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.

 

“Mr. Holmes”—Not the Sherlock We All Know

 

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“Mr. Holmes” is an imaginary and revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year old dispirited and retired detective, featuring the incomparable Ian McKellen in the title role. This 2015 British-American film , based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, takes place in Sussex two years after the end of the Second World War. This interpretation, among the many Sherlock Holmes we have seen, focuses on the lonely and contemplative man struggling to remember his last case, not the analytical mind associated with the world’s most famous fictional detective.

Holmes, in the first stages of dementia, retires to his remote country home in a Sussex village with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (the superb Laura Linney) and young son, Roger (played by the astonishing newcomer, Milo Parker, who is a standout in every scene with McKellen). The young boy and his dour mother are the only human contacts Holmes now has. Holmes’ memory isn’t what it used to be.

Soon we see that Holmes has forgotten much of his last case’s details as he tries to become accustomed to retirement. Holmes only remembers fragments of the case: a confrontation with a worried husband, a secret with his beautiful but unstable wife, and a puzzling side story about the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and a Japanese family. Having returned from a journey to Japan where, in search of a rare plant for dementia, Holmes has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare and seems visibly shaken. The little boy Roger gradually becomes his closest confidante and assistant in recollecting what happened to the woman in his final detective assignment.

What I loved about this film? It captures the nuances of aging, of losing the identity most treasured but now diminishing as dementia sets in. The pace, unfortunately, can be painfully slow , even for BBC. Multiple flashbacks do not help either, leaving the viewer to guess why these scenes are important, but often frustrating with plot holes (especially the Japanese subplot).

Although “Mr. Holmes” is not fast-paced and not to all tastes, it is a niche movie for those who like character-driven stories as the main plot. The layering effect of the years and lives and incidents in the story require close attention. “Mr. Holmes” is an introspective journey—into the rabbit hole of the mysteries of life and love, before it is too late to remember.

“The Big C”– Memento Mori or “Remember You Shall Die”

Big C 2The last stages in the cycle of life and death have finally attracted film and movie producers. I am talking about the formerly taboo twin topics of aging and death.  Perhaps as we baby boomers and our children, the “echo boomers”, see that the inevitability of death needs to be part of our cultural conscience, movies that sympathetically but unflinchingly portray aging and death have been increasingly gaining mainstream audiences and awards.  To name a few:  “Departures”, “Away From Her”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”  “Hope Springs”, “Quartet”, “Amour” as well as books such as “The Year of Magical Thinking”.  Is this is a societal flashpoint which marks a cultural change only beginning to take place? The subjects of aging, the changing of the landscape of relationships and friendships, the glibness of those who are trying to offer comfort have never been portrayed in such starkness.

And now the award-winning Showtime television series, “The Big C”,–“C” is for cancer– just finished its four-part special finale to close its four-season run.  The story is Cathy’s (the remarkable Laura Linney):  a middle-aged high school teacher with terminal cancer who wants to be happier with her husband (the subtle actor Oliver Platt),  more involved with her  teenage-son (newcomer  Gabriel   Basso,  a mentor to her college-aged friend (Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame,) and a moral support to her brother (the unforgettable John Benjamin Hickey).   She wants to enjoy her last days with those around her –with a powerful energy to embrace what life she has left. The first three seasons celebrate the joy of fulfilling one’s bucket list and preparing for death with acceptance and positive control over how one chooses to die.

Fearless in its honesty about cancer, people who have to deal with a loved one’s cancer, and the broader topics of death and dying, the final four episodes of “The Big C” are riveting. The viewer cannot look away–even if the uncomfortable connections between life and death seem unbearable. “The Big C” portrays the balancing of living and dying, since death is the most uncertain certainty we know. Cathy decides to die alone: for her a death with integrity and with respect for her family.

Cancer is perhaps the most frightening medical diagnosis one can receive.  It is also, metaphorically, a mutiny of one’s self in which the death of the body is an attack on itself.  Life is savagely unfair at times, and Cathy faces this with triumph, dignity, and uncommon grace.  The horror is not minimized, although I could quibble about the ending not being as bold as it could have been. Nonetheless her journey in the face of death assumes mythic significance.  Dissertations could be written on the beauty with which this unforgettable program deals with the ineffable.