Army Intelligence?

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WARNING: SPOILERS 

It’s been three years since Captain America: The First Avenger and we’ve had a number of other huge Marvel movies since (Avengers (Assemble), Thor: The Dark World, The Wolverine and Iron Man 3). So audiences have been trained to expect bigger and more bombastic Marvel studio efforts. The first Captain America film was enjoyable, albeit a little cheesy in places and felt like an extended trailer for the Avengers (Assemble). Fast-forward three years and the film-makers can jump right in. Captain America: The Winter Soldier pits Steve Rogers, Nick Fury and the Scarlet Widow against a threat that seems to have come straight out of the Cold War: Russian assassin the Winter Soldier, who may or may not be Cap’s old friend Bucky Barnes. In a nod to Seventies classics like Three Days Of The Condor and All The President’s Men, the film introduces Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Winter Soldier also brings in Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon. They do manage to introduce a feeling of paranoia straight out of the Cold War, upsetting the status quo and questioning who the audience can really trust. Scarlett Johansson returns as Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow and her role here is much more satisfying than her previous appearance and Samuel Jackson’s Fury has far more to do here than in any other Marvel film to date. There are some nice touches, with Redford adding a little bit of gravitas and Johansson is less wooden and more likeable here. But it does outstay its welcome with a running time of two and a quarter hours, the 3D is totally pointless, The Falcon just doesn’t work here and the plot isn’t as ingenious or well-conceived as the films it nods to. The obligatory sting at the end feels short and a little bit pointless. However, for fans of Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers an entertaining cinematic ride, channelling the comics with no little aplomb and panache. Even former Captain America scribe Ed Brubaker gets a small, blink-and- you’ll-miss-it cameo, which adds a little fun to the mix.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier is guaranteed to have a steel grip on the box office when it opens both in the UK (out now) and US (4th April) and while it’s not perfect by any means, it is a film with its heart in the right place…

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NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL SECRET SERVICE
SPOILER WARNINGS
I admit that when I went to see Skyfall, I was expecting it to be the same sort of experience I had had when going to see Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. So, solid and entertaining but a slightly disappointing cinemagoing time. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Casino Royale was very good but Quantum of Solace felt like a Bourne film. At one point, it seemed that Bond was cursed: MGM was in severe financial difficulties and we didn’t know if we were going to see another James Bond after 22. But Sony came in and rescued the franchise and director Sam Mendes was reattached to the film as was Daniel Craig. Skyfall is not an attempt to make Bond with Bourne. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner have created a Bond film which feels properly British and like a proper cinematic experience. The Adele song in the opening credits is unmemorable but then every Bond song for the past few years has been the same although Daniel Kleinman’s opening credits are worthy of Maurice Binder, the man who did many of the classic credit sequences for James Bond. The pre-credits sequence is blown in the trailer, so I am not spoiling much by revealing that Bond goes off the edge of a bridge in Turkey and is missing, presumed dead. At the same time, the heart of the British secret intelligence services is hit by a mystery attack, which leaves MI6, M and her team seemingly on the back foot. So they are forced to regroup to ascertain this threat and it turns out that it comes from someone with a connection to M’s past, the suitably demented Silva (a blond Javier Bardem). Bond does reappear but he is a broken man: injured by the fall and from months of being out of active service, his reflexes are shot and he has to start from the ground up again. Mendes has shaped a scenario that uses London and British settings in a way that is neither arbitrary or just another dot on James Bond’s international globetrekking life. You do have scenes that take place in Shanghai and Macau but Britain including Scotland are the key locations for Skyfall. The film has this wonderful visual flair that has been lacking in Bond films of late and Deakins manages to make the Scottish Highlands, part of a very pivotal scene later on in the film, look as grand and as epic as the highways of southwestern USA while still looking very British. London looks wonderful and it is used in a very cinematic way, including a great scene that takes place on the Tube. Craig looks fantastic as Bond and there is a certain cool frailty here that really lends to the atmosphere. Mendes also uses M (Judy Dench) as a major player in the plot and the introduction of new Q (Ben Wishaw) is clever and subtle while addressing all of the criticisms that were levelled at casting him from the press and public. Naomie Harris as fellow MI6 agent Eve feels more than just eye candy and by the end of the film, you realise that she has been introduced as more than just someone who looks good on screen. Also, Rafe Fiennes, very watchable, as government minister Gareth Mallory has a key role that is revealed at the very end of the film. Mendes has introduced some really nice nods to Bond’s past too, and I’m not going to spoil them here as one of them made me smile when it appeared on screen. Skyfall succeeds in feeling contemporary and yet classic at the same time. Mendes has managed to subvert some of the Bond tropes while setting things up for the future. In the fiftieth year of James Bond on screen, Ian Fleming’s creation has never felt so fresh and up-to-date before. Skyfall is smart, cool, exciting and quintessentially British. Mendes has made one of the best James Bond films in years. Bond is definitely back…

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SAFE PAIR OF HANDS

Safe House is the latest film starring Denzel Washington and I went to see it recently, just before its release. The English-language feature debut from Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, Safe House is about CIA agent Tobin Frost (Washington), assumed to be a rogue agent by the CIA themselves but he is forced to return to the fold when he is left vulnerable in South Africa. He is taken to the safe house of the title, run by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). But the safe house is breached and so Weston has to try to keep Frost safe while they’re on the run. Elements within the CIA are after Frost because he has a list of compromised agents from every major security agency on the planet including MI5 and the CIA. On paper, you would think that Washington is a little bit too old for a role like this and that Safe House would just be another predictable and improbable action movie. But to Espinosa and Washington’s credit, it has a slightly off-kilter feel, both in the directing and the acting, so it does keep you watching. Reynolds as the less experienced agent turns in a decent performance even though he does feel outmatched at times by Washington. Support from Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga as the senior CIA heads is very solid and the South Africa setting lends it a different mood to the scores of American-set suspense thrillers we’ve seen over the years. Espinosa is definitely a name to watch and if you like action thrillers with a little bit of intelligence, then Safe House is for you…

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SPYING QUALITY

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman in the George Smiley role, feels like a film from a different era. The TV adaptation starring Alec Guinness was set in a world where England and America were playing a game of espionage against the Russians in a period when one side may have blown the other to kingdom come (or that’s how it felt at the time). There are no jump cuts, people don’t leap through the air followed by explosions and you don’t get knife fights or pursuits over the rooftops of particularly picturesque Moroccan houses. Oldman doesn’t even speak for about the first twenty minutes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but his presence is feel nonetheless. The plot is labyrinthine, about a Russian traitor in the British secret service and the lengths that Smiley and his colleagues go to to expose and flush the Judas out. Oldman is brilliantly understated here with every nuance serving a purpose on screen. He is assisted by a very competent supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, playing a little against type but displaying a little more range than usual, the ubiquitous Mark Strong (who shows that he is more than just the comedically sinister villain for Hollywood movies), Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciaran Hinds. Even small cameos by actors like Stephen Graham and Roger Lloyd Pack lend something to the overall mix. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) has a very steady hand here, letting the performances speak for themselves. He also recreates 1970s London (and a few other places) with rare skill and attention to detail, with the help of production designer Maria Djurkovic. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic British spy film with some exceptional performances and assured directing. It should be remembered by posterity as it makes the case that not all remakes have to be inferior. Deserving of many awards when the season kicks off later in the year…