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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

Why ‘Love, Simon’ is so important, and why you need to see it (twice)



Everyone loves “Love, Simon,” and all that it represents

Image: Twentieth Century Fox

The recently released Love, Simon is not only making LGBTQ+ history; it’s also elevating the rom-com genre in unprecedented ways.

It’s been met with a choir of critical praise so far. Mashable’s own MJ Franklin showered it with love in a review that called it “a gotdamn delightful romcom, and gay as hell.” In a perfect summation of the movie’s far-reaching impact, he wrote: 

“[Love, Simon is] a heart-wrenching, empathy-expanding look at what it means to be a gay teen AND it’s a universal story about the awkward, messy attempts of navigating high school, AND it’s a hilarious comedy in it’s own right.”

Voices all around the internet are in agreement: Love, Simon is not only a triumph of cinema, but a huge leap toward a long overdue and desperately needed cultural shift.

Why is it so important? For one, it’s probably the first rom-com with the power to save literal lives. 

Data indicates that LQBTQ+ teens are at a much higher risk of attempted suicide or suicidal thoughts. As a recent report from CNN noted, a 2015 study conducted in the United States found that 40 percent of high school students who identify as “gay, lesbian or bisexual or questioning” had “seriously” considered suicide at one point or another. (It’s important to note those numbers donot include transgender teens.)

Non-profit organizations like Dan Savage and husband Terry Miller’s It Gets Better Project have worked hard to provide everyone who identifies as LGBTQ, and youths in particular, with the support system needed to combat this too-common sentiment. But a mainstream Hollywood movie that addresses the joys of gay high school experiences as well as the difficulties has the potential to reach people on a much larger scale.

And that’s not to mention the important fact that this stellar, young cast isn’t just diverse in terms of sexual orientation, but also race:

In 2016, groundbreaking Best Picture winner Moonlight shined a bright light on the especially isolating experience of being gay, black, and male in America, from youth to adulthood. That stark portrait and its success sparked an important conversation that Love, Simon continues in its own uniquely impactful way.

It should go without saying, but Love, Simon is not just an important film for LGBTQ+ people. As Franklin put it, “calling it a gay teen rom-com seems to do Love, Simon a disservice because it’s so much more than that.” This movie reflects reality by showing a broad spectrum of love and coming-of-age issues, including those of straight people. 

Heterosexual people and their relationships still dominate mainstream culture, and LGBTQ+ folks have had no problem identifying with the universal experience of love depicted in all those rom-coms. Love, Simon steps out of that heteronormative mindset, but it’s still for everyone.

Representation in mainstream culture leads to normalization. As a gatekeeper of what our culture views as “normal,” Hollywood has the power to breed life-changing empathy toward LGBTQ+ folks in those who struggle to see outside their own heterosexual lives.

New Movie Reviews

Ready Player One review Spielberg’s shiny VR caper isn’t worth playing

Charmaine Blake



Flashy adaptation of the book is full of pop culture references and striking visuals but a thin plot and shallow characters

With the help of Van Halens Jump, Steven Spielbergs Ready Player One launches its video game adventure story at full speed. The year is 2045; the place is Columbus, Ohio. Our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), fills in the details while climbing past his grungy homes of his town, the stacks, where trailer parks are piled on top of each other sky-high. Things are so miserable in Wades world, everyone escapes to play in an immersive virtual reality game known as the Oasis. Its Steve Jobs-like founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is worshipped like a god until his death some years before. However, before he left the mortal world, the benevolent creator left behind a series of games that would reward the winner with the Willie Wonka-like prize of the keys to his virtual kingdom.

Thats a lot of story to race through in two hours and 20 minutes, but Spielberg paces his movie to fly past the films explanations of events as quickly as possible. The conflict is straightforward and simple: our hero and his friends must outplay the corporate bad guys led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and beat him to the three keys that would control the game. Some scenes are just too bloated with with trivia to have any real weight. The information isnt given in a casual, conversational way, but in a pretentious manner, as if theyre trying to impress you with minutiae.

The Ernest Cline novel on which its based on is perhaps best known for its many pop culture references. The film follows suit with a soundtrack filled with an upbeat selection of greatest hits from the 80s, with a few interlopers from the 70s. The deepest cut is perhaps Princes I Wanna Be Your Lover, but the rest are songs you likely know the lyrics to. Its tragic that all history of pop culture post-1989 seems to have been lost, but anyone who remembers the 80s may feel nostalgic spotting artifacts from their past. A DeLorean! Theres Batman! Thats the … Holy Hand Grenade? Theres even a few nods to Spielbergs movies, like when a T-Rex chases a car in Jurassic Park. Its easy to get distracted by these cameos on the edge of the story.

The film mimics video games weightless camera, creating a floating point of view around fight scenes and chase scenes. While thrilling to watch, its a style that left me queasy from motion sickness. The spinning is sometimes so fast, its tough to figure out which player is winning or who is fighting who. With too much movement, momentum is lost. The audience has to regain its footing in the story before running off towards the finish line.

While the movie is visually whimsical with its design and neon colors, the weakness of the source material still pokes out. Plot holes remain, despite screenwriter Zak Penn and Spielbergs efforts to liven up the visuals and punch up the dialogue. Im not sure I have a great understanding of how the game mechanics are supposed to work. If movement is required to move an avatar in the game, how do people play in the Oasis while standing in their living rooms?

For a movie about the heros journey, theres no arc for any of the characters. Theyre all already heroes, the big bad is evil from start to finish. Sheridan isnt given enough to act on. Wade and his teammates are almost interchangeable, save for a few differences in height and race. The grown-ups seem to enjoy their roles a bit more than the very serious group of young gamers. Mendelsohn has some fun playing a slippery villain, and Rylance is reliably childish as the Wonka/Jobs hybrid.

Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke in Ready Player One. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk

Unfortunately, Ready Player One has a noticeable girl problem: it cant see female characters as just other people. For as skilled and resourceful as Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) is, her avatar is that of an impossible pixie dream girl a creature with a svelte body, anime-inspired big eyes, weapons training and the person who knows and loves almost every reference Wade makes. Of course, shes damaged with a birthmark on her face, and hes the only nice guy who can see that shes truly beautiful. Samantha is the artificially programed Eve to Wades Adam, but worse because she never gets the chance to sin.

Those who come away cheering for Ready Player One will likely have enjoyed the films many references, the storys breakneck speed and playful visual design. Others may want to unplug from the paint-by-number characters and shallow plot. The film has much to say about our present-day fixation on nostalgia. So many characters pine to go back to their 80s future, but some of us want to see whats next. Theres no leveling up or cheat codes that can help with that.

  • Ready Player One is released in the UK and US on 29 March

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New Movie Reviews

John Krasinski’s ‘A Quiet Place’ will make you scream, and then turn your own screams against you

Charmaine Blake



Real-life couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt make for a stellar onscreen couple as well.

Image: Paramount Pictures

It’s not easy to make an entire room full of movie fans scream in terror. But John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place did just that Friday, thrilling the SXSW crowd with impeccably crafted scares, surprisingly effective drama, and one hell of a satisfying ending.

By the time the credits rolled, my hands hurt from clenching them so tightly. I let out a long breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. And then I felt compelled to applaud, loudly, at what I’d just seen. Judging by the dazed looks on the faces of the critics around me, I wasn’t the only one. This is that kind of movie.

For the most part, A Quiet Place lives up to its title. Krasinski and Emily Blunt play the parents of a family living out their days in near-silent isolation, lest the slightest noise attract the monsters that have already demolished most of the rest of the human population.

The film’s genius is in the way it weaponizes that absence of sound. The quiet of A Quiet Place has nuances and textures – there’s a difference in the silence a father hears as his family tiptoes around an abandoned store, versus the silence his deaf daughter (Wonderstruck‘s Millicent Simmonds) hears when she’s in the same scenario.

When sound does intrude, it’s horribly jarring. My tension spiked with each crash or yell. When those noises attracted the monsters – which are so brutally efficient that they leave little more than a blood smear behind – that’s when the audience would start to scream.

Even more harmless, mundane noises take on an outsized significance. The roar of a waterfall starts to sound like comfort and liberation, because it’s loud enough that the monsters can’t hear over it. A song played on an iPod feels downright decadent, and almost unbearably loud. Dialogue starts to seem strange to our ears, after so many conversations executed via sign language. (The same applies, unfortunately, to the score, which feels unnecessary at best and overbearing at worst.)

All this tension puts us in the same mindset as the characters: They can never let their guard down, so we can’t either. Krasinski and his brilliant sound team even manage to turn our own bodies against us – I was acutely aware of my own gasps and signs, and frequently found myself covering my mouth so I wouldn’t yelp in shock.

Still, none of this would really matter if we weren’t at least a little invested in these characters’ fates, and here this cast does some of its most elegant work.

A Quiet Place doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on who these people are (if any of them have names, I don’t know what they are) but the actors capably convey their characters’ personalities in a few deftly sketched strokes. Blunt in particular shines, building an entire emotional arc out of an unguarded smile, a weary frown, a squaring of the shoulders.

In essence, A Quiet Place is a feature-length version of that scene in every horror movie where the protagonist creeps down a dark hallway toward an unknown threat, and we grit our teeth with a mixture of eagerness and dread.

Half the time, the payoff, when it comes, hardly seems worth the fuss. A Quiet Place is the all-too-rare movie where it does. This may not be the deepest or most ambitious horror movie in recent memory – there’s not much here beyond that brilliantly simple core concept. But as a delivery vehicle for sheer, visceral terror, it’s one of the most brutally effective.

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