FILM REVIEW: Tommy Lee Jones’s ‘The Homesman’

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By Ray Bennett

Tommy Lee Jones told me at a recent Bafta screening that he would not want to make a movie without composer Marco Beltrami and when you see his new film “The Homesman”, you can see why.

Beltrami’s elegiac and evocative music makes an enormous contribution to the picture along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, whose images rank with the classic westerns. Meredith Boswell’s production design and Lahly Poore’s costumes also set the scene vividly.

“Marco makes his living writing music for big action blockbusters [“World War Z”, “The Wolverine”] but I like to think he enjoys making my movies because he’s allowed to be original,” Jones said.

Beltrami scored Jones’s first feature as director, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005) and his TV movie “The Sunset Limited” (2011) plus Bertrand Tavernier’s “In the Electric Mist” (2009), in which the actor starred.

Jones said, “We like to invent instruments” and he described how Beltrami and his associate Buck Sanders had strung piano wires across a house in Malibu with microphones in a water tank. Another time, they put a microphone in a cactus and plucked the spines. He said, “I’ve always been interested in originality so Marco and I don’t need to do a lot of talking.” (See a video on the score here)

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However it is contrived, the music in “The Homesman” adds heft and depth to the story scripted by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández”) and Wesley Oliver (“The Sunset Limited”) from the award-winning 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout.

Jones said the script is faithful to the novel, which tells of a strong but lonely frontierswoman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) in the wilds of Nebraska in the 1850s who volunteers to transport three women who have become deranged back east where they might find help. When she comes upon hapless lynch victim George Briggs (Jones), she agrees to save him if he will accompany her on the long and perilous journey.

The film draws on biblical references of sin and shame, sacrifice and redemption with a touch of the apocalypse as it details the harrowing life of settlers beset by hazards that include loneliness, disease, natural disasters and human devilry. The suffering of women is central to Jones’s concerns and compassion is at the heart of a bleak and haunting tale.

Swank is typically committed as a plain woman who fails serially in her attempts to find a husband to fulfil her intent to be a force of good in the new settlement. Briggs is far from husband material but in helping her he has at least the chance to redeem himself in some way.

There is a complete absence of sentiment in the depiction of the three demented passengers played with grim credibility by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter deliver. Meryl Streep, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) have cameos deep into the picture.

As he did in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”, Jones the director brings out the best in Jones the actor with an unvarnished portrayal of a self-interested scoundrel of callous wit who discovers more within himself in the face of Mary Bee’s courage and vulnerability.

The film is a western in the sense that there are prairies, big hats, horses, villains, Indians and guns, but it’s more the human story of women trying to survive in a pitiless land. It is profound and memorable.

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Opens: UK: Nov. 21 (Entertainment One) / US: Nov. 14 (Roadside Attracttions, Saban Films)’ Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, David Dencik, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, Evan Jones, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep; Director: Tommy Lee Jones; Writers: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley Oliver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout; Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto; Production designer: Meredith Boswell; Music: Marco Beltrami; Costume designer: Lahly Poore; Editor: Roberto Silvi; Producers: Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy, Luc Besson, Michael Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Kennedy Executive producers: Deborah Dobson Bach, G. Hughes Abell, Richard Romero; Production: Michael Fitzgerald and Tommy Lee Jones Production; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; Running time: 122 minutes.

 

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Larry King on his lucky heart attack and love of smoking

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By Ray Bennett

Larry King turned 80 on Nov. 19 but the longtime TV interviewer almost didn’t make it to 60, he told me: “I got a lucky break. I had a heart attack.”

One dark February morning in 1987, King signed off his overnight national radio talk-show feeling uncommonly sluggish. Worried, he cancelled a date and drove home through the Washington, DC, snow. His doctor told him to take some Maalox and go to bed. Pain soon awakened him. Pain in his right arm and shoulder that fast became ferocious.

He went to the hospital where doctors told him that right then and there he was having a heart attack. King said,“I was lucky because it would have been unlucky not to have the pain because then you have no warning.”

In fact, he had plenty of warnings but he ignored them. He said: “I was 54. I ate what I wanted and I smoked heavily. I knew my father died of heart disease. I knew I had a heart problem. I just never thought I’d be going into an emergency room.”

King’s career was on a roll. His primetime CNN-TV talk-show was a hit; he had a newspaper column in USA today; his radio show was heard on 326 stations; he toured the nation giving speeches; and he was making a reported $1 million a year.

After the heart attack, King quit smoking and in 1988, he founded the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, a Washington-based national organisation to which he has donated all his extracurricular income from the several books he’s written. It remains a thriving organisation that helps people with heart disease who cannot afford treatment.

In an interview I did with him in 1989 for Inside Books Magazine, he said his biggest fear back then was that he would start smoking again. Then Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop was King’s guest on CNN the night before his heart attack and his last words to the host before he left that night were, “Boy, you oughta stop smoking.”

King stopped cold turkey the very next day out of fear: “I smoked from age 16 to age 54 and I never thought I could stop until that heart attack. I’ve never smoked since.”

He admitted that he still thought about it: “You know, people give me great credit. I won a Lung Association award as a celebrity non-smoker, but to tell you the truth, if I hadn’t had the heart attack, I would never have stopped. I liked the feel of it, the taste of it. I didn’t wake up in the morning coughing. I didn’t hack. I wasn’t one walking around saying, ‘Jeez, these terrible things.’ I loved every drag I ever took.”

He worried that the desire for cigarettes would return: “I saw the movie ‘The Accused’ with Jodie Foster, who is terrific and who smokes all through the movie. They had close-ups of her smoking and I kept saying to myself, ‘God, I used to smoke just like she does, inhaled, held the cigarette, just like she does. I used to do that.’ And I wondered, ‘What if I wanted one?’ God, I wouldn’t know what I would do.”

It didn’t help that many of his friends and acquaintances smoked: “You know who loves smoking? Judge Antonin Scalia. I was with him last election night. He’s a chain smoker. Now, you’d think, hey, he’s a judge on the Supreme Court. I said to him, ‘Why do you smoke?’ He said, ‘Why do smart people do dumb things? I’ll tell you why – it’s a terrific habit!”

Actor Martin Sheen smoked even after the massive multiple heart attacks he suffered making “Apocalypse Now”, King said: “He comes to visit me; he still smokes. Now, either he’s some kind of fatalist or there’s something in his emotional makeup that makes him willing to roll the kind of dice that I’m unwilling to roll.

“I smoked as much as Sheen. I liked it but apparently not that much. I could stop. What I’m scared of is that I’ll be like Frank Sinatra. He told me he had stopped smoking for two-and-a-half years and he just started one afternoon. He was in the house, he was alone, there was a pack of cigarettes. He smokes Camels, unfiltered. He said he just lit one up and said, ‘Fuck it.’”

By all accounts, King has never gone back to smoking. Scalia is 78 and Sheen is 74. Sinatra made it  to 82.

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Rock Hudson and the Hollywood AIDS scare

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Rock Hudson, who would have been 90 years-old today, had a more significant impact on Hollywood when he died than in a long acting career that included “Giant” (pictured), 1960s comedies with Doris Day and TV series “McMillan & Wife”.

Hudson died aged 59 on Oct. 2, 1985 from complications related to AIDS. On Feb. 8, 1986, I reported from Los Angeles on the impact of his death for TV Guide Canada. Here’s that story, which reflects all the fear, confusion and ignorance of that time. Continue reading

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Review: Ennio Morricone’s 75th birthday concert

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Maestro Ennio Morricone celebrated his 75th birthday with an unforgettable concert of film music at the Royal Albert Hall on Nov. 10. 2003.

By Ray Bennett

The machine-gun drum of his Oscar-nominated score for “The Untouchables” opened Ennio Morricone’s 75th birthday concert and signalled that the Italian maestro’s film music enthrals even without the pictures. Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’

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By Ray Bennett

Christopher Nolan’s entertaining sci-fi epic “Interstellar” is a swashbuckling adventure set in the far reaches of space with a mix of scientific fact and flimflam, and lots of black holes, wormholes and plot holes. Continue reading

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‘Made in Dagenham: The Musical’ is ready to roll

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By Ray Bennett

David Arnold has seldom appeared happier. You can only imagine what it’s like to walk along the Strand in London and see the splash of colour at the Adelphi Theatre that proclaims your very first West End musical and know that everyone says “Made in Dagenham: The Musical” will be a giant hit. Continue reading

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Thriller ”71′ tops British indie film awards nominations

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Ireland-set thriller “’71” picked up nine nominations for the Moët British Independent Film Awards announced today followed by “Pride” with seven, and “Catch Me Daddy”, “Frank” and “Mr. Turner” each with five. Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley (pictured”), Brendan Gleeson and Timothy Spall are up for acting awards. Continue reading

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Orchestra rules at World Soundtrack Awards

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By Ray Bennett

One of the great things about the World Soundtrack Awards is the Gent Film Festival’s commitment to orchestral music and this year was no different as the annual event showcased the work of Cliff Martinez. Continue reading

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Tearful Francis Lai acclaimed at World Soundtrack Awards

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By Ray Bennett

Oscar-winning French composer Francis Lai, 82, was visibly moved by a prolonged standing ovation after he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday night at the 14th World Soundtrack Awards in Gent.

Fellow French composer Bruno Coulais presented the prize to Lai in the audience where he listened with evident delight to a performance of his film scores by the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dirk Brossé. Continue reading

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Film review: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper in ‘Serena’

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By Ray Bennett

Among the many good things about the new Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper period drama “Serena” is that you’re never quite sure where it’s headed but the trouble is that when it’s over you’re not entirely certain where it’s been. Continue reading

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