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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

This is a slow week here for this columnist, but not a slow week for new releases. An unprecedented three studio releases were not screened for critics: Disaster Movie, Babylon A.D. and College. Of these three, Babylon A.D., starring Vin Diesel, I was holding out some amount of enthusiasm for.

Traitor

Sometimes just watching two of the finest actors working today is enough to keep you absolutely gripped to an average thriller. So imagine what it's like to watch these same two actors in a taut, tightly scripted and nerve-wracking work that starts out as a white-knuckle suspense film and essentially never lets up. Although not nearly as ambitious or complex as, say, Syriana, Traitor provides a satisfying and densely packed amount of story into its two-hour length. Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a Yemen-born American citizen and former U.S. Special Operations officer, who has stayed faithful to his Muslim roots and become a soldier for an Islamic fundamentalist group that has carried out numerous terrorist acts around the world and is planning a major attack on the United States. Guy Pearce plays Texas-born FBI agent Roy Clayton, who leads the investigation into Horn's activities when he is captured early in the film.

The first thing you notice about Traitor is how scarily authentic everything feels. The levels and layers of secrecy, the simplicity of Horn's master plan of attack, the way the FBI is able to track him but still is always one or two steps behind the highly intelligent terrorist. I credit the great storytelling to writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (co-writer of The Day After Tomorrow), who also gets a story credit along with Steve Martin…yes, as far as I can tell it's THAT Steve Martin. I'd say 75 percent of this film is talking and preparation, which means the plot doesn't use its action sequences as a crutch. There are a few tasty chase scenes, gunfights and explosions, but they are all used in moderation to give them more weight and significance. Samir is also given plenty of screen time to explain his motivation for turning on America. You may not agree with his reasons, but I like that the movie took the time to hear him out. What is just as interesting as Samir's stealthy and seemingly error-free behaviors are the few instances when he does make a mistake and why. There's a lot more going on in this story than a simple cat-and-mouse game. And what is Samir's relationship with a U.S. investigator played by Jeff Daniels?

And then there's the completely reliable Pearce, who has never given a bad performance in his entire career, and, as far as I'm concerned the same can be said of Cheadle. Clayton's motivations and personality are given just as much examination as Samir's, and it's such a rare treat to watch these two great actors bite into great material like this, despite the fact that they are only on screen together a couple of times. Neal McDonough plays Clayton's more aggressive and emotional partner, Max. Rounding out the essential supporting cast is Said Taghmaoui (recently seen in Vantage Point) as Samir's "sponsor" Omar, who acts as his entry point onto the highest rungs in the terrorist organization.

I have to give Cheadle credit for playing a character that, on the surface, no one in the audience is really meant to like. But since it's Don Cheadle and we as American moviegoers like explosions, we're almost rooting for him to succeed with his plan of blowing up 50 buses all over the country at the exact same time. It's a strange and wonderful position the film puts us in, but as the actual act comes closer to fruition, a creeping "Holy shit, I don't want this to happen" feeling takes over, and all is right with the world. The word I keep coming back to is "smart." Everything about Traitor is well thought out, precisely conceived, and there were almost no instances where I felt myself in a state of disbelief. Strangely enough, the film has a wicked sense of humor in certain spots, which I was truly grateful for as a tension release.

I find it a bit bizarre that such a strong work would get its release in the last week of August, usually reserved for the dregs that no distributor dared put out during the more-desirable summer weeks. But if you've seen everything else and you're looking to end your summer on a high note, look no further. Traitor is a great, savvy film that doesn't get bogged down in politics but doesn't fall short on ideas or great acting, which is some of the best you'll see all summer.

Sixty Six

One of my favorite moments in this sweet charmer about a young Jewish boy growing up in '60s North London is home movies shown during the end credits of what appears to be the actual bar mitzvah that inspired the film. I have no idea if that's accurate or not, since I know very little about co-writer Peter Straughan's upbringing (I'm guessing that his writing partner Bridget O'Connor did not have a bar mitzvah), but the idea alone warms me.

Sixty Six centers on young Bernie Reubens (relative newcomer Gregg Sulkin), the youngest son of Manny (Eddie Marsan, recently seen in Hancock, as well as Miami Vice and V for Vendetta) and Esther Reubens (Helena Bonham Carter). Bernie saw his older brother (Ben Newton) have a bar mitzvah with 300 guests and more presents than he could believe, and he eagerly awaits his turn to be the center of all that attention. But the world seems to be conspiring against the poor kid. His father's business (co-owned by Bernie's uncle) is suffering, Bernie is diagnosed with asthma and a stray celebratory firework burns a part of the family's home. But nothing would matter or contribute to wrecking Bernie's day of becoming a man more than England making the World Cup finals for the first time ever in 1966. While the rest of the nation prays for this miraculous event, Bernie hopes it won't happen since his parents have scheduled his bar mitzvah on the same day as the potential championship game. Of course, nobody actually thinks England can get into the finals in the first place, which makes it all the more heartbreaking for Bernie when they make the final game, and all of the invited guests start calling to cancel with one ridiculous excuse after another.

Bernie is given sage advice from his blind rabbi (Richard Katz) and his asthma doctor (Stephen Rea) about how to handle the potential disappointment, but nothing quite helps the poor lad. Director Paul Weiland (who has directed many episodes of "Mr. Bean" and "Blackadder," as well as the films City Slickers 2 and Made of Honor from earlier this year) lays on the sap pretty thick here, especially during the bar mitzvah ceremony and downright depressing reception. Weiland isn't exactly known for playing anything with any amount of subtlety, but for the most part he gets Sixty Six right. The final bonding moment between Bernie and his emotionally distant dad seems so completely contrived as to threaten to wreck the otherwise highly watchable movie. It's wonderful to see Bonham Carter play a somewhat normal character (as opposed to the goth queens she's played lately in Sweeney Todd and Harry Potter). Esther is an absolute rock for her sons, her husband and this movie. Sulkin as Bernie has a great comic presence but also makes you feel deeply for this ultimate put-upon youngster.

There's nothing outstanding about Sixty Six, but there's nothing terribly wrong with it either. I know, this sounds like some ringing endorsement. But the truth is, the film left me feeling pretty good about the world for a couple of hours after I saw it. That has to be worth something. The film opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theater.

Two Lives Plus One

In the world of modern French cinema, there are few joys that I look forward to more than watching Emmanuelle Devos's work. She has one of the most open and expressive faces of any actress in the world; she can play comedy and tragedy equally well—often playing both in a single film; and her smile is as addictive as crack. Just a few titles to sample if you're interested include The Beat That Skipped My Heart; The Moustache; Kings and Queen; Read My Lips; and the first film I remember seeing her in My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. Her latest work, Two Lives Plus One, finds her playing Eliane Weiss, an elementary school teacher who has aspirations of turning her journal into a memoir/self-help book. Eliane is being pulled is 27 different directions by a demanding workload, a loving but needy, much older husband (Gerard Darmon), a rebellious teen daughter and her overbearing Jewish mother, who hates speaking French, preferring her native Yiddish.

Ellen's journals are her escape. She not only writes in them, but she also tapes images and draws inspired sketches to sum up her feelings. But when she finally commits her writings to her newly purchased laptop, she only includes the words. She gets nibbles from publishers, but ultimately they all turn her down. When she happens to mention her journals to one perspective publisher (Jocelyn Quivrin), he asks to see them. He loves the drawings and other artwork, and sets Eliane on the task of compiling a version of her notebook to be published. Eliane's sudden burst of success in her otherwise uneventful life makes her realize that changes may be necessary in other parts of her world.

It goes without saying that Devos is particularly good as a woman who goes from sensible to slightly off her rocker as she begins to contemplate the possibilities of her life path. She plays a frustrated woman trying to find a place in her own home to be alone with her thoughts briefly to write (she settles for the bathroom, and even in there she's disturbed). I also love the scenes in which Eliane goes to visit her father's grave. She always sees him sitting there on his headstone, and the two have loving and insightful conversations that always help her clear her crowded mind. Long-time actress and first-time feature director Idit Cebula (who also co-wrote) might be guilty of over sentimentalizing this material, but Devos is skilled enough to keep everything in the realm of believability and away from all of the ways Hollywood would have ruined this story. Even a potential affair between Eliane and her publisher is handled smartly by Cebula and Devos. Eliane's extended family, which meets once a week at her mother's home for dinner, are a fun bunch, but they aren't used exclusively as comic relief. Two Lives Plus One is simple and grounded in reality, making it far more interesting and accessible without finding the need to dumb down the material. It opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.
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