEW: “Dead Poets Society” (1989)

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There was a time when the inspirational new teacher trope found its way into a lot of movies. “Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, “Dangerous Minds” are all films that came out within the same window. Add to that group Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society”, an Oscar-winning drama about self-discovery, free-thinking, and the unfortunate costs that sometimes comes with them.

The story comes from screenwriter Tom Schulman and earned him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It’s set in 1959 Vermont at the fictional Welton Academy, a prestigious private prep school for boys. The film stars a restrained Robin Williams (who nabbed an Oscar nomination) and a cast of relative newcomers, most notably a young, baby-faced Ethan Hawke.

Williams gets top billing playing John Keating, the academy’s charismatic new literature teacher and a Welton graduate himself. His eccentric nature and unorthodox teaching grabs the attention of his students (and a few faculty heads). Rapid quoting Whitman, Tennyson, and Thoreau. Holding class in the hallways, the courtyard, or on a soccer field. Urging the boys to focus on feeling rather than form. Keating’s methods invigorate his students while rubbing some of his colleagues the wrong way.

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Photo Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures

While Williams is the bigger name, the movie is really about the boys and their thirst for individuality. Mr. Keating may trumpet the mantra “carpe diem: seize the day”, but it’s the boys search for its meaning that drives the story forward. For Todd (Hawke) it’s in finding his voice. For Knox (Josh Charles) it’s in winning the heart of a local girl. For Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) it’s in following his own dream and not the one defined for him by his rigid authoritarian father (Kurtwood Smith).

The boys learn that Mr. Keating was a bit of a free spirit during his student days and was a member of the Dead Poets Society. It was a clandestine club that met in a cave just off campus where members would take turns reading excepts from classic poets. Using Thoreau, Mr. Keating described it as a bunch of romantics “Sucking the marrow out of life“. Naturally the boys put together their own secret version of the Dead Poets Society. But poetry soon takes a back seat to newfound self-expression and their budding desires to take life by the horns.

The acting is delightful throughout, especially from Williams who puts aside his frantic, quip-a-second routine for a much more contained performance. He quietly embodies a character full of empathy and compassion. The one shortcoming is that he is essentially a blank page outside of the classroom. Schulman’s script doesn’t seem as interested in him as Weir’s camera so we’re left with only tidbits of information about who he really is. But it reenforces that the story is truly about his students.

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Photo Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures

Hawke is fun to rewatch especially in 2020 now that he is an established star. In “Dead Poets” you can see an up-and-comer with some real chops. But I was just as impressed with the other young actors who mostly avoid the pitfalls that often accompany these roles. Leonard is especially strong, playing the character with the most complexity and layers. Neil is the definition of the dutiful son, inescapably tethered to his father’s strict vision for the future. Leonard really sells us a young man repressed and pained despite his happy facade.

Weir and his cinematographer John Seale use their camera to portray a stuffy, buttoned up New England campus but a beautiful one nonetheless. There is an ever-present taste of autumn as golden leaves tumble across the sidewalks and the gorgeous stone masonwork feels plucked out of time. But there are also those Weir flourishes like the stunning wide shots of the boys, barely more than silhouettes, heading off to their secret cave. Or when his camera spirals up a staircase as noisy students cascade down.

There’s a good chance “Dead Poets Society” won’t satisfy those looking for a deeper dive into poetry or a more in-depth representation of classroom education. But that’s not what Weir and company are going for. This is about seven boys coming of age just as the world is about to get a lot more complicated. Yes things start to get a little predictable and I do wish Mr. Keating had more outside-the-classroom depth. But for the most part “Dead Poets” hits its target and it still leaves an impression some twenty-five years since I last saw it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars