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The Equalizer: Trial by Ordeal (1989)
Control and McCall Compose One Final Aria
"Trial By Ordeal" is the kind of episode that shakes a television show to its very foundation. Back when it was released in 1989, such 'look-back' episodes were always shoddily done, performed as a throwaway rather than offer anything meaningful. Not here. It's one of the best episodes for a top-flight series, and perhaps one of the best in television. Think I'm kidding? Look at the 'evidence' as mirrored during the kangaroo court McCall and Control endure: solid acting including the stern but mournful Szarabajka as well as the appearance of Sidney and Dotrice as Company Bosses You'd Love to Kill. Here, the trial is wrapped around classic episodes like "Beyond Control" and the show's pilot, piling on the evidence against Control while McCall can do nothing but play out the game. But every great Equalizer episode would not be so without the best duo around: Woodward and Lansing weave a web of lies to Control's employees as they turn the tables in an ending made all the better by Composer Cameron Allan's haunting synthesizers. It's the last time these two titans would share the stage, but it's a fitting end to their relationship. But we're not done yet: the story by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim makes one final turn that reveals Control is in fact operating a secret organization within The Company. That arrogance - albeit for the public good - is treason, a neat and tidy secret that will soon be buried like all of Control's deceptions. For now, enjoy "Trial By Ordeal" for its heavy-handedness, its games, and its lies, all things The Company did so well.
The Equalizer: Beyond Control (1987)
"It's What I Do for A Living Robert"
'Beyond Control' is the kind of episode that makes you realize what can happen when all the "pieces" in the visual medium fit. It is the best Equalizer episode ever, the benchmark that sets the bar not only for the series, but for every spy-driven series after.
It is a story driven primarily by strong character interaction (of which the series always excelled), but several aspects and particular scenes separate it from the others.
First, the direction by Alan Metzger is flawless - scenes throughout the episode feature a bevy of smart camera shots, including an incredible close-in sequence in the episode's last scene. That one, in which McCall questions Control's motives, is one of the greatest scenes ever shot for television.
Another reason why 'Beyond Control' exceeds in its efforts is Coleman Luck's penning of the script. Luck weaves an engaging tale of lies and deceit by placing central characters at philosophical odds with each other. This type of drama was a bedrock of the series, but Luck is hitting on all the cylinders here, with McCall and Control set as uneasy partners throughout the episode. The dialogue is crisp, and the story has enough plot twists to keep anyone on their toes. Listen to the final scene of 'Control' and you'll hear a familiar Equalizer theme: those that are in power lie at all costs to protect that power. When McCall confronts his former boss as to why he lied about Exden, Control's response is cool and premeditated: "It's what I do for a living, Robert..."
Perhaps the greatest and most underrated aspect of successful television encompasses my final reason for elevating 'Control' to the Mount Olympus of episodes. Music in television and film add necessary depth to a scene, round out the visual eye candy, and send strong messages to the viewer about the story's intent, all without using a single word of dialogue. Stewart Copeland delivers a brooding and dark ambiance to the series, and 'Beyond Control' benefits greatly from it. His orchestrations paint the auditory equivalent of the deep grays and dark corners which McCall journeyed through as he attempted to right the wrongs of the world. Replace the musical landscape with another (as was attempted in several episodes with Cameron Allan), and the result is pale at best. Again, watch that final scene to see Copeland weave his mastery.
In the end, 'Beyond Control' is a study in great television, when all those potentially problematic pieces come together to form something profound that demands our attention, shapes our understanding, and inspires us to take valuable lessons from its production. Simply put, it is television brilliance.
Man of Steel (2013)
'Man of Steel' is an epic superhero wonder.
The epic and beautiful Man of Steel returns Superman to the big screen and settles a long-standing debate.
If you've a fan of the online series Honest Trailers, you know their finest effort (The Avengers) laughingly tells audiences that as a result of Marvel's command of the box office, competitor DC has been placed on 'suicide watch.' Who could blame them: after a commercially successful but disappointing Dark Knight Rises and still stinging from the awful Green Lantern, the studio that first brought comic book heroes into the modern era seemed adrift and down for the count. Luckily the release of Man of Steel proves DC still has some fight in them, producing a beautifully-shot and thoroughly-enjoyable effort, even if some character development is lacking.
The story of Kal-El/Superman begins on the distant planet of Krypton, which is embroiled in a civil war between the established leadership and the war hero-turned-traitor General Zod (Michael Shannon, Premium Rush). The reasons for this unnecessary conflict stem from the debate about whether Krypton's core will soon explode, or if the calculations of Jor- El (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) are incorrect. As the civil war is put down, Zod and his fellow conspirators are sentenced to an eternity in a black hole called the Phantom Zone, while Krypton implodes under a depleted core. In a desperate effort to continue their planet's heritage, Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer, Angels and Demons) send their newborn son to Earth. There, he is raised in the town of Smallville by Martha (Diane Lane, Under the Tuscan Sun) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams), who try unsuccessfully to keep his powers a secret. As the son Clark (Henry Cavill, Immortals) grows into manhood, he drifts from job to job while searching for his true identity, but is ultimately drawn to saving people along the way. Enter the journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, The Muppets), who's been tracking Kal-El and his super-human feats of wonder. As he learns of his planet's history, Kal soon dons the famous red cape, and just in time. Zod arrives at Earth along with his contingent of convicts to destroy Superman and begin a new Krypton on Earth. As the two square off in a series of land, air, sea, and space battles, Superman must defend the people of Earth, while fighting the urge to commit the one act he's promised never to do.
Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) weaves a beautifully epic production with a keen eye on Superman's past. He clearly respects every aspect of the Caped Crusader, from the majesty of flight, to his strength and heat vision. Snyder gets Superman. But it's also the terrific work of Writer David S. Goyer (Dark Knight series), who produces a deep and powerful script about a alien struggling to find his sense of self while keeping his new home safe from terribly destructive people. Goyer also throws enough DC tips-of-the-hat to keep hardcore fans interested, even if some of the purists may walk away feeling unconvinced. Going in to this picture, my most pressing concern was whether a hero created not to kill could in fact do what was necessary, if forced to do so; if not, our new world order of ultra-violence could reject his story outright, and the franchise would again suffer a period of indignity. Goyer presents a powerful remedy that effectively solves the matter. We're left in the moments afterwards with our mouths open in shock, but it's this kind of resolution that our hero needs and one the audience relishes when it arrives.
Cavill plays a very likable Supes, but it's his stellar supporting cast of Oscar winners and exceptional new talent around him that help tell the whole story so effectively. Many times we witness ensemble pieces that struggle to tell everyone's story. This is the only knock against Man of Steel, for there's just not enough time to weave thorough tales for everyone. Goyer chooses the Kents, Zod, and Jor-El, while the Daily Planet's Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne, The Matrix) and Lane are probably left for future films. In the end, we love the whole and immense roles of the previous, and look with anticipation to seeing more of the latter. This is not just an origin story for Superman, fixated on a single event that may or may not succeed, but for the entire human universe connected with this iconic character - I can give them a pass for not covering everyone to our expectations. To leave the theater with such a satisfying feeling is rare even for Marvel, who's made a name for itself by doing what Man of Steel achieves so well. A Hollywood where two excellent superhero universes thrive is better for fans and for the genre as a whole. Who knows where this new one will take us, but it's clear that co-Writer/Producer Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight series), Snyder, and Goyer have things well in hand.
Man of Steel is a sweeping effort to be sure. Goyer and Snyder shine in bringing Superman into the 21st Century, leading the impressive cast through the best comic book movie of the year so far, and perhaps one of the best films of 2013. In many ways, Man of Steel proves that a boy- scout superhero born to defend American values can survive and even thrive in today's deadlier, more subjective society. Whether purists like what's in store for them is anyone's guess; but for now, DC is back on the map and off suicide watch. Man of Steel is rated PG-13 for violence and has a runtime of 143 minutes.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.
Gravity is amazing, but can you watch a film like this more than once?
Gravity is an absolute thrillride. But can you watch it more than once? WARNING: major spoilers ahead.
The beauty and thrill of discovery involved in space travel is matched only by its inherent potential for dramatic loss of life, as evidenced by the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia. Director Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity takes us through just such a disaster, creating both a thrilling and cautionary tale that will either inspire or make you nervous each time you fly.
Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are busy space-walking around the Space Shuttle Explorer when the ship is struck and destroyed by a dead Russian spy satellite. Their only hope is to make it to the International Space Station, which Stone finds has been abandoned, with its only functioning escape craft damaged. As secrets are revealed about the duo, one must make the ultimate sacrifice so that the other may live, paving the way for a gripping end to what was supposed to be a nice walk around Planet Earth.
This is a two-person show, with Clooney and Bullock as the only actors, minus the voice of Mission Control, played by The Right Stuff's Ed Harris. They survive each debris storm, which seems to grow in intensity and size, while constantly running out of oxygen or dealing with fires in space. It would have been less effective had Gravity been told from Clooney's perspective, or had the hero been a man. That's not to say women are less likely to survive a space disaster of this scale, but the perceived frailty of women and instinctual survival are played up here, resulting in either modest failure or total success. It's merely by luck that Bullock emerges as the lone survivor, but what of her life afterwards? Clooney has more incentive to return home - to the life of a bar-hopping astronaut - than Bullock, whose loss of her daughter years before has left her with nothing but quiet car drives after work. That's not something to look forward to, especially since Cuarón makes such a big deal of this perceived dysfunction once the action ramps up. Gravity is less about the future than surviving the present, with our heroine reacting to circumstances and less about how those change her. Once she's home, it's back to that quiet car ride. Lame.
Clooney is the master of the understated performance, with his dry veneer and aging good looks guaranteed to keep women focused until his untimely departure. By then, we've already focused onto Bullock, whose realistic portrayal lends incredible reality to the role. A lot has been made about their public relationship, and whether Clooney influenced the selection process; regardless, she turns in an amazing performance that could see her nab an Oscar nomination. But this is Cuarón's baby, and he delivers it with amazing vision and excellent camera-work by Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Both seem to understand the backdrop of space as both amazingly dangerous and yet filled with incredible beauty and untapped power. Man is merely a grain of sand in that great vacuum, and Cuarón - who co-wrote this with his brother Jonás - adds the right mix of human drama and space-scale epic to the screen. The result may convince you to either become an astronaut, or swear never to fly again.
Some people classify 'good film' as something you can watch more than once, because you always find a new angle or background action you missed the first time. Gravity is hard to place into this neat box, because its novelty wears off once the credits start rolling. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it. but you might be dissuaded from purchasing it on Blu-ray once it becomes available. Nevertheless, Gravity proves that space is both the final and most dangerous frontier man will ever face. Bullock re-assumes her position as a top-tier veteran, while Clooney continues to prove that his appearance in a film - whether short or long - makes everything he touches that much better. If you have issues with vertigo, I'd discourage you from seeing it in IMAX, based on our feelings of vertigo at a 3D standard theater. Either way, it's a film you'll only want to watch once - make the most of it. Gravity is rated PG-13 for language, creepy country music in space, and has a runtime of 90 minutes.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.