TIFF Day 9: More Herzog, Ricky Gervais and the last press screening of the festival

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (dir. Werner Herzog)

Like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Herzog’s second film at TIFF is at its core a cop movie. But where Lieutenant camped up and darkened an otherwise straightforward procedural, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done takes a hostage situation and gives it a Lynchian twist. Not that it dives into disconnected surrealism of the style that Lynch (who executive produces) usually indulges in. Rather, he captures the off-kilter esthetic while keeping both feet in reality.

Based on the true story of a San Diego man who stabbed his mother with an antique sword, My Son is more about atmosphere than storyline. The details of the crime come up front, while the killer’s (Michael Shannon) backstory is fleshed out in interviews between a detective (Willem Dafoe) and the killer’s friends. It turns out Shannon was an actor in a production of Electra, a situation that would seem too perfectly Freudian if it weren’t actually true.

The trouble with My Son is that, while it creates an uneasy atmosphere, it never really creates any tension. Too much of the story takes place only in flashback, and too little of that history plays any role in the film’s present. The result is a movie that contains some solid performances with nothing to anchor them — it feels more like an exercise than an actual film.

The Invention of Lying (dirs. Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The latest from The Office and Extras creator Ricky Gervais is essentially the anti-Liar Liar. Gervais plays a schlub of a screenwriter who lives in a world where the idea of telling an untruth has never crossed anyone’s mind — there isn’t even a word for “lie,” or “truth” for that matter. After a series of humiliations, he has an odd synaptic misfire which gives him the ability to make things up, an ability that puts him on the path to wealth, fame and success.

Much of the humour in The Invention of Lying comes from hearing characters speaking the whole, unvarnished truth, regardless of how it reflects on them. At the start of a date, Jennifer Garner tells Gervais that she dreads how the night will go, and that he interrupted her masturbating. Companies advertise with straightforward slogans like “Coca Cola: It’s Very Famous,” and “Pepsi Cola: For when they don’t have Coke.” There’s a fine line between truthfulness and assholishness, and the characters in the film’s world seem to cross that line with ease, but Gervais’s script still gets a lot of mileage out of the conceit.

As a high concept comedy, Invention gets to cover a lot of ground, from commercialism to religion and societal conventions. Fortunately, he actually has insight into most of those issues, which means the film never gets overly sanctimonious. In fact, I might want to take back that Liar Liar comparison — accurate as it is, Invention deserves far better than that.

Gaia (dir. Jason Lehel)

It’s not surprising to see that before his full-length directorial debut, Jason Lehel was a cinematographer. Gaia is a very visual film; its dialogue is so scant that it occasionally feels like a silent. One of the main characters is a deaf mute, which just gives more of an excuse to avoid dialogue. It’s a pleasure to look at, but it’s also something of a chore.

That’s mostly because, as striking as the images are, they don’t always make sense together. Lehel prefers hinting at backstory (and even the main plot) through silent montages, and there’s enough detail to piece together a few different readings (it’s either a story of sexual abuse or an ecological allegory, and my money’s on the latter), but not enough for a solid grasp of the plot. In some films, that kind of ambiguity makes for interesting viewing; in Gaia, it’s more just frustrating.

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