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Poets' Favorite Movies

Jawanza Dumisani

Halfway through my list I noticed a common thread in nearly all of my choices. I not only found these movies wonderful and entertaining but most ignited an emotional response in me, because some aspect parallels my life or circumstances of people close to me. Now you might be thinking 'pretty damn easy to do with tons of flicks floating around with every "universal" theme under the sun recycled a thousand times over. Why should I consider watching them?' Assuming of course you haven’t already seen them all.

Even if you have seen them I think all are worth a second look. There'll always be something you missed.

Some of these movies I enjoyed as a child and even more as an adult. Nowadays, though, it takes something special to get me to fork over the price of a movie ticket. Not to mention the time it takes to get to the theater to watch a film. Of course the huge screen can do a lot for an otherwise lackluster viewing experience. In many instances size does matter, but I would view any of these babies on a wristwatch with stale trail mix.

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945)
The only novel to be published by Oscar Wilde, the screen adaptation was considered one of the last works of classic Gothic horror fiction. Dorian becomes the subject of a painting because of his desirable appearance. Knowing one day his good looks will fade, he wishes his portrait would age instead of himself. His wish is granted, plunging him into a series of debauched acts. The film won an Oscar for “Best Cinematography, Black & White.” The transformation scenes are a marvel to watch and were quite inventive for that era. Viewing it several times as an adult I’ve really grown to appreciate this relic even more. The magnificent set design gives the film a rich ambiance.

2. Dead Presidents (Albert & Allen Hughes, 1996)
These guys believe sound is half the movie. Listen carefully, I think you’ll agree—it almost feels like a bonus movie when the caper unfolds. If you like late Sixties R & R the soundtrack alone is worth a sit-down and look-see. The well-cast story  feature comic Chris Tucker and Larenz Tate as they team up for this crime drama loaded with hilarious moments from the very beginning. The scene with the pistol and the prosthesis will have you rolling in the aisle (or on your couch, depending on whether you opt for the big screen or a rental). The action segues beautifully and seamlessly from a string of neighborhood backyards to a Vietnam war zone. The entire cast carries the ball without an errant pass. A must-see if you’re interested in what happens when greed and idealism converge in an urban environment with limited options.  This flick illuminates the humor, fear, love, humility, joy and tragedy in the simple day-to-day lives of the characters.

3. The Godfather ( Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
If you wanted to display the brutality, rage and naked terror of our species to extraterrestrials, surely this film would be in the time capsule. Benevolent despot Vito Corleone is a friendly man, “a reasonable” man, and the most feared gang leader in the Cosa Nostra (arguably Marlon Brando’s best film in color). The long arm of his influence is so far reaching no man or institution goes untouched. You’ll leave the theater convinced you’ve been up close and personal with the underworld’s warmest crime family. Story telling and filmmaking at their absolute finest.

4. Crash  (Paul Haggis, 2005)
This Academy Award winning drama explores the subject of racial prejudice. Garnering three Oscars in the process, the film puts some part of us all under a microscope and dares us to look. Over a thirty-six hour period in LA, the film starkly illuminates tension between races in America. Brendan Fraser plays a white DA who gets carjacked with his wife played by Sandra Bullock. The perpetrators played by Larenz Tate and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are a film within a film, as are all the relationships in this outstanding slice-of-the-underbelly of any large city in America. Crash reveals humanity or lack of it as circumstances change. The star-studded cast didn’t guarantee success but the likes of Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito give explosive performances to shore up an already creative premise. Detractors of the film contend that the film doesn’t accurately portray LA’s “liberal” landscape. Be your own judge.

5. Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003)
It’s not the size of the weapon but the fury in the attack! An underdog’s film if there ever was and no making it up as we go to boot. No-sir-ree Bob! This story is completely real. If you’ve never watched Seabiscuit, well, hold on, you’re in for quite a ride. The racing scenes offer a great view from the saddle, which makes the cinematography simply breathtaking and, by the way, did I tell you this is a true story? Mistaken at times for a lead pony, Seabiscuit was one of America’s most beloved and fastest race horses on the track. The horse gets the Oscar if it were up to me. A beautiful film the entire family can enjoy and loaded with great lifetime lessons for youngsters. Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire turn in fine performances, but the film’s success is shared by the entire cast and a truly magical story.

6. The Red Violin (Francois Girard, 1999)
This is one to curl up by a fire and watch. Seven-year-old prodigy Christogh Konez—a musical marvel of the real-life variety—and the violin become inseparable; it's the story of a masterpiece and its passage through time. The instrument has a persona all it's own. Samuel Jackson takes a back seat to a fist full of strings. This flick is swelling with passion, sorrow and tragedy. I found Bernard Herrmann's music alone worth the price of the rental.

7. Psycho  (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
This classic suspense horror film is based on the novel by the same name by Robert Bloch, a story inspired by the crimes of a Wisconsin serial killer. At the outset reviews were lukewarm but box office receipts were bulging from registers, prompting a re-review. Regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best, it received four Academy Award nominations. A clinic in film-making, Psycho has been the subject of study by countless numbers of students and critics alike. Perkins' character Norman Bates made him an icon over night. The most famous shower scene of all time features Janet Leigh, an employee on siesta after questionable activity in the workplace, and Anthony Perkins, a disturbed owner of a small roadside motel. It’s steamy but they’re not busting suds and getting it on.

8. The Man With The Golden Arm ( Otto Preminger, 1955 )
This was possibly the film that helped to reshape and redefine FCC attitudes toward films showing drug addiction, kidnapping, abortion and prostitution. Although the movie was not sanctioned by certain institutions in the industry it did pave the way for others to explore these very controversial themes. The film tells the story of a small-time con with a knack for dealing cards but a thirst to become a jazz drummer. The only thing standing in his way is a heroine habit and a wife in a wheelchair faking cripple to keep him under her thumb. The opening features one of the most famous title sequences in film history, the animated cut-out of a heroine addict's arm. Kim Novak and Eleanor Parker both give fine supporting performances in a film that tears at the core of what we despise but does it with compassion. Frankie Machine, masterfully played by Frank Sinatra, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Ol’ Blue Eyes at his gut-wrenching best.

PS: Don’t let the popcorn burn!


Jawanza Dumisani is director of literary programming for The World Stage Anassi Writer’s Workshop in Leimert Park Village, where he workshopped his first poem in 1998. Four years later The World Stage selected Jawanza for a UCLA Extension scholarship where he studied with Suzanne Lummis. He is also a PEN Fellow and recipient of the 2004-2005 PEN AWARD and was chosen by Beyond Baroque for the prestigious Newer Poets reading in the 2003 Los Angeles Poetry Festival. He’s a 2003 Editor’s Choice for FarStarFire Press, which published his first collection, Stoetry. Jawanza appears in Bob Bryan’s DVD Graffiti Vérité's GV6 THE ODYSSEY: Poets, Passion & Poetry. His work is also included in Voices from Leimert Park: A Poetry Anthology (2006).

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach