By Alex McPherson

Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott’s new documentary, “Val,” provides a zoomed-in look at actor Val Kilmer’s life that, while somewhat hagiographic, forms an affecting story of perseverance, reinvention, and reaching for the stars. Cutting between personal video recordings narrated by his son, Jack, along with current footage of him contemplating the meaning of life, “Val” spotlights a complicated figure through a career of soaring highs and crippling lows. 

Growing up in Los Angeles to wealthy parents, Kilmer developed an intense passion for filmmaking and acting — creating home movies on Roy Rogers’ Ranch with his brothers, Wesley and Mark, that parodied such classics as “Jaws.” At age 17, Kilmer was the youngest student accepted at Juilliard at the time, but Wesley died in a tragic accident soon before, leaving Kilmer reeling with grief.

Determined to make a name for himself, the talented, handsome Kilmer excelled in his studies and, after graduating, eventually acted in a Broadway production of “Slab Boys.” His acclaim landed him film gigs in the 1980s and ‘90s, including in “Top Gun,” “The Doors,” “Tombstone,” “Heat” and as the Caped Crusader in “Batman Returns.” 

Despite his fame, Kilmer remained largely unsatisfied with his career, feeling as though his personal brand of acting was held back by the roles he was assigned. His arrogance, disguised as devotion to the craft, sparked conflicts with collaborators, including on the set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which garnered Kilmer a troubled reputation.

Flash forward to today and the charismatic soul, having survived throat cancer and undergone a tracheostomy distorting his speech, is a much humbler individual than before — seeking to help viewers understand the human being behind the persona, and willing to share the wisdom he’s learned through his experiences.  

Although not immune from indulgent flourishes, “Val” winds up being a cathartic look at a celebrity looking back on a turbulent career and embracing the beauty of love, family, and creativity in the present. The film allows the world to see a frank, though nevertheless curated, look behind the tabloids.

Eschewing the talking-heads format common to documentaries, “Val” features copious footage recorded by Kilmer himself over the last 40 years. Viewers see behind-the-scenes shenanigans with fellow actors, footage from his childhood projects, audition tapes for “Full Metal Jacket,” and much more, in addition to darker moments of Kilmer’s self-destructive tendencies.

In modern times, we see Kilmer spend time with his son and daughter, Mercedes, attend draining autograph signings at Comic Con, mourn what he’s lost, and ponder what the future holds. 

As “Val’” juxtaposes the rowdy, perfectionistic younger man with his significantly wiser self years later, it’s often moving, as viewers grow attached to the aging figure at the center of it all. Indeed, the film is organized in a bittersweet fashion — chock full of impactful moments both happy and sad, with thought-provoking reflections sprinkled throughout that tie most everything together. Through the lens of viewers unfamiliar with Kilmer’s previous work, however, “Val” might not hit as hard as intended when nostalgia is lessened. 

Although Kilmer’s story is inspiring, “Val” feels more like a melancholic tribute than a comprehensive exploration, for better and worse. For instance, the film treats his Christian Science background and on-set controversies with a light touch. “Val” also follows a traditional narrative trajectory that’s, in a sense, at odds with Kilmer’s own goals of shaking things up with his projects.

Suffice to say, when Kilmer begins comparing himself to Mark Twain, “Val” feels a bit too full of itself, and loses some of its emotional power as a result.

(Twain, one of his influences, inspired his one-man show turned film presentation, “Cinema Twain,”  and his charity, TwainMania, is about teaching the authors to students.)

Easy to admire but ham-strung by its limited perspective, “Val” still delivers a revealing look at a frequently underrated actor who has finally achieved a sense of inner peace. What we’re left with is a film that’s not as profound as it thinks it is, but leaves us with a greater understanding of a flawed, resilient artist who hasn’t abandoned his dreams.

Val Kilmer

“Val” is a 2021 documentary co-directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott. It is rated R for some language and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It is available in theaters on July 23 and on Amazon Prime on Aug. 6. Alex’s grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus
Adapted from the 2018 splashy big-hearted Broadway musical, “The Prom” pops with color and pizzazz (or, in the show’s parlance, “Zazz.”).

Vain Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are slammed for their flop, “Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.” With their careers suddenly flatlined, their chorus dancer pal Angie (Nicole Kidman) finds a cause they can get behind – in small-town Indiana, high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) wanted to go with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom, so the PTA cancelled it. The insufferable divas race to the rescue in conservative Edgewater, along with Trent (Andrew Rannells) and Angie. Their involvement isn’t that helpful but gets people to see Emma for who she is and that’s OK.

Its potent message on tolerance and inclusivity is still intact, but the framing has lost some of its sincerity as director Ryan Murphy has stretched it into a bigger and flashier cinematic canvas.

The musical is based on concept by Jack Viertel, who had read about a teen lesbian denied attending her prom in Mississippi in 2010, which involved the ACLU and a decision on violating the First Amendment. It also was a magnet for celebrity activism, which gets a lot of dings in “The Prom.”

Murphy, who created and helmed six seasons of “Glee,” has ramped up the glitz and gone over-the-top at every opportunity. He knows his way around a show tune and aims for the heart. However, he pulls focus on his big-name stars so that the same-sex couple gets less attention.

Nevertheless, newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is wonderful as Emma, who grows in confidence. Ariana DeBose, a veteran of “Hamilton” who will star as Anita in the upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” is a sensational talent and plays the closeted cheerleader.

Streep, at age 71, pulls off a self-centered star in the manner of Patti LuPone, and looks like she’s having a blast with Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells. While they are fine, their lesser marquee counterparts were superior in the Broadway roles – Tony-nominated Beth Leavel as Dee Dee and Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry especially. Kidman shows off her abilities in a Fosse number, “Zazz,” only Murphy has chosen not to highlight the iconic total body moves. Hmmm….

Some of the characters are exaggerated in such a way to render them superficial on film while on Broadway they were played by seasoned pros who sustained the campy fun the whole two acts. And maybe it’s because some of the original Broadway cast were Muny veterans, so their familiarity sold the warmth and joy.

I dearly loved the Broadway musical, nominated for seven Tony Awards and winner of the 2019 Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, which was produced by Stages St. Louis’ Jack Lane and other local theater people. Zippy and full of fizzy fun, “The Prom” had us laughing at the big-city elites, inside-showbiz jokes and mocking hicks in the sticks, but not in a mean way.

Only here the small town doesn’t look like a podunk village, but rather a larger city because it has a mall and a motel in the manner of a Hampton Inn.

For the original musical, Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill., nominated for six Tonys, wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book with Bob Martin. Matthew Sklar wrote the music. Beguelin and Sklar, who did fun musical adaptations of “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf,” have a flair for writing hummable tunes with clever turns of phrase. “It’s Time to Dance” is a delightful number and “Unruly Heart” has the endearing sweetness for Emma to gain acceptance with a wider audience.

Andrew Rannells gets to shine – and dance through a shopping mall – in “Love Thy Neighbor,” a teachable moment to the town’s judgy teens.

Casey Nicholaw, who directed the stage show, did the choreography, and it’s as peppy and fun for the big movie ensemble as it was for the intimate cast at the Longacre Theatre. St. Louis native Jack Sippel, a Muny and Broadway veteran, was the film assistant choreographer/dance captain.

Costume designer Lou Eyrich never met a sequin he didn’t like and the flamboyant production design by Jamie Walker McCall has combined mid-century modern with bright lights.

The movie is padded, at 2 hours and 10 minutes, which doesn’t help the momentum. However, the exuberance of the work is the takeaway, and fortunately, the show will be on a national tour next year, spreading its cheerful message about acceptance.

It’s at local theatres but debuts on Netflix Dec. 11.  To find out more about how you can support the Actors’ Fund and Broadway Cares, please visit BroadwayCares.org/TheProm.

“The Prom” is a musical comedy that runs 2 hours, 11 minutes. Directed by Ryan Murphy, it stars Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Kevin Chamberlin, Keegan Michael-Key, Sherry Washington and Mary Kay Place. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language. On Netflix.