It’s February so of course it’s time to check back with the Berlinale and see what artistic director Carlo Chatrian has put together for the wintry European festival. It’s not easy to hold your own when you’re in the same leagues as Cannes and Venice but, judging from the couple of titles screened so far, Berlin has some neat tricks up its sleeve all right.
First up, we have Canadian director Matt Johnson’s BLACKBERRY, a dramatic retelling of the tech startup’s spectacular rise and fall through the late 90’s and the aughts. We meet the company’s two founders Mike (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (played by Johnson himself) at a pitch meeting to sell their game-changing invention, which they badly fumbled. But that meeting also brought them to Jim (Glenn Howerton), a ruthless go-getter who sees talent in two helplessly awkward nerds. After the three partner up, Jim revamps the business side of the operation and secures the financing that leads to the birth of the palm-sized communication device.
Things take off at meteoric speed as the world can’t seem to get enough of phones that send e-mails. But then come the challenges: Can the technology keep up with the drastically expanding user base? How do you snatch the best engineers away from the likes of Google and Microsoft while fending off a hostile takeover? Can you run a global telecommunications giant like it’s still in your garage in Ontario? Well, choices would be made and consequences would follow.
BLACKBERRY is a somewhat surprising entry in Berlin competition, which tends to favor experimental/politically-minded arthouse fare. You don’t expect to see strictly middle-brow biographical dramas with end-credits title cards telling you how the lives of the characters portrayed turned out. Having said that, a combination of skilled direction, dynamic performances and a story too juicy to resist does make this a highly entertaining, relentlessly engrossing ride.
The film unfolds at a breathless pace. Almost immediately you’re thrown into a whirlwind of opportunities and crises that defines the cutthroat startup scene. Founders, venture capitalists, strategists, speculators, everyone’s looking to make a killing and be the next big thing. Johnson captures that tension effectively and renders a sobering depiction of how corporate greed slowly ate away the friendly goofiness of the team that made BlackBerry. Like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, the film is at its core about the personal relationships that get distorted in the search for glory and the cast brings the needed human touch. Baruchel and Howerton, especially, impress with their convincing, fiercely committed portrayals of two vastly different characters whose partnership is doomed from the start. Their last meeting in the film, a scene that depicts the ultimate betrayal, gives both actors some emotionally complex material to work with and they nailed it. I don’t know if any of this will win over Kristen Stewart’s jury, but I suspect many viewers will be surprised by the fun they had with a movie about the BlackBerry.
Over at the Encounters sidebar, we have WHITE PLASTIC SKY, an animated dystopian sci-fi fantasy by Hungarian writers/directors Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó. Set in Budapest 2123, the film introduces us to a world where our bodies become government property after 50 years. What this rule entails is not clear at first. The city looks pristinely futuristic, the citizens seem to go about their lives without hindrance. But then you’d catch a sinister undertone in advertisements urging everyone to have children early so that “you can get to meet your grandchildren”, or hearing about people getting “voluntary implantations” or being sent to the “tplantation”.
It turns out that, in order to ensure our species’ survival when Earth became completely infertile, a scientist has invented a method to transform humans into trees by injecting a “seed” into their hearts. These trees grown out of bodies shall provide sustenance to the living, so everyone is required to get the injection on their 50th birthday to manitain the food supply for all. The story begins when Nora, a 32-year-old woman grieving the death of her child, gets a voluntary implantation and her husband Stefan decides to find the mysterious scientist who could surgically remove the seed before his wife is lost to him forever.
What a feat of imagination. I love how urgent the film’s themes are and how the filmmakers dared to complete their dark vision with unsettlingly vivid details, whether it’s the systematic processing of people going through transformation, the black market for fake birth certificates, or the very way food looks when its only source is human-based plants. This is world-building for adults that dazzles with its richness of ideas, not unlike SPIRITED AWAY or WALL-E. In terms of visuals, it’s a stunner as well. The lines and shadows on the hand-drawn characters’ faces and bodies are not polished by computers, showing old-school, un-smoothened motion which I find to be the more emotionally evocative form of animation. The production design that gives us the glowing suspension railway, the 22nd century rave party, and the hellish sight of the plantation is superb.
Would you like to know when you’ll die? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to live a little longer? In its final act, WHITE PLASTIC SKY morphs into a contemplation on what it means to be alive, with a beautifully realized ending that’s poignant, wordlessly heartbreaking.
So the 73rd edition of the Berlinale started off on a strong note for me. Stay tuned for more updates over the next week as over 300 fillms screen all across the German capital.