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In Another Life
By Laura Leon

The Man on the Train
Directed by Patrice Leconte

Who would have thought that mixing equal parts spaghetti western with French elegy would result in such a sustained and satisfying film as Patrice Leconte’s latest, The Man on the Train? The unexpected merging of the two moods conjured by these disparate styles works remarkably well in this tale of two very different old men, each bound both by the appreciation of time passing and by the desire, however fleeting, to be in someone else’s shoes.

The iconic French pop star Johnny Hallyday plays the thief Milan, who mosies into a provincial French tourist town off-season. He’s shrouded in blue: smoke from a cigarette, steam from the train, the cast of descending twilight shadows. Taking a visual cue from Sergio Leone’s great Once Upon a Time in the West, in which traditional good guy Henry Fonda’s bright baby blues were a brutal contrast to his soulless persona, Leconte makes great effect of Hallyday’s off-putting azure eyes. It’s clear that Milan is not in town simply to purchase headache medicine, but to meet some other, more sinister date with destiny. He makes the acquaintance of a retired, loquacious schoolteacher, Mansequier (Jean Rochefort), who promptly invites him to stay at his lonely yet palatial home until Saturday, when he, too, has a pressing engagement. In the week that ensues (during which time we ascertain that Milan is, in fact, planning a bank heist with some old cronies), the two men form an initially awkward yet ultimately comfortable understanding of each other—an understanding that is often as humorous as it is touching.

Whereas Milan is the kind of cinematic American archetype—rootless, rugged, alone—whose appeal goes well beyond westerns, Mansequier is his antithesis. Despite a stated desire for a home grounded in Zen minimalism, he nevertheless remains in his childhood estate, an aging beauty furnished with the overstuffed furniture, artwork and mementos of bygone eras. He is shy and risk-averse, a man who wishes he could get in a fight, or at least have an argument with the clerk at the bakery. While snooping through Milan’s things, he dons the other man’s fringed leather jacket—again, another American archetype—and pantomimes being Wyatt Earp by way of an old-time western. He spies a decades-old photo of Milan that conveys a James Dean-like quality, and his enchantment is complete. Meanwhile, Milan seeks more tranquil favors from his benefactor: the words to a poem, a shared glass of wine, his very first pair of slippers. At various moments, each man sort of becomes the other: Milan pinch-hits for Mansequier when the teacher misses an appointment with a pupil, and Mansequier steps in to settle a bistro brawl. The results of both are highly amusing and deeply revealing.

Leconte and screenwriter Claude Klotz rely on the audience’s ability to fill in the story’s gaps, psychologically, by way of those aforementioned archetypes, a device that illuminates the movie’s subtext of desire and fantasy. The idea of going back, making different decisions with one’s life, and perhaps in the process becoming a very different person, has universal appeal; and when we see what we might have been in the persona of another, that vision is largely derived from what assumptions and associations we make about that other person’s life. The script also benefits from composer Pascal Estive’s brilliant use of music to illustrate the differences in each character; whenever Milan appears, we hear a twangy guitar reminiscent yet again of Leone and those other countless westerns, whereas we associate Mansequier with thoughtful, poignant fugues. It’s a beautiful movie, one that continues Leconte’s fascination with parallel lives while expanding his reach into a realm approaching the sublime.


Monster mush: the CGI green guy in The Hulk.

You’ve Changed

The Hulk
Directed by Ang Lee

Even if the fusion of deep- feeling director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and comic-book genius Stan Lee struck you from the get-go as dismayingly incongruous, you still may not be prepared for just how mishmashed and ill-conceived the big-screen adaptation of The Hulk is. Drawn out to a punishing length, this biopic on the gigantic green brute tries to outdo the usual id-level psychology of superhero movies, with a result not unlike babysitting a cranky 5-year-old while simultaneously cramming for a grad-school exam on Sophocles.

The backstory begins when the future one-man demolition derby is just a gleam in the eye of his scientist father. Papa Banner (Nick Nolte) conducts secret experiments in tissue regeneration for the U.S. Army, until something goes horribly wrong—and that something turns out to be his toddler son, Bruce. Updating Marvel comics The Incredible Hulk—created in the newly nuclear 1960s—with today’s biogenetic nightmares is the film’s most inspired motif; however, Lee goes overboard with the evolutionary montages, filling in Banner Sr.’s lab work with art-house-style shots of jellyfish, sunbaked mud flats and giant sequoias. Later, the director switches to split-screen gimmickry to mimic the look of comic-book panels, which doesn’t succeed any better in enlivening the reams of exposition dully cranked out by TV writer John Turman.

Fast-forward to Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) all grown up and conducting his own experiments in molecular regeneration. After he gets blasted by gamma beams, his inner mutation is unleashed and then provoked into actualization by a hospital-bed visit from his long-lost father, now a wild-haired madman with a peculiarly aggressive pet poodle. Also on hand to cattle-prod mild-mannered Bruce is a ridiculously venial rep (Josh Lucas) for a biomedical corporation with a Pentagon contract. The rep wants to acquire Bruce’s research in a hostile takeover, along with Bruce’s ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). Betty broke up with Bruce because he is emotionally distant due to a repressed childhood trauma, but she falls for him all over again at the first sign of freakishness. Pity must be saved for the youngsters trying to absorb all this generational dysfunctionality simply to get to the parts where a bouncing green giant leaps into the air in a CGI approximation of childhood flying dreams.

Those sky-high bounces aside, the Hulk is an anachronism in his own movie, a cartoony wrecking ball without an eyeblink of personality (King Kong is Shakespearean in comparison) set upon a landscape of luminous realism. His Freudian temper tantrums don’t carry much weight, since his human incarnation is as bland as a laboratory mouse: Bana, who got by on his smoldering eyes as the special-forces sniper in Black Hawk Down, doesn’t have anything more to offer here. Confusing the Oedipal issue is Banner Sr., played by Nolte as a one-man Eugene O’Neill production, complete with a grandstanding soliloquy that will exhaust the patience of experimental- theater buffs, not to mention the average moviegoer looking for some pop-art mayhem. And judging by the results of Banner’s scientific evildoing, his research was based solely on the special effects of Terminator 2.

Only Sam Elliot, as Betty’s ramrod Army-general father, hits the right note of comic-book exaggeration, perhaps because his is the only character with comically sardonic dialogue. “What if he has one of his little mood swings in a populated area?” says the general after siccing the entire armed forces on the waywardly bouncing Hulk, who is subjected to an apocalyptic—and seemingly endless—array of hostile maneuvers. Since the Hulk isn’t noticeably good, bad or sympathetic, and since everyone else is mired in psychological ambivalence and inconsistencies, it’s left to director Lee to serve as the Marvel-style villain: a force of nature brought down by his own overblown hubris.

—Ann Morrow

Just My Imagination

Alex & Emma
Directed by Rob Reiner

What can be said about a movie that is oblivious to its best joke? In Alex & Emma, Alex (Luke Wilson) is a writer with 30 days to finish his novel and earn a promised $125,000 fee, or he will be killed by the Cuban gangsters to whom he owes most of that amount. Emma (Kate Hudson) is his faithful, tart-tongued stenographer. The story Alex dictates is a Gatsby-esque tale of love, money and crushed dreams—and it’s spectacularly awful. Alex is a hack writer with a tin ear, but the film presents him as if he’s a genius. It’s understandable why screenwriter Jeremy Leven might be oblivious to this, but director Rob Reiner should have noticed.

The film’s gimmick is that it goes back and forth between Alex dictating to Emma, and the novel itself. The lead character, Adam, is based on Alex and is also played by Wilson. He’s a penniless tutor working for a beautiful upperclass widow named Polina (elegant, sexy Sophie Marceau) on a vacation island off the coast of Maine in the summer of 1924. (The period settings and costumes are Masterpiece Theater-quality, which means they have a genteel beauty that suggests the past without ever truly evoking it.) Adam is torn between Polina and the au pair, played by Hudson. This is the funniest part of the novel section, as the character morphs from Swedish to German to Spanish to American, and Hudson gets to deliciously vamp it up in each guise. (Her turn as the German girl is hilarious; she seems to have studied Peter Sellers’ diction and timing from Lolita.)

If you accept the fact that the filmmakers were either distracted or clueless, Alex & Emma isn’t a bad romance. Going brunette for a change, Hudson brings the right working-class touch to her role as the stenographer, and movie-star glamour to the period scenes. Wilson is also good, though the character’s hypochondria is one-note and unconvincing. The problem is that while the romance in the novel is worked out satisfactorily, its real-life counterpart is clumsy and obvious. When Marceau shows up as Alex’s real Polina, the film screeches to a halt. The rest of the picture is as unconvincing as Alex’s prose.

—Shawn Stone


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