Mr. Robot, Season 1

Mr. Robot is an American drama thriller television series starring Rami Malek and Christian Slater. The series, created by Sam Esmail, premiered on June 24, 2015. The series also includes Carly Chalkin, Portia Doubleday, and Martin Wallstrom in supporting roles. Mr. Robot follows a computer technician and occasional vigilante hacker named Elliot Alderson. Elliot works for an IT security company called Allsafe. Allsafe contracts out to E Corp, or as Elliot calls them, “Evil Corp.” Evil Corp is a huge multinational technology conglomerate like Apple. Elliot is sought out by the mysterious hacktivist revolutionary known only as “Mr. Robot,” to join his group fsociety. Fsociety is an anarchist hacker group aiming to take down the “top 1% of the top 1%” and erase all debt.

The events of Mr. Robot are always shown from Elliot’s perspective, with voiceovers meant to explain his inner thoughts and feelings, as well as to explain more complex moments in the plotline of the show. From this, it is clear that Elliot is not the most stable individual. Elliot suffers from social anxiety, paranoia, and will occasionally hallucinate.He may suffer from schizophrenia. This sets up Elliot as a potentially unreliable narrator. However, as the show is universally shown from his perspective, we have no other option but to trust this possibly very unstable young man. Indeed, throughout the series, Elliot calls his own sanity into question, and his mental difficulties often complicate the plots of Mr. Robot and fsociety. You spend the entire time questioning what is real and what isn’t, and if Elliot doesn’t know, you don’t, either.

Mr. Robot uses this first-person perspective to its advantage. While most television series nowadays have the viewer as just that, a viewer, looking from the outside, from the outset of this particular series, you are firmly placed inside Elliot’s mindset as his “imaginary friend.” No matter what you may think of Elliot from an outsiders’ perspective, by being inside his mind, you aren’t in the front row seat, but a player on the stage.

The writing of this series is brilliant. By making you a part of Elliot, you are made responsible for some of his actions.Elliot adresses you throughout the show. There is a moment early on in the season where Elliot feels he’s gotten in too deep with fsociety and frantically tries to figure his way out. He’s told by a fsociety member “You don’t just get to walk away from this!”

This was a mistake. I gotta turn them in. Should I turn them in? Will I get into trouble? Shit, she’s right! I’m culpable now. No, we’re culpable. You’re in this with me, so start thinking of solutions, now!!!

Mr. Robot benefits from wonderful acting from the entire cast. Rami Malek, whom very few had ever heard of before this series, plays Elliot very well. Playing an emotionally detached nerd might sound easy, but the hard part is making him relatable as the series protagonist, while still making him creepy, which Malek does. You feel sorry for Elliot, and even though on the outside he’s creepy (let’s face it, the poor kid is creepy), you fully and utterly empathize with him. He also aces the frantic and delusional, borderline schizophrenic nature of the character. Elliot is forced by court order to see a psychiatrist after a particularly disturbing incident. This scene early in the first episode frames exactly what kind of character Elliot is.

Side note: Rami Malek’s eyes are that huge and bulbous, which is a good thing, considering the character is on the creepier side.

Christian Slater has been in somewhat of a career slump these past few years, maybe even decades. I’m not sure exactly when the slump started. I like the guy, though. He has hilarious occasional guest starring role on the hilarious and underwatched Archer as CIA agent Slater, and I feel as though My Own Worst Enemy was cancelled before it got a chance to be any good. If you will forgive that brief aside, here, Christian Slater reminds us why we all know his name, even though he hasn’t been in anything of note as long as I’ve been alive, it seems. The character of Mr. Robot has a sense of confidence, charisma, and tenacity, everything Elliot lacks. For such a dire and rather creepy show, there are moments of humor that normally originate from the sarcastic and witty Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot also benefits from brilliant cinematography from Tod Campbell and Tim Ives. Like the series’ main protagonist, they use odd, yet effective framing choices while utilizing the also on point lighting to create a disturbing sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that compliments the overarching narrative. Mr. Robot has beautiful camera work, and I’m not the only one who thinks this.

The musical score for this series is also excellent and reminds me of this year’s hit Netflix series Stranger Thingsalthough this did come first. Like its cinematography, the series’ pulse-pounding electronic score serves to increase the feeling of delusional paranoia and hyperactivity that Elliot often feels. Composer Mac Quayle cites Risky Business as his inspiration; I see elements of Vanilla Sky, as well.

(Incoming tech nerd rant that doesn’t have anything to do with the review, but I am talking about it anyway.)

Mr. Robot excels at many things, nearly everything. The most impressive thing it excels at, for me, is the one thing that may end up turning some off from the show. Mr. Robot is a techno-thriller. It borrows elements from several different genres, but it mainly is a techno-thriller. Several shows don’t give a crap about technology and just throw together words they must have found on Google. The most glaring of these for me comes from an episode of CSI: NY that is legendary in tech circles.

None of this makes any sense. A GUI is a graphical user interface. Back in the 70’s, computer terminals used to be nothing but a blank black screen with a keyboard waiting for commands. You used to have to type “mail” to get to your (extremely basic and prehistoric) e-mail system. It was all based on very complex and specific command. If you didn’t know a command, there was a “help” command, which gave you a list of commands. Beyond that, you were screwed. In the 80’s (I’m pretty sure) came the advent of graphical user interfaces. You know how you clicked Chrome to get to the internet, and everything is accessible and simple for people who don’t know anything, to a certain point? Yeah, that’s a GUI. Visual Basic is a programming language that you actually can use to create a GUI, so they got that right. An IP address is a series of numbers, not unlike coordinates, that can show where a computer connected to the internet physically is, or track down the person who owns/uses it. Tracking an IP address is possible, what isn’t possible is basically everything else they said. You cannot create a GUI by yourself in a matter of minutes. It takes years of development from a ridiculous amount of programmers, and a GUI does nothing but let you click on icons. Even if a GUI did help you, which it doesn’t, you already have a computer, multiple in fact, with GUI’s in front of you!!! I’m not going to pretend like the writers did any research. All they had to do was ask the guy who designed the show’s title sequence (tech nerd) if anything in the script made any sense. Apparently, most TV shows don’t do that.

Mr. Robot does, though. In the first five minutes alone, the terms Tor browser, server, fiber connection with Gigabit speed, intercepting network traffic, portals, and routing protocols, and it’s all accurate and correct use of terminology!!! Believe it or not, this was the first thing I noticed before the cinematography, score, or anything. “Oh, my God! The words coming out make sense! This is amazing! These people know what they are doing! Thank You, Lord!” When I say “makes sense,” I realize for a number of you it might not, but do not worry. The accurate terminology is not a major part of the show. You don’t have to get anything to understand what is going on. You do have to understand the end goal of what people are doing, but that is explained to you through Elliot’s narration, mainly. The technical jargon is more or less there as a bonus for nerds like me, of which there are a lot. It is a show about hacking, after all.

(End rant)

Mr. Robot is a show about conspiracy, paranoia, anarchy, and insanity wrapped in a burrito of weird. Esmail has gone on the record stating that the series was influenced by such films as Taxi Driver, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, and Fight Club, as well as character development elements from Blade Runner and AMC’s Breaking Bad on how to correctly handle story arcs. I personally also see elements of the 1974 film The Conversation and 2004’s The Machinist. Drawing from all of this inspiration, Sam Esmail and Company have created a show that proves that a network channel like USA can still produce quality television given the right circumstances and level of freedom.

(What I mean by that is Mr. Robot is on a late night slot, so the characters can do hardcore drugs and swear and do things that you would find on a show like this without controversy; what’s weird is they don’t censor “shit” but they will censor an f-bomb, and they do that thing where they just mute the line of dialogue, so it’s super out-of-place, and yes, I believe all this “inappropriateness” is necessary, because drug use is central to the storyline, and people do swear in real life, it just depends on the social circle you find yourself in. No boobs, though, if that was a concern at all. USA Network let them go as far as they had to in order to make the series as effective as possible and preserve artistic integrity without going too far, is my point.)

All of this brilliance did not go unrecognized, and Mr. Robot deservedly went on to win a multitude of awards and praise from the computer security industryMr. Robot is currently nearing the end of its second season. I have yet to see any of it. You see, I got past the first five episodes of the first season, but fell behind, so I decided to wait, knowing about the deal with Amazon Prime, so I will most likely just wait for Season 2 to appear there in all of its fully uncensored glory. Mr. Robot is one of the best series on TV or otherwise (yes, top five, ranks up there with Netflix Originals) and I implore you to check it out. If you need any sort of further convincing, the opening scene alone had me hooked straightaway.

Go watch it, please.


War Dogs

War Dogs is a 2016 biographical war crime comedy film directed by Todd Phillips with a screenplay by Jason Smilovic, Stephen Chin, and Phillips. Based on a true story, War Dogs tells the true story of two twentysomething friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, who become international arms dealers amid the Iraq War. War Dogs draws inspiration from article turned novel by Rolling Stone’s Guy Lawson titled Arms and the Dudes. The film stars Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, and Kevin Pollack.

My viewing of War Dogs was not a premeditated one. A family trip to Wisconsin had to be rescheduled, so this was just something to do. I had zero expectations going into War Dogs. I was not expecting it to be good or bad. I came away from this film very impressed. Todd Phillips is known for directing The Hangover Trilogy, only the first of which was any good at all. Phillips, however, is actually a very competent director here. Although he certainly would not be my first choice for this film, he gets the job done. War Dogs was never uninteresting; the cinematography by Lawrence Sher is actually pretty impressive for a comedy film.

Teller’s David provides voiceover from the beginning of the film a la Goodfellas. The film starts out with a very dramatic and tense scene of a gun being held to his face. He says something to the effect of “Now let me tell you how I ended up here.” The film then flashes back to Miami Beach 2005. Packouz was a massage therapist making $75 an hour. (“Jerking off rich guys for money,” as Efraim would later call it.) He was a college dropout with a young, loving girlfriend named Iz. Fed up with massage therapy, David attempts to sell bedsheets to old folks’ homes, which is a comical failure. David reconnects with Efraim at a funeral for an old friend. Efraim explains that he used to sell firearms with his uncle before being ripped off and is now a “war dog” in Miami, someone who is able to sell weapons to the U.S. government without setting foot on the battlefield. With news that Iz is pregnant and with no way to make money, David agrees to work with Efraim as a war dog. There is a U.S. government website that lists all the open Pentagon defense contracts, and they’re M.O. is to get the small contracts that the big contractors pay no attention to. “Everybody’s focused on the pie, but no one cares about the crumbs,” Efraim explains. “…I live off crumbs.” David and Efraim are very successful and David is able to make a lot of money for him and Iz. David explains that the term “war dog” was meant to be derogatory, but they took pride in it. The rest of the film details the two friends’ rise and fall as gunrunners. They actually were quite good at it, and though it was clear they were in over their heads at points, they could’ve continued if it weren’t for some major snafus.

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill actually seem to mesh very well together.Teller gives a very empathetic performance as David, who was more or less influenced by his corrupt, obnoxious, arrogant, rude, slimy, but rich and successful best friend. Jonah Hill is also great. Efraim Diveroli is portrayed here as a slimy, conniving, narcissistic, uncaring jerk, and that is something Jonah Hill performs with ease, which is very surprising, because in real life, Hill seems like a pretty down to earth guy. Hangover vet and superstar Bradley Cooper makes an entrance midway through the film as international arms dealer, gangster, and possible terrorist Henry Girard. Coming away from this film, I now have an urge to see Cooper in a legitimate “bad guy” role, because he is good as Girard. I mean scary good. Girard is extremely shady and had at least one innocent man murdered during the course of the film. Cooper’s usual charm and likeability is nonexistent here. The most apt comparison I can make is Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter; Girard only has about ten minutes of screen time in the entire film, but all you can think during those ten minutes is “I would not want to be in a room with this guy.”

My major criticism with the film comes from the script. War Dogs is a comedy film as well as a biographical crime film, and it succeeds at doing both, just not at the same time. It is a very funny movie, but fails at being funny and dramatic at the same time. This movie is about arms dealing, dealing with some shady people supplying weapons of war. That isn’t very funny. What is funny is that two of the most successful arms dealers during the Iraq War for a relatively brief period were two twentysomething college dropouts with something that can just barely, if you squint, be seen as a “business plan.” That is where the good comedy comes from. There is a scene alluded to in the trailer. In this scene, our two protagonists are forced to smuggle guns from Jordan to the Green Zone due to a snafu involving international law. The guns and our two strapping young arms dealers are transported by someone claimed to be the best smuggler in all of Jordan. After a few close calls, the two fall asleep and wake up in a ruined town, the smuggler having stopped for gas. David finds a dead body in the gas station and are soon chased off by Iraqi insurgents. Efraim and David frantically try to escape in the  truck with almost no gas, nearly leaving the smuggler behind, who yells “Wait! Stop! Fallujah very bad!” David incredulously responds “You stopped for gas… IN FALLUJAH???? YOU CHEAP F*%$!!!” They narrowly escape with the smuggler attempting to pour gasoline into the tank while moving. They make it to the Green Zone and are informed they survived a trip through the Triangle of Death, and, of course, they’re reaction is “The Triangle of Death, brah? That’s amazing!” Efraim brags to one of the soldiers “We make it through all types of triangles, including your Mom!” I found the entire sequence to be very funny and not at all detracting from the narrative. My issue is that the script would force comedy at points that there was none to be found, and where it wasn’t appropriate to have any, and it ruined a lot of emotional investment in those particular scenes. Efraim, though acted well by Hill, is extremely annoying. Like no human being is this big of an annoying douchebag. I feel like this may have been intentional, but, while both Efraim and David have dramatic and emotionally filled moments throughout the film, the character of Efraim will turn the film into an over-the-top episode of Beavis and Butthead. This is a problem with the script rather than Hill, and it very much detracts from the overall narrative.

War Dogs ended up surpassing my expectations (of which I admittedly had absolutely none) and was actually a very funny as well as interesting film with a surprising level of emotional depth. The film is both bolstered and hindered by director and writer Todd Phillips; it is a good movie that would have been so much better had it not tried so hard (and occasionally failed) to be effectively comedic and effectively dramatic at different times. War Dogs is not the best movie I’ve seen this year, it’s not even close. Like its protagonists, it is a slightly above average movie which would have been so much greater if it hadn’t screwed the pooch at critical moments, bolstered by great performances from all involved. I enjoyed it, very much so, in fact. It’s getting mixed to average reviews, that I actually agree with. My recommendation is to go in expecting a solid, pretty good, but not “great” movie and you will definitely get your money’s worth.