Val

Written by Alexander Reams

68/100

“I went from being the star of the play, to playing the character that was the butt of every joke,” a very begrudging Val Kilmer says as he discusses his first breakthrough at Julliard Acting School. This footage, like most of the documentary, is compiled of six decades of footage Kilmer has recorded throughout his life. After having his vocal medium all but stripped from him, he now turns to the visual medium to tell his story. With direction from Leo Scott and Ting Poo, and narration from Val’s son, Jack Kilmer, Val is telling a story once again. The story of his life. 

While the documentary tries to be an act of emotional catharsis for Val, it can be frustratingly vain. Only showing the work he’s put in, and not his own professional issues that gave him a certain reputation. A reputation that many forgot about when signing onto a movie with him because of his beauty. A beauty that may come once in a lifetime. One that propelled him to superstardom. Leading him to be in films that he himself has proclaimed “are hard to explain”, such is the case with the first film he discusses, Top Secret!

What the documentary does spectacularly is make you see a side of Kilmer that is not often shown, stripping away the beauty of him, to show his personal struggles and backstory to becoming the iconic actor we now know. The journey of which is best shown in the behind the scenes footage for Top Gun. Even admitting that he did not want to do the film. What Kilmer brought to the film changed the way the character was in its original inception. However, by Batman Forever Kilmer’s career, had seemingly outstayed its welcome. The danger that comes with films like Val is the film can cross the border of vanity into boorishness quickly.

By the end of the film, I no longer cared about Kilmer’s career, instead I wanted to see more of his personal life besides the surface level veneer we’re presented. Which still continues to frustrate me even as I write this after the film has ended. Despite all this, the portrait the film presents of its titular subject is fascinating, if not fully interesting. Ting Poo and Leo Scott did a great job of bringing this footage to life and showcasing a controversial, interesting, and vain life of a man who has lost his voice, and are helping him still tell stories, giving him a voice when he no longer has one.

Val Trailer

Val is currently in limited theatrical release and available to stream on Prime Video.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

90/100

SYNOPSIS: Over a career spanning more than 70 years, Rita Moreno defied both her humble upbringing and relentless racism to become a celebrated and award-winning actor. Born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm, Moreno and her seamstress mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was five years old. After studying dance and performing on Broadway, Moreno was cast as any ethnic minority the Hollywood studios needed filled: Polynesian, Native American, Egyptian and so on. Despite becoming the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita in “West Side Story” (1961), the studios continued to offer Moreno lesser roles as stereotypical ethnic minorities, ignoring her proven talent.

Beyond the racism she experienced as a Latina actor, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” will explore the lesser-known struggles Moreno faced on her path to stardom, including pernicious Hollywood sexism and sexual abuse, a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and an attempted suicide a year before she won her Oscar. The documentary will demonstrate Moreno’s talent and resilience as she broke barriers and paved the way for new generations of artists by refusing to be pigeonholed and fighting for Latinx representation in a variety of genres.

REVIEW: Rita Moreno is a legend! What other way can you describe a woman who won an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004), National Medal of Arts (2009), and Kennedy Center Honors (2015), and Peabody Award (2019)? All these accolades do no justice to the magnitude of the woman. While production-wise the documentary wasn’t remarkable, her story was. Told through a series of vignettes from the likes of Norman Lear, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justice Sotomayor, Eva Longoria, Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and countless playwrights and producers.

Rita is a trailblazer. Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, she came with her mother to the US during the Great Depression. From an early age, Rita loved performing and by age 16 she was the sole breadwinner of her family. After making a connection with the head of MGM Studio, Louis B. Mayer, she got a contract and 6 months moved to LA. This transition was not without struggle. People were not nice to her at MGM, she was sexualized, and set up on fake dates to raise her profile. She was also typecast, her skin darkened, and always played the “island girl”. Reflecting on this part of her career she stated that she went along with it at first but, soon after, it started to hurt and took an incredible toll on her self-image and self-worth. At another point, she mentioned how she wanted to turn down these parts, but that’s all she was offered, and she needed the money to survive.

The documentary also details more personal aspects of her life like her relationship with Marlon Brando and her agent who raped her. She reflected that she had so little self-worth at the time that she continued letting him be her agent. This particular moment of the documentary is intercut with images of the trial Christine Blasey Ford and introduces us to Rita Moreno the activist. Rita Moreno is a pro-choice activist. She almost participated in atomic disarmament marches and sat 15 feet away from Dr. King during his famous “I Have Dream Speech” at the March on Washington.

All this is not enough to describe her remarkable career Rita was in Singing in the Rain and got a chance to see Gene Kelly perform live. Rita Moreno is, truly, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Icon, legend, trailblazer do not do justice to explain what, as a Latina, Rita Moreno means to me. Year and year again trade publications and research papers discuss the under-representation of Latinos in Hollywood. The 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report states “Latinos’ share of lead acting roles was 6.6% on scripted broadcast shows, 5.5% in cable and 4.0% in digital in 2018–19. Among all TV acting roles in the past two years, Latinos’ best representation was in broadcast shows during the 2017–18 season, but even then, they made up just 6.4% of casts.” This is infuriating because the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood is a mirror to the under-representation of Latinos on the US job market in general, even though they make up roughly 17% of this country’s population.

After reading this if you still have any doubts about how kick-ass Rita is go watch her Oscar acceptance speech (an all-time great I might add. Even though she doesn’t agree.) or watch her sing Fever on the Muppets (which won her an Emmy), or that time she re-wore her 1962 Academy Award dress to the 2018 Academy Awards. I could talk about her all day.

All I can do is say thank you, Rita Moreno! Thank you for paving the way for a Latina girl like me. Showing me that women can do anything.

Director Mariem Pérez Riera’s Statement:
The first time I interviewed Rita, I had prepared a series of questions about the biggest moments of her career. As soon as she started speaking, I immediately saw myself reflected in her answers. It was as though I was speaking to a therapist who understood exactly what I had been through. I related to all she was saying: her stories about discrimination, the insecurities she felt because of the way others perceived her, the complicated love relationships, and the constant need to work three times harder to prove to others that she is worthy. It was at that moment when I realized that this movie was not just a biographical documentary of Rita’s life, but a story about all the women who feel alone as they struggle to assert themselves in a patriarchal society rooted in white supremacy.

While listening to her stories I constantly questioned the American Dream. To what extent are we willing to pay the price? Fifty years ago, Rita lived through hardships and experiences that unfortunately many women continue to endure, including myself. So I decided to shift the documentary’s focus to the courage, transformations, and highs and lows of a brave immigrant woman trying to overcome discrimination, hatred, and humiliation. A woman who when speaking about herself, speaks to and for a lot of us.

My goal with this documentary is to show what an amazing inspiration Rita is to all of us. In order to do this, it was important for me to capture Rita’s vulnerable and fragile side when she’s off-stage or off-guard. This is why one of the aesthetic decisions of the documentary was to follow Rita in a verité camera style. We see Rita in her daily life, without makeup, in pajamas, preparing her breakfast, or driving, doing her own hair and makeup, or setting out decorations for her own birthday party.

To me, a biographical documentary should do more than to tell important events in chronological order, it should move you emotionally, and make you feel like you actually know the subject personally. The decision behind every location for all the interviews was highly important to me, as I wanted the space, the environment, and the ambiance to capture Rita’s soul. I selected “vintage” spaces where Rita’s friends and colleagues could be interviewed. The decorations, the colors of the furniture, the warm light for example, should resemble Rita’s taste in some way, and be reflective of a space Rita would decorate for herself.



Another aspect I wanted to explore was Rita’s inner child, Rosita. To capture the duality of Rita and Rosita, I decided to use stop motion animation with paper dolls. These dolls were very popular during Rita’s childhood, and they embody the little girl who has been molded through clothing to “pretend” to be what the outside world wants her to be. Rosita/Rita was accustomed to behaving like a doll with no expression, obliged to accept any garment that is placed on her.

Music also plays a key role in this documentary. In addition to jazz as the basis of the score, the incidental music has many meanings, and I am very grateful to have included my ‘wish list songs’. Songs by Fania All Stars, La Lupe, and Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano”; all these songs relate directly and indirectly with Rita’s story.

During the final steps of the editing process, while looking for a song to close the documentary, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, performed by Nina Simone, came to mind. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. This song, that at the time of its creation became a hymn of the Civil Rights movement, resonates to me like a hymn to Rita’s life. One could ask, how much would she have accomplished if she didn’t have all the limitations (“the chains”) thrown at her because of her race and her gender?

These lyrics take on another meaning when we hear them through the voice of Nina Simone at the end of Rita’s documentary. It helps us understand what it feels like to be Rita, to be an immigrant woman — “who decided to go for it” — despite society’s gender and racial expectations. Rita has finally liberated herself from all those chains that were holding her, she has finally expressed how it feels to be her, and now in her late 80’s Rita is finally able to be herself; flying through her greatest self. Rita’s voice becomes the voice of inspiration of every woman, especially of every immigrant, Latinx in the USA.

Recommended. 

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Retrospective Feature: High Noon

Written by Rudolph Lambert Fernandez

Gary Cooper’s pioneering Western deserves its place in the sun

High Noon Film Poster – 1952

The year 2021 marks the 120th birth and 60th death anniversary of Gary Cooper who, after some 100 films over four decades, is most remembered for one.

First let’s get the quiz out of the way. 

The starring role in a Western was once offered in turn to John Wayne, Gregory Peck,  Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston. All turned it down. Which movie was it? 

The movie that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four? 

The movie that won four Golden Globes? The same movie that marked Lee Van Cleef’s Hollywood debut, in which he didn’t deliver a single line? 

High Noon (1952)

The very utterance conjures up images of the Old West but with a theme that’s as alive today as when it was released. 

The story’s been told and re-told a hundred times. If you’re interested in the Cold War theatrics backstory you could do worse than read Glenn Frankel’s book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (Bloomsbury). But you’d do better to watch the movie – without distraction, start to finish. 

It may be fun for 21st century audiences to insist ‘tell us the story’. 

A more fascinating question though is: what does the story tell us? 

Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) walking through Hadleyville, New Mexico

High Noon is (it seems sacrilegious to use past tense) about the mother of all  confrontations. The greatest of all showdowns. Not between Marshall and outlaw. Not between Sheriff and Indian. Not, as many critics have us believe, an allegorical political fight between communism and democracy. Not a metaphorical fight between civilization and chaos. Not a fight at all. 

High Noon is, more than anything else, about a man confronting himself, his fears, his weaknesses, his utter desolation. His discovery that defiant strength sometimes hides beneath seemingly debilitating weakness. That the sensible thing (saving your skin), is seldom the right thing. That the only kind of respect worth fighting for, is self-respect. That respect comes not only from what you did ‘back then’ but also from what you’re doing ‘right here, right now’.

High Noon is also about a woman confronting herself. Her realisation that love is nothing if it isn’t tested. It earns its stripes not amidst the swirl of success but amidst the ruin of rejection. Courage and conviction are central to love – a love that flees both, isn’t love in the first place. 

That’s what makes High Noon endure beyond its age, rise above its genre. 

Contemporary audiences spoiled by colour, hi-def, high-octane direction, high-tech  cinematography, editing, sound and polished acting may well wince at the movie’s relatively bare look and feel. But it struggled with the tools of its day to tell a story that would outlive it. We must approach it with the patience and understanding it deserves. The way we’d approach a 92-year old lady or a two-year old boy. We must make the effort to learn from it, to look beyond its apparent dribbling. 

High Noon remains the first of the major Westerns to turn its back on scripts preoccupied with guns, girls and gold. Some of the most memorable 1950s and 60s Westerns – The Searchers, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 3:10 to Yuma, Last Train from Gun Hill, Magnificent Seven, True Grit – merely followed High Noon’s anthem of defending the defenceless, sacrificing self-interest for a greater good. 

High Noon spoke compellingly to that generation then. It speaks as hauntingly to ours now. It will speak as eloquently to generations to come. Its lead actor – man’s man Gary Cooper – plays the fearful, conflicted, needy protagonist Will Kane. Four decades before Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny (Unforgiven). Like Cooper, Eastwood would play macho-lead for years before he played more flawed protagonists – heroes for their moral, not physical feats.

(Left) Gary Cooper (Right) Grace Kelly

Critics may still pan the casting of 50-year old Cooper opposite 23-year old Grace Kelly but as the odds stack up against him, their age differential is the least of his worries. The 5’6” petite Quaker bride looks up at her 6’3” gangly groom and snaps: ‘You don’t have to be a hero, not for me’. He barks back ‘I’m not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you’re crazy!’ 

In those closing scenes with Cooper left alone to face near-certain death before vengeful outlaws, the camera rises to brood upon a town that’s washed its hands off his predicament. The soaring lens at once mocking his alienation and willing him to rise above himself. In one of Hollywood’s most poignant moments a forlorn Cooper nervously tugs at his  belt, wipes the sweat off his brow and with one last despairingly hopeful look at the deserted streets, trudges toward his fate – an armed gang riding in on the noon train. 

In one of the most courageous script-twists for that era the town’s lawman is rescued not by archetypal hired-guns, powerful ranchers or strongmen but by a woman. A deeply spiritual woman, who abhors violence. As he battles alone, his bride who first deserts him, turns back, then defends him in that final gunfight. 

Producer Stanley Kramer, Director Fred Zinnemann, Screenwriter Carl Foreman and Music composer-conductor Dmitri Tiomkin, in their own way, stamped their identities on a film that shines even after repeated viewing. 2021 also marks Kramer’s 20th death anniversary. He produced and directed some of the best movies of that era – The Defiant Ones, Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and produced The Wild One and Death of a Salesman.

Katy Jurado, the first Latin American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award  (Best Supporting Actress in Broken Lance) won her Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for High Noon. Fittingly, Jurado as Helen Ramirez, one-time lover of both villain and hero has some of the best lines.

From Left to Right: Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramirez), Gary Cooper (Marshall Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane)

It’s Helen who says with clarity: You’re a good-looking boy, you’ve big broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.

It’s Helen who talks courage into a fleeing Amy: I don’t understand you. If  Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight!

Amy taunts her: Why don’t you?

Helen taunts her right back: He’s not my man. He’s yours!

And it’s Helen who warns: Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s  gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too. 

Of the hundred or so movies he acted in, over four decades from the 1920s to the 1960s, Gary Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor on five occasions and won twice – one for High Noon. He beat some heavies that year – Marlon Brando (for Viva Zapata!), Kirk Douglas (for The Bad and the Beautiful) and Alec Guinness (for The Lavender Hill Mob).

The 25th Academy Awards 1953 saw some pretty sharp 1952 contenders for Best Picture alongside High Noon: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Pandro S. Berman’s Ivanhoe, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, John Ford’s The Quiet Man. DeMille’s movie won but High Noon should have. It isn’t merely a ‘Western’. It isn’t merely an American movie about American stories. It’s a universal movie about universal values and choices. It isn’t even a 1950s movie but a movie for all ages. 

Gary Cooper’s filmography is overwhelmingly black-and-white. High Noon was no different. As if by extension, his character Will Kane demonstrates that when it comes to choosing between good and bad, life isn’t technicolour. It isn’t even grey. It’s, well, simpler. Cooper seems to say that the greatest victory is one in which we stubbornly choose what’s doing what’s right over self-preservation or meek submission to overwhelming power. Each age, Cooper seems to say, will make that choice harder by trying to redefine ‘what’s right’. It’s up to us to see through that.

Cooper carried that rather simple black-and-white moral compass late into his “colour” career – Man of the West, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, They Came to Cordura, The Hanging Tree. But in no other other movie is his morality as utterly convincing as in High Noon. There’s a point when you no longer see Will Kane but Cooper himself. And he seems to say, courage isn’t the absence of self-doubt but the refusal to stop wrestling with that same self-doubt. So he wrestles, with no more certainty than the fact that he must wrestle. He isn’t so much standing his ground as refusing to flee. He isn’t scared about giving up or giving in because his new bride and the whole damn town are watching him. He’s terrified because he’s watching himself. 

In one scene Judge Percy laments: This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important. 

Few characters in movie history have been more wrong. 

High Noon (1952) Trailer

High Noon is currently streaming on Prime Video

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture. 

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz