Tag Archives: B+

McQUEEN

Producer: Ian Bonhote, Andee Ryder, Nick Taussig and Paul Van Carter
Director: Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui
Writer: Peter Ettedgui
Stars: Alexander McQueen
Studio: Bleecker Street

B+

The deluge of high fashion documentaries continues with Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s stylish, intense profile of the British designer whose talent and showmanship unsettled and amazed the world of design until his suicide in 2010. Even if you have never heard of Alexander McQueen and have no great interest in haute couture, you’re likely to find it an incisive, breathless portrait of a fascinating, troubled and troubling man.

McQueen hardly came from the British upper crust: born in 1969, he was a middle-class East London kid who was encouraged by his loving mother Joyce to apply for a job on Savile Row. Getting it, he quickly impressed colleagues with his innate tailoring ability, and after that apprenticeship went to Italy and a stint as an assistant to designer Romeo Gigli. Then he returned to London to study at Central Saint Martins with the encouragement of Bobby Hillson (and tuition aid from his aunt), and his 1992 graduation collection caught the eye of Isabella Blow, the flamboyant fashion writer who became a mentor to him. In the same year he created his own label.

His rise in the field was meteoric, not merely because of Blow’s invaluable support and advice, but by reason of his undisputed brilliance in combining innovative design with a theatrical form of runway drama that often utilized themes that were unsettling, even macabre: his 1992 show was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” and his 1995 one “Highland Rape.” Though such presentations brought charges of misogyny and cruelty, they certainly also gained him fame (or perhaps notoriety), though not necessarily wealth. That came with his 1996 hiring by Givenchy, an arrangement that lasted until 2001.

Among the most notable achievements of McQueen’s final decade were the celebrated “VOSS” show of 2001, which seemed a provocative affront to the whole world of high fashion, “La Dame Bleue” of 2008, and his 2009 Paris show, “Plato’s Atlantis.” But this period was also marked by McQueen’s increasing volatility and drug use, by his surgery to reduce his weight, and by the deterioration of his relationship with Blow, who committed suicide in 2007. Shortly after his mother died, McQueen hanged himself a bit over a month before his forty-first birthday. A friend, Sebastian Pons, recalls with horror that the designer had earlier mused about ending a show with his own death, and in a way he did precisely that.

Bonhôte and Ettedgui cover all this dexterously, collaborating with editor Cinzia Baldessari to present the collage of found footage (including ample coverage of the major shows, which are employed as windows into their creator’s personality, along with brief excerpts of Joyce McQueen talking about her son) and newly-shot interviews energetically while refusing to indulge in simplistic psychological explanation.

Among the most notable interviewees are Hillson, McQueen’s older sister Janet (who reveals some truly awful circumstances in his childhood) and his nephew Gary, and Blow’s incredibly eccentric widower Detmar, whose recollections of the gay life of the coterie that surrounded McQueen are both hilarious and depressing. Michael Nyman’s typically insistent score adds to the sense of drive and growing darkness inherent in the visuals, which add as transitional devices animated sequences of the skull that was the motif of the McQueen brand.

There are a few significant omissions in “McQueen,” as well as a couple of instances in which the makers seem to downplay explicit details (as about Blow’s death). Overall, however, this is one of the better haute couture documentaries of recent years, both reveling in McQueen’s artistic accomplishment and revealing the tormented soul that lay behind it.

BLACKKKLANSMAN

Producer: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele and Shaun Redick
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Charlie Wachtel, David Rubinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee
Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Paakkonen, Corey Hawkins, Robert John Burke, Ryan Eggold, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson Isiah Whitlock Jr., Nicholas Turturro,, Alec Baldwin and Harry Belafonte
Studio: Focus Features

B+

Spike Lee is an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker, but sometimes his passion has overwhelmed his discipline, and the resultant pictures have been hectoring messes. That doesn’t happen in this case. There’s plenty of righteous indignation throughout “BlacKkKlansman,” but only at the end, when Lee chooses to accentuate the contemporary relevance of his period tale with news footage, does it arguably lapse into didactic overkill. The result is the most compelling—and funniest—movie Lee’s made in years, as well as one of his most effective in terms of messaging.

The actual case on which the script is based is disarmingly cheeky. Ron Stallworth, the first African-American cop in the Colorado Springs police department, in 1978 convinced his superiors to let him run a sting operation after seeing a recruitment ad for the KKK in the local paper. He contacted the organizers for a one-and-one meeting, for which a white officer was assigned to impersonate him. The operation continued for nine months, during which Stallworth made direct contact with David Duke and even served as the Grand Wizard’s bodyguard when he came to Colorado Springs. Though it yielded no arrests, the operation did reveal the Klan affiliation of some military personnel.

Lee and his writing colleagues Charles Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott have added some major fictional touches to the tale—adding a romantic interest for Stallworth and making his white partner Jewish, for example—but it’s commonplace to allow such embellishments to increase the urgency of a film “based on a true story,” and no more inappropriate here than elsewhere.

The important things is that Lee handles this remarkable tale with the same cinematic dexterity he demonstrated in the most stylistically skillful of his previous pictures—from “Do the Right Thing” through “Malcolm X” and “25th Hour” to “The Inside Man.” Visually it’s rawer than those pictures—Chayse Irvin’s cinematography aims for a gritty period look rather than slickness—but that’s the right choice for this material.

Even more important is the tonal balance Lee brings to the story, juxtaposing drama and comedy with considerable finesse. That’s apparent in the finely drawn performances of John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as his white partner, here called Finn Zimmerman, who actually takes most of the risks in the operation. Washington has enormous fun in his phone calls, particularly the ones he has with Duke (played with flair by Topher Grace, who suggests the nastiness behind the man’s carefully contrived amiability), in which he uses what in the recent “Sorry to Bother You” would be called his “white voice.” He also brings out the guilt Stallworth feels about hiding his “pig” status from Patrice (Laura Harrier), the Colorado State Black Student Union president whose organization he infiltrates—and who becomes his girlfriend.

In many respects Driver has the more difficult task, just as Stallworth’s real-life partner did, handling much of the heavier dramatics as Zimmerman is challenged about his commitment by his fellow Klansmen and struggles with embracing his Jewish identity in the process. But even so, he brings an air of hangdog likableness to his performance even as he tackles the role’s darker aspects.

One sees the canny melding of tone throughout the film, but a number of scenes stand out. Those in which Zimmerman interacts with the local Klansmen encompass both the clownishness of one called Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) and the savagery of perpetually furious Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), whose use of his dottily devoted wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) evokes both chuckles and horror—as well as the steely pragmatism of the cell’s leader Walter (Ryan Eggold). And that Klan meeting for which Duke comes to Colorado includes both a farcical note when Stallworth asks the Grand Wizard to take a picture with him (it might make you recall the end of the vintage “All in the Family” episode with Sammy Davis, Jr.) and a chillingly dangerous one when an outsider (Nicholas Turturro) is ready to blow Zimmerman’s cover. The look on the face of a black waiter hired for the gathering adds to the off-kilter feeling.

Of course, Lee’s anger over the country’s history of racial discrimination is very much in evidence as well. A subplot about a cop who shakes down black motorists and harasses Stallworth is a running thread (ending, one might think, a little too positively) and even the original interview Stallworth has with the police chief (Robert John Burke) and a politician (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) foreshadows the trouble he’ll face.

But it really takes center stage in some powerful set-pieces that are dropped into the narrative at strategic points; some will dismiss these as digressions, but they reinforce the idea that the Stallworth story is but a small part of a long-running theme in American history. There are, for instance, the episodes that bookend the film–a prologue introduced by a clip from “Gone With the Wind,” in which Alec Baldwin, as a right-wing bloviator, records one of his vitriolic tirades, and that concluding montage of recent news footage about Charlottesville and other tragedies.

And there’s more: a stinging oration delivered by Kwane Ture, the erstwhile Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) at an event sponsored by Patrice’s group, and a second presentation at the Union’s center, this time a poignant recollection on lynching by an elderly activist played by Harry Belafonte. At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” for the Klan and their assembled family and guests at an initiation ceremony.

All of this might sound like a bit much, but Lee and his editor Barry Alexander Brown weave the various pieces together in a whole that only occasionally feels unwieldy. “BlacKkKlansman” is an impassioned take on racial bigotry in America, but unlike some of Lee’s other films, it shows a level of directorial control that keeps it engaging without dulling the message.