Question: What is it that brings you back to MIFF year after year? Is it the great selection of documentaries, short films and features from around the world? Is it the chance to mingle at the Forum and enjoy the festival sponsors? Is it seeing and being seen? Is it your annual opportunity to contort yourself into the uncomfortable seats at the Comedy Theatre?
Answer: Why, it’s seeing North American films starring North American actors, of course.
That’s not really the reason you come back. But it does so happen to be the case that our ReelGood preview of the upcoming Melbourne International Film Festival — which starts tonight and runs through the 20th of August in cinemas around Victoria, with a selection of films available a week beyond that online – comes in the form of two such North American films.
At least only one is from the States, while the other hails from Canada.
Why these two films out of the more than 300 short films or features or documentaries or VR experiences that are featured at the 2023 festival? Well they’re the ones we had access to preview, through means that are quite definitely legal, but just don’t happen to be available to most Australians.
Besides, there would be no other way to promote Mel Eslyn’s Biosphere through reviews that publish on weekdays, with the hope of still sending prospective punters to see it, since it only plays the festival’s first weekend. That’s the American film. Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry, the Canadian film, does have a showing next Wednesday in addition to its screening tomorrow night, but it gets to come along for the ride anyway.
Biosphere is a two-hander starring Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown, and as he usually does, Duplass had a hand in the writing and producing as well. Duplass and Brown play Billy and Ray, respectively, the former as the last president of the United States (really!) and the latter as a scientist and one of Billy’s chief advisors, who has also been his friend since childhood. In a particularly ill-fated administration, Billy gave Ray the task of building a self-sustaining biosphere in the event it was needed following the end of the world as we know it, and that was a good thing, because that actually happened as a result of some unspecified presidential mishap that made the air toxic and, it appears, ended all life on Earth. All except Ray and Billy, who got to the biosphere in time and have been living there for several years as the story starts.
The space is no bigger than your average cinema lobby, and they spend their time jogging around it, feeding the fish and watering the plants that are meant to be their main form of sustenance, reading the arcane literature that Ray thought to stock the place with (which is way above Billy’s head), and playing Super Mario Brothers. However, when their last female fish dies, they’re staring their mortality in the face – or possibly not, since the survival of life is an unpredictable process with many surprises in store.
Duplass’ origins in the mumblecore movement get a slightly more structured incarnation in this story of a friendship undergoing unexpected changes when threatened with extinction. The actors have a great rapport and are easily capable of finding the comedy in their dire scenario, particularly when confronted with hilarious phenomena they can’t explain. Biosphere also contains material that is thematically rich for our times, though to delve into what exactly that is would ruin the film’s satisfying reveals. It may have been that this could have been handled in 90 minutes rather than 105, but Biosphere ends up in exactly the spot it should.
BlackBerry explores a different sort of extinction, but only toward its end. We all know that the world’s first smartphone, which dominated the marketplace in the first decade of the 21st century, eventually met its maker, but we may not have any clue about its unlikely beginnings in a small Canadian tech company called Research in Motion.
Jay Baruchel plays the fledgling company’s CEO, Mike Lazaridis, whose best friend Douglas Fregin (played by the writer-director himself, Matt Johnson) is the company’s co-founder and lead tech whiz. The pair had devised a way to send and receive emails on a phone before anyone else was doing that, only they had no clue how to market it, or themselves. Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a no-nonsense alpha male and corporate shark whose ambitions had earned him an exit from his previous position. He knows as little about phones as the tech geeks know about his beloved sport of hockey, but he knows how to grow a business from an idea to an international sensation. But there will be plenty of bumps and some possible malfeasance along the way.
Shooting in sort of a found footage/The Office style that characterised his first two features, The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, Johnson brings an effortless realism to this corporate biopic, one that sets it apart from other recent films in that genre (such as Air, Tetris and The Beanie Bubble). This material is also the stuff of comedy gold, especially in its first half, which gets the most out of the oil-and-water relationship between its trio of leads: Mike, the bumbling brainiac lacking in confidence; Doug, the boisterous but unkempt genius decked out in an array of concert t-shirts; and Jim, his baldness as unyielding as the string of expletives that rages from his lips at every moment.
The first half of the film rides a wave of hilarious set pieces and functions as a reminder of a simpler time, not all that long ago, when the technology we take for granted today was in its infancy, and when brilliant nerds not only went into the office, but also stayed there after hours for movie nights. That this life needed to be shocked out of its unprofitable sense of complacency by someone like Balsillie – and eventually by the iPhone, which destroyed the company – means there is something inevitably sorrowful about the second half, even if the quality remains unimpeachable.
Tickets are still available for both films, which get a 7 (Biosphere) and a 9 (BlackBerry) out of 10 here on ReelGood.
And that’s just to get you started on nearly a month’s worth of great cinema as MIFF descends on the fair city of Melbourne once again.
Biosphere is screening Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Forum and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the Astor, with director Mel Eslyn in attendance. BlackBerry is screening Friday at 9:15 at the Comedy Theatre and Wednesday at 9 p.m. at the Capitol. Tickets can be purchased here.