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Errol Morris Wormwood Is a Genre-Bending True-Crime Masterpiece

Charmaine Blake



Back in June, Errol Morris told me that, formally speaking, little had changed in the true-crime genre since he launched it to prominence with 1988s The Thin Blue Lineand that with his upcoming return to such terrain, I like to think that Im trying to break new ground here. We shall see!

As it turns out, hes more than fulfilled his ambition.

Absurdly denied a shot at documentary Oscar glory because of its exceptional nature, Wormwood is a hybrid of the most thrilling sort, a work that melds nonfictional and fictional elements into a uniquely evocative experience. As such, its fitting it arrives this Friday (Dec. 15) in two nearly identical versions: as a 241-minute theatrical movie, replete with an intermission, and as a six-part Netflix-exclusive miniseries.

Constantly straddling the line between different modes, the film employs a stellar cast (led by Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban) for unnerving dramatized sequences that are interspersed amidst Morris documentary segments. Like the image-based projects of its primary interviewee, its a psychologically penetrating collage, using juxtapositions of various materials to convey both external and internal truths. Oh yes, and its also a fascinating murder-mystery, one involving heinous crimes, covert coverups, and fanatical quests, all of it imbued with the oh-so-bitter biblical import implied by its title.

It is, in short, a pioneering masterpiece.

Morris subject is the death of Frank Olson (played, in reenactments, by a fantastically frazzled Sarsgaard), a government biochemist who, on Nov. 18, 1953, took a plunge out the window of his 13th-floor room in New York Citys Hotel Statler. It was ruled a suicide, and for the next two decades thats what his wife Alice, son Eric, and two other children believed. That all changed in 1975, however, with the release of the Rockefeller Commission Report, which revealed that the CIA had in fact dosed Frank with LSDwithout his knowledge or consentas part of a misbegotten MKUltra mind-control program aimed at deducing whether agents could be pharmaceutically coerced into divulging state secrets. A national scandal ensued, resulting in an Oval Office apology from President Ford to Eric and his clan, which was accompanied by a $750,000 settlement.

Franks final days were spent at a hush-hush retreat at a cabin at Marylands Deep Creek Lake (where the acid was dropped), followed by a longer stretch in Manhattan under the watch of colleagues, who claimed they were concerned about Franks state of mind. Those incidents are detailed with stylish foreboding by Morris, whose main guide through this tangled tale is Eric Olson, interviewed in a number of Spartan, wood-paneled interior spaces. As Eric lays out, his father Frank had grave suspicions about the U.Ss use of biochemical weapons in Koreaand considerable guilt over his part in that war effort. And, at least in 1975, it appeared to Eric that it was those misgivings that had led the government to get Frank high in order to deduce whether, under narco-duress, hed develop loose lipsa scheme that wound up having terrible unintended consequences for all involved.

Except that, as Eric came to learn, Franks accidental death may not have been so accidental after all. Wormwood is thus, on the one hand, a reportorial investigation into what actually happened inside the Hotel Statlers Room 1018A on that fateful 1953 nighta mission facilitated by commentary from Olsons lawyers and friends, as well as journalist Seymour Hersh, who first tackled the story back in the mid-1970s.

Morris latest is a veritable avalanche of facts, figures, and conflicting accounts, as well as a dive into ever-deeper clandestine realms, where sinister agents manipulate comrades and outsiders alike through canny misdirections. By the time Morris opus arrives at its post-1975 passages, its already unearthed a collection of seedy deceptionsand then, in 1994, Eric begins literally digging, exhuming his fathers body to determine whether Frank was the victim of foul play.

On a purely narrative level, Wormwood is consistently gripping and eye-opening, but what truly elevates it to the realm of greatness is Morris boundary-pushing storytelling approach. The directors dramatic reenactments are crafted with canted angles, constricting framing, Zack Snyder-esque slow-motion, and film-noir shadows, which (together with a score of strings, piano, and apocalyptic braying tones) lend the proceedings a dreamy malevolence. Moreover, these staged sequences are all set in 1953, the better to create a heightened contrast between Franks speculative past (and Erics memories of it) and Erics more literally verifiable later activities, which Morris relates through nonfiction means. The result is a dynamic interplay between the real and unreal, the known and the unknownone augmented by excellent performances that eerily channel the actions (and emotions) described by Morris incisive speakers.

Wormwoods aesthetic daring, however, goes many steps further. There are split-screens that fracture the frame, presenting dramatic and verit moments side-by-side, as well as interviews (shot without the use of Morris favored Interrotron device; the director is often seen on-camera) from a variety of prismatic angles. There are numerous montages assembled from newspaper headlines, newsreel footage, and home movies, full of overlapping and intertwined imagery. And there are also frequent cutaways to expressionistic shots of clocks, squiggling microbes under a microscope, faded photos, and gas-masked technicians carrying out their biochemical dutynot to mention recurring clips from Martin Luther, Out of the Past, The Manchurian Candidate, and Laurence Oliviers Hamlet, whose protagonist (spurred to vengeance by his murdered fathers ghost) serves as an apt fictional echo of Eric himself.

Through this unconventional patchwork excavation-cum-inquiry, Morris not only recounts events but also imparts a complex impression of twisted individual, institutional, and national psyches. His film is at once an expos of governmental treacheryand the lengths to which authority figures will go to shield the public from their malfeasanceand of Erics self-negation-through-obsession, as his attempts to uncover his fathers fate eventually consume his life, and identity. Its a portrait of the untrustworthiness of the powers-that-be, the unreliability of memory, and the price of pursing a single goal at the expense of all others, refracted through a hypnotic, hallucinatory mlange of sights and sounds that Morris has constructed with a deftness thats awe-inspiring.

And then, having plumbed the subconscious of Eric, his distraught father, and the menand establishmentthat sought to silence him, the film ultimately becomes something even grander, and more haunting: a lament for the fact that, while truth does exist, that doesnt mean it can be attained, at least in any meaningful public sense. Its wonderful to not have an ending, opines Hersh in the late going, and the awful reality of that statement casts a terrible pall over Wormwood.

Redefining what a documentary can do and be, Morris epic proves a tragedy of systemic corruption, personal mania, and the inability to grasp that which one knows exists, but remains just out of reachand how that latter scenario allows the former two circumstances to continue, indefinitely, and at great cost to us all.

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New Movie Reviews

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is one of the best superhero movies ever: Review



There’s a new Spider-Man in town, and he’s freaking amazing.

Image: Columbia / Sony

“To say that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like a comic book come to life may sound like faint praise, seeing as we’re two decades into a superhero movie boom that the original Spider-Man helped jump start.

But few recent films have embraced the comic book style and sensibility — its visual quirks and anything-goes openness — as wholeheartedly as Spider-Verse has, or enjoyed as fully the potential in combining the two mediums.

Right off the bat, Spider-Verse acknowledges that it’s probably the 700th Spider-Man story you’ve seen in the past few years. A voiceover “yada yadas” the basics of Peter Parker’s origin story, while winking at almost every iteration of it; even the much-maligned Spider-Man 3 gets a rueful shoutout. This movie isn’t afraid of a laugh at its own expense, though the knowing humor is more affectionate than biting.

Spider-Verse has a distinct feel unlike any other Spider-Man movie before.

When that montage ends with Peter telling us “there’s only one Spider-Man,” it plays like another joke, because we’ve seen so many Peters over so many years. And becomes even more of one once we meet Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore).

Though Miles has been a fan favorite in the comics since 2011, Spider-Verse marks his first time on the big screen. Accordingly, Spider-Verse has a distinct feel unlike any other Spider-Man movie before it.

Spider-Verse eschews both the slick three-dimensional look of most modern studio animated movies (think Pixar or Illumination) and the gritty “realism” of most live-action superhero movies, in favor of a flatter, sketchier aesthetic bursting with poppy colors, Ben-Day dots, and motion lines. It’s an obvious nod to Spidey’s ink-and-paper history, but it’s also an expression of how Miles, himself a character who’s grown up admiring Spidey and reading Spidey books, might view his own superhero saga…………………………………………”

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Creed II review – Rocky saga continues with knockout sequel




“Before he delivered arguably Marvel’s most dazzling chapter to date, Ryan Coogler had managed something close to impossible in Hollywood: he had found a fresh way to reboot a dusty franchise. In a landscape of endless thirst and vacant remixing, he had somehow managed to concoct a nifty, imaginative way back into the Rocky saga with Creed, a film that felt old-fashioned yet fresh, intimate yet grand, a rousing return from the grave.

By focusing on the son of Rocky’s competitor-turned-friend Apollo Creed, Coogler was also able to reteam with Michael B Jordan, who made such an indelible impression in his first film, 2013’s devastating fact-based drama Fruitvale Station. The duo worked together again in Black Panther earlier this year, with Jordan switching tacks to play villain Killmonger, and so soon after, seeing him return as Creed is a further reminder of his broad star appeal, the sort of rare leading man one can imagine remaining at the top of his game for years to come. Given his time in Wakanda, Coogler was unable to return but he has handed over directorial duties to Steven Caple Jr, who impressed in 2016 with debut feature The Land, and it is a similarly deft rise from micro-budget indie to franchise film-making.

While it’s not quite the showstopper that its predecessor was, Creed II is still another knockout piece of entertainment. There’s a keen awareness of what made Creed work so well without it feeling like a lethargic rehash. This time, Adonis (Jordan) is the heavyweight champion of the world, in a loving relationship with his pregnant musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and still living near and working out with a recovering Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). But there’s discontent from……………………………………..”

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They Shall Not Grow Old review – a breathtaking journey into the trenches



Written by Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

“There’s a familiar mantra that computers have somehow taken the humanity out of cinema. In an age when it’s possible to conjure spectacular action from digital effects, many modern movies have developed a sense of weightlessness – the inconsequentiality of artifice. Along with Avatar director James Cameron, New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson has been at the forefront of the digital revolution, with his twin Tolkien trilogies (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) pushing the boundaries of computer-generated entertainment.

Yet with his latest project, a revivification of the Imperial War Museum’s archive of first world war footage, Jackson has done something quite remarkable: using 21st-century technology to put the humanity back into old movie stock. The result is utterly breathtaking.

Commissioned for the Armistice centenary by IWM and 14-18 NOW in association with the BBC, They Shall Not Grow Old is not a document of the world at war. Rather, it is an arresting snapshot of the lives of British soldiers who went to fight in Europe, many of them having lied about their tender ages to enlist. There are no historians, narrators or political commentators to guide us; the voices we hear are those of veterans, many gathered by the BBC during the making of its 1964 documentary series The Great War.

As we watch a line of soldiers marching through mud towards the front, something extraordinary happens. The film seems almost miraculously to change from silent black-and-white footage to colour film with sound, as though 100 years of film history had been suddenly telescoped into a single moment. Stepping through the looking glass, we find ourselves right there in the trenches, surrounded by young men whose faces are as close and clear as those of people we would pass in the street. I’ve often argued that cinema is a time machine, but rarely has that seemed so true………………………………………………”

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