REVIEW: “BlackBerry” (2023)

Here’s one of those cases where a film’s title really does say it all. The straightforwardly named “BlackBerry” from Canadian director Matt Johnson is a biographical dramedy based on the fascinating true story of the BlackBerry brand of smartphones. If you remember, the BlackBerry grew enormously popular during the 2000s and was often seen in the hands of such celebrities as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and President Barack Obama.

The highly innovative BlackBerry line was perhaps best known for its unique physical keypad and the super satisfying clicks that accompanied each press (many found it so addictive they dubbed the device “Crackberry”). I never had one but I freely admit to being a little jealous of those I knew who did. But like much in the tech industry, BlackBerry eventually fell to the next big thing. In their case it was the introductions of Apple’s IPhone and Google’s Android.

“BlackBerry” pulls quite a bit from the true story of the company’s rise and fall. It’s loosely adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry”. But what Johnson gives us is more of a mockumentary-styled satire of a tech industry on the eve of one of the biggest tech booms in history. It’s a funny yet insightful cautionary tale that hones in on the people at its center more than the product that would make them billionaires.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, the story kicks off in 1996. In a role tailor-made for his awkward charm, Jay Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis who back in 1984 co-founded Research In Motion with his longtime best friend Douglas Fregin (played by Johnson himself). In the movie their small Waterloo, Ontario based company consists of an easygoing pack of 14 fellow computer engineering nerds who spend as much time throwing LAN parties and watching movies as they do soldering circuit boards and writing code.

Elsewhere the temperamental and overly ambitious market strategist Jim Balsillie (a blustery Glenn Howerton) gets axed from his company for aggressively disobeying his boss (briefly played by the always good Martin Donovan). Smelling a potential fortune (and out of desperation), Jim bulls his way into a partnership with Mike. He puts down $20,000 and agrees to use his industry connections to market their exciting new product, the PocketLink (“a pager, a cell phone, and an e-mail machine all in one,” Doug proudly states). All Jim wants in return is fifty percent of their company and to be named CEO. Ouch.

They come to an agreement with Mike and Jim serving as co-CEOs. Mike will oversee product development while Jim hits the road to lure in potential investors. Of course as history informs us the PocketLink evolves into the BlackBerry and soon Research in Motion emerges as a market leader in wireless mobile devices.

As the popularity of their product grows so does the financial pressure. Mike, Doug, and their team scramble to innovate and keep up with the demand. But in true “The Social Network” style, success inevitably puts a strain on their relationship. It’s a friction you sense coming a mile away yet we still root for the pair as they struggle to maintain their friendship.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Meanwhile the shrewd and unscrupulous Jim is out in the field doing whatever it takes to grow and protect his investment. We see him illegally backdating stock options in order to lure away engineers from rivals Microsoft and Google. He’s also staving off a potential hostile takeover by PalmPilot head Carl Yankowski (a joyously despicable Cary Elwes). And all while he’s secretly trying to purchase his own NHL hockey franchise – a move driven by his own underhanded motivations.

It’s easy for us to see the writing on the wall and it doesn’t take long to tell that things aren’t going to end well. But Johnson keeps us invested. He moves things along at a crisp pace and the crackling dialogue has a Sorkin-esque edge as it chronicles the whirlwind corporate successes and missteps. Yet Johnson keeps things distinctly character-focused and never loses sight of the humanity at his story’s core. And all while being effortlessly funny in a subdued sharply witty way.

It’s also easy to fall in with Johnson’s verité filmmaking. From the frequently moving handheld cams to the strategic zooms which add as much to the humor as they do the drama. It’s a tricky directorial style that can often backfire. But here it actually works really well. And that’s true of “BlackBerry” as a whole – it works really well. It may lack the polish of similar 2023 corporate underdog movies like “Tetris” and “Air”, but Matt Johnson along with his game cast nail it where it counts.


Warner Bros. Drops the ‘Main Trailer’ for Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”

The more I see of “Barbie” the more unsure I am about it. Based on the popular fashion dolls by Mattel, “Barbie” certainly seems to capture the goofy and playful spirit you might expect from such an undertaking. But with every new look we get I still find myself wondering if it’s going to be a bit too much. Like a sensory overload of bright pastels and overt silliness. The “main trailer” dropped today and it only cemented my feelings.

But as I’ve said before, in Greta I trust. Greta Gerwig is indeed directing from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. That alone is enough to get me onboard. The film’s star, Margot Robbie certainly looks, sounds, and acts the part of Barbie. The jury is still out of Ryan Gosling as Ken. Regardless there’s enough in the trailer to entice me to see it. Now here’s to hoping it delivers. We won’t have to wait long to find out.

“Barbie” hits theaters July 21st. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

New on Home Video: “Sakra” on Blu-ray and DVD

Well Go USA Entertainment has announced the release of “Sakra”, the wuxia action film directed by, produced by, and starring international fan favorite Donnie Yen. Based on Louis Cha’s classic novel “Demi-Gods and Semi-Gods”, the film sees Yen teaming up with co-stars Chen Yiqi, Cya Liu, Kara Wai, Wu Yue, Eddie Cheung, and Grace Wong. Fans of Yen and/or wuxia will love this action-packed, visually stunning, big-budget feature.

The new Blu-ray and DVD editions of “Sakra” hits shelves on June 13th, 2023. See below for a full synopsis and breakdown of the bonus features.


Year: 2023

Rating: R

Runtime: 131 Minutes

Directed by: Donnie Yen

Screenplay by: Sheng Lingzhi, Zhu Wei, He Ben, Chen Li, Shen Lejing, Xu Yifan

When a respected martial artist is accused of murder, he goes on the run in search of answers about his own mysterious origin story and the unknown enemies working to destroy him.

Action icon Donnie Yen returns to the director’s chair for the first time in nearly two decades, while also playing the lead role, in the martial arts wuxia adventure “SAKRA“, which debuts on Blu-ray and DVD June 13 from Well Go USA Entertainment. The film is available on digital now. Based on the classic wuxia novel “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” by Louis Cha (known worldwide by his pen name Jin Yong), “SAKRA” stars Donnie Yen as Qiao Feng, respected leader of a roving band of martial artists called the Beggars’ Sect. After he is wrongfully accused of murder and subsequently exiled, Qiao Feng goes on the run in search of answers about his own mysterious origin story—and the unknown enemies working to destroy him from the shadows. With action direction by Kenji Tanigaki (Raging Fire, Enter the Fat Dragon, Snake Eyes), “SAKRA” also stars Yuqi Chen, Eddie Cheung, and Yase Liu.

Bonus content includes a “Making-of” featurette.

REVIEW: “Kandahar” (2023)

It had always been hard to know what to expect from a Gerard Butler movie. The very same guy who was so good in the crowdpleasing “300”, the unexpectedly great “Coriolanus”, and the captivating “The Vanishing” has also given us such misfires as “Playing for Keeps”, “Gods of Egypt”, and “Geostorm”. I genuinely like Butler and he’s an actor I root for. But for a long time it seemed like his stinkers were a lot more common than his good movies.

Yet in recent years Butler seems to have found a sweet spot. With last year’s “Last Seen Alive” being the lone exception, he has put out some quality genre entertainment with film’s like 2020’s “Greenland”, 2021’s “Cop Shop”, and especially “Plane” from earlier this year. Now you can add “Kandahar” to the list. This well made action thriller sees Butler re-teaming with director Ric Roman Waugh (the two last worked together on “Greenland”).

The story is written by Mitchell Lafortune, a former military intelligence officer who pulls from his own experiences of being deployed in Afghanistan. His script features a lot of moving parts and at times it can be hard keeping up with the various players, their alliances, and their allegiances. But Lafortune does a good job showing the region as a geopolitical powder keg. A place where ancient wars and modern interests clash in a number of violent and deadly ways. A place where peace almost seems like a pipe dream.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

Butler plays Tom Harris, a deep cover CIA operative who we first meet in Qom, Iran. He and his mission partner, Oliver (Tom Rhys Harries) are posing as technicians hired by the Iranian government to work on telephone lines for better internet service. In reality they’re secretly working with the Pentagon to sabotage a nearby nuclear weapons facility. It’s the latest move in a shadow war being carried out by the U.S. as a way to circumvent their public ‘no boots on the ground’ policy. The nuclear facility is soon destroyed and Tom preps to head home.

But rather than leaving, Tom is convinced by an embedded U.S. asset and friend named Roman (Travis Trimmel) to help with an “easy” three-day mission. Assisting Tom is an Afghan translator named Moe (Navid Negahban) who we learn has his own personal reasons for being in the region. But before they can even begin preparations everything falls apart.

An ambitious whisteblower working in Iran named Luna Cajai (Nina Toussaint-White) is desperate to blow the lid off the Pentagon’s covert operations in the Middle East. Following the nuclear site’s destruction she gets leaked intel exposing the U.S. involvement. In her rush to get her story to the airwaves, Luna gets sloppy. The Iranian government gets wind of her intel and take her into custody. Meanwhile the press recklessly runs with Luna’s story, blowing Tom and Moe’s cover.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

The bulk of the film’s runtime focuses on Tom and Moe’s race to reach their extraction point located at an old CIA base in Kandahar province. They have a limited time to get there and 400 miles to cover. But in between is territory crawling with Taliban forces and hostile warring militias. To make matters worse, Iranian intelligence agents led by Agent Farzad Asadi (Bahador Foladi) are hot on their trail. And Pakistan’s I.S.I. has hired a ruthless mercenary (Ali Fazal) to capture Tom first in hopes of selling him on the open market.

As you can tell there are a lot of pieces to put into place and we get plenty of table-setting in the first 30 minutes or so. As mentioned it’s not always easy to follow who’s with who, but the film always keeps your interest. Along the way Lafortune’s script attempts to reveal the humanity of the characters by showing glimpses of their family lives. It works better for some than it does others.

The majority of “Kandahar” was shot in Saudi Arabia which does a great job filling in for Afghanistan and Iraq. And while it isn’t the thrill-a-minute ride the trailer suggests, the action scenes we get are intense and exciting, especially in the riveting final third where things really ratchet up. As for Butler, he’s given a character who fits his strengths nicely – rugged and resolute yet sympathetic and even vulnerable at times. “Kandahar” let’s him convey each of those traits, all while offering a candid portrayal of a troubled part of the world and throwing in a little popcorn entertainment to boot. “Kandahar” opens in theaters this Friday.


New on Home Video: “Everything Went Fine” on Blu-ray and DVD

Cohen Media Group has announced the home video release of renowned filmmaker François Ozon’s affecting adult drama “Everything Went Fine”. Based on a memoir by the late Emmanuèle Bernheim that chronicled her own experience with her father’s death, the film tells a richly human story while taking on some heavy subject matter with warmth and sensitivity. It’s driven by a brilliant lead performance from Sophie Marceau – one of the year’s best. Read my full review of the film HERE.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions of “Everything Went Fine” are NOW AVAILABLE. See below for a full synopsis of this must-own feature film.


Year: 2023

Rating: NR

Runtime: 112 minutes

Language: French with English subtitles

Directed and Written By François Ozon
Starring: Sophie Marceau, André Dussollier, Géraldine Pailhas, Charlotte Rampling, Éric Caravaca 
Produced by: Éric et Nicolas Altmayer
Cinematographer: Hichame Alaouie
Set Design: Emmanuelle Duplay
Edited By Laure Gardette

From François Ozon (“8 Women”, “Swimming Pool”) comes a powerful family drama in which a daughter is forced to reconcile with her father and their shared past after he contacts her with a devastating final wish. When André (André Dussollier) suffers a debilitating stroke and calls on his daughter Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) to help him die with dignity, she finds herself faced with a painful decision.

Based on Emmanuèle Bernheim’s memoir and an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Everything Went Fine’s matter-of-factness elicits moments of humor that renders an otherwise weighty topic accessible. Steering clear of the moral arguments such issues often raise, the film instead focuses on the reckoning Emmanuéle has with her stubborn and unrelenting father and how to help him, with Ozon tackling a difficult subject with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity. Featuring stunning central performances by Marceau and Dussollier as well as a scene-stealing cameo by Charlotte Rampling as André’s ex-wife.

REVIEW: “Master Gardener” (2023)

I’m always excited when a new Paul Schrader movie comes our way. Interestingly the acclaimed and often outspoken director, screenwriter, and former movie critic has seen his cinematic voice evolve in recent years. Traces of the same thematic DNA in his work on films like “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo” can still be seen in his movies today. He’s still exploring many of the same interests that have fascinated him throughout his near 50-year career.

But movies like 2017’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter” have revealed a more thoughtful and introspective approach. Both are methodical and precise in execution and focus. Both film’s are steeped in melancholy and revolve around tortured men in their own fiercely private states of crisis. Both feature stories that uncoil under Schrader’s patient and restrained watch.

His latest film, “Master Gardener” slides right in with “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter” to form a thematically connected trilogy of patiently searing character studies. Joel Edgerton operates on a similar bandwidth as Schrader’s other stars, Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac. They all play men navigating their own existential minefields. They all are burdened by their own remorse, repression, and self-abnegation. The ever sturdy Edgerton gives an intensely cryptic performance that proves to be a terrific fit for Schrader’s style and interests.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Much like the previous two films in this unofficial trilogy, “Master Gardener” is simmering with subtext about past sins, present day reckoning, and an uncertain future. Interestingly, this is the least cynical of the three movies although Schrader doesn’t shy away from holding a magnifying glass to and giving a sharp-edged critique of a number of relevant topics of our day. Still, there are shimmers of optimism and hopefulness – not many but more than you would expect from a movie with so many similarities to “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter”.

Edgerton plays Narvel Roth who (as the title intimates) is a master gardener. He’s low-key and taciturn yet he’s fastidiously dedicated to his craft and a veritable encyclopedia when it comes to horticultural facts and history. He oversees Gracewood Gardens, an estate of “curated botany” that’s owned by the wealthy and peremptory Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel lives in a small but quaint cottage on the property where he spends his spare time filling pages of his journal with observations about gardening that mask deeper self-reflections.

Narvel and Norma have an interesting relationship. We learn that Norma took on Narvel despite his dark and troubling past which (in typical Schrader fashion) doesn’t come fully into focus until later in the movie. The gardens have been in Norma’s family for decades and she entrusts him with their care. And over time they have developed a mutual respect. He’s very honest and upfront with her and she seems to take his words to heart. But there’s no question that she clearly calls the shots and ultimately expects her wishes to be fulfilled.

One afternoon Norma tells Narvel about her grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell) who recently lost her mother. Soon after Maya dropped out of school and got in with a bad crowd. Norma describes her as being of “mixed blood”, her use of words and tone giving away her poorly veiled disapproval. Maya is coming to Gracewood and Norma wants Narvel to take her troubled grand-niece on as an apprentice, teaching her the ins and outs of gardening.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Much of the movie follows their relationship which evolves from teacher and pupil to father figure and daughter figure to potentially something more. Both are kindred spirits with pasts they are trying to overcome. And as you can probably guess, those pasts inevitably seep through the story. As they do Schrader plays around with our expectations, avoiding the more obvious path and taking things in some unpredictable directions. A part of me still questions where their relationship ends up, yet I found every facet of it compelling.

I do love Edgerton’s performance as it offers a beguiling portrayal of a solitary man seeking atonement. Whether it’s the current day scenes or the brief yet unsettling flashbacks, Edgerton captures our attention and keeps it clutched as the layers of his character are slowly peeled back.

But perhaps most interesting is the question of how certain viewers will respond to Narvel. In a day when social media too often decides both judgement and forgiveness, I can see some people recoiling to such a degree that they’re unable to accept where the character goes (vague, I know). I think that’s a struggle Schrader wants people to have. And as with the other two films in this loosely bound trilogy, he’s all about getting his audience to wrestle with uncomfortable themes.