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SXSW 2023: Blackberry, Problemista, The Long Game

At its peak, Blackberry claimed 45% of the handheld phone market. Today? It’s zero. How does a company go from such prominence to complete destruction? Co-writer/director Matt Johnson explores the meteoric rise and fall of the product in his excellent “Blackberry,” a film that captures how the speed of tech can lead to major mistakes. So many companies understand the value of being first and prioritize it over the essential aspect of being best. The story of Blackberry is one of chance encounters, random timing, and the kind of understandably bad decisions made when people are forced into corners. When people in the tech sector are presented with either losing the race for product dominance or going against their own business ethics to stay afloat, who can blame them for doing the latter? With some great performances, smart dialogue, and sharp pacing, this is one of the better dramas of SXSW this year (and it also earned raves at Berlin on its way to a May drop in theaters from IFC).

At the start of “Blackberry,” Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, doing career-best work) and his buddy Doug (Johnson) are struggling to sell their product, regrettably named the “Pocket Link.” Though they are socially awkward, they’re also very much onto something, aware that the market is shifting in a way that tech will allow for cell phones to merge with pagers and even computers to form one device. Mike also understands more about using existing technology to make this future feasible for companies who can’t figure out how to get machines like this on a network. “Blackberry” is rich with actual tech speak in a way that really enhances its veracity, and it never dumbs down the material to appeal to a wider audience.

Everything changes when Mike and Doug meet Jim Balsillie (a perfectly cast Glenn Howerton of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia"). If Mike is the brains, Jim lives to be the brawn. He’s a business shark, the kind of guy who suggests they don’t drink the water in a free meeting because it signifies thirst, meaning weakness. Yeah, he’s crazy. And the minute Mike and Doug tie their future to this loose cannon, “Blackberry” is like watching a slow-motion car crash. Baruchel sells that aspect of this true story so well, capturing how there are no good choices here. Give up or strap into the rocket with someone like Jim.

And Johnson paces “Blackberry” like that rocket. It moves quickly without being overly stylized, clicking through dialogue and character instead of cheap tricks. We’ve seen a lot of movies about tech nostalgia lately (the far-inferior “Tetris” premiered across town at the same fest), but Johnson doesn’t resort to easy choices. The film is a tad long, but he’s also shoving in a ton of story, and I love his extended cast, including brief turns from Cary Elwes, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, and more. "Blackberry" is a smart movie about smart people who were destroyed by a dumb system that eats people like Mike Lazaridis alive.

A very different story of a man fighting against a broken system came to SXSW in the form of Julio Torres’ funny, sweet, and smart “Problemista,” a movie I suspect A24 will get to a very satisfied audience later this year. It won’t make the waves of A24’s 2022 SXSW film (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”), but I think it will strike a similar joyous note of representation in that Torres has made a film in which people can see themselves. And, like the Daniels, Torres has a quirky, unique voice as a filmmaker that’s hard to dislike. Other than the major headliners already being released like “John Wick: Chapter 4,” I think this film will make the most waves from SXSW 2023. It’s good to be A24 right now.

“Los Espookys” creator Torres wrote, directed, and stars in “Problemista” as Alejandro, a young man who just wants to bring his quirky toy ideas to Hasbro. (I could have watched Alejandro’s pitches for an hour, including a Slinky that refuses to go down the stairs and one of those canned snakes with a note that apologizes for scaring.) Not only is Alejandro being ignored by Hasbro, but he also faces potential deportation if he can’t get work, which could send him back to his mother Dolores (an excellent Catalina Saavedra of “The Maid”), who has supported her son’s visions for years. The wonderful Isabella Rossellini narrates “Problemista” like a fairy tale, the story of a boy who travels to a far-off land and finds danger and wonders in equal measure.

Everything changes when Alejandro meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art critic who has frozen the body of her partner, an artist named Bobby (RZA), in a cryogenic facility. After Alejandro accidentally unplugs Bobby, he works for Elizabeth on a mission to retrieve Bobby’s paintings for a show. Swinton’s Elizabeth is a hysterical force of nature, a whirlwind of insecurity and aggression. She’s constantly worried about Bobby’s reputation when she’s not going full Karen on someone who has crossed her the wrong way. As Alejandro navigates his new boss, his decreasing bank balance, and the bizarre NY art scene, “Problemista” maintains a consistently funny and clever rhythm—those who can find the same comedic register as Torres will love this movie. And I think that'll be a surprisingly large portion of the country if I know how well A24 can get this kind of passion project to an audience who can appreciate it.

My biggest surprise of SXSW was probably Julio Quintana’s “The Long Game,” a movie that looks on paper like another cookie-cutter inspirational sports drama but transcends its clichés by being true to its characters and artistic in its approach. I’m sad to say that I saw a lot of films at SXSW that looked like TV, but it’s clear from the beginning that Quintana learned a lot from his mentor Terrence Malick—Quintana worked on “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” There’s an elegance to the filmmaking here, a grace to the way Quintana approaches his characters and the natural world, that elevates the storytelling. Yes, some of the writing dips into cliché, and it’s not an unpredictable film, but there’s something to seeing an old-fashioned story that’s this well-told.

Jay Hernandez stars as JB Pena, a WWII vet in ‘50s Del Rio, Texas, who becomes the superintendent and wants to join the local country club. Of course, that’s not allowed in this era, and “The Long Game” does too openly use caricatures of powerful, Southern white men being openly racist. Of course, that existed, but the monsters who run the golf community in 1956 Texas are a bit two-dimensional here.

The film gets its strength from the kids that Pena meets who caddy at the club and have formed their own golf team. Pena realizes that this crew, led by the excellent Julian Works as Joe Trevino, has what it takes to compete with anyone, and so gets them in a competition at the club. The members of the crew outside of Works are a bit undefined, but “The Long Game” succeeds in part due to the sports movie sand traps it avoids. When Dennis Quaid is introduced as the alcoholic coach who can bring the boys to glory, it’s so easy to see the white savior movie this could have become, but Quintana and Quaid avoid it. I loved how alcoholism doesn’t become the central story as it would in a lesser film, and the movie doesn’t become a tale of Hispanic kids saving a white guy or vice versa. He's just a part of this tale, no greater than the role Joe’s girlfriend (an excellent Paulina Chavez) plays in this saga. Quintana understands the best approach to this story is a tapestry, capturing the many influences on a young life—a new coach, a new girlfriend, his fellow golfers, etc.—and how they can shape a future. After all, the long game of human existence takes teamwork. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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