“Born To Be Blue”

The image of a scorpion crawling out of a trumpet’s horn sets the tone for this Chet Baker bio-op. We know all will end badly, yet we are surprised by how moved we are. The flame-out jazz trumpeter tears at our hearts. We want this father of West Coast swing to conquer his demons so badly.

Most of this emotion is brought to bear because of the incredible acting of Ethan Hawke. I can not stress how much this actor draws us in to the soulful musician, the deluded junkie, the angry son, the insecure come-back kid, and the inventive lover. Hawke is amazing, a romantic tour de force, just jealous enough, just playful enough, just melancholy enough. Hawke does his own singing. With “My Little Valentine” stirring every listener’s breath,  you consider Hawke a romantic lead for the first time. Part of this has to do with the dynamic chemistry between Carmen Ejogo and Hawke. Sex sizzles and notes soar.

Carmen Ejogo is Jane, the woman Baker adores. She is lovely and insightful and giving. Baker flirts with Jane, “Come back to my place and we can sing.”  Ejogo lights up the screen with her knowing, “You are trouble.” Her glow at her trumpet-valve ring  and her insistence on Baker “staying clean” says much about her character. She is no nonsense when she intones, “I don’t date zombies, Chet.” Whether bowling or walking the beach, or delivering her last lines: “Don’t be sorry for me!” , you will remember her in this film.

Director/writer Robert Budreau uses a unique color tool to keep the West Coast and the East Coast scenes orderly. All Pacific scenes are in color while all Atlantic scenes are shot in black and white. Close shots are perfectly alternated with long shots. Visually, this is a treat. We enjoy the facial muscles and the shaded eyes more once we see waves dashing a shoreline or light at a tunnel’s end.  Head shots don’t get claustrophobic.

While the cinematography is lovely, even the bloodied face of an assaulted Baker is artful, it is the music that permeates our psyches. Hawke’s slicked-back hair, his finger placement on the keys, the strong cords of his neck, even his missing teeth pay homage to his talent, but the mixture of song and story had theater goers sitting in their seats to read the last song title credited.

Three other characters round out the Chet Baker story. His parole officer is played by Canadian actor Tony Nappo. As Officer Reid he has twenty-five years of experience working with musician addicts. Portrayed with humor and caring, Reid both winces and laughs at Chet’s accusation: ” It is people like you who killed Billy Holliday!” He counters with, “Try to be happy for more than ten minutes.” They “get “methadone, and they “get” each other. Reid delivers one of the film’s most homiletic lines: ” If a man sits in a barber shop long enough, he is going to get a haircut.”

Dick, Chet’s manager, is played just as successfully by Callum Keith Rennie. Tough love and moist, joyful eyes show up again when Chet’s hard work earns Baker a gig at “Birdland”.  Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie sit in here and add tribute to the junkie jazz man. Even though Miles’ earlier putdown  lingers:” Go back to the beach, man. Come back when you have lived a little.”

The third  significant man in Baker’s life may be his dealer, but we don’t meet him. The story arc encompasses just the early to  mid-to-late sixties. We do get a glimpse at Chet’s father, a  curmudgeon of an Oklahoman, who farms sarcasm as well as he farms pigs. Calling his son a diminutive “Chetty”, he asks “Why did you have to sing like a girl?” ” Why drag the Baker name through the mud (with your drugs) ?”   Though Mr. Baker has contributed to his son’s love of music , we get glimpses of  a very lonely childhood. His rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” we see as having true emotional roots.

Be ready for some extreme violence and lyrics  that tear at your heart. Chet Baker is seen here as a fragile man, soft-spoken and vulnerable. I don’t believe it is true that he never hurt anyone, but himself. There were a lot of filmgoers who felt pummeled at  his ” forgive this helpless haze I’m in”. Only Chet Baker was born to be blue. Need I say: Do not miss.



“Mr. Turner”

If you have two and a half hours to immerse yourself in the last two decades of an eighteenth -century, renowned, seaside painter see “Mr.Turner”. Dick Pope’s cinematography is worth the time spent,especially the pictorial splendor of the artist fishing creekside in a wooden skiff. This frame is accompanied by “Jesus rays” and green, primordial lushness. Other landscapes evoke golden windmills and water/sky vastness, but this quiet meditative frame is my favorite. Nature is where the curmudgeon J.M.W.T. could find escape from the vicissitudes of artist politics and hanger-ons’ demands. This frame and the smokey mirage-like composition used with the initial credits do homage to Turner’s ephemeral use of light.

This film is a period drama as well as a bi-op. The stoke hats, the horse and carriages, the lice and scrofula, the candlelight and the sherry, the incessant cleaning of windows and the batting of rugs -all bring the era before us. The costumes and both the inner domestic and the outer street scenes are mesmerizing. Light and shadow bring Margate,London and Chelsea settings in mid- eighteen- century to the fore.

This may be director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. It combines the subjects of a tender yet merciless genius with art and its place in our lives. One flirtatious interlude has a character say,”The universe is chaotic, and you,Mr.Turner,make us see it.”

As for Mr.Turner,his complex and rather dislikeable character is played by a gravelly voiced Timothy Spall. Spall plays against the scenery of loch,light and lasciviousness. There are three “Mrs.Turners”. His ex-mistress (Ruth Sheen) is the mother of two of his daughters. She is a shrieker who berates him for neglecting them. He had not troubled to acknowledge his first grand-daughter. “Billy Turner, you insult me. You have always insulted me.” seems to speak to his modus operandi. He regularly gropes Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson),his simple and devoted housekeeper.  In  one scene, he indecorously throws her against a bookcase while rhymatically breathing and thrusting.When she asks if he will be returning to the house later that night,he  barks ” no”.  Hannah responds with “I might as well stop changing the bed sheets in here”. Later, when she finds an address in his jacket, Hannah journeys with whom we presume to be their sickly daughter to elicit aid. The girl dies in the street outside his new residence,and Hannah returns alone. Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey) is his final match. Their relationship is warm and caring,though he never tells her that he is the renowned painter,Mr.Turner. She learns this truth from the doctor she enlists to treat his bronchitis. The doctor prescribes bed,broth and balsam and the continual good care of Mrs.Booth. She is at his bedside when he says his final words: “The sun is God.”

Spall is a masterful character actor. His wide-leg umbrella supported gait,his grunting and harrumphing will be remembered. Where there is anger,there is pain. He spits on canvases,throws stools,groans like Grendel, yet is able to brook his ire and sing arias of lost love and see a fallen angel in a section of tree bark. His drollness is a thing of legend. He remarks that he resembles a gargoyle and that loneliness,drunkeness and solitude will come. Turner’s melancholy is tempered with wit. Spall delivers double entendres to his host like,”Can never be too salty for me,Madame” with aplomb. He sobs as he arranges and sketches a young prostitute his daughter’s age when she tells him that she does extras. One daughter has died while he “was painting his ridiculous ship wrecks.” He asks that his own physician to ” go down and have a sherry and reassess your opinion” when he is told of his heart condition. It is well to remember that Spall garnered the Best Actor Prize at Cannes.

There is so much detail in this film that I am surprised at its mere two and a half hour length. The infamous slave ship the “Zong” is mentioned as the first Mr. Booth recounts his naval experience in the 1780’s. He confesses that the conditions for the slaves were so bad that ” it sent me back to church”. The workings of the Royal Academy and its members Corot ,Constable etc.. are introduced. John Ruskin’s criticism and salon swagger are shown ;and critics,like Queen Victoria herself, are given play. Her highness thought Turner’s smearing of chrome pigment “a dirty yellow mess”. Steam engines,the camera,the use of  prism optics all enter into Turner’s oeuvre and outlook. The camera’s  easy realism and his first photo shot had him opine: “I fear I ,too, am finished”.

The score of “Mr. Turner” is Gary Yershon’s ,and it leads the narrative unfolding from barber/servant father and “lunatic” mother through the bequeathing of his life’s work to the British people. Bird song, fiddle, harpsichord and silence presage salon harangues and  frames of ice and fire firmaments. It is an understatement to say that this film hands us plenty to think about besides Mr. Turner. History is  truly captured.