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Thread: BLACKBERRY (Matt Johnson 2023)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    BLACKBERRY (Matt Johnson 2023)


    The rise and fall of the original smart phone

    In Blackberry, director Matt Johnson (Canadian co-author of The Dirties and producer of the recent artisanal high school epic Therapy Dogs) re-creates the befuddlement and excitement that followed the invention of the first smartphone, amplifying the atmosphere of chaos that surrounds an industry populated initially by a majority of brilliant but immature young men among whom it is considered bad luck to work on movie night. Old guys and tough suits come along to create an industry, and the drama of this movie is the clash between the two cultures as embodied in three men.

    The photography is handheld, blurry, jittery, and shot from the other side of the room, past people, with much focus pulling and drift, conveying a sense of the offbeat and the unpredictable. We join Research in Motion (RIM), founded in Waterloo, Ontario. Two nerds, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), a vague visionary with silvery hair, and Doug (director Matt Johnson), a sloppy doofus in gym clothes wearing a headband, are taken in tow by Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a just-fired corporate boss , a bald, unappealing but high-energy suit who thinks he knows how to sell their phone, for which they've just made a terrible pitch to him. It will be a long time before their still unbuilt multi-purpose phone, a phone that's also a computer will become The Big New Thing that takes over all our lives, still longer before the device they create and market will slowly vanish when a better design (without the clicky QWERTY keyboard and slimmer in shape) comes along from Apple and its eager imitators. (The Android and other variations are never mentioned. The Blackberryans, proud Canadians, refused to ape Apple, a major source of their downfall.) There is a distinctive sense that this is a Canadian story told by Canadians. It has some of the freewheeling tech-archeology oddity of Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess. It's funny, it's satirical. It goes its own way.

    There is a lot of technical stuff, but not too technical. They start with interactive pagers or email pagers, things that want to be smart phones. We have to learn that cell phones sold to networks like Bell Atlantic or AT&T, and that they couldn't market more units than the network could handle - or had to figure out the technology to amplify the network capacity in order to make more sales. The Blackberry arrived as a cell phone with email. It continued with another desirable feature, free texting, which before had cost a fee. We get glimpses of how big the company got, limos, private planes, brilliant new tech employees bought for ten million dollars. Mike changes, wears a suit and swept-back hair. Jim seems to fade from view. Doug occasionally finds a suit. All this is not so distant history. At its peak in September 2011, there were 85 million BlackBerry subscribers worldwide.

    Why is Blackberry almost nonexistent now? The last big segment of the story is Apple. Steve Jobs' introduction of the iPhone is briefly unreeled (showing him only from far away, though). He obviously has much more to offer, but his punch line is the big screen swallowing up the keyboard found on other cell phones that he brands as clunky junk. This then, the distinctive curved Blackberry keyboard below the screen and its satisfying "click" sound when typed upon, becomes the Blackberry holdout and rallying cry. It's the trademark. Old people who may even be too old to have had as good a cell phone as a Blackberry back during its day may nurture a kind of faux nostalgia for that satisfying keyboard tap sound, signaling the reassurance of having keys actually there as opposed to evanescently appearing on a hitherto black screen. But the market share of Blackberry was to shrink dramatically precisely because of the elegance of the iPhone's simplicity, presenting only a thin rectangular object entirely covered by a "touch" screen.

    These physical details are key, but a lot of the movie action is just about the blustery machismo of leaders and competitors in the Blackberry world, win which Michael Ironside may recall Alan Cox in "Succession." The yelling is partly funny intentional cliché, partly an illustration of the brutal condescension of male competition in modern business. Perhaps Steve Jobs stands out because he transformed that machismo into an elegant gesture, making his pitches as a cool cock-of-the-walk. Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie get involved also in stock manipulation and other devious maneuvers, but avoided jail time, we learn. The movie ends in anticlimactic, slightly hasty, fashion with end titles informing us how these guys and "Doug" (why only "Doug"?) exited the company. Not with a bang but a whimper. This is a picture that is more successful in its early sections. /it's not the most coherent and hard-driving of scripts, though one that's entertaining most of the way. The filmmakers have said "This is a film built in the edit, a story which can but understood in linear form only in retrospect." Johnson and co-writer Matt Miller based it on Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. It's best understood as being a study of these three men and the sudden success and equally fast decline that surprised them.

    Blackberry , 122 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 17, 2023, showing also at Dublin, Dublin, Glasgow, and Austin. It opened Canada Apr. 28, 2023 and comes out in US theaters May 12. Metacritic rating: 81%
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-11-2023 at 09:58 AM.


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