‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ starring Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Alex Pettyfer, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Babs Olusanmokun, Henry Golding and Cary Elwes

April 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Alex Pettyfer, Alan Ritchson, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Henry Golding and Henry Cavill in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (Photo by Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1942, in the United Kingdom, Fernando Po (now known as Bioko), the Canary Islands, and the Atlantic Ocean, the action film “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, a few Asian people and one Latina) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of rogues, who are secretly recruited by the U.K. government, team up with U.K. government spies in a plan to defeat Nazi German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Culture Audience: “The Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guy Ritchie, the movie’s headliners, and unimaginative action movies taking place during World War II.

Eiza González in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (Photo by Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” could have been a superb film for history-based movies that take place during World War II. Instead, this tedious spy-and-combat clunker has bland dialogue, mediocre action scenes, and hollow main characters. There’s also gross sexism in how the token female character’s purpose is literally described as “seducer” in the movie. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is so biased and inaccurate with its machismo, there is only one woman who has a significant speaking role in this disappointing film, which diminishes or erases the large number of women who made important contributions to World War II. Out of all the cast members who have character names in the movie, only two are women, and one of them has only a few minutes of screen time.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” was written by Ritchie, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Arash Amel. The movie’s screenplay is adapted from Damien Lewis’ 2015 non-fiction book “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops,” which is based on true events revealed in declassified documents. A caption in the beginning of the movie says that the story is based on former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s files that were declassified in 2016, the year after Lewis’ aforementioned book was published. This book is not to be confused with Giles Milton’s 2015 non-fiction book “Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

Ritchie has made a career out of directing male-oriented action movies, but the quality of these movies has gone downhill since his best films in the 2000s, even if the budgets for Ritchie’s movies have been noticeably higher in subsequent decades. The one time that Ritchie had a woman as the lead character in a feature film that he directed—2002’s terrible romantic drama “Swept Away,” starring Madonna, who was married to Ritchie at the time—it was a disastrous flop on every single level.

It’s unknown if the failure of “Swept Away” turned Ritchie off from ever doing a movie again where a woman is the central protagonist. However, his filmmaking track record indicates he’s only comfortable directing movies where women are the supporting characters and are usually tokens whose roles are either “wife,” “girlfriend” or “seductress,” while the male characters in Ritchie’s films get to have the most fun. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is just more of the same sexist pattern.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (which takes place in 1942) unfolds in an unnecessarily convoluted way that drags down the pace of the movie. The movie’s opening scene shows a British-owned boat in the Atlantic Ocean’s “Nazi-controlled waters” being overtaken by Nazis. The Nazi commanding officer (played by Jens Grund) coldly announces to the boat’s captured men that he usually gives detainees on a ship or boat the choice of either jumping overboard or taking their chances when the vessel is set on fire.

As the vessel is about to be destroyed by Nazi arson, the captured boat occupants fight back and kill the Nazis. After they defeat these villains, they blow up the Nazi ship nearby. Who are these men with almost superhero-like fighting skills? They are a motley crew of rogues and renegades who will soon be recruited by the Churchill-led U.K. government to defeat Nazi German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. 

And all of these “heroes” happen to unrealisitically look like extremely good-looking actors. The group’s leader is a dashing Brit named Gus March-Phillips (played by Henry Cavill), who does his fair share of posing and smirking throughout the movie. Gus is the type of leader who doesn’t pass up the chance to make wisecracking quips, but the “jokes” in this movie mostly fall flat. These “jokes” might elicit a few short chuckles but nothing that will turn into sustained laugh-out-loud moments.

Gus has a group of guys he likes to work with and who all have shady pasts like he does. They include Anders Lassen (played Alan Ritchson), who is described as a Danish “legend with a bow and arrow” and an “uncontrollable mad dog”; Freddy Alvarez (played by Henry Golding), who is a convicted arsonist; and Henry Hayes (played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), an Irishman whose brother was killed in a U-boat sunk by the Nazis. The characters of Gus March-Phillips and Anders Lassen are based on real people with the same names, although the real Gus March-Phillipps had a slightly different spelling of his last name. Henry Hayes is based on the real-life Graham Hayes. Freddy Alvarez is a character fabricated for this movie.

Another member of this rebellious group is Geoffrey Appleyard (played by Alex Pettyfer), a Brit who is described as “a master planner, a master survivor, a master surgeon” and “an expert with a blade.” Geoffrey Appleyard is also based on a real person with the same name. In this movie, Geoffrey isn’t quite the master planner he is described as, because he’s gotten himself captured in a Nazi prison in the Canary Islands’ La Palma. Guess who’s going to break him out of this prison?

Before this prison breakout scene happens, there are some choppily edited scenes showing how this “ministry” was formed during World War II. Despite Gus’ tension-filled and rocky history with the U.K. government, Prime Minister Churchill (played by a miscast Rory Kinnear) wants Gus to lead a secret group of operatives who will be on a mission to defeat Nazi German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean, near Fernando Po, an Equatorial Guinea island which is now known as Bioko. 

Gus is summoned to Special Operations Executive headquarters in London, where he meets with Prime Minister Churchill and four other people who are in this office meeting: Brigadier Gubbins, nicknamed M (played by Cary Elwes); spy Ian Fleming (played by Freddie Fox); spy Marjorie Stewart (played by Eiza González); and spy Richard Heron (played by Babs Olusanmokun), who is called Heron in the movie. Brigadier Gubbins is based on the real-life major-general Colin McVean Gubbins. The characters of Ian Fleming and Marjorie Stewart are also based on real people. Heron is a character who was fabricated for the movie.

One of the worst things about this movie is that it doesn’t tell much about Ian Fleming, who would later become famous in real life as the author of James Bond novels. In “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” Ian Fleming has a blank personality. Marjorie is described as an “actress, singer and seducer” with German Jewish heritage on her mother’s side of the family. Heron’s main claim to fame is that he throws great parties. Marjorie and Heron are the spies who have the most contact with Gus and his gang.

The mission is so secretive, most British military officials don’t know about it. Therefore, people on the mission are warned that they not only must avoid being captured by Nazis, they also must avoid being arrested by British officials. Brigadier Gubbins is stereotypically a bureaucrat type who inevitably clashes with the more freewheeling Gus. Brigadier Gubbins is supposed to be Gus’ direct supervisor on this mission, but Gus naturally resists this authority.

It should be noted that “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is not as integrated as it appears to be. For a great deal of the movie, especially in the first half, Margorie and Heron (who is black) work together and do not interact with the other people on the team. It’s an off-putting way of showing “let’s put the woman and black person over there, and everyone else can go over here.” When Margorie and Heron eventually do work directly with Gus and his group, it looks very contrived for the movie.

Margorie had a fascinating story in real life, including a marriage to Gus that is only mentioned in the movie’s epilogue. Unfortunately, in this movie, Margorie is reduced to being a “sexpot sidekick” who occasionally uses a gun. Fans of González can at least take comfort in knowing that González does the best that she can with a limited role. And for what it’s worth, Marjorie has the best costumes in the movie, even if those costumes predictably include dresses where she has to show her breast cleavage. It should come as no surprise that Marjorie has been tasked with seducing a Nazi German official named Henrich Luhr (played Til Schweiger), who has valuable information about the U-boats that the hero team wants to sink.

Heron is suave and has many friends, but his role in the movie is to provide “the entertainment,” while other people do the most difficult planning for the mission. There’s a messy section of the movie where Heron has arranged two parties happening at the same time: a costume party for Nazi officers (where Marjorie dresses as Cleopatra, and she convinces Heinrich to dress as Julius Caesar) and a “beerfest” for Nazi soldiers. The purpose of both parties is to keep a certain dock mostly unguarded so that the “ministry” can complete its mission.

Gus and his gang of rogues (in other words, the characters in the movie who get to do the most action) are unfortunately written in generic ways where very little is told about who they are. Hardly anything is shown that proves Gus’ cronies have unique and distinct personalities, so the cast members act accordingly. Gus is not as charismatic as he thinks he is.

Likewise, the government officials also have lackluster depictions. At one point, Prime Minister Churchill says to subordinates about this mission against the Nazis: “I need you to air raid their ships … Hitler is not playing by the rules, and neither are we.” Yawn.

Kinnear is a skilled actor, but he can’t overcome the obvious flaw of looking too young to portray Prime Minister Churchill during this period of time. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” takes place in 1942, when Churchill was 67 or 68 years old. Kinnear was in his mid-40s when he portrayed Churchill in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” The filmmakers didn’t bother to make Kinnear look like the same age as Churchill was during this period of time. This age inaccuracy doesn’t ruin the movie, because Churchill is not a central character in this film, but it’s a noticeable flaw.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” has a tone-deaf way of glossing over a lot of Nazi bigotry. The movie has an attitude of “let’s not show any of the racist and religious hate that Nazis inflicted on people” in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”—as if it’s assumed it’s sufficient enough to just label the Nazis as the antagonists. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is not a Holocaust movie, and it doesn’t have to be a lecture about the evils of Nazis’ hate, but it’s not a very responsibly made history-based film showing the damage of Nazi prejudice and hate crimes. For example, there’s a scene on a train where a uniformed Nazi has a cordial conversation with Margorie and Heron. In real life, a uniformed Nazi probably would not have been as polite and would most likely have tried to assert some type of bigoted superiority over these obviously non-Aryan people.

As for the action sequences, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” doesn’t do anything spectacular. There isn’t even a credible attempt at building suspense. It’s just a “checklist/countdown” movie that goes from one location to the next, until the predictable conclusion. (“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” was filmed in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Türkiye, also known as Turkey.)

The film editing isn’t very impressive. There are too many scenes that are meant to show how “globetrotting” this movie is, but all that’s shown in several (not all) international scenes are a few minutes of dialogue that didn’t really need to be in the movie. The dialogue in this film is mostly forgettable, which is why the movie’s characters come across as cardboard personalities instead of authentic people. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” has an attractive and talented cast, but putting them in various locations with a flimsy story does not magically turn this shallow mediocrity into a well-made or compelling movie.

Lionsgate will release “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” in U.S. cinemas on April 19. 2024. Sneak previews of the movie were shown in select U.S. cinemas on April 8, 2024, and on April 13, 2024. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” will be released on digital and VOD on may 10, 2024.

Review: ‘BlackBerry’ (2023), starring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Sal Rubinek and Cary Elwes

August 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton in “BlackBerry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“BlackBerry” (2023)

Directed by Matt Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Canada and in the United States, from 1996 to 2013, the comedy/drama film “BlackBerry” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Canada-based technology company BlackBerry becomes a global success as the maker of the world’s first smartphone, but internal power struggles, bad management and an inability to compete with Apple’s iPhone all lead to BlackBerry’s downfall.

Culture Audience: “BlackBerry” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in watching scripted movies that depict behind-the-scenes business dealings of real-life famous companies.

Pictured in center: Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson in “BlackBerry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“BlackBerry” takes viewers on a roller coaster ride in telling this “based on a true story” about the rise and fall of BlackBerry, the first popular smartphone. Glenn Howerton gives a standout performance as a greedy corporate villain with a nasty temper. The movie is made with a mockumentary-styled combination of a comedy and drama. “BlackBerry” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

Directed by Matt Johnson (who co-wrote the “BlackBerry” screenplay with Matthew Miller), “BlackBerry” is based on the 2015 non-fiction book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry,” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. The movie’s story takes place in chronological order, from 1996 to 2013. BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion Ltd., which was founded in 1984, went from being a scrappy start-up company headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, to being the world’s first and leading company for smartphones.

At its peak in 2008, after Research in Motion became a publicly traded company, its stock price was valued at $147 per share, with an overall estimated company value $85 billion. Research in Motion changed its name to BlackBerry Ltd. in 2013. For the past several years, BlackBerry’s stock price as hovered between $8 to $10 per share. How and why did it all go so wrong?

The “BlackBerry” movie shows that this train wreck didn’t go off the rails right away. Like many tech startups, Research in Motion was founded by eager entrepreneurs with big ideas and a fanatical work ethic but not the best business acumen when it came to sales and managing money. And when you bring in a toxic troublemaker to co-lead the company, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Research in Motion was co-founded by two self-admitted computer nerds named Mike Lazaridis (played by Jay Baruchel) and Douglas “Doug” Fregin (played by “BlackBerry” director Johnson), who (for a while) could have been considered the Canadian versions of Apple Inc. co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Just like in the Jobs/Wozniak relationship, one person in the partnership was the master of overall concepts and marketing, while the other person was the technical/engineering whiz.

In the case of Research in Motion, Mike was the concept/marketing guy, while Doug was the technical/engineering guy. In the “BlackBerry” movie, Mike is a constant worrier, and he tends to be too gullible in business. Doug has a jolly personality, but he approaches business with more logic and healthy skepticism. Eventually, the different personalities of these two friends will lead to several clashes between them on decisions for Research in Motion.

An early scene in the movie takes place in 1996, when Research in Motion is still a struggling start-up, but Mike and Doug are still the best of friends. Mike tells his all-male team of computer geeks (there are about seven employees on this team) that he had a shop teacher who once told him that anyone who could put a computer inside a phone would change the world. Doug thinks of a prototype that will be like a combination of a pager, a phone and a device that can send and receive email. Mike’s name for this invention is Pocket Link, but the name would eventually be changed to BlackBerry.

As ambitious as this idea is, Mike struggles to find investors for it. Part of the problem is that introverted Mike isn’t very good at sales and marketing presentations. He’s articulate when it comes to tech jargon, but he often has a hard time explaining technical issues to non-tech people. Mike is also not very fond of public speaking.

An early scene in “BlackBerry” shows Mike coming back from a business meeting where he was rejected by a potential investor. The reaction of Doug and the other staffers is to shrug it off and gather to watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is Mike’s favorite movie. However, Mike is in no mood for this diversion, which he would normally use as a way to cheer himself up.

Meanwhile, at another company, cutthroat sales executive Jim Balsillie (played by Howerton) is feeling very discontented at Sutherland-Schultz Limited, a construction company headquartered in Cambridge, Ontario. Jim wants to run a new division of the company, but his boss Rick Brock (played by Martin Donovan) won’t let it happen. Jim is also upset because he feels that he is being sidelined. It isn’t long before volatile Jim gets fired.

Around the same time, Jim and Mike end up meeting each other. Mike tells Jim about Research in Motion’s new phone invention. Jim doesn’t tell Mike right away that he’s currently unemployed because he’s been fired. Jim thinks this phone will be a massive hit, but Research in Motion needs the money to make and market this phone. Jim offers to be the co-CEO who can bring in these capital funds, but on one condition: Jim wants to own half of Research in Motion.

Doug is vehemently against this business proposal, because Doug and Mike made a deal with each other that they would never sell at least 50% of the company. Eventually, a compromise is reached: Jim will own 33% of the company (which he buys for $125,000) and be co-CEO with Mike. Jim will oversee all the company’s sales and marketing, while Mike will oversee all the day-to-day operations. Jim also takes out personal loans to help keep the business afloat.

Jim’s aggressive style and his sales connections initially benefit Research in Motion. And as many people already know, the BlackBerry phone (which pioneered having a mini-keyboard as part of its interface) was launched in 1999, and was the market leader for nearly 10 years. BlackBerry also had the nickname CrackBerry because of how addictive it was for many people. Apple launched the iPhone in 2007.

In no uncertain terms, the “BlackBerry” movie puts most of the blame on Jim for the downfall of the BlackBerry brand. He’s portrayed as someone who got too greedy and too delusional about his power. Howerton gives a riveting performance that’s a great character study of a tyrant who’s out of control. Anyone who thinks what’s in the movie is exaggerated has no idea that Jim’s heinousness is not only a very accurate portrayal of how many corporate CEOs act but this damaging toxicity can also be a lot worse in real life than what’s shown in the movie.

Mike is portrayed as someone who changes from being an accessible “one of the guys” part of the team to becoming an increasingly cold and distant CEO. Doug repeatedly tries to warn Mike that Jim will run the company into the ground, but Mike is blinded by the spectacular profits that the company is making. Doug eventually makes a decision about how he’s going to handle all of these changes.

The mockumentary style of “BlackBerry” often mimics the sitcom “The Office,” with an occasionally shaky hand-held camera that often zooms in on people’s facial expressions. The characters in the movie sometimes have awkward pauses in their sentences, as if they’re self-conscious about being filmed. However, there is no mockumentary director or other filmmakers who are shown as characters in the movie. It’s a wise choice, because fabricating these types of characters would be an unnecessary distraction.

One of the best things about “BlackBerry” is its sharp and incisive screenplay. The dialogue in the movie is often hilarious to watch, even when the characters are being deadly serious. Perhaps the only noticeable flaw of the movie is that it doesn’t do a very good job of convincing viewers how much Mike ages over the decades portrayed in the film. Putting a fake-looking white wig on Baruchel doesn’t make him look older in the movie. It just makes him look like he’s wearing a white wig.

Despite a few minor flaws, “BlackBerry” maintains an entertaining level throughout the entire film, which shows other corporate sharks swimming in these smartphone business waters. Cary Elwes has an amusing supporting role as Palm CEO Carl Yankowski, who threatens a hostile takeover of BlackBerry, which at the time was the biggest rival to the PalmPilot. (In real life, Yankowski died on May 13, 2023, a day after “BlackBerry” was released in theaters.) Michael Ironside portrays Charles Purdy, a no-nonsense executive who’s brought in as chief operating officer of Research in Motion. Charles immediately starts to “crack the whip,” by forcing employees to have a more formal and corporate culture.

Rich Sommer portrays a fictional character named Paul Stanos, one of the lead design engineers on the BlackBerry team. Sal Rubinek has a pivotal role as John Woodman, a leader of Bell Atlantic. Apple is portrayed as a corporate rival whose principal executives are kept at distance in the story and are not characters in the movie. It’s a reflection of what would eventually be BlackBerry’s undoing: The Research in Motion executives weren’t paying enough attention to what Apple was doing with iPhone upgrades and ended up being crushed by the competition from iPhone products.

There are many movies that serve as cautionary tales of what can happen in business when greed and arrogance take over and lead to bad decisions. “BlackBerry” isn’t interested in doing any preaching. The movie isn’t a complete satire, but it pokes some fun at the Research in Motion executives who thought they were brilliant but ended up ruining a very successful company. Simply put: The comedy in “BlackBerry” is very bittersweet indeed.

IFC Films released “BlackBerry” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on June 2, 2023. “BlackBerry” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on August 15, 2023.

Review: ‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,’ starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby and Henry Czerny

July 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One”

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Some language in Italian and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from various parts of the world, the action film “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) who are connected in some way with government operations or criminal activities.

Culture Clash: IMF (International Mission Force) rogue agent Ethan Hunt is once again on a mission to save the world from deadly villains. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing the obvious target audience of “Mission: Impossible” fans, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Tom Cruise and spy thrillers with death-defying action stunts.

Pom Klementieff in “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

By now, most movie fans know that the “Mission: Impossible” movie series, starring Tom Cruise as IMF rogue agent Ethan Hunt, will have a lot of amazing stunts and action sequences. Cruise famously does his own principal stunts for these films. The “Mission: Impossible” movie series (based on the TV series of the same name) began in 1996. Instead of slowing down with these movies, Cruise seems determined to do even more outrageous stunts. In “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” the stakes get even higher when Ethan and all the main characters face the challenge of an entity that can create false images and alter people’s perceptions of reality.

As already shown in the movie’s trailer, Cruise’s biggest stunt in the film is driving custom-made Honda CRF 250 off of Norway’s Helsetkopen mountain, where he fell 4,000 feet into a ravine before opening his parachute about 500 feet from the ground. There are more stunts (some using obvious visual effects) involving planes, trains and automobiles. The movie also introduces a few intriguing new characters who will be appearing in more than one “Mission: Impossible” movie.

Directed by Chistopher McQuarrie, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is the seventh film in the “Mission: Impossible” movie series and the third consecutive “Mission: Impossible” film that McQuarrie has directed, following 2015’s “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and 2018’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” Cruise and McQuarrie are the producers of “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” which was written by McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen. It’s the same writing, directing and producing team behind “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two,” which is set for release in 2024.

“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is the most ambitious of the “Mission: Impossible” movie series so far but in some ways is also the most ridiculous. In trying so hard to outdo its predecessors, the movie gets into cartoonish territory when characters don’t get any injuries in crashes and explosions that would kill or maim most people in real life. Some of the plot also gets too convoluted. Despite these flaws, what a thrill ride it is. This action-packed and suspenseful film mostly earns its total running time of 156 minutes, even though “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” still could’ve benefited from tighter film editing. (For example, the movie’s opening credits don’t happen until 28 minutes into the film.)

“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” opens with a Russian submarine getting blown up after getting hit with a torpedo. The submarine’s video monitors and other computer systems were hacked by a mysterious entity that can create illusions to confuse the submarine’s occupants. These illusions caught the occupants off guard, which led to the torpedo destroying the submarine and everyone inside.

This all-powerful hacking tool is essentially on a computer flash drive, which is called a key. It should come as no surprise that every major terrorist group and every major governmental superpower is looking for this key, which is being sold to the highest bidder. Ethan works for a secretive government operation called International Mission Force (IMF), which gives him a new task in each “Mission: Impossible” movie. In “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” Ethan and his team have been tasked with finding the key before it gets into the wrong hands.

Ethan agrees to accept this mission, but he disagrees with the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, whose last name is Denlinger (played by Cary Elwes), who is also the head of a mysterious spy group called The Community. Denlinger (who is based in Washington, D.C.) thinks the U.S. government should be able to control this entity. Ethan thinks that the entity should be destroyed. Denlinger doesn’t know that IMF exists until he meets Ethan.

For this mission, Ethan is once again joined by his two trusty sidekicks who are computer technology experts and hackers: Luther Stickell (played by Ving Rhames), who is calm and logical, is Ethan’s oldest friend. Luther’s nicknames are Phinneas Freak and The Net Ranger. Benji Dunn (played by Simon Pegg), who is jumpy and neurotic, often follows orders from Luther.

Returning to the “Mission: Impossible” franchise are mercenary Ilsa Faust (played by Rebecca Ferguson), who has complicated relationship with Ethan; Eugene Kittridge (played by Henry Czerny), who was in 1996’s “Mission: Impossible” movie and who is now the director of the CIA; and the morally ambiguous Alanna Mitsopolis (played by Vanessa Kirby), also known as The White Widow. There’s a very memorable sequence on a train that involves Alanna/The White Widow.

During this globetrotting hunt, Ethan and his team go to various places, including the Arabian Desert, Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Rome and the Austrian Alps. They are being hunted by operatives from the U.S. government agency Clandestine Services. A Clandestine Services operative named Briggs (played by Shea Whigham) is leading this hunt. Briggs is a gruff taskmaster who likes to bend the rules, while his relatively new subordinate Degas (played by Greg Tarzan Davis) is very by-the-book and wants to follow the established protocol.

The movie’s chief villain is a mysterious agitator named Gabriel (played by Esai Morales), who has his ruthless sidekick Paris (played by Pom Klementieff) do a lot of his dirty work. Ethan and Gabriel share a past that has to do with a woman named Marie (played by Mariela Garriga), with this shared past explaining some of Gabriel’s motivations. Paris is the one who is most often seen trying to kill Ethan and a cunning thief named Grace (played by Hayley Atwell), who becomes Ethan’s reluctant and often untrustworthy accomplice in this race to get possession of the key.

One of the ways that “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” stands apart from so many other action films is that it doesn’t play into tired stereotypes of having a principal cast of people who mostly under the age of 40. Likewise, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” also defies that action movie stereotype of having just one leading actress (usually someone’s love interest in the movie) among a slew of male leading actors. In “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” there are four strong women who have prominent roles in the movie.

Klementieff is a standout among “Mission: Impossible” villains. Her menacing Paris character is in stark contrast to the sweet-natured outer-space alien Mantis that Klementieff played in Marvel Studios’ superhero “Guardians of the Galaxy” blockbusters. In many ways, Paris outshines Gabriel, since Gabriel is more of a psychological villain than someone who can barrel through streets in a high-speed car chases or cause mayhem with an arsenal of weapons.

Atwell also holds her own in the action scenes, although some viewers might find Grace’s intentionally duplicitous personality a little annoying. Rhames and Pegg continue their sometimes-amusing rapport as Luther and Benji. Cruise does some of his best stunt work ever in the movie. If stunt work had a category at the Academy Awards, then Cruise would be a certain nominee if not winner for “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.” It’s a breathtaking thriller that delivers beyond expectations for action scenes and spy intrigue. However, the “Mission: Impossible” filmmakers need to remember to have some of these action scenes more grounded in the reality of human frailties and the realistic consequences of being in these death-defying situations.

Paramount Pictures will release “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” in U.S. cinemas on July 12, 2023, with sneak previews on July 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Sweetwater’ (2023), starring Everett Osborne, Cary Elwes, Jeremy Piven, Richard Dreyfuss and Kevin Pollak

April 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Piven, Cary Elwes and Everett Osborne in “Sweetwater” (Photo by Tony Rivetti Jr. SMPSP/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Sweetwater” (2023)

Directed by Martin Guigui

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, mostly in 1949 and 1950, the dramatic film “Sweetwater” (based on true events) features an African American and white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton experiences racism and other obstacles on his way to becoming one of the first African American basketball players in the National Basketball Association. 

Culture Audience: “Sweetwater” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of basketball and sports biopics, but viewers should not expect an engaging or realistic-looking story in “Sweetwater.”

Everett Osborne in “Sweetwater” (Photo by Ian Fisher/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Sweetwater” could have been an inspirational biopic about a groundbreaking basketball player. Instead, the movie is a stale cesspool of awful dialogue, corny scenarios and problematic racial condescension that depicts greedy basketball racists as heroes. People who don’t know anything about Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton (the second African American basketball player to play in the National Basketball Association) before seeing this sorry excuse for a biopic won’t learn much about him from the shallow way that he is presented in this film.

For starters, “Sweetwater” inaccurately depicts him as the first African American to play in the NBA, when in fact that achievement was accomplished that same year (1950) by Earl Lloyd, who was a player with the Washington Capitols. Harold Hunter of the Washington Capitols (who was cut from the team before ever playing in the NBA) and Clifton both signed contracts with the NBA in 1950, but there have been historical disputes over whether Hunter or Clifton should get credit as the first African American to sign a player contract with the NBA. In 1990, Clifton died in relative obscurity in Chicago. He was 67. In the last years of his life, Clifton was working as a taxi driver. Just like the business people who exploited Clifton in real life, the “Sweetwater” movie uses him as a pawn to make money off of his talent, and to present a self-congratulatory image of looking racially progressive.

“Sweetwater” (written and directed by Martin Guigui) doesn’t care about portraying Clifton as a whole person in this movie, because he is mainly presented in the context of what white people wanted to get from Sweetwater (played by Everett Osborne) as a commodity. (For the purposes of this review, the real Clifton is referred to as Clifton, while the movie’s Sweetwater character is referred to as Sweetwater.) The “Sweetwater” movie barely shows anything about Sweetwater’s loved ones in the African American community. The movie also doesn’t care to give much importance to his inner thoughts and feelings.

The closest that the movie shows of Sweetwater’s family background and connection to his family are a few, very brief flashback scenes that last for a combined total of less than 10 minutes of this 114-minute movie. In one scene, his mother (played by Ashani Roberts) gives 7-year-old Sweetwater (played by Ca’Ron Jaden Coleman) some sugar water, which was her way of cheering him up, and it became his favorite drink as a child in Arkansas. (Hence, the nickname Sweetwater.)

In another scene, Sweetwater is shown mournfully saying goodbye to his mother because his father Joe Nathaniel (played by Clifton Nathaniel) had decided to relocate with Sweetwater to Chicago, in search of better job opportunities in Jim Crow-plagued America. It’s in this scene that his mother says that Sweetwater needs to change his name from Clifton Nathaniel (which was his birth name) to his new name of Nathaniel Clifton. The movie gives no explanation for why his mother told Sweetwater to reverse his first and last names.

And (cringe alert) the movie makes a point of having a closeup of the cotton being picked in the field by Sweetwater and his father before they move away from Arkansas. The palms of Sweetwater’s hands have small cuts from the cotton thorns, so his mother gives him some sugar water, to help him with his discomfort. As a child, Sweetwater stares at the palms of his hands when he gets these cotton thorn cuts. And several times in the film, when Sweetwater is an adult, he stares at the palms of his hands in the same way, as if he’s remembering that he literally used to be a cotton-picking kid. It’s filmmaking that goes beyond being trite and plummets right into the depths of being racially tone-deaf.

Viewers of “Sweetwater” never get to see vivid details about what inspired him to start playing basketball and who were his earliest coaches. Instead, the movie erases that part of his life to focus on showing how white people in the basketball industry “discovered” Sweetwater and “rescued” him from a life of poverty. In other words, they wanted a piece of him so they could make money for themselves and get credit for being “visionaries.”

This “rescuing” part of the movie is shown almost immediately. The first scene of Sweetwater playing basketball is when he’s a 27-year-old underpaid player with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1949. At the time, professional basketball in the United States was segregated by race. Only white players were allowed in the NBA. And needless to say, the white basketball players, even the semi-pros, were making a lot more money than professional basketball players who weren’t white.

After a mock championship game where the Globetrotters defeated the Minneapolis Lakers (an all-white team), Sweetwater is approached by New York Knickerbockers coach Joe Lapchick (played by Jeremy Piven), who tells Sweetwater that he wants Sweetwater to play for the Knickbockers. (The Knickerbockers would later shorten their name to the Knicks.) Sweetwater, like most of the characters in the movie, thinks it’s impossible for anyone who isn’t white to play in the NBA.

But Joe, who is presented as a crusading “hero,” is determined to prove all the naysayers wrong. “I think you can help make the change,” Joe tells Sweetwater about breaking racial barriers at the NBA, even though throughout the movie, Joe wants to take all the credit for making the change. “You can be the first,” Joe adds, even though the movie wants to forget all about Lloyd of the Washington Capitols.

Joe attends a meeting with the NBA board of directors (who are all white men) and gets a mixed-to-negative reaction when Joe brings up the idea of recruiting Sweetwater for the Knickerbockers. Some of the board members support the idea, but they are outvoted by a majority who want to keep the NBA an all-white group. New York Knickerbockers owner Ned Irish (played by Cary Elwes) is one of the most adamant opponents to racial integration of the NBA, and he makes racist comments to prove it. NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is open to the idea of racial integration of the NBA, but he will only go with what the majority of the NBA board wants.

One of the worst scenes in the movie is when Joe’s wife (played by Dahlia Waingort Guigui), gives a pep talk to Joe when he thinks he’s failing to convince the necessary people to let Sweetwater join the NBA via the Knickerbockers. Joe keeps rambling about the wall of racism that Sweetwater can’t break through in order to get in the NBA. Joe mentions this “wall” several times in the movie.

Joe’s wife tells him, as if he’s pioneering civil rights activist: “You are Joe Lapchick! You don’t need to break through a wall. You just go get Sweetwater and you climb over that wall with him!” If slogan T-shirts were popular during this time period, then Joe and his wife would be wearing T-shirts that say, “We Are White Saviors.”

Meanwhile, Harlem Globetrotters coach/manager Abe Saperstein (played by Kevin Pollak) has put the Harlem Globetrotters on the basketball equivalent of the “chitlin circuit.” The overworked Globetrotters go on grueling tours to entertain audiences of different races. But because of racial segregation laws, the Globetrotters are treated like second-class citizens and denied entry or service at “whites only” places. The Globetrotters are paid a pittance, while Abe keeps much of the Globetrotters’ earnings for himself.

At times, “Sweetwater” tries to make it look like Abe is an ally to these black Globetrotters whom he is exploiting. When the Globetrotters are denied lodging at a hotel that has an unofficial “whites only” policy, the front desk clerk defensively says, “I don’t make the rules.” Abe puts on a big show of indignation and replies, “Yeah, like Nuremberg,” in reference to the excuse that Nazi officials made while on trial for World War II crimes in Nuremberg, Germany.

But Abe’s “outrage” about racism is really fake allyship. In a later scene on a tour bus, Sweetwater is the first person on the team to openly question Abe about the low payments for the Globetrotters (who win most of their games), compared to the white people (including Abe) who get considerably more money for being involved the same basketball games. When Sweetwater points out this inequality, Abe angrily snaps at him: “I’m the reason this team exists! … Just stick to playing basketball!”

And not long after Abe figures out that Sweetwater is questioning Abe’s exploitative business practices, Abe sells off Sweetwater like cattle to New York Knickerbockers owner Ned. Even though Ned is blatantly racist, he’s changed his mind about Sweetwater joining the team when Ned finally admits (after much pestering from Joe) that Sweetwater can help the team win games and sell more tickets. In other words, it all comes back to not really caring about the racial inequality that Sweetwater and other black basketball players experience. It’s about making more money for the white men in power positions, who want the money and the bragging rights about how “visionary” they are.

Most of the acting in “Sweetwater” is terribly unconvincing. Osborne’s performance is very stiff. Piven hams it up too much. Elwes acts like a robotic wax dummy. Pollak tries to be comedic, but it comes across as annoying. Dreyfuss looks emotionally disconnected, like he just signed up to be in this movie for the paycheck. Eric Roberts has a useless cameo as a racist gas station owner named Judd. Jim Caviezel has a very hokey cameo in the movie, as a sports journalist who meets Sweetwater in 1990, by being a passenger in Sweetwater’s taxi.

The movie’s dialogue is mind-numbingly horrible. Joe treats Sweetwater more like a freakishly tall money-making machine than as a human being. Early in the movie, Joe smugly comments that the size of Sweetwater’s hands “makes the [basket]ball look like a grapefruit.” Two radio announcers named Howard (played by Frank Buckley) and Marty (played by Todd Ant) at the Knickbockers basketball games give exposition-heavy play-by-plays about what was already shown in a scene, as if viewers are complete idiots and don’t understand what was already shown a few seconds earlier.

Forget about seeing anything in the movie about any friendships that Sweetwater might have developed with any of his fellow basketball players on any team. None of that meaningful camaraderie is in this dreadful biopic, which makes almost all the other basketball players nameless and generic. The basketball playing scenes in “Sweetwater” are disappointingly predictable and mostly dull. The movie reduces and downplays the racist blackash that Sweetwater got in real life after joining the NBA and instead makes it look like the worst thing that happened to him was a racist referee singling him out for unfair foul penalties.

The closest thing that the movie shows to what Sweetwater is like outside of basketball is when he begins courting a white singer named Jeanne Staples (played by Emmaline), whom he immediately asks out on a date when they meet after one of her nightclub performances. Jeanne sings jazz, but she’s a big fan of blues music, so Sweetwater takes her to a blues club on their first date. Real-life blues singer/musician Gary Clark Jr. has a cameo as in “Sweetwater” as a blues singer/musician named T-Bone, who is an acquaintance of Sweetwater’s.

“Sweetwater” shows this interracial romance, but none of the realistic conversations that would be a part of this romance. No one in Sweetwater’s inner circle makes any comments about this interracial relationship. (Jeanne’s friends are never shown.) Although a few white people glare with disapproval when they see Sweetwater and Jeanne together in public, neither Sweetwater nor Jeanne expresses any concern for their own safety for being in an interracial relationship, even though it would definitely be a concern in real life during this time period. In America in the 1940s and the 1950s, a black man would be in physical danger for dating a white woman, even in states where racial integration was legal.

But you’d never know it from watching this movie, which erases that type of historical context. What makes this erasure look so phony and inconsistent in “Sweetwater” is that the movie has many scenes where racism is a big problem for Sweetwater and his fellow Globetrotters when it’s related to their basketball work, but the movie tries to make it look like racism doesn’t exist when Sweetwater decides to date a white woman. (The movie never shows him romantically interested in any other women.) It’s another example of how the “Sweetwater” filmmakers have huge blind spots because of how they mishandle realistic depictions of race relations when telling this story. And in this male-dominated movie, it looks very sexist that Jeanne is the only female character who is given a name.

By removing so many authentic details about the real Clifton’s life, “Sweetwater” is ultimately a fake-looking, watered-down biopic. Fascinating aspects of Sweetwater’s life before he became a pro basketball player (such as serving in the U.S. Army during World War II) are barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. And the filmmakers of “Sweetwater” should be ashamed that they made his entire existence look like it only mattered in the context of how he elevated the status of the white men who used him for their own benefit.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “Sweetwater” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,’ starring Jason Statham, Aubrey Plaza, Josh Hartnett, Cary Elwes, Bugzy Malone and Hugh Grant

March 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jason Statham, Josh Hartnett and Aubrey Plaza in “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” (Photo by Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

“Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre”

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Culture Representation: Taking place in various countries in Europe and Asia, the action film “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of undercover operatives, who work for the British government, recruit a movie star to work with them on a mission, as they try to stop an illegal deal involving weapons of mass destruction, in order to save the world. 

Culture Audience: “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guy Ritchie, star Jason Statham, and formulaic and soulless spy movies.

Lourdes Faberes and Hugh Grant in “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” (Photo by Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

When does a movie about undercover operatives become boring and useless? When you can predict everything that will happen within the first 10 minutes of watching the film. “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” is so formulaic and lacking in creativity, you could literally fall asleep in the middle of the film and not miss much, because there isn’t much of a plot. This smug and cliché-plagued action flick is proof that Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham have gotten lazy in their movie collaborations. The fights look too fake. The whole film is a failure of imagination, motivated by greed and paid trips to exotic places.

Ritchie directed “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies. Ritchie, Atkinson and Davies previously collaborated on the screenplays for 2020’s “The Gentlemen” and 2021’s “Wrath of Man,” which were both also directed by Ritchie. The quality of each of these collaborations has rapidly decreased with each subsequent film.

Stop if you’ve heard this plot before: A ragtag group of undercover operatives jet back and forth to various countries to try to stop a “fill in the blank” from happening, in order to save the world. In the case of “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” the mission is to stop a billionaire arms dealer from selling a stolen cargo of weapons of mass destruction, and to prevent these weapons from being available on the open market. This over-used concept describes every other big-budget spy film with an ensemble cast of stars, whose characters fight, get involved in car chases, dodge explosions, and maybe have a little romance along the way.

“Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” (“ruse de guerre” means “ruse of war” in French) is a checklist of these stereotypes, without coming close to being as charming and funny as the movies thinks it is. Half of the principal cast members look like they’ve checked out emotionally and act no better than robots, while the other half of the principal cast members try to salvage the weak and derivative screenplay by playing their roles with a “tongue in cheek” tone that just looks awkward when they’re in the same scenes as their lackluster co-stars. It’s not the worst spy movie ever, but it shouldn’t be this bad, since the filmmakers and stars of this movie are capable of doing much better.

“Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” (which was filmed in Turkey and Qatar but takes place in several countries in Europe and Asia) opens with a scene of a world-weary British government operative named Nathan (played by Cary Elwes) being somewhat annoyed, as he walks through a government building to have an office meeting with his supervisor: a no-nonsense and bland bureaucrat named Knighton (played by Eddie Marsan), who has summoned Nathan to this meeting on a Sunday morning.

Nathan is irritated because of the time and day of this meeting. Nathan apparently still doesn’t understand that he doesn’t have the type of job where the only work hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Monday to Friday. Nathan acting like he should have regular office hours is one of many ways that “Operation Fortune” makes these spy characters look like idiots. Knighton tells Nathan that 20 armed guards were killed two nights earlier, during an armed robbery that happened near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Knighton gives Nathan this order about the stolen cargo: “I want you to retrieve what went missing, and to find out who the seller is, who the buyer is, and what it is. It’s worth about $10 billion. it’s been given the name The Handle.” Translation: The screenplay is so sloppy and underdeveloped, the screenwriters didn’t bother to come up with any interesting details before this mission began. And if Knighton doesn’t know what the missing cargo is, how does he really know it’s worth $10 billion? It’s all just so illogical and stupid.

Knighton says to Nathan: “I need a creative, cunning and unconventional vision to retrieve this kind of mercurial threat. A courier on a bicycle in congested traffic. Not the official team. They’d take forever to wade through traffic, and the clock doth ticketh.”

First of all, “creative, cunning and unconventional” is not how to describe this movie. Second, who says nonsense like “The clock doth ticketh?” Third, the answer to that question: Only people in a badly written movie.

Nathan then begrudgingly assembles a team that includes these three core members for this mission:

  • Orson Fortune (played by Statham), a stern Brit, is described as having claustrophobia, agoraphobia and a penchant for having the British government pay for his lavish expenses, which he calls “rehab,” whether it’s for legitimate rehab or not.
  • Sarah Fidel (played by Aubrey Plaza), a wisecracking American, is a quick thinker and a computer technology expert.
  • JJ Davies (played by Bugzy Malone), a quiet and loyal Brit, has keen shooter skills and can handle himself well in a fist fight.

This is the type of idiotic dialogue in the movie. In the meeting between Nathan and Orson to get Orson to join the team, Nathan says, “[A] threat is imminent.” Orson asks, “How imminent?” Nathan replies, “Imminently imminent.”

Nathan is not looking forward to working with Orson, because Nathan thinks that Orson is too high-maintenance and problematic, but Knighton has ordered that Orson be on Nathan’s team. Meanwhile, Orson and Sarah have some friction with each other because they each think they are smarter than the other one. JJ is truly a token character who doesn’t say or do much except show up at the right times to help out in a fight. Nathan does some traveling with his crew, but for most of the movie, he’s giving orders while he’s in an office or away at a luxury resort.

Sarah used to work for Nathan’s fiercest operative rival Mike Hook (played by Peter Ferdinando), who also works for the British government, but Mike has a habit of poaching Nathan’s best employees. John Welch (played by Nicholas Facey) is a recently poached employee who currently works for Mike. Nathan thinks hiring Sarah for Nathan’s team is some sort of revenge that he can get on Mike.

“Operation Fortune” has several repetitive scenes showing Nathan and/or members of his team having snarling, sneering and sniping encounters with Mike and his team. After the third time this happens, you’ll feel like yelling at the screen: “We get it: Nathan’s people and Mike’s people don’t like each other!” Here are some choice words that Nathan has to say about Mike when Nathan is having a phone conversation with Knighton: “Mike only has two talents: blowing his cover and blowing himself.”

After Nathan and Orson go to Madrid to bring Sarah and JJ into their team, there’s a silly caper sequence that’s supposed to take place at Merchant Logo Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport, where a retired professor named Donald Bakker (played by Ian Bartholomew) with a brown crocodile briefcase has been identified as the “bag man” with an important computer data drive. Nathan’s team and Mike’s team are all spying on Donald at the airport at the same time.

Somehow, throughout the entire movie, Sarah seems to have video surveillance and wireless microphones everywhere. She works like a one-person, far-reaching command center to tell people, who are long distances away, everything she’s seeing while they all wear hidden ear pieces. Sarah also spends a lot of time directing people on where to go, as if they’re characters in a voice-activated video game.

Nathan’s team finds out that a billionaire arms dealer named Greg Simmonds (played by Hugh Grant) is involved in the deal to sell the stolen cargo. Greg (who is jaded and arrogant) and a dimwitted action movie star named Danny Francesco (played by Josh Hartnett) have a platonic bromance that heats up during the course of the movie. It’s a one-note joke that quickly gets old. Orson and Sarah come up with a plan to enlist Danny’s help to spy on Greg, by having Sarah pose as Danny’s girlfriend when Greg invites Danny to stay at Greg’s luxurious estate in Cannes, France.

Greg has several generically shallow people in his entourage, including a scowling assistant named Emilia (played by Lourdes Faberes); other employees named Trent (played by Tom Rosenthal) and Arnold (played by Oliver Maltman); and hangers-on/friends named Alexander (played by Tim Seyfi), Dmitry (played by Ayhan Eroğlu), Yiv (played by Savaş Ak), Natalya (played by Oleksandra Zharikova) and Katya (played by Mishel Lazarenko). These characters have no real purpose in the movie except to possibly add to the inevitable body count of murdered people.

“Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” has no shortage of glamorous-looking locations, as these characters zip around to places such as Morocco, Quatar and Turkey. But having pretty-looking scenery just looks like an ineffective distraction to a flimsy plot. The movie’s fight scenes are underwhelming, while the jokes mostly fall flat, despite Plaza and Grant making an effort to bring some personality to this hack job pretending to be a thrilling spy caper.

“Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” rehashes the same outdated spy-movie ensemble stereotypes of having a group of protagonists consisting of several macho men and one token woman. And (sexist cliché alert) she has to use her sexuality to accomplish her work goals, while the men never have to use their sexuality to accomplish their work goals. Filmmakers who resort to these tired clichés, when there are so many other options that are fresh and innovative, just expose how backwards their mindsets are when it comes to how women are presented in their movies. “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” has several scenes that show off how much money was probably spent to film the movie in exotic or pricey locations. But make no mistake: “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” is creatively bankrupt.

Lionsgate released “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” in U.S. cinemas on March 3, 2023. The movie was released in several other countries, beginning in January 2023.

Review: ‘Best Sellers’ (2021), starring Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza

January 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in “Best Sellers” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Best Sellers” (2021)

Directed by Lina Roessler

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama “Best Sellers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After inheriting her father’s financially struggling book publishing company, a woman in her 30s convinces a reclusive, elderly author to come out of retirement to publish another book and go on a book tour with her.

Culture Audience: “Best Sellers” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Michael Caine and anyone who likes predictable dramedies set in the literary world.

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine in “Best Sellers” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Just a like a hack novel with a stale formula, “Best Sellers” is an uninspired comedy/drama that limps along until the movie’s very predictable end. Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza play mismatched characters, but their pairing as actors is also a misfire. It’s another movie about two clashing personalities who are stuck working together, with the added discomfort of taking a road trip together. “Best Sellers” does absolutely nothing that’s creative or engaging in this cliché-ridden story, although die-hard fans of Caine and Plaza will probably like this film more than most people.

Directed by Lina Roessler and written by Anthony Grieco, “Best Sellers” further typecasts Caine and Plaza in the types of roles they’ve been doing in their most recent movies. Caine plays a cranky eccentric, while Plaza plays a pouty, sarcastic misfit. They also don’t appear to have any emotional investment in their characters. If they don’t seem to care, then why should audiences?

A movie about two different people who start off disliking each other can be fun to watch if there’s genuine chemistry between the cast members and witty dialogue. Unfortunately, “Best Sellers” is so lackluster and predictable, even the cast members seem bored with everything. The movie also tries to bridge a gap between the traditional world of print book publishing and the non-traditional world of social media publishing, but the scenarios are just too forced and phony.

In “Best Sellers,” Caine plays Harris Shaw, a curmudgeonly widower who lives as a recluse in Westchester, New York. (“Best Sellers” was actually filmed in the Canadian province of Quebec.) Harris is so “old school,” he still uses a typewriter. Harris’ claim to fame is his first novel, titled “Atomic Autumn,” which was a bestseller more than 50 years ago. Since then, he hasn’t written another book.

Harris has become such a recluse, some people wonder if he’s still dead or alive. When the phone rings in his home and someone asks for Harris, he answers the phone and barks: “He’s dead! Bugger off!” Harris’ wife Elizabeth has been dead for an untold number of years, but grief over her death is not the reason why Harris hasn’t written a second book. And it’s not because he has writer’s block.

Harris just seems to be afraid of not being able to surpass the success of his first book. It’s unknown what Harris has done to make a living in the years since “Atomic Autumn” was a hit. Whatever money he made from the book seems to be long gone, and he’s in dire financial straits, because Harris is seen burning a foreclosure notice with a cigarette lighter while he’s home alone in his misery.

Meanwhile, the New York City-based book company that published “Atomic Autumn” is also experiencing financial problems. Joseph “J.F.” Stanbridge (played by Luc Morissette) is the company’s founder, but he’s currently a widower in a nursing home. The responsibility of running Stanbridge Publishing has fallen to his only child, Lucy (played by Plaza), who is desperate for the company to get another best-selling author.

Things aren’t going so well for a Stanbridge-published young-adult fantasy book called “Dragons of Orion” that Lucy had high hopes would be a hit. The book is a flop that has gotten a negative review in The New York Times. And it’s getting a lot of criticism on social media.

As an example, Lucy looks apprehensively at an adolescent book reviewer who has a YouTube channel called Tracey’s Book Club, which has more than 4 million subscribers. The YouTuber (played by Charli Birdgenaw) snarks in a video: “‘Dragons of Orion’ is dumb. All caps DUMB. It’s trying to be ‘Harry Potter,’ but it’s not even a bad ‘Twilight.'”

The top-selling author at the moment is Drew Davis (played by Veronica Ferres), who is a writer that Stanbridge Publishing wouldn’t be able to afford. Lucy pouts as she tells her assistant Rachel Spence (played by Eileen Wong): “We need our own Drew Davis … We need relevant writers to make us relevant again.”

And so what does Lucy end up doing? She puts her time and resources into a has-been writer (Harris Shaw), whose only book was published more than 50 years ago. Why? Because she finds Harris’ old contract and discovers that he owes Stanbridge Publishing one more book. Lucy thinks that Harris still has enough name recognition that his second book could be a hit.

Rachel is highly skeptical of this idea. She warns Lucy that Harris has a reputation of being “a drunk and a madman” who “shot his assistant once” because Harris mistook this male assistant for a bear. Lucy and Rachel track down Harris at his current address. And since Harris doesn’t like to communicate with anyone and this is a very phony-looking movie, Lucy and Rachel don’t just show up at his house unannounced. Lucy and Rachel break into Harris’ house when they think no one is there.

Of couse, Harris is in the house during the break-in, and he pulls a gun on Lucy and Rachel. Lucy and Rachel explain the reason for this unnanounced visit. And it just so happens that Harris does have a novel that he’s been working on for years. There’s some hemming and hawing as Lucy tells Harris that it’s in his contract to hand over the novel to her company.

Harris doesn’t want to feel pressured into finishing the book, but since he and Lucy need the money, the manuscript is completed. A clause in Harris’ contract says that he has the choice of having the manuscript edited by whoever is in charge of the company, or he has to agree to promote the book on a book tour. Harris lets it be known how he feels about his work being edited when he snaps at Lucy: “I’ll be damned if I let the incompetent hands of nepotism molest my words, Silver Spoon!”

And you know what that means: Harris and Lucy go on the road together and get on each other’s nerves. “Best Sellers” consists mostly of this tedious road trip, where Lucy tries to market Harris on social media, but he resists. Many of the tour stops draw an embarassingly low turnout for Harris. Lucy and Harris also find out that people who go to Harris’ book readings/signings show up out of mild curiosity, but most of them don’t buy his new book.

The name of Harris’ second book is “The Future Is X-Rated.” That title alone could’ve been mined for numerous hilarious scenes if the filmmakers of “Best Sellers” were more creative with the contents of the book. Instead, people who watch “Best Sellers” will be hard-pressed to remember what Harris’ new book is supposed to be about after they finish watching the movie. In other words, “Best Sellers” fails to convince viewers that Harris is a talented author.

Instead, “Best Sellers” stoops to littering the movie with cheap gimmicks, such as Harris having temper tantrums, instigating dumb arguments, and getting violent. On separate occasions, Harris urinates on copies of his new book in front of an audience, and then he commits a despicable act of arson that won’t be described here. “Best Sellers” has an entirely lazy way of letting Harris off of the hook for the crimes he commits during this moronic movie.

“Best Sellers” also has a stereotypical portrayal of a New York Times book critic. His name is Halpern Nolan (played by Cary Elwes), a pompous blowhard who seems like a Truman Capote wannabe. Predictably, Harris despises Halpern. And because Harris is a loose cannon, he gets in a fist fight with Halpern.

The clichés don’t end there. Lucy is supposed to be a “poor little rich girl” because not only could she lose her family fortune but she’s also emotionally damaged because of the suicide of her mother. It’s supposed to make Lucy more sympathetic to viewers, but Lucy still comes across as irritating by all her eye-rolling and whining. She’s not as problematic as Harris, but Lucy isn’t a smart as she thinks she is. Lucy doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems very unqualified for her job.

Another cliché: Lucy has to contend with a shark-like publisher rival named Jack Sinclair (played by Scott Speedman), who might as well wear a T-shirt that says “Lucy Stanbridge’s Love Interest.” Lucy is annoyed by Jack, but she’s also attracted to him. Jack knows it too. And you know what that means in a hackneyed movie like “Best Sellers.”

In addition to being plagued by boring and witless scenarios, “Best Sellers” has very drab cinematography, where too many scenes are poorly lit. It might have seemed like an inspired idea to bring Caine and Plaza together in a movie, but their comedic styles and personas don’t mesh well at all. “Best Sellers” is a movie that could have worked well with an improved script and better casting decisions. As it stands, “Best Sellers” is a dud without much appeal and would’ve been better off permanently shelved.

Screen Media Films released “Best Sellers” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021 The movie was released on DVD on November 2, 2021.

Review: ‘The Unholy’ (2021), starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Cricket Brown, Diogo Morgado and Cary Elwes

June 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cricket Brown in “The Unholy” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

“The Unholy” (2021) 

Directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional town of Banfield, Massachusetts, the horror film “The Unholy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Hispanic people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A disgraced journalist discovers what appears to be a “miracle” teenager, who became cured of blindness and muteness, and seems to have the ability to heal others through the power of the Virgin Mary, but things take a sinister turn when people in the town start dying.

Culture Audience: “The Unholy” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching predictable horror movies that have plot holes and aren’t very scary.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katie Aselton in “The Unholy” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

“The Unholy” is yet another drab and forgettable horror flick that uses Christianity as a plot device for the movie’s supernatural occurrences. It plods along at a dull pace with an easy-to-solve mystery and a storyline that gets more idiotic until the very hokey ending. “The Unholy” is based on James Herbert’s 1983 horror novel name, but you don’t have to read the book to know exactly how this movie is going to end because it’s so derivative of better-made horror movies that have similar themes.

Written and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, “The Unholy” has a group of cast members who show satisfactory talent in their roles. It’s too bad that their characters are written as shallow and mostly uninteresting. The protagonist is supposed to be a cynical and emotionally wounded individual, but not much is revealed about disgraced journalist Gerald “Gerry” Fenn (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), except for the damage he inflicted on his own career and that he likes to feed his ego by putting himself at the center of a news story.

And because much of the movie’s focus is on Roman Catholic religious beliefs, it’s utterly predictable that Gerry is a lapsed Catholic who seems to now identify as agnostic. What he might or might not believe when it comes to religion and spirituality can therefore fluctuate as he witnesses so-called “miracles” that seem to have a basis in Christianity. Gerry is supposed to be an investigative journalist, but his subpar investigative skills are almost laughable in this story because he misses very big clues.

“The Unholy” begins with a grisly scene of an execution-by-fire death in Boston in 1845. The person being torched by a small, angry mob of religious fanatics is an unnamed woman who’s accused of being a witch. She is bound, gagged, hanged by a tree, and then set on fire. The execution is shown from her perspective, as she sees the mob from the viewpoint of someone wearing a hood or a mask with holes for the eyes.

Now that the movie has given away the very obvious plot point that the mob and their descendants will be cursed, “The Unholy” then moves to the present day, where Gerry is driving to the small Massachusetts town of Banfield. There are empty bottles of liquor in his SUV, just so Gerry can be the cliché of the hard-drinking, grizzled journalist.

Gerry is a freelancer who’s been trying to claw his way back to respectability by chasing down whatever newsworthy stories that he can find. It’s revealed at one point in the movie that he used to be a staff reporter at a newspaper called The Examiner, where he made a name for himself as someone who got exclusives on sensationalistic and shocking news. However, Gerry was fired 10 years ago when he was caught fabricating a news story. Gerry is his own photographer/video camera operator, so there are several scenes of him using a professional camera when he stumbles onto a big story in Banfield.

“The Unholy” is so poorly written that it doesn’t adequately explain why Gerry went to Banfield in the first place. When Gerry arrives, all he sees is the town’s chief Catholic priest named Father William Hagan (played by William Sadler) telling a farmer to get the man’s cow off of the church property. The farmer lives next door to the church and the cow is in a field that’s on church property because the famer has a broken fence that hasn’t been fixed yet.

It’s not the type of news that a hard-nosed journalist like Gerry would realistically bother going to Banfield for, but it’s just a movie contrivance to put Gerry in the same outdoor field where he’ll see the mysterious tree that plays a big role in the story. Of course, viewers who’ve seen enough horror movies can automatically figure out that it’s the same tree where the “witch” was burned in 1845. The tree is later revealed to have a magical aura. But is it good or evil?

Gerry goes over to the tree and notices that there’s a doll inside a hollow part of the tree trunk. He takes out the doll, which is wrapped in deteriorated fabric, and sees that the doll has a label with the date February 31, 1845. February 31 doesn’t exist as a calendar date, but it’s later revealed why that incorrect date was placed on the doll’s label. Gerry just assumes that it was just a label error.

When the farmer sees the doll, he mentions to Gerry that it’s part of local legend that if someone breaks a talisman, it will unleash evil, and mutilations will begin. A skeptical Gerry is amused by this story and doesn’t believe a word of it. So what does he do? He smashes the doll. Of course he does, because how else would that explain what comes later in the movie?

Gerry doesn’t think there’s anything newsworthy to report in Banfield. And so, he starts to drive out of town through the deserted woods at night, as you do in a horror movie where something bad is supposed to happen when you’re alone in a dark, wooded area. As he’s driving, he sees a ghostly figure of a young woman, who’s barefoot and wearing a white flowing nightgown.

You know what happens next: He crashes his car when he swerves to avoid hitting this mysterious person. But when he gets out of the car, Gerry sees she isn’t in the street, so he starts looking for her in the woods. It turns out that she’s not a ghost, but a teenage girl who hasn’t been hit by the car but seems to be unconscious or in a trance. At this point, viewers know that Gerry is going to be in Banfield for a while.

Gerry carries the girl back to the church, which is the closest shelter he knows of in Banfield. The movie doesn’t show Gerry using his phone to call for help so she could go to a hospital first. No, that would be too logical for a silly movie like “The Unholy.” Conveniently, his car accident isn’t serious enough to cause significant damage to his car.

At the church, the girl regains consciousness. Gerry finds out that her name is Alice Padgett (played by Crickett Brown) and she’s the orphaned 15-year-old niece of Father Hagan. Alice lives with Father Hagan. And she’s also deaf and mute.

Shortly after she was found wandering in the woods, Alice begins to speak and hear. One of the first things that she says is: “The lady has an amazing message for all of us. She wants all of us to come tomorrow. She says her name is Mary.”

Gerry is excited about seeming to witness a “miracle,” so he takes photos and makes videos of Alice speaking and hearing, with the amazed reactions of Father Hagan and other people in the community. Whether or not Gerry thinks the miracle is real isn’t as important to him as the idea that this story could be his big comeback. He calls Monica Slade (played by Christine Adams), his former editor at The Examiner, to pitch her on this story about a deaf and mute girl who can now hear and speak.

Monica turns down the pitch because Gerry has damaged his reputation for fabricating stories and she’s skeptical that he’s telling her the truth. She also mentions that she still thinks that Gerry is as fame-hungry as he was when they worked together. Gerry is undeterred and decides to pursue the story on his own.

The next day, several people in the town, including Gerry and Father Hagan, have gathered to where Alice has led them: that big tree in the field owned by the church. Two parents named Dan Walsh (played by Dustin Tucker) and Sophia Walsh (played by Gisela Chipe) have brought their wheelchair-using son Toby Walsh (played by twins Danny Corbo and Sonny Corbo) to this gathering.

Alice immediately zeroes in on Toby and says to him, “Mary commands you to walk.” Toby replies, “I can’t.” Alice says, “Believe.” And sure enough, Toby gets up (hesitantly at first) and starts to walk. The crowd reacts exactly like how a crowd would react to witnessing a miracle. Meanwhile, Gerry is video recording and taking photos of what happened to Toby for Gerry’s news story, which has just now gotten much bigger.

The word quickly spreads about Toby gaining his ability to walk. And soon, it makes international news, and numerous people flock to Banfield to see Alice and maybe get some of the miracles that she now seems capable of making happen. The tree becomes a popular gathering place, as does the local Catholic church where Alice also makes appearances. Alice tells anyone who asks that she is only a vessel for Mary, which people assume is the Virgin Mary.

It’s mentioned in “The Unholy” that in order for something to be considered a true miracle, it must meet three criteria: (1) It has to cure what was medically diagnosed as incurable; (2) The cure must be instantaneous; and (3) The cure must be complete and permanent. It’s too bad that the elements of a good horror movie weren’t applied to “The Unholy,” such as (1) an interesting screenplay; (2) belivable scares/visual effects; and (3) actors who look fully enagaged, not like they’re just going through the motions.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue in the movie is so simplistic and boring. In one scene, a supporting character named Dr. Natalie Gates (played by Katie Aselton), who is Alice’s medical doctor, asks Alice what Mary really wants. Alice replies, “She wants faith.” This is basically the movie’s way of saying that Mary wants her own cult of believers, starting with anyone she can get in Banfield. Anyone who expresses doubt in Mary is punished.

The character of Dr. Natalie Gates is a stereotype of a potential love interest for the main protagonist in a formulaic movie like this one: At first, she acts like she’s not impressed by Gerry and she’s somewhat antagonistic toward him. But then, as they start to get closer, she warms up to him. It’s just all so predictable.

Gerry gets a lot of attention for being the first journalist to get this “miracle” story, which is compared in the news media to other famous Virgin Mary miracle stories, such as those in Fátima, Portugal or Lourdes, France. Gerry’s former boss Monica changes her mind about hiring him to do a news story for The Examiner. She calls Gerry to give the assignment, but she calls at the worst possible time, in an awkwardly written scene that happens later in the movie.

With all the media attention come moneygrubbers looking to cash in on the story. And soon, Banfield has all the characteristics of a tourist attraction, with people selling Virgin Mary merchandise and other memorabilia. Gerry is soaking up all the notoriety that he’s getting, but he notices that Alice has become increasingly obsessed with having a big ceremony where everyone will proclaim their allegiance to Mary.

Here’s where the movie falters when it comes to how it tries to incorporate the Catholic religion into the story. Although there are plenty of real-life examples of movements aimed at getting people to believe in or convert to Christianity, the Catholic religion would not have an entire ceremony dedicated to worshipping the Virgin Mary, because Jesus Christ or God is considered the supreme being.

Even if Gerry knew nothing about the Catholic religion (and he does because he’s supposed to be a lapsed Catholic), as a journalist covering this story, he’s supposed to do his research. And if he did, he would’ve found out that what Alice is doing looks suspiciously like what cult leaders do. It would be enough to set off warning signs to a good investigative journalist, but Gerry is too caught up in the praise and glory for getting exclusive news scoops for this story.

“The Unholy” also unrealistically ignores the vast number of people from a massive institution like the Catholic Church who would be involved in this story. Instead, the Vatican sends only two Catholic clergymen who come to Banfield to investigate. Each man has his own agenda on how they can be part of the growing spectacle.

Bishop Gyles (played by Cary Elwes) is a smirking clergy leader who dismisses and thwarts anyone who expresses doubts that what Alice is doing isn’t a true Christian miracle. Father Delgarde (played by Diogo Morgado) is a devout priest who’s more open-minded to hearing various opinions because he has debunked false miracle claims before. But because Father Deglarde is an underling of Bishop Gyles, Father Delgarde has to go along with whatever the bishop orders.

It’s easy to see that Bishop Gyles is invested in keeping the miracle stories going because he wants to use these stories as a way to boost his own career in the Catholic Church. Father Delgarde is mainly concerned with doing God’s work and is more diplomatic and open-minded than Bishop Gyles is, in looking at various possibilities. Gerry and Bishop Gyles both have big egos about this “miracle” story, so the two men have inevitable clashes, especially when things happen and Gerry starts to have doubts that Alice is acting on behalf of the Virgin Mary.

Because “The Unholy” is a horror movie, there are gruesome deaths that happen. And what is causing these miracles is eventually revealed. The answers won’t surprise anyone who’s seen enough of these type of religion-based supernatural horror movies. It all leads up to a very fire-and-brimstone climax that isn’t scary as much as it’s ridiculous, tacky and filled with bad dialogue.

As the characters of Gerry and Alice, “The Unholy” co-stars Morgan and Brown have the most screen time in the movie. Morgan is doing yet another version of the roguish characters that he tends to play. Brown fulfills her role of Alice morphing from a shy, innocent teenager into someone who is very aware of the power of persuasion. There isn’t much depth to any of the personalities in this movie. Bishop Gyles is nothing but a caricature.

“The Unholy” isn’t even a “guilty pleasure” bad movie that’s enjoyable. Very little effort was made in creating a good mystery that’s a challenge to figure out, and there are no mind-blowing plot twists. The visual effects look very cheap (especially the scenes involving fire) and none of the movie’s significant characters is particularly likable, except for Father Delgarde. If horror movies are considered the junk food of cinema, then “The Unholy” is the equivalent of something that’s more like the disposable wrapping rather than the food itself.

Screen Gems released “The Unholy” in U.S. cinemas on April 2, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 25, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is June 22, 2021.

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