Tag Archives: B

FAITHLESS (TROLOSA)

Grade: B

Back in 1957, Ingmar Bergman gave the world one of his most characteristic and influential films, “Wild Strawberries.” A dreamy, introspective piece about an elderly professor, traveling to receive an honorary degree, whose current experiences and recollections of the past converge to bring about a re-examination of his life, the picture had its moments of harshness and self-accusation, but overall it was luminously ruminative, pervaded by a gentle melancholy and buoyed by the beautiful lead performance of Victor Sjostrom.

Now, in the late autumn (if not chilly winter) of his own life, the 82-year old master, who gave up directing some years back, has penned a screenplay in which a figure obviously patterned on himself looks back on his life and judges what he’s done, just as Professor Borg did in “Strawberries.” But Bergman is far less kindly toward himself than he was to his fictional creation of four decades ago. In “Faithless,” which has been brought to the screen by his frequent star (and erstwhile companion) Liv Ullmann in his own spare late style, he concentrates on a single episode in his past–an affair he had with a woman in the late 1940s which destroyed two marriages–and essentially calls himself to the bar as defendant. Writing the work must be seen as a virtual act of atonement for him, a kind of confession concerning one hurtful act which might serve as an indictment of what he now sees as all the wrong he committed in the past, an apology for what he’s frequently admitted was a general inability to make true emotional commitments in his younger days.

“Faithless” is told from the perspective of an old theatrical and film director called Bergman (Erland Josephson), who’s living a desolate existence in a rambling house on an island (Faro, where the director’s long lived and where he shot many of his films). He’s putting together a script about a disastrous extramarital affair centered on Marianne Vogler (Lena Endre), who, by getting involved with a theatrical director (and would-be filmmaker) of dubious ability named David (Krister Henriksson), destroys her marriage to promising orchestral conductor Markus (Thomas Hanzon) and does irreparable harm to their daughter Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Marianne appears to Bergman to read portions of the script and tell much of her story in long, passionate monologues; it’s left unclear whether Endre is an actress who’s “creating” the role in tandem with the elderly writer, or the ghost of the now-dead Marianne retelling her story in Bergman’s brain. Occasionally scenes from the past are recreated dramatically, either with voice-over from Marianne or in stand-alone form, rather than being simply described by the woman–the emotional moment when Markus discovers the lovers in bed is one, and there are others–but there remains even in these a sense of distancing which keeps them rather remote and chilly.

Though it’s only toward the close that it’s definitively revealed that David is the younger Bergman, that revelation will hardly come as a surprise to even the most unenlightened viewer. It will be especially obvious to anyone who knows much about Bergman’s life, because “Faithless” is in many respects autobiographical. It’s obviously based on the director’s 1949 liaison with journalist Gun Hagberg; there are so many elements of congruence (though also a few dissonances) with the brief account Bergman supplies in “The Magic Lantern” (see pages 160-171 of the Tate translation) that the connection is inescapable. “Gun was the model for many women in my films,” Bergman wrote; and Marianne Vogler is clearly one of them. The personal association is further accentuated by an aural motif–an excerpt from Mozart which plays repeatedly on an old music-box. The tune is not only from “Die Zauberflote,” which Bergman himself filmed so memorably in 1975, but is Papageno’s “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen,” the aria in which the birdcatcher dreams about acquiring a woman, just as he catches birds. (The concluding lines of the second strophe–“Hulf eine mir nur aus der Not, sonst gram’ ich mich wahrlich zu Tod”–are particularly apt to this context.) In this connection Marianne’s surname of Vogler (“Fowler”) is hardly accidental, and the fact that the Bergman surrogate, David, is portrayed in extraordinarily unflattering terms constitutes a clear act of self-abasement as a hapless womanizer on the writer’s part.

If “Faithless” fascinates as an autobiographical document, it also works fairly well as a film, even if it doesn’t match the quality of Bergman’s great masterpieces. Especially in Endre’s performance, it periodically achieves a shattering power, and the ethereal beauty of the child Isabelle is remarkable. The male figures, however, are much less compelling. Markus remains an opaque, unfinished character–one senses that Bergman never comprehended the motives of Hagberg’s husband, many of whose actions are reiterated here–and while Hanzon is a handsome, charismatic actor, he can’t bring the conductor to life. The director’s own substitutes are equally pallid. The younger David is presented as little more than a reckless, insanely jealous fellow, and it’s unfortunate that Henriksson, who plays him, looks rather like the young Tom Ewell–diminishing the plausibility of any woman’s being attracted to him, let alone one with Marianne’s intelligence. Josephson hasn’t much to do besides looking pained and regretful. The transitions from contemporary recollection to re-enactments are handled well enough, but the fact that the latter are also depicted in contemporary terms, without any period touches, is a bit confusing; presumably they represent the filmmaker’s realizations of those scenes in his proposed picture, but that’s never made clear. And, of course, the characteristic deliberation of the later Bergman style, along with the pervasive mood of gloom and self-accusation, makes the film one that it’s easier to respect than to embrace.

Audiences unfamiliar with Bergman’s past films will probably find “Faithless” sporadically powerful, but too long and talky for their taste. Those who come to the picture remembering the director’s past achievements, however, should embrace it as a worthwhile, if imperfect, example of its author’s self-examining, often lacerating approach. Despite the title, it’s a script faithful to Bergman’s long-standing cinematic vision, and Ullmann has been equally faithful in transferring it to the screen.

SPY KIDS

B-

“You have to give him points for imagination,” one character remarks with mixed emotions about flamboyant villain Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), who hosts a bizarre children’s TV show, in Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids.” The same can be said, at least in part, of the writer-director. After heretofore specializing in glossily overwrought action flicks like “Desperado,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “The Faculty,” he’s now turned his attention to the kiddie set and made a movie filled with extravagantly surrealistic visuals, elaborate (if sometimes charmingly tacky) special effects, and his customary whiz-bang camera tricks (zoom shots, whirling lenses and the like). The result is a picture that has a distinctive look and lots of visual pizzazz: it’s wildly colorful and playfully weird, not unlike such oddball classics as “The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” If that were all that mattered, the picture might be great. It’s a pity, though, that Rodriguez’s imagination didn’t extend past the surface to the realm of content. He’s concocted an energetic, noisy chase story that captures the tone of the Saturday morning live-action TV series children love, but ultimately is just a very simple, repetitive, none too original tale of two ordinary youngsters (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) who become action heroes in order to rescue their captured mom and dad (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino), ex-super spies brought back into service after nearly a decade’s retirement to save the world from destruction. This is a premise that’s been used before–remember 1988’s appalling “The Rescue”?–and though Rodriguez adds a lot of humor and some uplifting messages about the importance of family and learning to have confidence in oneself, they don’t make it any less thin; even the villain’s plans for the abducted agents–they’re mutated into helpless plasticene characters–is second-hand, having already appeared in last year’s “Rocky and Bullwinkle” fiasco. The picture’s inventiveness is pretty much confined to its externals, and as impressive as they are, they’re not really enough.

Moreover, while making his movie attractive to kids, Rodriguez obviously didn’t want to alienate their older siblings and parents. So he’s added elements to appeal to them–portraying the kidnapped mom and dad, for example, as a hot Latin couple, and dropping in periodic allusions to past flicks and other shards of popular culture. But this has drawbacks. Some of the gags will sail past the urchin crowd and probably bore them, while the picture’s more cartoonish elements, which the youngsters will enjoy, aren’t likely to engage older viewers much. By aiming to please both segments of the audience in such very different ways, “Spy Kids” could end up fully satisfying neither, proving a bit too childish for adults and a bit too adult for children. Still, there’s enough for each group to enjoy to make it better-than-average family fare. And aside from a couple of mild poop jokes, it’s almost completely inoffensive.

You also have to give Rodriguez points for the unabashedly Hispanic character of the enterprise, and for emphasizing the strength of the female side of the central family. At a time when entirely too many of the Latino figures in movies are bosses of drug cartels, the Cortez clan here is a paragon of virtue and respectability, and their life cheerfully affectionate. And in the family, it’s the women who take charge. Mom Ingrid (Gugino) is always getting the cocky but rather inept Gregorio (Banderas) out of jams, while in the next generation it’s Carmen (Vega) who’s the natural leader, though her brother Juni (Sabara) eventually overcomes his fears in the course of their adventure. All four performers are pleasant enough, even if Banderas overdoes the Latin lover bit and Sabara can sometimes seem all too winsome for comfort. Cumming has a high old time playing a guy more interested in his TV show than conquering the world (and by the close he’s allowed a conversion), as does Tony Shalhoub as his aide-de-camp. Unhappily, the supporting cast also includes shrill Teri Hatcher as a duplicitous intelligence operative, stiff Robert Patrick as Floop’s patron, and dull Cheech Martin as the kids’ false uncle. Danny Trejo, on the other hand, is nicely gruff as their real one.

Secret agent flicks are increasingly hard to pull off, especially when kids are brought into the mix (see “The Rescue” again) or spoofing is involved. (Can anyone unfortunate enough to have seen it ever forget Bill Cosby’s lamentable “Leonard Part 6”? Even the “Austin Powers” movies are really nothing more than “Get Smart” with sex and vulgarity added. ) Rodriguez’s effort, mercifully, never descends to such depths, and it avoids the grossness that fills so many purported children’s pictures nowadays. Despite the fact that it has lots of characters zooming around on rockets and jets, however, it doesn’t soar as high as it might; while it’s sometimes visually enchanting, it remains rather earthbound in the narrative department. So “Spy Kids” doesn’t match the finest of the last few years’ family films–“The Iron Giant,” for example, or “My Dog Skip”–but it certainly leaves drek like “See Spot Run” in the dust. As was the case with the recent “Recess Movie,” it’s amiably pleasant without–apart from its stylish appearance–being really outstanding.