Film Review: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (dir by Errol Morris)


This 1999 documentary provides a disturbing portrait of an absolute moron.

Of course, when we first see and hear Fred Leuchter, Jr., he doesn’t seem like a moron.  He definitely comes across as being a bit eccentric and maybe just a little bit off but, at first sight, he’s actually kind of likable.  As he explains it, he grew up in the United States prison system.  His father worked in prison administration and one of Fred’s earliest memories was sitting in an electric chair.  Fred grew up to be an engineer and, concerned that America’s execution methods were cruel and potentially dangerous to even those who weren’t being executed, he decided to dedicate his life to redesigning electric chairs and gas chambers.  He even built his own lethal injection machine, all designed to make sure that the condemned felt as little pain as possible while dying.  As Fred explains it, he supports capital punishment but “I don’t support torture.”

Fred Leuchter soon came to be recognized as one of America’s leading experts on execution devices.  As he himself admits, that’s largely because he was American’s only expert on the way that people are legally executed.  Whereas most people deliberately went out of their way not to learn the specifics of what happens when someone is put to death, Fred made it his life’s purpose.  After redesigning an electric chair in Tennessee, Fred was soon being summoned to other states so that he could refurbish and, in many cases, redesign their execution machinery.  For the first 30 minutes of the documentary, Fred explains what it’s like to be an expert on executions and it’s hard not to like this nerdy, self-described “humanitarian.”  If anything, you spend the first part of this documentary considering the oddness of finding a humane way to execute the condemned.  America prides itself on both it’s rejection of cruel and unusual punishment and it’s willingness to put criminals to death.  It’s an odd combination and, briefly, Leuchter seems like the embodiment of those two contrasting positions.

This changes during the documentary’s second half.  That’s when we learn how, in 1988, Leuchter was hired by a German anti-Semite named Ernst Zundel.  Zundel was being tried in Canada, charged with publishing and shipping works of Holocaust denial.  For a fee of $30,000, Leuchter spent his honeymoon in Poland, went to Auschwitz, and personally “inspected” the gas chambers.  Because Leuchter brought a camera crew with him, his every action was recorded.

We watch as Leuchter and his assistants sneak into the gas chamber and proceed to clumsily start chipping away at the walls.  We listen as Leuchter goes on and on about how he doesn’t feel that the gas chamber was actually a gas chamber because it just seems too impractical to him.  If they wanted to executed a large group of people at once, why didn’t the Nazis use the gallows? Leuchter wonders.  (They did.)  Why didn’t the Nazis use firing squads?  Leuchter asks.  (They did.)  Even before Leuchter returns to America, he’s made it clear that his mind is made up.  He can’t understand why the Nazis would have done what they did and therefore, in his mind, that means they didn’t do it.  After all, Leuchter’s an expert.  He’s Mr. Death.

He’s also a moron and, by the time he starts cheerfully talking about all the effort that went into smuggling the wall chips out of Germany, whatever likability he once had has vanished.  Watching this film, I found myself wishing for a time machine so that I could go back in the past and threw something at him.  You just want him to shut up for a minute and realize that what he’s saying makes no sense.  Not that it would make any difference, of course.  Leuchter is too proud of himself for having discovered “the truth” to actually consider that he could be wrong.

When Leuchter’s samples are tested for trace amounts of poison gas, they come back negative.  Leuchter announces that this means that the Holocaust never happened and he writes up the infamous Leuchter Report, which is still regularly cited as evidence by Neo-Nazi groups and anti-Semitic historians like David Irving.  However, as Dutch historian Robert Jan van Pelt explains (and, as we’ve already seen in the video that Leuchter himself shot at Auschwitz), Leuchter not only did not take a big enough sample but he was so clumsy in the way that he transported it that he diluted the sample as well.  Even beyond all that, it would be very unusual for cyanide residue to still present after forty years of every day wear and tear.

None of this matters, of course, to Fred Leuchter.  With the publication of the Leuchter Report, he becomes a fixture on the Holocaust denial circuit.  (We see an edition of the Leuchter Report that was published and distributed by the Aryan Nations.)  Suddenly, Leuchter has fans.  In his own sad and pathetic way, he’s become a celebrity and we see him beaming as he stands on the stage of Neo-Nazi conference.  Meanwhile, his wife leaves him.  And prisons stop using him as a consultant, especially after they discover that he was never actually licensed to practice engineering.  Financially bereft, Leuchter even resorts to trying to sell one of his beloved “execution devices,” putting an ad in the classifieds.  (Needless to say, things don’t go well.)  Looking over the ruins of his life, who does Leuchter blame for his troubles?  “Jewish groups,” he says before then going on to assure us that some of his best friends were and are Jewish.  Was Leuchter always an anti-Semite or did he become one because he needed someone to blame for his own self-destruction?  That’s a question that the viewer will have to answer for themselves.

Mr. Death is a disturbing portrait of a rather sad and pathetic figure, a man who fell victim to his own arrogance and hubris and who, as opposed to seeking redemption, instead allied himself with the only people ignorant and hateful enough to still embrace him.  As is his style, documentarian Errol Morris interviews Leuchter’s critics but refrains from personally arguing with Leuchter, instead basically giving the self-described execution expert just enough rope to hang himself.  (Morris does, at one point, ask Leuchter if he’s ever considered that he might be wrong.  Not surprisingly, Leuchter claims that he has not and seems to be confused by the question.)  In the end, it’s impossible to feel sorry for Leuchter.  The nerdy humanitarian who opposed torture had been replaced by a self-pitying Holocaust denier.  By the end of the film, Fred A Leuchter, Jr. and his report have become a reminder of the damage that can be done by one dangerously ignorant man.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, S2 E5, “Blackwood” (Dir: Alex Pillai) Review By Case Wright


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First of all, it’s always so fun to read Lisa’s reviews.   I hope she wants to review another one of these episodes.  She always sees things that I don’t like HERE!!!! and HERE!!!!.  It has been a true pleasure working with/for her over these years.  This series is making me already plan for my October reviews!!!  Weren’t they awesome last October?! Yes…Yes…They were.

Is this season getting better? Yes, but that’s mostly because the first episode of the second season was so very unsatisfying and disappointing. The series seems to be evolving into a Tales From The Crypt over the top fest.  I loved TFTC, but that’s not what I expected Sabrina to become.  I saw this series as a scary in your face we’re mad as hell at the patriarchy and we’re not gonna take it anymore!  The feminism is still there, but it really hits you over the head with its agenda ….every….single…episode; It comes across as a PSA sometimes.  When done right, like last season, you root for the agenda, but now I’m lectured by it.  It’s kind of annoying when you already agree.

This episode was directed by Alex Pillai (Riverdale) and he did a fine paint by numbers job with the episode.  It got the job done….fine, not great, but definitely fine like the Chicago Cubs in the 2000s or Two Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw).  The episode was all about marriage, the loss of feminine identity, and misogyny…lots and lots of misogyny.  Really, this Church of Night is a bunch of knuckle dragging dirtbags.  I get the whole- we’re evil bit, but it doesn’t really work all the time.  The characters are mostly strong women and the constant subjugation that the Church imposes seems kinda silly that anyone would put up with it let alone these powerful heroines.   Also, the constant “for Hell’s Sake” “Your Unholiness” “Your Dishonor” just makes me laugh;  I look like loon when I’m on the elliptical watching this.

In the episode, Aunt Z is getting married and she’s all jittery and worried about being exposed for stealing one of the Blackwood babies.  Also, Father Blackwood is going full-on misogynist pig. He wants the church of night to go back to its old ways of chauvinism.  His plan is to write up the basic philosophy and give it to the Anti-Pope (Ray Wise). (Side Note: God, I love Ray Wise.  He’s awesome in everything he does and was the best devil ever in Reaper. Unfortunately, he’s only in the show for a couple of minutes.) Sabrina catches wind of Blackwood’s Misogynist plan because Ambrose tells her .

The Solution: Sabrina gets her Dad’s manifesto that’s all women and men are equal, witches should marry mortals, and powertrain warranties are bullshit.  Sabrina has Nick retrieve it from the bottom of the sea.  Just as the Anti-Pope will read it, Father Blackwood has him murdered and frames Ambrose for it!!! DUN DUN DUN!!!!  Basically, all of Sabrina’s plans fail: Aunt Z and Blackwood marry, Blackwood has Aunt Z walk behind him (bleh), Ambrose is jailed, Sabrina and Nick are expelled, and Aunt Hilda becomes lactose intolerant.  Bad all the way around.

I normally don’t get into subplots, but spring is in the air.  Ms Wardwell and Adam are falling in love. It’s really sweet.  She explains that marriage is a complete destruction of a woman’s identity. Wardwell looks at Adam expecting a fight, but instead he accepts her, her values, and just wants to be with her. It’s …well….sweet.  I was a bit moved.  Satan gets jealous and wants her to kill him, but instead she makes him a ring of protection.  I hope these crazy kids make it work.

The show is moving in the right direction, but the show seems to collapse under its own weight sometimes.  It has these big themes and plots, but can’t quite deliver them this season because of the campiness, clunky dialogue, and endless subplots that grind the suspense and gravitas to dust.  Maybe this is the way Riverdale is?  I never wanted to watch that show and now I really don’t want to.  My guess is that season 1 was Ruth Chris Steakhouse and season 2 is Red Robin and yes I did get food poisoning from them once.

 

Here’s The Trailer For Gemini Man!


Young Will Smith tries to kill Old Will Smith in …. Gemini Man!

At least, that would appear to be the plot of this upcoming sci-fi film.  To be honest, it sounds kinda generic and it’s definitely hard not to look at that plot description and think, “Okay, so it’s Looper but instead of time travel, it’s just clones.”

Well, here’s why you maybe should be kinda sorta interested in seeing Gemini Man:

It was directed by Ang Lee!

Honestly, I will watch anything that Ang Lee directs.  He could release a three hour documentary about dermatology and I would totally ask someone to buy me a ticket.  Everyone seems to pretty much agree that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain should have been named Best Picture over Crash.  To be honest, I would argue that, even more than Brokeback Mountain over Crash, Life of Pi deserved to win over Argo.  If nothing else, Lee certainly earned both of his directing Oscars.

(How forgotten is Argo?  I actually had to remind myself that it was the film that defeated Life of Pi at the Oscars.)

So, will Gemini Man see Ang Lee returning to the Oscar conversation?  Hmmm …. well, probably not.  I mean, it’s an Ang Lee movie but it’s also a Will Smith science fiction film. I mean, the last time that Lee tried to do a “genre” film, the end result was the Hulk, which wasn’t really appreciated until nearly a decade after it was initially released.

Still, anything is possible!  One could argue that the recent nominations of Get Out and Black Panther have proven that the Academy is no longer totally biased against well-made genre films, especially if those films have the type of thought-provoking subtext that a director like Ang Lee can bring to a project.  As always, we’ll see what happens.  For now, here’s the first trailer for Gemini Man:

Here’s The Trailer For See You Yesterday!


The trailer for See You Yesterday dropped earlier on Monday.  Originally, there was some confusion on twitter because someone said that this was Spike Lee’s newest movie, which led to others assuming that Lee had directed the film.  Actually, Lee served as the film’s producer while Stefon Bristol is making his feature directing debut.  (According to the imdb, Bristol previously directed a handful of short films.  In fact, See You Yesterday appears to be an expansion on a short film that Bristol wrote and directed in 2017.)

Judging from the trailer, See You Yesterday appears to combine science fiction with social commentary.  Two African-American teens discover the secret of time travel and attempt to save the life of their brother, who was previously gunned down by a member of the NYPD.  However, it appears that changing the past is just as difficult as changing the present.  It also appears that there’s only a limited number of times that they can travel through time.  I’m intrigued by the concept.  If Bristol manages to strike the right balance between entertainment and commentary, this has the potential to be a powerful film.

See You Yesterday will be released on May 17th.  Here’s the trailer:

Easter Egg Hunt: THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES – RETREAT & DECISION (Cathedral Films 1951)


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Good morning, and Happy Easter (and Passover season!). Today’s holiday treat is from 1951’s THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES , a 12-part retelling of the life of Jesus made by Episcopal minster James K. Friedrich’s Cathedral Films. Though extremely low budget, the films are much more earnest than your typical Hollywood Biblical Extravaganza. As for your Easter Eggs, they’re in the film: see if you can spot Familiar Faces Gregg Barton, Jeanne Bates, Lawrence Dobkin, James Flavin, Lowell Gilmore, William Henry, ‘TV’ Tommy Ivo, Dennis Moore, and Will Wright as you bear witness to Jesus preaching, performing miracles, and making His decision on His road to destiny. Narrated by ‘Familiar Voice’ Art Gilmore, and starring Robert Wilson as The Lord, enjoy RETREAT & DECISION:

     Happy Easter & Passover from Cracked Rear Viewer!

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The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)


cracked rear viewer

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI…

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Remembering Avicii: Avicii: True Stories (dir by Levan Tsikurishvili)


It was a year ago today that we learned of the passing of Tim Bergling, who was better known as Avicii.  For those of us who loved Avicii’s music and who followed him throughout not only his career but also through his multiple health issues and his widely publicized retirement from touring, the loss of Avicii is one that we have yet to recover from.

On this sad anniversary, I’m thinking about the first time that I watched Avicii: True Stories on Netflix.  This documentary, which covered the majority of Avicii’s career — from his rise to his eventual retirement, was released in Europe six months before his death.  In the U.S., it was released on Netflix on December 14th, 2018.  It’s not always an easy documentary to watch but I recommend it to anyone who loved Avicii’s music or to anyone who is just curious about the pressures that go with being a star.

Featuring interviews with not only Avicii but also his collaborators, the film follows Avicii as he quickly goes from being just being one of the many people posting remixes on online forums to being one of the top and most important DJs in the world.  We watch as Avicii maintains a hectic schedule of nonstop touring, often sacrificing both his physical and mental health in the process.  Avicii ends up in the hospital, suffering from acute pancreatitis.  Later, he again ends up in the hospital, this time to have both his appendix and his gall bladder removed.  The film makes no attempt to hide the decadence that goes along with touring but, in its best moments, it also highlights the conflict that arises from having to be both Tim Bergling, an anxious young man who finds a much-needed escape in music, and Avicii, the superstar who has to be on every night.

When we first meet Tim, he seems young and hopeful and enthusiastic.  Halfway through the film, an exhaustion starts to creep into his voice and, by the end of the film, he’s become far more world-weary.  As we watch Tim struggle with the weight of being Avicii, we’re also aware of the people around him, whose careers and finances are pretty much dependent on making sure that Tim never stops being Avicii, regardless of how much damage it does to him mentally and physically.  Throughout it all, one thing remains consistent and that is Tim’s love of music.  It’s only when creating and talking about music that Tim seems to be truly happy.  It’s his escape from a world that often seems like it’s conspiring to swallow him whole.

The film ends on what should have been a happy note.  Tim announces his retirement from touring and the film ends with him, in good spirits, on a beautiful beach.  Tim seems like he’s finally found some happiness and a chance at the inner peace that stardom often denied him.  Beyond a title card (which was added for the film’s U.S. release), Avicii: True Stories does not deal with Tim’s death but it still haunts every minute of the film.  Watching this documentary, it’s impossible not to mourn what the world lost when it lost Tim Bergling.  The film stands as both a tribute to his talent and a portrait of a good and likable man struggling to escape his demons.

Tim “Avicii” Bergling, rest in peace.