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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A fictional story of international intrigue is on movie screens now, and it's one of two films featuring the same French actor. Here's our film critic Kenneth Turan.

KENNETH TURAN: If you think of Mathieu Amalric as the guy from "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly," that's going to change. He's in two completely different new films. One is as familiar as it sounds, while the other sounds familiar but definitely is not. The familiar item is the 22nd James Bond epic, "Quantum of Solace." It's the second film to star the dashing Daniel Craig.

(Soundbite of movie "Quantum of Solace")

Mr. DANIEL CRAIG: (As James Bond) You don't have to worry about me.

TURAN: As the devil-may-care British secret agent who makes his own rules. Now, Bond is determined to avenge the death of his girlfriend - and that, according to Judi Dench's M, has made him a bit of a loose cannon.

(Soundbite of movie "Quantum of Solace")

Dame JUDI DENCH: (As M) You can't tell your friends from your enemies. It's time to go.

TURAN: As Bond fans know, these films are only as good as their villains. Amalric has that role this time.

(Soundbite of movie "Quantum of Solace")

Mr. MATHIEU AMALRIC: (As Dominic Greene) Careful with this one, Mr. Bond. She won't go to bed with you unless you give her something she really wants.

TURAN: Playing a gentleman with the temerity to masquerade as an ecological warrior while planning to plunder the planet.

(Soundbite of movie "Quantum of Solace")

Mr. AMALRIC: (As Dominic Greene) This is the world's most precious resource. We need to control as much of it as we can.

TURAN: That's pretty bad, isn't it? To watch Amalric struggle to add some life to a hapless part is to understand how much even fine actors are dependent on the words written for them. Which brings us to "A Christmas Tale," the story of three generations of a family gathered under one roof to celebrate the holiday and endure one another. But stifle those yawns: In the hands of French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, this familiar conception comes to vivid and astonishing life. Part of the credit for this goes to our friend Mathieu Amalric, who's given one of the juiciest roles of his career and runs with it.

Mr. AMALRIC: (French Spoken)

TURAN: He plays the family's ne'er-do-well brother, a sibling so irritating his words cause dinner table riots. The difference between Amalric's two performances is so great it's like we're watching two completely different actors. The Bond film is as dead as yesterday's formula, its emphasis on action, killing everything in its path. While "A Christmas Tale" couldn't be more human, couldn't be more alive.

(Soundbite of song "James Bond Theme [Moby's Re-Version]")

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies from Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times. You can find an essay on the latest actor who plays James Bond at our website, npr.org.

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