It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.
The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV - they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.
The Christmas holidays/Saturnalia are a time for revelry and fun, followed by bloated lounging around watching TV. At least, they usually are. This year, good TV was slightly harder to find, so after the jump in this Christmas viewing round-up, the only Christmas specials I'll be looking at are Doctor Who and Sherlock, as well as the slightly unexpected and un-Christmasy Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes. Several of the regular shows also finished their runs over Christmas, so I'll be taking a gander at Ash vs Evil Dead, The Bridge and Legends, and I finally finished the first season of The Man In the High Castle, too.
That doesn't sound like much viewing for two weeks, and you'd be right. I also watched a few movies and even went to the theatre:
Elf (Dominion theatre, London)
A stage adaptation of the delightful Will Ferrell Christmas classic movie, in which a Christmas elf discovers he's really a human and ventures south to New York to find his children's book-publisher father (James Caan), only to discover that daddy is in Santa's naughty list. He gets a job at a department store, where thanks to adorable co-worker Zooey Deschanel, he discovers the human thing called love, and manages to restore Christmas cheer to the world.
Initially tediously slavish to the original, right down to the New York setting requiring the entirely British cast to put on US accents, this musical version starts to get better only when the story begins to diverge halfway through. The show is also more knowing than the original, losing some of its innocence and adding jokes that only the adults in the audience will get.
Ben Forster (winner of ITV's Superstar), who's got a cracking set of pipes on him, plays Buddy the Elf a bit closer to Jim Carrey than to Will Ferrell, while Girls Aloud's similiarly pipe-equipped Kimberley Walsh (I'd misread that as Kimberly Wyatt from Sky 1's Got To Dance, so was a bit disappointed when I realised my mistake…) foregoes Deschanel's hipster quirkiness in favour of being just a cynical woman embittered by too many of life's disappointments. More interestingly - again for the adults - is the presence of 80s/90s stars Joe McGann (The Upper Hand) and Jessica Martin (Doctor Who, The Bobby Davro Show) as Buddy's human parents.
It's a lavish affair with a good cast that's still very entertaining and that eventually finds its feet, but it's better if you've never seen the original and imagine it's all set in London - they missed a trick there.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) (iTunes)
Every Mission Impossible is a bit different but this time we do get something a bit closer to the first movie in the series, with an attempt to do proper spy stuff again. Senator Alec Baldwin is trying to shut down the Impossible Mission Force, just as Tom Cruise cottons on to the fact that rogue agents from other countries' spy agencies have clubbed together for nefarious purposes, forcing the team to go on the lam. Can Cruise, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and generic token woman Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen) stop the 'rogue nation', even though its agents are supposedly every bit as good as IMF and wise to how it does business?
You betcha, but the fun is in finding out how. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie gives us some occasionally thrilling, mostly too-CGIed action set pieces, as well as some surprisingly funny moments and the traditional con jobs, although an attempt to create parallels to Casablanca are ill judged, Renner is confined almost entirely to chatty scenes in Washington and London has about 1,700 red telephone boxes for no good reason. Also amusing for UK viewers is that the British government appears to be entirely composed of the cast of Rev.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (20150 (in cinemas)
Simultaneously answering the questions "What if it had been Princess Leia rather than Luke Skywalker left on Tatooine?" and "What must it be like to work for the Empire?", this new Star Wars movie has newcomer Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet waiting for her family to return to pick her up. Into her life come a comedic stormtrooper-with-a-conscience sidekick (John Boyega) and a droid looking for an old jedi. Together they have to escape the revamped Empire, find the rebels, meet Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon and destroy the Empire's new, definitely-not-the-Death-Star-oh-no superweapon.
JJ Abrams gives us the first decent addition to the Star Wars series since the 80s through the simple measure of giving us Star Wars again, but with modern special effects and a few character/relationship switches just to obfuscate the fact it's the same movie as the first one. But it is a very decent remake-sequel, reminding you of just how good the original was, being genuinely thrilling, funny and enjoyable throughout, not invoking any of the tedious cruft that Lucas added in the prequels, and giving us a decent new cast and a return of the old cast. And it's great to have one of these things about a girl rather than a boy for a change, too.
The big question, given where the film ends, is whether the next one is going to be a simple retread of The Empire Strikes Back or whether there are still new stories to be told in the franchise.
Kung Fu Killer/Jungle (2014) (Netflix)
Top martial artist Donnie Yen's in Hong Kong nick for murder, when other top martial artists start getting killed off, forcing the police to recruit him to stop the murderer from killing anyone else. But does Yen know more than he's letting on and can he stop the killer before he gets to his girlfriend?
It's a largely unremarkable plot, but what lifts Kung Fu Killer are its fight scenes, direction and cast. Featuring pretty much a who's who of the Hong Kong martial arts industry, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera (stick around to the end to see if you spotted everyone), the movie is often a Chinese travelogue and has some directorial flourishes that nod to a diverse range of movies, including The Bourne Supremacy, although its CGI is a bit weak and the wire work a bit too obvious. The best fight is saved for Yen and till last, but the movie fills its runtime in an almost Game of Death-style deconstruction of kung fu, each scene showing a different aspect of Chinese martial arts.
Worth watching if you want to see what a modern Hong Kong martial arts movie looks like and to see Donnie Yen on good form.