Why you should be binge-watching ‘Mr. Robot’

The first thing you learn about Eliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is that he’s an unreliable narrator.

He meets with psychiatrist Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben). He talks about the men in black that follow him. He’s a junkie addicted to morphine pills. And he’s a depressed and paranoid schitzophrenic.

(You’re a voice in his head.)

But despite all this, Malik’s voice is hypnotic and even if his story sounds like a grand conspiracy theory, “Mr Robot” hits upon a nerve (this one encouraged people to Occupy Wall Street).

The tale Alderson spins is a superhero fairy tale, a modern retelling of Robin Hood. Actually, it’s one part “American Psycho” and one part “Robin Hood” — and the good and bad guys are painted in black and white like the bianary system of ones and zeros.

In Alderson’s story, anarchists work to dismantale the system of wealth and capitalism, to get rid of crippling student debt and eliminate the amount of money in your banking account.

Alderson’s twenty-first century superhero doesn’t don a mask, cape or sword. He wears a dark hoodie which wraps around him like a cloak. Behind a computer, he can take down child porn dealers, rapists and drug dealers. He’s hacked everyone he knows and fed online police tip lines.

But first back to Eliot, our paranoid narrator. By day Alderson works at Allsafe Cybersecurity, an online security firm with his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and her douchey boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport). The firm’s contracted to protect big multi-national banking conglomerates like E Corp and it’s suppose to guard against hackers like him.

You can probably begin to see the problem here. By principle, Eliot cannot stand everything that E Corp, which he nicknames Evil Corp, represents. Evil Corp’s empire of 1 percenters is run by guys like Senior Vice President of Technology Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) — guys with slicked back “American Psycho” haircuts who specializes in “murders and executions.” What’s more, Evil Corp, a symbolism for capitalism itself, supposedly owns 70 percent of the global consumer credit industry including a large portion of people’s debt.

Eliot’s occupation gives him insider access to Evil Corp and perhaps that’s why Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) contacts and recruits him to his fledgling vigilante hacker group fsociety. Their goal: to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Created by Sam Esmail, “Mr. Robot’s” a wonderfully mad story that you wouldn’t believe. But recent current events seem to give this story credence. I mean, would you have believed that a child sex trafficking ring was held in the basement of a D.C. pizza joint with the help of top democratic politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton? And if you did, would you have walked into this pizza joint with a loaded gun to investigate?

Or would you believed that a group of Russian hackers could sway a major U.S. election? And if you do believe in either of these things, whose to say there isn’t a small vigilante hacker group in Coney Island named fsociety who could topple world markets and eliminate all debt?

Clap your hands if you believe.

“Mr. Robot” was created by Sam Esmail. The first season is available on Amazon Prime. 

‘Wild’s’ one big leap for womankind

When “Wild” begins, we’re greeted by Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) scream from the top of a mountain. She has a prominent bruise on one of her legs and is missing one of her toenails, but those aren’t the only things that mars her. Her journey up that mountain was a sort of personal atonement — the reconciliation she needed in order to absolve herself.

That’s the story Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (of the “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) creates with his 115-minute film, “Wild.” Based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the film (whose script is penned by author Nick Hornby) is a sort of docu-drama. Witherspoon plays Strayed, a likable girl setting on a personal quest for redemption.

Along the way, Mother Nature beats her up. She loses toenails, boots and a string of condoms as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by her lonesome. Meanwhile, she’s forced to confront some of harshest truths about her past. Among them: grieving for her mother’s (Laura Dern) death.

“Wild” is a long film. For almost two hours, we’re largely left alone with Reese Witherspoon as a companion. She’s personable and unassuming, but like her, we feel the repetitiveness of the hike. Each minute is a chore. The backpack is heavy on our backs. The hot desert sun is burning our skin. The taste of cold mush is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, we’re running out of water.

It’s as if Vallée has a running tally on the screen: Strayed vs. Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is winning by a longshot. Day one: Strayed carries a backpack more than half her size. Day two: she discovers that she bought the wrong fuel for the stove she packed. Day 30: she encounters snow.

Of course, those aren’t the only roadblocks on the road less traveled. There are multiple times when we think Strayed will either be raped or injured. She looks honest and vulnerable. A man tells her to wait in his van.

Meanwhile, Witherspoon mutters a litany of swear words with each step. “Remember, you can quit at any time,” she reminds herself.

She doesn’t. Strayed’s a survivor, persevering beyond stereotypes. Her walk is symbolic and empowering — as if one small step is one big leap for womankind.

“Wild” was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed memoir. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress in the 87th Academy Awards and the 72nd annual Golden Globe Awards for her performance in the film. 

Conducting ‘Whiplash’

When you think of the jazz greats, there’s Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker and Andrew Neiman. You probably haven’t heard of the latter, though, unless you’ve seen Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated film, “Whiplash.”

In the 107-minute drama, Miles Teller stars at 19-year-old Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer attending the prestigious and cutthroat Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. He could be one of the kids from “Fame.” His dream is to become a household jazz icon and to do so means earning the respect of Shaffer’s studio jazz band conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher is not the encouraging chorus instructor in Ryan Murphy’s TV comedy “Glee”; instead, Fletcher resembles the abrasive cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester or a male version of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” He’s the type of virtuoso that you both love and despise; you secretly hate him while constantly seeking his approval. Meanwhile, Fletcher spews cruel, racial, homophobic and religious slurs at you. He sounds like a football coach rather than a conductor, punctuating his speeches with curse words. But he can also be deceptively sweet.

In one scene Fletcher is reassuring Neiman: “The key is to relax,” Fletcher says. “Don’t worry about the other guys. You’re here for a reason. Have fun.” In the next scene, Fletcher humiliates Neiman in front of the band, hurling a chair at his head while enacting his favorite didactic story:

“Imagine if [Jo] Jones had just said: ‘Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job,'” Fletcher says. “And then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy.”

Simmons is absolutely captivating as Fletcher, abruptly changing his voice and moods like a finely tuned fiddle. One minute, he’s calm, melodic and inviting. The next, he’s loud, harsh and grating, instilling fear among his students. He dismissed his fourth chair trombone player, Metz (C.J. Vana), because the musician couldn’t answer if he was playing out of tune. He wasn’t, Fletcher later discloses, but that’s even worse.

Simmons and Teller jerk you back and forth from sympathy to disgust. Teller’s Neiman is driven, passionate and ambitious — literally drenching his drum sets with blood and sweat. But he can also be self-centered and high strung. At times, Neiman reminds you of Jesse Eisenberg’s antisocial portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s 2010 drama “The Social Network.”

When he prematurely breaks up with his love interest, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), you expect her to slap him. His reasoning seems distorted and he drowns a guarantee for normalcy with a slim chance for greatness. Drumming becomes his obsession; Fletcher, his role model. But this relationship is an abusive one.

The antagonistic relationship between a mentor and his young protégé isn’t new. We’ve seen this in dozens of films from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Varsity Blues.” But director and screenwriter Chazelle (both literally and figuratively) drums up new momentum with the soundtrack (composed by Justin Hurwitz). Trumpets provide the sexy backdrop to young love while the breakneck double-time drumming provides the pulse in an adrenaline-driven frenzy. It’s uneven and all over the place —  just enough to give you whiplash.

Of course, the title of the film works on multiple levels. It’s the song that Neiman is learning to play when he joins Fletcher’s band. It’s also the visceral feeling you get when you watch some of the performances. (Chazelle’s even incorporates a car crash into his script, putting triple entendres to use.) It’s almost packaged too neatly, undermining the film’s playful and improvisational subject matter. That’s doesn’t mean this concert isn’t worth listening to.

Although “Whiplash” is only Chazelle’s second feature-length film, he’s a master conductor — cuing exacting cuts and powerful performances. It’s predictable and the story ends much like it begins — with a coda to Fletcher and Neiman’s perfect duet.

“Whiplash” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. “Whiplash” was nominated in the 87th Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.  

The je ne sais quoi of ‘Still Alice’

Early on in the film “Still Alice,” Julianne Moore is running. She’s not chasing after someone like she was in sci-fi thriller “The Forgotten.” She’s truly lost. And the monsters she’s running from are invisible — like the Silence from “Doctor Who.”

Moore plays Alice Howland, the type of woman you’d aspire to be. She’s poised and articulate. Intelligent and accomplished. And very, very loved. This is evident in the first scene of directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film, “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore as the loving and successful Columbia University linguistics professor.

When we first meet her, Alice is surrounded by her impressive family. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a doctor at Columbia University. Her eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) graduated from law school and is an expecting mother-to-be. Her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is going through medical school. Her youngest girl, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is pursuing a career in acting in Los Angeles.

Yet, if you’ve read Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel which the film’s based off of, you know how this story goes. Here’s a woman who has everything. Watch as she tragically loses it all.

Alice is running from something more far frightening than the aliens who kidnapped her kid. She’s running from Mother Nature, who gifted her with the inherited disease which also crippled her late father. At age 50, she’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer and she’s slowly losing her mind.

We watch Moore transform from the charismatic and self-assured professor and mother to someone who loses her bearings. She pulls out a bottle of Dove body wash from the fridge. She repeats questions and sentences over and over and over. She soils herself while looking for the bathroom in her own house. She doesn’t recognize her house-keeper or daughter. “I wish I had cancer,” she tells her husband. “I wouldn’t be so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.”

As Alice loses more and more of herself to the disease, the camera blurs. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir focuses his lens on Moore’s forlorn expressions and vivid red hair. In one scene, Alice is the only one in focus. Her husband and children are blurry in the background, discussing her treatment as if she’s not there.

Glatzer, who’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, might know what it’s like to feel invisible. ALS has taken his words, but not his mind. The film treats disease with sensitivity, but also forces us to confront the frightening effects of aging. We might also lose our minds someday — our ability to see, hear and think. Whether it’s at 50 or 100, our years are all numbered.

If it was Glatzer and Westmoreland’s intention to make us empathize with the sick and elderly, they’ve succeeded. The camera focuses on a series of text — Words with Friends, plays, lecture notes — all the building blocks of human communication. When we lose our words, we lose our ability to think as well as our ability to express our desires. We become invisible. A husk of our former selves. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have thoughts or feelings. We just might not know how to express them.

Through Glatzer and Westmoreland lens, Alice is never invisible. Moore shines. Instead, words, people, faces and settings blur around her. She’s still Alice — even as she loses her sense of time and place, her words and memories. She says so in a tear-jerking speech given at an Alzheimer fundraiser: “I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once…. It means so much to be talking here, today, like my old ambitious self who was so fascinated by communication.”

“Still Alice” was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland based on Lisa Genova’s novel. The film is nominated in the 87th Academy Award for Best Actress. Moore won the 2015 Golden Globe award for Best Actress for her performance as Alice Howland. 

‘Boyhood’: Linklater’s ethereal portrait of childhood

“Can’t believe they’re so big,” says Mason Sr., the fictitious father in Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated coming-of-age film, “Boyhood.”

But with some movie magic, we watch as a real boy and girl age. Twelve years go by in 165 minutes. And we’re left with a time capsule circa 2002 to 2014.

The stars are Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelai Linklater). We watch as they trade Oregon Trail for Nintendos and Harry Potter for Wiis. Music serves as cultural bookmarks, allowing us to place the year. Samantha antagonizes her younger brother in their bedroom with her a cappella version of Britney Spears’ “Oops… I Did It Again.” Years later, the siblings share a game of pool with their romantic partners over Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know.”

Even as “Boyhood” invokes our feelings of nostalgia, the film deals with some pretty tough stuff — especially for kids.

Mason and Sam are forced to pack up and move after their mother and father split. Mason worries that his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), won’t be able find him after they move. His mother, Olivia (Patrica Arquette), reassures him.

These poignant moments make up much of the film. Mason asks his father if elves exist. Mason Sr. responds that elves don’t really exist, but magic does.

That’s what “Boyhood” is. Magical.

The passage of time is seamless, but the portraits keep changing. Facial hair spurts and voices crack. Wrinkles emerge and laughter lines become more prominent.

Linklater takes you on a journey, using Coltrane as his vehicle. One minute he’s catching butterflies with his dad. The next, he’s graduating high school and driving alone to college. Figures move in and out of focus and you realize that your childhood heroes are just as confused as you are. As Sam and Mason age, their parents grow up along with them.

“Boyhood” isn’t everyone’s story, but it’s universal enough. There’s bullying, peer pressure, alcohol and breakup as well as divorce, domestic violence, aging and and self-realization. Linklater delves into our psyche, echoing our fears as we ponder the meaning of life.

Meanwhile, nothing and everything happens at once.

“Boyhood” was written and directed by Richard Linklater and filmed over the course of 12 consecutive years. “Boyhood” was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. “Boyhood” won the 2015 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Motion Picture. 

The man and woman behind ‘The Theory of Everything’

One moment of James Marsh’s new biopic, “The Theory of Everything,” displays Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones of “Like Crazy”) spinning, round and round, giddy with excitement. Stephen, a doctoral student at the prestigious University of Cambridge, just had an epiphany which redefines how the world works. His theory hinges on the singularity of the space time continuum — that if he reversed time, he could calculate when and how time began.

Time traveling’s a privilege few yield, including “The Theory of Everything’s” filmmakers. Marsh, Redmayne and Jones (with the help of editor Jinx Godfrey and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme) rewind the clock and play back Hawking’s life in two hours on the silver screen.

Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” the story begins in 1963. Stephen and Jane meet at a Cambridge party and do an adorably awkward dance around each other. Because it’s a film, there’s room for embellishments — there’s lights and music and stars and literal fireworks that fill the night sky. A jazz quartet serenades the couple as Jane quotes Genesis to Stephen; and then its just the two of them — like Adam and Eve, swaying together on a bridge, sharing a long, passionate kiss.

But if there’s a beginning, there’s also an end. Stephen and Jane’s story is one of star-crossed lovers who defy all odds. Stephen’s demise starts when his hand shakes as he scribbles math equations on a chalkboard. His gait’s wobbly and he falls in the Cambridge courtyard with his ears ringing.

Suddenly, there’s no music — only the pulsating sounds of a hospital room. The doctors diagnose him with motor neuron’s disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. He has two years to live.

If this summer’s ALS ice bucket challenge didn’t bring this terrible and crippling disease to light, Redmayne certain does as we watch him deteriorate. In one scene, he valiantly braves a grin as he struggles to eat peas — a task Stephen’s friends and colleagues accomplish effortlessly. In another scene, his twisted hands barely have enough power to pull himself up the stairs.

Redmayne’s feet are contorted and his body’s lopsided as he walks like a marionette with God pulling the strings. But Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in God. He believes in cosmology — that one singular equation will explain the universe. That reason, his everything — who explains how he continues to defy his doctor’s predictions, at least — is Jane.

There’s a quiet fierceness to Jones’ Jane. We watch her lips quiver as Stephen leans heavily on a croquet mallet. In another scene, she has trouble reading because she’s looking after Stephen and their kids. Jane possesses a blind and unwavering faith which helps her endure. It doesn’t hurt that she has the help of her church’s choir director, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (played by the handsome Charlie Cox).

The real star of “The Theory of Everything,” however, isn’t someone who appears on screen. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson chronicles the magic, romance and tragedies of Anthony McCarten’s screenplay with his beautiful and original instrumental score. The curious ripples of a piano convey Stephen’s sense of discovery. A faint buzzing narrates his fall. Jóhannsson’s music is incredibly moving, rich and textured with the sad and soothing sounds of a violin and piano.

McCarten’s screenplay covers Stephen’s life over a 26-year time span: from 1963 until 1989 when Queen Elizabeth II named him a Companion of Honor. This avoids the public controversies during the later years: glossing over Jane and Stephen’s eventual divorce (1995) and his marriage to his nurse Elaine Mason (played by Maxine Peake in the film). It also makes the viewer feel gypped.

“The Theory of Everything” contains neither the comfort of everlasting love nor the knowledge of an omnipresent higher being looking out for us. (Stephen Hawking himself is an atheist.) Instead, the crescendos fade like the black hole’s of Hawking’s radiation theory — eventually fizzling out and dying. 

“The Theory of Everything” was directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten.