★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Come for the promise of a devilishly sexy good time. Stay for some fantastic character arcs and hugely expressive acting performances. Val, which had its world premiere at Popcorn Frights is colorful, saucy, and snappy, with an undercurrent of something dark and ominous just underneath the surface.
Directed by Aaron Fradkin
Sometimes you just want to soak in a story that gives you two great ambiguous protagonists and watch them play against each other. One where the story grows as they draw out more about each other’s backgrounds and motivations. Val is a movie where our two main characters clearly are full of secrets, not completely showing their true colors initially, but allowing us to fall in love with them as the movie develops.
We enter the story with a police search, as insightful officer Daughtry (Sufe Bradshaw) and her undependable partner officer Myers (Kyle Howard) are tracking down a perp in a ramshackle back-lot. They find and apprehend Fin (Zachery Mooren) and there is a struggle. A gunshot goes off, and we cut to a TV news report of the incident.
The scene cuts to Val (Misha Reeves) a voluptuous redhead in lingerie who looks like an anachronism, a Varga Girl pin-up, reciting the line,
“It was so nice spending this time with you.”Val
That line sets up the expectations, Val is a high-class whore, awaiting her next client to show, and that she is rehearsing a thank you for her donation. But wait for a pitch-perfect call back of this line at the end of the movie. Spot on! She is blissfully unaware of the news reports of a dangerous convict on the loose. (Or is she? Hmmm…) Instead of her expected date, Freddy (Erik Griffin), she finds Fin lurking around her ornate mansion. As Val cries for help, Fin threatens her with a dagger that he finds on her cutting board (A curious choice for a culinary implement). He demands sanctuary and silence from Val, but he is suffering from blurry vision and auditory ringing. A concussion? That’s the explanation… but no… we find out otherwise.
For a home invasion victim, Val seems unperturbed by the situation. Curious. Entertained, even. She likes to wax philosophically about fate, destiny, emotional endurance, and the meaning of tattoos. Fin is simple and dim. He does not behave like a stone-cold killer, though he puts on airs and talks a big game initially.
Visitors arrive, first in Freddy, Val’s hulking mobster client, and then the Officers Daughtry and Myers, coming to Val’s door, searching for Fin. Val plays along, keeping her abductor a secret, to the point of protecting him. Something else here is afoot. The visitors are also in a bit of a daze, and behaving somewhat oddly. Fin eventually gets discovered, and the results become deadly. But when one of the bodies comes back to fight again, it is clear that there are greater forces at play here, and it is not Fin who is in control of the situation.
“I hid the body in case you were concerned… Indeed, I am stronger than I look!”Val
Fin, as it turns out is a fall guy being played as a dupe. He has been betrayed and despite his reputation on the street, he is not really a hardened criminal. Val begins bringing up things, secret things that show she has some deep insights to him that only he knows, and even things that he hasn’t come to terms with.
“Oh you handsome fool. Haven’t you noticed I’ve been doing anything I want all day?”Val
Val, as it turns out, is short for Valefar, a Dutchess of Hell. Valefar is a real demon. You can Google it. She is the patron of thieves, and through the pen of screenwriter, Victoria Fratz, she is something of a seductress and a party demon. Fin has been caught in Limbo, somewhere between the material world, heaven, and hell. Valefar has taken a serious liking to Fin, and the choice is his. Stay here with this lovely and fascinating demon forever or fight for his soul and return to his mundane life in the real world potentially facing a prison sentence.
It’s a Faustian deal; a moral quandary. I loved the ending, but frankly, I would have made the other choice.
The strongest impression I have of Val is the flamboyant and hugely expressive performance by Misha Reeves. I fell in love with Val. Her arching eyebrows, little smirks, furrowed brow, and condescending flowers all build up a character for the ages. It is showy and almost arch, like a mid-Atlantic Golden-Age star performance from the 1940s. Valefar isn’t as deceitful as your typical Faustian devil. No backstabbing, no switcheroos, but there is definitely a pact to be settled by Fin’s choice. Valefar is sexy, part Jessica Rabbit and part Mae West “Come up and see me sometime!” to her portrayal. But she’s no dumb bunny! Valefar has been infused with smarts and snark, a quick wit, and ready with more than one monologue in her pockets.
Kyle Howard has the tougher job here. His Fin transforms from the panicked con on the run into the well-meaning if a bit overwhelmed victim of betrayal. It could be so easy to be overshadowed by a character like Val, but the two provide perfect foils. She pontificates and proselytizes, while he just takes it… until he can’t. It’s a much more subtle performance, but his portrayal of a man trying to fend of madness at the end had some showcase moments as well.
Bonus points to be had for the strong supporting cast as well. Bradshaw and Howard are essential foils to help propel the plot, and the way they get used at the end of the film forms a terrific denouement. Erik Griffin earns high marks for his bearish portrayal with deft comic timing, and his willingness to deal with a monstrous white contact lens. These supporting players help break up what could have potentially felt like a lot of exposition, and help to keep the flow of the film move along nicely.
This is a movie for the lovers of snappy dialogue, and strong character arcs. Full credit to the engaged partners: Director Fradkin and writer Fratz. The wit and banter are top-shelf and completely absorbing. A second watch-through brings out layers that I missed the first time, and yet the first time I never got lost, but was eagerly waiting for each new twist.
The art direction is sumptuous, with Val’s mansion oozing the style of a recently bygone age. Despite all the sexual tension, Val’s numerous fantastic lingerie outfits, and Reeve’s magnificent bosom, the movie manages to remain sexy without ever getting raunchy or tawdry, showing great restraint in both the performances of Reeves and Frandkins direction. This movie, if given an MPAA rating, despite being the story of a devil/escort and a murderous thief might actually be closer to PG-13 than R. There is violence and a nice nod to The Evil Dead with a severed head, but for the most part, the film isn’t particularly gory or violent. The movie even gives a dialogue wink to the audience:
“That was the first F-Bomb you dropped all night! I hope it was worth it. You only get one!Val
Val will be available VOD on October 5. Unfortunately, it also happens to be released in the same year as another Val, which is a Val Kilmer documentary. Make sure you get the right film before you make a streaming purchase! I am certain that this will be at or near the top of my end-of-the-year list, and Popcorn Frights should be proud to have this as one of their world premiere films.