Review: ‘Mack & Rita,’ starring Diane Keaton, Taylour Paige and Elizabeth Lail

August 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Diane Keaton in “Mack & Rita” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Premiere)

“Mack & Rita”

Directed by Katie Aselton

Culture Representation: Taking place in the California cities of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the comedy film “Mack & Rita” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 30-year-old woman, who feels older than most of her peers, wishes that she were just like her beloved and now-deceased grandmother, and she’s shocked when her wish comes true, and she physically becomes a woman in her 70s. 

Culture Audience: “Mack & Rita” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Diane Keaton and don’t mind seeing terrible movies that insult viewers’ intelligence and make the cast members look like idiots.

Taylour Paige in “Mack & Rita” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Premiere)

Diane Keaton, please do not allow anyone to talk you into doing embarrassing garbage movies like “Mack & Rita” ever again. If anyone has the misfortune of watching this pathetic excuse for a comedy film, be warned that it is less likely to make you laugh and more likely to make you sad and maybe a little angry that this is the type of moronic junk that Oscar-winning acting legend Keaton has been reduced to doing. And to make matters worse, Keaton is one of the producers of “Mack & Rita,” so she sunk her some of her own money into helping make this atrocious flop.

“Mack & Rita” is supposed to be a female empowerment film. It’s supposed to be a comedy film that’s funny. But just because a woman (Katie Aselton) directed “Mack & Rita,” and just because a woman (Madeline Walter) co-wrote the screenplay doesn’t automatically make this train wreck any good. (Walter wrote the “Mack & Rita” screenplay with Paul Welsh.) In fact, “Mack & Rita” is such an abomination that makes women in the movie look so flaky and ditsy, it’s the opposite of a female empowerment film.

“Mack & Rita” is the third feature film directed by Aselton, who is probably best known to movie audiences as an actress in movies and TV. Her credits as an actress include supporting roles in movies such as 2019’s “Bombshell” and 2018’s “Book Club.” She previously directed and starred in the 2013 horror flick “Black Rock,” an independent film (written by her husband, Mark Duplass) that got mixed reviews. Aselton’s feature-film directorial debut was 2010’s “The Freebie,” a mediocre and lightweight comedy that she wrote. Aselton and Dax Shepard co-starred in “The Freebie” as a married couple allowing each other one night of infidelity. In other words, Aselton has been on plenty of film sets to know better than to dump the trashy “Mack & Rita” into the world.

Comedies about body switches or body transformations need to have cast members with authentic-looking chemistry, in order to make the movies work well. On top of that, even if the story involves sci-fi or fantasy, at least some part of it has to be believable, starting with the way that the characters react to this body change. Unfortunately, “Mack & Rita” fails in every bare minimum of these requirements.

“Mack and Rita” also does a lot of unappealing perpetuating of negative stereotypes of women over the age of 70, by making it look like women in this age group have sex appeal that shrivels up like wrinkled skin. Except for the character played by Keaton, all of the senior citizen women who are supporting characters in “Mack & Rita” just sit around, guzzle wine, and gossip about other people’s love lives, but they don’t have love lives of their own. And when the character played by Keaton does have some romance, it’s played for cringeworthy laughs because (gasp!) she kisses a man who’s young enough to be her son.

“Mack & Rita” has an odd mix of talented cast members and not-so-talented cast members that make their scenes together very hard to watch. The opening scene of the movie shows a quick montage flashback of lead character Mackenzie “Mack” Martin as a 9-year-old (played by Molly Duplass, daughter of Aselton and Mark Duplass) being raised by her sassy grandmother, who’s only given the name Grammie Martin (played by Catherine Carlen) in the movie. It’s explained later that Mack’s parents are deceased. Mack was very close to Grammie Martin, who died sometime when Mack became an adult. Mack admired her grandmother’s confidence and still wishes that she could be more like her.

Mack has now grown up to be a 30-year-old bachelorette writer (played by Elizabeth Lail) living in a Los Angeles apartment building with her dog Cheese. Her only book so far (a collection of personal essays about her grandmother) was a modest hit, but Mack hasn’t had much luck getting a publishing deal for her second book. In the meantime, Mack’s abrasive and snobby agent Stephanie (played by Patti Harrison) has been pushing Mack to become a social media influencer who gets paid for endorsing products and services. Stephanie sneers to Mack in a phone conversation: “Remember, if you’re not getting paid for something, it’s a hobby. And hobbies are disgusting.”

The adult Mack explains in a voiceover: “I grew up always feeling like I was an older woman trapped in the body of a little girl. I think that’s why I was so found of the term ‘old gal.” I was raised by my grandma, who was the coolest ‘old gal’ I ever knew. She would say, ‘Well, that’s because I’m old. I’ve got less time to live, so I’ve got less flips to give.” Get used to the cringeworthy talk in “Mack & Rita,” because this horrible movie is full of it.

Mack continues in her voiceover: “All I wanted was to be like Grammie Martin, but like any kid, I had to fit in. Over the years, I had to hide what I thought was cool. And you know what? It worked pretty well … I did my darndest to keep my inner old gal to myself.”

The movie then rushes through an explanation that Mack will soon be going to Palm Springs for the weekend to attend the bachelorette party of her best friend Carla (played by Taylour Paige), in a house lent to them by a friend of Carla’s mother Sharon (played by Loretta Devine). Before she leaves for her trip, Mack meets with her bachelor next-door neighbor Jack (played by Dustin Milligan), a private wealth manager who’s also 30 years old. Jack has agreed to be the dogsitter for Cheese while Mack is away for the weekend in Palm Springs. (As soon as you see Jack on screen, it’s obvious he will be Mack’s love interest.)

Mack and Jack exchange some awkward small talk because they’re both attracted to each other but don’t want to come right out and say it. He asks her if she would like to go skateboarding with him sometime. Mack politely declines. “Mack & Rita” tells no details about Mack’s previous dating experiences, but the movie repeatedly implies that because Mack wants to be just like her grandmother, she thinks that means she has to live life like the worst stereotype of a boring old lady.

One of the most annoying things about “Mack & Rita” is that it makes people who are supposed to be in their 30s act like they have the emotional maturity of teenagers who are still in high school. There’s Jack and his semi-obsession with skateboarding and expecting women who date him to be interested in skateboarding too. And later, when Mack meets up with Carla and their two airhead bachelorette friends Sunita (played by Aimee Carrero) and Molly (played by Lauren Beveridge), this arrested development in emotional maturity is also on full display.

Mack tells Carla, Sunita and Molly about turning down Jack’s invitation for a skateboarding date. Mack says that this rejection is because she’s afraid that Jack could be a Lothario. It’s an example of Mack being paranoid about dating, because Jack has not shown any indication that he’s a jerk or a creep.

Sunita and Molly then repeatedly ask Mack what a Lothario is. Mack has trouble explaining it to them until she uses the word “player.” Apparently, the “Mack & Rita” filmmakers want people to equate “vocabulary intelligence” with “mentality of a boring old lady,” and that the average 30-year-old woman can’t possibly know what the word Lothario means.

Sunita and Molly are self-absorbed, yammering characters whose personalities are indistinguishable from one another. Molly and Sunita only seem to care about what they see and post about themselves on social media. Carla is portrayed as a loyal and accepting friend who tries to give Mack more confidence and a lot of understanding.

However, Carla’s patience is tested when the “body transformation” happens to Mack, who ends up becoming a popular social media influencer in her new “old woman” body, and Mack becomes an unreliable friend. This information was already revealed in the “Mack & Rita” trailer. You know a movie is bottom-of-the-barrel rubbish when there’s nothing salvagable that can be edited to make the movie’s trailer look interesting.

While the four gal pals are hanging out at a restaurant for lunch, Mack sees two elderly woman dining together at a nearby outdoor cafe. Mack says that she envies how life seems to be so simple for these senior citizens because these old women know who they are and what they want. Mind you, Mack knows nothing about these women or what their conversation is about, so she really has no idea if these women are as happy or as confident as she assumes they are. Mack has a weird fixation on thinking that women of retirement age are supposed to be happier than any other women just because elderly women have lived that long and are old enough to retire. It’s a very misguided and ignorant over-simplication of women.

Mack tells Carla when Mack points out the two elderly women having lunch together: “I want to be like them: just sitting around and falling asleep until someone shakes me awake.” What a condescending and ageist perception of elderly women. “Mack & Rita” repeatedly pounds this negative stereotype that women over the age of 70 are supposed to be boring, and then uses this unflattering perception as a flimsy plot device that’s not only stupid but it’s also offensive. The entire terrible premise of “Mack & Rita” is that any woman over the age of 70 who is not boring is the exception and probably does things that deserve to have people laughing at her because she’s supposed to be “too old” to do those things.

Mack’s body transformation happens as body transformations do in dimwitted and lazy movies: by a force of nature that is never explained in the movie. Mack sees a pop-up tent near the restaurant. The tent is advertising New Age type of services with the slogan “Regress and be blessed” written on a makeshift sign.

Out of curiosity, Mack goes in the tent and finds a spaced-out wannabe guru named Luka (played by Simon Rex, in an awful, hammy performance), who tells her to lie down in a run-down-looking tanning bed and think of any wish that she wants to come true. Mack wishes exactly what you think she wishes: “I want to be Grammie Martin!” Mack also shouts, “I’m a 70-year-old woman trapped in a body of a 30-year-old who just needs a minute to rest!”

Wind gusts suddenly appear in the tanning bed like a mini-tornado. And when Mack emerges from the tanning bed, she’s horrified to see that she now looks like an elderly version of herself (played by Keaton), so the expected hysterical skrieking ensues. Luka suddenly is nowhere to be found to change Mack back into her “normal” self. Luka’s disappearance is just the movie’s way of stretching out the excruciatingly bad scenarios that Mack experiences as the elderly version of herself.

While still adjusting to the shock of her body transformation, Mack shows up at the borrowed house in Palm Springs, where Carla predictably thinks Mack is an intruder. But once Mack proves to Carla that she really is Mack—just trapped in a 70-year-old body—Carla easily accepts everything like it’s not that big of a deal. “Mack & Rita” is so poorly written, the bachelorette party is never shown, and Carla is never seen having a conversation with her groom-to-be (whose name is never mentioned in the movie), even though there’s a plot development involving the wedding rehearsal dinner. The groom is never seen talking and has a brief “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance where he’s seen with Carla in a car.

Expect to see a silly montage of Carla and “elderly” Mack doing various things to try to make Mack look younger, such as going to a rigorous fitness trainer (just an excuse to put Keaton and her stunt double in awkward physical positions) or beauty salons, as if putting on some skin cream will somehow make Mack look younger. And there are the usual pratfalls and “I’m too old for this” clumsiness from “elderly” Mack, because the movie wants to make it hilarious to laugh at elderly people who might have physical limitations. It’s all so witless and tiresome.

In one of the movie’s worst scenes, “elderly” Mack takes Carla’s advice to drink psychedelic mushrooms with some tea. It leads to a very unfunny scenario of Mack hallucinating, with very cheap-looking visual effects used in the movie. Mack’s hallucinations include thinking that her dog is talking to her. Martin Short is the voice of the dog in this scene. It’s a good thing that Short isn’t on camera, thereby sparing him the humiliation of being seen in this horrendous dreck.

And who exactly is the “Rita” in “Mack & Rita”? When “elderly” Mack goes back to her apartment, she lies to Jack and says that she is Mack’s aunt Rita. The lie is that Rita (who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona) and Mack decided to do an apartment exchange while Mack is in Scottsdale for a writer’s retreat. Jack is a little taken by surprise by Rita, but because he doesn’t know Mack and her family very well, he easily believes this lie.

It’s the same lie that’s told to Carla’s outspoken and meddling mother Sharon and Sharon’s three nosy best friends: cranky Betty (played by Lois Smith), jolly Carol (played by Amy Hill) and sarcastic Angela (played by Wendie Malick), who are all the wine-guzzling, gossipy old lady stereotypes that make “Mack & Rita” such a trite and insulting portrayal of older women. Betty is the one who owns the house in Palm Springs. Sharon is an openly queer woman who divorced her husband (Carla’s father), and then married a woman, who is now deceased. The only reason this information about Sharon’s love life is in the movie is to make Sharon a negative stereotype of an elderly woman who’s bitter about not currently having a love partner.

The younger female characters in the movie aren’t much better when it comes to shallow clichés, except for Carla, who is the only one who comes across as having a believable personality and a life that doesn’t revolve around envying other people or gossiping about them. (Paige, who’s stuck in the thankless role as Carla, sometimes looks like she knows she’s in a bad movie, but perhaps she needed the money.) Mack as a 30-year-old is just insufferably ignorant, and it doesn’t help that Lail gives the worst performance in the cast. Luckily, the 30-year-old Mack doesn’t have much screen time, compared to 70-year-old Mack/Rita whose depiction is appalling enough.

Far from making the “elderly” Mack/Rita look stylish, the substandard costume design for the “elderly” Mack/Rita consists of mostly ill-fitting (usually too large) embarrassments. Who in their right mind thinks anyone looks good in an oversized plaid blazer paired with an oversized polka dot A-line skirt? But there “elderly” Mack/Rita is, wearing one of these many clownish-looking outfits in “Mack & Rita.”

Everything about “Mack & Rita” looks like an outdated sitcom that was rejected decades ago. It’s also a fake feminist film. If Mack gets a “happy ending” (her romance with Jack; finding Luka to turn her back to her “normal” self), it’s all dependent on getting a man to like her. Mack shows no real independence or personal growth. The romance in this movie is as dull as dull can be.

“Mack & Rita” is just a series of abysmal slapstick scenes and forced, terrible scenarios where people are supposed to laugh at the sight of a woman in her 70s doing things that younger people usually do—and she gets mocked for it in one way or another. Making an entire movie about putting an elderly woman in humiliating situations is not amusing. It’s misogynistic. Movie audiences and someone with Keaton’s caliber of talent deserve so much better.

Gravitas Premiere released “Mack & Rita” in U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Zola,’ starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough

June 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Zola”

Directed by Janicza Bravo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and briefly in Detroit, the comedy/drama “Zola” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A stripper-turned-waitress in Detroit meets and quickly befriends a scheming stripper, who entices to the waitress to travel to Florida to make easy money stripping for a weekend that ends up wilder than they both expect.

Culture Audience: “Zola” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramedies about the perils of being a sex worker that are raunchy and violent with a quirky and sometimes off-kilter vibe.

Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

The dramedy film “Zola” (directed by Janicza Bravo) has been getting a lot of comparisons to director Harmony Korine’s 2013 violent and hedonistic romp “Spring Breakers” and director Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 stripper crime drama “Hustlers.” It’s probably because all three movies, which blend carefree partying with an ongoing sense of danger, are about women unapologetically using their bodies and sex appeal to get what they want, as they have various levels of involvement with sleazy characters. “Zola” is not as hilariously bonkers as “Spring Breakers,” and it’s not as well-paced as “Hustlers,” but there are enough offbeat comedic moments and memorable performances for people curious enough to take this bumpy ride with two very different strippers.

The “Zola” screenplay, written by director Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, is based on a series of real-life tweets made in 2015 by A’Ziah “Zola” King, who went on an epic 148-tweet rant about her misadventures during a stripper road trip with a fast friend who eventually became her enemy. (The movie’s prologue has a statement that reads, “What follows is mostly true.”) In real life, this friend-tuned-foe is named Jessica Rae Swiatkowski. In the movie, her name is Stefani Jezowski.

And in the beginning of the movie, Zola (played by Taylour Paige) gets right to the point when she says in a voiceover: “You want to know how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Much of the comedy in the movie comes from the racial and cultural dynamics when Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough) end up clashing and getting on each other’s nerves.

Zola, who is African American, can best be described as a free spirit with boundaries. She has no problem with being a stripper, but she refuses to be a prostitute. She’s fun-loving but level-headed, trusting but cautiously jaded. Stefani, who is white, can best be described as someone with insecurities over her identity. Stefani desperately wants to sound like she’s a tough black person who’s “from the streets,” but she switches to an “innocent white girl” persona when it suits her. Stefani has no qualms about being a prostitute, and she’s very impulsive and manipulative.

Stefani (who is 21) and Zola (who is 19) meet one day when Stefani is a customer at the Detroit diner where Zola works as a waitress. (In real life, Zola worked at Hooters.) Stefani’s way of complimenting Zola is by telling her, “Damn, bitch. You’ve got perfect titties. I wish I had titties like that. They look just like little apples.”

Stefani’s date with her at the restaurant is a man named Johnathan (played by Nasir Rahim), who’s about 15 to 20 years older than Stefani. In reaction to Stefani complimenting Zola about Zola’s breasts, Johnathan says, “Oh, so you’re just going to pull that dyke shit in front of me and not include me.” Stefani replies like a gum-chewing teenager, “You’re so dumb!”

Stefani is so intrigued with Zola that she follows her into a back room for the diner’s employees only. Stefani tells Zola that she’s sure they’ve met somewhere before, so Stefani asks if Zola is a dancer. Zola says she used to dance, and Stefani’s eyes light up. She tells Zola that they should dance together sometime. Stefani also mentions that she’s a single parent to a daughter, whom she calls her baby, and shows Zola a picture of the girl.

In the beginning of the movie, there are hints that Zola and Stefani might be sexually attracted to each other. When they have their first conversation, the movie shows heart graphics on screen, as if there’s instant infatuation. Although it would be very predictable for Zola and Stefani to be openly bisexual and act on it with each other—a very common trope in stripper movies that are usually directed by men—Bravo doesn’t use that formula.

Instead, Zola’s attraction to Stefani is how easily Stefani can make someone feel like an instant best friend. Zola also seems fascinated by this woman who clearly wants to be accepted by the African Americans. And so, when Stefani calls Zola the next day to invite her to go on a road trip to Florida to make some easy stripping money, Zola is intrigued but doesn’t immediately say yes. Zola wants to know who else is going on the trip before she agrees to go on the trip.

One of the people on the trip is Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derreck (played by Nicholas Braun), who is very passive and has anxiety issues. The other person on this road trip is in the driver’s seat, literally and metaphorically: a Nigerian immigrant who doesn’t have a name in the movie but who is listed in the film credits as X (played by Colman Domingo), who switches back and forth between his Nigerian and American accents. A recurring joke in the film is that people keep bungling X’s real name when they say it, so it’s unclear what his name really is. In real life, the alleged pimp’s name was Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe.

Zola has a live-in boyfriend named Sean (played by Ari’el Stachel), who isn’t thrilled that Zola will be going back to stripping, even if it’s only for a weekend. Zola has sex with Sean to ease some of his disapproval. She also convinces him that the trip will be good for them because they need the extra money. And so, when Zola gets into the black Mercedes SUV with Stefani, X and Derrek, she’s feeling pretty good about this trip to Tampa, Florida. That feeling won’t last long.

Within 24 hours, Zola finds out that X is Stefani’s domineering pimp. And he wants Stefani and Zola to turn tricks for him. He’s the type of gun-carrying pimp who will take all or most of his prostitutes’ money, and say it’s for their “expenses.” And when Zola tries to leave, X threatens her and tells her that he knows where she lives.

One of the biggest flaws in the movie is how supposedly street-smart Zola couldn’t figure out a way to leave this bad situation, since she’s not being held captive physically (she’s never tied up or locked in a room), and X isn’t with Zola and Stefani all of the time. Zola has her purse with her at all times. Couldn’t she use a credit card, debit card or another method to pay for a way back home? And if she was afraid to call the cops, why didn’t she at least call her boyfriend Sean to tell him what was happening so that he could help her get out of there?

The movie isn’t concerned about letting Zola find a way to escape because it’s implied throughout the movie that a big part of Zola likes to seek out danger as a way to bring excitement to her life. Zola’s biggest regret seems to be that she misjudged Stefani, who at first seemed like someone Zola could trust as a friend, but ends up being someone who becomes extremely annoying and mistrustful to Zola.

The best parts of “Zola” have to do with some of the “ratchet” banter between Zola and Stefani. There are also some characters they encounter who bring some laughs. In a strip club dressing room, there’s a hilarious scene of a stripper prayer huddle, led by a “large and in charge” husky-voiced dancer named Hollywood (played by Ts Madison), where the strippers pray for men with “good credit,” “culture” and “big dicks.” The stripper named Hollywood acts like a melodramatic church preacher who’s praying for a miracle.

There’s also a recurring catch phrase that Zola says in a deadpan voice when she’s stuck in a room where Stefani is having sex with someone: “They started fucking. It was gross.” And during a scene where Zola is on a strip club stage and getting a bill tucked into her bikini bottom by a middle-aged white customer, he says to her with some excitement, “You look a lot like Whoopi Goldberg!” It’s the movie’s way at poking fun at white people who think that all black people look alike.

The movie also parodies the racial differences between Zola and Stefani, in a segment where Stefani gives her “rebuttal” version of what happened, based on a series of Reddit messages that are re-enacted in the movie. In Stefani’s version, she’s an innocent Christian girl who was led astray by a “trashy” black woman. In this re-enactment of Stefani’s version of the story, Stefani is wearing a conservative-looking pink skirt and blazer and Zola is literally wearing garbage bags when they get in the car on the road trip. It’s an obvious commentary on how the race card can be played in trying to manipulate people’s perceptions of who’s “guilty” and who’s “innocent,” based on someone’s physical appearance.

Just like in “Hustlers,” the lingering camera angles on the stripper activities and dancer bodies are meant to be more sensual than exploitative. Pole dancing is presented as an athletic art form that requires talent in balance and precision. And although Stefani and Zola both have sex scenes and stripper scenes, neither has full-frontal nudity in the movie. It’s a very “female gaze” film because only men have full-frontal nudity in “Zola,” during a montage where Stefani entertains a series of customers in a hotel bedroom.

Zola, Stefani, X and Derrek are an unusual quartet that will keep viewers interested in seeing what’s going to happen to them. And without the talents of the actors depicting these characters, “Zola” wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is vibrant and eye-catching. It was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” according to the “Zola” production notes. But how a movie looks won’t matter much if the movie’s characters don’t hold people’s attention.

Some of the movie’s editing gives “Zola” almost a hypnotic quality, particularly in scenes where Zola and Stefani stand in front of a mirror and seem mesmerized by their own images. As if to demonstrate how in sync they are before their friendship turns sour, there’s a scene where Zola and Stefani do their hair and makeup together with almost identical movements. However, as visually striking as many of the scenes are in “Zola,” the movie’s pacing tends to drag in the middle of the film.

There’s also a shady character named Dion (played by Jason Mitchell), whose intentions are telegraphed so blatantly, it leaves no room for suspense or mystery for why Dion is in the movie. He’s a stranger who chats up Derrek at the hotel where they’re staying at, and when Dion shows up again later in the movie, viewers won’t be surprised why. People can easily predict what can happen in any movie where a pimp with a gun carries around a lot of cash and makes it obvious that he’s traveling with prostitutes and no backup security people. The last third of “Zola” crams in an action scene that’s a little clumsily handled and fizzles out some of the naughty comedy that enlivens the movie.

“Zola” can also get a little too repetitive with the back-and-forth interactions of Stefani doing something to irritate Zola, and Zola reacting by calling her a “bitch” or some other insult. Derrek’s relationship with Stefani is exactly what you think it is: He’s madly in love with her and easily forgives her transgressions when she makes cutesy romantic talk to him. There’s no backstory of how Derrek and Stefani met and how long they’ve been together, but it’s clear that she’s not really in love with him and she’s just using him.

Very few movies can successfully balance violence and raunchiness with satire and emotional gravitas. “Zola” makes an attempt and often succeeds, but it’s a movie that might disappoint people who are expecting a more unique, madcap adventure. The movie also somewhat glosses over the real horrors of sex trafficking, just to get some cheap and tawdry laughs. Zola might be skilled at making sassy and salty remarks, but she’s got a lot to learn about being a truly powerful and independent woman.

A24 will release “Zola” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Boogie,’ starring Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige and Bashar ‘Pop Smoke’ Jackson

March 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Taylor Takahashi and Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson  (shown in center) in “Boogie” (Photo by David Giesbrecht/Focus Features)

“Boogie”

Directed by Eddie Huang

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019 in New York City, the dramatic film “Boogie” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A Chinese American teenager, who’s in his last year of high school, has conflicts with his parents about his dreams of becoming a professional player in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Culture Audience: “Boogie” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a different type of basketball coming-of-age story, but the movie could be a turnoff because it doesn’t live up to the story’s engaging potential.

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige in “Boogie” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features)

The dramatic film “Boogie” takes a good concept (a Chinese American teenager with goals to play NBA basketball) and squanders it on uneven acting, subpar filmmaking and an obnoxious main character. The movie tries to look gritty and unique. But in the end, it becomes a predictable mush of banality. And unfortunately, “Boogie” panders to some very negative and racist stereotypes of immigrants and urban people of color in the United States.

Written and directed by Eddie Huang, “Boogie” (which takes place in New York City in 2019) has many flaws, but one of the biggest is in the movie’s erratic casting. For starters, almost all the main characters who are supposed to be teenagers in the movie look like they’re in they’re mid-20s or older. It’s distracting and lowers the credibility of this movie, because not once does it look believable that these actors are in the same age group as students in high school.

“Boogie” has a cast that’s mixed with experienced and inexperienced movie actors—and it shows. Taylor Takahashi and the late Bashar Jackson (also known as rapper Pop Smoke), who portray basketball rivals in the movie, make their feature-film debuts in “Boogie,” which is also Huang’s first feature film as a writer/director. Takahashi’s and Jackson’s acting skills are far inferior to those of “Boogie” co-stars Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Taylour Paige, who also portray high-school students in the movie.

Lendeborg and Paige are way ahead in their acting talent, compared to Takhashi and Jackson. This discrepancy results in some awkward-looking moments in the movie where the more talented/experienced actors have to share scenes with those who are less talented/experienced. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue is just plain awful.

Takahashi portrays the movie’s title character—Alfred “Boogie” Chin (whose Chinese first name is Xiao Ming)—as an entitled, arrogant “not as smart as he thinks he is” brat, who often shows disdain for women and willful ignorance of what it takes to be a respectful and respected human being. He is singularly focused on his goal of becoming a basketball player for the NBA. And he doesn’t seem to care much about learning about life beyond basketball, dating, and getting the perks of possibly becoming rich and famous.

It’s no secret that Asians are rare in the NBA, so the filmmakers of “Boogie” used that hook to make it look like the movie is an “against all odds” story. But one of the lousiest things about this movie is that it’s not even convincing in showing any dazzling basketball skills that Boogie supposedly has. There are too many cutaway shots with obvious body doubles. And so, viewers are left wondering what’s so special about Boogie. He’s definitely not the extraordinary basketball player that the filmmakers want people to think he is.

Most of the movie consists of Boogie getting into conflicts with his family. His parents are Chinese immigrants who’ve settled in the New York City neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that in 2001, when his mother was pregnant with Boogie (who is an only child), Boogie’s parents went to see a fortune teller to get advice about their crumbling marriage and to find out the baby’s gender. The fortune teller said that she didn’t know the gender of the child, but she advised these two spouses that if they stay together, “Love will melt the sharpest sword.”

Boogie’s parents did stay together, but they don’t have a very happy marriage. They also have very different approaches to parenting and how Boogie should reach his NBA goals. Boogie has major issues with his mother, which explains why Boogie has misogynistic tendencies. The movie doesn’t even bother to give Boogie’s mother a first name.

Boogie’s father Lawrence Chin (played by Perry Yung) is fairly lenient with Boogie, except when it comes to basketball. Mr. Chin is an ex-con who is obsessed with the idea that the best way for Boogie to get to the NBA is by defeating a local teen named Monk (played by Jackson), who is a star basketball player at a rival high school in Brooklyn. Mr. Chin believes that basketball talent scouts will flock to Boogie if Boogie triumphs over Monk. It sounds very illogical (because it is), but Mr. Chin is fixated on Monk as the biggest obstacle to Boogie’s basketball dreams.

Boogie’s mother Mrs. Chin (played by Pamelyn Chee), who is a homemaker, thinks that Boogie’s best way to the NBA is through a college basketball scholarship, preferably at a Big 10 university. She’s the family’s disciplinarian and planner. But apparently, she’s terrible at finances because Boogie’s parents are heavily in debt, to the point where they’re past due on their utility bills. Even though Boogie’s parents can’t afford to pay for any college tuition, Boogie and his parents don’t want to apply for financial aid. They want a full scholarship for Boogie, or else he doesn’t want to go to any college.

Mr. Chin has spent time in prison for operating an illegal gambling business of sports betting. He’s still making money this way, but he and his brother Jackie (played by “Boogie” writer/director Huang) have been laundering their gambling money by operating a small business as town car drivers. It’s too bad that this movie uses the very tired cliché that a working-class family of color in a big American city has a patriarch who’s a criminal and/or an absentee father. Because Boogie’s father spent time in prison, he’s trying to make up for that lost time with Boogie.

Mr. Chin tells Jackie about their illegal gambling business, “Keep taking bets through the end of the current football season. Then I want to wash my hands of it. We’re in the basketball business now.” And by that, he means that he expects Boogie to make it to the big leagues of the NBA, so that Boogie can become rich and pass on some of the wealth to his parents.

Early on in the movie, Mr. Chin reminds Boogie that Boogie’s parents transferred him to City Prep, Boogie’s current high school, so that Boogie could have a better chance of being discovered by basketball scouts. Boogie is in his last year of high school, so the pressure is on for him to get an opportunity that will eventually take him to the NBA.

At school, it’s unclear what type of grades that Boogie is getting, but it’s clear he’s not getting into any university on an academic scholarship. In his Advanced Placement English class (the only class that he’s seen attending in this movie), Boogie mouths off at the teacher Mr. Richmond (played by Steve Coulter) in a “know it all” way that’s not endearing. It just makes Boogie look like a pompous idiot.

There are plenty of ways that Boogie shows his crude and offensive side outside the classroom. This is what he has to say about real-life NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin: “Jeremy Lin can suck my dick. He’s more model minority Jesus freak than Asian.”

One of the students in the English class is named Eleanor (played by Paige), who is Boogie’s obvious crush. Boogie’s best friend Richie (played by Lendeborg) is in the same class and is on the school basketball team with Boogie. One day after class, Boogie and Richie are at a school gym and ogling Eleanor and her friend Elissa (played by Alexa Mareka), as they do some weightlifting.

Here’s the way that Boogie tries to make a move on Eleanor: Boogie says to her, “Nice pants.” Eleanor replies, “You’ve got a staring problem.” Boogie replies, “You’ve got a nice vagina.” Eleanor angrily says, “Get the fuck out of here with that bullshit! You better respect my mind!” As Eleanor and Elissa walk away, Boogie smirks to Richie, “She wants it.”

Any self-respecting person would be put off by Boogie’s rude sexism. But one of the many things that’s so annoying about this movie is it brushes off and excuses Boogie’s blatant hostility toward women and makes Eleanor fall for him. A dumb movie like this with a jerk as the main character usually likes to show how he can get a love interest who will roll over and be submissive, no how matter how this jerk insults her.

It’s hard to take Eleanor seriously when she acts like an attention-starved girl who’s willing to overlook Boogie’s disrespectful and selfish attitude, just because she wants a boyfriend. Sure, the movie does the very predictable back-and-forth banter between Boogie and Eleanor, in a very weak attempt to make it look like she’s playing hard to get. But in the end, based on the way that Eleanor is written in this movie, she does exactly what Boogie predicts and expects. Any “romance” in this movie looks very fake.

The movie tries to make it look like Boogie is just trying to have the same mindset of a “thug” rapper, since he and so many of his peers admire rappers. But his disrespectful attitude toward women just makes him look pathetic and ignorant. “Boogie” predictably has a hip-hop soundtrack featuring multiple Pop Smoke songs, such as “AP,” “Fashion” and “Welcome to the Party.” (The movie’s end credits have a dedication to Pop Smoke, who was tragically murdered during a home invasion in 2020.) Pop Smoke does not rap in the movie.

Boogie’s horrible personality isn’t shown in just one isolated incident. When Monk deliberately assaults another player on a street basketball court (the other player’s ankle is broken during the attack), Eleanor expresses her disgust with this bullying, but Boogie tells her that Monk did what he had to do to win. Boogie is so arrogant that he calls his other team members “hot trash” to the team leader Coach Hawkins (played by Domenick Lombardozzi), because Boogie thinks the team would be nowhere without him. And later in the movie, Boogie shows how ill-tempered he is during a crucial basketball game at school, and this temper tantrum costs him dearly.

How do we know that Boogie is a legend in his own mind? He’s not getting any scholarship offers. And the feedback from college basketball scouts, including one named Patrick (played by Lenard McKelvey, also known as real-life radio personality Charlamagne Tha God) is that they might want to recruit Boogie, but not on a scholarship. After witnessing Boogie’s on-court tantrum, another college basketball scout questions Boogie’s mental stability. Coach Hawkins also has reservations about Boogie’s temperament and reliability.

If this movie is supposed to be about Asian cultural pride, it has an odd way of showing it, because it makes most of the Asian characters look like self-hating caricatures. There’s a Chinese insult scene of Boogie and Richie going to Manhattan’s Chinatown and Boogie complaining that he almost forgot how much Chinatown smells bad.

Boogie then sneers, “How is Chinatown next to SoHo? These gremlin keepers ain’t learned how to boutique their shit.” (It’s a reference to the 1984 horror movie “Gremlins” about gremlin creatures that are sold in Chinatown.) Imagine if a white person said this very racist and degrading comment. Just because an Asian person says it doesn’t make it okay.

Boogie is an immature twit who doesn’t have much to offer to the world except basketball skills that definitely are not ready for the NBA. His mother is written as a domineering and lazy shrew, while his father is a morally dubious hustler. The only Asian character in the movie who seems to show common sense is someone named Melvin (played by Mike Moh), an acquaintance of Boogie’s mother whom she asks to become Boogie’s manager.

And here’s an example of the movie’s terrible dialogue. Boogie whines to Eleanor about his ethnicity, with no self-awareness that he perpetuates negative stereotypes: “Chinese people would be so much better if this country didn’t reduce us to beef and broccoli.” Eleanor replies, “You could be so much more too.” Boogie then says, “It’s so hard. I feel like a piece of beef surrounded by sprouted greens and MSG.”

So with all of the family drama, ethnic drama and dating drama that are badly written and sometimes poorly acted in “Boogie,” that leaves the basketball scenes to possibly salvage this dreadful movie. But “Boogie” fails to deliver as a thrilling sports movie too. There’s a big showdown at the end that checks all the boxes of predictable and unimaginative clichés of a basketball game filmed for a movie.

There’s also some phony sentimentality thrown into the story, which contradicts the crass and raw tone that the movie was trying to push on the audience for most of the film. “Boogie” looks like it wanted to be a vulgar and tough portrayal of urban life, as well as a sweet family film. You can’t really have it both ways, or else you end up with a movie like “Boogie,” which is a jumbled, fake-looking and shoddily filmed mess.

Focus Features released “Boogie” in U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

January 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Viola Davis  and Glynn Turman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1927, in Chicago and briefly in Barnesville, Georgia, the dramatic film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking blues diva and her rebellious cornet player have conflicts and power struggles with each other, while they both have constant battles with white racism and the emotional scars that this bigotry has left on them.

Culture Audience: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will appeal primarily to August Wilson fans and people interested in well-acted movies about African American experiences.

Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs as one of the rare movies adapted from a celebrated play that can actually claim to be better than the play, thanks to powerhouse performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is based on August Wilson’s play that debuted on Broadway in 1984, takes place mostly in a small recording studio, but the deep emotional impact and the breadth of social issues experienced and conveyed by the characters go beyond the confines of that studio. The story is set in 1927, but the story’s themes are universal and timeless.

Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in Barnesville, Georgia, where blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) is giving a foot-stomping, rousing performance to an enthralled audience in a tent. She’s sweating profusely, as she does in every scene in the movie, and caught up in the rapture of giving a raw and passionate performance for the adoring crowd.

When she’s off stage, Ma isn’t the fun-loving, “good time gal” that she might appear to be when she’s on stage. Ma is a middle-aged diva who’s feeling the pressure of being considered a “has-been” as her former protégée Bessie Smith is almost certain to surpass Ma in popularity. It’s an ageism problem faced by many entertainers, especially women, who are at the mercy of fickle audiences and industry people who might end up moving on to someone who’s considered younger, more contemporary and more attractive.

Ma has earned the nickname the Mother of the Blues, and she’s not about to give up her reign at the top that easily. She uses her clout and her unique talent as reasons to do and say what she wants, including showing up late, berating her employees, and making people kowtow to her sometimes-unreasonable demands. It’s clear that Ma’s way of asserting her power is to counterbalance the humiliation and pain of racism that she experiences as a black woman in America, where white supremacy was legal in the form of racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” references the Great Migration, a period of time (1916 to 1970) in U.S. history where millions of black people relocated from the states in the South to states in other parts of America. These areas outside of the South were often viewed as presenting better opportunities for people of color, but these areas certainly were not immune to racism. When Ma travels to Chicago for the one-day recording session that’s the majority of this story, it represents her own personal parallel to the Great Migration.

Where Ma goes, drama usually isn’t far behind. Upon arriving in Chicago during a sweltering summer, she gets into a dispute on the street when she’s accused of pushing down a white man. A cop (played by Joshua Harto) who’s called to the scene is inclined to arrest her, but Ma uses her clout, loud voice and her “take no crap” attitude to get the cop to back off.

Ma, who lives openly as a lesbian (as did the real-life Ma Rainey), is traveling by car to the recording studio. Accompanying her are her much-younger lover Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) and Ma’s teenage nephew Sylvester (played by Dussan Brown). As gruff as Ma is to most people in her life, she shows tremendous loyalty to the few people who are closest to her, especially Sylvester.

Dussie Mae is an attractive young woman whose relationship with Ma is fairly new and is more like a “trophy girlfriend” than a soul mate to Ma. Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Dussie Mae is somewhat of a gold digger. Dussie Mae goes through life using her looks and sex appeal to get people to financially support her—not because she’s mean-spirited but because she’s too unsophisticated to doing anything else with her life.

Ma, as usual, is running late on her way to the studio, where she is scheduled to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” When Ma and her two-person entourage (Dussie Mae and Sylvester) finally get there, Ma takes charge and sometimes gets into subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles with the men who’ve been waiting for her at the studio. These power struggles have many different layers that exemplify issues of gender roles and racial discrimination.

The six men in the recording studio who experience Ma’s mercurial range of emotions during this challenging day are:

  • Levee (played by Boseman), the charismatic, foul-mouthed cornet player who’s the newest and most arrogant member of Ma’s band.
  • Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), the band’s trombone player who is very loyal to Ma and considers himself to be the most experienced and skilled in dealing with her mood swings.
  • Toledo (played by Glynn Turman), the band’s pianist who is the most likely to be the jokester in the group.
  • Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts), the band’s bass player who is the quietest and most laid-back member of the group.
  • Irvin (played by Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s longtime manager who often has to be a peacemaker when she decides on a whim to throw situations into chaos.
  • Sturdyvant (played by Jonny Coyne), the manager of the recording studio who grows increasingly impatient with Ma’s diva antics.

In the scenes in the recording studio, Irvin and Sturdyvant (who are white) are often together in a booth that overlooks the recording room where they can watch through a glass window what’s happening down below with the Ma and the rest of her African American colleagues. Irvin and Sturdyvant usually leave the booth to go into the recording studio when there’s a problem that affects their time and money invested in this recording session. And there are several interruptions to the recording session for this reason.

The higher location of the booth and its separation from the main recording studio room are obvious metaphors of the spoken and unspoken racial barriers that exist between the people in this recording session, where racism is a festering wound that has impacted the characters on a personal and societal level. Ma and her colleagues are all too aware that even though Ma is the star in this room, she still has a subservient role to the white men who control the music industry. It’s a role that she expresses with a lot of emotional pain, bitterness and defiance throughout the story.

At one point in the story Ma says with heavy resentment: “They don’t care care nothin’ about me. All they care about is my voice.” She adds, “If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.” And later in the story, Ma reveals that even though Irvin has been her manager for the past six years, the only time he invited her to his home was so she could perform for his “white friends.”

There are also issues over gender roles that permeate the story. When Ma arrives at the recording studio, she finds out that all the men who’ve been waiting for her have already decided that she will record a new, more upbeat version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with the arrangement written by Levee. Ma refuses and declares that she is going to record the original version of the song. She also insists that her nephew Sylvester is going to do a short spoken intro to the song, even though he’s a stutterer.

Ma literally and figurately throws her weight around as she has diva tantrum after diva tantrum. At one point, she shouts: “I make more money for this outfit than anyone put together!” And when she finds out that the Coca-Cola that she requested in advance isn’t in the studio, she refuses to start recording until she gets her Coca-Cola.

All of the members of her band are very compliant except for Levee, who constantly challenges Ma’s decisions and tries to assert himself as a visionary musician whom Ma needs if she wants to get more respect for her music. Early on in the story, Tyree tells Cutler: “I ain’t like you, Cutler. I’ve got talent. I know how to play real music, not none of this jug band shit.”

Levee shows flashes of vanity (he brags about his shiny yellow shoes and is aware of how good-looking he is) and hubris (he thinks all of his ideas should be immediately accepted), but underneath that cockiness is someone who’s got deep-seated emotional pain and trauma. During the long stretches of time that the musicians in the band are waiting for Ma, Levee slowly opens up about his past and reveals secrets that explain why he acts the way that he does.

At one point, Levee is teased by the other members of the band when they see Levee acting in a very deferential way to Irvin and Sturdyvant. The band mates try to make Levee feel like he’s an “Uncle Tom,” which triggers Levee into losing his temper and then revealing a defining incident from his past that permanently changed his outlook on life. He tells this story in a harrowing monologue that’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Ma and Levee’s clashes with each other aren’t just about music. An observant Ma notices that Levee has been looking at Dussie Mae in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her. Dussie Mae flirts back when Ma isn’t around. And it doesn’t take long for Levee to ramp up his sexual advances toward Dussie Mae, even though the other band members warn Levee that Dussie Mae is “Ma’s girl.”

Levee’s disagreements with Ma over her musical direction, as well as Levee not even trying to hide that he’s interested in making moves on Ma’s lover, put him in a precarious situation where he might or might not be fired from the band. As time goes on during the day and Ma goes back and forth about whether or not she’ll complete the recording, Levee is going through his own insecurities and turmoil. At times, he also clashes with Cutler, especially when it’s revealed how Levee feels about God and religious beliefs.

Under the assured direction of Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” not only has a top-notch cast but the movie also excels in costume design, production design and music. The stage/play version of the story takes place in the winter, but the filmmakers made the astute decision to change the season to summer during an oppressive heat wave. It gives the movie more of a “pressure cooker” look and tone that’s an accurate reflection of the simmering tensions that permeate throughout the entire story.

Davis and Boseman give award-worthy performances in this movie that goes beyond personality conflicts and ego posturing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which was Boseman’s last movie; he died of colon cancer in August 2020) is also a story of the shared trauma of racism and how even the strongest of souls are tested by this insidious societal cancer. Viewers who are sensitive about hearing racially derogatory names should be warned that the “n” word is said many times in this movie, usually when uttered by Levee.

Even though the movie is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the character of Ma has a lot less screen time than Levee does. If Ma is the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” then Levee is the soul. Levee and Boseman’s heartbreaking performance represent anyone who has survived trauma inflicted by other people but struggles with the damage that can be inflicted by self-destruction.

Netflix released “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 18, 2020.

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