Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Robin Williams at His Best: 'Vietnam' and 'Poets' on Blu-ray

Robin Williams and Betty White
with the "six-foot rat" at the 2009
Disney Legends ceremony
"You try and do special things for your kid. I thought, 'I'll take him to Disneyland. That'll be fun.' Disneyland for a three year old...Mickey Mouse for a three-year old...bullshit! Mickey Mouse to a three-year old is a six-foot f***ing rat!"
--Robin Williams, An Evening at the Met (1986) 

Who would've suspected that 23 years after this stand-up performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, Robin Williams would become a Disney Legend?

Disney fans mostly associate Williams with his inspired comedic turn as the voice of the Genie in Aladdin, but his first work for Disney came with the Touchstone Pictures releases Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, both signature films for Williams and both available on Blu-ray starting today.

Williams burst onto the American conscience in 1978, becoming a national sensation playing the oddball alien Mork on TV's Happy Days and later Mork and Mindy. He possessed a rapid-fire, cerebral wit and an alarming gift for improvisation. His stand-up performances in An Evening with Robin Williams (1982) and An Evening at the Met still astound. In the early 1980s, Williams began to stretch himself as an actor with noteworthy starring roles as a struggling writer in The World According to Garp and a Russian defector in Moscow on the Hudson

Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam
His movie breakthrough, though, was as the iconoclastic DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. This was the ideal role for Williams, one that allowed him to use his improvisational skills to great effect. His hysterical on-air riffs about everything from Nixon to LBJ to Ethel Merman are still a marvel to watch 25 years later. Even though they take up less than 20 minutes of the movie's two hours, they are what you remember most from the film and are primarily what earned Williams his first Academy Award nomination. 

Good Morning, Vietnam is based very loosely on the real-life Adrian Cronauer, who was the first Armed Forces Radio DJ to play rock music and who did teach English as a second language to the Vietnamese. Beyond those two elements, however, very little of Good Morning, Vietnam actually happened. The movie Cronauer is a thorn in the side of his commanding officer Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby), an uptight prig who thinks soldiers in the field are best served listening to Ray Conniff, Montovani and Percy Faith instead of James Brown, the Beatles and Motown. Both Hauk and his sergeant major Dickerson (a menacing J.T. Walsh) disapprove of Cronauer's off-the-wall style even as his popularity soars with the troops.

While stationed in Saigon, Cronauer befriends a local girl (Chintara Sukapatana), her brother (Tung Thanh Tran) and a restaurant owner (Cu Ba Nguyen) with a bizarre obsession with Walter Brennan. Against the backdrop of war, they introduce Cronauer to Vietnamese culture, but their friendships are tested following a tragic bombing by the Viet Cong. 

Good Morning, Vietnam is in turns silly, serious and sentimental, but it's Williams manic moments that give the movie its most entertaining lift.

Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society
Williams dialed the irreverence down considerably to play English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Still, his character is every bit the non-conformist Adrian Cronauer is. At a prestigious--and stodgy--New England boys school, Keating uses unconventional methods to enlighten his students. His mantra is "carpe diem" or "seize the day," an admonition to his students to make their lives extraordinary. It's a philosophy that flies in the face of how his young charges have been brought up, with their destinies to become doctors, lawyers and titans of business already preordained by their families. 

Keating challenges his students to think for themselves and to view the world differently from how others see it. At his direction, they rip out pages from an analytical textbook that reduce the aesthetic importance of poetry to a cold mathematical formula. Keating urges them to stand on top of his desk and appreciate how the classroom looks from a differing perspective. Mostly, he instills in them a love of words and language and encourages them write poetry. Thus, the Dead Poet's Society is secretly born amongst the impressionable boys as they sneak out into the woods together to express themselves (and, as Keating puts it,  to "woo women") beyond the control of the school's stern headmaster (Norman Lloyd).

Williams plays Keating as a man with a passion for creativity who's not afraid to tweak the nose of the Establishment. He keeps his usual shtick to a minimum, staying true to Tom Schulman's literate screenplay and Peter Weir's artful direction. Williams does minimal ad-libbing, but his occasional improvisations do add some funny moments like when Keating demonstrates to his students how Shakespeare would be interpreted differently by Olivier, Brando and John Wayne.

When one of Keating's students, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), finds the courage to try out for a nearby theater production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in defiance of his bullying father (Kurtwood Smith), it leads to Dead Poets Society's most triumphant--and tragic--moment, a moment where Keating is held accountable for his unorthodox methods in an unfair clash of school politics. 

Williams received his second Oscar nomination for his role in Dead Poets Society and it remains one of his best.

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