Wednesday, August 18, 2021

VAL: A Personal Portrait Of Val Kilmer That He Helped Make

Now airing on Amazon Prime:

VAL (Dirs. Leo Scott and Ting Poo, 2021)

ince I first saw Val Kilmer as an ‘50s Elvis-eque pop star charm his way through the zany comedy TOP SECRET back in 1984, I’ve liked the guy. He was matinee idol pretty, but he was a talented presence in film after film. Cut to now, and Kilmer has lost his voice due to throat cancer and speaks in a twisted rasp through a voice box.

This is sad, but in the new documentary, VAL, the actor appears to be making the most of it. First-time directors Leo Scott and Ting Pooh have fashioned a biodoc that has the edge on many artist’s portraits as since the ‘80s, Kilmer has constantly been recording his life with a home movie video camera. 


Whether he was capturing backstage Broadway shenanigans with fellow thespians Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn (who pushed Kilmer out of a leading role), hanging on film sets with co-stars, and playing with his kids - Jack and Mercedes, the products of his marriage to actress Joanne Whalley – Kilmer’s scores of footage makes his memories come alive.


The rest of the narrative concerns Kilmer’s current condition as he travels around with Jack as they go to events like Comicon, and visit his old drama school, Julliard in New York.


Because of Kilmer’s vocal ailment, his son, the 26-year old Jack narrates the film, reading his father’s words. Since Jack’s voice is stunningly similar to his Dad’s, the effect is so successful that at times I forgot it wasn’t his Dad speaking. 


Kilmer takes us through his filmography, albeit only briefly touching on each movie. He calls TOP SECRET “fluff,” TOP GUN “silly,” and WILLOW is seemingly only significant because he hooked up with Whalley, who he’d soon marry (come to think of it, that is more significant than the movie).


THE DOORS gets more coverage perhaps because it contains one of Kilmer’s most immersive performances as the Doors’ Jim Morrison. Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic rock biopic is too over-the-top for it to make a real connection, but Kilmer’s take on the Lizard King is a true tour de force.


The ‘90s brought the anquished actor meatier roles in such modern classics as TOMBSTONE, in which he stole the movie as Doc Holliday; and HEAT, yet his one-time turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman in BATMAN FOREVER was far from a classic. But as Kilmer said, “You don’t turn down Batman, you don’t.”


Another notable bit is about making John Frankenheimer’s THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU (1996), principally because it stared a bloated, uninterested Marlon Brando, who Kilmer long wanted to work with. We see how the doomed production left little time for Brando and Kilmer to have much of a meaningful collaboration, but there is a moment in which Kilmer pushes Brando back and forth on a hammock.

In one of the movie’s most emotional moments, Kilmer laments being on the autograph junket: “I’m selling basically my old self, my old career. For many people, it’s like the lowest thing you can do is talk about your old pictures, and sell photographs of when you were Batman or The Terminator…” Note: He has never played The Terminator; he was just generalizing I think.

I was skeptical about Kilmer playing Mark Twain in a one man play that was filmed and released as the movie, CITIZEN TWAIN, because Hal Holbrook owned the role for 60 or so years. But seeing clips of Kilmer’s version left me intrigued, and I may seek it out.

VAL is a terrifically touching look at a unique, and intense method actor maneuvering though a career that’s more commercial than he’s comfortable with. Now he’s struggling the side effects from throat cancer, and may be unable to return to acting again. I may have just spoken too soon, as I hear he's gonna to reprise his iconic role as Iceman in the TOP GUN sequel this fall. That's great because In these times of crazy confusion, damned diversity, and lack of artistic aventure, we need Val Kilmer more than ever.

More later...

Thursday, August 12, 2021

That Time THE BODYGUARD Soundtrack Saved Nick Lowe’s Ass

In 1992, I worked at a CD/tape store called Record Bar at a mall in Greensboro, NC. The manager of the establishment would play the soundtrack to the hit Whitney Houston movie, THE BODYGUARD, constantly. Even if I or another employee would put on something else, it seemed that THE BODYGUARD disc would be back on pretty quickly.

At one point, I hid the CD where I thought it wouldn’t be found for some time. I located a narrow spot behind a cabinet, and slid it in such a way that it couldn’t be seen. Or so I thought. The next day, I walked in and it was playing again. Nobody said anything so I moved on and tried to come to terms with my own personal hell.


The soundtrack wasn’t made up exclusively with Whitney Houston songs; there were also a group of tunes by other artists including Kenny G, Lisa Stanfield, and Joe Cocker. But the one that bugged me the most of the non-Whitney material was a cover of Nick Lowe’s 1974 classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” by an American jazz singer named Curtis Stigers.

Stigers’ cover wasn’t terrible, it was just a bland, overly poppy rendition that stripped away the wit of Lowe’s original, and ignored the passion that made Elvis Costello’s version into a foot-stomping anthem. I remember cringing every time it came up again on the countless spins I had to endure of the wretched soundtrack.

Later, when I heard that the album’s massive success – to this date, it’s the biggest selling soundtrack of all time – impacted Lowe greatly with ginormous royalties, I felt like my torturous time with the in-store selection was justified in some way. If Lowe, who had just been dropped by his label and was at a Low (sorry) point, was able to score  huge payday, then my suffering through the film’s pop platter of dreck seemed a small price to pay.


The subject of Lowe’s lucky windfall was touched upon in many interviews. When Lowe discussed the latter-day success of the song that he had originally written for his pub rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross told Lowe that she’s seen the movie but didn’t remember “where it was used.”


Lowe responded, “I haven’t got a clue – I haven’t even seen it,” and that “I know lots of people who have seen it, and they all tell me that my song isn’t in it at all. Even my mother, who has ears like a Mum, has sat and watched it, and she said she couldn’t hear it anywhere. But I presume that it’s on a car radio or something playing in the background.”


This begs the question, does “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” actually appear at all in the movie, THE BODYGUARD? To answer this, I did something I never thought I’d do – watch THE BODYGUARD. I’ve been long familiar with the premise of the film – Kevin Costner plays Whitney Houston’s bodyguard, protecting her from imminent danger – but never thought to actually sit through it.


Hey, it was written by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, several of the STAR WARS movies, and BODY HEAT, so how bad can it be?

Pretty bad it turns out. The dialogue is simplistic, the plotting obvious, and the whole production is plagued by empty MTV-style glitz at every turn.

But was Lowe’s song as covered by Stigers present in the movie? Yes, about 10 seconds (or less) of the chorus hits the screen around the 33-minute mark. It accompanies a shot of Houston’s character opening a letter that contains a death threat. It’s such a brief flash of the tune that appears amid a bunch of fussy noise that I can see how Lowe’s Mum missed it.

It’s a wonderful thing that this cover on a soundtrack added up to a big payday. In a 2001 interview he told Jeffrey Stringer that “It was just like winning the jackpot or something. It meant that I could tour really above my station, if you know what I mean. We could have a nice bus, I could pay my guys right, we could stay in reasonable hotels. So I just sort of ‘invested the money back in the firm.’”

In the nearly 50 years since its conception, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” has become a rock standard. Along with Costello and Stigers’ versions it’s been covered by a wide range of artists including Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Yo La Tengo, Lucinda Williams, the Flaming Lips, Bon Jovi, Pretenders, Wilco, Steve Earle, Ani Difranco, and many others. Hell, even John Lennon quoted it in his last interview (though he attributed it to Costello).

On a concluding note, I’ll just out this out there – I wonder how much of a payday did Lowe get from this:

More later...

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Bob Odenkirk Is Pretty Freakin' Far From A NOBODY

Last week, news made the rounds that Bob Odenkirk had collapsed on the set of Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spin-off that’s in production for its sixth and final season. A day later, while the actor/writer/director was ruled as being in stable condition at a hospital in New Mexico, the internet swarmed with well wishes from fans, friends, and co-workers. This touched and surprised me as I would’ve thought that most people wouldn’t know who he is. 

Turns out that that was really short-sighted of me. I should thought of the popularity of his Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul character, slimy lawyer Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill aka Slipping Jimmy), or the following of his HBO program with his comic collaborator David Cross, Mr. Show, or the fact that his most recent movie, the action thriller NOBODY, was number one at the box office this summer.

Despite that rebranding of Odenkirk as an action star, he’ll always be a comic genius to me. Although he only appeared as an extra in a handful of sketches, his impact as a writer on Saturday Night Live from 1988-94 was undoubtedly his comedy breakthrough. Working with such names as Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, and Judd Apatow, Odenkirk had a hand in creating such crowd pleasers as “Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker,” a sweaty showcase for Chris Farley; “The Five Timer’s Club” (a premise that still pops up on the show), and, most importantly, the “Get a Life” sketch, a Star Trek convention satire in which guest host William Shatner tells a roomful of Trekkies to “move out of your parent’s basements, and get your own apartments and grow the Hell up?” 

It’s one of the funniest SNL sketches ever, and it inspired the Chris Elliot sitcom Get a Life, for which Odenkirk was Executive Story Editor, Shatner’s 1999 book of the same name, and a likewise titled 2012 documentary about Trekdom hosted by Shatner.

Odenkirk’s comedy credits in the ‘90s are numerous with the most crucial being his work on The Ben Stiller Show, The Dana Carvey Show, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. But another breakthrough came in 1995 when he and Cross hosted duo the sometimes mind-blowingly brilliant, sometimes gloriously stupid HBO sketch showcase, Mr. Show with Bob and David. For four seasons, the zany Cross and the shouty Odenkirk wrung many laughs out of Pythonesque premises and silly segues while supporting cast members including Sarah Silverman, Brian Posehn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Thompkins, and the acoustic metal duo Tenacious D (Jack Black, and Kyle Gass) all staked out their future careers.

Mr. Show finished its original run, Cross and Odenkirk expanded one of their most popular characters into a movie entitled RUN RONNIE RUN in 2002. Unfortunately the project fell short for which Odenkirk blamed the director, Troy Miller. The largely unfunny film didn’t even get a chance at the big screen, and was released straight to video, but that may have been for the best.

Afterwards, Odenkirk toiled in the comedy trenches as a consultant on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, a writer on Derek and Simon: The Show, The Birthday Boys, and Tom Goes to the Mayor (I haven’t heard of those last two either). Alongside those gigs, were appearances as an actor in such better known shows as Roseanne, Seinfeld, Newsradio, The Larry Sanders Show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Futurama, Just Shoot Me, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Entourage, How I Met Your Mother, and, uh, let’s just say every single comedy program from the ‘90s to now. I won’t go into his just as extensive filmwork except to say that of the three films he directed, 2003’s MELVIN GOES TO DINNER is highly recommended (the others – LET’S GO TO PRISON, and THE BROTHERS SOLOMAN – not so much).

The real sea change came in 2009, when Odenkirk joined the cast of Breaking Bad in the show’s second season. The aforementioned Saul Goodman (“s’all good, man.”) was originally intended to only be in three episodes, but the man hit the performance out of the park so he became a series regular. Goodman’s slick diction, and loud, garish suits helped make the character a fan favorite, and paved the way for his own show, which began airing two years after Breaking Bad’s final episode.

For fans, Better Call Saul was a pleasurable extension of the previous program. I actually prefer it to Breaking Bad, and I am a big fan of that show. One strong addition to the world created by Vince Gilligan is Michael McKean as Chuck McGill, the protagonist’s disapproving brother. I was surprised and disappointed that McKean didn’t get an Emmy nod for his intense portrayal of a disturbed yet gifted attorney.

Alongside Better Call Saul, Odenkirk re-united with Cross for a brief run of a Mr. Show sequel of sorts on Netflix. Entitled W/Bob & David, the project featured material that was equal in hilarity to the original, so it felt like a tease that it was only a four episode revival.

So this all brings us to Odenkirk’s most uncharacteristic role to date, Ilya Naishuller’s surprise hit NOBODY. In this movie which has brought about comparisons to the JOHN WICK series, Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a normal, boring guy, with a wife, and kids living in a house in the suburbs outside some unidentified city. After a home invasion, the largely humorless Hutch sets out on a vengeful journey in which he leaves piles of bloody bodies, and retrieves his daughter’s kitty cat bracelet. We also learn that Hutch used to be a CIA trained assassin, which anybody can see coming as it’s a dark thriller trope that goes way back.

The role of Hutch’s Dad gives Christopher Lloyd an amusing chance to get in on the action-packed spectacle, and the film has a fine villain in Aleksei Serebryakov as a snarling Russian mob boss (again a well worn trope). But I got bogged down in all the machine gun fire, and scores of implausibly swift kills that led up to the typical shoot-out finale that’s set in a warehouse (tropey-trope).

Despite my fault-finding, I did enjoy a fair amount of NOBODY, of course, because of Odenkirk. For a guy who began his career as a comedy writer, it’s eye-opening to see him do things we’ve never seen before. An amped up fight scene aboard a parked bus at night is arguably the movie’s peak.

Sure we’ve all seen scenes in which an indestructible badass takes down a gang of attackers, and this doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it’s a pretty thrilling series of bodily injuries in blindingly quick succession brought on by the least likely edgy vigilante. Odenkirk trained extensively for this movie and it really shows.

It’s great to hear that Odenkirk is on the mend. The online outpouring probably was the result of the list on Twitter of who or what’s trending. Seeing Odenkirk’s name made a lot of folks think the man had passed, and when they found out he was still among the living, they realized how much he meant to them. At least that’s what happened with me.

A couple of days ago, Odenkirk tweeted this:

A very sweet message from a guy whose contributions to the world of comedy are immeasurable. I’m looking forward to seeing him branch out into other genres, but for now, Bob, get plenty of rest, and take your time to recover. Well, maybe not too much time - I’m dying to see Better Call Saul Season 6.

More later...