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TIFF 2022: Prisoner's Daughter, What's Love Got to Do with It, Walk Up

With my final dispatch for the Toronto International Film Festival, I want to return to a question I asked in my first dispatch: Are movies back? And once again, the answer lies in whether they’re good or not. The three films assembled, here, isn’t the rush of quality you’d hope from a festival of TIFF’s caliber. Maybe that’s pure coincidence or maybe, as I’ve heard from fellow critics, the movies just aren’t there this year. Everything feels middling. Still these are three films by a trio of applauded directors whose stellar past have paved the way for our cinematic future. 

So while the overall caliber of the program felt lower this year than any other, even in the disappointments there’s still a modicum of reason to hope.

I want only good things for director Catherine Hardwicke. She did direct a stone-cold classic with “Lords of Dogtown” (and was unfairly maligned for “Twilight”). But her newest film, the Las Vegas-set family drama “Prisoner’s Daughter,” disappointingly undermines its own themes and characters at every turn. 

Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Max (Brian Cox), a former underworld enforcer, is granted compassionate release to live his final months with his estranged daughter Maxine (Kate Beckinsale) and her precocious son Ezra (Christopher Convery). While Maxine initially doesn’t want anything to do with her father—she goes so far as to tell Ezra that Max is a family friend instead of his grandfather—she relents because the money she receives from her dad will pay for her son’s epilepsy medication.

When Max arrives, he enters with the desperate desire to make amends: The gruff jailbird sees Ezra being picked on by bullies; he notices how short Maxine is on money; and catches sight of Tyler (Tyson Ritter), Ezra’s drug-addled, music-playing dad, and his refusal to get clean. Through tough love, Max thinks he can repair these problems, even as they escalate toward violence. Both Cox and Beckinsale give sincere, finely tuned performances from the thin material offered by screenwriter Mark Bacci. 

The script’s tawdry comedy relies on one-liners that are more at home in a sitcom than movie, where the law of average dictates that some will hit and many will flounder. As the frank kid, a fully committed Convery delivers the bulk of these quips with zero shame (your mileage with the humor will vary). It doesn’t help that Ezra is also the film’s weakest written character: Maxine wants her son to end the circle of violence, which Ezra agrees with, and yet he takes boxing lessons from Max’s old friend Hank (Ernie Hudson). The subplot between Ezra and his dad becomes repetitive after the second time through. And the film’s conclusion totally throws away the moral lesson it hoped to impart in lieu of cheap vengeance. 

A world exists where this coming-of-age family drama could succeed as a touching, but irreverent autumnal adventure. Instead, Hardwicke’s “Prisoner’s Daughter” is undone by a contradictory script that misunderstands its own aims.   

Every so often a movie comes along that’s just bad enough to make you want to love it. Shekhar Kapur’s oddly titled “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” (how do you use that name knowing the Tina Turner biopic is sitting right there?) is a rom-com that doesn’t tread new comedic grounds but does expand the genre’s umbrella. 

Kapur's latest follows Zoe (Lily James), a documentary filmmaker with a checkered dating history, as she records the journey of her childhood friend, Kazim (Shazad Latif), to arrange a marriage. His decision throws Zoe for a loop: A first generation British-Pakistani, Kazim is forward-thinking and rarely one for tradition. So why would he choose what Zoe sees as a conservative route to find a wife? And how can Zoe, a woman with an adversarial relationship with love, be so judgmental?

Zoe is perpetually telling her girlfriend's kids about her crappy dating history through the lens of classic fairytale stories (it’s a stylistic choice, often woozy in its tone, that unnecessarily disrupts the mood of the film). Her freewheeling mother Cath (Emma Thompson) is a casually flighty bigot and cultural tourist of her next door neighbors, who happen to be Kazim’s traditionalist parents. Cath is so worried about her daughter being alone that she sets Zoe up with their dog’s humble vet (Oliver Chris doing his best Bill Pullman in “Sleepless in Seattle” impression) with the hope of creating sparks. 

The humor from Jemima Khan's script cribs from rom-com classics like “When Harry Met Sally," and relies on stereotypical jokes that exist in the gray area between laugh-out-loud funny and insensitively provocative. The comedy even derides the practice of arranged marriages without ever genuinely trying to understand it. And yet, there’s something problematically charming about “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” It has a spirit that feels dated (this film might have been revolutionary if it'd been released during the 1990s) but invigorating in its rareness. 

Still, the chemistry between James and Latif is serviceable at best. The film's politics are shortsighted. The editing is crisp, and the cinematography on some of the larger set pieces, specifically Kazim’s eventual wedding, is lush. But “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” utilizes an ending that’s so rushed, that it never really provides any movie magic romance to flutter into your heart. 

Add Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s name to the fast-growing pile of filmmakers who spent the pandemic making movies about themselves. In “Walk Up,” Byung-soo (Kwon Haehyo)—a proxy of Sang-soo—is a middle-aged director left uninspired, in ill-health, and without financial backing to make his next film. With his teenage daughter (Song Sunmi), Byung-soo visits a three-story building belonging to his designer friend Ms. Kim (Lee Hyeyoung) in the hopes that she’ll train his daughter in interior design. 

Sang-soo’s “Walk Up,” a self-reflexive and surreal black and white dark comedy, is often too impressed with itself to excavate the plight of its director. Told in three parts, a guitar melody introduces each section, each taking place on a different floor in the building. In these segments, Byung-soo ages, begins and ends relationships, sees a friend turn hostile toward him, and loses his daughter, his health, and his creative inspiration. 

More than a movie about filmmaking, however, “Walk Up” is a pandemic flick meant to remind viewers of the preciousness of our existence. Still, one wonders why Sang-soo seems incapable of being a humanist. What exactly are we supposed to feel as Byung-soo bemoans the film industry or cracks quips on the pandemic? The result leaves you at arm’s length, emotionally. 

Per usual with Sang-soo, however, the precise craft on display holds the power to captivate: Small details in the production design, the narratively unpeeling editing, and the black and white cinematography that relies heavily on the latter shade for a dreamlike tone, are unimpeachably tight. But Byung-soo, and by some extension, Sang-soo, can’t fathom a world where he’s not the center of attention. The approach reeks of a self-indulgence that undoes the picture. Even the deft sleight of hand by the Korean filmmaker to end the film can’t save “Walk Up” from being a well-made, finely calibrated narrative without an emotional throughline.   

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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