Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn (2016)

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He was so important for somebody who never made himself noticed. The mystery behind actor/director Leslie Howard’s death on Flight 777 out of Lisbon in 1943 is the framing story for this highly personal documentary. Far from being an English gentleman, he was the son of Anglicised Jew Lilian Blumenberg and her Hungarian Jewish husband Ferdinand Steiner. Her family so disapproved of the match that he was reared in Vienna speaking German before they were accepted and returned to London. Early success on the London stage made him turn to cinema, which he preferred, setting up his own production company which lost money on four comedies, leading him to Broadway where he became an instant success and the matinee idol du jour. He took roles in Hollywood including in Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul opposite a young Clark Gable whom he didn’t think much of – and nine years later, during which he became a superstar back in British films, they were reunited on the set of Gone With the Wind when Gable was the King of Hollywood and Howard felt he was miscast as Ashley Wilkes, the English gentleman as the Southern gentleman. His backing of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Duke Mantee which he played on Broadway for the adaptation of The Petrified Forest led to a long friendship and Bogart named his daughter in Howard’s honour. The start of WW2 exercised his conscience greatly and he not only made films dedicated to the war effort (because Britain was in it alone for the first couple of years by and large) he spoke out on radio and started directing himself. This is an enormously intimate piece of work – it features several excerpts from interviews with his daughter Leslie Ruth whom he adored and gave up his proposed marriage to Merle Oberon when the actress disliked the little girl. He had a string of affairs but a steady homelife with his wife and children kept him stable. This is simply overflowing with amazing archive footage including home movies and there are telling interviews with colleagues such as Michael Powell and Norman Spencer, his assistant director.  It is narrated by an extraordinary individual, Derek Partridge, the little boy (and son of a Government agent), now a presenter, who gave up his seat for Howard on that fateful flight when at least four other passengers were valuable targets for the Germans. This is a compelling film, written and directed by Thomas Hamilton with a beautiful score by Maria Antal.

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Spielberg (2017)

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His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

George Michael: Freedom (2017)

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I knew how to make these records and I knew just how to make them jump out of the radio. George Michael was making this film about his career when he died so unexpectedly and tragically on Christmas Day last year. Slickly narrated and beautifully edited, this astonishing combination of archive footage, home movies, music videos and contemporary interviews with his peers, friends and lawyers is as artfully constructed, witty, mesmerising and moving as the music of the man himself.  From his schoolboy antics with Andew Ridgeley in a terrible ska band through the unexpected stardom of Wham! when they played up their wideboy appeal with satirical lyrics which largely bypassed the masses, to his phenomenal breakthrough as a solo artiste, this manages to be both a testimonial to his own brilliance as well as a scathing commentary on the demands of the music industry. Following his astonishing crossover success in the US where he got a Grammy for Faith, the resistance from the black community (who played him day and night on radio) to what would now be termed his ‘cultural appropriation’  led to the great Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I which Sony America did not want to promote. His battle with the company (put down to cultural differences – hmmm…) coincided with his meeting the man of his life, Anselmo Feleppa, when their eyes met across a stage in Rio. But his new companion was soon diagnosed with HIV and when he died Michael was faced with a legal action against Sony for restraint of trade, which he lost. Amongst the interviews (clearly recorded before his death and therefore this is somewhat lacking in the latter stages) directed by Michael with his co-director and former manager, Michael Austin are Ricky Gervais, busy extracting the urine calling him “my favourite singing convict,” Tracey Emin, Elton John, Mark Ronson, Nile Rogers and Clive Davis, who compliments Frank Sinatra (or his publicist) for writing a letter urging George to promote his work while excoriating Michael’s decision not to turn up at the opening of an envelope. How absolutely ingenious that he chose Linda Evangelista to be his avatar – and how very Nineties! It’s very cool to have Stevie Wonder, one of his many admirable and admiring collaborators, throw into the race debate, “You mean George is white?! Oh my God!!!” (What must they make of Elvis?!) The most revealing personal section of the film is rather strange precisely because the people upon whom it pivots are not there except in slight footage or photos – his lover and his mother, and Ridgeley is not interviewed either. This is a man undone by grief about their deaths and who took years to process his losses, pouring it all into amazing songs. He could write and interpret lyrics like nobody of his generation. His narration is composed from old interviews. His description of being at home in England at Christmas while Feleppa was awaiting the outcome of an HIV test in Brazil is unbearable:  he had not even told his parents about his new relationship and thought he himself could be infected. The other irony of the film is the title itself (also one of his recordings) because he felt so imprisoned by his sexuality, his accompanying psychological difficulties and the recording contract which so confined him:  how completely bizarre that this should be a Sony Music film and it is now an obituary to Michael by Michael himself. If he were to be remembered, he says, it would hopefully be as a great singer-songwriter and as someone with integrity. Written, produced and directed by George Michael, this clearly had to be somewhat rewritten as it was not completed prior to his untimely death. What a guy. And what an unutterably terrible loss.

Altman (2014)

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Altmanesque? Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. That’s Elliott Gould’s perception of the man with whom he collaborated on some of the key movies of the Seventies. This documentary about Robert Altman is not quite as freestyled, improvised and ensemble-driven as his most acclaimed directorial works but it comes close, using a lot of home movies to illustrate the domestic life that lay behind the man and his films. Ron Mann directs a script by Len Blum which traces his evolution from making industrial films following an early script sale to Hollywood, and a lengthy career in TV episodics which resulted in an abrupt leavetaking following a row over the portrayal of race and the equivalent of then-undiagnosed PTSD, through the astonishing innovative features. There are interviews with family members, including his third wife and some of his children (who wound up working with him, partly as a means of seeing him) as well as actors who perhaps achieved more in those films than in any other in terms of the way their skill sets were utilised. There are interview clips both new and old, film excerpts including on-location footage (expletives undeleted) and the up and down career arcs covering the fall from grace through most of the Eighties when he then reinvented how TV could do drama with Tanner ’88. Then the comeback, cocking a snook at Hollywood with The Player. When he got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars he made a surprise admission which elicited the appropriate reaction from the star-studded crowd – another glorious directing coup. A fine piece of work (despite some odd editing decisions) doing justice to a peripatetic talent.

Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)

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She died from a broken heart.  Nick Broomfield’s signature appearances in his documentary films are the stuff of comedy – headphones half off, boom in hand, chasing his subjects and trying to weasel information from them so that you wind up feeling sorry for all of them, even the serial killers. That doesn’t happen here, more’s the pity. This archive documentary about Whitney Houston co-directed with Rudi Dolezal is of a different variety, but continuing in the vein of Kurt and Courtney, another devastating portrait of a heinous showbiz marriage and possible murder [allegedly].  This was constrained by the inevitable limits on music usage and archives. Houston was from the hood but the daughter of gospel singer (Cissy) and businessman (John) who would become her eventual managers. Her brothers supplied her with drugs from a very young age (pre-teen) and she stole her mother’s moves and the career her mother felt should have been hers. Early footage shows her singing in her mom’s church aged 12. By the time she was 19 she was found by music supremo Clive Davis and taken on by Arista and appearing on TV: she looks so innocent but she was far from it. She sold an incredible number of records – records that were never too black, because if they were, they were redone. When she appears at the 1989 Soul Train Awards it’s a watershed moment – a cataclysmic devastation in her life because she was booed for being too white and she met Bobby Brown. She’d had a woman in her life since they met back in East Orange, Robyn Crawford, and it was known they were in a relationship. Crawford travelled with her as her personal assistant (I met someone who was PA on one of her music videos and he claimed he had to literally pull Houston off Crawford in her trailer to get her to set.) The newspapers were sniffing around. Houston was into hard drugs, Brown was into liquor. When they got together, they both got into – both, with the tragic outcome that forms the undertow to this sordid story. Interviews with backing singers, band members and a former security director make it clear (eventually) that Brown gave her street cred, she gave him … money and opportunity. He dragged her down to his level, as one quip has it. He preyed on her insecurities and lack of self-esteem (she wore wigs and weaves because her hair wouldn’t grow) and was sleeping with every woman he could. She struggled with wanting to make music that was more authentically black in a business that was trying to do crossover. These interviews are by far the film’s most satisfying sequences. After The Bodyguard came out she could no longer shop at the mall:  she was a superstar and people just stared at her all the time. By the time she made Waiting to Exhale she OD’d. Crawford was stuck between the co-dependent couple and a daughter entered the picture. Remarks are made about the awful family and the pressures of paying a huge entourage – she herself is interviewed in various stages of her career (and addiction) and comments about always having to be the ballerina on the stage. Her musical director (and drummer) talks about watching her every night, seeing her back expand as she would reach those incredible notes and likening her to a boxer. By 1999, when Whitney did her final tour, Crawford was apparently forced out because the difficulties between her and Brown had become overwhelming. It is the second tentpole disaster in this narrative. Whitney then became more drug-dependent. It’s a pity that Broomfield wasn’t (presumbly for legal reasons) able to step into some of these interviews more. An interview with Burt Bacharach (who worked with her cousin Dionne Warwick) makes it clear why she was somewhat notoriously thrown off a proposed live TV broadcast – missing cues, singing the wrong songs…  When she did a Michael Jackson tribute she was horrifically emaciated. Brown’s sister was (if you believe anything in those National Enquirer stories of yore…) fully participatory in those drug binges – principally crack cocaine – but she just talks about how fun it was living with Whitney and Bobby and there’s bizarre home movie footage of them re-enacting Ike and Tina Turner in a take on What’s Love Got to Do With It. It is known but not said directly that their small daughter witnessed them and then became a junkie herself. They were living in Atlanta, well away from Cissy, whose pernicious shadow hangs over this film.  Houston’s father sued her for $100 million when he was 81 and dying and Whitney was on the TV interview circuit trying to (literally) cover her tracks. An interview by Oprah Winfrey with Cissy Houston upon the publication of her memoir makes it clear that her daughter’s drug addiction was one issue (she saw her ‘really high’ back in the late 80s) but her Lesbianism (or bisexuality) was a bridge too far:  another commentator generalises and says female homosexuality is absolutely not discussed in the black community. And yet another says, If Robyn had been accepted, everything would have been different. This begins and ends with Whitney Houston’s awful death on the eve of the Grammys right before Clive Davis’ annual party, in February 2012. This is a sad, shocking, disturbing and sometimes nuanced piece of work but never surprising.  The 1999 tour footage is overused by dint of necessity. The interviews with the couple together, invariably monopolised by Brown, are blood curdling. But in a sense we’ve seen it all before, particularly with Amy. It conforms to a terrible pattern of makeover, overwork and addiction that characterises the careers of great performers whose narrow worlds are run by money-grubbing charlatans and hangers-on and leeches. The film is called Can I Be Me because that was Whitney Houston’s favourite of her songs and what she always wanted to be and nobody would allow it. A modern tragedy.

OJ: Made in America (2016)

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The white Bronco live TV chase on LA’s freeway. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial. Mark Fuhrman. The glove. Poor Dennis Fung! I watched it all. Who didn’t?! Golly, when The People Vs OJ Simpson:  An American Crime Story was broadcast last year I thought I’d never make it through and yet it was a stunningly told tale which gripped me the same way the sorry saga itself did more than twenty years ago. So it was with a heavy heart I approached this (admittedly Oscar-winning) seven and a half hour long trawl through exactly the same territory again, with added archive. Half the time I was disappointed not to see Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta (wasn’t he great?!) and Connie Britton showing up – so much of this tale of celebrity is now confused in my bear-like brain. And it starts with what appears to be an excuse for bad behaviour by a lot of people – the sudden migration of blacks into Los Angeles, a 600% increase in their numbers which drove the LAPD crazy and some of them became violent. The riots in the 60s. The ethnic issues not just between black and white but black and Asian. Into this maelstrom of social division arrives the college football player from San Francisco whom everyone loves – an amazing running back who became a key figure in the advertising trade and whose race mattered to nobody:  he looked incredible and parlayed his fame into TV commentating and acting (I first heard of him when I saw Capricorn One). Talking heads who were part of the OJ story relate their own roles – friends from his days in USC, policemen who arrested him, footage of Daryl Gates, the friend accompanying him to visit his gay drag queen dad who would die of AIDS,  the meeting with Nicole Brown, a beautiful blonde 18 year old waitress at The Daisy whom OJ immediately said he would marry:  except he was already married to a black woman who had had his children. And he – or someone – ended up severing her head from her body outside her house where an unfortunate waiter called Ron Goldman was returning her mother’s spectacles from a restaurant. As one sad friend says, their relationship was a reversal of slavery – he owned her. And her family, who she said would side with him if she left because he was funding their lifestyles through his generosity – her father had a Hertz dealership and her sisters similarly benefited. The regular reports of domestic violence and the photographs of her injuries then remind us of what this is really about. The friend of many years who abandons him during the crisis after OJ says he got his finger injury three different ways. How OJ became a crucible for the issues of race, celebrity, sport, policing, justice, the law and violence is told in a grindingly tough and inexorable fashion which turns out to have a sorry logic and inevitability. As for the procession  of police cars that accompanied him on his supposed suicide mission:  “If OJ had been black that shit wouldn’t have happened,” grins a transsexual helicopter cameraman who followed it all from on high:  “OJ transcended race to celebrity.” And we duly see other heli-footage of a black man being beaten after a car chase. While all this was going on the police who were at his home watched in astonishment while his family ate from a sandwich buffet as though nothing odd were afoot. And when a policeman brought OJ in cuffs in a car through the crowds screaming Free OJ, the Xanaxed one said to him, “What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?” The bizarre nature of the entire story seems encapsulated when Lyle Menendez walks past, imprisoned in the same correctional facility. The lining up of the downtown jury who were black and hated Marcia Clark and white people. The behaviour of Johnnie Cochran who made it a black-white thang not a double homicide charge in the wake of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, and the result, the gobsmacking shock and the resonance that lasts until today. This is a tough watch and it is worth it in the end but it’s a sad indictment amidst a litany of purported sociological causes and indicative of all those claims now finally being understood that the races simply cannot live together – read Robert Putnam’s long-suppressed report (by the Democrats) about race in the US or David Goodhart on the failure to redistribute wealth fairly in multi-racial societies. This is a very awkward film with several conflicts at its centre. At the end of the day a woman was murdered and her wealthy, famous sports star husband was not convicted of the crime. Terrible, compelling and all too unfortunately true. A film by Ezra Edelman.

Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker movie and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some wonderful documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

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Highly entertaining documentary about the exploitation/trash maestro who had ambitions way beyond his pay grade.  We hear from a variety of his alumni and the man himself, his brother Gene (another producer), his wife (and fellow producer) Julie and former assistant Frances Doel, among many others, about how the engineer who got screwed over money on the movie The Gunfighter decided to put on a show himself and debuted with The Monster From the Ocean Floor. By the time he made The Wild Angels he was directing his 100th movie which is stunning. He meant the world to Jack Nicholson who made his debut with The Cry Baby Killer – and then didn’t work again for a year! Nicholson describes Corman as his ‘lifeblood’ and bursts into tears. Corman kept him in work and gave him writing and acting jobs for a decade before he made his breakthrough with Easy Rider – which wouldn’t have happened without The Trip, which Nicholson wrote and it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper: AIP wouldn’t make Easy Rider with Hopper and it went on to make history – as well as pots of money (as it were…) There are great clips of all the era’s material but the best storytelling comes from William Shatner recalling the personal jeopardy the Cormans experienced during the making of The Intruder, that fierce discourse on integration. The seventies stuff –  crazy funny movies like Hollywood Boulevard and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is interspersed with really good interviews with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and we learn about Corman’s own personal viewing tastes, choosing to distribute great films by European auteurs through his own company. The big studios took his formula and made multi-million dollar versions of Fifties exploitation content that made his name so he moved more fully into straight to video. There is no mention of the studio he set up in Ireland in the Nineties – presumably on grounds of taste.  Nor of his big studio movie from 1993, Frankenstein Unbound, his last directorial outing. Personally I’d like to have seen Monte Hellman speak about their collaborations but instead we get Paul WS Anderson and Eli Roth. That’s showbiz! Directed by Alex Stapleton.

 

High-Rise (2016)

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How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.