Overlooked Gems from the Last Few Years (Part 2)

As I did before, I just want to give some quick shout-outs to some movies that came and went, without much recognition, that deserved a little more attention. They could be great movies or just ones that have more to chew on than the world realized at the time.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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From the directors of Crazy, Stupid Love, writer Robert Carlock (showrunner of 30 Rock), and starring Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an unexpectedly tense movie that was sold as something else. Understandably, the studio didn’t know how to market this movie; with such a high caliber, comedy background, it seemed to make sense to advertise it as a goofy satire of the war against terrorism in the Middle East. Yes, there are plenty of comedic flares to this movie but it certainly isn’t a comedy.

WTF is far more of a tense meditation on how journalists cope with the stress of living in a war-zone for the once in a lifetime opportunity to make a name for themselves (I majored in journalism in college and jumped ship at the last second… you spend your entire career trying to establish yourself in an overcrowded, dying medium; I totally get why a journalist would take this opportunity). Tina Fey gives far and away her best film performance here and that is obviously aided by the script from her longtime collaborator, Carlock, who knows exactly what her strengths are. The movie is a little wobbly and probably could have used a little more time in the oven but if you were turned off but the goofy trailers, try giving it a shot, you will likely be surprised by the final product.

Midnight Special

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Following up 2013’s nearly-perfect, Mud, would be an impossible task for director Jeff Nichols… and it was. Nichols came back in 2016 with two films: Midnight Special and Loving. Both deserve a larger conversation than they were given at their time of release, even though neither of them quite live up the powerhouse film that Mud was.

Midnight Special paints a very tense and mysterious picture for the viewer and is a promising look at what Nichols can do with an expanded budget (mind you, it only cost $18 million, but that’s the biggest budget he’s ever worked with). It feeds you lots of breadcrumbs and gives you half ideas that you expect to pay off later. Without spoiling anything, it doesn’t quite pay off in the satisfactory manner that we have become accustomed to. I applaud Nichols for giving us as little exposition as possible; he trusts that the viewer is intelligent enough to piece things together or at least get a general concept of what’s going on. Because of this, we don’t have to deal with too much awkward dialogue where characters state things that all the other characters already know, just to fill us in.

Michael Shannon works well with Nichols, as always, and does a great job as the rock of the movie, portraying Roy Tomlin, the weary father of a boy with vaguely-defined supernatural abilities. Joel Edgerton (who seems to be working as often as James Franco these days) is a solid addition to the cast as the muscle of the getaway operation. For most of the movie, we’re served a long-term chase where we learn bits and pieces of what this mysterious boy is capable of. He can mentally tune into the radio, he can hypnotize people with his eyes, although we are never quite sure what this does, and in one scene, he is able to telepathically pull a satellite from space and crash it down to earth (we never see him use any abilities this powerful again in the film which is strange because if he has that kind of power, he could probably use it to take down some faceless henchmen with ease). Overall, we are treated to a kind of movie that we rarely ever see: fully realized to the creator but almost intentionally hidden from the audience to create an air of mystique.

Again, it does not provide the most satisfying conclusion in the world but damn is it creative. This is one you can definitely revisit on multiple occasions to find new hidden secrets.

Loving

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If Midnight Special is Nichols at his most mysterious (and he’s been plenty mysterious in the past), Loving is him at his most straightforward. It’s unfortunate that I have to admit this but I didn’t know anything about this story before I saw this movie and I honestly cannot believe this story, about how an interracial married couple, was breaking the law, simply by being married, isn’t something more people talk about.

This could, perhaps, be called Nichols’ attempt at Oscar glory but I don’t think it comes off that way. In the end, the film received a Best Actress nomination for Ruth Negga (who is undeniably great), but it really doesn’t play as Oscar-bait. Don’t get me wrong, the elements are all there but Nichols never goes for the sweeping “Oscar Moments.” He simply tells the story; he lets the material speak for itself and it’s an honorable notion, even if it did leave this film as an afterthought to most people.

The performances between Negga and Joel Edgerton as the titular Loving family are pitch perfect. They don’t seem like two people whose personalities would click, what with Mildred (Negga) being so soft and warm while Richard (Edgerton) is the epitome of a gruff, “rough around the edges” kind of guy but ultimately just wants to do right by his wife and kids.

What speaks volumes about this movie is how well it all works without it trying to entertain. It also doesn’t go bleak; it gets depressing and at time feels hopeless but (at the risk of sounding too cliché for my own good) there is a pervading sense of love throughout that really holds it all together. The moment where Loving’s attorney, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) asks “Is there anything you’d like me to say to the supreme court justices of the United States?” and Richard responds, simply “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” Is a chillingly beautiful moment that reminds us of the importance of this movie better than almost anything that was rewarded at the Academy Awards that year.

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