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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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Ryan Gosling’s ‘First Man’ is an Awe-inspiring Space Spectacle



Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, and Lukas Haas in Damien Chazelle’s First Man.

Image: Warner Bros.

“First Man is a big film about the small things that went into an enormous event.

It’s no spoiler that the climax here is Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon. For the first 90 minutes, though, First Man holds back on the inherent drama of that premise.

It follows Neil (Ryan Gosling) as he makes his way through the NASA ranks, and at home as he mourns the death of his young daughter. It spends time on a bunch of promising missions that go nowhere, and on complex questions the engineers will have to solve. There’s some action sprinkled in there, and a few precious moments of euphoria. Mostly, it’s sweating the small stuff.

That choice is puzzling at first, even frustrating: We know the guy gets to the moon, so let’s get on with it already! Why are we wasting time with all this minutiae?

But those tedious concerns and disappointing dead ends are exactly the point. First Man is about work, and more specifically about the enormous amount of work (and luck) that goes into an achievement as momentous as the moon landing. It demands patience, but it gave back what I put into it several times over.

A rocket takes off in First Man.

Image: Warner Bros.

Director Damien Chazelle keeps his eye on the unromantic details that usually get glossed over in retellings of historical events. Literally: Much of this movie is composed of shots of dials, switches, and the top half of Gosling’s face……………………..”

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David Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’ is a satisfying treat

Charmaine Blake



Laurie Strode and Michael Myers face off once more in the new Halloween.

Image: TIFF

Like most long-running horror franchises, the Halloween series has seen its share of ups and downs over the decades.

But those skeptical of the newest incarnation, directed by David Gordon Green, can put their fears to rest. This one’s good. Really good.

Faced with the challenge of sorting out the messy mythology of the sequels, Green (along with his co-writers, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley) doesn’t even try. Although there are references to the others, only the original Halloween is completely canon here, and all of its relevant plot points are recapped in the new Halloween.

That said, it’s still a good idea to (re)watch the 1978 film before going into the 2018 one, because it’ll make the latter all the more satisfying. Green has fun recreating or subverting specific images and sequences from the first film – maybe too much fun, if you were hoping for something more surprising.

The premise is this: 40 years have passed since the first Halloween, and Michael Myers has spent all that time in prison. But he manages to escape just in time for his favorite holiday, and naturally he goes after Laurie Strode, the girl who survived his last killing spree. She, in turn, has spent the past 40 years waiting and preparing for just this occasion.

In that time, Michael’s notoriety has only grown. People are fascinated by this silent enigma, for all sorts of foolish reasons. Is he capable of rehabilitation, or is he an incorrigible force of pure evil? What might he say if he ever spoke? What’s going on in his head? What’s it like to be in his head?

Always nice to see a familiar face.

Image: TIFF………………………………..”

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A Star is Born Review: It Makes a Movie Star out of Lady Gaga and a Star Director out of Bradley Cooper

Charmaine Blake



Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.

Image: Neal Preston / Warner Bros.

“It’s the same story told over and over. All the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

The character who utters this line in A Star is Born is talking about music, but he may as well be talking about the movie he’s in. This is the third remake of an 81-year-old movie, one whose beats are so familiar that you’ll recognize them even if you’ve never laid eyes on any of the other versions.

There’s the sad celebrity self-medicating with booze and drugs, the talented ingenue who becomes an overnight sensation, the whirlwind romance threatened by the cold, hard light of day. You can see where all of it is headed from two miles away.

But that doesn’t matter, not when Bradley Cooper is executing the formula so well. From the view at TIFF, A Star is Born looks to be a commercial and critical success that’ll have people buzzing all fall, and maybe even into this winter’s awards season. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Lady Gaga is a movie star, baby

That Gaga had pipes worthy of a movie musical was never in doubt. But A Star is Born proves she’s a hell of an actor, too. Her Ally has the more dramatic arc of the movie, evolving from bright-eyed nobody to glamorous pop star, and Gaga’s performance rings true every step of the way. For large swaths of the movie, I forgot that I was watching at one of the most famous musicians in the world – she was just Ally.

2. Bradley Cooper has a bright future as a director

A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, but you’d never know it by watching. This film has the surefootedness of someone who’s done this a dozen times before, and made me curious to see what he might get up to next.

Oh, and another of Cooper’s gifts as a director? He’s very good at directing one Bradley Cooper. Jackson Maine is one of Cooper’s most riveting performances – Cooper knows exactly how to bring out the nuances playing across Jack’s face in the many scenes he spends gazing at Ally.

3. The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is

When Jack and Ally meet for the first time, it’s not immediately apparent just how hot this connection is going to run. Cooper gives his characters time to warm up to each other, letting them goof around and reveal their personalities before they fall for each other – so that when they do finally connect, it feels like watching a house catch fire.

4. The music might give you chills

The best moment in A Star is Born is also the best moment from the A Star is Born trailer: The absolute wail that comes from Gaga’s throat during the song “Shallow,” the first time Jack and Ally perform together onstage…………………………..”

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