Category Archives: Thriller

“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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Logan Lucky (2017): A Critique and Celebration of the Southern Culture Through an Amazing Heist

   “Logan Lucky” is a great film. This is a film that will probably make my Top 5 at the end of the year and gives us some amazing performances, as well as having a great larger point as it critique and celebrates southern working class culture through the lense of West Virginia and a NASCAR Heist. The only real downside to this film that I  can think of is the lead up to the heist has a few scenes that drag and I felt the Robin Hood message should have been so much bigger than the two families who are a part of it. Given how much this film critiques Southern Culture (even as it is celebrating it) it doesn’t really address the elephant in the room. The elephant I’ll address further down in the review.

The film was directed Steven Soderbergh and written by Rebecca Blunt and produced by Channing Tatum, Gregory Jacobs, Mark Johnson and Reid Carolin.

The story involves Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) planning a heist after he is laid off from his construction job due to a limp he received during his football days. This leads him to teaming up with his Iraqi War vet brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) as he plans to steal from the NASCAR speedway so he can still have a future with his young daughter, who is moving away.

The Pros: Rules of the Heist – The planning of the heist is meticulous, as we see that Jimmy has the 10 rules of robbing a bank (which 3 times has be sure your on board, expect the unexpected). This is wonderful as we see the chaotic elements come in (bringing in more people on the job) and how they deal with it in different ways. I also bring this up because the action of the heist and payoff are tied to these rules and each outcome or part of the plan brings in new elements that raise the tension. Also Joe Bang is key to it all and Daniel Craig is amazing as this threatening, yet charming crook.

The Working Class Struggle – One of the major themes of the film is the working class struggle. Clyde is an injured Iraqi war vet who runs a bar and gets harassed by patrons because of his injury, Jimmy loses his job because of an injury during the time he was a football player (when it had never been an issue before), their sister Mellie is always being harassed by Jimmy’s ex-wife’s husband and the Bangs live on the outskirts of society. They are smart but are nearly invisible to those around them.

Big Business and Corruption – We see a lot of examples of big business and corruption in the South. From Jimmy’s boss letting him go for cost cutting reasons, from the NASCAR owner who harasses Clyde for having one arm and how the FBI isn’t able to do their investigation all that well because the race course wants to hide the fact they don’t know how much money is going out of the track, showing that all the unchecked money has them probably making far more than their ledgers show (part of what the heist is working around). We also see it in the prison and how the Warden uses his guards to abuse the prisoners and his focus on making everything seem fine to the outside, even as an emergency could be occurring.

The Cons: The Unaddressed Racism and Payoff – This film takes place in West Virginia and so much of the class difference is tied to race, this is true everywhere in the United States but especially in the South were laws were passed to keep African-Americans from opportunity. Jim Crow wasn’t that long ago and it can still be felt today. Hell we had Nazis and Confederate flags in Charlottesville not to long ago. The KKK and Neo-Nazis and those who may sympathize with their ideology due to privilege or class have always been around and been the ones keeping what Jim Crow did in place even after. Racism doesn’t just go away when a new law is passed. Given the Robin Hood nature of the film and that it is correcting wrongs through the heist this could have been handled better minus the only African-American character being unnamed and getting no character development beyond helping cause a riot in the prison to help with the heist.

This is a film that has great character development and payoff. I’m not going to spoil anything, because you should really see this film. A lot of characters who are horrible and corrupt find themselves with less, while our strapping heroes have payoff in their character arcs and what they want in their lives and also among one another. There is comradely that we did not see at the beginning of the film. This is a film where our heroes start out as isolated players and by the end are cohesive team that the antagonists always underestimate because of their working class backgrounds. Seriously, I can’t recommend this film enough given that my only critique is that working class should have meant more than white (especially in the South) and that even though we get a good bit of class justice, outside of a single scene with a character from the prison, there is no racial justice to be found in a setting that once had slavery and Jim Crow.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. So close to being the perfect film. Still one of my favorite films of the year though.

Message from the King (2017): Netflix Makes a Revenge Flick

     “Message from the King” is a film that had a lot of potential and could have been great, but doesn’t quite get there. Revenge thrillers are hard to do, I enjoy them but in the last few years the only ones that really stand out to me are the “John Wick” films and this film isn’t that. Chadwick Boseman is fantastic, he really is the only one holding this film up, which is sad because there is so much potential as he is a South African in Los Angeles and all the differences in culture or history and similarities were just dropped. So before I get into spoilers, I recommend it if you like revenge films but there is not much else to keep you here. It isn’t bad but it isn’t good.

The film was directed by Fabrice Du Welz and written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell who produced it along with David Lancaster and Simon Cornwell.

The story involves Jacob King (Chadwick Boseman) traveling from South Africa to Los Angeles to find his sister. When he finds out what happened to her his revenge quest begins as he hunts down those responsible for what happened.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Chadwick Boseman – Boseman is the best part of this film. He plays a character who feels like a failure of a brother because he couldn’t take care of his siblings. There is also more going on with him too. After his sister’s torture and murder by the gang in Los Angeles he completes his revenge spree against the gang and we learn he is a cop in South Africa who hides his killing spree from his partners. This added more layers to the character and he was the only character whose motivation I really felt I knew, and that was entirely due to Boseman’s acting.

The Action – The action is solid and you feel a lot of the punches. It is honestly a shame there wasn’t more action as that would have strengthened the film overall. The action scenes stand out because they are at each major point in the story as his revenge spree completes.

The Cons: Many Great Actors No Characters – Luke Evans, Tom Felton and Alfred Molina are all in this playing different types of creeps involved with drugs, gangs and porn. Sadly I could not describe their characters to you as they are so poorly written. This was a missed opportunity as all 3 of these folks can act, I just didn’t see any character there, just plot devices to be destroyed by the protagonist.

I wish I had more to say about this film. There are a lot of decent actors in this (like Tom Felton and Luke Evans) but besides Boseman I’d have a hard time describing them or their motivations. This was a missed opportunity as any good revenge flick should have great villains that are more than evil for being evil or if they are, are at least fun in how awful they are. This film had none of that and would be a made for television movie if it hadn’t come out on Netflix. Again, if you like revenge flicks you’ll get some enjoyment, but beyond that I can’t recommend this film.

6 / 10 Solid action and Boseman keep it from being a complete failure.

“Ozark” Season 1 – An Amazing Story of Those Bound by Secrets and Damage

   “Ozark” is a great show. This is the type of show that takes aspects of “Breaking Bad” as far as the themes of crime, redemption and corruption mixed with the threat of the FBI and the Cartel and centers it around one family, who drives the action and shapes the drama of wherever they are. This is a show I’d seriously recommend and is once again proof that “Netflix” knows how to choose the right shows to make.

The series was created by Bill Dubuque and produced by Media Rights Capital.

The story centers around Martin Byrde (Jason Bateman), a financial planner who ends in deep with the Cartel and must pay off his debt after his company’s money laundering scheme goes wrong. To save himself and wash the Cartel’s money he moves his family the Ozarks, but all is not as it appears to be as he upsets the balance of power that already exists as he races against time against both the FBI investigation and the Cartel.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Price of Secrets –  A major theme of this show is the price of secrets. Whether it is his wife’s affair and him holding back how long he knew about it, whether it is the truth behind the money he is investing in the Ozarks in order to have it washed and the people affected by this, or the FBI agent and his lover who by keeping in the dark leads to the destruction of his lover’s family and a failure of the initial investigation.

The Art of Mutually Assured Destruction – M.A.D. is a major theme of this show as so much of it is Martin keeping different powers happy, as they know he could end them just as he knows they could end him. We see this in the threat heroin dealers who run crime area called the Snells and them working things out with the Cartel, and also the Langmores, whose father pulls the strings from prison and wants Martin’s money. The reason Wendy and Martin don’t split up after everything is they are both in on it too. They are both guilty so neither will turn on the other as both more than anything want to protect the kids. This threat that the different powers face, especially the Byrds is a huge part of what creates the drama that drives the story and Martin and Wendy’s creation of scenarios where there is some level of M.A.D. against those would harm them.

The Small Push to Corruption – A major theme in the story is the small push to corruption as Martin resists his company working with Del (the leader of the Cartel in the area) until he eventually decides he wants nice things as does his wife. They know Del is dangerous but for both of them the payoff of more wins out as we see them embrace the corruption that leads up to the action that kicks off the show.

The Victory of Small Acts of Good – Even with how dark the show is, there are still small acts of good. Ruth Langmore tries to kill Martin at first under orders from her dad but ends up growing attached to the Byrdes and saves them. We also see how the small acts of the family risking for one another bring them closer together. Even though things look bad at the end as the Snells kill Del and the Cartel now has them on their blacklist, their is finally love and with Ruth almost as an adopted family member now, they’ve grown and aren’t as alone and isolated as before.

Okay: Del’s Ending – Del is played by Esai Morales, who played Joseph Adama in “Caprica.” He is an amazing actor and even though his death advances the threat of the Cartel and turns the Ozarks into a warzone, I still really liked his character and wanted him around, at least for another season as he was both likable and threatening, and it is hard to get that in shows like this…as even “Breaking Bad” only ever achieved it with Mike and Gus. Keeping him alive, even as a prisoner, would have made this issue a pro.

The FBI – I liked the FBI agents and the fact that they were lovers, but I never felt like they had anything on the people around them. They wanted Ruth and Martin so they could take out Del but in the end they gain nothing since the Snells kill Del and Ruth never admits to trying to kill Martin and in the end the Byrde’s cover for her too. I wish they could have been more of a threat as the DEA in “Breaking Bad” feels like just as big of force as the Cartel in that show. I still thought the FBI was used okay, but as of this season, they weren’t a pro.

This was another great Netflix series that I’d highly recommend. If you enjoyed “Breaking Bad” chances are you will enjoy this too as it is cut from the same cloth and tackles a lot of similar things as far as what darkness humans are capable of, as well as what it takes to get someone to the point of corruption, or to turn away from it. For me the main issues were the FBI arc felt incomplete (Glad they have more seasons) and Del’s ending was okay for keeping things in the Ozarks, but it should not have ended in his death. That actor is amazing and the constant threat his character brought, mixed with his reasonableness made him compelling. Lets see where the story goes from here as Del’s boss is still out there as is Ruth’s father, both of who will play a part as future threats for our protagonists.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

“Frontier” Season 1 – A Good Start to the Trade and Political Drama of the 1700s

“Frontier” is  a show whose premise I loved and whose story has a lot of potential to be extremely great. There are a few things that keep it from being great though and those are the cliffhanger ending and the main protagonist and villain just aren’t all that complex and because the focus is on them and not the more interesting characters it brings the story down and keeps it from a great Season 1.

The story of “Frontier” takes place in Canada as the Kree, Americans, French, Scottish and English Hudson Bay Company vay for control of the Fur Trade in the area. Beneath of all this the story follows Michael Smyth (Landon Laboiron) an Irishman from England who is blackmailed by Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) into becoming a spy against Declan Harp (Jason Mamoa), a half-Kree warrior seeking revenge against Benton and the Hudson Bay Company.

Slight SPOILERS

The Pros: The Factions – There are a lot of factions in this show and that is what makes it so interesting. You have Kree who want trade and those who want war, you have the brothers and one of the brother’s wives representing the Scots, you have Lord Benton and the Hudson Bay Company and his Captain Chesterfield who is his protector and enforcer and Grace and her Ale House which she uses to broker information and work her way into the fur trade as well, while helping Declan Harp on his revenge quest as well as an American faction causing chaos and trying to gain control over the area too.

The Ale House – The Ale House is one of the most interesting places on the show as here secrets are revealed and we see it as the only true women run faction in the area after the Kree leader is overthrown by her son. Seeing them navigate a world where women are treated like dirt is fascinating and Grace is a way more compelling character than Michael or Lord Benton as she leans good but is ruthless and shows how she has survived and thrived.

Declan Harp – Jason Mamoa’s Declan Harp is amazing! This is a man who lost everything to Lord Benton when his family was murdered by him after he joined the Kree and looked out for Native interests (his mother’s side of his family) and from this we see why he is so lost in revenge. This arc is still open though as in the end he escapes death (he does this a few times) but as far as we know, Lord Benton is still alive after the chaos.

Okay: The Protagonist and main Villain – Michael and Lord Benton are acted well but written flatly. Benton is just a misogynistic, racist, greedy man and Michael is just the idealist boy wanting to save his girlfriend who finds a higher calling in Declan’s cause. Both of them could have been given so much more complexity.

The Cons: Cliffhanger Ending – The Cliffhanger ending is really what brings the story down the most. The writer’s didn’t know if they’d get a Season 2 (Which they did thankfully) so leaving it open ended just made it so all the work and loss and fighting meant nothing. The factions are still aligned and though some maybe battered, we haven’t seen anything really change. We aren’t shown any solid change outside of Michael joining Declan over his girlfriend and even within that Lord Benton was implied to be still alive. For all the setup over the 6 episodes, there needed to be solid payoff.

This is a good start to a series that has so much potential. I love the fact that we see the different reasons that different factions have for wanting to join or fight the Hudson Bay Company and how complicated the politics get as each of the faction’s leaders vay for control of the trade even as other aspects of the war blind them to that or do things that hurt their own factions cause. I’m glad this show got renewed for a Season 2, this like “Dark Matter” is another good show coming out of Canada and one I highly recommend.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10 Cliffhanger and predictable protagonist brought it down but still a good start to what could become an unforgettable series.

 

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.

“House of Cards” Season 5 – The Power Shifts

     I’ve been with “House of Cards” for a while now. This is easily one of my favorite shows out there, even though it did have a season I really hated. This is a season that plays on what made last season work and strengthens it further. This is the season where we see just how wonderfully awful the Underwoods are and how their quest for power does and doesn’t payoff.

The season picks up where last season left off with the Underwoods running against Conway in the 2016 election. The race is tight as the Underwoods prepare to go to any means to hold onto power and win the election.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Election – The election is fantastic as we see political dealings going down as Conway’s advisor Mark Usher is convinced to work for the Underwoods when they find the dirt on Conway after they successfully cause a political crisis by using one of their assets (a hacker) to cause panic across swing states. This eventually leads to a special election being called in one of those states where Frank and Claire rise to victory.

The Underwoods – The Underwoods are the main reason to watch the show. They are so corrupt and compelling as we see just how far they are willing to go to tie up loose ends and to keep in power. This season is a shining example of this and ends showing that even the Underwoods loyalty does not fully extend to one another.

Frank – Frank wins the election but the corruption of his rise to power becomes the forefront as the former president comes forward and people begin calling him out for the shady dealings and situations that surrounded him in his rise to power. In the end he decides to resign as his time in Elysian Fields (a secret society) showed him the true power lies outside the office of the President and controlling it, as Claire is left in charge as she became Vice President last season.

Claire – Claire is the better of the Underwoods as we see that she does not act out of spite and is good at building bridges between members of the party and opposition. Unlike Frank she doesn’t care about revenge, but can be just as ruthless (she kills her lover who knew all of the Underwood secrets), just holding power and this season ends with her as President holding Frank’s sins against him as she refuses to pardon him for his crimes, leaving him alone and under threat with her at the top, it finally being “her turn.”

The Rat Race and Cost of Power – Those underneath the Underwoods all pay the price in the end. Doug is alone and underground and as of the end of the season has not been pardoned for his crimes, Frank is just like him…LeAnn is dead with her former lover the hacker dead as she was loose end that was cleaned up and the government is in disarray as people seek to jump ship or find the Underwoods blackmailing them with their past actions. I really liked LeAnn’s character and her death for me was the strongest one since Frank’s murdering of Russo, who was also an actor and character I liked. This season was all about consequences and those consequences paid off with those who still hold power being isolated and those who trusted the Underwoods being just as isolated or dead.

Okay: Russia – Russia is the only one who can blackmail the Underwoods, but even he loses his asset, though we see that Claire’s adviser is working for him, so he isn’t out yet, but we don’t see what Russia’s agenda really is at this point.

This was an amazing season that gave us a major shift in power as we have seen Claire hold power but Frank’s unpredictability and secret agenda always detracted from Claire’s potential. Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey once again do an amazing job and I loved watching the power shifts take place…from Frank going to the private sector to control government and Claire using the power of the Presidential office to consolidate her power and agenda and with it shift power away from Frank. Where next season leads is anyone’s guess but this is show about their partnership which Frank left behind this season in his quest for revenge against those who had opposed him. I think he’ll realize this or he’ll fall as Claire has shown to be the better leader now on multiple occasions.

Claire Underwood 2020

Final Score: 9.8 / 10