Indie Focus: New 'Straight Outta Compton,' vintage 'Over the Edge' and new 'Mistress America' podcast

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Last week we had two more of our Indie Focus Screening Series Events, one with “Digging for Fire” and another with “Grandma.” We’ll have podcasts from the Q&As for both in the coming weeks.

Our recent screening of “Mistress America” was followed by an in-depth, one-on-one conversation with Noah Baumbach, who remains one of the most insightful and essential filmmakers to emerge from the American Independent scene.

You can listen to our Indie Focus Podcast with Noah Baumbach here.

This week we’ll be wrapping up our August screening extravaganza with two more. (We just couldn’t stop ourselves.) On Monday we’ll show “Z for Zachariah” and have a Q&A with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. And on Thursday we’ll have “Learning to Drive” and a Q&A with actors Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. 

Check here for more info:

'Straight Outta Compton'

A glossy take on a gritty topic, the new film “Straight Outta Compton” is a musical biopic of the influential rap group N.W.A that follows the trajectories of members Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. In doing so it is fun, rousing and also unexpectedly emotional. The timing of the film is impeccable and fortuitous, as the country grapples with the same issues of race and policing that were a part of the group’s message, even if the movie itself doesn’t quite make the most of it.

N.W.A members Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), from left, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) take center stage in “Straight Outta Compton.” (Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Studios)

Of the film, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan said: “Alternately riveting and wearying, up-to-the-minute relevant as well as self-mythologizingly self-indulgent — as much of a heroic origins story as anything out of the Marvel factory — 'Straight Outta Compton' ends up juggling more story lines and moods than it can handle."

Lorraine Ali was on the set of the film and later spoke to director F. Gary Gray. I interviewed actor Jason Mitchell, who plays Eazy-E, for a story that will appear sometime this week.

Grantland's Wesley Morris noted that “On the one hand, the movie’s mere existence constitutes some kind of cultural triumph” before adding, "That kind of topsy-turvy, irony-laden cultural shift makes it possible for a movie like 'Straight Outta Compton' to observe the group through the retrospective lens of success as opposed to reckoning with what it and its peers represented back then to white America: insurrection.”

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis added, “It’s another story of ultimate outsiders turned ultimate insiders, which makes it as blissfully American as apple pie, low riders and gangster rap itself.”

The movie has also become the occasion for the first new album in many years from one-time N.W.A member Dr. Dre, called simply “Compton,” and in his first piece as critic-at-large for the L.A. Times, Sasha Frere-Jones placed the album within the larger context of the contemporary music scene, noting “the trend that Dre has verified is L.A.'s increasing dominance of hip-hop in 2015.”

'Mistress America'

Noah Baumbach’s screwball portrait of friendship and identity, “Mistress America” opened this weekend after having premiered at Sundance earlier this year and then recently playing at Next Fest in L.A. The film was directed by Baumbach, who co-wrote the script with star Greta Gerwig.

In her review for The Times, Rebecca Keegan said, “At the center of the film is the interesting idea that we're all putting on performances for each other; unfortunately, the manner in which 'Mistress America' explores that theme also makes it a movie where moments of authenticity are scarce.”

Lola Kirke as Tracy in "Mistress America." (David Feeney-Mosier / Fox Searchlight)

In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw untangled the film from Baumbach and Gerwig, noting the pair “create a hilarious and hectic picture which returns us to their signature themes: the crises of midlife and quarterlife; the anxiety involved with hanging out with younger people; the older person’s fear of getting old; the younger person’s resentment of the lack of status and career-achievement involved in being young. There’s also sharp satire on the parasitism and destruction involved in being a creative writer.”

Lola Kirke, Gerwig's co-star in the film, sat down for burgers and self-exposure with Amy Kaufman. "I’m just going to kind of let this happen," Kirke said of their sloppy lunch, but perhaps also meaning her burgeoning career.

I also interviewed Baumbach earlier this year around the release of “While We’re Young,” in which he explained the entangled genesis of that film, “Mistress America” and “Frances Ha.”  

'People Places Things'

Words like “nice” and “gentle” can often come to feel like backhanded compliments, but in the case of the new "People Places Things," nothing could be further from the truth. A romantic drama staring Jemaine Clement as a man trying to rebuild his life as a single parent after his marriage breaks up, the film is all too easy to overlook, as many did when it premiered earlier this year at Sundance.

Jemaine Clement with twins Aundrea Gadsby, left, and Gia Gadsby in a “People Places Things” scene. (Ryan Muir)

“If you are searching for an antidote to the swarm of studio behemoths that dominate the summer movie calendar, relief is at hand," Kenneth Turan noted in his review. "Small, smart and inescapably independent, ‘People Places Things’ has its own offbeat and charmingly low-key way of seeing the world.”

Fans of “The Daily Show” should take note that the film features a quiet observant performance by Jessica Williams, whom we hope to see in more acting roles in the future.

Susan King spoke to Regina Hall for the film. Hall is best known for her broad comedic work, so seeing her in “People Places Things” in a more dramatic and romantic role is something of a surprise.

"I don't think you necessarily see yourself as funny," Hall said. "When I came to Los Angeles, I thought, 'Oh, I am going to end up doing sitcoms.' I didn't do well at those auditions. I wasn't that good at punch lines. But I do love to create a character."

'Over the Edge'

“Over the Edge” is one of those rare films that attains greatness in part because there is no good reason for it to be as good as it is. It should be just a teen-trash exploitation picture, but in the hands of director Jonathan Kaplan and writers Tim Hunter and Charles S. Haas it becomes so much more, a sensitive portrait of youthful angst and anxiety that also takes an energetic stand against authoritarian over-reach. The film will be screening at the Cinefamily on Aug. 22 in a rare 35 mm print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive. Watch the original trailer here.

A December 1979 review of the film in The Times of a one-off screening mentioned that there were no immediate plans for a proper release. Two years later it was reviewed in the New York Times, when critic Vincent Canby said of the film and its troubled teen protagonists, “'Over the Edge' dramatizes the boredom and pointlessness of their world with extraordinary conviction.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.