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The middle of summer is when the surprises in publishing turn up. I'm talking about those quietly commanding books that publishers tend to put out now, because fall and winter are focused on big books by established authors. Which brings us to The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan, a very funny and touching collection of nine short stories that take place in the 1960s and '70s around Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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'Inescapable' Ambiguities In Prewar Syria

Feb 21, 2013

It's hard to imagine an upside to the civil war now causing unspeakable suffering in Syria. But the conflict has turned out to be a break for the makers of Inescapable, a feverish political thriller written and directed by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian of Syrian origin whose last film was the languorous 2009 romance Cairo Time.

Set in Damascus in 2011, on the eve of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, the movie minces no words about the brutal police state he has kept in trim since the 2000 death of his father, Hafez Assad. Yet it's also a story of redemption for one of the late dictator's former intelligence operatives.

Adib Abdel Kareem (played by Alexander Siddig, a character actor whose quiet intensity and panther grace recall Omar Sharif) left Syria abruptly 20 years ago and is now comfortably resettled in Toronto with a cushy job in computers, a loving wife and two grown daughters whom he adores.

Adib is affable, confident with a touch of arrogance and prone to flashes of temper. When the murky past he has kept from his family returns to haunt him, the affability vanishes. While traveling in the Middle East, Adib's daughter, a photographer, takes a sudden detour to Damascus and disappears, forcing him to return to his native city to find her.

Since he left, nothing much has changed, his former colleague and fiancee Fatima tells him on his arrival. And yes, that is Marisa Tomei under several tons of mascara. Except that this terrifically versatile actress has little to do but lounge in doorways working up a sullen smolder tinged with wistful regret while struggling to push along a redundant romantic subplot.

The rest is mostly chase scenes as Adib tries to dance his way past agents from several secret services, who spend as much time warring with each other as they do trying to corner him. Inescapable is Nadda's first foray into thriller territory, and her inexperience shows in awkwardly mounted fight scenes and clumsy car chases, not to mention an almost fatally explanatory script.

Nadda is very good, though, at juxtaposing Damascus' tranquil beauty with the terrors of everyday life in a police state. You'd never guess the movie was shot (beautifully, by Canadian cinematographer Luc Montpellier) in South Africa; we feel in our bones the beauty and danger of a lovely Middle Eastern city blighted by the presence of heavily armed soldiers on every corner.

There is, too, an ambiguity to the characters that slyly complicates an otherwise pro forma plot. Adib is far from the only slippery customer in a growing ensemble, among them a suave Canadian embassy official (a very good Joshua Jackson), a Russian relic from the old days (Danny Keogh) who can still pull strings on demand, and Adib's former friend Sayyid (Israeli actor Oded Fehr), now a ranking intelligence chief who seems less than delighted to see his old buddy resurface.

As the Biblical moral parable it clearly means to be, though, Inescapable is a stew of muddled thinking. Must we like Adib better because he, too, was once betrayed? Should we be as jazzed as he is that his skills as a former professional bully prove crucial to his quest?

Siddig's soulfully expressive performance aside, Adib himself is written as a frustratingly thin character who gives little sign of inner torment or of coming to grips with the deep stains on his integrity. Adib's search for his child is framed as a journey of expiation that will wipe his slate clean. As atonement goes, aren't we talking apples and oranges?

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