Agent Carter (review)

One of the many nice touches put to Marvel’s latest extension of its on screen universe was a show within a show. At various points we’d see and hear the recording of radio serial called Captain America Adventure Program. It is kind the affair where the sound of a fight is evoked by somebody punching a leg of lamb.

Agent Carter clearly owes a lot to that kind of show. It has a lot of the tropes of an early cold war spy adventure: mysterious weapons with names like ‘implosion device’, car chases and Eastern European villains. And almost Mad Men like effort seems to have gone into replicating the style of the time: the cars, the suits and above all the lipstick! If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of fun, then you’d be right!

However, it’s not trapped by the genre it’s pastiching. The most obvious example is that its hero and the most menacing villain are both women.

The titular Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was the love interest in the first Captain America film. However, as she proved to be far the best thing about that otherwise so-so movie, she got her own show. It follows Peggy as she navigates life in Truman era New York. She’s still a special agent but now one hamstrung by the prejudices of her co-workers. She still gets to find stolen doomsday weapons, beat up goons and outsmart Russian spies. But she can now only do so behind the backs of her less capable co-workers.  While on the clock they treat her more like a secretary than a spy.

Another departure from its vintage inspirations is showing in war as something other than an opportunity for dare doing. Virtually, everything that happens in the series is in some way a repercussion of the war and pretty much every recurring character has been damaged by it in some way or another.

Depicting such a broad array of characters dealing with a difficult and potentially sensitive topic demands some solid acting. Fortunately, while it is undoubtedly Atwell’s show, the supporting cast is more than a match for the challenge. They are consistently excellent. Dollhouse fans will be pleased to see the woefully underused Enver Gjokaj given a high profile role.

Much as the series manages to utilise and transcend the conventions of 40s spy thrillers, it does the same with the Marvel Cinematic Universe it inhabits. It successfully fleshes out parts of that world. There are plenty of call backs and forwards to the films. This includes a rather chilling insight into the background of one of the Avengers.

If you’d not watched Captain America: the First Avenger then the plot would probably be hard to follow. Otherwise, one could enjoy it free from any thoughts of the broader Marvel world. Knowing, for example, that Tony Stark’s AI Jarvis is based on his real boyhood butler who becomes Peggy’s sidekick is satisfying for Marvel fans like me. However, a much bigger group can enjoy the great: story, lead performance, ensemble cast, period style and action scenes.

VERDICT: 9/10 – There’s still uncertainty over whether there will be a second series. As you can probably guess I not only want another series, I demand it NOW!!!

My favourite films of 2014

The title of this post is very deliberately chosen. These are my favourite films of the year rather than the best films. This is not just a concession to the subjectivity of such an exercise but an acknowledgement that I’ve probably not seen most of the best films of the year. I watch a lot of films but it’s still a small proportion of those out there. You won’t see Boyhood, Babadook, Pride, the Wind Rises, Mr Turner, Wolf of Wall Street, The Theory of Everything, Calvary, the Raid 2, Unbroken, Under the Skin, Lucy, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel or Citizenfour on this list not because I think the films there are better but just because I haven’t seen them.

For the purposes of this post, a film was released this year if that’s when IMDB lists its UK release date as 2014.

And that as far as I’m concerned is a pretty good selection of films. Despite a relatively anaemic box office, there’ve been plenty of interesting films and encouragingly many of them have been the kind of big budget epics that people are most likely to watch. The first film I saw this year was 12 years a slave, which shortly went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was I thought a very worthy winner and I assumed it would my top film of the year. Yet such has been the quality of what I have seen, 12 Years is not actually in my top 5. A lot of other really great films have gone the same way.

The strength that I think unites the films I have chosen is that grapple with important (generally political) themes but do so within the context of riveting filmmaking. They are political without being propaganda. Balancing entertainment and exploring ideas is a challenge for filmmakers and many of them have risen the challenge admirably.

5. Captain America: the Winter Solider

Marvel has had a great year. Guardians of the Galaxy and the Winter Soldier were for my money the best films the studio has made so far. The reason I picked the later film for my top 5 was that it retained Marvel’s usual combination of action and humour but also added some smart political stuff about the surveillance state. Plus it had some really good performances including from Chris Evans in the lead, who I’d not really rated before.

4: Paddington

The funniest and cutest defence of immigration you can imagine. A nice mixture of slapstick, satire, visual gags and wordplay. It is sweet without becoming sentimental. The cast is pretty much perfectly chosen and the performances they deliver are great. Particularly remarkable is Nicole Kidman clearly having a riot as the villain.

3: Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers latest film stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra a working class Belgium women who has a single weekend to save her job by persuading her colleagues to forgo their annual bonuses. I can’t do better job of explaining why it’s such an impressive film than the Economist’s review did: “the Dardennes’ film digs more deeply into the devastating effects of the Western world’s current financial woes than practically any previous feature film. The audience is, of course, eager for Sandra to keep the job which puts a roof over her family’s heads, and which lifts her out of her depression. But when the Dardennes show what goes on behind her colleagues’ front doors, it becomes painfully clear how important their bonuses are to them, too. “It will be a disaster for me if the majority vote for you,” says one. “But I hope for your sake that they do.” It is a complicated, humane idea, expressed with heart-wrenching directness. And there are many more of those in this impressive work.”

2: ’71

Director Yann Demange takes the spirit of Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow to Northern Ireland for this finger nail shredding tale of a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) lost in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. It is both a wonderfully evocation of a particular point in history and a universally applicable parable about the messiness of counter-insurgency.

1: Snowpiercer

My favourite film of the year barely even qualifies. It’s not had a proper cinematic release in the UK (and probably never will) but was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That’s a travesty because it’s a near perfect film. In fact, I’m rather unsure which of its myriad strengths to tell you about. Perhaps the most remarkable is that its preposterous premise about the only survivors of catastrophic climate change being aboard a train that never stops is utterly convincing from beginning to end. Joon-ho Bong creates a remarkable world aboard the train and populates it with an impressive cast (including Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Viola Davis and Alison Pill). I’ve not seen a more compelling exploration of either personal or political themes this year.