From '8 Mile' to 'Shakespeare in Love,' movies to stream that will unleash your inner poet

Judy Dench
Judy Dench won an Oscar for best supporting actress in 1998 for her role as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love." Photo credit Miramax/Laurie Sparham

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Poetry has a reputation for being serious, stuffy and inscrutable. Readers may be forgiven for thinking they need special training to read, let alone interpret, it (and, face it, some English majors might want to keep us thinking that).

It just ain't so.

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In 1997's "Contact," a science fiction movie based on the novel by astronomer Carl Sagan, Jodie Foster's character may think "they should have sent a poet" to adequately describe what she witnesses in deep, deep space — but the truth is, a scientist of her caliber has plenty of words to get the job done. And you don't have to be sling-shot to the other side of the universe to appreciate the power of human expression.

For National Poetry Month, we're here to demonstrate that poetry is all around us and it is for all of us. But don’t worry. We've collected a list of movies that have taken all the work out of it for you — and they might just make you feel smarter for having watched them.

A movie about a bunch of guys sitting around reading poetry? Hardly.

In this coming-of-age classic, Robin Williams plays John Keating, a teacher whose radical approach to learning makes him an outcast among his more prim and proper colleagues at Welton Academy, a prestigious all-boys boarding school.

Local claim to fame: The fictional school, located in Vermont in the movie, is actually St Andrew’s School, in Middletown, Delaware, a real-life private school on 2,000 acres of farmland between Wilmington and Dover.

His passion for literature — specifically poetry — is infectious to the students in his classroom, and the boys reignite the club Keating started while he was a student, the “Dead Poets Society,” to connect with the art in a way they never thought they would.

The boys break out of the ritual of Welton and begin to “make their lives extraordinary,” much to the chagrin of the other teachers, their friends, and family, and things then take a turn.

Come for the brilliant performances of a very young Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, and stay for the pivotal “O Captain! My Captain!” scene which, honestly, brings this What To Watcher to tears every time.

“Dead Poets Society” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

What better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than a movie all about the Bard?

In a plot so perfectly complex that Shakespeare could’ve easily penned it himself, this period rom-com invites viewers into an imagined history before Will Shakespeare was the Shakespeare, fumbling through work, love and life just like the rest of us.

Joseph Fiennes is dazzling as the world’s most famous poet — before he blew up — struggling to write the play “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,” and Gwyneth Paltrow stuns opposite him as his unsuspecting muse, Viola, a role that would win her the Academy Award for best actress.

The pair are supported by a star-studded cast, including Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Geoffrey Rush and even Ben Affleck speaking his best Elizabethan English he could muster through his Boston accent.

And, if the cast alone doesn’t sell you on it, this is one of very few comedies to ever win the best picture award at the Oscars, beating out “Life is Beautiful” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Any film that took out two juggernaut Oscar bait flicks is worth it.

“Shakespeare in Love” is currently streaming on YouTube.

It’s hard to imagine how John Keats produced so much beautiful poetry during his tragically short life, but when you learn about his deep love connection with his neighbor-turned-fiancée Fanny Brawne, it all makes sense.

“Bright Star” is a portrayal of the very real love that Brawn and Keats shared through their courtship all the way through to Keats’ untimely death from Tuberculosis at the age of 25.

Like most relationships, Keats and Brawne started off hot and cold. But through poetry, they formed a deep creative connection that endured through the early 19th century. It’s even thought that Keats' love sonnet, "Bright Star," was either revised for her or even written for her outright.

Their love story is not necessarily well known outside of the social circles of English majors who studied romanticism, but it is one for the ages.

“Bright Star” is currently available to rent on Amazon Prime.

We couldn’t leave out a movie that is literally a poem from start to finish: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Dr. Seuss has been spittin’ rhymes since the ’30s, and his made-for-television “Grinch” special is still treasured around the holiday season.

It may be April, but there’s no reason why you can’t revel in the animation of 1966 and finally learn what really is in that last can of Who hash.

Of course, there are several other iterations of the Grinch's story — everyone has their favorite. There’s the classic 2000 live-action movie starring Jim Carrey, a more-recent animated film starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Tyler, the Creator even puts his own spin on the “You’re a Mean One” track), and if you’ve ever wondered what Denis O’Hare would look like as a dog, there’s NBC’s live Broadway version, featuring a not-so-gleeful Matthew Morrison, that will surely ruin your Christmas before it even starts.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966) is currently streaming on Peacock.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) is currently streaming on HBO Max.

“The Grinch” (2018) is currently available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

To Detroiters, 8 Mile is a geographical and psychological dividing line. The northern border of the city of Detroit, it is the literal delineation between rich and poor, the boundary that Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr. (Eminem) must breach to get from where he is — stagnant since high school, stuck in a run-down trailer park with his alcoholic mother (Kim Bassinger) — to where he wants to be.

But life isn't exactly brimming with options.

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He hates his work — in a car factory, naturally — but he is proud to have it, because most of the people he knows are living on welfare or playing out risky schemes. In rebellion against the self-destructive behavior he has been surrounded by his whole life, he must balance wanting to help his mother and little sister with needing to make his own life and get the hell out of Dodge.

He dreams of being a successful rapper. His friends encourage him, knowing he has the talent for it — but he's white, and his nickname is Rabbit, so who is going to take him seriously?

Worse: Every time Rabbit gets in front of a crowd, he chokes.

So he spends almost all his free time writing lyrics in a note pad, practicing word play, so he can overcome his stage fright. To gain the respect of his peers and rivals, he must master the art of the rap battle. To win a battle, Rabbit must hit his opponents with enough high-quality, cutting insults, with improvised lyrics that rhyme, that the audience is left with no choice but to believe him to be the best.

There is historical precedent for this, going back earlier than the advent of hip hop in the 1970s. In his book, "Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic," Minnesota English professor Colin Wells outlines the American tradition of poets and balladeers waging literary "wars" against political and professional rivals to determine the political course of the young nation — a nation that had for some time enslaved the ancestors of those poets and early hip hop artists whose rap battles in the 1980s and '90s cemented their fame.

Whether Rabbit knows about this history or not, he knows that. here and now, he must prove he belongs to that tradition — he must prove to himself and his rivals that he can overcome his stage fright. To earn respect, thrive in the scene, and escape his misery.

"8 Mile" is one of those stories about triumph through sheer strength of character, and it works as a convenient vehicle to tell the story — or at least establish the brand — of a real-life white rapper from suburban Detroit who defies odds and expectations to escape the seductive gravity of failure and eke out a successful career.

"Never mind the misogyny and homophobia, Eminem is a brilliant poet," declared a 2001 Guardian article. And of course he is.

The page on which Rabbit is shown writing in the scene on the bus is the actual piece of paper that Eminem wrote "Lose Yourself" on. Apparently, during filming, the only way he found time to write the movie's soundtrack was to write in a notebook between takes.

It worked. "Lose Yourself," written and recorded specifically for the movie, was the first rap song to win the Academy Award for best original song. And that sheet of paper is said to have sold for $10,000 on eBay.

“8 Mile” is currently available to rent on Amazon Prime.

"Roxanne" (1987) is based on the 1897 play by French poet Edmond Rostand, "Cyrano de Bergerac."

Steve Martin, who adapted the screenplay, is "C.D." Bales, the intelligent, funny, athletic — and nasally endowed — fire chief of a small town. He is sensitive about his big nose, played for humorous effect here to Pinocchio proportions.

Most people know better than to tease him or even bring it up at all — but for those who don't know better, C.D. has an arsenal of "big nose" jokes at the ready to deluge, distract and undercut them before thy could say a single word to hurt him.

After all, it behooves the fire chief to be prepared.

One summer, Roxanne Kowalski, a beautiful stranger, shows up in town. She is an astronomy grad student, smart and charismatic, searching the night skies for a comet, and C.D. is powerless against her.

Convinced she will eschew his schnoz, he withdraws. She likes him, but just as a friend. Who she really wants to know better is Chris, a young, hot and dumb fireman of C.D.'s acquaintance.

Roxanne assumes there's more under the hood than Chris lets on, so she asks C.D. for help getting close to him. Chris finds out, and he is so intimidated, he gets physically ill. He tries and fails to write her a letter, bereft of the lyrical prowess he assumes he would need to keep her interest. So he asks C.D. to write it instead.

And so begins a series of awkward interactions with C.D. feeding Chris his lines to woo fair Roxanne. Yet in doing so, C.D. finds he is able to use Chris as a proxy to express his true feelings for her.

Will she find out the truth? (Of course, she will.) What will she do when she does? (Watch and find out.)

“Roxanne” is currently streaming on Hulu and HBO Max and available to rent on Amazon Prime.

"Howl" (2010) jumps around in time to depict the early years of American poet Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), the legendary debut of his controversial poem of the same name, and a fictionalized account of the ensuing obscenity trial for its publication and distribution.

The poem is widely credited with being a catalyst for the popularity of the Beat movement of then '50s and '60s, which cast a critical eye toward American culture and politics in search of the drug-fueled sexual and spiritual aesthetic of the post-war generation. It was centered in bohemian enclaves in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Ginsberg got his start.

The movie depicts the genesis of "Howl," when Ginsberg lived the 1950s anti-materialistic dream with friends and fellows Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). A black-and-white cinema vérité re-enactment of the work's first public performance is contrasted with the full-color fictionalization of the obscenity trial that followed. And passages of the poem are interpreted and presented as gorgeous animated shorts.

Aaron Tveit plays poet Peter Orlovsky, who was Ginsberg's lover and life partner for 40+ years.

And Jon Hamm, in the midst of his "Mad Men" heyday, makes a notable appearance as Ginsberg's attorney, Jake Ehrlich, who is said to have inspired the central character of the long-running TV series "Perry Mason" — who is, ironically, perhaps the furthest from the Beat poets as possible in disposition and taste.

“Howl” is currently streaming on Pluto TV, Crackle and fuboTV, and available for rent on Amazon Prime.

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