Category Archives: mystery

“Death Note” Season 1 – An Amazing Deconstruction of “The Ends Justify the Means”

   “Death Note” is one of those animes that comes along, like the first “Gundam” that takes the premise it exists within seriously. This show knows that it is arguing a premise, “Do the ends justify the means?” and does it in such a compelling way that one can’t be helped to be drawn in due to the compelling complex characters and the cat and mouse game that drives the plot as each of them argues the core main premise “Do the ends justify the means in regards to the killing of another?” The ends of course are justice in both cases and it is L (and his proteges) against Light. Light argues on the side of it being justified (he is given a Death Note which can literally bring about just that) and L who argues it is not justice and the one who becomes a vigilante is nothing more than a killer who must be held accountable to the law, to catch someone like that, you can go up to the line (like Batman and make your subject uncomfortable, but do not kill).

My goal is to argue a different premise than what has been argued before and what I got from the series. If you want to see another approach to some of the many themes of “Death Note,” checkout Wisecrack’s The Philosophy of Death Note. It is amazing.:

The premise and story of “Death Note” (Manga created by Tsugumi Ohba, and anime by Madhouse and Tetsuro Araki) is Light Yagami finds a Death Note that the Shingami Ryuk drops into the realm of humanity. When he discovers it’s power to kill anyone whose name is written upon it, after he knows their face he decides to become “Kira,” a God of justice to punish all those who commit crimes. This sets authorities on him lead by L who seek to end his reign and stop the killings.

SPOILERS are ahead. It is hard to argue a premise if I can’t get into the details of the premise given so much of how the line being crossed of killing to achieve justice, whether to end a vigilante or punish criminals is shown by what happens in character deaths.

In what I mean in, “Do the ends justify the means?” Or to narrow it down for the sake of argument within the series, is killing ever justified bring about a just society, or bring another to justice? The existence of the Death Note and Light’s argument is that it is justified. L stands on the other side of this, even though he pushes this premise as much as he can and it is only when he and Watari are about to pass the line of denying another’ consent that they meet the ends of all those who take life for granted in the series. In the end the show doesn’t care about the reasons the characters want to kill, killing will always lead to death and it is the closest thing the show has to an answer on morality beyond it simply being bad. To end another is to eventually end yourself, and I’ll explore this through the different characters in the show.

The first type of exploration of this premise is in our Kiras. For the sake of definition Kiras are those who want to punish criminals and corrupt people in order to bring about a just society. Mikami as the Hand of Kira and Kiyomi as Kira’s voice are good examples of this. Misa also adopts this role too, though her primary motivation is love for Kira, not justice so she falls into the next category we’ll be exploring. The followers of Kira and Light who are driven by their drive to punish bullies and criminals (Mikami is a prosecutor before Light chooses him) want a world that has no crime and wars and by the time we get to the end of the series Light has largely succeeded as wars have stopped and crime has been reduced 75%. His Task Force is even questioning whether bringing down Kira is now the right thing to do. In the end we get a clear answer though, Kiyomi is made to kill herself by Light when he puts her name in the Death Note and Mikami kills himself too when Light is revealed in the finale to be Kira, before he also meets his end. In the end their deaths show that in this instance the ends do not justify the means. The motives to bring about a just society cannot be built on murder is what we are lead to be believed and even if the ideal is peace, murder for ideals and a greater world will only lead to your own end.

One of the primary motives to kill that the show doesn’t forgive, is killing out of love or to protect another. We first see this in Misa Misa, who is the second Kira and follows all of Light’s wishes out of love for him. She never truly ends up with him though and with his end it is implied that she follows behind, killing herself because of his death. Killing for love is the primary motive of Rem as well who is protecting Misa from L, Watari and the police force. Even though she is a God of Death even she can’t survive this as by killing Watari and L she dies as it is the consequence of a Shinigami killing a human. The other person who kills for love is Light’s father who is in charge of the Police Task Force to take down Kira. When he goes to rescue his daughter from the mafia and is killing the members who are protecting Mello, he dies as a consequence (also a consequence of making a deal with Ryuk for the Shinigami eyes so that he can better kill). Love as a motive to kill could argueable be seen as moral, but that isn’t how the show views it. These characters end up dead even though they only kill to protect others and care nothing for themselves.


The other way we see killing used is in a similar way as Light, a means to an end in order to draw Light out. The people we see do this are Watari and L when they use a criminal to test out how Light can kill and again when they are testing out the fake 13 Day Rule that Ryuk wrote in the Death Note to trick L and the Task Force and bring suspicion off of Light and Misa. They die for doing this, as does Mello who teams up with the Mafia, who kill so that he can bring Light out of the shadows. It is only when he is willing to sacrifice himself that we see justice begin to happen in this world and in turn show us that the way you go about stopping a criminal is even more important than the criminal and his or your own motives. Mello pays the price as he loses himself and his friend for the deal he made with the Mafia and his willingness to kill to lure Kira out.

Near’s motives are to be better than Kira and to “win” the battle of wits against him. He at first sees L as a loser for losing to Kira but we see a difference between him and L right off the bat. Near doesn’t use killing in order to lure Kira out. He lets those around him be responsible for their actions while he himself never crosses the line. He never murders and even orders the Task Force not to kill Kira if they are given the chance. This is the closest thing we get to a clear moral answer. Killing is wrong even if it is to stop a wrong. Near manipulates people but everything he does is to protect others and keep life from being lost. This is the moral statement I found within “Death Note” and how the story executes it is why it is one of my favorite animes of all time.

I was discussing this premise with a friend who introduced me to Wisecrack’s deconstruction which inspired me to go into as much depth as I could with my premise. I love how great stories can do that as this is a series that covers so many themes that I had to narrow myself down to one to explore.

For my score of this anime series: 9.6 / 10. I don’t consider it perfect as Misa and Kiyomi lose their agency on multiple occasions and they are the only women in this series who get any exploration outside of Light’s sister and mother who are more of a presence rather than fully fleshed out characters.  If these issues had been solved I’d have given this series a 10 / 10. Regardless I highly recommend it. This was one of the shows that got me into the storytelling medium of anime in the first place, along with the “Ghost in the Shell” series.

 

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Shimmer Lake (2017): A Mystery Told in Reverse

I have yet to see a truly great film that is a Netflix original. Almost always the films go from bad to decent, though this is the first one I’ve seen since “Beats of no Nation” that was truly good. “Shimmer Lake” is very Coenesque in execution but doesn’t quite rise to the farcical comedies that pervades most of the Coen works. It is this lack of humor that really brings it down and keeps it from becoming great, though it is still worth checking out.

The film was directed by Oren Uziel who also wrote the film, while being produced by Adam Saunders and Britton Rizzio.

The story a small town sheriff named Walker who is investigating a bank robbery that involves his brother and two ex-friends. The story is told in reverse.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of a small town bank robbery that turns into something bigger (being told from when the crime is done and the outcome to how it came about) is really cool. The setup was a large part of what kept me watching because I was waiting to learn more the different characters and their relationships. Rainn Wilson has so much charisma and I think having him be one of the first characters we meet who is so connected to the incident really strengthened the film.

The Cons: The Point of the Characters – This is a story full of betrayal and reveals, and at times does have comedy and even real drama between characters before many of them go full evil. It is this full range of character actions and types that fail to be a theme that are the largest con of the film. This film needed a focus for the mystery to truly be more than simply good.

I wish there was more to say about this film, but this is a film that doesn’t really have a larger point. It is a thriller and mystery where the catch is how the story is told (mystery in reverse) versus the point and themes of the story. I’m avoiding spoilers since the reveal is one of the few reasons to see this film but I also found that because it lacked a larger farcical bent or any major theme that was consistent across the board makes it a story that I will recommend but do not consider great. This film strives to be a Coen film when it should have sought more of it’s own voice.

Final Score: 8 / 10 A solid mystery.

“Riverdale” Season 1 – A Quality Noir Inspired by Archie Comics

  “Riverdale” is one of the best shows on the CW. This is a show that manages to adapt comic book characters in really creative ways and give them depth and nuance as well as tell an all around fun mystery that is explored over the course of the season. “Archie Comics” comics are comics that I read at different points growing up but I haven’t read the modern stuff, though I’ve heard good things. If it is anything like this show I think I would enjoy the modern stories immensely. Suffice to say, this is the best thing to come out of the CW in some time that isn’t an ongoing show.

The series was created by the creative director of “Archie Comics” Robert Aguirre-Sacasa and producer Greg Berlanti.

The story involves the mystery surrounding the murder of Jason Blossom as the the town of Riverdale reels from the death as secrets are revealed and the characters must find themselves as their own problems and drama begins to consume them.

The Pros: The Premise – I’m a fan of Noirs as the story is narrated by Jughead, one of the main characters who is writing the story of the murder and what unfolds as secrets about himself and his friends are revealed as the mystery is solved.

Riverdale – The location of a small town that is full of dying industries where everyone knows everyone and murder has to be solved is compelling. I like stories like this. It was what made “Broadchuch” interesting and it is the kind of location that breeds interesting drama and characters in stories like this.

The Characters – The characters the best part as we get characters who are multi-faceted. Archie is a player but great at empathy and connecting with others and does grow up, Betty is a perfectionist whose flaws consume her, Veronica is selfish but ends up being one of the most selfless and by contrast Jughead is presented as selfless and an idealist but is also quite selfish and consumed by his own ego. All our characters are contradictions and grow up, even the minor characters are shown to have many layers and it makes the show powerful. I cared about most of the characters in this, which is not something I can say about every show.

The Search for Self – The search for self is a huge theme of the show. Whether it is the Blossom legacy that consumes Cheryl Blossom while facing her own family’s dark present and actions, Archie facing his blue collar background, divorce and love of music that arose out of an affair but the love and passion for music is still there and Betty and Veronica…like Cheryl finding an identity outside of the expectations and corruption of their parents (same goes for Jughead too). This is powerful and the beginnings of these explorations are laid out.

Facing Trauma – Another theme is the theme of trauma as all our characters have experienced it at some point and it is only in opening up and honestly facing it that they have the chance to heal. All our main characters are at different levels of facing this trauma so I’m curious to see where Season 2 takes this given actions happen at the end that will increase it for 2 of our characters.

The Cons: The Love Triangle – I hated the love triangle between Betty, Veronica and Archie. I get it was in the comics but it is the weakest part of this series. I’m glad that we only real deal with it at the beginning and end of the series. Outside of that, I want more character exploration not stupid love triangles that usually only exist for cheap drama.

“Riverdale” is a series I’d highly recommend. It is intelligent and reminds me what I loved about reading the comics. This is a show that captures what it means finding yourself as you grow up and facing the contradictions within yourself. People aren’t simple and are almost always complicated and so much of that is facing the different parts of who we are. “Riverdale” does that with the characters of it’s show and I highly recommend it to both fans of the comics and any fan of good drama and characters.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

 

To Catch a Thief (1955): Great Leads But Story Is Only Decent

To Catch a Thief

     Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but this is not one of his better films. The main leads are absolutely wonderful, but the script and dialogue doesn’t go anywhere at times and the motivations behind the villains is non-existent. All of this create a merely okay story that is good only because of fantastic performances by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

     “To Catch a Thief” was directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock and written by John Michael Hayes and based off the book of the same name by David Dodge.

     The story involves an ex-criminal and French Resistance fighter John Robie (Cary Grant), fighting to redeem his name and find the real thief. Frances (Grace Kelly) the daughter of the woman whose jewels were stolen works with and against him as the truth unfolds.

The Pros: The World – The world of France is a fascinating place where we meet former French Resistance fighters and ex-pats who make up this world that exists soon after World War 2. So much more could have been done with all of this world and premise…

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and I can see why it won awards. Hitchcock is great with visual and his cinematographer Robert Burks nails it.

The Leads – Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are some of the best actors of all time and this film, which would have only been okay with other leads, becomes good because of their performances.

John Robie – Cary Grant like Grace Kelly is one of my favorite actors and he shows why in this. He is charming but you see the thief there and you get why he steals too as he explains that some businesses steal too, he is just more blatant about his robbery. We also see in this why he changed and why keeps holding onto what was. Being a thief who was never caught made him famous and he wants to be known for that, even while showing he’s changed because he wants trust and love.

Frances Stevens – Grace Kelly is one of my favorite actresses. The lady has charm and strength and her character Frances feels real. You get why she likes Robie and why she doesn’t trust him too. She is the person looking for excitement and she finds it with this ex-crook and shows that she is his partner in it all.

Okay: The Police Force – They are used for jokes but have some decent moments of humanity with Robie…I just wish we could have got more.

The Tension – The tension is okay but unlike “North by Northwest,” “Rear WIndow” and “Psycho” it never made me feel that the characters were in danger. There was the tension of the hunt for the criminal but it never rose beyond that.

The Cons: The Villains – The villains are weak, good villains could have made this film great but they aren’t given any motivation for what they do.

Danielle – Like her father, I don’t know why Danielle does what she does. She was a resistance fighter so why is she now a thief? I wanted to like her character but nothing is done to present her with depth or motivation.

Foussard – So he is friends with Robie and betrays…why? Why is he stealing in the first place? None of this is known and it is really annoying. The villainous mastermind has to have motivation.

   This is a film that you will probably enjoy if you like Hitchcock as I do. The problem is really the lack of tension and how the motivations of the villains are never explained or explored. This is a film that could have been so much more and I really hope the book at least went into why Foussard and his daughter Danielle became thieves. Check it out if you like Hitchcock, if you don’t it probably isn’t worth your time. It is strong in how he directs the leads and presentation in cinematography, but the script and story keep it from becoming great.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Murder, She Wrote – Season 1, Episodes 1-2 – “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” – Characters Work But Plot is Only Okay

The Murder of Sherlock Holmes

     “Murder, She Wrote,” is a fascinating show that I may watch more of after seeing the two episodes of the pilot. It went in unexpected directions and played out like a good mystery story…and Angela Lansbury is just fantastic. The theme song is very grading though and I did have issue with the lack of development some of the characters received, even if the main cast is pretty solid.

   “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” was directed by Corey Allen and written by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link.

    The story involves Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) becoming a famous mystery novelist when her nephew Grady (Michael Horton) publishes her work. When she leaves the countryside she finds the city is not for her but finds herself pulled into a mystery when her nephew is suspected of murder at a costume party.

The Pros: The Costume Party – All the different people Preston Giles know come to his home dressed as characters and it is the murder of one of them dressed as Sherlock Holmes (when Captain Caleb was dressed as Holmes) leading to an exploration of motivations and mistaken identity.

Jessica Fletcher – Angela Lansbury is wonderful as the old lady Jessica who has her novel sent into a publisher by her nephew, which pulls her out of her small town into the big city. It is here we see how out of place she is when isn’t solving murders. It is in solving murders that she is in her element, which in turn makes sense into how the show got it’s name and premise.

Preston Giles – This character is really interesting as he did murder the detective when the detective tried to blackmail him. He played the Count of Monte Cristo at the Costume Party and we learn that his drive has been revenge like the count as his past business partner left him for dead after ruining his life and he spent his life ending them and in the process became them as he became a murder to hide up the revenge he did against them. He’s a tragic and fascinating figure.

Okay: Grady and Kit – They are the allies and are kind and open and that’s about it. There isn’t much character yet, they are just there to give Jessica a motivation.

The Cons: Captain Caleb – The guy is just a loud buffoon and cheater. I was hoping we’d see him do something good with his business but he never is explored beyond his own selfishness, which is a shame.

The Detective – Guy is introduced as sketch so when he dies no one is really missing him, there is just more surprise that a murder happened in the first place.

Ashley and George – These two were the ones stealing from Captain Caleb and are shown to both be stuck up jerks. What chance at character they were given was only made to make them look worse than they already were.

 The Theme Music – The theme music gets annoying really fast. It goes on way too long and is far too happy and upbeat for a show that involves murder and a whole bunch of other aspects of the bad side of humanity. The theme music creates a major tonal dissodance.

This was a good introduction to this show and I might review some more episodes in the future if people request the show. I like Angela Lansbury and find the Jessica Fletcher character fascinating. Sadly I think better writing is needed for the supporting cast, Kit and Grady are ciphers and the villains are all one-dimensional with the exception of Preston Giles. A lot more could have been done with the 2 hours the show was allotted to tell the story. I still think it is worth checking out though, for what it is worth.

Final Score: 7.4 / 10