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.

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:

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.

Here’s The Trailer For — Deep Breath — Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker


Here’s the new trailer for an obscure little art film called …. Stars Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker!

My first reaction, to be honest, is that the title is extremely unwieldy.  I imagine that most people in the real world will just call it “the new Star Wars film” while people on twitter will demand that it only be called “Episode IX.”  I’m not going to speculate on which Skywalker is rising.  The majority of them seem to be dead.  Perhaps the film will end with Adam Driver taking over the universe and destroying it, Thanos-style.  That would be kind of fun.

I’m not really big into Star Wars.  You may have already guessed that.  While everyone else is going crazy over this trailer, I have to admit that my first reaction was, “Again with the desert?”  But, snarkiness aside, it’s a nicely done trailer.  There’s no way not to be excited by that scene of Rey doing a back flip over that cruiser.  And any trailer that ends with mocking laughter is okay with me.  Apparently, the Emperor is back.  And so is Billy Dee Williams.

(For that matter, Carrie Fisher will be in the film, as well.  Director J.J. Abrams has said that there was enough unused Fisher footage from the previous two sequels that Leia will be able to play a role in The Rise of Skywalker.)

It’s always somewhat weird to me to see how controversial the Star Wars films have become.  I really don’t have enough shrug emojis available to me to express how I react whenever I see people on twitter debating whether or not the last movie was any good or not.  I liked The Force Awakens and I respected the fact that Rogue One killed off the entire cast.  I was kind of indifferent to both Solo and The Last Jedi.

But, let’s hope the best for The Rise of Skywalker!  Apparently, the Star Wars franchise will be going on a bit of a hiatus after the release of this one.  (That said, if The Rise of Skywalker does better at the box office than Solo or The Last Jedi, that hiatus could be a short one.)  So, let’s hope that they (temporarily) end on a good note!

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions for April


To repeat what I say every month, it’s pretty much a fool’s errand to try to guess what’s going to be nominated for an Oscar this early in the year.  Some of the choices below — A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, The Irishman, Little Women,Once Upon A Time In Hollywood — are there because of their directors or their stars.  Some — like Cats and 1917 — are there because they sound like they’re either going to be brilliant or total disasters.  Call of the Wild and Fair and Balanced are listed because of my own instincts, for whatever they’re worth.  Harriet is listed because Clayton Davis over at Awards Circuit is currently predicting that it will be nominated and he’s got a pretty good track record as far as predicting these things is concerned.  Queen & Slim is listed because I saw a few people on twitter raving about a preview of it that they were lucky enough to see.  Myself, I have no idea what Queen & Slim is about, beyond the fact that it deals with two people on a date who are pulled over by the police.  (That’s according to the imdb.)  See how random this is?

So, I guess what I’m saying is that you should take these predictions with a grain of salt.  In fact, you should pour salt all over these predictions.  The Oscar race usually doesn’t even start to become clear until around September.

The Cannes Film Festival will be held next month.  Sometimes, Cannes lends some clarity to the Oscar race.  (Tree of Life and BlackKklansman both stated their Oscar campaigns at Cannes.)  Just as often, Cannes turns out to be totally useless as far as being  predictive tool is concerned.  Though the official lineup has not yet been announced, it seems probable that Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and perhaps a few more contenders will be screened at Cannes next month.  We’ll see what happens!

If you’re interested in more predictions that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to, be sure to check out my Oscar predictions for January, February, and March!  See how my thinking has progressed.  Check out just how random my guesses occasionally are.

Best Picture

1917

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

Call of the Wild

Cats

Fair and Balanced

Harriet

The Irishman

Little Women

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Queen & Slim

Best Director

Tom Hooper for Cats

Kassi Lemmons for Harriet

Sam Mendes for 1917

Martin Scorsese for The Irishman

Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Best Actor

Ben Affleck in Torrance

Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

John Lithgow in Fair and Balanced

Eddie Murphy in My Name Is Dolemite

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

Best Actress

Amy Adams in The Woman In The Window

Cynthia Erivo in Harriet

Blake Lively in The Rhythm Section

Saoirse Ronan in Little Women

Alfre Woodard in Clemency

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari

Harrison Ford in Call of the Wild

Malcolm McDowell in Fair and Balanced

Sir Ian McKellen in Cats

Brad Pitt in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress

Dame Judi Dench in Cats

Laura Dern in Little Women

Tiffany Haddish in The Kitchen

Nicole Kidman in The Goldfinch

Margot Robbie in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Here’s The Trailer For The Professor!


Johnny Depp’s is Richard, a college professor who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

During his final days….

….HE SOLVES CRIMES!

No, not really.  instead, it looks like he decides to live life to his fullest and do all the wild stuff that he put off doing earlier in his life.  I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the whole “being diagnosed with cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me” genre of films.  There’s been a few good ones but, far too often, they descend into clichés of seizing the day and all that stuff.

(One thing that you’ll notice about these films is that most of them are about people who actually have enough money that they can afford to seize the day while also dealing with a terminal illness.)

That said, Johnny Depp can be a very good actor when he wants to be so I’ll be curious to see if this is one of those times.  The Professor will be released on May 17th.