Ozark–A Stark, Dark Thriller

Ozark Netflix original series

This Netflix Original series (released July 21 of this year) was created by screenwriter Bill Dubuque (known for The Accountant, see my review). Ozark is so good it approaches the standard set by “Breaking Bad”.

The series showcases Chicago financial planner Marty Byrde (a sensational Jason Bateman from “Arrested Development”) and his wife Wendy (the impeccable Laura Linney of “Masterpiece Theater”)  a homemaker turned real estate agent. The couple relocate with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

What ensues in ten episodes is a taut thriller with plot twists which are neither slow nor predictable. Ozark is populated with some seriously heinous flawed characters: think Walter White. But then again “flawed characters” are just more interesting, as long as we can understand their motivations. There is no message of hope–at least not so far. and the only reality we witness is of extremely wounded personalities.

The scenes from the Byrde marriage recall the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney have a conjugal dance that leaves the viewer cringing at each blow and confrontation.

Although the acting and dialog are brillant, Ozark may fall outside of some viewers comfort zones. While you would not want to be friends with ANY of the main characters, a few scenes may be “over the top” for some.

One criticism I do have of “Ozark” is that the minor characters who live in the Lake of the Ozarks are playing to type–or maybe stereotype–of rednecks–uneducated and desperate– who can’t think of any other life choices besides crime. There are a brother-sister pair attempting to escape their circumstances but tremendous fear and family loyalty prevent them from exiting their miserable situation. Mexicans are also stereotyped as either in drug cartels or “cleaning toilets”. Those aspects of Ozark I find offensive, and wish screenwriters would work a little harder at making their point rather than perpetrating stereotypes. The narrative is otherwise superb.

“Ozark carefully guides the audience through the story, sometimes to excess. (For example, one episode unnecessarily is devoted almost entirely to backstory.)  However, Ozark is far from predictable. Bateman’s disarming and deceptively complex performance contributes greatly to his character’s evolution. He’s not sympathetic, and he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. He is desperate to protect his family as well as to survive. He is smart, employing any ruthless means at his disposal.

Please hurry with the release of the next season!

Note: [Not a spoiler alert) The finale is an editing anomaly in comparison to the preceding episodes. I thought it was a bit sloppy and melodramatic, detracting from the overall craft of screenwriting throughout this notable series.

 

“House of Cards”, Season 4: Still Stacks Up

House of CardsReleased on Netflix on March 4, “House of Cards: Season 4” grabs viewers yet again—primarily because of the spectacular rise of Claire Underwood (the incomparable Robin Wright). Equal to her husband Frank as a partner in crime (Kevin Spacey at his best), Claire’s rapid and ruthless ascension to power left this viewer breathless. For better or worse, this is a marriage like no other portrayed on television.

Season 4 weaves in past stories, corpses, ex-lovers, and accomplices at lightning speed, to remind us that what Claire wants most in life is to be significant: to be recognized for the power she has, with or without her husband. All of Claire’s hunger and dissatisfaction arise in fury as the woman scorned.

This season revels in the seesawing of the Underwoods: pulling together, then ripping apart. separating and reuniting, as the ultimate power couple realizes they are an inseparable force.   Formidable beyond measure, stronger when united, the Underwoods are nothing less than a molecular structure whose chemical bond creates a new element.

For the first time  Claire’s backstory helps us understand why she had become the person she is. A brilliant narcissistic mother (played by the elegant Ellen Burstyn) reveals the fractured relationship between mother and daughter, which has damaged Claire. Far more than the one-dimensional ice queen, Claire compartmentalizes her life in order to maintain control. For both of the Underwoods—as revealed in their backstories—power is their identity, in the absence of family love and acceptance.

As Claire, Robin Wright smoothly and with little affect cuts through their path to survival with increasingly more perilous Macchiavellian strategies . They have merged into a singular, ruthless force determined to be unstoppable.

In the final two lines of Season 4 we have a jaw-dropping moment, demonstrating Claire’s shift in strength, resilience, and as a catalyst for Frank. Two terse sentences uttered by Frank, but equally imaginable as spoken by Claire, frightened and stunned this viewer..   The paradigm and plot have shifted radically in Beau Willemon’s continued brilliance as a screenwriter. The newest season of House of Cards is indeed binge-worthy.

 

 

 

 

Netflix Instant Queue–My List

netflix

My last blog on the pleasure of curling up to watch past episodes of favorite TV programs or programs and movies you missed while they were being released for the first time was on February 6, 2012 (“Netflix Instant Queue”–BBC’s Your Best Bet).

Netflix is now a juggernaut.  For me the pleasures of Netflix downloading has tripled just like their stock. And just as Amazon is challenging the distribution of bricks-and-mortar publishing by promoting e-books, so Netflix is challenging the entertainment world of cinema and television with instant streaming.

A few recommendations in the movie category including some oldies as well as original content produced exclusively for Netflix viewers:

1) Blackfish (2013) (see last week’s review of April 19): A searing documentary about how SeaWorld treats the orcas in captivity for the Shamu show.

2) Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011):  A reporter’s perspective on “dead tree” newsprint and the demise of the newspaper world as we know it.

3) House of Cards , seasons 1 and 2 (see my reviews February 11, 2013 and March 12, 2014.  One of the best political thrillers ever.  Not just a remake of the 1990’s British series, but an original drama of the corruption of politics in the US created expressly for Netflix.

4) Orange is the New Black (see my reviews of August 7 and  August 15, 2013) A breathtaking example of narrative writing at its finest.  Loosely based on  true events, this Netflix original raises the question:  How does one survive in a penal institution that can kill your soul?

5) Fargo (1996)  This classic Coen brothers eccentric crime thriller is the basis for the riveting new television series by the same name that has just broadcast two episodes on HBO.  There are very few similarities in story but the TV version of the quirky characters and personalities channel the cinema upon which the HBO series is based.  Watch both!

6) Side Effects (2012) (see my review July 31, 2013)  This limited-distribution Steven Soderbergh drama should have had considerably more traction!  The crime revealed is bad, really bad. But the question is not who did it but who should be held responsible?

7) The World Before Her (2012)  This haunting Indian documentary focuses on two young women, both believing themselves independent and feminist.  Ironically (from an American’s point of view), one yearns to be  Miss India while the other trains to become a militant nationalist.  Riveting!

Try some of these  on my list, let me know ones you would recommend, and continue to discover the more obscure but worthwhile cinematic treasures we have to choose from–more than ever before!  At the click or swipe of a finger!

“House of Cards” — A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?

Why wait a week to watch another episode when an entire buffet is available?  A lot has been written recently about “binge-watching” the practice of sitting on the couch or in bed to gorge on an entire season or a majority of episodes of a television series in one batch.  The bulimic viewer was not possible before Tivo, DVRs and Netflix video streaming (aka Instant Queue). Netflix has given us 13 episodes of “House of Cards”, a reinterpretation of the 1990 BBC miniseries which starred Sir Ian Richardson as a conniving Parliamentarian who rose to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate.

This 2013 “House of Cards” is the first foray into developing original television content exclusively for Netflix members. What has been the unintended outcome of the release of all thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” on February 1 is that the critical reviews of “House of Cards” have been more about “binge-watching” and less about the plot of this powerful political minidrama.

With the genius of Beau Willimon, (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Ides of March”) and David Fincher (Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network”) we have a set of twisted plots worthy of Machiavelli or the Borgias. “House of Cards” has been transformed into a contemporary American narrative about a vengeful Beltway insider, US Congressman and House majority whip Frank Underwood.  Hailing from a nowhere town in South Carolina, Underwood masterminds the destruction of all those who blocked his appointment to Secretary of State.

Set in present-day Washington, D.C., Underwood (Kevin Spacey) decides to inflict his volcanic temper and impalpable revenge upon those who betrayed him.  With lethal self-centeredness he is successful in every detail.  Underwood and his wife Claire (exceptionally played by Robin Wright), epitomize an über power-hungry couple who stops at nothing to conquer everything.  Each needs the other in order to be lethal.   Ruthless and cunning, Frank and Claire bask in the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption, severing all ties with anyone who stands in their way.  Nothing and no one are beyond their grasp, no matter whom they hurt.  Both exploit even the good qualities in others to set them up for manipulation and debasement.

While I personally like watching more than one episode at a time, if the story is tightly woven and meticulously written, I want to savor every tasty morsel.  “House of Cards” has such biting dialog, stunning character work and a provocative exploration of contemporary politics that an “all-you-can-watch” buffet of episodes may result in indigestion. Use portion control in feasting on this series.