Review by Sean Boelman
Tech culture has proven time and time again to be much more entertaining than one would expect (just look at The Social Network or Steve Jobs for examples). Thanks to phenomenal dialogue and some exceptional performances, Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry is one of the best biopics in recent memory — if for nothing else, because of how much fun it is to watch.
The film tells the story of the extraordinary rise and explosive fall of the BlackBerry, the device that introduced the world to the concept of a smartphone. It’s a biopic that’s equal parts funny and intense, but in all of the craziness, the craziest thing is that — even though it’s set in the 2000s — it feels like a period piece.
The cinematography, production design, costuming, and hair and make-up all do an exceptional job of transporting viewers back to the late ‘90s and early ‘00s during the earliest days of the smartphone wars. On top of that, the editing and soundtrack do an excellent job of keeping the viewer feeling engaged throughout the entire runtime.
The script by Johnson along with Matthew Miller is razor-sharp, balancing the tones of comedy and tension quite well. This story that’s so wild it had to have been true was previously turned into a book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, and in the hands of Johsnon, the material becomes breeding ground for an often absurd, sometimes stressful race against the clock.
If the movie does have one weakness, it’s that it is somewhat shallow, failing to engage particularly deeply with the legacy of its subjects beyond the expected “don’t fly too close to the sun” message. It’s missing that deeper level of meaning to make it outstanding — but it’s still extraordinary in its ability to entertain as a biopic.
The film boasts an impressive ensemble, led by Jay Baruchel as the quiet brains behind the cell phone and Johnson as his more boisterous friend and engineer. The dynamic between the two of them is pretty fantastic, and a big part of what makes the movie work. There are also some great supporting turns from recognizable actors like Micahel Ironside, Saul Rubinek, and Cary Elwes.
That being said, the movie’s big standout is Glenn Howerton, whose performance as matter-of-fact businessman Jim Balsillie is so commanding that he constantly steals the show. Howerton disappears into the role, not only because of the excellent hair and make-up work, but because he is so intimidating and aggressive in the role that it’s virtually impossible to look away from his performance.
BlackBerry may not be a super insightful biopic, but it more than makes up for that by being one of the most entertaining films the genre has had to offer in quite a long time. It’s nice to finally see a movie in this genre that’s actually willing to be rough-around-the-edges and thrive in its spunky spirit.
BlackBerry screened at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival, which ran March 23-26 in Tampa, FL.
Review by Jonathan Berk
Break-ups are hard, but writing a movie with characters going through a breakup is often harder. Sure, many writers and directors attempt to make these rom-coms, but they don’t always work. Writers Nathan Bryon & Tom Melia with director Raine Allen-Miller — making her feature debut — have given us Rye Lane, and it's definitely one of the more successful stories.
David Jonsson plays Dom, who is struggling to get over a breakup. He’s out at a friend’s art showing, but is having a bit of a cry in the uni-sex bathroom. Vivian Oparah plays Yas, who overhears Dom’s breakdown and takes a peek at his shoes. She seeks him out once he collects himself and returns to the showing. Dom doesn’t know that Yas was the woman in the bathroom, but the two both have problems with their exes. They spend the day connecting over their mutual losses as they traverse South London.
Jonsson and Oparah are magnificent and have tremendous chemistry. They are adorable throughout, and their character quirks are enjoyable. It’s a classic yin and yang situation, where they complement each other and in return bring the best out of the other. The scene where this becomes truly apparent is when Dom meets his ex and her new boyfriend at a Brazilian restaurant. He turns down Yas’s offer to join him, but she shows up not too long after things are looking quite bad. Her arrival leads to some great laughs and a cathartic moment for anyone who ever wanted to get back at an ex.
Allen-Miller establishes some interesting visual elements with her debut film. The overall look of the film is stylish and full of vibrant colors. However, some choices in lenses made for distorted visuals that were sometimes disorienting. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it didn’t seem to offer any specific thematic touches either. Despite that, the overall look of the film made for compositions that matched the film's energy and comedic tone. It really pays off during the karaoke sequence. The lighting of the club and the use of music in that moment demonstrate all the pieces of this movie working perfectly together.
Good rom-coms need to feature genuine comedy and romance. Rye Lane delivers both in a pretty package that will satisfy the itch of those longings for the old days when rom-coms got big releases. This film is a great showcase of the talent of all parties involved. There are so many things to appreciate about the film, and fans of the genre will not be disappointed.
Rye Lane will be available to watch on Hulu beginning March 31.
Review by Sean Boelman
Onur Tukel’s slasher comedy Poundcake comes with so many trigger warnings that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being offended, upset, or put off in some way by it. And yet, unlike so many movies that exist to shock the viewer, Tukel has used his shocking premise to create something genuinely thoughtful and meaningful.
The film follows a serial killer who targets straight white men, killing them by raping them to death. It’s a premise that is meant to be provocative and mean-spirited, and it pulls no punches, going so far that it is likely to offend — or at least piss off — a majority of viewers. And yet, this type of rude awakening is exactly what we need to inspire real change and not just performative activism.
However, these horror aspects of the movie only take up a small portion of the runtime (maybe a total of 15 or so minutes). Instead, the film is largely a cringe comedy about the reaction that the community is having to these brutal killings. The more interesting thing about the movie is not that the killings are happening, but the hilariously uncomfortable discussions that people are having about their anxieties.
First and foremost, the film is a takedown of the idea of the “nice guy.” Tukel makes the argument that even the people who put up a nice façade and claim to be progressive have these internal biases. In other words, he’s calling everyone out on their bullshit — and he doesn’t leave himself innocent, poking fun at his own fragile masculinity throughout.
However, that isn’t the only theme that Tukel tackles here. Poundcake is essentially a 90-minute long rant about everything that is wrong with this generation, but it doesn’t feel off-putting. Tukel is legitimately insightful with what he has to say about the shallowness and insecurity of our society, and challenges us to think about how we can defeat our own biases.
Every character in the movie is an unlikable, pretentious asshole, but that’s exactly what it is meant to be. And yet, there is something undeniably entertaining about watching this ragtag bunch of insufferables. The best comparison in recent memory is Bodies Bodies Bodies — another film which brilliantly calls people out for their lack of authenticity.
In terms of execution, the movie clearly shows its low budget. The cinematography, production design, and effects aren’t particularly high-quality. The score also feels like stock music because it’s a bit generic in nature. However, when the script is as intelligent, funny, and engaging as this, the less-than-stellar production values can be forgiven.
Poundcake is one of two movies that have played the festival circuit in recent memory that are virtually unreleasable — and that’s a compliment. Onur Tukel has made a movie that is so incendiary, so disgusting, and (dare I say) so ingenious that the world is not ready to see it. And yet, I can’t wait until they do.
Poundcake screened at the 2023 Make Believe Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Seattle, WA.
Review by Adam Donato
Board game movies are a thing. Anything to slap brand recognition on a generic blockbuster. I can’t wait for the Wonder Bread movie! Anyways, forget everything about the Dungeons & Dragons movie from 2000. Riding off their success making Game Night, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein are back in the directors' chairs for this new fantasy epic. With a cast of franchise regulars, will Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves have the pull to make it the blockbuster success Paramount wants it to be?
Considering Daley and Goldstein have only made studio comedies, the action here is quite the standout. While the cinematography and special effects are lacking throughout the movie, there’s several action sequences that are worth the price of admission. One of the ways the action stays fresh is due to the characters having different abilities — specifically Sophia Lillis’s character as she can shapeshift into animals both real and fantastical. The large dragon heavily featured in the promotional material serves for a surprisingly fresh sequence. Also, there’s a great amount of practical creatures featured in the film. This goes a long way to making the world feel lived in.
Guardians of the Galaxy was quite the risk of a concept, but what helped it work was the likable family that was formed out of these criminals. While it’s also not the most original story, it thrives thanks to its charm and personality. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves feels like the producer assigned someone to make a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy. While Daley and Goldstein try to infuse some of their comedic personality, there’s several archetypes that feel too close to characters like Star Lord and Drax. Like most movies, this movie feels like an amalgamation of aspects from other more popular movies who did it better. It functions and will probably work for casual audiences, but this is clearly nobody’s passion project. The movie ditches the dice rolling and just tells a standard fantasy quest tale. Characters need to band together to find the MacGuffin so they can stop the bad guy from destroying the world.
Chris Pine does a great job at playing Chris Pine. This is a similar role to James T. Kirk in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films. Michelle Rodriguez is her typical badass self and her dry joke delivery works well. Justice Smith is the same annoying nerd he always plays. Sophia Lillis, while thriving in the action scenes, holds little emotional weight as her deal is that she doesn’t trust humans and Smith’s nerd boy is trying to court her. Rege-Jean Page of Bridgerton fame has a surprisingly small role as the handsome Boy Scout type. Hugh Grant plays a pathetic weasel version of his typical self while acting as the main antagonist of the film. Nobody acts in this movie. All of the actors showed up and played themselves.
While Scream, Creed, Shazam, and John Wick have all had previous movies recently, the Dungeons & Dragons franchise hasn’t seen the big screen in over two decades so at least it feels a little new. Hopefully Shazam! Fury of the Gods didn't quench fantasy lovers' thirst for dragons and this movie sees some success because it’s better than that sequel. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is generally fun and funny throughout. While it’s not an inspired piece of cinema like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s trying hard enough to make it worth your time at the theater.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens in theaters on March 31.
Review by Sean Boelman
Gringa was the winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Gasparilla International Film Festival, and it’s totally understandable why: it’s a sometimes cheesy, always feel-good dramedy boasting a great performance by Steve Zahn. Although the movie doesn’t do much to stand out, it does what it sets out to do pretty well.
Gringa follows a teenager who, after the sudden and untimely death of her mother, runs away to Mexico in an attempt to reconnect with her father that she never knew. Although the film hardly reinvents the wheel, it’s wholesome and generally agreeable in a way that makes it a pretty sure bet to be a crowd-pleaser.
One of the biggest issues with the movie is that it can’t decide on its identity. It's a soccer movie, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a surfing movie, a grief drama, an alcoholic dad movie, and an eating disorder drama — all in one. It throws a bunch of things to the wall, and while many of them are effective, there are so many pivots that it becomes frustrating.
Still, the film manages to consistently find humor and charm in all of these varied situations. Even when the story is hitting the familiar beats — such as the obligatory romance with the suave local boy whose intentions might not be as pure as they seem — it’s hard to deny the movie’s cuteness factor.
Indeed, even though the characters’ arcs are all very conventional, audiences will certainly be rooting for them the entire way. The central relationship dynamic, between father and daughter, is really wonderful and very sweet. Some of the supporting characters, like the protagonist’s teammates, feel underdeveloped and much less authentic.
The best thing about the film is Steve Zahn’s performance. Zahn is one of the most underrated actors working today, and he is able to nail both the comedic and dramatic elements of the role. The rest of the cast struggles to find the right tone, doubling down on the sentimentality and cheesiness.
Visually, the movie makes the most of its Mexico shooting location to provide some absolutely gorgeous scenery for the film to be shot in. That being said, there are some missed opportunities in terms of the execution. For example, the soccer scenes are very plainly shot and could have been done in a more energetic, entertaining way.
Had Gringa been able to focus on one part of its story more specifically, it likely would have been a lot more effective. Still, thanks to a very strong performance by Steve Zahn and a charming aura, it’s the type of movie that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
Gringa screened at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Tampa, FL.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
I am always interested in new indie films and movies that fly under the radar. You learn about the filmmaker and those involved in these types of movies from how well they make their films. In the case of Polaris, it has some amazing visuals filmed in a setting not that familiar to most audiences and depicting people who aren't focused on in films often — Indigenous people.
This film focuses on a young girl Sumi (Viva Lee), who is raised by a polar bear in the Arctic. When she gets captured by some tribal women (played by Muriel Dutil and Khamisa Wilsher), she uses the North Star to guide her and find her way back to her mother or guardian, if you will. The movie takes place in a dystopian world, so the story may be a bit odd to most viewers. The voyage of trying to get back to one's parent or loved one — in this case, a polar bear — is a universal trope that has been done before.
The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous by David Schulman. He captures the Arctic Circle brilliantly. The white of the snow-covered terrain jumps off the screen. The North Star in all its purple glory is shown brightly and stands out in a wasteland of white-covered hills and mountains. The camera work is impeccable and would stand up beside the best in the industry.
The director Kristen Carshaw is trying to get two things across to viewers in this film. She wants to show a story about a strong young girl who can survive on her own in this vast Arctic wasteland, and she wants to show a story about nurturing youth from multiple points of view. It’s told by the polar bear and the little 10-year-old girl who finds a little friend to take care of on her journey to return home. Using this type of story was fascinating to some extent. It's not the typical way a writer or director would show these plot points, but it worked in this particular film.
Polaris isn't going to blow people's minds, but if you want to watch something different and thought-provoking about nurturing with a twist, this might be the little indie movie for you. I was drawn to this little girl and her journey to get back home. The cinematography was breathtaking, to say the least. It's worth the price of admission.
Polaris screened at the 2023 Make Believe Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Seattle, WA.
[Make Believe Seattle 2023] THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER Double Feature -- An Unexpected Blend of Horror and Sports
Review by Dan Skip Allen
The horror genre has had a resurgence in the last ten or so years. The genre was starting to get boring and repetitive in the 2000s. The years of classic horror movie characters like Jason, Michael Myers, and Freddy were in the past. That has all changed now. There are new and innovative voices that have rejuvenated this genre. Most new horror films are serious material, but sometimes these creators love the genre so much that they make films that are an homage to it. That's the case with The Third Saturday in October films. They are a love letter to the horror genre.
The gist of the story is that in 1968, a killer named Jackeriah Harding — Jack for short — went on a killing spree, killing a bunch of people in a small Alabama town called Hackleburg. He ends up being electrocuted for his crimes, but doesn't end up dying. Instead, he starts killing again on the third Saturday in October, which by coincidence, is the date that a popular football game between Alabama Mobile and Tennessee A & M is played every year. This is a huge college football rivalry, similar to Alabama vs Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
These two films are basically one long film in the way that the Kill Bill films are. Viewers start with The Third Saturday in October Part V, before going back and watching the “first” film — which was created as a prequel. That's a wink at the horror genre once again, because there are so many sequels in horror films. The first film takes a bunch of tropes from classic horror films. All the various nods are in there for people to see — there’s no need to rattle them all off.
The writer/director Jay Burleson is obviously a huge horror fan and football fan. He mashed these two things with huge followings together. While all the killings are taking place in two main locations in each film — typically a house — the football game is on the TV in the background. It's actually pretty impressive what the team behind these movies does. Setting these films in Alabama gives them an interesting place that is distinctive to these specific movies, but again makes fun of small towns where horror films are set.
The cast of these two films is very good. They all have their various roles to play, such as in the prequel, two people witness the execution and revival of the villain, and they have to drive from one town to another, letting everybody know what happened. This is straight out of the Halloween franchise. In Part V, a bunch of teens meet at one of the houses belonging to one and proceed to get killed one by one. This is another classic horror movie trope, location, and plot device.
As a huge sports fan, I was glad to see all the little touches involved with the football rivalry woven into the storyline from both movies. The stuff involving the coach and the fan bases was pretty funny. Even naming the main team the Seahawks is a take-off of Auburn's mascot, the War Eagle. This is completely fresh for this genre, and it was a nice touch to throw in the football stuff.
The thing I liked most about these films was how they tied together while also being separate entities all by themselves. They were not too long, so they moved pretty quickly, and they didn't drag too much either. The quick running time made them more enjoyable. I found myself looking for things that tied them together in ways besides the obvious ways, like an actor playing multiple parts in each film. This was an enjoyable experience.
The Third Saturday in October Part V and its prequel, The Third Saturday in October, blended together two of my favorite things: movies and sports. Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre, like some of my film critic friends are, but I love a well-done horror film with an original idea by a filmmaker who wants to be noticed and change up the genre. And I love sports films. These films take this idea and do a fantastic job of mixing together two great things. Burleson is a filmmaker to watch in the future. He knows how to make an entertaining film. He did it twice with these two mocking this great genre and football. Hopefully, people will find and watch these enjoyable films. They have to be seen together.
The Third Saturday in October Part V and The Third Saturday in October screened at the 2023 Make Believe Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Seattle, WA.
Review by Sean Boelman
Helen Believe has a higher profile than most independent documentaries thanks to the film receiving support from actor Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) as a producer. Although the film is hardly revolutionary — and it does show its budget more than once — the story of Helen Maroulis is so extraordinary that it’s hard to deny the film’s resonance.
The film tells the story of Olympic champion Helen Maroulis, who made history as the first American woman to win a gold medal in Wrestling at the Olympics, as she sets out on a journey to compete in her second games. Maroulis’s story is a high-profile one that received lots of media attention as it happened, but Helen Believe promises to tell a deeper story beyond that.
For the most part, the film is a very conventional underdog story. The filmmakers follow Maroulis through the ups and downs of her career over a period of several years — through success and failure, injury and recovery, and more. If nothing else, the film succeeds at feeling uplifting and inspiring thanks to Maroulis’s unflinching commitment.
There is a second angle to the film involving Maroulis’s struggles with PTSD after injuring herself during competition. This portion of the story is much more unorthodox than her road to the Olympics, and yet it’s largely left underdeveloped. The result almost causes more harm than good because, by failing to adequately explain her struggle, the film almost comes across as insensitive to people with more severe forms of PTSD.
Nevertheless, Maroulis is such a compelling subject that audiences will have no issues connecting with her story. The film even makes some missteps that threaten to undermine the emotional resonance — including half-baked storylines about her reconnecting with her culture or her religion — but Mulick manages to keep his eye on the prize.
That being said, although the film is undeniably powerful in nature, it suffers from notable pacing issues. These become especially apparent in the final act of the film, when Maroulis is competing at the Tokyo Olympics — a portion which feels extraordinarily rushed. It’s as if they ran out of money or couldn’t afford to license more archive footage.
Other than the disappointingly sparse usage of actual footage from Maroulis’s competitions, the film is quite well-made. The cinematography, particularly during the training sequences, is dynamic and energetic, and the ending is slick and kinetic in a way that will keep audiences invested and entertained in the story.
Helen Believe is about as inspiring and charming as one would expect from a sports documentary, but it never manages to ascend beyond the formula. Still, it’s clear that the primary purpose of the film is to lift up the audience, and there’s no denying its success in that regard.
Helen Believe screened at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Tampa, FL.
Review by Sean Boelman
The courtroom drama is a tried-and-true genre, and very few films attempt to reinvent the wheel. Miranda’s Victim is the type of movie where you can tell that it was would-be Oscar bait, its A-list cast and solid production values held back by occasionally Lifetime-quality writing and inconsistent themes.
The film tells the story of teenager Trish Weir, who is brutally kidnapped and assaulted, only to face legal challenges due to a legal loophole that threatens to allow her assailant to go free. The movie’s intentions are noble — bringing attention to the side of this true story that people don’t know — but it isn’t always able to succeed in its lofty goals.
One of the more concerning things that the film fumbles is that its messaging is frustratingly mixed. Although the movie’s heart is in the right place, the execution is uneven, causing the film to occasionally come off as insensitive. It’s obvious that the intention was for the movie to say “although suspects’ rights are important, remember the victims too,” it can sometimes come across as, “although what happened to her is a tragedy, so too is what happened to him.” And that logic seems counterintuitive to what the film is hoping to accomplish.
There are also some moments that feel somewhat excessive. For example, there is a scene in which the protagonist is brutally subjected to a post-assault evaluation. Although the lack of a male gaze is welcome, preventing the scene from ever feeling fully exploitative, it also feels as if there was no real reason to include this scene other than to shock and discuss the audience. Sure, it succeeds in doing so, but at the expense of coming across as cheaply cloying.
Part of the reason why the messaging is ultimately ineffective is that it can’t seem to decide whose story this is to tell. The title — Miranda’s Victim — refers to the protagonist, Trish Weir, who only recently came forward to allow her story to be told. However, so much of the movie is framed through the eyes of Miranda, reducing her to be little more than a victim.
Still, the film is bolstered by strong performances by a mostly A-list cast. Abigail Breslin is quite good in her leading role, with the exception of a few scenes in which she plays it far too big. And the supporting cast includes some small but effective performances from recognizable faces, including Luke Wilson, Andy Garcia, Taryn Manning, Donald Sutherland, and Emily Van Camp.
The movie also boasts above-average production values. Although they are nothing to call home about, the film has decent cinematography, production design, and costume design that do a good job of periodizing the movie. Some aspects — like the score and editing — are a bit heavy-handed, forcing the film to lean into the melodrama a bit too strongly, but are still competently done.
Miranda’s Victim is a very flawed film that skirts by on good performances and the fact that it means extremely well. It’s close to being a great movie, but arguably even closer to being a bad one.
Miranda’s Victim screened at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Tampa, FL.
Review by Cole Groth
What? Saying I’m lost on what happened in Pursued would be an understatement. This thriller, directed by Jeffrey Obrow, has virtually zero information available online, and it’s probably better that nobody knows about this. While the production quality isn’t terrible, this movie is a total waste of time that’ll leave you scratching your head, rolling your eyes, or both after a thoroughly unpleasant experience.
Pursued follows Lark (Madison Lawlor), a teenager who goes on an online hunt for a man who turns out to be a vicious serial killer. What seems like fun and games to Lark quickly turns into a fight for her life, leading to a trail of blood that follows her. For a horror/thriller, this premise works pretty well. Unfortunately, it’s tied down through a terrible script and a confusing story.
If there is one redeemable aspect, it's that the gore is good. If this were marketed as a slasher and felt more like one, this would receive much praise for being a solidly intense experience. Some of the kills are creative and shocking, which will appeal to horror fans who love shocks above anything else. If anything good can be taken out of this experience, it's that somebody was really passionate about a gross sense of humor.
Back to the criticisms, this story stinks. One of the core elements is the use of social media, and Jeffrey Obrow has absolutely zero idea of how social media works. While some of the interfaces look decent and stray away from cheap knockoffs, it looks silly almost every time a screen is shown. None of the characters seem to understand what they’re doing, making progressively dumber decisions as the body count racks up. It’s no fun to watch idiotic teenagers get other people killed.
The cast isn’t great, either. Molly Ringwald is advertised as a star but leaves after the first twenty minutes and never appears again. If you’re going to promote her as a bigger character, it would make a lot more sense to at least film more stuff with her. Angus Macfadyen is pretty terrifying as the killer, but his character is so one-note that it’s just not very interesting to see him when he’s on screen.
This feels like a movie that was cobbled together through many different production companies, directors, and writers. The first act leans into the teenager coming-of-age drama stuff but suddenly turns into a thriller after the first few minutes. The only time audiences will be intrigued by what’s happening is when the first tone switch happens because it’s so ridiculous.
Low-brow horror films are a dime a dozen. Every year, slop gets cranked out with low budgets and even worse scripts, making Pursued a forgettable experience because even as a bad film — it’s not notable. It’s hard to believe that people with a passion for moviemaking sat down and wrote this script, filmed these shots, and edited this together. There’s something to be said about putting pride into your work, and unfortunately, this is an embarrassing attempt at filmmaking that will go unseen by many.
Pursued screened at the 2023 Make Believe Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Seattle, WA.