“The Circle” — A Movie Review by Liz Warner

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Techno-thriller “The Circle” gets the techno part down well. It’s the thriller part it lacks. That said, I’m a big fan of the sub-genre and enjoyed this film more than its iffy reviews and disappointing opening weekend box office might suggest.

RECOMMENDED: WITH CAVEAT

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Better Call Saul — A Review by Liz Warner (Season 3, Episodes 1-3 Spoilers)

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 10.15.39 PMBetter Call Saul’s premiere for season three is now history. The cold open featured Jimmy [Bob Odenkirk] as Gene at the Omaha Cinnabon taking a lunch break. When cops try to chase down a shoplifter, he points to the youth, but after police make the arrest, Gene yells out, “Get a lawyer!” Gene returns to work after lunch and passes out, falling to the floor.

The show then picks up immediately after last season’s finale. Jimmy helps Chuck [Michael McKean] take down his home’s mylar wrapping as they reminisce, but Chuck informs Jimmy he won’t forget what Jimmy did to him and the Mesa Verde documents. Chuck, staying on at his law firm, HHM, reveals the confession tape to Howard and “accidentally” to Ernesto when Ernesto brings him fresh batteries for his tape recorder. Chuck gives him a B’rer Rabbit warning.

Jimmy and Kim [Rhea Seehorn] continue their separate law practices, but Kim has to pick up some of Jimmy’s elder law clients (who know about flowers, including perhaps, lily-of-the-valley?) on top of her Mesa Verde work.  Paige tips Kim off as to what happened with HHM.  Kim starts second-guessing her drafting in a typing/retyping montage. The Air Force captain calls out Jimmy for his Fudge Talbot commercial last season.

Meanwhile, in a long montage, Mike looks for and finds a tracker in the gas cap of his car after he received a note, “DON’T” on his windshield. He gets a replica of the tracker, and programs it to call home. He drains the battery on the original so it emits a low power warning to his spies and places it nearby.  He replaces the original with his own, waiting for the trackers to come take it while he lies in wait, eating nuts.  This, ultimately, will lead him to the Gustavo Fring [Giancarlo Esposito] drug ring. While the screenwriter maxim of “show, don’t tell” was illustrated here, it was also an example of why a little exposition is really okay–the montage was a bit of a challenge to follow.

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Screen shot of Mike Ehrmantraut from Season 3 premier “Mabel.”

The show’s been criticized for its glacial pacing, and this season so far hasn’t surprised.  Whether another show could get away with this snail’s pace is uncertain. Here, though, viewers have grown to trust Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as storytellers.  Also, it’s a prequel and viewers essentially know what happens, making the journey, not the destination, more interesting.

Better Call Saul, a prequel to Breaking Bad, is arguably a better show.  Why? The premise is more tethered to reality.  And, more importantly, the characters are more believable and sympathetic.  Jimmy is a charming and witty conman cum matchbook cover lawyer who looks for the easy way out.  His OCD brother, Chuck, studied diligently for his law degree earning his reputation the hard way, and resents his younger brother.  (Birth order matters here.)  Kim is meticulous and only flirts with thinking outside the box, which is part of her attraction to Jimmy. Crooked ex-cop Mike has the patience and wit to outsmart the best. Howard works at keeping the practice successful, despite personnel problems with neurotic Chuck.

Compare these characters to those on Breaking Bad. Walter White was a long-term high school chemistry teacher who inexplicably had no health insurance, but a pleasant middle class home and SUVs.  His pregnant stay-at-home wife Skyler only sold things on Ebay, despite the family’s financial distress.  They had a disabled teenage son.  Skyler’s childless sister, Marie, stole shoes and had a fetish for the color purple.  Her husband

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Screen shot of Mike and Gus from Season 3, Epsiode 3 “Sunk Costs.”

Hank was an arrogant DEA agent who eventually saw the light regarding Walt, who, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, decided  to “break bad” and start cooking and selling crystal methamphetamine to build a nest egg for his family when he’s gone. He met up with a former student and lost soul, Jesse Pinkman, who had drug connections. They used the skills of Mike, an ex-cop. Eventually, they connected with Fring’s drug ring, with colorful characters, but not very relatable ones.

Breaking Bad was excellent, but even at the onset, it was difficult to like, or be sympathetic to Walt or most of the other characters.  The only ones I ever cared about were Jesse, Mike, and Hank, though these characters weren’t as well developed as they might’ve been.  You know it’s not going to go well for these people, but you stay tuned to watch the train wreck.

Contrast Better Call Saul.  Admittedly, there are many fans who hate Chuck, and in prior seasons, Howard was the subject of viewers’ wrath, but overall, the characters’ faults and transgressions are more credible, even Chuck’s anxiety of electromagnetic spectrum.  They have some pleasing qualities, even Chuck, who is devoted to the legal profession, and Howard, who has shown himself to be charitable at times.  Mike reappears, and we learn a bit of his backstory, which includes the unfortunate death of his cop son, who may or may not have been corrupt.

Personally, I’m in no rush for Jimmy to become Saul or for the Breaking Bad world to re-materialize.  I’ve been down that road already.  In fact, I’d rather see the transition from Saul to Gene, but we’ll likely only get our next glimpse in the premiere to the next season, where the Gene scenes are generally placed.

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Screen shot of Chuck and Jimmy from Season 3, Epsiode 3 “Sunk Costs.”

We know Chuck can’t forget Jimmy’s document tampering. He uses the brotherly psychopathy the McGills are known for to set up Jimmy, knowing Jimmy will break into his house, trash his desk, and threaten to get his taped admission back. In a momentary act of feigned or sincere concern (it’s hard to tell which), Chuck explains he’s called the cops on him for Jimmy’s own good (unlike what Gene did with the kid.) To Chuck, it’s an intervention. To Jimmy, it’s a betrayal, though his sabotage of Chuck last season was nothing less than reprehensible and unforgivable.

Chuck also sets up Jimmy’s friend, Ernesto, proving the rule that nice guys finish last.  He aims to negotiate the terms of Jimmy’s prosecution with the ADA which results in a plea offer that can’t go well and could result, minimally, in ultimately getting Jimmy disbarred.  This could leave Jimmy either practicing law as Saul Goodman without a license to practice altogether, or having him retake the bar exam under a false name.

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Screen shot of Kim and Jimmy from Season 3, Epsiode 3 “Sunk Costs.”

What happens to Kim, who Jimmy truly cares for, remains to be seen, but we don’t see her in the Breaking Bad universe nor have we seen her in the Omaha-Gene milieu (although she originally hails from neighboring Kansas.) Thus far, she’s remained loyal to him, though Jimmy won’t accept her offer for legal help (unlike what Gene recommended to the kid.)

We know what happens to Mike, but there is a good deal about his past that could be interestingly explored in this prequel. The law firm HHM is dependent on Chuck’s not cashing out, so there’s ample room for conflict there in future episodes.

BCS continues its signature style, interestingly now using 3-D printers and drones in the production of the show. The story unravels slowly but surely, with a flair for both drama and comedy.  There are too many show-don’t-tell montages for my taste, but the show’s tightly and intricately written. It’s also exceptionally well cast.  Odenkirk and McKean are particularly award-worthy.

I’ll be aboard this train for the long haul.

It’s Back … Better Call Saul. Scenes from the Los Pollos Hermanos Promotion in NYC.

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Better Call Saul, created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and starring Bob Odenkirk (shown in the promotional poster above), Michael McKean, Jonathan Banks, and Rhea Seehorn, makes its Season 3 premier on AMC on April 10, 2017.

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As part of the Season 3 promotion for Better Call Saul, AMC  opened pop-up Los Pollos Hermanos restaurants in several cities, including Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and New York.  This one in downtown New York abutted a parking garage, but was a remarkable facsimile of an actual fast food franchise.  It was only open a few days prior to the premier and attracted fans of both BCS and Breaking Bad.

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Many fans lined up for approximately an hour to enter Los Pollos and from time to time, were able to pose for nice pictures.  Here, a fan is photographed with a mysterious man who carried a bag of what appeared to be “crystal blue” methamphetamine.  Could that be Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)?  Could he return in an episode of BCS this season?

A great deal of attention went into making the experience authentic, right down to personnel and props.

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It was impossible to not be impressed by the intricate detail the promotional staff went to in recreation, both outside and inside.

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You could order, but at the NYC restaurant, you could only get spicy curly fries and a small cup of water in a signature red plastic basket.  While some fans complained about this, the price was right — free.  Given the difficulty in obtaining city food permits, you’d really have to consider yourself lucky.

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It may have been “Fuck Chuck” all over Reddit lately, but they’re too quick to forget the utterly unconscionable and unethical act of Jimmy’s towards Chuck last season.  When it was suggested to Micheal McKean at the event that Chuck could get Jimmy disbarred, in perfect character, he replied, “Believe me, I’m trying!”

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Season 3 promises to be interesting!

“Mr. Robot” – A Television Review by Liz Warner

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“What’s Mr. Robot?” I wondered aloud.

“It’s a TV show about hackers,” was the response.

That’s all I needed.  A hacker I’m not, but in my world as a writer, hackers can fill the role of hero or villain very nicely.  They can save the world or horrify us all as much in a good story as they do IRL.  I decided to watch it.

The pilot begins: “Hello, friend.”

That’s Elliot Alderson [Rami Malek] in his annoyingly droney and psychotropic-stupor-induced voice, telling viewers in a slang even we geriatrics in our mid- to late 30s understand, that he is narrating his own story to us, his imaginary friend.  It’s with that hook we’re lured in, by line and occasional sinker.  Tearing down that fourth wall can be risky, but here, it’s sublime.

The script for the pilot is available online.  It’s good on the page,  perhaps the best pilot I’ve personally ever read, but it plays even better visually.  It’s safe to say, if you don’t like the pilot, you won’t like the show, period.

The shooting style is unique and edgy without being over the top and is among the show’s strongest attributes. Some scenes in its so-far two-season run, often with wonderful musical cues, are arguably among the best in television in terms of impact. Thankfully, the camera crew doesn’t bounce the gear for cheap thrills, using angles and lighting for effect instead.

Wikipedia claims Elliot suffers from anxiety disorder and clinical depression, but it’s quickly evident he’s got more than a little good old-fashioned neurosis and mood disorder.  He’s truly psychotic, presumably schizophrenic, on top of having a substance abuse issue with morphine, apparently requiring an emergency stash of Suboxone for withdrawal.

Nonetheless, Elliot seems to hold down a computer security engineering job at a cyber-security firm called AllSafe, run by a fretful Gideon Goddard [Michel Gill], thanks to his childhood friend Angela Moss [Portia Doubleday]. AllSafe’s largest client is mega-conglomerate, E Corp, which Elliot mentally morphs to Evil Corp, both visually and aurally.  We eventually come to understand E Corp was somehow responsible for the deaths of the main characters’ parents. The CEO of E Corp is Phillip Price [Michael Cristofer] who sees opportunity in crises.

After a DDoS attack against E Corp, Elliot happens across a .dat file in the company’s network which he discovers was implanted by something called fsociety.  Intrigued, he leaves it intact.  In the subway, he later meets up with a man who we will learn is Mr. Robot [Christian Slater].  Mr. Robot urges Elliot to Coney Island where he is introduced to fsociety, a misfit underground anarchistic vigilante hacker group, co-led by a troubled young woman named Darlene [Carly Chaikin]. The fsociety objective seems to be to erase all consumer debt and disrupt the world as it exists. They are somewhat successful.  This is where the story deepens.

Often through Elliot’s point-of-view and diminished mental status, we watch his perceptions of the grim reality around him, never quite sure how accurate it really is. We hear his questionable account of fsociety hacking, through voiceover, to us, his imaginary friend. By the end of season 1, we’re given an unsurprising revelation as to his supposed identity, thanks to Mr. Robot.  Darlene’s identity is further revealed, as well. (No real spoilers here.)

The story doesn’t always unfold linearly, and the storyteller is unreliable, so there’s always some uneasiness as to what it is we’re to make of it.  Plan on second-guessing a lot.  If you’re not a fan of speculation, pattern matching, or hunting for Easter eggs, this may not be your show.

As wonderful a show as creator Sam Esmail has created, though, it’s not without some problems.  The cast of characters other than Elliot could be developed more fully.   To be fair, season 2 endeavors to do this.

The hodgepodge of characters is certainly appropriate in the setting of Gotham City, where people of all cultures and backgrounds are densely packed into shit-hole walk-ups, cooking with not much more than a hot plate and sleeping on Murphy beds, but even so, it sometimes seems more like a nod to diversity hiring than enriching the story, at least so far.

The women on the show are generally quite vacuous, and not relatable, serving the narrative by primarily by being victims of different types of abuses, intentional or otherwise. The dialogue, especially for the female characters, but some male ones as well, is almost embarrassingly on the nose.  There’s also plenty of exposition through dialogue, though I’ve never been particularly put off by that in this or other shows.  What’s depicted here on computer screens is minimized, and is purportedly grounded, thanks in part to a technical consultant, Andre McGregor, brought in for season 2.

In the adult hour of TV, there must be the occasional obligatory sex or romance scene.  In the case of Mr. Robot, though, that cannot happen with dysfunctional Elliot, unless, perhaps, it’s with a close blood relative. One is left presupposing the writers’ room consists only of lonely men.  (Surprisingly, it isn’t.)

One female character, an FBI agent named Dominique DiPierro [Grace Gummer], who sucks a roll-your-eyes Tootsie Roll pop à la Kojak, shows some promise.  She quickly evolved to become insightful, and a bit alienated herself, talking to Alexa in bed alone at night, amplifying the dystopic alienation of people in the digital age, even or especially in densely populated areas, amidst trying professional and personal circumstances.  Her goal, of course, is to foil the evil hackers who caused such disruption. At the end of season 2, we believe she may just do so.

Speaking of which, a gripe of mine continues to be the underemphasis of the crisis that would emerge in a world where people cannot easily access their money.  Surely it would be more chaotic than depicted.  The few scenes attempting to show this do it well with wonderful set pieces, but several months after the so-called 5/09 attack, one would expect more reaction from an alarmed world and the bureaucrats trying to contain the unrest.

Out there in the nether world of Mr. Robot is White Rose [B. D. Wong], a transgender woman and head of the dreaded Dark Army, who morphs into Zhang, China’s Minister of State Security.  Where all this goes next is anyone but Esmail’s guess.  It could succeed or bomb spectacularly.  I’d be up for this character to be used to draw out a sophisticated plot line or character arch based on currency (or Ecoin) manipulation by the Chinese, furthering the idea that monetary control is illusory.

Regardless, I’ll be lurking around for the duration of Mr. Robot if only to see how Esmail and his room worm their way through this dark matter.  Having invested a fair amount of time to the series, I’ll be annoyed if USA pulls it before it receives an honorable ending.  I’m fairly optimistic it will, however, as the series has generally received critical acclaim and won some awards, even if the audience ratings aren’t especially stellar.

I’m further encouraged by the fact that Esmail apparently originally wrote Mr. Robot as a feature, which suggests he envisioned a beginning, middle, and end.  This should lessen the chance it will devolve into an unwieldy mess that highly serialized shows are prone to becoming under network executive pressure to either wrap too soon or drag on indefinitely.  Still, the second season had some pacing problems.

So what is Mr. Robot?

The logline could be something like, “Under the leadership of an identity-disordered, delusional cybersecurity engineer, misfit millennial hacktivists seek vigilante justice to avenge their parents’ deaths and to change the world by attacking the computer architecture of the world’s most ubiquitous mega-conglomerate.” The theme centers around the notion that “control is an illusion.”

Mr. Robot is a hybrid.

It’s a dystopic psycho-techno-eco-thriller reality and time bender mind-fuck where you really must chose your own adventure.

It’s as intriguing as it is hard to quite grok.  That’s not a bug, it’s its feature.

Whether Elliot turns out to be the ultimate hero, villian, or antihero remains to be seen, but for now, we can just take him at his word — that he wants to change the world.

Mr. Robot has been renewed for a third 10 episode season on USA Network beginning in October 2017, all directed by Sam Esmail.

“Arrival” — A Movie Review by Liz Warner

“Arrival” — A Movie Review by Liz Warner

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“Arrival” has largely received very good reviews and was nominated for, or received, awards, but I will be a maverick here.  Although I’m a fan of the genre, I didn’t care for this sci-fi flick for the reasons I enumerate below.

NOT RECOMMENDED

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“Allied” A Movie Review by Liz Warner

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“Allied” movie poster 2016. Photo: IMDb.

It’s impossible to not compare “Allied” with the award-winning 1943 classic, “Casablanca.”  That’s because “Allied” is set in 1942 French Morocco during the African campaign of World War II. The comparison is unfortunate, though, because “Allied” can’t possibly live up to such lofty expectations.  Still, it’s a worthwhile film, ably directed by Robert Zemeckis, even with its shortcomings.

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Sully – A Movie Review by Liz Warner

Beyond here be spoilers.

Worth a Hamilton.

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Given friends’ rave reviews about “Sully,” I was surprised to have left the theater just a bit disappointed.  It was good, and I’d recommend it, but it likely won’t be in my DVD/BluRay collection unless and until it’s in the cut-out bin.

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