Documentary Review: Val (dir by Leo Scott and Ting Poo)


Throughout the documentary Val, modern-day Val Kilmer continually assures us that he feels better than he looks.

It’s a sad statement to hear, not just because Val Kilmer is himself admitting that he doesn’t look particularly healthy but also because it shows that Kilmer is very aware that many viewers will take one look at him and believe that his time has passed.  Val Kilmer went from being a rising star in the 80s and the 90s to being a Hollywood outcast, largely due to a reputation for being eccentric and difficult to work with.  While his legions of fans remembered and continued to celebrate Val Kilmer as Iceman, Jim Morrison and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, the real-life Kilmer was aging, struggling financially, and often appearing in movies that were ignored by the same public who loved his old films.  Kilmer started to make a comeback by playing Mark Twain in an acclaimed one man show but a battle with throat cancer left him without his voice and the ability to feed himself.  No, Kilmer doesn’t look particularly healthy in Val but, as quickly becomes apparent, his mind is as sharp as ever.

Val is really two documentaries in one.  Half of the film is made up of footage of the young Val Kilmer, much of it shot by Kilmer himself.  We see him hanging out with an impossible young-looking Sean Penn.  We also see some behind-the-scenes footage of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and we’re left to wonder how Tom Cruise can look exactly the same in 2021 as he did in 1986.  Kilmer, it turns out, was obsessive about filming his life, leaving you to wonder how much of it was about recording events and how much of it was about maintaining a wall between him and anyone who might get too close.  (By filming everything, Kilmer made sure that no one stopped acting.)  In the late 80s and early 90s, Kilmer went so far as to film unsolicited audition tapes for the directors with whom he wanted to work.  There’s a touching earnestness to the three auditions he filmed for Stanley Kubrick while his attempts to convince Martin Scorsese to cast him in Goodfellas led to Kilmer apparently making a mini-gangster film of his own.  In the footage of the young Kilmer, there’s a mix of good-natured arrogance along with an eagerness to please.  Kilmer knew he was handsome and he knew he was talented but you get the feeling that what he really wanted were for his filmmaking heroes to acknowledge those things.

The other half of the film features the older Kilmer, humbled by poor health and years of personal struggles.  This the Kilmer who can only speak in a rasp of a whisper.  The film follows him as he goes from convention to convention, singing pictures for fans who inevitably ask him to write down catchphrases from either Top Gun or Tombstone.  Kilmer says that a part of him hates having to work the circuit but, at the same time, he’s obviously and sincerely touched to have so many fans.  In one of the films most powerful moments, the older Kilmer watches the younger Kilmer in Tombstone.  Though the modern-day Kilmer insists that he’s doing better than he looks, it’s obvious that he’s now very much aware of his own mortality and there are parts of the film that come dangerously close to sounding like a premature eulogy.  But when Kilmer watches himself as Doc Holliday, it’s obvious that Kilmer knows that, no matter what the future holds, his performances will live forever.

That said, I imagine that there are a lot of people who will watch this film just to see what Kilmer has to say about his legendary reputation for being difficult.  Kilmer admits to being a perfectionist and he says that he sometimes pushed too hard.  There’s a montage of various entertainment reporters, all reporting on Kilmer being “difficult” on the sets of Batman Forever and the Island of Dr. Moreau.  Kilmer, himself, however doesn’t seem to view himself as being unnecessarily difficult and why should he?  While other may have called him eccentric, one gets the feeling that Kilmer would simply say that he was just being himself.

Kilmer reveals a lot about himself and his career in Val.  At the same time, it’s obvious that there are still certain walls that he will never completely let down.  When he discusses his family and his childhood, it’s with a mix of regret and a need to believe that things really weren’t as bad as he remembers them being.  He talks about how his family fell apart after the death of his brother.  His father walked out on the family and, after Val became a star, cheated his son out of a fortune.  One would expect Val to rail against his father but instead, Kilmer just accepts it as something that happened.  Still, the amateur psychologist will be tempted to say that a lot of Val’s perfectionism came from his desire to please his father.  (When Kilmer discusses Iceman in Top Gun, he says that he imagined that Iceman’s competitive nature came from having a father who was never happy with him.)  Perhaps the documentary’s most revealing moment comes when we listen to audio of Val Kilmer arguing with director John Frankenheimer on the troubled set of The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Kilmer says that he can’t do the scene because he’s too upset over Frankenheimer saying that he was considering walking off the picture.  At that moment, one gets the feeling that the film set represented the childhood that Kilmer wanted and working with directors like Frankenheimer and Joel Schumacher threw him back into the mindset of the teen who watched his father walk away when things got too difficult.

Val is a documentary that sticks with you, a mediation of fame, aging, regret, and mortality.  (Let it sound too sad to watch, rest assured that Val Kilmer does have a sense of humor and it is on display in the film.)  Here’s hoping that Val Kilmer is with us and being difficult for a long time to come.

Playing Catch-Up: The Nice Guys (dir by Shane Black)


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Last night, along with seeing Trainspotting at the Alamo Drafthouse and watching The BFG at home, I also rewatched The Nice Guys.

Now, I saw The Nice Guys when it was first released last May and I absolutely loved it.  However, before I started rewatching it, I was a little worried .  I remembered that The Nice Guys was a stylish and often hilarious action film, one that featured a great comedic turn from Ryan Gosling and a performance from Russell Crowe that showed why he deserves to make a comeback as a leading man.  I also remembered that, for all of its graphic violence and often profane dialogue, The Nice Guys was also an unexpectedly sweet-natured movie.  I loved not only the rapport shared between Gosling and Crowe but also the relationship between Gosling and Angourie Rice, the actress playing his daughter.  In fact, I remembered enjoying The Nice Guys so much that I was worried that it wouldn’t hold up to a second viewing.

It often happens when you love a film the first time that you see it.  On a second viewing, you start to notice all the little flaws that you didn’t notice the first time.  Lines that you remembered as being brilliant are no longer impressive, largely because you know they’re coming.  All too often, the films that blow you away fail to hold up over time.

(Anyone tried to rewatch Inherent Vice lately?)

But you know what?

The Nice Guys is not one of those films.  I watched the film for a second time and I loved it even more than the first time.

The Nice Guys takes place in Los Angeles in 1977.  It’s a time of wide lapels, leisure suits, tacky interior design, porno chic, and concerns that the L.A. air is so full of smog that not even bumble bees are willing to fly around in it.  Ryan Gosling is Holland March, a well-meaning if somewhat sleazy private investigator who has been hired to track down a porn star named Misty Mountains.  Of course, Holland know that Misty is dead.  Everyone knows that she’s dead.  She died in a car crash, one that made all the headlines.  But Misty’s aunt swears that she saw Misty after Misty’s supposed death.

Holland thinks that Misty’s aunt may have mistaken her niece for Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), the daughter of Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger, whose presence is meant to remind audiences of L.A. Confidential), an official at the Justice Department who has been leading a crusade against pornography.  Holland starts to search for Amelia which leads to Amelia paying Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to intimidate Holland.

Who is Jackson Healy?  Well, he’s not a licensed private investigator, though he’d certainly like to be.  Instead, he’s a professional enforcer.  If you pay him enough money, he’ll beat people up for you.  Usually, he beats up stalkers and ex-boyfriends.  When he discovers that Holland is a private investigator, Jackson is intrigued.  Jackson would like to be a private investigator.  Of course, that doesn’t stop Jackson from breaking Holland’s arm.  Jackson’s a professional, after all.  As Jackson leaves Holland’s house, he runs into Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland’s twelve year-old daughter.  She gives him a bottle of Yoohoo.

Later, Jackson is confronted by two men.  Keith David plays Older Guy and he’s intimidating because he’s Keith David.  His partner is a giggly sociopath played by Beau Knapp.  For reasons that are too much fun for me to spoil, he is known as Blue Face.  The two men demand to know where Amelia is.  After Jackson manages to chase them off with a shotgun, he teams up with Holland to try to track down Amelia and find out what’s going on…

Got all that?

The mystery — which eventually expands to involve everything from porn to political protest to the Detroit auto industry — is deliberately and overly complex but at the same time, it’s actually rather clever.  And, as I can now say after rewatching the film, it actually holds up quite well.  But, to be honest, the mystery is not as important as the whip smart dialogue, the frequently over the top action, and the chemistry between Gosling, Crowe, and Rice.  As good as the action may be, the film’s best scenes are simply the ones that feature the three leads talking to each other.

(Upon discovering that Jackson both broke her father’s arm and that he beats people up for a living, Holly immediately asks how much it would cost to have one of her friends beat up.)

And you know what?  As played by Gosling and Crowe, they really are the nice guys.  Holland tries to be cynical but, for the most part, he’s just an overprotective father.  Jackson may beat people up for a living but he’s not a sadist.  He’s a lot like the film, violent but with a good heart.

The Nice Guys is full of wonderful set pieces, like when Gosling, Crowe, and Rice infiltrate a sleazy 70s party or the film’s explosive finale.  For me though, I love the little details and the quieter moments.  I love the fact that even one of the worst people in the movie responds postively to having someone innocently hold his hand.

(I also love that Matt Bomer shows up, playing a totally terrifying hitman.  It’s a small role but Bomer does so much with it.)

It’s a shame that The Nice Guys came out as early in the year as it did.  It’s also a shame that it didn’t do better at the box office.  The Oscars could use a little action and a little comedy this year, don’t you think?

Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


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The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

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The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.

Film Review: Palo Alto (dir by Gia Coppola)


Palo Alto came out in May of last year and it never quite got as much attention as it deserved.  A lot of that is because the film is based on a collection of short stories by James Franco and a lot of critics apparently decided ahead of time that Palo Alto was some sort of vanity project.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  Palo Alto is actually one of the better films of 2014, a minor masterpiece of ennui that also serves as a promising directorial debut for Gia Coppola.  (Of course, Gia’s aunt Sofia made her directorial debut with an ennui-centric literary adaptation of her own, The Virgin Suicides.)

Palo Alto follows several teenagers over the course of one school year.  (It’s no coincidence that, at one point, Fast Times At Ridgemont High shows up on a TV screen.)  The film itself is deceptively plotless, with its occasionally drifting narrative mirroring the lives of protagonists who literally have no direction.  April (Emma Roberts), who is too intelligent to really fit in with either her shallow friends or her flakey family, plays soccer and has a crush on both Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and her coach, Mr. B (James Franco, playing an unapologetically sleazy character).  Teddy is a talented artist who, after a drunk driving accident, finds himself on probation and sentenced to do community service.  Making it difficult for Teddy to stay out of trouble is his best friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), who hides his sociopathic nature behind a constant stream of jokes.  And then there’s Emily (Zoe Levin), who hides her insecurities behind a wall of blow jobs and demeaning sexual encounters.

As for the adults of Palo Alto, they’re for the most part a collection of grim but ineffective authority figures and parents who don’t want to grow up.  Mr. B hides his predatory nature behind a kind smile and a paternal nature.  April’s stepfather (Val Kilmer) is permanently stoned.  Teddy’s mother is unconcerned with her son’s drinking.  Meanwhile, Fred’s father (Chris Messina) offers weed to and hits on his son’s friends.

And it may all sound a bit familiar.  Every year, it seems like there is a countless number of indie films about directionless teenagers and irresponsible parents.  But Palo Alto is distinguished by Gia Coppola’s confident and frequently surreal direction.  Coppola has a good eye for detail and, as a result of the gorgeous cinematography of Autumn Durald, the film is always interesting to watch regardless of how familiar the story may seem.  The entire cast does a good job as well, with Emma Roberts and Nat Wolff as clear stand-outs.

And, I have to admit, that on a personal level, there was a lot of Palo Alto to which I related.  Whether it was the awkward conversations between April and Teddy or the sad look on Emily’s face as she stared at her reflection, there were so many small moments that just felt true.  As I watched Palo Alto, it was impossible for me not to think about my own time in high school.  I knew quite a few Teddys.  I even knew a few Freds.  And sometimes, I was April and then other times, I could have been any of the other characters who wander throughout Palo Alto.

Don’t listen to the haters.  Palo Alto is more than worth your time.