My Life Without Me

By Jonas Cukierman

As My Life Without Me opens, we hear a voiceover by Sarah Polley (Sweet Hereafter/Go), whose character of Anne is the center focus of the film. From the very first images, we learn that Anne is being forced to evaluate where her floundering life has brought her, and where is it taking her.
Anne is a working stiff, living an unremarkable life in the daily grind.
The “working wounded” parable is also established during the early frames of the picture as we are introduced to Anne while washing windows in the sterile white hallways of a Vancouver B.C. high school. This early string of events captivates the audience as they are made to realize that they can’t kid themselves that the film’s characters, although capable of scathing humor at just the right intervals, are definitely without the luxuries of an easy life or easy answers.
One day Anne is shocked to discover she has been diagnosed with Cancer. It is then that we the spectators are dropped into a disturbing spiral of handheld camera shots and people shuffling about at high speed- the mindset of Anne has just been conveyed.
Only now has Sarah decided to count what’s important in life. One might say her experience is not unlike that of a prisoner who finds religion within the walls. The only difference is that Anne is not getting paroled from the brand of proverbial incarceration that has befallen her.
The central theme of My Life Without Me is no secret. One should appreciate life when it’s destined to last, not when one’s days are numbered. Why then can’t we? Perhaps it is because when the clock ticks, we feel the walls closing in.
This film is simply but poignantly plotted. The fact Anne keeps her illness from her mother (a deliberate albeit muted performance delivered by Deborah Harry [a.k.a Blondie]) and the rest of her family only helps to crystallize her intentions at the very sudden end.
Lastly, there is equilibrium among the characters with which Anne surrounds herself. No matter what their situation in life is, each and every player is underscored by a palatable sense of seeking and longing. A sense of chemistry is therefore omnipresent and the result is a tightly wound story.
Anguished extramarital affairs, soul searching and societal pressures each have a special role in all of the characters. Whether it be Anne’s janitorial coworker, Pulp Fiction’s hilarious but unmistakably melancholic Amanda Plummer, who’s waking hours are spent ruminating about weight loss, to Anne’s hairdresser (Maria de Medeiros, also from Pulp Fiction), whose life is dedicated to the burned out, 80’s era pop music disaster, Milli Vanilli – right down to her braids.

Mona Lisa Smile.
Women’s advancement stifled despite academic milestones.

by Jonas Cukierman

I have to be honest, when I heard I was going to see a movie with Julia Roberts
in it, I wasn’t too excited or impressed. However, as Mona
Lisa Smile begins to express its content, it not only becomes more interesting, but the
performances of Roberts and company- Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal
are nothing short of superior.

The film takes place at Wellesley College in
1953; a time and a place steeped in such tradition and formality, that at times you think you’re visiting the Vatican.
Julia Roberts is Ms. Watson, an independent and free spirited Art
History teacher just in from California. The culture shock is not so much New England itself,
rather, it is the sternmindedness of the faculty and students which at first
completely steamrolls her before she has even presented herself on the first
day of school. The tension and a certain sense of drowning are hard to swallow
as Ms. Watson tries to acclimate herself in a place that is more like a
pedagogical fortress, than an institution of higher learning.

Mona Lisa Smile is an allegory that speaks of the fact that nothing is ever what it seems on
the surface. Great examples of this occur throughout the film as Ms. Watson’s
students struggle tirelessly with the issues curtailing women of that time.

Mona Lisa… is an extraordinary period
film on several degrees. On one level, there is the incredible atmosphere that
reins you into the 1950s. Between the immaculately tailored fashions and the
big soirées, to the advertisements and television shows of the departed era,
there is little to be desired after also factoring in the cinematography and
majestic sets.

Nevertheless, on the second and most important level, there
is the underpinning of life in a time of conformity, and a place where women
(educated or not) face few prospects and are expected to live the status quo.

Ms. Watson’s character develops brilliantly, because she too finds herself grappling with a system of rigid
standards where nobody is spared. Moreover, as if things are not tough enough,
she goes nose-to-nose with an ever-present complacency that vows to keep her
students from pursuing a life outside of making a home, making babies, and
basting the chicken while ironing Mona Lisa Smile is a great study in the art of fighting back. A story about women, but also
men, this film is about a glorious and transitional time in our history. It’s
about a time that tested the limits of one’s ideals, and challenged the daring
to free their minds

This picture may give the impression that feminism is its
driving force. This is however untrue. Mona Lisa
Smile does not preach, it confronts. Lastly, one the key factors in the success of this movie is the sensitivity in which director Mike
Newell captures the human condition. With such films as Donnie
Brasco and Enchanted April under his belt, there couldn’t be a better
person at the helm.

Visit the Madeleine K. Albright Institute

Veronica Guerin. Based on a true story.

by Jonas Cukierman

Journalists sometimes sacrifice their lives to protect the public; theirs is the noblest service. – Jonas Cukierman

By the mid 1990s, Dublin, Ireland was a city overrun by an epidemic of heroin the likes of which it had never seen. Ruled by cold-blooded druglords such as John Gilligan criminal)and Martin Cahill aka the General -who would nail his victims to the floor as a way of sending a message-, the percentage of addicts in Dublin was meteorically rising until one bold woman decided to take on the drug cartels. Initially, Veronica Guerin, a correspondent for the Sunday Independent, one of Ireland’s most circulated papers, was not a crime reporter. With no lack of tenacity, she first went to the addicts for answers in order to find an informant who was directly connected to the likes of Gilligan and Cahill. Finally, Guerin found her informant in the form of John Traynor, himself a career criminal who would act as a go-between for her and Gilligan, but not without himself being under great pressure from Gilligan to keep things under wraps. Gilligan was after all a man who shunned the spotlight and led a very quiet life, which drew little or no attention from the Gardai, the national police force of Ireland. As Guerin moved deeper, Cahill was in the mean time assassinated and one would think that one of the threats to Veronica’s life was over. However, there was still Gilligan, who, although a hushed figure was as dangerous as an army on Meth. However, one of Guerin’s greatest hurdles before being able to cripple the drug trade with her effective writing was not watching children rot away with spikes in their arms. Instead, it was the super-stringent libel laws of Ireland, which greatly restricted what she could say without some serious fishing. Moreover, for this she had to go nose-to-nose with gangsters and killers and with dire consequences to her safety including being shot (surviving) and being beaten by John Gilligan while trespassing on his property. Nevertheless, Guerin was starting to make Gilligan squirm. For this reason, he offered to buy her off. When that didn’t work, he sent someone to fire a warning shot at her…literally. She was not mortally wounded, but being shot in the leg and having bullets fly through her windows at home were simply methods of intimidation, but she would not relent. Even when she received phone calls in the middle of the night from killers, Veronica continued to work with Traynor in order to peel away the flesh of the drug kingpin’s sanity. Guerin not only put herself right in the line of fire by visiting the homes of gangsters (and I do not mean with an appointment), but she received little protection from the Gardai, who trembled at the idea of prosecuting the Dublin underworld. At the core of this film are the performances of a great ensemble cast. Blanchett is perfectly suited in the title role. She portrays the selfless reporter aggressively yet with a dash of subtlety. Irish actor Cirrian Hinds is John Traynor in a present, albeit not very visible persona. However, if Blanchett represents the all-encompassing good, then Gerry O’Brien and especially Gerard McSorley are nothing short of terrifying as Martin Cahill and John Gilligan respectively. These two criminal portrayals rival anything you will see in a Martin Scorsese mafia film – in fact, McSorley was originally selected to play Queenan in The Departed. In Veronica Guerin, the good guys are good, and the bad guys are even worse. Such critics as Roger Ebert, Pete Travers of Rolling Stone and Derek Elley of Variety all panned this picture. In addition, for all the respect I have for them professionally, I must say that I disagree with their accusations of this film being a vehicle of self-righteousness and egocentrism as a means of expressing Guerin’s long-fought battle. The fact remains that like many journalists, she gave her life in order to bring about drastic changes in how Ireland punishes criminals and overrides libel laws in order to protect the innocent from the predatory. Finally, the soundtrack features three great songs including performances by Sinead O’Conner, U2 and an unknown boy by the name of Brian O’Donnell, who delivers a touching rendition of The Fields of Athenry, an Irish folk ballad perfectly suited in mood and soulfulness over the scenes directly following her brutal murder at the hands of Gilligan’s hitmen. Most sad of all is the montage, which shows the reactions of Guerin’s mother, her husband Graham Turley and her three-year-old son, Cathall as they receive the news. In fact, if you choose to buy the soundtrack, Fields of Athenry is listed simply as Bad News. For a director I have never felt was that focused, Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, 8MM, St. Elmo’s Fire) has this time made a film with an independent feel which has delivered a cry for justice, much like the people of Ireland did after hearing about the murder of Ireland’s bravest reporter. However, this film is not only about Guerin, it is instrumental in creating awareness, a reactionary wakeup call for the protection of journalists who are often being killed in the line of duty. Veronica Guerin (1958-1996) The Irish voice of courage speaks: Veronica Guerin’s acceptance speech at an awards ceremony for journalists. Go beyond the film with this clip from 60 Minutes:

The Zero Effect

by Jonas Cukierman

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) was one of the best and definitely most unknown private detectives in the world. However, you would never guess this by the way he looks or talks. Instead, if you were ever invited over for a fully balanced dinner of Bumble Bee tuna and Tab cola, you would think Mr. Zero is
one paranoid dick (detective that is). Before Monk, Daryl Zero helmed the ship crashing over the waves of OCD.
Hired by the shady Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal),
Daryl Zero must use his uncanny abilities to track down a mysterious shadow that is blackmailing his quietly loathsome client. The first glimpse we catch of Mr. Zero’s operational tactics is when Steve Arlo (a very biting Ben Stiller in a yet muted performance) meets with the criminal element that is Mr. Stark. He then goes on to explain the services of Daryl Zero via a barrage of double-talk and mercurial banter. After such time the film takes on its familiar image of presenting
the character of Daryl Zero in all his eccentric
genius and vivacity. The Zero man
has an ability to draw conclusions
from clues nobody else can see, thus seemingly
drawn out of the blue. This is no exception when the charming but exacting Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) approaches him. Sooner or later, every man has to find his other half, and in paraphrasing the insightful Daryl Zero, “Gloria is the only woman…I’ve ever had” (I told you he was extraordinary). The relationship takes on a tightly wound feeling as the plot begins to unfold, revealing yet another cruel and unusual set of circumstances. For all the fun and lunacy the story is built on, this is undoubtedly a dark film about the best and worst sides of human nature. If Ryan O’Neal’s character does not evoke a sense of tooth-clenching contempt with a tinge of sympathy for the devil, then you are watching the wrong screen. The fastidiously amusing persona of Daryl Zero is guaranteed to get a surprising reaction out of you.
Although the film is perhaps a trifle slow and confusing at times, it successfully makes up for this through its rare energy and distinct humor. Bill Pullman is definitely back in the saddle after a string of flavorless characters in such films as Independence Day and Lost Highway. Kim Dickens too is a well-kept secret that should definitely keep her eye on the big picture. Zero Effect is a great comedy that can really make an audience hammer away for answers. Its fresh and uniquely stealthy material makes for an offbeat and
intriguing tale.


by Jonas Cukierman

Beginning in 1965, and moving back and forth between decades, director Vincent Ward‘s (What Dreams May Come, The Rain of the Children)  Map of the Human Heart is a stirring love story about the life experiences of Avik, an Eskimo belonging to the Inuit Tribe of Canada. One day in 1931, an explorer named WalterRussell (PatrickBergin) and his team arrives in the Arctic with the intention of mapping the territory. When Avik develops tuberculosis, Walter’s decision to take the boy to a modern hospital in Montreal arises out his belief that the Inuit are too primitive to solve the problem. The pretext is that white medicine will work on Avik because he is after all, half white. As unfamiliar as the Arctic is to the European mapmakers, the enclosures of a Western hospital/orphanage, with all its technology and rules, are equally foreign to Avik.  The story begins to unfold when Avik meets AlbertineHuber; a young and sick girl who is convinced her deceased father is gallantly returning atop a horse to rescue her.   The beginning of the conflict ensues when the matriarch of the hospital (the immortal JeanneMoreau, in a cameo appearance) begins to try to keep the two children apart. Since both Avik and Albertine are both half-white and half Native American, Moreau is able to tell the white looking Albertine not to associate with the dark-skinned Avik, unless she wants to be treated as a “half-breed.” From here, the premise for the story is unmistakably unleashed.

Now the year jumps forward to WWII. Avik (JasonScottLee) decides to join the Royal Air Force and leave his Arctic home of Nunatak. Once again, WalterRussell takes Avik under his arm, but only to manipulate and deceive him into a life of struggle and self-pity. The now sophisticated Albertine (AnneParrilaud) and the soldier Avik reunite for the first time in ten years. The conflicts
are the same as the ones that kept them at a distance when they were
children. Only now, time has hammered their thoughts into shape.
Albertine is hesitant to become too close to Avik because her views of
interracial relations are very solid.

From the farthest reaches of a frozen earth, to the fire ravaged skies
over Dresden , Map of the Human Heart is a distressing voyage of
self-discovery and undying friendships.

The dazzling cinematography of this film delivers a fantastical
collage of hallucinatory and supernatural moods. With music by Gabriel
Yared (City of Angels, English Patient), the combination of Native
American chant with fierce symphonic and electronic labors, generates
a sudden indivisibility between the audience and the film’s forbidding
ice terrains, and war-devastated cities.

At times, the film leaves one with a sense of hope and desire, but the
sentiments of loss and emptiness are insurmountable as well.

If I would have to describe this film in just a few words, I would say
this is the most painful film I have ever seen. Furthermore, its ending is a brutal reminder of how unpredictably crushing life can be.

John Cusack also makes a tiny cameo appearance credited only as “The Mapmaker.”

The Bombing of Dresden

Trailer for Map of the Human Heart

All Big Decisions are Personal. Scene from Map of the Human Heart

Victor and Thomas go for a ride.
Victor and Thomas go for a ride.

Smoke Signals

by Jonas Cukierman

One of the few films directed by a Native American (Chris Eyre), Smoke Signals is a simple story about ordinary people with extraordinary strength.

Upon finding out about the death of his estranged and alcoholic father, Victor (Adam Beach), a serious and angry youth, ventures off the reservation to retrieve his father’s ashes from a craggy and desolate hideaway in the Arizona desert. Alongside Victor is his friend and companion, Thomas (Adam Evans), a quirky and intellectual storyteller-type, who lost both parents in a fire twenty years before. The journey begins with a long bus ride on which Thomas and Victor find out just how different they are. Victor is always stone-faced and reserved, Thomas is the humor and charm that keeps the voyage going even in its darkest moments. One of the unique things about this situation is that Thomas seems to have known Victor’s father better than Victor himself. As the road trip progresses, Thomas delivers uncomplicated but emotionally charged accounts of how his relationship with Victor’s father manifested itself when he was a boy. And the reasons why the man Thomas knew as his surrogate parent suddenly left one day never to be heard from again.

Thomas’ mixture of distressing story threads, interwoven with vignettes of whimsical humor cause a vivid image to be imprinted in the mind of audiences, not to mention Victor. Together, the two young men begin to unravel the truth about what happened on the night of the fire in 1976, and piece together how shame can bring a man to self-loathing. Perhaps for the first time, Victor is able to drop his inhibited roughness, and earnestly respect his father for what he was, and forgive him for the unanticipated departure.

This film not only touches on the delicateness of family complexities and the burden of living with humiliation. It also brings into view how reservations have created a world of squalor, and diminished the number of opportunities available to Native Americans. An especially pivotal view of this ideology is represented in a scene where two young ladies from the reservation pull up next to Thomas and Victor. They tell them not to forget their passport; because going outside the reservation and into the reaches of America is like going into a foreign country…. Words that have an unsettling ring to them.

Smoke Signals is beautifully forceful in telling its story. With strong performances from all of its players, it poises suffering and humor in a refreshing and forthright manner.

Smoke Signals trailer

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Dr. Fred Leuchter
by Jonas Cukierman
Known for his unique taste in offbeat and outrageous subject matter, director Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History Of Time) takes us into the realm of the executioner in his new documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Dr. Fred Leuchter
Throughout the course of one day, Fred Leuchter, Jr. (Mr. Death) drinks forty cups of coffee, smokes six packs of cigarettes a day, and is still able to sleep soundly. An eerie man by every stretch of the imagination, Leuchter is the designer of latest generation electric chairs, lethal injections and other methods of “humane” execution. As the film takes you increasingly into the mind of this eccentric individual, one cannot help but notice that he has a sick but perhaps human interest in creating his contraptions. Throughout the picture, we experience a roller coaster of humor, idiosyncrasy and disturbing imagery. Much of the screen time is spent showing the diminutive Leuchter being interviewed and describing how he became who he is today, as well as detailing the gruesome events that occur at a state execution, be it by chair or needle.
Since our caffeine-addicted celebrity is a self-proclaimed expert in the field of engineering and other great feats, he is employed by a group of pro-Nazi sympathizers who deny the Holocaust ever occurred. The once inconspicuous nerd who greatly resembles a groundhog is asked by the leader of the hate group (historical revisionists) to visit Auschwitz and chisel samples of the stone structures that once housed the gas chambers. Little by little, Morris takes the audience on an adventure of fear and disbelief as he slowly chips away at the man we might have thought was a mere curiosity, but now realize that along with his peculiar profession and his drinking problem, is an unbalanced media- starved individual who will jump at any chance of fame.
The film takes the audience on a grim trip down history lane in more ways than meet the eye. One can make a good assessment in saying that Fred Leuchter draws a parallel to Adolf Hitler and the band of thugs who were his followers. A failed artist, Hitler saw a window of opportunity to take advantage of a Germany in a time when her economy was depressed and morale was low. Where previously they were teetering on the brink of starvation, some Germans now took a desperate refuge in Hitler’s new and deceptive climate of belonging. Like the rise of the Nazis, Leuchter sees a chance to go from a complete unknown to savoring the fame of a false credibility. As many figures before him, Leuchter rises to fame as one who ascribes to fanatic notions, and like the Nazis, Mr. Death is an innovator of the machineries of mortality. In contrast, while Hitler was a failure to begin with, Leuchter was successful at his profession before jumping on the bandwagon of Holocaust disclaimers. It is only after his public recognition that he is labeled an unsavory character, because like his neo-Nazi counterparts, he puts faith in a concept that is fleeting and self-destructive.
In a different and more permissive era, there is a good chance that Fred Leuchter would made been a man not unlike Dr. Mengele.
The most compelling moral of this story is how easily a person can convince himself that he is an expert on a subject, even though many sound observers realize he is merely putting on a façade. Lastly, it is an unsettling jolt to see how effortlessly certain people can be duped into believing anything if it means perpetuating their name.
This film is by no means part of the endless debate over capital punishment. Rather, it is a testament to the megalomania that plagues every society in every generation. Electrocution of an Elephant. This clip from 1903 was used in the film .