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.

 

“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.

The Keepers–Another Spotlight

The Keepers review
Sister Cathy Cesnik

In this seven-episode true-crime documentary from Netflix (released May 19 of this year), The Keepers explores the 1969 death of 26-year old Catholic nun and Baltimore schoolteacher Sister Cathy Cesnik and touches on 20-year-old Joyce Malecki’s murder four days later. Both slayings remain unsolved. The cover up that follows has echoes of Spotlight (see my review of January 16, 2016).

Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two retired 60-something grandmothers and former students of Sister Cathy’s at Archbishop Keough High School, still feel disturbed by the almost-half-a-century-old cold case. Who savagely beat and then murdered beloved teacher Sister Cathy? Starting a Facebook group in 2014 to reach out to others to share information about Sister Cathy’s murder, these two badass senior citizens–as intrepid and analytical as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple–uncover a cold case like no other that the Baltimore police or Catholic Church has had to contend with.   Abbie and Gemma create a safe space for people who had been afraid to speak up.  And the role of social media is astounding as a tool for criminal investigation. These two amateur sleuths use the internet brilliantly!

The Keepers, which some viewers may compare to Making a Murderer, spotlights a ring of child sex abuse so savage that the collateral damage– including addiction and suicide– may have affected over one-hundred students at the all-girl Catholic high school. We witness an incredibly raw, harrowing, eye-opening journey that implicates those we are raised to trust most: family, church, and state.

A lot of people were threatened by Sister Cathy, if she were to talk.The Keepers suggests a strong link between the police’s deliberate mishandling of the case and the archdiocese’s intentional cover-up in this devout Catholic community.

Attention is first drawn in 1994 by Jean Hargadon Wehner–who is the first to come forth and reveal the possible perpetrators in Cathy’s murder. She also files a $40 million lawsuit alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the high school chaplain, Father Maskell. She reports that he showed her Sister Cathy’s body in the woods when she was his student– as a warning against speaking out.  “Do you see what happens when you say bad things about people?” She kept her secret for almost thirty years. “I put what happened to me in a box, so I could survive,” Jean explains.

Netflix has masterfully produced an intense whodunit on several levels: 1) We see the community blinded by what is happening, and at times, believing the authorities over their own children; 2) We see how cruel, violent behavior in the name of religion can manipulate the innocent and inexperienced into submission; 3) We see how the lack of sexual education and candor led to rampant manipulation of children; 4) And we see how post-traumatic stress shuts down memory as a self-protective mechanism in order to deal with unhealed wounds.

This powerful exposé spotlights corruption by the Catholic church, the police department, and the court system. At the end we see an outraged Jean Hargadon Wehner scream out, in a raw hoarse cry, — “Those mother fuckers!”

 

Note: As of May 23, the Baltimore City Police Department has created a Facebook page to help solve the murders. Leads and possible witnesses in the investigations continue after the last day of filming. Additional social media sites have become involved (subreddits in particular).

“Thirteen Reasons Why”–The Amber of the Moment

Thirteen Reasons Why

The Netflix Orginal Series, Thirteen Reasons Why, is based upon the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, depicting the trauma of teen angst, cyberbullying, sexual assault, and suicide. All thirteen episodes were released for streaming March 31.Co-produced by singer and actress Selena Gomez and her mother, Thirteen Reasons Why has evoked heated commentary, leading to the most-tweeted TV show this year.

Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on two narrators: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker (Australian newcomer Katherine Langford in a breakthrough role). In the opening scene Clay returns home from school to discover a box containing six double-sided cassette tapes lying on his front porch. These are Hannah’s tape-recorded diary, an account of why she concluded that suicide was the only way out of her pain. The twelve reasons why (later, Clay adds the thirteenth) are an intricately woven, searing and gut-wrenching fabric of young Hannah’s life– confusion and desperation that rips out her will to live. Each of the twelve tapes calls out in detail a high school student’s grave injury to Hannah, leading to her unraveling.

Hannah, a beautiful teenager new to Lincoln High School, is an only child with devoted parents.   She is eager to make friends. Rather passive at first, succumbing to boys’ arrogant and callous mistreatment in order to be accepted, Hannah soon finds the role and status assigned to her to be overwhelming and demeaning.   The confidence needed to stand up and report to school administrators is just not there. Moreover, Clay–who is secretly and awkwardly in love with her–exhibits the same lack of confidence necessary to express his feelings towards her. This is a Romeo-Juliet dance ending with horrible repercussions for all involved in Hannah’s undoing.

Hannah’s parents—concerned, compassionate, and determined to understand their daughter’s suicide—are ultimately absent from Hannah’s life. Neither is able to even identify Hannah’s friends, let alone her enemies or tormenters.  The other parents can’t deal with what is happening and bewildered, distance themselves from Hannah’s parents. In the end, what’s most responsible is the failure of parents to understand the stresses in their teenage sons and daughters’ lives and of the administrators to care enough to intercede.   Alarms bells should ring. As Clay says in the final episode, reflecting on the student body’s treatment of Hannah: “It has to get better somehow–the way we treat each other.”

Thirteen Reasons Why is, in no small part, controversial because of its graphic portrayal of the act of suicide and of assault. Some have criticized the series as a how-to manual–an inspiration, even a glorification or act of revenge– for copycat teenage suicide.   But it is an expose of teenage angst and how it can accelerate and lead to tragedy, when there is no one to help. For those of us who only vaguely remember those years in which a glance or an insult could deeply wound and be almost unbearable, Thirteen Reasons Why may seem overwrought and slow in pacing. But give it time to sink in: that teenagers are unbelievably vulnerable. In the thirty-minute discussion with professional psychologists after the series finale, we see how the warning signs are always there, if we are perceptive enough to see them and brave enough to acknowledge them.

However problematic this series may seem to some, Thirteen Reasons Why  reveals a painful and undeniable truth. Many parents know next to nothing about what goes on in their teenagers’ lives.

Kurt Vonnegut may have said it best: “Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

 

“Bloodline”—An Intravenous Infusion of Disaster

 

Bloodline

“Bloodline”, a dramatic thriller from the creators of “Damages,” just completed its second season on Neftlix Originals. Exploring the darkest secrets of an affluent American family in the Florida Keys, Bloodline digs deep into the underbelly of the Rayburns, the upstanding pillars of society for their small coastal community. Their past, however, contains dark secrets that have damaged all of them. After an unthinkable crime takes place, the façade of the tight-knit caring family disintegrates, replaced by betrayal, abandonment, and more criminal behavior.

The theme of family is always a heady combination with the addition of crime and dysfunction. “Bloodline” punches us in the guts as we ask ourselves what would we do if we were accessories to a crime in the name of family solidarity. Family roles change, and in “Bloodlines” we see the dark side of each family member morph and astonish. With Sissy Spacek playing the matriarch, and Kyle Chandler as the titular head of the family and Ben Mendelsohn as his brother, we can understand the Emmy-nominated performances in this riveting family-thriller. The ghosts of the past dictate limited options and new role formation for each. This is another outstanding series on the ferocious nature of family sagas and the Rashomon perspectives and chameleon nature of family structure. Highly recommended. Season 3 will be released next summer.