Category: Movies


Hugh Laurie in Tomorrowland

Last month’s teaser trailer for Disney’s Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney, didn’t give us much to go on.  If you missed it, check it out here.  It seemed like another gimmick to get people into a theme park.  Then they released the new full-length trailer for the summer 2015 release.

And they had us at Hugh Laurie.

How did we miss that Hugh Laurie was going to be in this, as some apparent high-level ruler of the futuristic Tomorrowland, accessible by a small push-button pin?

Hugh Laurie Tomorrowland

It appears like it could have some good sci-fi/fantasy elements:  An unexpected package like Ben Affleck found in Paycheck.  Or a useful totem like those found in the great short-lived sci-fi series, The Lost Room.

After the break, check out the new trailer for Tomorrowland:

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Downton Abbey

For you genre TV and film fans that got sucked into the BBC/PBS series Downton Abbey, now that the series is on hiatus are you ready to entirely re-immerse yourself back into sci-fi and fantasy?  Or do you still need a bit of the British manor fix now and then?  A great feature of British manor series and movies is the overlap of actors back and forth into the best of sci-fi and fantasy.  So if 12 inches of snowfall has stranded you inside and you want to further investigate your favorite performers on Netflix or other streaming media as they stretch their acting chops, here’s an excuse to dive into some films and TV series you may not have otherwise tried, featuring the best of the world of sci-fi and fantasy.

Remains of the Day Dyrham Hall

Christopher Reeve plays an American who buys this estate in Remains of the Day.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If you have yet to recover from Mardi Gras, you’ve a yen for more jambalaya and gumbo, and you didn’t find the baby in your king cake, there may be hope for you yet.  Consider it another strand of purple, green and gold beads, if you will.

In case you missed it, 2011 was a banner year for Hugh Laurie.  Depending on where you’re from and what medium you lean on the most, you may know Hugh Laurie as the brooding genius doctor who entered his eighth season on House, M.D.  If you’re an Anglophile you may know him as part of a classic comic duo on the British series A Bit of Frye and Laurie, who then performed piano and sang as part of a vaudeville revival in Peter’s Friends, and performed various characters in various Blackadder series.  Costume drama types may know him as Mr. Palmer, one of the best performances in Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility.  Or if you’ve really been following Mr. Laurie you might have read his 1998 spy novel The Gun Seller, Laurie’s first foray into fiction writing.

But what connects all this to February in Louisiana is Laurie’s debut album of soulful jazz, New Orleans blues singing and old-time piano playing.  Let Them Talk is an album you wouldn’t expect from a British actor, who speaks in real-life with an accent as English as they come.  Of course, some would be surprised from his perfectly done American accent on House, M.D., that Laurie is even British at all.  Adding certified blues musician to his bag of tricks as actor, comedian, and author, Laurie proved himself from all angles to be a true renaissance man.

Actors excel at “faking it.”  They get to pose as anyone else, and just as Laurie can play 19th century gentleman and modern new England doctor-turned-ex con, it may be no surprise that Laurie could fake it as a musician.  Yet, faking it is no where close to what is going on with Laurie and Let Them Talk.  Not only is Laurie a spirited pianist and guitar player who knows his stuff, he also knows what good blues is all about and you just can’t fake soulful sounds like Laurie was able to record onto this album.

As New Orleans blues is concerned, Laurie will fully admit he doesn’t have the street cred to begin with.  As he states in the liner notes to the album, “I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south…. If you care about pedigree then you should try elsewhere, because I have nothing in your size.”

Yet Laurie proves that a life-long love of a genre plus skill can equal if not the real thing, then something pretty darned close.  Laurie can quote numerous influences and idols from classic jazz and blues, but his singing favorites he narrows to Ray Charles and Bessie Smith.  At times, you can hear Laurie and his soul-sister/vocalists conjure up the sounds of both on this album.

His choice of music is a mix of gritty and street gospel.

With St. James Infirmary is a familiar tune played here with a classical twist that moves into a down-and-out anthem of despair straight out of the Great Depression.  Laurie then sweeps into a honky tonk romp with a Cab Calloway-vibed back-up band.

You Don’t Know My Mind is a party of pure zydeco rhythms.  Laurie’s vocalizations are as strong and powerful as any singer then or now, and his sound and feel echo a bit of Tom Petty when Petty has dabbled off the beaten track from Southern rock.  A pretty cool duet those two would make.

Not surprisingly Six Cold Feet is Laurie at smooth traditional blues with a nice sultry saxophone beckoning the listener to some ill fate at the crossroads ahead.

Buddy Bolden’s Blues is as classic blues as it gets, and Laurie hilariously shows he can play a great Leon Redbone (or maybe it’s just Laurie and Redbone both reaching back for inspiration from the same old singers?

In the next song on the playlist Laurie may have created a contender for best-ever version of Battle of Jericho thanks in part to Jean McClain and Gennine Jackson’s soulful background echoes.  The ever-building spiritual is sure to stick with you long after your first encounter and beckon you back for more.

Laurie’s meandering piano takes backseat on After You’ve Gone to Mac Rebennack’s rousing sounds, accompanied nicely by Robby Marshall on clarinet.

Laurie takes Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home and mixes honky tonk piano with early vestiges of Chuck Berry in his version he calls Swanee River, sneaking in from outta nowhere an Italian virtuoso violin sound that twists itself into a “devil down in Georgia” wrap-up at the end.

In John Henry Laurie sings back-up vocals to Irma Thomas.  In a lot of albums you can get annoyed when the featured performer steps away and other performers take over.  Not so on this album.  Laurie’s deference of sorts is well placed and well timed and his selection of performers is well made.  If Laurie’s album is credible, it’s in part to the sharing of roles between the singers and instrumentalists on each song.

If Police Dog Blues, Winin’ Boy Blues and the Whale Has Swallowed Me show off Laurie’s voice as the featured musical element, Tipitina is Laurie showing off his best piano playing.  It’s that master playing you see Laurie performing in Peter’s Friends and at the tail end of select episodes of House, M.D.

That's one bad hat, Laurie

They’re Red Hot is Laurie performing a quick-paced (and short) Robert Johnson tune, which is bound to be fun to hear in-person in concert.  (Check out his website for a list of concert dates stretching up the West Coast beginning in May).  Baby, Please Make a Change features Sir Tom Jones in a solid Louisiana blues tune.

Finally, the title song Let Them Talk features Laurie almost quietly poking fun at himself and the audience that may be skeptical of an Englishman delving into the taboo classic sounds of The Blues (how dare he!).  It’s a nice finale and reminds this listener of the piano playing and singing of Billy Joel on Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.

Maybe best of all, Laurie’s reverence for this genre of music brings together honest and modern interpretations of traditional folk songs, spirituals and blues, all with deep American roots, and manages to offer a fresh and entertaining collection to accompany you as you while away the weekend on your porch with a cold glass of lemonade or sweet tea.  If Laurie is a faker, he’s a faker of the best kind.

Let Them Talk is available everywhere records are sold, online and at certain Starbucks coffee houses.

Wagner & Me poster

Wagner & Me is a documentary about a fanboy and fandom, and about whether you can separate an artist from his art.  It features the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry as he investigates his favorite musician, the 19th century German composer of the famous Ring Cycle, Richard Wagner.  What you may or may not know is that history has documented Wagner as an anti-Semite, and that Fry is Jewish.  Why does this matter?  To some Wagner is the greatest composer of his day, if not of all-time.  Yet as we learn in Wagner & Me, his works of good vs evil took on their own life under the reign of Adolf Hitler.  Hitler would whistle Wagner amongst his friends and troops and the very rousing works of Wagner were often played to inspire his men.

Stephen Fry is one of the best actors in England.  In his comedic career he often partnered with actor Hugh Laurie of later House, M.D. fame, and is known in the UK from his many series, such as a A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and various Blackadder series.  He is well known as a good guy, an intelligent thinker, a philanthropist, and friends with actresses Emma Thompson and Carrie Fisher.  Fans in the States know him best from his movies.  His first film was a bit part in Chariots of Fire and from there he went on to act in A Fish Called Wanda, Peter’s Friends, I.Q., A Civil Action, Gosford Park, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he voiced the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, and narrated Harry Potter video games.  He also has a recurring role on the TV series Bones.  Most recently he played Mycroft Holmes opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and later this year he stars as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  He may be most famous to genre fans for his superb performance as a rebel hoarder of banned works opposite Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Guy Ritchie’s 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes partnered Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes with Jude Law’s Dr. Watson, and the result was a superb, entertaining action caper.  This weekend Ritchie’s sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, although not as great as the 2009 film, is a satisfying follow-up and equally entertaining.

In addition to Downey and Law, Rachel McAdams returns as thief and on-and-off-again love interest to Holmes, Irene Adler.  Reprising their supporting roles are Kelly Reilly, as Dr. Watson’s fiancée Mary, as well as Geraldine James as Holmes’s landlady, Mrs. Hudson, and Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lastrade.

Also returning is plenty of Holmes’s slow motion fight scenes, both real-time and shown in flashback, to sort of rub our noses in the fact that no one, not even the viewer, can keep up with the preparation and advance planning done by our hero detective.  There may very well be even more of these scenes, even longer than in the 2009 film, because I found myself comparing Holmes and Watson to contemporary variations on the duo in each of the slow-mo battles.*

As foreshadowed in the first film, Holmes now takes on nemesis Professor Moriarty, who is set up as an incredibly brilliant villain mastermind, teaching at university while also orchestrating arms deals and terrorist attacks as part of a business case to become even more wealthy, regardless of whether he starts a war to take down all of Europe in the process.  Moriarty is played well here by Jared Harris (The Riches, Madmen, Fringe, Far and Away, Last of the Mohicans, Lost in Space, The Other Boleyn Girl, Without a Trace, Lady in the Water), who gets to show some good acting chops possibly courtesy of shared acting genes from his father, legendary thespian Richard Harris (the first Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, as well as King Arthur in Camelot, Richard the Lionheart in Robin and Marian, and key roles in Patriot Games, Unforgiven, and The Guns of Navarone).  Harris plays Moriarty probably too subtly here, he hints at a dark side akin to Will Patton’s General Bethlehem in The Postman, but most of this is through the story build-up and not through his character onscreen.  We’re left wanting a bit for some more evil and brilliance to counter-balance that of Downey’s Holmes, who again here is perfect in nearly every scene.

Noomi Rapace (the lead in the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), unlike typical casting of Hollywood model types, is well-cast as a gypsy woman, but unfortunately she only gets a few good scenes, both of them running from first Russian then German mercenaries and the resulting fight scenes and bullet dodging.

Game of Shadows, as a sequel, reminded me of a sequel like the non-stop action-filled Die Hard 3, and happily not like sequels that hit with a thud such as Downey’s Iron Man 2.

Key creative and impactful scenes include McAdams’s character encountering the full weight of Moriarty’s Godfather-like influence, Watson and his new wife’s train ride to their honeymoon, lots and lots of cannons, and Holmes’s fascination with what he calls “urban camouflage.”  There is a bit to say that doesn’t work in this sequel, the story skips around a lot, the plot itself is lacking and seems to be a bunch of stitched together scenes and you may question why they move on to the next location and think “maybe on re-viewing it will make more sense.”

But of all the positive in the film, nothing matches the introduction of a new character, Holmes’s smarter brother Mycroft Holmes, played beautifully and brilliantly by comedian and actor Stephen Fry.  Fry is an actor that seems to only get better and more brilliant every time he appears in a new film.  Known early on as part of a comedy troupe with Hugh Laurie (House, M.D.), he also had key roles in Peter’s Friends, V for Vendetta, Gosford Park, A Civil Action, I.Q., and A Fish Called Wanda, and he will be appearing next year as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  As the “other Holmes,” Fry gets some funny, key scenes and hopefully will have even more screentime in future sequels.

*These included:  Hugh Laurie’s House and Robert Sean Leonard’s Wilson in Holmes/Watson roles on House, M.D., against their own Moriarty, Forman; on the TV show Psych, James Roday and Dule Hill’s Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster, particularly with Shawn’s observation skills; Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael Westen and his sleuthing spy work voice-overs on Burn Notice, the current equally superb BBC series Sherlock, and Batman’s detective stories, which are often written mentioning the original, classic detective’s influence on Bruce Wayne.

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