You never know when you’re going to strike gold at the movie theater. Last week featured choices so dire, including “Ricki and the Flash” starring Meryl Streep in a seemingly ridiculous role as a former rock star in her 60s, who takes a second chance at fame. There was also an absolutely Dead On Arrival reboot of “The Fantastic Four.”
This week offers three distinct choices, all of which have their own distinct audiences. I’ll do briefs on two of them – “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Man from UNCLE” – and dig in more on what I think is the sleeper movie of the year so far, a movie that comes out of nowhere to stun you with how good it is, “Mistress America”.
Straight Outta Compton
“Compton” is a true-story biopic of the infamous rap group N.W.A., whose acronym I can’t even explain on this site. They were the first gangster-rap group to explode in popularity and are today more famous for spawning members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (a mega music producer who co-invented the wildly popular Beats headphones) than their own music.
Cube and Dre teamed up to tell their story, and what’s most impressive is that they don’t appear to gloss over any of their own bad behavior. The movie follows the rap group’s rise from the hard streets and police racism of mid-1980s Los Angeles to national stardom and controversy, then back down into the perils that come with stardom that arrives too fast and too soon.
“Compton” is not likely to appeal to most of the readers of Catholic Singles, or any other traditional Catholic or Christian site. It’s loaded with profanity, has a wild orgy scene (nothing too graphic motion-wise, but lots of female nudity) and has several shocking moments of violence as the group faces down police threats as well as danger from thugs in the streets they rose from. As one might expect, there’s more than its fair share of marijuana smoking at several points.
But on an artistic level, “Compton” is a stunning achievement, making a highly controversial group of people understandable and relatable even to those who, like me, had nothing but contempt for them before. It’s extremely well-made on every level, with moments that fully cross the spectrum of emotions, and its young dynamic cast makes you feel like you’re truly a witness to history.
If you’re intrigued by the subject matter and want to learn insights into what drives the rage some in the black community have towards police to this day, this is an eye-opening film that will teach you a lot. The problem is, the content IS extreme, and the women in it are mostly loose groupies or over-supportive wives, so women might be way more annoyed by this than I was.
I’d say this is dateworthy if, and only if, you have an extremely high tolerance for offensive material, which in the context of the storyline, does not come off as exploitative. The movie is a brilliant artistic achievement that’s still a potentially big problem morally.
The Man From UNCLE
Speaking of history, “The Man From UNCLE” arrives this week, bringing to new life the Cold War era hit spy TV series and doing it stylishly if not too excitedly. Henry Cavill, the latest big-screen Superman, and Armie Hammer (the guy who bombed as the Lone Ranger two years ago) play an American and a Russian superspy, respectively, who are forced to team up to stop a rogue cabal of criminals from getting their hands on new bomb technology.
“UNCLE” relies more on spiffy style and clever dialogue than amazing action to succeed, but what action there is, is good throwback fun. I’d still recommend the new “Mission Impossible” or even “Ant-Man” over it, if you haven’t seen those, however.
It’s not recommended as dateworthy unless you’re really obsessed with the Cold War; otherwise it feels very old-fashioned and makes you wonder how this got financed 50 years after the TV show it was spawned from. You won’t be morally offended by it, but on a sheer enjoyment level, I wouldn’t take a date to it with so many choices out there.
The movie I most want to recommend is a little flick called “Mistress America.” It’s the latest in a string of small but winning films (particularly 2013’s “Frances Ha”) from the boyfriend-girlfriend co-writing team of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an ace rising director who’s likely to wind up as Woody Allen’s main successor, given already having had a couple of Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay, while Gerwig is a luminous young actress who has both the magic of the big screen’s best screwball-comedy queens, and real acting chops.
The movie follows Tracy (Lola Kirke, in a fantastic debut lead performance), a college freshman overwhelmed by life in New York City when she enters college there. Having a hard time making friends, and drawn to a boy who turns out to have a girlfriend already, Tracy is ready to give up when she remembers that her mother asked her to call Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of her mom’s new fiancé.
Brooke instantly invites Tracy out on the town, completely involving her in her adventurous artistic life surrounded by musicians and other artists. She enables Tracy to get drunk underage, but Tracy winds up throwing up offscreen. Filled with a desire to be accepted by her college’s top literary society and magazine, Tracy starts immediately writing notes about Brooke that form the basis of an ultimately unflattering story based on her life.
As she hides her notes and story writing, Tracy gets ever more immersed into Brooke’s world, while also dealing with the frustration of a boy she likes having another, comically jealous, girlfriend. When Brooke is dumped by her boyfriend for kissing another man and he backs out of investing with her, she is in danger of losing her dream restaurant.
Brooke’s solution is to go to Greenwich, Connecticut to find an old boyfriend and his wife, who ripped Brooke off of a T-shirt design years ago which went on to be a hugely-selling shirt. With Tracy, Tracy’s male friend and the guy’s girlfriend in tow, the hilarious showdown over the money Brooke feels the couple owes her for stealing her shirt design begins.
Building on the strongly appealing “While We’re Young” (starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, it’s out on DVD now and highly recommended) from this spring, Baumbach has now had two winning movies this year that depict adult characters with intelligence, wit and a minimum of indecent behavior.
The movie explores the relationships we build and the trust people put in strangers in a very deep and realistic way, even as it remains hilarious throughout. Its insights into the lengths writers should go ethically in writing about real people is also fascinating, and has emotional consequences before a satisfying conclusion that upholds forgiveness.
The new movie is mainly rated R for language issues, but because most of its F words are used in quick bursts, there are several segments of the movie with almost no foul language at all. Aside from the swear words, there are three quick but fairly graphic sexual jokes. Brooke also uses a psychic twice in the movie, although the tone of the scenes is comical and appears to make the idea of using a psychic absurd.
The movie also makes one character extremely PC, forcing Tracy to answer a questionnaire about how much she supports abortion rights, but that too is shown as extreme and ludicrous behavior. One other slight annoyance is that Brooke and Tracy discuss her unseen dad’s extreme devotion to Catholicism in two quick moments with a bit of eye-rolling, but it’s not an attack on the church or faith but rather on an overbearing personality.
Mixing strong performances to unique characters and brilliantly witty, fast-paced dialogue in the best traditions of screwball comedy, “Mistress America” is highly satisfying viewing for most adults and extremely “dateworthy”. It’s only starting in a couple New York and Los Angeles theaters this weekend, but will be expanding nationwide over the next month.