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CCFF 2023: BlackBerry & Sanctuary

May 7, 2023


The 10th Chicago Critics Film Festival kicked off to a crowded house at the Music Box Theatre on Friday night, May 5th! That’s really no surprise considering the reputation its earned over the years as a must-attend event for film enthusiasts…not just those local to Chicago, but from all over. The two films that opened the festival couldn’t be more different, but that gives viewers an idea of the kind of eclectic selections that will be on display through Thursday, May 11th.

The first film, “BlackBerry”, I had seen in advance of Opening Night and I was very curious to hear the audience hoot and holler at this cleverly made dark dramedy. Who would’ve thought the biopic about the birth, live, and death of a handheld device from the 90s would prove to be so fascinating. That was followed by “Sanctuary”, a psychosexual thriller starring Margaret Qually (“Maid” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Christopher Abbott (“James White” and “Possessor”) that focuses on a dominatrix, her wealthy client, and the disaster that follows when Hal tries to end their relationship. The draw for me was the cast, especially when I found out they were the only two actors in the film.

Below you will find my thoughts on each film:



(122 min.)

How did the things we use every day come to be? From shoes to our phones? Ben Affleck’s “Air” was released a couple months back, looked at how Air Jordans came to be in the 80s, and this month there’s “BlackBerry”, which looks at the mobile phone that was created in the 90s that became a hugely popular item until Apple’s iPhone obliterated it. No one really thinks about the designers for either of these things, but they nevertheless had a huge impact on our way of life.

Directed by Matt Johnson, from a script by Johnson and producer Matthew Miller, that was loosely adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. “BlackBerry” essentially looks at how a handful of socially awkward Canadian engineer nerds – led by Mike Lazaridis (a career-best performance from Jay Baruchel) – become businessmen after they connected with the over-confident Jim Balsillie (Glen Howertown), a Gordon Gekko-worshipping fellow Canadian. The film primarily focuses on their unlikely meteoric rise for a couple years and inevitable hard fall, ultimately due to their own lack of vision.

Johnson keeps things quite engaging, which is surprising considering in and of itself the subject matter doesn’t seem to be screaming for a biopic. Thanks to clever editing by Curt Lobb and infectiously restless cinematography from Jared Rubb (both of whom worked on Johnson’s last feature, the found footage conspiracy thriller, “Countdown Avalanche”), the director definitely captures something fascinating about this story, presenting it all in a fun manner.

The story opens in 1996, where we see Lazaridis and his partner at Research in Motion (RIM), the headband-wearing Doug Fregin (played by Johnson) nervously pitching their product, “a pager, a cell phone, and an e-mail machine all in one”, called PocketLink (a DOA name) to investors. These tech geeks have no clue how to market or peddle an idea, so in comes Balsillie (an excellent Howertown, in a glaringly obvious bald cap), a blunt instrument who dismantles the lackadaisical day-to-day at RIM with the promise he can help makes their device a hit, as long as he gets 50% of the company and he’s made C.E.O. Despite the amount of childishness Ballsillie (the movie really has fun with the pronunciation of his last name) calls out, his arrogance shows his own short-tempered and impatient immaturity that’s often quite comical. The different approaches that these three characters have towards innovation, investment, and marketing will eventually come to a head, causing their product and company to crash hard. Once Steve Jobs rolls in with his iPhone announcement in 2007, it’s all over for the flash-in-the-pan BlackBerry.

“BlackBerry” winds up being an unexpectedly touching dramedy with mockumentary sensibilities that is boosted by some great performances. Be on the lookout for help from great supporting work by some veteran character actors, like Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes, and Michael Ironside.





(96 min.)


Films that primarily take place in one single setting run the risk of feeling like they are adaptations of plays, maybe because sometimes they are (like the recent “The Whale”), but something’s got to happen that will make viewers forgot about the source. That usually has to do with great writing and standout performances and both are on display in “Sanctuary”, the dark comedy from American director Zachary Wigon (“The Heart Machine”). It premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and is written by Micah Bloomberg (“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors“) as a study in a battle of wills over the course of one single night in New York City hotel suite.

On one particular night in this suite, where dominatrix, Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), typically meets her wealthy client, Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), engage in assorted role-playing BDSM antics, their working relationship is about to spiral out of control. After inheriting a hotel empire from his late father, Hal feels it would be best to sever ties from Rachel in order to clean the slate of any potential dirt digging. As a parting token of appreciation, he bought Rebecca an expensive waterproof watch and that doesn’t go over well. She’s insulted and rightly so, considering that during their numerous sessions she has essentially helped Hal with his insecurities and confidence. The rest of the evening goes as unexpected as possible for Hal, as the two wind up in a battle of wits and wills and Rebecca demands much more that a pricey time piece.

Qualley and Abbott are the only two actors in “Sanctuary” and Bloomberg’s screenplay really gives them quite a bit of rich material here to dive into. At times, it becomes challenging for viewers to determine whether or not Rebecca and Hal are doing a bit and that’s credit to the two actors and the great writing they have to work with. Qualley’s Rebecca is smarter and more manipulative than Abbott’s Hal, but she also has to contend with his emotions and stubbornness which make it tricky for her to win him over to his plans, but she’s used to wrapping him around her finger.

The two actors have fantastic chemistry together and have a great rhythm as they work with and off each other. They both are actors who’ve been pretty outstanding in everything they are in, so it makes sense why they would be the draw for “Sanctuary”. At times, it seems like Abbott is as much a spectator to Qualley’s whip-smart choices as we are and she truly winds up carrying the story, showing an impressive range and causing us to lean in closer to not just her performance, but how each of them navigate working off each other as actors and characters.

Working with cinematographer Ludovica Isidori, director Zachary Wigon makes us forgot about the confinements of such a limited space as the camera offers a surprising amount of variety. There are effective close-up shots and also camera choices that wind up expanding the environment, from ceiling shots that look down with curiosity to tracking shots that lead us from the large bathroom to the elevator down the hallway.

While this clever character study may be for a specific audience, namely those who know how great Qualley and Abbott are, this is the rare case where showing up just for these two is enough. You’ll also be treated to some great lines of dialogue in a screenplay that’s fun to keep up with.

RATING: ***1/2


Both films will officially be released this month. BlackBerry will see a theatrical release on May 12th from IFC Films & “Sanctuary” will drop in limited release on May 19th, expanding on May 25th from Neon.


More info on the Chicago Critics Film Festival can be found here



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