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Dead Poets Society (1989)
Could have been more
(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS) I saw this movie about 3 years ago on TV and really enjoyed it. I thought there was strong emotional depth, impressive acting, and a well-structured storyline. However, the next time I saw it which was about a year ago, I was underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong; it's not a horrible movie. It's just not as engaging as I thought it was. A lot of this does have to do with its tired, overused premise: the rebellious students oppose conservative, authoritative parents with the help of their liberal teacher. Now, you can take any premise and make it into a good movie, but DEAD POETS SOCIETY doesn't bother to give us anything fresh or insightful. It's just "Find yourself" and "Seize the Day!" and "Believe and you will succeed" for 2 hours.
I still think the acting is generally fine, mostly from the kids. I'm surprised that only Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard were the only ones that went anywhere after this movie (correct me if I'm wrong). The adults aside from Williams however are not as effective. They're just stereotypical, hard-core conservative snobs who want to only keep the kids from "expressing who they truly are in life." Not much depth is given to them. Robin Williams is good too, but not as spectacular as most people claim him to be. When he's on screen, he's enjoyable and effective. When he's not, I don't miss him. I guess it has to do with the fact that there's not much to his character. He's just a wise, caring, liberal teacher who only wants to help his students. That's not bad, but he seems more like a representation of the movie's idea of Carpe Diem than an actual character. Mr. Keating also acts more like a plot device because he is only around when he's either a) teaching a class, or b) helping a student(s) outside of class. I guess that's why I don't miss him when he's not on screen. The rest of the movie is about the kids taking his lessons and applying to their daily lives. Nothing wrong with that, but it would have been better if we saw Keating more than just the teacher/moral support. Bland characterization, however, is not the only problem I have with this film.
The biggest problem for me is the third act when the Robert Sean Leonard kid commits suicide. What the heck happened?! I would be emotionally involved if the film bothered to show signs of him struggling with suicidal thoughts. But this seems so sudden and out of nowhere. The kid does the play, his father doesn't approve, and he kills himself. That doesn't work. This is the part that makes me wonder why this movie won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (especially against the likes of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE) because when I see a movie that has a sporadic act of tragedy, I don't think, "Oh, my goodness! This is so sad and moving!" I think, "What the heck? Did the screenwriter run out of ideas?" Here's the thing: Suicide can be a powerful dramatic tool if handled correctly. It can work in a story that sets itself up as a tragedy. But this movie sets itself up more as an inspirational and uplifting drama, so this act of despair seems out of place. Even at the end where the kids stand up on their desks and protest, I still had a hard time getting past that kid's suicide. Another thing that bothers me about this is that it's such a cheap way to show how damaging conservative attitudes can be and how helpful liberal attitudes can be. This can be an effective lesson but here it's told clumsily. The screenwriter forces the audience to care instead of simply telling a story and allowing the audience to be naturally affected by it. I'm sure the person who wrote the script meant well, but this comes across as a little condescending. It seems like he's saying, "Care for these characters right now!" I'll feel what I'll feel, just show us these people and their lives.
That's all I can think of for now. Hopefully, I didn't rant too much. I understand why people like this movie because there are a couple of good scenes and again the kids do a great job. But personally, I think the movie just needed to avoid the clichés and dig deeper to become something really meaningful and poignant.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
A love-it-or-hate-it experience. I hated it.
I just saw MOULIN ROUGE! the other night on Netflix and I thought it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Completely self-indulgent, contrived, soulless, and pretentious. And yet people keep calling it one of the greatest movie musicals ever. It's literally all style and no substance.
There were many things about this movie that annoyed me so I'll try and keep it to a minimum.
1) The plot: I've never seen a romance in a movie that felt so fake as in MOULIN ROUGE. Kidman and Gregor have no chemistry on screen but to be fair that's probably more of the director's fault then theirs. They keep saying crap like "love will shine through" or "love will conquer all" or the popular "the greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return." Give me a break. I literally counted how many times they said "love" in this movie and it was 126 times. (Although I may have lost count during the Madonna number when the chorus sings "Love!" a dozen times every 5 seconds.) The love that this movie babbles on about isn't real love. It's formulaic, planned, polished, and fraudulent Hollywood romance. The relationship between the writer and actress never felt true because whenever their relationship was in danger, it was because the one-dimensional Duke threatened, never the two in love. That Duke only exists to the convenience of the plot. Real problems in a relationship come from the lovers like their personalities, life choices, etc. There's more to love than just pure romance. It's about getting past problems and working through them instead of just waiting around and doing nothing hoping that "love will conquer all" in some clichéd climax. There are better romance films out there (musical and non) that actually show real love like CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, CABARET, LOST IN TRANSLATION, and more.
2) The characters: These people seemed so non-existent. In fact, the characters in this movie weren't characters; they were set pieces that could move around, sing badly, and make stupid faces at the camera. There are great actors in this movie like Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, and Jim Broadbent; yet, director Baz Luhrman favored their costumes and bedrooms more than their acting. A real shame and a real waste of potential.
3) The editing: Based purely on this aspect, I believe MOULIN ROUGE! was made for people with severe ADD. Not one shot lasted more than 3 seconds. All it is is just people mugging at the camera as it zooms from one room to the next. It's as if Luhrman is afraid that the actors will distract from the movie's style so he yells CUT!! right before the actors summon a real emotion. Characters should never be upstaged by the visuals; the visuals are there to add to them and the story. Ironically, this MTV-style approach actually hurts the movie's look because we can never get a good look at the amazing art direction. These sets are fantastic! Let us see them!
4) The music: My friends kept telling me how brilliant and innovative the soundtrack is and when I saw the trailer I thought I was going to adore it. But when the McGregor character first sang "The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music!", I groaned thinking to myself, "Great, it's a jukebox musical." For those who don't know, a jukebox musical is a musical that uses already existing music for its "score." It's damaging Broadway right now with shows like American IDIOT and preventing musicals to move forward artistically. It should be used as an homage to great composers and their work, but nowadays it's just a cheap move to enhance album purchases. I guess in MOULIN ROUGE it's supposed to show how love is universal in all kinds of music but it makes the movie seem anachronistic. Plus, if a movie like MOULIN ROUGE is going to have this much hype around it, it better have original songs. Some people say "Come What May" is the only original piece but I've done some research and it apparently was used for Luhrman's previous film, ROMEO+JULIET. It wasn't even written specifically for MOULIN ROUGE. (It's an awful song anyway.) I can't stand it when people praise this soundtrack because there's nothing really brilliant about simply rearranging and orchestrating existing pop songs and having them sung horribly. (Kidman is not a singer! Why is she used in this and NINE?!)
5) The directing: Pretty much everything I've complained about is because of Luhrman's direction. People wonder why he never got an Oscar nomination for Best Director. It's because he didn't care about the story or characters, only the sets and costumes. It's actually kind of amazing how much he didn't care. There's no sense of pace, subtlety, or consistency. There's nothing wrong with trying to make your movie look spectacular. But if your story and characters fall flat, then the images just become something nice to look at and dissolve from the audience's memories once the movie's over. There's got to be something else that gives the film its drive other than clothes, art direction, and choppy editing.
Well, that's all I can think of for now. Hopefully I didn't rant too much. Obviously I'm in the minority but that won't change my opinion. But who knows? Maybe I'm just "missing something." I just wish people would acknowledge and admire real musicals instead of a collection of pop songs pretending to be musicals.