Guest Reviewer: Jerry Ludwig, retired Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Black List
Concrete Cowboy: Two words that don’t go together. But an apt title for this new movie streaming on Netflix. The words collide because it’s about two wildly different worlds. A classic Western tale of father-son redemption told in the shadow of the mean streets of a contemporary Big City. Happens to be a real story.
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from “Stranger Things”) is a troubled teenager whose mother sees him going down the tubes in crime-wrecked Detroit. So she ships him off for the summer to her ex-husband Harp (Idris Elba, “The Wire,” “Luther”) in Philadelphia. Problem is Cole doesn’t know his father. His parents divorced when he was an infant. And this isn’t Ben Franklin’s Liberty Bell Philadelphia – this is a little known backwater where a small group known as the Fletcher Street Riders live, mostly in the past, but hoping for a future. Constantly threatened, once these rented stables surrounding a meadow were considered the Boonies, but now land developers covet the area for condos.
Cole feels trapped in a tiny house where his father’s horse is stabled in the living room. And Harp’s friends all seem just as weird. A culture that breeds and trains horses for racing and riding and to keep alive a tradition? Gradually the mystique of the old ways envelops him, evenings spent sitting around the fire barrel, swapping lies and legends. Learning new skills. But there’s also the counter-pull of his young friend Smursh (Jharel Jerome) who used to be one of the Riders but now is peddling street-corner drugs as a ticket to the big bucks.
There are many reasons a movie gets made. I suspect the additional credit of Idris Elba as not only star but also producer propelled Concrete Cowboy into existence. Also the presence of Lee Daniels (“Empire,” The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday) does much to recommend the movie, which was co-written and directed by Ricky Staub. Like the recent Nomadland, many of the characters are played by their real-life counterparts. Together they tell a truthful but not bloody story. It’s not simple, but it manages to find a somewhat positive ending. It’s worth watching.
This mini-series was inspired by a biography written by Madam CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles (“On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker”). This Netflix four-episode mini-series highlights the extraordinary, –almost unbelievable– life of Sarah Breedlove (1867 –1919), an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. Sara Breedlove–soon to prefer the brand name Madam CJ Walker– is the first female self-made millionaire in America (regardless of ethnicity) in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Self-Madeis a little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, who created thousands of jobs and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York.
Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer plays Madam CJ Walker, during the worst of the Jim Crow era. No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions. Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.
Self-Made opens at the beginning of the 20th Century, sandwiched twenty years after the Civil War and a half-century before the Civil Rights movement. An indigent African American laundry woman widowed by her first husband, who left her a single mother of a two-year old daughter Lelia, and abused by her second husband, Sarah Breedlove yearns for a path out of her desperate circumstances.
During the early 1900s most homes lacked plumbing and electricity. Environmental pollution, lice, and bacteria also threatened one’s health. Bathing was a luxury and women were going bald. As the laundry woman for a beauty-products business woman, Addie Malone (the luminous Carmen Ejogo of “Your Honor”), Sarah is rejected when she proposes being Addie’s business partner. The reason? Her appearance:
“Even in your Sunday best you still look like you just stepped off the plantation,” Addie –brutal and arrogant—insultingly dismisses her.
The complicated relationship between Black hair and white ideals of beauty soon become a central theme of Self-Made. Addie represents a lighter skinned, long-hair type which some Black women wanted to emulate. Sarah– soon to label her products Madam CJ Walker–understood that hair was not a benign topic for Black women but a potent measure of a Black woman’s worth. And she wanted to create another ideal of beauty that appreciated and acknowledged Black women on their own terms, not ones imputed on them. At first, she gratefully receives validation from her husband, CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), for his admiration of her physical appearance.
Her daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish), is both a source of disappointment and later of joy as she recognizes the sacrifices her mother has made for her family and for her business. While other products for Black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, Walker’s products emphasized health and natural ingredients, not the lye and harmful chemicals often found in Black hair products. She sold her homemade products directly to Black women, using a personal approach that won her loyal customers. She went on to employ a fleet of saleswomen to sell her products whom she called “beauty culturalists.” [This method of “direct sales” was later copied–most notably by Fuller Brush and Avon.]
Walker proved to be a marketing magician, promoting a better lifestyle for Black women, bolstering them with pride for advancement and higher pay: “Wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities.”
In one scene, Madam CJ Walker pleads with a rather officious Booker T. Washington to help her secure a business loan from wealthy Black businessmen in the community, but he admonishes her that Black women should know their place. Undeterred, Sarah appeals to Washington’s wife and taps into a whole community of wealthy, highly educated, but disgruntled women. In sharp contrast, W.E.B. DuBois warmly welcomes her business acumen.
The performances knock it out of the park. Octavia Spencer is made for this role: smart and contained, a no-nonsense entrepreneur who won’t take “No” for an answer.
The major flaw in Self-Made–and not to be ignored–is the somewhat cringeworthy cinematic device of fantasy sequences with dancers or boxers to indicate the mean-spirited and unrelenting rivalry between Walker and Addie. Such visual clutter is a distraction from an otherwise forceful script. The soundtrack is also, at times, jarring and out of tone or theme with the scenes.
A highly inspirational mini-series of almost miraculous feats by Madam CJ Walker. Should be on everyone’s watch list!
Availability: Netflix streaming
Note: Lelia Walker, who succeeded as president of her mother’s company, was dubbed “The Joy Goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by Langston Hughes because of the crucial role she played in creating a
Manhattan salon, The Dark Tower. This salon contributed to the arts scene of one of the most fertile periods in American literature and the arts, especially forging a safehaven for gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance.
Note: The self-made millionaire used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated significant funds to orphanages, the NAACP, the Black YMCA and other charities.
This is a Netflix docudrama not to be missed. The Social Dilemma, a granular investigation of the rise of social media and the ongoing damage it is causing to segments of society around the globe, is chilling. Focusing on exploitation of Internet users, The Social Dilemma, produced by Jeff Orlowski, reveals how most users are oblivious about how their surfing patterns have been monetized. We are all highly valuable assets being sold for financial gain. The user ‘s data is sold to advertisers through embedded algorithms. The advertisers are the real customers of the social media giants. Just follow the money. Do we pay to use Facebook? Who does?
The business model has been designed to create an addiction: from maintaining “eyeballs” from the three bouncing balls the user sees while waiting for an incoming text to the “Like” and “hearts” buttons which cause warm feelings validating the individual’s status and self-worth. The content associated with the eyeballs (or “traction”) is then catalogued according to preferences, biases, and behavioral patterns to enable efficient data-mining. Throughout The Social Dilemma, a teenager’s social-media addiction is dramatized with actors playing the roles of the naive young users being controlled by powerful algorithms structured by artificial intelligence. The teenagers don’t stand a chance of ever detoxing.
That social media can be addictive and threatening isn’t news to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn (Isn’t that most of us?). But the most disturbing and pernicious aspect of Jeff Orlowski’s documentary is that the system is designed structurally to gather BigBrother information for profit. That is the business model.
An advertising mecca results. In the hands of companies like Facebook and Twitter, the ads can be tailored to the potential customer’s taste. Social media platforms’ use in politics, their effect on mental health and their role in spreading conspiracy theories can and has undermined the stability of communities.
With Machiavellian precision, the psychology of social media is at the cellular level. Users want to be with the same tribe (blocking those who disagree), because that is a primordial imperative for survival. Infinite scrolling and push notifications designed to feed information that the users want to believe keeps us constantly addicted. And this personalized “data” not just predicts but influences our actions. Our world is thus re-created by the clickbait the largest social media companies predict we’re most comfortable seeing. This is confirmation bias at its most extreme. Advertisers and political propagandists are delivered the prey they earnestly seek with increasing accuracy.
To turn social media into some sort of Frankenstein for the digital age is too simplistic. Social media can be an incredibly valuable tool for fact-finding, for mobilization of people’s good will and for efficient dissemination of news. However, what is dangerous in The Social Dilemma is how the tech experts (who were instrumental in developing the algorithms for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) are themselves deeply alarmed by how positive social changes can suddenly and dramatically be hijacked, morphing into changes that are nefarious and incendiary.
Similar to how television was eventually regulated for its intrusion upon children’s minds for commercial success, The Social Dilemma raises the question: what can be done now that the genie is out of the bottle? One answer proposed is that user information be treated as a taxable asset. Undoubtedly tech companies would pass on the cost of the taxes causing advertisers to buy less.. Congress is now holding hearings on the monopolistic nature of the mega social media corporations, but The Social Dilemma hovers more closely to the specter of human engineering in the hands of potentially ruthless agents. Compliance and regulation are long overdue.
Truly eye-opening and disturbing.
Availability:The Social Dilemma premiered at the 2020 Sundance FilmFestival and was released on Netflix on September 9, 2020.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an explosive and deeply disturbing four-part Netflix Original documentary, that spotlights a dark international web of underage sex trafficking. Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. In Filthy Rich we watch this wealthy predator cultivate links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince. In 2019 Epstein was finally convicted of sex trafficking and associated crimes after similar charges ended in a widely-criticized plea deal.
Released this year but filmed before his death on August 10, Filthy Rich underscores the desperation of young girls, often from abusive homes with little recourse for feeding or housing themselves. We see how these girls succumb to the promise of a better life promised by Epstein and his socialite ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. These now young women remain traumatized by the assault and abuse dating back close to 30 years. Several survivors give harrowing and courageous accounts of depravity, aborted attempts to escape, and determination to move on. Epstein’s real-estate portfolio –New York, New Mexico, the US Virgin Islands, London– provided seclusion from the public eye. Epstein’s homes were not easily penetrated from the outside. But surveillance systems enabled video entrapment from the inside.
Several of the survivors display an incredible lack of awareness and common sense. They recruit their younger sisters and friends in a sex trafficking pyramid scheme involving payments for bringing in other minors. We witness a couple of particularly memorable survivors eventually realize and come to understand the immoral power of the rich, who arrogantly believe they can buy other human beings with impunity. And they did…for almost thirty years. And still do.
An outrageous plea bargain, together with powerful friends Epstein could blackmail, and corrupt law enforcement protected Epstein from serious criminal sentencing. The first trial in 2005 was half-heartedly undertaken by Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump but resigned within days of Epstein’s arrest in July.)
The FBI is reportedly still investigating Ghislaine Maxwell who ‘facilitated’ Epstein’s depravity, but her current location remains unknown. Even after Epstein was found dead in prison, (purportedly from an apparent suicide), the investigation and prosecution continue. Prince Andrew, pictured alongside an underage girl and Epstein, has so far refused to appear as a witness before US federal prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Epstein’s co-conspirators.
The attorney in charge, Geoffrey Berman, appears prominently in Filthy Rich, as do employees who worked for Epstein at his US Virgin Islands estate. Also highlighted are the Florida police and FBI officials who were both overruled for their pursuit of this pedophile. The courage of the women who came forward may, perhaps, not be stamped out this time.
Note:Available to stream now on Netflix.
See the Business Insiderfor a detailed description of Epstein’s playbook for sexual predation using offshore real estate and lavish accommodations to entice young girls to his mansions. Also CNN footage of survivors’ accounts.
The English Game, created by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey”), is a Netflix Original period drama based upon a true story. Set in 1880’s England, The English Game is a notable example of class divisions exhibited in the early evolution of football aka soccer. Rising from a provincial game that was socially stratified for the “Old Etonians” of noble birth, we see the evolution of football to a world-class game, perhaps the most popular in the world.
Soccer’s first governing body was an “old-boy network” consistent with a clubby insular game for the privileged. They knew the playbook but to their chagrin soccer began to trickle down to the lower classes.
By the time The English Game opens, two Scotts from a mill town are drafted as the first paid players in soccer. Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and his friend, Jimmy Love (James Harkness) become the stars of the mill town soccer team, and prepare for playing in the semi-finals against the aristocrats. They create a new strategy of playing that upends the traditional style followed by the elite.
However, players being compensated for their skills were against the Football Association’s rules and so, the plot thickens. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), an Old Etonian of impeccable aristocratic status, is a founding member of the Football Association and heir to the white-shoe family bank that owns the mill sponsoring the paid players. His team is the arch-rival to the mill town team and unaccustomed to their innovative play strategy.
While TheEnglish Game is ostensibly about sportsmanship and soccer in particular, the overriding theme is class division and the leveling of the playing field for all who qualify, not just those who create exclusionary rules to avoid competition. And the subplots of competition between father and son, women’s vulnerable status and exploitation in a world of privileged men, in a highly rigid society are compelling to watch.
You don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy The English Game!
In this third season,Ozark has book-ended the journey that began with Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) inventing a plan to launder the Navarro cartel’s drug money in the Ozarks and evolves into the journey of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) inventing a plan to create legitimate businesses.
The Byrdes have finally broken
bad. In Season One Wendy Byrde is
primarily the good Midwestern wife following her husband’s plans, albeit
criminal in intent, in order to preserve their marriage and keep their children
safe. Now in Season 3 (hinted at in the
finale of Season 2) Wendy takes charge.
Her previous marginality–the repeated subtle agonies of a
woman knowing she could do better–is no more.
So, what happens when the entire family goes from white-collar respectability to all-in involvement in a life of criminal activity? The teenage son and daughter do not push back as they get caught up in their parents’ duplicity. Season 3 is devastating: a witnessing of a nuclear-family-gone-rogue.
Moreover, the Byrde family is
not the only one that is cursed no matter what direction they face. The Langmores–particularly Ruth–has fought
all her life for agency, for a life that she is in control of. And the
Snells, the local Ozark family who has grown poppies and weed for
generations, wants their former power back.
The major theme is still hopelessness–even as the main characters struggle with their reality, a denial of how extremely wounded they are. Each Byrde family member gives up a piece of themselves until there is not much remaining to give up. Each dysfunctional family–Byrde, Langmore, and Snell–is viewed under a psychological microscope: revealing tortured souls, in ordeals writhing in a house of pain, truth rattling but not being listened to. Ruth Langmore has few options. And Darlene Snell is viciously cunning. We wait for karma to catch up with her.
Season 3 of Ozark belongs to Laura Linney, who
plays the most challenging role: how to
evolve from a mother who is besieged by her husband’s wrongheaded decision to a
mastermind of money-laundering for a
Mexican drug dealer. Jason Bateman is
every bit her match, with scenes reminiscent of Ingmar Berman’s classic
“Scenes from a Marriage”. Both
chilling and close to home for many viewers!
Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman), his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), teenage daughter Charlotte and son Jacob continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago. The introduction of Helen Pierce ( the stunning Janet McTeer) as the attorney for the drug cartel ratchets up the ruthless and cunning subplots that made Season 1 of “Ozark” (see September 20, 2017 review) so addictive to watch.
The Byrdes are finally settling in to the Ozarks, compartmentalizing their illegal activities which they excel at with their determination to instill family values in their children which they fail at.
Dangers are everywhere–within their family, obviously from the cartel, but also from an Ozark family “cursed” to a life of crime–the Langmores– and from another Ozark family–the Snells– who are heavily involved with both local politics and maintaining their own hold on distributing illegal drugs from their “poppy” farm.
Ironically, Ruth Langmore (talented newcomer Julia Garner), yearns for a way out of the “curse” blocking her attempts to find the family and values she wants.
All three deformed families conjure up writhing snakes in a pit in which survival is ugly, bloody, and momentary advantage is the key stratagem.
The Byrdes find that every transaction involves betrayal, violence, and passive witnessing of atrocity. In the process, each member of the family gives up a piece of themselves until there is not much remaining of themselves to give up.
Marty’s mantra is that we all make our own choices and are responsible for how our lives turn out. But “Ozark” demonstrates–like “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter”–that circumstances can limit our options, until we become so flawed that we feel cornered and trapped with no options.
In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content?
This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.
This bloodpressure-raising thriller opens with two best buddies, Vaughn Carter (Jack Lowden) and Marcus Trenton (Martin McCann), deciding to go on a guys’ weekend hunting trip to a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. Nothing could prepare them…or us… for what happens. Calibre tests the friends’ relationship and their moral character as Vaughan has to deal with his future as a father (with his expectant wife almost due to deliver) and his drug-addled best friend Marcus. In its best moments, Calibre is part “Deliverance” and part “Dogville”. It attacks your nerves, ratcheting up the tension and suspense.
The hunting trip is Marcus’s idea, a way to celebrate Vaughn’s “last few days of freedom” before fatherhood, but Marcus is also intent upon drinking, having sex with local women, and drugs. Vaughn, on the other hand, is inexperienced as a hunter and doesn’t join in Marcus’s rowdy night-time antics the night before they stalk deer. He does get hungover, however.
The opening is a terrifying hook setting the stage for horror and violence the viewer knows is inevitable. The village locals, hopeless men sporting thick beards, thick accents, and even thicker sweaters, begrudgingly welcome the two buddies to their economically depressed town.
From there, Calibre becomes a study in guilt, fear, vengeance, and toxic masculinity. An increasingly hostile and suspicious community leader (Tony Curran) becomes the tribal judge for what comes next. Now, Vaughan and Marcus must scheme and plot at every turn, reassessing what their friendship and survival are suggesting.
The ending is twofold–one expected and one perhaps not so much,– making Calibre a white-knuckle, teeth-clenching film to watch. Calibre touches on the “me-against-them” classic set-up but with a complex nuance in recognizing the problems of a village where their livelihood is now obsolete, development non-existent and the young are restless and desperate, holding on to their tribe for stability and belonging. This is not a straightforward “evil local-yokels menace innocent city slickers” story, even if Calibre plays at times with those stereotypes. All characters are flawed in this intricately complicated and menacing spellbinder!
Adapted from the best-selling detective novels by the German author Volker Kutscher, the highly praised Babylon Berlinbegins less than ten years after the Treaty of Versailles. Germany is in turmoil. (Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party would come to power in 1933.) Set in the golden ’20s (1926-1929), Berlin is not so golden for everyone. The Nazi takeover is still a couple of years in the future, but the general turmoil is already evident.
Babylon Berlin is part period drama, part police procedural, and part mystery thriller, but there is always an undercurrent of intense foreboding, drawing on our 100 percent hindsight of what’s to come. Hitler’s name is heard only once and Brown Shirts first appear in one of the last scenes. The era’s troubled Zeitgeist is well-known to viewers but not to the players in this underworld of politics.
Suffering from “shell shock” and addicted to morphine, police detective Gereon Roth (Volker Bruch), arrives in Berlin and connects with Lotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a police department typist, nightclub entertainer and part-time prostitute. She aspires to being the first female homicide detective, eager to escape the hardships of poverty and her brutal family life. Lotte manages to become a heroine despite the sexism and corruption of the police force.
Gereon and Lotte soon discover conspiracies and intrigue: hijacked freight trains, smuggled munitions, sex trafficking, police partnering with organized crime, Soviet collusion, Communist (Trotsky) revolutionaries, drug deals, and élite corporate magnates invested in maintaining their grip on the economy. Throughout, we see Berlin as a swamp of contrasts: elegant Berliners fill a debaucherous cabaret as rampant poverty persists in nearby neighborhoods; outright bigotry and violence occur daily and secretly; and ordinary Berliners cling either to a tenuous status quo or to dreams of revolution.
From economy to culture, everything is in the grip of radical change. Speculation and inflation are already tearing away at the foundations of the still young Weimar Republic. Growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life for the privileged and well-connected.
Weimar Democracy was under attack both from the Communist Left, as well as by traditional Conservatives, in a kind of unholy alliance. The Nazis did not just arise from nowhere. They were citizens who reacted to Germany’s economic conditions and wanted radical change. Both the government and the wealthy in Germany and Russia use this populism to serve their own dreams of domination.
Politically and economically, the nation was struggling with the terms and reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) that ended World War I. Punishing levels of inflation ensued.
The parallels with today are particularly disturbing. Could this backstory of what happened in Germany in the 1930s and the years immediately preceding the rise and stranglehold of Nazism foreshadow America today? And of course, we naturally speculate how easy it is for an anxious public to succumb to a demagogue.
Note: This Netflix Original series is in German and subtitled.
The Netflix Original series Seven Seconds(premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.
The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?
In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.
There are two main characters, both black women. Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.
The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.
These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.
Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them. This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.
Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!
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.
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.