Posts Tagged ‘mr. robot’
Vinyl: “Wild Safari” by Barrabás
“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Richie Finestra bellows at his record-label employees. “Made you want to dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass! That’s what I want!” Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter had similar goals, but virtually none of the musical elements of his period drama clicked. This despite the imprimatur of co-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, who know a thing or two about making magic with music, and supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, whose previous collaborations with Winter and Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street were all killer, no filler.
There was one grand and glorious exception, and it had nothing to do with Jagger swagger. Rather, it was the result of an unlikely alliance between demoted A&R doofus Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) and his mail-room buddy Jorge (Christian Navarro). When the latter takes Clark to an underground dance club, they enter in slow motion to the ecstatic sounds of the 1972 proto-disco song “Wild Safari” by Barrabás. The killer clothes, the fabulous dancing, the beatific smiles on the faces of beautiful people, the irresistible rhythm, the rapturous “WHOA-OH-OH” of the chorus, the sense that an entire world of incredible music has existed right under his nose — you can feel it all hit Clark right in the serotonin receptors, and damn if it doesn’t hit you, too. Perhaps my favorite two minutes of TV this year, this sequence demonstrates the life-affirming power and pleasure of music.
I wrote about major musical moments in The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and (yes) Vinyl in my list of 2016′s 10 Best Musical TV Moments for Vulture.
Dr. Robert Ford, ‘Westworld’
Smile, and smile, and be a villain. As the co-founder and chief narrative architect of the Westworld theme park, Dr. Robert Ford is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare; he’d recognize Hamlet’s description of evil every time he looked in the mirror. Or would he? As played by Anthony Hopkins, who taps the quiet menace he mined so effectively decades ago as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ford spends the bulk of the HBO hit’s first season manipulating and murdering everyone, human or android, who threatens his control. But late-game twists hint at an even more disturbing truth behind Ford’s highly erudite villainy, this time one out of Nietzsche: To fight monsters, is it necessary to become a monster yourself?
I was delighted to become (I think) the first ever recurring guest on Shallow Rewards, the enormously insightful podcast from music criticism’s adulte terrible Chris Ott, to discuss the use of standout pop songs on the soundtracks of prestige television shows. We focus on Mr. Robot and Stranger Things (so watch out for spoilers) but touch on Halt and Catch Fire, The Sopranos, and The Wonder Years, with plenty of digressions into film soundtracks and film in general (Cameron Crowe, Martin Scorsese, SLC Punk, Under the Skin) as well. Chris is one of my favorite critics of any kind and it’s a pleasure talking to him. I hope you enjoy the results!
The second key quote is a question, and a musical one at that. It’s posed by Kenny Rogers (and his duet partner Sheena Easton, by way of original writer-performer Bob Seger) over the season’s closing minutes: “We’ve got tonight — who needs tomorrow?” To focus solely on the answers, or lack thereof, the finale provides about the show’s future is to ignore the many dark delights on offer even now. There’s actor Martin Wallstrom as Wellick, a presence withheld from the screen almost entirely until this final episode, when he is called upon to unleash a lifetime of mind-warping fear, frustration, ambition and emptiness as he tearfully turns on the one man he’s ever felt understands his drives.
There’s Brian Stokes Mitchell as Scott, in an oddly similar place of devastation and dread, sobbing and begging for forgiveness one moment, exploding in a graphically brutal assault the next. There’s Stephanie Corneliussen as Joanna Wellick, a supremely loathsome cocktail of vulgarity and cruelty, who begins her meeting with Scott by graphically describing her arousal over his latest mind game and ends it with shouting how glad she is that his unborn baby died. There’s Carly Chaikin and Grace Gummer as Darlene and Dom, two “Jersey girls” who could not look and sound more exhausted by the cat-and-mouse game they’ve played.
There’s Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson and Christian Slater as his Mr. Robot persona, and the ultrarare use of a hand-held camera, swirling around them as they argue about who was really calling the shots — as vivid an illustration of our inability to control our destructive impulses as you’ll find on TV, if you stop taking the split-personality aspect so literally and see how it speaks to so much more.
Would any of this be materially improved if the E Corp building were blown to bits, or if anything similarly definitive and prosaic happened? Like the singer of the song, this season finale (literally) turned out the light and (figuratively) asked us to come take its hand — a risk, but one eminently worth taking. “We’ve got tonight, babe. Why don’t you stay?”
Nearly every scene in Wednesday’s “Mr. Robot” consists simply of two characters talking. But these scenes, as with the conversations these characters have, involve two distinct and indispensable sides. There are the pairs doing the talking, yes: a prisoner and a child, an executive and a government official, an F.B.I. agent and her electronic home companion, a prisoner and her captor, a prisoner (now liberated) and her lawyer, and a madman and a dead man, to name a few. But this is no parade of talky two-handers. In addition to the actors and their dialogue, each of these tightly constructed exchanges involves set design, sound design, cinematography and editing so distinctive, so breathlessly bold, they might as well be from different shows.
Only the courage of this series’ second season to follow its artistic convictions-cum-obsessions as far as they’ll go ties them together.
I reviewed tonight’s penultimate episode of Mr. Robot Season 2 for the New York Times. Filmmaking so self-assured it made my jaw drop. We should thank our lucky stars a show with this level of confidence in itself even exists.
there’s more to television than plot, or plot twists; there’s more to character than dialogue; there’s more to acting than line readings; there’s more to narrative fiction than figuring out what comes next. A sequence like the one that juxtaposed Dom’s confrontation with her suspects and their assassins with Elliot and Angela’s kiss shows how sight and sound, score and cinematography, body language and silence can produce an emotional effect far beyond the sum of its parts, and irreducible to sound bytes about “How ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 2 Lost Its Way.” On a show this good, getting lost — alone in the dark, the roar of the approaching monsters growing louder by the second — is the way.
The malevolent beauty of “Mr. Robot” Season 2 is such that knowing and not knowing are equally unpleasant options. The show’s twists earn it constant comparisons to films like “Fight Club” and “The Sixth Sense,” but its ability to create and sustain the look and feel of a bad dream has much more in common with David Lynch’s roughly contemporaneous, twist-based mind-benders “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.” You’re no better off on one side of the reveal than you are on the other.
I reviewed tonight’s creepy Mr. Robot for the New York Times. A point I’m trying to make here is that an overly literal focus on Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder, either in terms of twist-based plot mechanics or psychological realism, misses the point, which is to viscerally illustrate powerlessness and dread.
The most striking thing in this week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” wasn’t in this week’s episode of “Mr. Robot.” It’s Elliot Alderson, the mentally ill mastermind behind the hacker collective fsociety’s rapidly disintegrating plan to level the world’s economic playing field. For the first time in the history of the series, Elliot — and Rami Malek, the wide-eyed actor whom the role has made a star — did not appear.
When prominent characters drop out of the stories they sparked, they still sometimes function as a structuring absence, tying the action together even when they’re nowhere to be seen. Think of a generation of Stark children trying to live up to their slain father, Ned, in “Game of Thrones,” or even of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone casting a shadow over Al Pacino as his son and Robert DeNiro as his younger self in “The Godfather Part II.” But in “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12,” by contrast, Elliot’s absence has a destabilizing, disintegrating effect. Without his high-tension energy thrumming through the hour, without Malek’s unmistakable face serving as a landmark, viewers are sent the message that something is missing, off, wrong. Sure enough, the episode chronicles the downward spiral of Darlene, his sister and successor, and her compatriots into paranoia, flight from the law, violence and murder. When the center cannot hold, things fall apart.
What makes Mr. Robot unique is that it weds its politics to its emotional and visual palette. “We’re exploring what loneliness looks like today,” Esmail has said, and he’s dead on. This starts with the singular look cinematographer Tod Campbell has established for the show: characters “shortsighted” against the edge of the frame, like people staring into their laptop screens or smartphones; vast empty spaces above and around them, creating a sense of isolation and oppression. It extends to how Esmail and his fellow writers script the thing: Elliot and his companions communicate primarily the way most young people do these days—digitally. Text messages are more common than face-to-face meetings, which are riddled with anxiety when they do take place; even phone calls are reserved for only the most crucial information. Angela ensconces herself in the sonic womb of her headphones. Elliot stares listlessly at his few friends and his computer screen alike. Even relative go-getter FBI agent Dom DiPierro masturbates joylessly while sexting between bouts of insomnia. Talk to anyone who really loves Mr. Robot this season and you’ll get the same message: This show speaks to how it looks, sounds, and feels to be alienated in 2016, alone in a house or apartment with the internet at your fingertips and a world outside you but no real human connections.
That’s the difference between Mr. Robot and other political dramas—or, for that matter, between Mr. Robot and other shows that attempt to capture, and even succeed in capturing, young urban ennui, like Girls. It depicts the way political failure and personal failure blend together in our hearts and minds, becoming this inextricable, sticky depressive goo. It’s televised weltschmerz, and not since The Sopranos and The Wire were on has anyone done it better.
Mr. Robot’s first season was televised catharsis: a bracing breath of fresh political air on the TV landscape, unafraid to call out corporate and cultural malefactors by name and construct a story in which these evildoers could be taken down a peg or two. But to continue in that direction would be to betray the plight in which America finds itself—it would be a left-wing version of The Walking Dead’s hyper-violent paean to protecting ourselves from the dreaded outsiders by any means necessary. The bullet fsociety attempted to fire into the head of E Corp was no more fatal than the imaginary ones Elliot’s Mr. Robot blasted into his own brain. For the problems the show is confronting, there is no magic bullet; there may well be no remedy at all. That’s an unpleasant message, but that makes it all the more vital to hear. By wedding its political critique to intensely personal anxieties, Mr. Robot delivers that message loud and clear.
And while Angela tries to eat away at E Corp’s rotten apple from the inside, the F.B.I. agent Dom DiPierro is chasing her down a wormhole. Very nearly catching fsociety’s inside woman in the act of helping Darlene hack the bureau’s computers, DiPierro remains confident all the same, last seen jauntily striding through the F.B.I.’s makeshift headquarters in the company tower with her “Kojak”-style lollipop.
Grace Gummer stands out in this accomplished cast for her portrayal of DiPierro because, even if (as we’ve seen) she suffers from the same information-age ennui as everyone else, her character is in the business of dragging secrets into the open, not covering them up or creating new ones. Her crisp, confident tones and relative ease among her co-workers and subordinates is a world away from Elliot’s paranoid tension, Angela’s fake-it-till-you-make-it code-switching and Darlene’s studied surliness. With characters this well drawn and carefully framed, “Mr. Robot” can flip the world on its head as often as it likes. The really important things remain constant.
Using the uncanny, ugly cheeriness of vintage sitcoms as an ironic locus of fear has been done before, certainly, from Adult Swim’s viral hit Too Many Cooks to the still-harrowing “I Love Mallory” sequence from Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” featuring Rodney Dangerfield as a monstrous abusive father. But “Mr. Robot” is neither an 11-minute one-off on YouTube nor a single segment in a collagist media satire. It’s a prestige drama during a time when that’s seen as somewhat degraded currency. And Sam Esmail, its creator, showrunner and director, is cashing in the clout he earned with the series’ surprise-hit first season by opening this episode — a follow-up to last week’s first action-packed episode of the season — with a 17-minute TGIF pastiche.
The proximate cause is Elliot’s retreat into a fantasy world constructed for him by his hallucinatory father as an escape from the beating he’s taking from Ray’s goons, but the go-for-broke attitude stands on its own. In both respects it’s reminiscent of the masterful, uncategorizable Kevin Finnerty episodes of “The Sopranos”; in both cases it’s a sign of a show that totally believes in itself. That kind of confidence is breathtaking to watch.
I reviewed this week’s Mr. Robot for the New York Times. This show is leaving it all out on the field this season; trust no one who tells you otherwise.
“Have you ever wondered how the world would look if the 5/9 had never happened? How the world would look right now?” This question is being posed by a minister of the Chinese state security to a guest attending a party in his home, a young F.B.I. agent who’s investigating the attacks to which he’s referring. They’re standing before a closet full of amazingly intricate women’s dresses. He says they belong to his sister. He does not have a sister.
“In fact, some believe there are alternate realities playing out that very scenario,” he continues, “with other lives that we’re leading, other people that we’ve become.” His smiling eyes welling with tears, he pauses for breath. “The contemplation,” he concludes with a lump in his throat and a slight, self-effacing laugh, “moves me very deeply.”
As well it should. This may be the high-ranking official charged with heading the E Corp hack on Chinese soil, but this, we’ve learned, is a secret identity no closer to the mark than Clark Kent is to Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton. She is really Whiterose, the transgender woman who leads the lethal cyberterrorism organization the Dark Army. On both sides of her secret life she wields tremendous power, power which she will unleash the next day in the form of a mass shooting that wipes out nearly the entire F.B.I. contingent tracing the hack.
But in this moment, with these words, it’s clear she wants nothing so much as to end the fiction of the fake sister and shed the male-presenting mask once and for all. The sequence is a variation on the Bluebeard fairy tale, but the locked room is full not of the bodies of women Whiterose has killed, but the dresses of the woman she wishes she could always be. If you’ve ever been momentarily overcome by the profound power of a beautiful, impossible ideal, you’ll recognize its effects etched into the actor B D Wong’s face and echoing in his quavering voice. On “Mr. Robot,” even supervillains suffer.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Mr. Robot” has been its ability to capture the moment — whether airing its series premiere days after the revelation of a massive breach of United States government computer systems, or postponing its Season 1 finale because of a real-world shooting — despite being made months in advance of the news. So it feels right for the show to seize the pop culture moment as well. Thus, even as Netflix’s 1980s horror homage “Stranger Things” becomes one of the streaming service’s buzziest shows of the year, this week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” opens with a paean to getting high and reliving the fright flicks of your youth.
In the opening flashback scene, set immediately before the events of the first season, Elliot and Darlene celebrate an impromptu family reunion by watching a fictional slasher film called “The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.” (Luis Buñuel and Tobe Hooper, call your lawyers.) It turns out that movie’s rich-kid-targeting killer wore the moneyman mask eventually embraced by fsociety as its symbol. Sure enough, when Elliot tries on a copy provided to him by his sister as a gag, the monster is unleashed. His posture straightens, his low-energy voice grows raspier and more strident, his Rs harden and his vowels sharpen into the distinctive vocal cadence of the actor Christian Slater. Elliot’s not here anymore — we’re looking at and listening to Mr. Robot.
The transformation’s so striking that I wondered if the two performers’ voices had been digitally blended; I might have thought the actors themselves had been switched, if Mr. Malek’s eyes weren’t so big and bright they could be seen clearly through the eyeholes of the mask. The horror movie orchestral music cue that accompanies the appearance of the “Mr. Robot” logo in the credits completes the uncanny effect.
I reviewed this week’s Mr. Robot for the New York Times. This show has reached Hannibal levels of speaking in a cinematic language of its own devising. Don’t believe anyone who tells you this isn’t a great thing.
Tonight, after over a season of portraying a character with bug-eyed, lock-jawed, pharmaceutical-numbed restraint, Rami Malek cut loose.
To the pseudo-orchestral strains of “Lovely Allen” (a mid-’00s music-blog hit by a band with a name not fit to print), Elliot Alderson goes on a sleep-deprived tear of Adderall-induced optimism and excitement. He’s filmed in fast forward, or with multiple versions of himself walking one behind the other, as if a single body’s not enough to contain his manic good cheer. When he climbs stairs, they light up beneath his feet. When he washes the dishes, the sun gleams off a plate like the sparkle of a cartoon character’s smile. When his pal Leon talks to him about “Seinfeld,” he starts screaming things like “It’s classic George, am I right?” in response. (“I don’t like this, bro,” Leon deadpans in return, a fine and funny moment from the M.C. turned actor Joey Bada$$.)
The freakout concludes at the basketball court as the hacker genius turned paranoid recluse sounds his barbaric yawp: “WOOOOOOOO, SLAAAAAAAM DUNNNKKK!!!” It’s a thing of goofily cathartic beauty …and it’s almost immediately cut off at the knees when he turns to us and his narration says, with weary resignation, “You’re not buying any of this either.”
This week’s episode of “Mr. Robot” takes great pleasure in these moments of unexpected, self-effacing humor. Given that the main rap against the show is its grim tone — as if seriousness and self-seriousness are conterminous phenomena — it’s a useful tool for the series to have in its arsenal. On a surface level, this installment is concerned with some of the bleakest events in the story to date: the discovery of the old-school phone hacker Romero’s corpse by his confederate Mobley, the latter’s increasing conviction that their group has been marked for death by the fearsome organization the Dark Army, Elliot’s desperate attempts to overdose himself out of his Mr. Robot persona’s clutches, his garrulous new pal Ray’s tragic and violent back story. But the writing, the performances, and the filmmaking make it seem like all involved are having the time of their lives, off-camera anyway.
“Why this mask? It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?” The opening lines of the second season of “Mr. Robot” may emerge from the mouth of corporate creep turned America’s most-wanted missing person Tyrell Wellick, but the man speaks for many of us. Despite having joined forces with the show’s mentally unstable main character Elliot Alderson and his hacker confederacy fsociety, Wellick is not above questioning the group’s corny iconography. The Anonymous-indebted disguises, the snide sobriquet, the “Fight Club” posturing: Is there really a method to this madness, Wellick wonders, or is it all a cheesy cover for adolescent anarchism that won’t change a thing in the long run? That’s the question “Mr. Robot” is apparently trying to answer — and so far, that answer is a surprisingly grim one.
On the overcast May morning when I meet Esmail at a Bed-Stuy basketball court where Mr. Robot is shooting, he seems very real indeed. At 6’ 4″, Esmail stands a head higher than star Rami Malek or cinematographer Tod Campbell. Until the basketball-playing extras show up, he’s the tallest person in the playground — his black-rimmed glasses and air of stubbly, slightly artsy dishevelment make him look like an overgrown film student. He wears a Canada Goose coat far bulkier than anything else being sported on the temperate late-spring morning, which adds to his imposing figure as he buzzes around the location. “He’s a presence,” says a network rep watching him work in the same awestruck tone I’d heard from the cast.
When he speaks loudly, his voice turns into a booming baritone. “LET’S DO THAT ONE MORE TIME,” he bellows from the director’s chair halfway across the playground, as Malek, Christian Slater, and newcomer Craig Robinson — plus a canine co-star who’s proving somewhat difficult to wrangle — run their lines. “GREAT!” Esmail says after the take is completed, before he grins and adds “I’M TALKING TO THE DOG.”
“He’ll definitely yell at us all the time,” Doubleday tells me. “You’ll hear a resounding ‘CARLY!’ or ‘PORTIA!’ or ‘NO, RAMI!’” But the actor insists he’s neither a dictator nor a disciplinarian. “He just knows us so well,” says Doubleday. “He’s said so many times, ‘You guys know these characters better than I do. I don’t know if you’ll have a better idea than me, so bring it to the table and we’ll see if it works.’ If he likes it, it sticks. If he doesn’t, then I trust that it wasn’t right for the moment, because he’s seeing the entire world.”
I profiled Sam Esmail and his show Mr. Robot for my debut at The Verge. A lot of work went into this one on all sides and really I hope you enjoy it.
Game of Thrones (HBO, April 24)
The cable network’s dark-fantasy juggernaut has left a long trail of dead characters and shocked audiences in its wake, though readers of George R.R. Martin’s books always knew when to duck. All that changes when the show returns for its sixth season this year — because The Winds of Winter appears to have hit the proverbial Wall, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been free to plan their own red weddings this season. While the show will continue to be based at least in part on future plans revealed to creators by Martin, it had already begun deviating from the source with increasing regularity and boldness. (Is Jon Snow alive or dead? Who the hell knows?) Look for an even stormier winter than usual.
Fitting for a show about those occupying society’s technological substrata,Mr. Robot’s characters are often placed at the very bottom of the frame. This leaves massive amounts of headroom that suggests a great weight hanging over their heads, and echoes their isolation: When they’re talking right to each other, they seem alone. In more conventional filmmaking, conversations are cut with the characters looking at each other from opposite ends of the frame, leaving what’s known as “leading room” between their faces that helps convey the physical space they occupy. Mr. Robot inverses the norm by “shortsighting” the characters, positioning their faces at the edge of the frame closest toward the person to whom they’re speaking.
“Shortsighting is unnerving,” Campbell explains. “It further accentuates how fucked-up Elliot’s world is. The idea was to convey the loneliness. That’s the internal dialogue I had with myself: How do we tell that story? How do you get Elliot across?”
The effect goes a long way in selling audiences on the mounting paranoia and dissociation of the show’s main character, hacker Elliot Alderson (Malek). Without the usual pattern to help us intuit spatial relationships, these scenes create the sense that the characters don’t know where they stand in relation to one another. They also remind us of the picture-in-picture, face-against-flat-surface nature of video chatting, which can’t be overlooked on a show this attuned to the alienating effects of technology.
I spoke with Mr. Robot’s director of photography, Tod Campbell, about the show’s gorgeous shot compositions for Vulture. It felt great to write an article about television that focused on pure form. Woo!