Ozark Review

Anyone who’s on Netflix regularly knows that the site has pretty aggressive advertising for its newest series. Maybe you’ll just get the banner on the top of the site when you log in, or maybe you get a trailer up there too. Point being, that is how I was introduced to Ozark. I didn’t see any of the trailers prior to logging in to finally finish House of Cards but Jason Bateman’s more serious turn and a plot involving money laundering was enough to make me interested.

Firstly, the show draws a lot of comparisons to Breaking Bad. In reality, there aren’t that any similarities but people don’t need perfect comparisons to throw their own out. In Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher (Walter White) is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and starts manufacturing crystal meth in order to make enough money to leave behind for his family.

Ozark follows Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a financial advisor and money launderer, who runs afoul of a Mexican cartel after his partner steals from them. Marty is able to convince the cartel boss, Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales) that he can launder the money to repay his debt. Without further ado, Marty moves his family to the cash-rich, tourist-rich area of Ozark, Missouri.

While Walter White started out as a moral man who initially engaged in crime out of economic desperation, Marty Byrde is a man whose greed and arrogance led him to believe he could engage in money laundering without any blowback.  As Bateman says, “Marty is not as smart as he thinks he is.” Marty doesn’t become more assertive as the season progresses, he is quickly established as an intelligent, if somewhat quiet person, who becomes a fast-talker when he needs to work himself out of a situation. His involvement in crime doesn’t change who he is.

Of course, there are some similarities but I believe that anyone who gives the show a chance will see there is plenty to differentiate it as well.

One great similarity is that the performances are outstanding. Bateman truly excels in the first non-comedic role I have seen him in. Of course, I was familiar with his relatively serious roles in comedies but here we see a stylistically unrecognizable Bateman who commands every scene. Bateman is also assisted well by Laura Linney (Wendy Byrde) and Skylar Gaertner (Jonah Byrde). Esai Morales is also a truly terrifying villain who owes a lot to the writing. His threat is established quickly and the actor is still able to exude charm and charisma that belies the acts of savagery he is capable of carrying out. Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery also have a memorable turn as the Snells, an Ozark crime family that Marty meet soon after the move. The list goes on and without spoiling too much of the plot, I will say that the story doesn’t have a slow start and genuinely didn’t have any moments that felt like they dragged. Even parts that I initially thought were unnecessary subplots all wound together well at the end. With maybe one exception.

Before I even finished watching the series, I had to vent about Charlotte Byrde, the worst character on the show. The character isn’t bad because she isn’t a good person. Very few of the main characters are truly good people. I was worried that as usual, the youngest character, would be the most annoying. Instead 13- year-old Jonah is played masterfully by Gaertner, best known as young Matt Murdock from Daredevil. His character development is also treated with a sensitivity that Charlotte does not get.

15-year-old Charlotte is small screen cancer. She is a stock character, the bratty teen who rebels and treats her family like garbage a lot of the time just because that is what older teenagers are supposed to do. Obviously a character may be upset that they have to leave their home, their friends etc. but Charlotte takes this to a whole other level. Minor spoiler, at one point she nearly boards a bus back to Chicago, without her parent’s knowledge. What stops her? Her mom finding out. It becomes hard to care for a character who repeatedly puts herself in dangerous situations and doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes.  I can’t blame the actress too much since she does alright with what she’s given, but she is still the weakest out of the lot. Her character single-handedly brings the whole show down.

The only other complaint I truly have is that the death of a certain character came across as anti-climactic and an unfitting end. Aside from that, I can genuinely say that Ozark was engaging and well-written throughout.

Ozark and Charlotte Byrde

After finishing The Defenders I planned to set my sights on wrapping up Game of Thrones and finally finishing season 5 of Bates Motel. However, I was confronted by the same issues that led to me preferring to view shows readily available on Netflix. Friends I have spoken to have assured me that I am not alone in having trouble with Kodi. Either streams don’t load at all or they buffer like it’s going out of style. Sometimes I feel like I might as well be watching a slide show instead of a tv show.

Netflix however, loads just fine. A friend recommended Ozark and I am glad I took her suggestion. The series follows Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) as a financial planner who is forced to move his family to the Ozarks in Missouri after his partner attempts to launder money from a Mexican drug lord. Bryde must now launder or “clean” $8 million for the drug lord by the end of summer or face death.  I am only halfway through the series at the moment and it looks like I made a good decision. I saw the ads for the show pop up whenever I opened Netflix, and was intrigued to see Bateman in a serious role. I know he’s done serious roles before but until now, I’ve only seen him play the serious character or “straight man” in comedies.  Bateman’s performance is the best thing about the series so far. I could almost say that the writing and acting as a whole is great, but then we have Charlotte.

I will discuss my distaste for this character more in the review next week, but I have to vent about this brat. I can’t blame the actress since she is pretty good at portraying what the script asks of her. My issue is with the character itself. Charlotte is just the typical attitude-laden teen we see far too often in family comedies or dramas. She constantly insults her brother, her parents and even started calling them by their first names at one point because she was upset with them. In a show that offers inventive storytelling in so many other areas, it stands out more when we pretty much get a stock character taking up a decent chunk of screen time.

I’ll reserve more judgment until I finish the series, but I hope I’m not alone with how I feel here.

Zootopia and Race

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Zootopia.

I remember watching the Zootopia sloth trailer in front of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and laughing just as hard as everyone else in the theater. However, when the release date came around I was preoccupied with the hype for BatmanvSuperman and the film slipped by my radar. Zootopia returned to my radar after hearing about its box office success, and especially after a friend gave it a glowing review.

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One of the things that my friend liked the most was how the film tackled the issue of race. He said it wasn’t preachy or overly sentimental, but worked in allegories that were easily identifiable. I remember the one he told me about was the use of the word “cute”. In the film, it is okay for bunnies to call one another cute, but it is offensive if another species uses the word. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the similarity to the word “nigga”.

Another light-hearted allegory that got my attention was a scene where Nicholas “Nick” Wilde (Jason Bateman) touches a sheep’s hair, remarking on how fluffy it is. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) then whispers that he can’t just touch a sheep’s wool. I can remember grade eight at Southbank International School in London, England. I was one of two black kids, out of a student body of at least 100, and my classmates often touched my hair. I am sure a lot of other black people, and women especially, can relate to someone treating them like an animal in a petting zoo and touching their hair without permission. I remember that a Buzzfeed article on Zootopia was filled with people arguing that this happens to anyone with curly hair. Black people, on average, are more likely to have curly or “kinky” hair so I think it is fair to say that the sheep wool can be interpreted as kinky hair.

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Aside from these smaller vignettes, Zootopia is loaded with messages of discrimination. What I like most about the film is that most of these messages or lessons don’t come from the depiction of highly vocal bigots. I have no sympathy for ignorant people but most of the discrimination in the film is presented as ingrained biases from otherwise decent people who do not seem to know any better. I have no problem with the depiction of more staunch bigotry (such as Imperium or American History X) but in this age of supposed “colour-blindness” it is important to see how people who claim to be tolerant can adopt stereotypes of other races.

Within the city of Zootopia, mammals (predator and prey) now live in harmony. The film revolves around the disappearance of fourteen mammals in Zootopia.  Their disappearance is revealed to be a move by Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K Simmons) to hide the fact that predators are going “savage”- reverting to their desire to attack and consume prey. Co-screenwriter Jared Bush has explained that predators in Zootopia only eat plant-based proteins and insects. Going “savage” causes the animals to lose the capacity for speech and return to the predator-prey mindset. Hopps, aided by Wilde, must uncover why the animals are going savage.

Wilde’s identify as a fox gives us one of our first insights into discrimination in this fictional world. In the film foxes have a reputation for being sly and deceitful. Hopps’s parents are wary of her living among them when she leaves their farm and goes to Zootopia. They make sure to give her fox-repellent, similar to pepper spray. Although Judy criticizes their bigotry she still brings the fox-repellent with her on her first day of work. Like real-life, someone who is outwardly accepting can still be affected by stereotypes that they have picked up from the media, friends, parents etc. I have had well-meaning friends tell me I speak well for a black guy, and Hopps also applauds Nick for how articulate he is. Nick has heard the compliment before, and thanks Hopps for not being patronizing (although his tone implies that he is not truly happy to hear the compliment again).

Wilde has long been the victim of prejudice, with the most pivotal moment being an incident of childhood bullying. Wilde had hopes of being the first fox scout, but was pranked and muzzled during his supposed induction ceremony. Zootopia is founded on the idea that anyone who arrives can be anything they want to be, similar to the American Dream. However, Wilde believes that all you can really be is what’s on the outside.  He knows other people only see a fox when they look at him, so he stopped trying to be different and became a con-artist. Obviously, I am not trying to say every criminal is simply misunderstood, and I don’t think the film is either. Wilde is simply an example of someone who is disillusioned with the world’s supposed equality, which he has yet to experience.

Meanwhile, Hopps is the first bunny cop, who is enlisted as part of a Mammalian inclusion initiative. Although she is accepted, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) has little faith in her ability and assigns her to parking duty.

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Hopps and Wilde are able to form a bond over their treatment, but the bond is tested after they find the missing mammals. Hopps’s takes the stage for her first press conference, with Wilde watching close by, and is quick to reveal that all of the savage animals were predators. When probed, Hopps remarks that the predators might be returning to their old instincts. Wilde doesn’t approve of the comments, and Hopps initially dismisses him. She argues that Wilde should know she wasn’t talking about him, just “them”.

“I remember a mom of a friend of mine in the suburbs made some comment about a black person and – I had to be 12, about 60 pounds – and I said something and she said: ‘Oh no, not you. You are not black. You are great.’- Jesse Williams

That quote leapt into my mind during this scene. We end up being a “credit to our kind”, differentiated from “them”, the masses that deserve hate or mistrust.

It is later revealed that a serum, derived from a poisonous plant, is responsible for the mammals going savage. Mayor Dawn Bellwether (promoted after Lionheart is imprisoned) reveals herself as the mastermind behind the plot, aiming to use the public’s fear to eliminate the predator minority from Zootopia. Using a hitman of sorts, she was able to target predators all over the city and create an atmosphere of fear and distrust. This scheme isn’t just fiction; Donald Trump probably read an early draft of the screenplay and used it as a manual on running a Presidential campaign. As Bellwether says “Fear always works!”

I remember thinking about Zootopia unapologetically explored issues that many people are too afraid to nowadays. In many ways, this Disney film had more guts than most of the Disney produced Marvel films. There is a childhood scene where Hopps is attacked by a child fox, and when he moves to scratch her I was sure that she would be saved at the last minute somehow. Instead, we see Hopps sporting a scar on her left cheek. Life isn’t a fairy tale, and this movie isn’t afraid to let us know that. No pretty princesses, no flowery songs.  Zootopia has a great motto of equality but Hopps acknowledges it is only a motto and that the dream is a work in progress.

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