Actor’s colorful life revealed through his own home movies

Val Kilmer as he appears today in Val (Photos courtesy of A24 Distribution, LLC)

By Richard Ades

At the beginning of the biographical documentary Val, Val Kilmer claims he’s “almost been fired” from all his movies. While that corresponds with the actor’s reputation as someone who’s hard to work with, the film ultimately portrays him as someone who may be eccentric and stubborn, but also thoughtful and dedicated to his craft.

Kilmer is also very unlucky, we learn early on, as a 2015 bout with throat cancer has stolen the now-61-year-old actor’s most valuable asset: his voice. Two tracheotomies have left him unable to speak other than croaking out a few words in between gasps of breath. As a result, son Jack Kilmer has been given the task of narrating the story of his father’s life.

Fortunately, the task of illustrating that life has largely been taken care of, as Val Kilmer was an early and eager adopter of home videography. It’s probably no coincidence that first-time directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott previously worked primarily as editors, as their main job here was to pare down what must have been miles of old footage into a coherent documentary. (Tyler Pharo joins them as the flick’s third editor.)

Narrator Jack Kilmer substitutes his voice for the one his father lost to cancer.

For Kilmer fans, or just film fans in general, the result is intriguing. We see Kilmer landing his first professional off-Broadway role after losing the play’s leads to Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. We see him making his mark in 1980s movies such as Willow and Top Gun. We see him filming his own auditions, at one point even firing off live ammunition to show his suitability for an action role.

As Kilmer’s popularity continues to rise in the 1990s, the doc shows him going all out to capture the part he sees as his destiny: rocker Jim Morrison in The Doors. It also shows him suffering through 1995’s Batman Forever, which forced him to wear a heavy bat suit that made it difficult to act or even to move. Not surprisingly, he turned down offers to repeat the iconic role.

Val eventually approaches the perverse attraction of a highway accident scene when it shows Kilmer on the troubled set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. At one point, Kilmer expresses his frustration with the production’s problems by refusing to shut off his own video camera despite director John Frankenheimer’s pleas. Since Frankenheimer inherited the film, along with temperamental star Marlon Brando, from another director who left just days into the shooting, it’s hard to know who deserves our sympathy the most here.

Val Kilmer rehearses as Mark Twain, a part he once had hopes of playing on the big screen.

That’s also true at other points in the documentary, especially when Kilmer complains about his 1996 divorce from actress Joanne Whalley and subsequent separations from their children, Jack and Mercedes. But in general, the actor comes across as a sympathetic figure.

Home movies from Kilmer’s childhood reveal family problems and tragedies that helped to shape him: a distant mother; a father whose business ventures didn’t always pan out; and especially the early loss of his creative younger brother, Wesley. Even more affecting is present-day footage that shows cancer survivor Kilmer being forced to live off his past triumphs by greeting fans at a Tombstone screening and a local Comic-Con.

A couple of quibbles: At times Val could have been organized in a more logical manner, and it never really delivers on Kilmer’s early promise to impart something profound about the craft of acting. Otherwise, the flick is well worth one hour and 49 minutes’ worth of any cinephile’s time.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Val (rated R) opens July 23 at select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema. It will be available through Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 6.

Living, rapping and dancing on the streets of L.A.

Yelp reviewer Tyris (Tyris Winter) celebrates a culinary find in Summertime. (Photos courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

I’ve been trying to find something to compare Summertime to, but it’s not easy. I thought of calling it a street-smart, spoken-word version of La La Land, but that falls hopelessly short.

Besides being set in Los Angeles, the musicals have just two things in common: energy and heart.

Rather than beginning with a massive traffic jam, Summertime starts with the simple scene of a guitarist (Olympia Miccio) singing, strumming and skating her way along a sidewalk. Then she collides with a fellow Angelino and subsequently disappears, as our attention shifts to someone else who just happens to be nearby.

That sets the pattern for the film, which director Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) has designed as a stream-of-consciousness portrait of a day in the life of L.A., and in particular its Venice and Hollywood neighborhoods. We wander through their funky streets meeting one young and talented individual after another, all of them poetically sharing their dreams, fears, struggles and desires.

Some characters pay brief visits, while others reappear periodically. An early standout is Tyris (Tyris Winter), an Afro-coifed gay man who wanders from one restaurant to another writing Yelp reviews and searching for an elusive cheeseburger. He’s feisty and mercurial, but as the day progresses, we realize that underneath he’s nursing a pain whose cause is only suggested.

Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez) rebels against her tradition-minded mother with the help of a bevy of spirited dancers.

Also dealing with personal challenges are Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez), a Latina chafing under her tradition-minded mother’s rules, and Marquesha (Marquesha Baber), who’s receiving therapy for trauma related to body-image issues. Paolina faces her frustrations by imagining a rebellious dance featuring women in flowing red dresses, while Marquesha faces hers by tracking down and confronting her abusive ex.

Tying the film together is the comical tale of Rah and Anewbyss (Austin Antoine and Brice Banks), sidewalk rappers who struggle to find an audience until they catch the ear of a big-time producer. Then their careers take off at breakneck speed, especially after they ditch the rhymes about “Lambos” and start paying homage to their devoted moms.

The diverse cast includes Blacks and Whites, Latinas and Korean Americans, gays and straights. Each performer wrote his or her own story and poetic dialogue, resulting in a variety of moods and viewpoints. The miracle is that Estrada—with masterful help from cinematographer John Schmidt, editor John Melin and composer John S. Snyder—turns it all into a joyful and cohesive whole.

Summertime may have no plot, but it does leave us with a message of sorts: Live your life, face your demons, find your happiness—and respect other people’s right to do the same.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (rated R) opens July 16 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center and Cleveland’s Cedar Lee.

Looking for the world’s loneliest whale

Joshua Zeman’s documentary revolves around his search for a renowned but unseen whale that can’t be understood by other whales.

By Richard Ades

As someone who cares about the environment and about those majestic creatures known as whales, I looked forward to watching The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.

The documentary has a fascinating premise: Aided by a group of oceanographers and other scientists, filmmaker Joshua Zeman sets out to find the mysterious whale that’s been dubbed “52,” so named because he sings his song at a frequency of 52 hertz. This separates him from other whales, who sing at various frequencies depending on their species, but never at 52 hertz.   

Whales, especially the males, sing to communicate with other whales that may be many miles away. However, 52’s unique pitch means he’s unable to communicate with anyone, as a result of which he’s been called the loneliest whale in the world.

The beginning of the documentary explains that 52’s existence was discovered years ago with the help of underwater listening devices originally deployed by the U.S. Navy to keep track of potentially hostile submarines. The unseen whale quickly became a source of fascination to people the world over, maybe because he symbolized the isolation many feel in modern society.

Apparently, one of those people was Zeman. So, after spending four years looking into the possibility of finding the illusive 52, he finally gathers a team and sets out to sea to do just that.

It’s at this point that all the film’s exposition begins to pay off—to an extent. Unfortunately, Zeman dilutes the excitement of the resulting “hunt” with more exposition. That is, he intersperses footage of the search for 52 with history lessons on the ways humans have made whales’ lives difficult down through the centuries.

From hunting them to the edge of extinction to polluting the ocean with mechanical noise that frustrates their attempts to communicate, we have not been good neighbors to our fellow mammals. If all this comes as news to you, then these digressions might seem worthwhile. Otherwise, you might wish Zeman had taken a more personal approach to his subject.

For one thing, what drives him to spend years of his life searching for a beast no one has ever seen? And what drives the scientists on his team to devote their entire careers to the ocean? Such topics are left largely unexplored.

At least the documentary satisfies our curiosity about the whale itself by answering questions such as: “Why is he so different from other whales?” And, “Is he really alone?” Before the film is over, we’re even treated to a surprise that wouldn’t be possible in, say, a flick about the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s a welcome moment, even if it doesn’t quite make up for all the lectures that preceded it.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (rated PG) opened July 9 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center. It will be available digitally beginning July 16.