The Upside (2017)

Bryan Cranston’s talent is a given. However, though this a different Kevin Hart than audiences have previously seen (as of this post), he strikes just the right comedic note without endangering the story’s tone. Hiring a self- sabotaging deadbeat with a criminal record to be a quadriplegic’s live-in caretaker was meant to stick it to his secretary, who ignored his “Do Not Resuscitate” directive. Funny enough, they turned out to be just what the other needed. While such an unlikely friendship did exist, “based” on a true story is a bit of an exaggeration; it’s more like a biopic twice removed. But make no mistake: it’s still entertaining and poignant.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Beware: studio marketing set you up for disappointment! Despite their emphasis on ABBA music, the premise has satirical underpinnings.

To characterize Muriel as a “lovable loser” would be a gross oversimplification. As only Toni Collette can do (seriously– you have to like a character to root for them), an insecure girl escapes her family’s psychological abuse by emersing herself in pop music and living vicariously through other people’s success.

On an impromptu vacation, on which she tries to keep up with the popular crowd, she thinks she’s found a quick fix for happiness: marriage to a celebrity. Despite growing up in the shadow of her politican father, she believes the superficial fairytale will turn the tables on everyone who previously snubbed her. Along the way she discovers a new and different form of beauty.

Though there is humor, don’t expect slapstick. A tranformation in the same vein as Strictly Ballroom and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is more realistic (i.e. frequently cringeworthy) than the poster/ cover would lead you to believe but it’s worth every moment.

Liar Liar (1997)

“My dad? He’s… a liar.” “A liar? I’m sure you don’t mean a liar.” “Well, he wears a suit and goes to court and talks to the judge.” “Oh, you mean he’s a lawyer.” In this case, same difference: “Great news! Both my legs are broken so they can’t take me right to jail.”

Max Reede misses his dad, Fletcher even though his mother threw him out for being a self-centered, philandering liar. Max makes a birthday wish that– just for one day– his dad wouldn’t be able to tell a lie. So imagine Fletcher’s surprise when he wakes up one day blurting out even the most uncomfortable truth. “My teacher tells me beauty is on the inside.” “That’s just something ugly people say.” Of course, everything works itself out in the end but not before wreaking havoc on Fletcher’s life, both in and out of court. “Mr. Reede, one more word out of you, and I will hold you in contempt!” “I hold MYSELF in contempt! Why should you be any different?”

Sabrina (1995)

This retold tale of Sabrina, who grew up above the carriage house of her chauffeur father’s wealthy employers, isn’t slapdash like the original (1950s) version, which made me uncomfortable and confused. Upon coming-of-age abroad, Sabrina returns as a fully grown– not to mention sophisticated– woman. The two brothers slated to inherit their father’s company, who still attend lavish parties at the old estate, have differing attitudes toward her maturity. Stodgy, responsible Linus tries to shield Sabrina from playboy, David, on whom she had a childhood crush. The fantasy her father hoped would fade is further thwarted by Linus’ plan to woo her as a distraction. But how long can a workaholic loner remain unaffected by such a smart, vibrant and beautiful woman?

Black Snake Moan (2006)

The epitome of “difficult to describe” and “impossible to classify,” this story has a lot going on. The initial marketing—especially the incongruous movie poster—was ticket bait for those looking for frenetically salacious and lewd content; anyone with a sense of decency avoided it in disgust.

Quality acting helps ground potentially off-the-rails characters as the story deliberately shows them at their worst to establish the misunderstood subversive behaviors, for which they are publicly ostracized. A solider with recurring panic attacks returns home to discover his girlfriend is missing. Meanwhile, she gets dumped out of a pickup truck, battered and in her underwear, along the side of the road. A hot-headed recluse drags her to his home where she wakes up chained to the radiator. Madness, right? That’s the point. Though everyone seems crazy at the outset, the beauty of this story is the bonds they forge along their journey toward healing despite complex struggles.

Normally, I wouldn’t give nearly so much of the plot away but in this case it’s the only way to justify seeing past such a depraved opening. As it turns out, the young woman was abused as a child; as with most victims, she feels a combination of guilt and confusion over her body’s response. So when she grows up and develops romantic feelings—even for guy who genuinely cares about her—she’s confused about how to give and receive affection, thus trapped in a vicious cycle of promiscuity. The antisocial loner, who initially holds her prisoner for her own safety, turns out to be a religious Blues musician who struggles with alcohol abuse following a contentious divorce. Heartbreak has left him closed off to the world.

As they compare the vices that serve to distract them from haunting memories, the two strike up a friendship that functions more like a father showing his wayward daughter some tough love, which includes having the local preacher over for lunch to hear his two cents:

“Ima tell you something and it’s just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about Heaven too much, like it’s some kind of all-you-eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. There’s sinning in my heart, there’s evil in the world. But when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness; not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live, or no more good to do, but today, right now… what’s your Heaven?”

This Beautiful Fantastic (2016)

Apparently, I’m not used to Art that isn’t at least a little bit pretentious because I initially struggled to enjoy this one. Since I could find no particular fault in the movie I figured the problem must be with me. The plot has many classic elements that make you realize how much effort modern and/ or American movies put into manipulating your emotions. As far as plot twists, no big shockers; just a simple story—that might even be a tad predictable—about growth, both personal and floral. Love and imagination blossom in a delightful British story that’s so sweet it’s almost a fairytale.

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

In no way hyperbole, the title is as provocative and contentious as its titular character, who happens to be a real person. It’s an severely honest rendering of a life turned upside down—first by conversion from a life of unrestrained vice to a zealous desire to serve God then again from safe and tidy church subculture into fighting for the safety of orphans caught in the crosshairs of war. By getting to know and love vulnerable children in desperate need of protection, the repentant rebel turns his unbridled violence into a passion for rescue and protection, with or without the help of friends and family. Sadly, those in the greatest position to help lack the spiritual and emotional resources of compassion and generosity.