The Town: On-screen titles note the high number of carjacking and robbery cases in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, but Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial outing is less intrigued by how the city that pioneered the Independence could have become the nation’s capital of blue-collar crime than it is determined to stitch a cops n’ robbers yarn out of Michael Mann’s least interesting standbys. Casting himself as the center of a gridlock of heists and familial vendettas that Jon Hamm’s F.B.I. agent describes as “fucking Townie hopscotch,” he plays the incongruously sensitive organizer of a motley crew of outlaws, torn between loyalty toward his volatile partner in crime (Jeremy Renner, bursting with Cagneyisms) and love for the bank manager he took hostage (Rebecca Hall). The action is shot with heat and a feeling for taut, battered, tattooed flesh, but the film lacks the specific sense of locale and human-sized menace that Affleck’s debut, Gone Baby Gone, exuded. One can imagine the James Gray of Two Lovers gravitating toward Hall’s affectingly confused character; unfortunately, with Affleck behind and in front of the camera, you’re left with a fatuous star vehicle that leaves little doubt about who gets the most soulful close-ups.
Biutiful: Having split from wingman Guillermo Arriaga just as they were seemingly about to give us an intergalactic version of their leaden, we-are-all-connected-and-wretched routine, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu tones down the temporal shuffling (if not, regrettably, the humorless grandiosity) in this unrelenting, uncredited retelling of Ikiru. Bathing Barcelona in diseased-looking light that turns the vibrant Almodóvar playground into a smeary aquarium, the film outlines the many, many miseries of an underworld Job (Javier Bardem). He pisses blood due to some unidentified illness. He struggles with two kids and a frowsy, bipolar ex-wife. He deals with corrupt policemen, drug-dealing African immigrants, and undocumented Chinese sweatshop workers. He sees (and talks to) dead people. A less punishing filmmaker might have located the madness in the protagonist’s ordeal and steered it toward a kind of scabrous, one-thing-after-another comedy. Never one to touch when he can pulverize, Gonzáles Iñárritu trudges ahead with risibly literalized lost souls, boringly hellish strip clubs, and an insistence on messy life tidied by narrative determinism. Bardem is superb, but this is a slog, lurching despite high-pressure editing and utterly oblivious to how the harsh-poetic compassion from Amores Perros has hardened into a rather gloating hunger for suffering.
Film Socialism: Between the “Navajo”-subtitled version shown in Cannes and the unsubtitled one presented at Toronto, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and allegedly last) project continues to confront English-speaking viewers as a particularly mysterious object. My high school-level French got me through the rougher sections, but the aged New Wave lion’s staggering dance of image, sound, and text continuously transcends obscure meaning. A three-part essay, it opens as a riff on Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture, with an ocean liner’s Mediterranean journey played like a procession of beautiful-grave-degraded YouTube loops. The middle session sets up camp at a French roadside gas station, where people are too busy stroking their llamas and commenting on their own status as “characters” to help customers. The Odessa Steps, ancient art, and Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn figure in the concluding panel, a ruminating collage that ranks with the most complex passages from Histoire(s) du Cinema. Could this remarkable work—a poker-faced autopsy of communication (complete with hieroglyphs), “une comédie Française,” a lament for the medium—really be Godard’s swan song? I hope not. The Academy Award’s recent scramble to give him an honorary Oscar is the kind of analytical farce JLG needs to film.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9—19.