The Romance of Failure
BlackBerry and Carmen
By Marc Glassman
Matt Johnson, director & co-script w/Matthew Miller
Starring: Jay Baruchel (Mike Lazaridis), Glenn Howerton (Jim Balsillie), Matt Johnson (Douglas Fregin), Cary Elwes (Carl Yankowski), Saul Rubinek (John Woodman), Michael Ironside (Charles Purdy), Rich Sommer (Paul Stannos), SungWon Cho (Ritchie Cheung)
If you mention BlackBerry to Americans or Brits, they’re often surprised to discover that the first major North American smartphone company was Canadian with its head office in Waterloo, Ontario. Along with Nokia in Finland, Canada’s BlackBerry took the lead in the development of smartphones in 2000 and the Waterloo tech firm remained in the forefront in North America for the decade. But starting in 2007, with the launch of Apple’s iPhone followed by the Google Android, competition reared its head, and, in the end, BlackBerry lost its way—and its market. Though the company still literally makes billions even now, BlackBerry is now into cybersecurity systems, and no one uses their phones. Or knows their name.
What happened? It’s a cautionary tale, with the stinging moral, “Don’t forget to stay loyal to the ones who brought you to the party.” Matt Johnson, the gifted Canadian triple threat director/writer/actor has worked wonders, dramatizing the BlackBerry story for the screen. It’s a rags to riches tale, or let’s say, T-shirts to tuxedos. We start in 1992, when Mike Lazaridis (played with chilly insouciance by Jay Baruchel), the CEO of Research in Motion (RIM), an innovative tech company, hired Jim Balsillie (a mesmerizing Glenn Howerton) to run the firm with him. At the time, RIM was run in a very loose improvisatory style, inspired by Lazaridis’ best friend and leading tech guy, Douglas Fregin (an over-the-top Matt Johnson). Despite coming up with mobile point-of-sale terminals and advances in modems, they weren’t making very much money.
As BlackBerry shows, bringing in the tough, arrogant, business oriented Balsillie made all the difference. Within a few years, his more hard-headed approach along with a focused attitude from Lazaridis attracted venture capital investors with millions of dollars. The company, now known as BlackBerry, while still keeping RIM as its official designation, grew hugely, and with an increased staff, it was able to create an internet two-way pager and a more functional email system. In 2000, BlackBerry launched a smartphone with multiple features including email and a camera. Those of us who go back to the early 2000s will recall how important BlackBerry was; everyone, it seemed, had their phone and were praising it as the greatest modern innovation.
Peaks are just that: moments where you reach the top. There’s always a valley below. Johnson’s film shows RIM/BlackBerry as a loosey-goosey group of happy-go-lucky nerds led by Fregin, who are either bought out, (which is what happens to him) or fired or turned into quiet professionals. Lazaridis grows more corporate and less interested in business innovations. Balsillie puts almost all of his attention on attempting to buy an American hockey team, most notably the Pittsburgh Penguins, so that he can move them to Hamilton. Not only does that never happen, his lack of focus along with that of Lazaridis, costs them their key position as the go-to smartphone leader. Worse, BlackBerry gets caricatured as old-style when they try to hang onto their keyboards while iPhone comes up with its cooler touch screen system.
As a film, BlackBerry is an odd-ball: a business story with a fascinating narrative arc but it’s not a satire and only latterly, a drama. We know little about the personal lives of Balsillie and Lazaridis and aren’t made to feel anything much towards them. Perhaps BlackBerry is a comedy of ambition, telling us what happens when you shoot for the moon, only to end up back on the ground. Considering that Balsillie, Lazaridis and Fregin are multimillionaires and BlackBerry still makes a huge profit, their re-entry to Planet Earth certainly was aided by golden parachutes. Still, I bet that in their heart of hearts everyone involved with BlackBerry wishes that they still had possession of the most important smartphone in the world. One thing is true: Matt Johnson has crafted a clever film that should actually attract audiences here and in the rest of the world, once they get over the shock that it’s about something made in Canada.
Benjamin Millepied, director & co-script w/Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Loic Barrere
Starring: Paul Mescal (Aidan), Melissa Barrera (Carmen), Rossy de Palma (Masilda), Tracy “The DOC” Curry
Music: Nicholas Britell
The brilliant choreographer Benjamin Millepied—and what a name for a dancer!—has fashioned a bravura dance-a-thon variation on the theme of Carmen. To be clear, this isn’t really a modern take on the great 19th century opera. What we have here is a tale of young lovers on the run, more in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde than the Bizet/Merimee operatic classic. What ties the cinematic Carmen to the original musical version is emotion: passion and lust and love. The opera and this dance-oriented melodramatic film are both intensely romantic; though the stories aren’t the same, the Millepied Carmen is clearly inspired by the wonderful over-the-top original.
Millepied’s film has a tough, fast-paced plot, which is deliberately paused many times to allow for astonishing dance numbers. The story is classic film noir. Aiden, an ex-Marine with PTSD, shoots one of his best friends when it looks like his pal will kill a young Mexican woman, who they have caught illegally crossing the U.S. border. The woman is Carmen, who is on the run from an abusive lover who has killed her mother. Hardly a femme fatale, this modern Carmen is beautiful but neither willful nor haughty. Aiden rises to the occasion, as a real man should, in Carmen’s estimation. After some adventures, Carmen and Aiden arrive by car in Los Angeles, where they find Masilda, Carmen’s mother’s best friend in the club that the two women had started decades ago. Aiden and Carmen have a magical interlude in Masilda’s club but you know that they can’t stay there forever. Aiden decides to fight bare knuckled for money—and his boxing match is turned into an action scene choreographed by Millepied to an amazing rap number by “The DOC” Curry with musical assistance by Nicholas Britell. As a film critic, I’m bound by union regulations not to reveal what happens at the end of Aiden and Carmen’s journey but let me point out: 1. It is a noir and 2. It’s based on a tragic opera.
While it’s unlikely that anyone will call this version of Carmen a masterpiece, it’s certainly fascinating. Millepied has assembled a great team for his first feature film. Nicholas Britell, who has written a beautiful score, is most famous for composing the theme music to the TV hit Succession; he has created the evocative soundtracks for Moonlight, Get Out, The Underground Railroad and the very important additional music to 12 Years a Slave. The two leads, Aiden and Carmen, are key to the film’s success and the actors, Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera, are terrific. Mescal is a star on the rise: he’s already won a BAFTA for the sensitive father-daughter drama Aftersun and the Olivier Award for best theatrical lead performance as Stanley Kowalski in the West End revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. His understated performance as Aiden gives more room for Melissa Barrera, a stunning Mexican actress, to shine as Carmen. Greatly aiding the two is the acclaimed Pedro Almodóvar icon Rossy de Palma, who scene steals shamelessly as Carmen’s “aunt.” Put it this way: you’re never bored when de Palma is on the screen. And Mescal and Barrera make a beautiful couple.
Truly animating the film is Millepied’s chorography, which is consistently dynamic, visual and gorgeous. Millepied is outrageously talented, and he has had years to work on this Carmen. It’s no surprise that the former director of dance of the Paris Opera Ballet and before that, the principal dancer at the NY City Ballet—among other credits—can create dances that are genuine show-stoppers. The only question is, does he stop the show too often?
Carmen has its flaws and virtues. It may be self-indulgent and it’s hardly perfect. But would I see it again? Yes, absolutely. And I recommend it to anyone who loves dance,
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