At the movies: If you can't decide if Krampus is a comedy or a horror film first, it's probably because a lot of horror films trade on a certain ridiculousness already. Krampus embraces it, but some of the scare moments and monsters really are freaky, even though others are sillier (the gingerbread man from Shrek comes to mind). As a comedy, it's very much about the chaos of big family Christmases, about relatives you don't really care for coming to dinner, and about the cabin fever that always results. The actors are watchable (I'd pretty much see Adam Scott and Allison Tolman in anything, frankly), the twists are earned and/or defy expectations, and while I wouldn't call Krampus overly challenging as a film, it manages to create an intriguing mythology around its eponymous monster while paying homage to both Christmas films (hey, there's a stop motion sequence!) and horror films of a certain era. Best holiday mash-up since The Nightmare Before Christmas, probably.
DVDs: The Holiday is a romantic comedy set in the loneliest time of the year for singles, Christmas, but it's also a play on words as the two heroines swap houses and take a holiday to other shores to rinse that guy right out of their hair. Mumsy Kate Winslet ends up in Hollywood where she meets quirky gents like Eli Wallach and Frank Black, while jet-set Cameron Diaz goes to Surrey to live the simple life and stumbles onto complicated Jude Law. You can count on writer-director Nancy Myers to put more meat on a romcom than most, and The Holiday is therefore a pleasant enough experience. I'm not big on Diaz as an actress, but her character being a movie trailer producer means the film can use the classic announcer's voice for its flights of fancy. It's fun metatext. While the storyline has its charms, it is a little broader, and thus less emotional. Winslet's thread is thus more engaging and really very sweet and where I think the heart of the film lies. One to watch with hot chocolate on a snowy night.
Now on to I-Spy-December... I'm so used to equating John Le Carré with Cold War spy fiction, it never occurred to me that he was still writing in the post-9/11 era. A Most Wanted Man is definitely set during the war on terror, in the German port city of Hamburg (extremely well used, I really like it when unusual locations are given such a spotlight), with Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his very last roles playing the leader of an anti-terror unit who would rather use carrots than sticks to get to his ends. The plot involves a Chechen illegal who could easily be radicalized, and Hoffman's attempts to turn him using a civil rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and an unusually compassionate banker (Willem Dafoe) and swing him in the way of a Muslim community leader who may be bankrolling terrorist activities. The takeaway from the story is that the whole climate is painted in gray tones. You could make arguments against or for every motivation in the film, and though you're "with" Hoffman or possibly McAdams, you could also be highly critical of their actions and opinions. No easy answers, which is exactly right when we're talking about this highly topical subject. The DVD includes two featurettes, one a making of, the other a conversation with Le Carré on the writing of the book. BEST SPY FILM OF THE WEEK!
Nothing But the Truth is broadly based on the Judith Miller/Valerie Plame case of 2005, in which a journalist blew a CIA operative's cover and was jailed for contempt of court when she refused to give her source to the authorities (The Newsroom did something similar in its last season as well.) The similarities end with the set-up, however, as the film shows what would happen if everyone involved stuck to their principles absolutely. The first half of the film is very strong, definitely capturing the feel of the big newspaper, and of the intelligence community. It loses some of its shine in the second half though, turning into something of a prison movie/legal procedural (as good as Alan Alda is as the lawyer) and churning out a polarizing twist that I personally didn't mind (possibly because I figured it out). Ultimately, my reference to The Newsroom is useful, because like Aaron Sorkin, writer-director Rod Lurie is a political utopist, presenting us with a heightened reality where people serve principles greater than they are. Trying to judge the characters based on what "you would have done" merely forces you to admit your own weakness and selfishness, or crassly justify your sensible pragmatism. It is a futile enterprise.
Knight and Day looks for all the world like a fluff piece, an action romcom starring Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, the latter trading on his Mission: Impossible persona, but it's a lot better than it looks! In fact, it's really very entertaining! Because it's a comedy, it allows itself to embrace the absurdity of big budget action movie stunts and go for broke. Cruise's rogue agent is impossibly good at the action stuff, and because we're not taking this very seriously, it's huge fun. Much of the comedy comes from his being slightly "off" when it comes to social interaction, a sort of savant when it comes to superspy work, but otherwise a little clueless. Diaz does a pretty good job and isn't always a damsel in distress. In fact, you can tell when they switch roles because the camera starts cutting out when HE'S unconscious, as opposed to when SHE is. A bit movie script 101 at the end there, but a nice roller-coaster ride you probably missed first time around.
Funeral in Berlin is the second Harry Palmer film starring Michael Caine, and though it's not as "art house" as The Ipcress Files, I think it might be the better film, or at least the better story. Not to say director Guy Hamilton (most famous for his extensive James Bond work) doesn't use some of the flair of the first film - the opening introduction of the two Berlins is a fine example - but he dials it down a lot. But Harry is definitely more Bondian in this film, getting some great zingers, getting the girl, etc. The action is, of course, more down to Earth and procedural, which is fine by me. The convoluted plot about agents working at cross-purposes to get an important Soviet defector out of East Germany is good to the last drop (of bodies!), and definitely rewatchable to catch every little double-cross. Caine is at his coolest weathering all this. The Ipcress File is more memorable, but Funeral in Berlin avoids its weird sci-fi(ish) plot and gives us a great paranoid thriller. Don't let the ordinary title fool you.
At the start of Tony Scott's Spy Game, CIA operative Brad Pitt is caught in China and everyone at the Agency wants a reason to burn him, everyone except Robert Redford, his handler, who plays a dangerous game to save his boy from his more politically-minded colleagues. Obviously, Scott is going to do a lot of stylish stuff with the look and sound of the film - not all of it works, but I like the crazy Hong Kong cinema tricks - but it's the structure that's most unusual. As the clock ticks down, Redford's character will be giving briefings about what makes Pitt's tick, and so we get the relevant points of a spy's career from recruitment to potentially going rogue on a personal mission. As the movie progresses, twin intrigues develop - one is the revelation, clue by clue, of why Pitt was in China; and the other is Redford working behind the scenes to save Pitt without his superiors finding out. Spy Game has a lot of momentum and urgency for a film that, in "real time", is about people talking in a conference room. It works on an intellectual plane if not an emotional one.
Jean Dujardin returns for a second O.S.S. 117 film, Rio ne répond plus (Lost in Rio), advancing the timeline by almost a decade to spoof the films of the late 60s rather than the first film's "Dr. No" look. So the camera is more mobile, locations are used more prominently than sets, there's blatant day for night, and a hysterical over-use of split screen effects. It's fairly amusing, but double-one 7's racist, sexist and here anti-Semitic dialog, though it comes from an innocently ignorant place (as per the first film's Islamophobia), is something that seems to play a lot better in France than here. It's supposed to satirize the old guard's insensitivity (like Mad Men does), but will make most audiences groan more than laugh even if other characters all think 117 is an idiot. The story, about the search for a Nazi hiding in South America is better plotted and easier to follow than the first film's, at least, and it ends in a crazy sequence that borrows liberally from Hitchcock, which movie fans will appreciate. Don't know how it plays to English-speaking audiences, but some of the best chuckles were French-language puns. Mileage will vary.
Kiss of the Dragon stars Jet Li as a Chinese super-agent on the run from a crooked inspector in Paris. Bridget Fonda is the archetypal hooker with a heart of gold he saves and who helps him. Even if they usually feature some action movie dumbness, I always look forward to Luc Besson productions - whether he personally directs them or not (which he doesn't, in this case) - as there's always a lot of memorable texture that makes the film better than it normally would be. It's these character and location quirks that push the movie beyond its well-worn tropes. Obviously, when you've got Jet Li on board, choreographed with Cory Yuen no less, the action is of a high standard, and Besson's crew shoots it well (not a given in Western cinema). My only real beef is with the soundtrack, which I found remedial. Otherwise, this may well be Jet Li's best English-language film. The DVD has a commentary track with Jet, Fonda and director Chris Nahon recorded separately, a few making of featurettes, brief behind the scenes footage, and storyboard comparisons.