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.

 

“Case”–Hot or Cold?

Case Netflix Original

Case, Netflix Original

Nordic Noir crime dramas are now being imported and exported at an ever-increasingly rapid rate. Case, a Netflix Original, premiered in Iceland in 2015. In all that sharing of this Nordic noir genre, there has been a great flattening of content and quality with an obvious formula identifying the genre. This is my ninth review of Nordic Noir films and mini-series.  I am so addicted I inhale these grim, bleak, crime thrillers in almost a voyeuristic way. But I tell myself it’s only really dangerous and/or sick if you take action. No worries, but it is like watching a train wreck. Or is this genre an act of subterfuge? Corking our anxiety like acid in a vial?

Case begins in exactly the way we’ve come to expect: a young girl — in this case a teenage ballerina — is found dead in a horrifying scene. A gruff police investigator (with some deficiency in social skills) and her partner (a disgraced lawyer), obsessive and determined, solve the case against great odds from the authorities, those they assume they can trust, and slowly reveal the dark secrets of the entitled class.

In Case a wonderfully dowdy, suitably curmudgeonly, single female detective, Gabriela (Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir), tenaciously works on solving the murder like an OCD avenging angel.

A wild drug-and-sex bacchanalia (common for this genre) provides local color as the stark naked blackmailer addresses his interrogator while distractedly pulling on his “man-meat”. (Is this a new first in cinematography?) Add Case to your Nordic noir watch list.

Movies today are sometimes extreme projections of the silver screen of our fears and dreams. And Nordic noir almost monopolizes the fear category (excluding horror, which I avoid). Case is not nearly as tightly woven as Bordertown, Department Q, or The Break to name a few, Nevertheless, the narrative still held my interest. Instead of evocative red herrings to take the viewer off track, Case has a saggy middle of irrelevant scenes that nearly destroys the pacing.   My advice–stick with it past the first two episodes (of nine) and the narrative picks up with a head-spinning series of surprises especially in episodes seven and eight.

“Bordertown”– New Boundaries in Scandinavian Noir

Bordertown Netflix original

Bordertown (Sojornen)

You can escape the big city and its frenetic fierceness, but you can’t escape murder, not even in the hinterland of Finland. That’s the psychologically disturbing theme in Bordertown, Netflix’s latest international acquisition and the latest Scandinavian Noir drama that’s sure to mesmerize audiences.

Bordertown is also a drama about family in which crime disrupts and plagues the family’s attempts at intimacy and communication.

The main character, Detective Kari Sorjonen, decides he needs to leave the horrors of urban crime for a slower pace, moving his wife and teenage daughter to his wife’s hometown bordering St. Petersburg. Looking for balance between family and work, Sorjonen soon finds himself in the midst of a disturbing investigation tangentially linking the brutal murders of teenage girls to his own family.

The brooding, dark environment –like all great Nordic Noir —underscores the underbelly of nasty psychopaths and their heinous crimes. In Bordertown almost all of the horror involves teenage girls–but the main plot which carries emotional weight throughout the series is that Kari Sorjonen just wants to have dinner with his family without being called away to another brutal murder scene. The fact that his daughter is the same age as the victims overwhelms and drives Sorjonen to maniacally solve each crime.

Sorjonen, as a savant with picture-perfect photographic memory, literally constructs memory palaces with masking tape laid out on the floor. Dysfunctional and deeply flawed in many ways (like Sherlock Holmes, Adrian Monk, and the autistic female detective in each of three adaptations of Brön or The Bridge), Sorjonen is a brilliant crime solver.

If you’re looking for a new heart-pounding crime drama series with one crime solved in two or three succeeding episodes (“Doll’s House, Parts 1, 2 and 3; then “Dragonflies”, Parts 1 and 2), then this is a great option. You can binge view until the crime is solved, three hours of viewing max, before moving on to the next murder.

I’ve got six more episodes to go!

Note: Bordertown‘s series premiere in Finland (October 2016) drew a record 1.1 million viewers, which is roughly a fifth of the country’s population.