What have you been watching this Christmas? Including Elf, The Force Awakens, Doctor Who and Kung Fu Killer

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.

Shows I’m watching but not recommending

Ash vs Evil Dead (US: Starz; UK: Virgin On Demand)
1×8 – 1×10
An entertaining series of episodes to conclude the season, ending it thematically correctly in every respect, with Ash first gorily taking on a double of himself before having to deal with his ultimate foe: Lucy Lawless. Lots of revelations for Evil Dead fans and lots of fun moments, too. I don’t think the season ever quite hit the heights of the first two episodes written by Sam Raimi, but a very credible effort, even if it was occasionally hindered by its half-hour format.
Where can I watch it?
Reviews: First episodethird episode

Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes (Netflix)
Netflix’s Marco Polo wasn’t the best of shows, and its lead was deeply uninspiring, but it did have a couple of decent characters and performances. One of them was Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and the other was Tom Wu as the warrior monk One Hundred Eyes. To drum up interest in the show’s second season, coming this summer, Netflix has decided to create a series (?) of origin story prequels to the show, wisely starting with Wu’s character. A brief, 30-minute affair mainly involving Wu and Wong, it sees how Wu was captured by Wong, blinded and eventually achieved enlightenment in Wong’s court. There are a couple of good fight sequences, as you’d expect, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo by recent new recruit Michelle Yeoh, but there’s nothing too startlingly exciting, other than a mildly surprising musing on daoism. It’s still better than about 75% of the individual Marco Polo episodes, though.
Review: first season

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Instant Video)
Another show that never quite reached the heights of its pilot, with a meandering first season that answers few questions and does little until the final episode. Problematically, while the series did start adding in aspects of the book it had left out from the pilot (such as antiques dealer Robert Childan), it over-simplified the politics of both the book and the real-world, giving us evil SS Nazis but no other Germans, not even from the army; Nazis that want to ban the bible (even though Hitler had obtained the support of the Lutheran Church in Germany to endorse the idea that Jesus was Aryan, not Jewish); no Italian fascists; and a Japanese presence that was largely benevolent.

The result, as well as an avoidance of audience-tasking complications such as a Christian fascism and the inability to make obvious parallels with modern day America, is a blander show, in which its American, freedom-fighting leads are singularly uninteresting and usually talk about ‘pons’ to avoid any unsavoury racism towards the Japanese. A lack of attention to detail means that Japanese is spoken randomly, depending on who’s writing the episode and no matter who’s involved in a scene, and German is saved until right at the end, largely for non-German speakers who can’t even say Riesling correctly.

Meanwhile, all the excitement lies with the Japanese and German ‘bad guys’ (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel de la Fuente, Rufus Sewell), who get great story arcs which they mop up with obvious relish. The result is that by the end, you’ll be rooting for the Hitler-loving Sewell to crush all resistance in the US.

All the same, some genuinely good moments are interspersed throughout the episodes and the second half of the season is much better than the first. There are some top extrapolations – the Concorde-like rocketplanes the Nazis use as well as a great version of a triumphant Berlin that appears to have actually been filmed in Berlin – and the ending is much in keeping with Dick’s original story, while simultaneously demonstrating the show’s intent to diverge from it significantly.
Reviews: first episode

The recommended list

Legends (US: TNT; UK: Sky1)
Finally getting the hang of creating spy excitement as well as tension, Legends almost scuppers its John Le Carré-esque spy realism in its final episode with a plot twist/reveal that’ll have you blinking in disbelief to say the least. The show just about sells it, but it’s a tough one, given what’s preceded it. All the same, an excellent second season that not only eventually ties all its flashbacks together and back into season one, but that rounds it off nicely, now its been cancelled. It’s a shame it couldn’t have started like this and I can’t imagine for a second that the producers ever thought they’d get a third season, but kudos them for trying to do something ambitious and intelligent on TNT.
Where can I watch it?
Reviews: 2×1-2×2

The Bridge (Bron/Broen) (Sweden: SVT1; Denmark: DK1; UK: BBC4)
Thrilling to the end, even though I guessed whodunnit by the end of the seventh episode, this probable final season of the show is a close runner for the title of best season, too, managing to avoid the worst ‘genius mastermind’ qualities of the first season while still giving us a Nordic Noir heightened reality of storytelling that was comedic, clever and moving by turns. The show’s final ending was a little disappointing, with Saga’s life effectively now revolving round a bloke and his issues (as indeed much of the season did, with Saga doing very little detection at times), but if there is another season, it should prove to be different enough to avoid repetition (although that might not be a good thing – cf The Killing and Between The Lines).
Where can I watch it?
Reviews: First episode

Doctor Who (UK: BBC; US: BBC America)
The Husbands of River Song
The now traditional Christmas panto episode of Doctor Who didn’t disappoint in that regard, being a funny run round in which the Doctor discovers what his criminal wife River Song is like when he’s not around, while a variety of guest comedy actors (Matt Lucas, Greg Davies) do their best to be amusing. But the show also managed to give us a likable Capaldi and to be poignant, giving us what looks like a send-off for River Song that dovetails back nicely to her previous appearances, including her first.
Where can I watch it?

Sherlock (BBC/BBC America)
The Abominable Bride
I’d not sure I’d say this was great so much as interesting, with the show imagining what it would be like if its versions of Conan Doyle’s characters lived in the 19th century and were the real versions, with Doyle/Watson’s stories being ‘fluid’ adaptations designed to put a gloss on this Sherlock’s worst failings. There’s a twist halfway through, as well, that makes it relevant to the modern day Sherlock stories but spoilers and all. 

Trouble is that once you start not just ‘updating’ Conan Doyle’s characters for a modern day age, but dealing with the originals, too, inevitably you’ll draw comparisons, almost certainly unfavourable ones. And while the show did well at giving all its female characters something to do, something the original stories singularly failed at, its Holmes, Watson and Mycroft weren’t a patch on Doyle’s – hell, they weren’t a patch on Granada’s Brett/Hardwicke versions, with Freeman closer to Nigel Bruce most of the time.

Nevertheless, clever, entertaining, never dull, possessing a central mystery that was actually mysterious, and with something to say for itself that was worth listening to, it was definitely one of the best Sherlocks we’ve had since the first episode.
Where can I watch it?
Reviews: first episode

  • Mark Carroll

    It sounds like that for “The Man in the High Castle” it is rather to my advantage to not have read the book and be comparing accordingly!

    I largely agree about “Sherlock”. I'm not the show's biggest fan by far, typically disappointed by the fan-pleasing utter daftness, but for me this was one of the best episodes ever, largely through actually bothering to have an interesting murder mystery that was cleverly explained, even if gur fhssentrggrf orpnzr zreryl gur nohfrq jbzra bs gur checyr XXX. And, you're spot-on about “Star Wars” VII: avoiding specific spoilers, it's basically a rehash of IV but, given that, actually pretty good. Especially, it did a good job of sucking us back into that world and nothing about it was particularly annoying. I liked the wreckage from past Imperial battles. Maybe Hoth is going to be warm and sunny this time around.

    On the other hand, Christmas panto “Doctor Who” — I can't imagine they'd have foisted such rubbish on Christopher Ecclestone had he hung around for a bit longer. I've quite liked some of the Christmas episodes since the show's return, but this really did stretch us from random thing to random thing with comedy getting far in the way of plausibility. Last year's made much more sense and that had Father Christmas in it! I think my kids enjoyed it, I guess they're the demographic, and it's hard not to like Greg Davies, but the plot was far from credible or naturally progressing and the comedy left the decapitations, deaths, etc. without impact. For me, BBC 4's repeat of “The Face of Evil” shortly afterward really did throw it all into sharp relief. Okay, the main bad guy was a bit naff and tedious in some ways, but at least they bothered to try to paint an interesting premise/world in which the regulars weren't always the central actors. I came away from that knowing that, if it were current, I'd actually be looking forward to next week's story. With a small budget and scope, bad effects, and some welcome comedic touches nodding toward entertainment, I felt like they'd actually bothered to attempt to give us some serious science fiction, and I've certainly been missing that lately.

    We finished “Childhood's End”. I enjoyed it. It was faithful enough to the book in the important respects and, granting them a couple of expediencies to progress the plot, not really less satisfying. What I enjoyed more about the book was that we got enough material to spend more time in the world with visiting aliens, but in a three-part miniseries there's only so much one can do, especially if aiming for a mainstream American audience. It was a decent adaptation and short enough to be worth risking the time for to see Charles Dance with his big red look.

    Given the lack of shows to watch, we're now into the last season of “House”, I'm told. That's remaining better than I recall and faithful to the characters. We just had Thirteen go away again, I'd been enjoying her later episodes. We're still also listening to the BBC Radio “Foundation”, the one from 1973 that sounds like it's from 1963; it's a bit of a slog, and the material's not easy to adapt, but it's still worth it when we feel up to it.

    We festively rewatched “Hogfather”. That remains quite good. Sure, it's a bit cheap effects-wise, but overall I think it captures the tone well, and the wise pragmatism of Susan and Death are fun. We also festively rewatched “The Flint Street Nativity” which remains an interesting concept, good fun, and a nice satire of primary school nativity plays, perhaps a bit less well-known than it deserves.

    I finished off “Master of None”. I'm not going to say it was great, but its diversity (I mean of structure and topic!) and wit were welcome, and the characters, both major and minor, certainly helped to make it appealing and fun viewing. We also caught up with “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, including the Christmas episode, and, while I'd certainly agree that it is nowhere near as inventive, observant and thoughtful as “Master of None”, I confess that probably actually enjoyed it more, call it a guilty pleasure.

    I finally got around to starting “The Blue Planet”. It's good, I'm enjoying it so far. It's not necessarily to be watched during dinner, and I've now seen the deep-sea one which for me is probably the highlight (I love the weirdest creatures), but I'll keep on paying attention. This brings me to “Snow Chick”, of course, which was the usual sort of penguin child-rearing story we've had in recent years, but goodness the narration was so painfully earnest.

    I finished off season two of “The Affair”. Ha, so it's nowhere near resolved yet. I'll give it another go for season three, and it is very nicely made and acted, but my patience isn't infinite. It may be that a lot is planned out in advance and it's all going to wrap up and make sense, I just can't tell. It doesn't help that the unlikable characters (among which I'd include Noah, a lead) and their dysfunctional relationships aren't always pleasant to view: I'm hardly the kind of person who bothers to suffer through “Eastenders”. The chronology of the storytelling leaves me somewhat confused, too, as to what happened when relative to what. One moment Alison's wheeling a baby buggy along, the next she's disclosing her pregnancy. She probably gives birth somewhere in between. So in another scene where she's not much pregnant, is that early on or after the birth? In the season finale we finally saw something that sets the context for much of the first season. They'd better not be just making it all up as they go along because it's becoming too much work with too little entertainment.

  • Man in the High Castle – I don't think comparisons are a problem, as the book and the TV series are quite different. But when they bring in something from the book, it's usually improved the show ('wu' was quite important in the book). The book itself is like most Dick novels in that it's very idea and character driven, rather than plot driven, so it probably wouldn't have made a great TV series without work. I just think that the writers have dumbed down the history to avoid any complications, either in terms of potential racism or in terms of having shades of grey.

    Master of None's fun and incisive, rather than funny. I like it, but not as a comedy, oddly enough.

  • benjitek

    All 3 season of The Killing (Danish version). Wow… amazing series, wish they’d done another season or 2. Tried watching the American remake, doesn’t compare to the original — made it through just the first episode and a little of the 2nd — didn’t like it.

    Regit (The Kingdom) — more Danish TV, entertaining, funny miniseries.

    Season 2 of Detectorists — great show

    Final episodes of Legends — Too heavy with the storytelling-by-flashbacks for me, by the last 2 episodes I was fast-forwarding through much of it. By the end, it made perfect sense that AMC cancelled it.

    Started Mozart in the Jungle, enjoyed the 1st season, they butchered the 2nd — after the first 2 episodes I deleted it from my watchlist.

    The Expanse — kind of all over the place until episode 3 when the plot began to fall into place, at least for me. Enjoyable, especially the Mars space battle stuff. Watchable, gets better with each episode.

  • Re: The Killing. The US version wasn't great, was it? I wasn't that convinced by season 3 of the Danish original, either, but the first was a stonker, even if it did have too many episodes and red herrings.

    Legends: It feels like a box set show, almost a novel in TV form. I liked how everything came together at the end, with all the clues laid down from the beginning. It was just the twist that tarnished it for me.

    The Expanse: I think that's one that's going to be dropped from my schedule. It didn't convince me before Christmas, and I felt no need to pick it up again afterwards. Time flies and new shows have arrived! So many new shows…

  • benjitek

    Just my impressions, everyone's takeaway varies — no one is right or wrong… Many loved the US remake of The Killings, I might've enjoyed it more if I hadn't watched the original first. The Expanse is OK, you're not missing much — if it were to be cancelled, I wouldn't miss it.