Turbulent Entanglements: The Making of SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS

By James Kenney

A top-class, lively screwball comedy that offers everything that makes this genre special. Turbulent Entanglements. Fast pace. Precise timing. Sparkling dialogue. Charming punchlines.(from the German press kit for Broadway Therapy, AKA Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels to the Nuts)


Peter Bogdanovich’s final narrative feature, Squirrels to the Nuts, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this year to rapturous response from Bogdanovich fans after the only existing copy of his 113-minute cut was found on eBay, a story recounted here.  It is currently having select screenings, including this coming Monday, August 15th, at Williamstown’s Images Cinema.

I am unaware if a comprehensive press kit for She’s Funny That Way was ever released in the United States – in the digital morass of the 21st century, traditional promotional materials are no longer sent out for a film with as minuscule release as the compromised Funny had; if anything, there was a website up for a short period with information on the film.  Luckily, there was a full physical press release for Bogdanovich’s film prepared in Germany (if I can track down the film, I can track down the press release!), with choice quotes from Bogdanovich and producer Holly Wiersma, and an intriguing short primer about “screwball comedy” for 21st century audiences perhaps only acquainted with the genre as a term they’ve heard lacking context.

So here is a detailed translation of the German Press Kit for Squirrels to the Nuts, where the film in its compromised She’s Funny That Way edit was retitled Broadway Therapy (a better title than Funny That Way, at least).  I translated it myself using the surprisingly resilient Google Translate, and have kept some of the translated phrasing that might sound awkward if I wasn’t sure what the unnamed original author was trying to relay, or, well, if it was kind of charming. 

But this detailed document on the genesis and casting of Squirrels, with ample discussion from the late Peter Bogdanovich himself, is essential for fans of the film and the filmmaker [in brackets you will find occasional commentary from me], and needs to exist as more than a dog-eared eight-year-old document I found on eBay:

After a twelve-year break from cinema, the American master director Peter Bogdanovich (What’s Up, Doc?) presents Broadway Therapy, a top-class, lively screwball comedy that offers everything that makes this genre special: turbulent entanglements. Fast pace. Precise timing. Sparkling dialogue. Charming punchlines.

On a love carousel with Lubitsch swing, a top-class cast from Owen Wilson to Imogen Poots and Rhys Ifans to Jennifer Aniston flirts and bickers with bubbling wit. And Quentin Tarantino himself gives everyone a little lesson in film history [Tarantino is only found in the inadequate sequences shot in 2014 for the retooled Funny That Way; he was not involved in 2013’s principal photography for the initial Squirrels edit]. At the world premiere at the Venice Festival, the amusing homage to Wilder, Capra and Co. was enthusiastically celebrated [Wilder was a king of the genre, but Bogdanovich would likely not cop to any direct Wilder homage as he and Wilder did not get along].

With The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon Peter Bogdanovich has created classics of film art and made a name for himself as a prominent representative of “New Hollywood.” After a twelve-year hiatus from the cinema, the master director is now returning to the big screen with the high-spirited comedy Broadway Therapy.

The star-studded work combines classic romantic comedy with screwball comedy. Although the story takes place in today’s New York, it pays homage to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s and its punchy, witty comedies whose charming heroes find themselves in the most absurd of situations.

if you want a fast-paced scene, then you really have to step on the gas….” 

In order to return to the charm of the classic Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, the film’s dialogue had increased pacing. “Comedies need a certain speed, and that’s what we’ve been working on, so a common director’s cue was ‘faster!'” explains Bogdanovich, recalling meeting Frank Capra and his theory about pacing in film: “Frank felt that movies slowed things down. ‘If you played a scene normally, it would later look slower on the screen. Only if you play it a little faster does it appear normal. And if you want a fast-paced scene, then you really have to step on the gas.’ That’s where Capra is absolutely right, that’s why cinema is bigger than life.

I remember making What’s Up, Doc? when Barbra Streisand asked, ‘Can we take a pause?’ To which I replied: ‘There will be no pauses in this film!.’

Bogdanovich developed the screenplay 15 years ago with his now-divorced wife Louise Stratten. She was supposed to play the role of Isabella Patterson, now being taken over by Imogen Poots. As Arnold, who is now embodied by Owen Wilson, John Ritter was intended. After his tragic death, Bogdanovich and Stratten decided to postpone the project.

Years later, new plans were made. Watching Breaking Bad and Mad Men with his friend Owen Wilson at his Malibu home, the director got the idea to revisit Broadway Therapy.

They call me pop and I call them my sons…

His ex-wife, Louise Stratten, suggested he bring in director friends Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach as executive producers. “They read the script, liked it and offered their support,” Bogdanovich recalls. “They’re both fans of mine and I’m a fan of theirs. Our relationship is very cordial: they call me pop and I call them my sons — son Noah and son Wes. Both have been incredibly helpful in bringing this project to fruition. Also thanks to Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Quentin Tarantino read the script back when John Ritter was set to star and liked it very much. During the filming I called Quentin and asked if he would like to guest star. He laughed: ‘Of course I’ll do it. It would be a real kick for me to appear in a Bogdanovich film.’ I said: ‘Great, do you have time the day after tomorrow?'” [a reminder that again Tarantino was brought in at the last minute during the 2014 additional photography for Funny].

Producer Holly Wiersma about the project: “I liked this screenplay because it reminds of the classic Hollywood films that have since disappeared. At best, Woody Allen still shoots comedies this way, otherwise such films are no longer made today.”

Bogdanovich reports on the origins of the project: “We discarded the original title Squirrel for the Nuts. [It hints at his frustrations with the final result that Bogdanovich uses the press kit to alert people of his original preferred title] The starting point of the story is now a hero who gives a prostitute a lot of money so that she will give up her profession. I did it a few times myself when we were filming Saint Jack in Singapore. Ben Gazzara plays a small-time pimp who dreams of opening his own brothel. We had met real life prostitutes and I felt so sorry for two of them that I gave them some money so they could change their lives. So that was the impetus for the script.” The strange thing with the squirrels and the nuts is the director’s homage to his fellow-filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. “I like this ‘Squirrel for the Nuts’ quote from Lubitsch’s last film, Cluny Brown. He’s one of my all-time favorite directors.” Bogdanovich continues, “Louise Stratten and I wanted to write a screenplay together. We were going through a difficult period in our lives at the time, so we decided to do a comedy to cheer ourselves up.” [the “squirrels to the nuts” gag, which appears in but isn’t really explained in the Funny recut, is properly set up and paid off in Squirrels]

Owen Wilson was the first actor to join the project. “He’s one of the few actors of our time who is a true movie star and brings his compelling personality to every role. He’s always a pleasure to talk to and I feel fortunate to be his friend. When I offered Owen the part and the script he felt it was a bit too much slapstick for his liking. So I eliminated those slapstick scenes originally written for John Ritter, who was famous for such stunts. At the same time, Owen contributed some excellent dialogue, which in the film is very funny. You can clearly feel that he was once the writer for Wes Anderson’s first three films.”
He’s more boyish and not a sexhead…

For Bogdanovich and Wiersma, Owen Wilson was the perfect casting for the role of Arnold. “Owen has three qualities that make him ideal for this part,” explains producer Wiersma. “He’s everyone. At the same time, you can always feel his star qualities. And you like him. There aren’t many actors who could play Arnold and make him look so likeable. In the test performances, Owen regularly did best with the audience. [it is dispiriting how much test screenings are central to all current releases, as Squirrels’ one random test screening in New York City led to the producers increasingly demanding changes to Bogdanovich’s vision. If they had to test, they should have tested the film with suitable audiences, as the response to Bogdanovich’s version in 2022 has been outstanding]. And he’s playing a guy who cheats on his wife or talks to prostitutes on the phone while his kids wait on the other line. Arnold does things that are really despicable — but you still like him. Few actors can inspire that kind of sympathy.” “
You forgive him because you like him,” Bogdanovich adds. “Owen’s a very handsome guy, but he’s not menacingly attractive like Errol Flynn or Cary Grant. He’s more boyish and not a sexhead, which helps for the character. You think he’d help women, not take advantage of them. He helps women in his own way.”

She portrays a total beast…

The role of Arnold’s wife Delta was originally slated for Jennifer Aniston, but the actress had other plans, Bogdanovich explains: “Jennifer said she would much rather play the role of therapist Jane. I replied that Delta was a much more important character, but she had long since decided on Jane. So I said, ‘Okay, then you’re Jane.’ “Jennifer does an excellent job,” praises her director. “She insisted on a wig and the hairstyle suits her perfectly. For Jennifer, the role was a new experience because she had never played a woman like that before. She portrays a total beast, which amuses the audience all the more because everyone knows that Jennifer is nothing like Jane.”

“Jennifer is so compelling as Jane because you see her in a completely different role than before,” emphasizes Wiersma. Here she really goes all out with her wig and hysterical demeanor. She said that What’s Up, Doc? was one of her favorite films and she would like to work with Peter Bogdanovich. Jennifer was the second actress we cast and she stayed with us for a year while we got the project off the ground. She was great to work with.”

Speaking of Imogen Poots as Isabella, Bogdanovich says, “She’s an extraordinary actress that I didn’t know at all before. I was given a list of possible candidates. I met four of them in Los Angeles. Then I traveled to New York, where Imogen introduced herself. We met in the Palm Gardens of the Plaza Hotel, a somewhat old-fashioned place for a meeting. Within five minutes I knew I had found my Isabella. Imogen didn’t audition, we just chatted and while doing so, she caught me with her idiosyncrasy. I was convinced. After 20 minutes I said to her, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’ll tell you now: you have the part. We’ll work out the details later.’

“Cry with your eyes, don’t make faces…”

Describing working with Imogen Poots, the director said: “It’s not an easy role, but Imogen made everything seem very easy. She never gave me a headache. In the sequence where she auditions for the role, I demanded that she cry. because tears are generally considered a sign of acting quality. If you can cry well, you’re a good actor, I told her. She pulled off her tearful performance with flying colors, but there was one small problem. ‘Well done, but now your make-up unfortunately smudged,’ I whispered to her. I’d like you to cry and still look good.’ To which she replied: ‘Jesus, Peter!’ I said, ‘You can do this. Cry with your eyes. Don’t make faces.’ And she did it brilliantly!”

Speaking of his star’s qualities, the director says: “Imogen really lives the role and doesn’t just play it. She’s idiosyncratic without being affected. She’s also enormously likeable and attractive — without being an Ava Gardner. Imogen is one great actress whose presence dominates the screen. The camera loves her, as the saying goes.”

On casting Kathryn Hahn as Arnold’s wife Delta, director Bogdanovich says, “Kathryn is a good friend of Jennifer’s and was suggested by her. They both have the same agent and manager. I met her, liked her, saw some of her work — and That’s it. Kathryn is wonderful and she’s probably never looked her best in a movie until ours. She said herself, ‘I look good.’ And I said, ‘Sure, you have to. You’re playing a leading role here and you should look good accordingly!’ Kathryn has a natural talent for comedy, she doesn’t need to be given great directions. She didn’t play the character as a prima donna, but down to earth — who she is.”

“It’s the actor who matters!”

The director describes the relationship of the film couple as follows: “Kathryn and Owen make such a believable couple that I even had to consider whether they would end up separating or not [this quote interestingly relates to their relationship ending one way in Squirrels and a very different way (clumsily explained through narration) in Funny]. The two hand the ball to each other perfectly The relationship seems very warm, which is very helpful for the believability of the story. This is particularly impressive in the scene in the taxi where they start to argue vigorously. We did this sequence without any prior rehearsals, which can only be achieved with excellent actors. I once said to Orson Welles, ‘It’s a pretty good film, but not very well acted.’ He then yelled: ‘How can it be a good film if it’s not well acted? What else is important? Who cares about camera work? It’s the actors who matter!’ And Orson is absolutely right about that.”

“I’m lucky that Jennifer Aniston gave us a little help with casting,” says producer Wiersma. “Kathryn is just amazing in the movie. Even though she’s played so many different roles, you’ve never seen her like this before. I think this character is very close to who she is. She’s so cool and so pretty. And she is such a pretty woman but she has never been able to exhibit it in her previous films. She does not exaggerate her role, but plays it as a normal woman. Many women have been betrayed in one way or another, but Kathryn does not play the betrayed as the victim or the betrayed as the mean villain. She was everyone’s favorite on set.”

Bogdanovich said of Will Forte, who played the role of playwright Joshua Fleet, “Will is a real leading man — and he looks like a real playwright because he comes across as extremely intelligent. Orson Welles once said, ‘American actors take the part as an author or intellectual.’ That’s why such characters are often cast with Englishmen. Orson himself seemed like someone who thinks and reads, but such types are rare. Cary Grant was one such example, which is why he was able to impersonate professors and doctors believably. With American actors that is usually difficult. I remember well when Bob Redford had to hire two Brits to play the American intellectuals on Quiz Show. Will Forte is always believed as being able to write a stage play. Working with him was a real pleasure. Anyway, there weren’t any actors on this film who have been difficult.”

“Will Forte was also tapped into the role by Jennifer Aniston,” adds producer Wiersma. “The two have acted together on other independent films before. When we first met Will, he had just wrapped up Nebraska and we fell in love with him immediately. He was the perfect mix of playwright and therapist boyfriend.”

A movie star with rock star qualities…

Speaking of Rhys Ifans, who plays the role of Seth Gilbert, Bogdanovich said: “Rhys was late to the project, I think we only cast him a day before he was set to play. He was suggested by George Drakoulias, one of our producers who previously produced my documentary on ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ [Petty songs appear through Squirrels, though not in Funny] George had already worked with Rhys on Noah Baumbach’s ‘Greenberg’ and raved about him as a movie star with rock star qualities. When I met him I was immediately hooked and the next day he came to the Shoot! Rhys understood the role so completely that I hardly had to direct him. The looks he gives Owen are absolutely perfect. He’s very clever in this role.”

About Austin Pendleton, who plays the lovestruck judge, the director says: “After What’s up, Doc? I’ve wanted to do something with Austin ever since. We tailored the role of judge for him, as well as detective for George Morfogen [Morfogen played a similar detective role in Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed]. Both of them were originally a bit younger in the script, but we really wanted them to be in the film. George has been a friend of mine since I was 18. We met at Joe Papp’s production of ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare in the Park, where I played a spearman and he played Iago’s pupil. We have performed together several times and have continued to collaborate behind the camera. George was my co-producer on ‘ Saint Jack’, Mask’ and ‘They All Laughed’, in which he also acted.”

“Coincidences that become habit”

The director comments on his film: “The story of Broadway Therapy is a bit complicated. …It’s all about chance. Robert Graves, one of my favorite authors, once said that there are so many coincidences in life that they become habit!”

Producer Holly Wiersma adds: “Peter Bogdanovich delivers an homage to the Hollywood he is familiar with and whose icons he spent so many years of his career with. There is a scene where Isabella talks about Audrey Hepburn and quotes her. Peter was on the set with Audrey 33 years ago filming ‘They all laughed’ and now he’s filming with Imogen who’s talking about Audrey As if that weren’t enough there are nods to Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bogart and Bacall Bacall was the first Person who gave Peter permission to use her photo, that was two months before her death.” [this all relates to dialogue found only in the quickly shot additional footage added to Funny. Squirrels takes place entirely in New York and is concerned exclusively with the theater. The idea of her being a Cinderella protagonist who is now a big film star was only added to Funny].

Speaking about the role of music, which has always played a crucial role in his films, the director says: “We tried very different types of music, but none seemed to fit. In the end we decided to hire a composer and we found him Ed Shearmur. It was a first for me to use a consistent score on a film. Ed saw the film, liked it and knew immediately what we needed. We just use a few songs at the beginning and at the end.” [this is a tip-off that something was seriously wrong. As Bogdanovich says, he had never used a “consistent score” before, and has been quite vocal in his opposition to scoring his films, and sure enough, his Squirrels cut does not have a traditional score – only Frank Sinatra and Tom Petty songs are used as counterpoint at key moments.  Funny has Shearmur’s “comedy score” ladled all over the film alongside Poots’ incessant narration]

Adding to the charm of Broadway Therapy are a number of guest appearances by cast members from previous Bogdanovich films, including Tatum O’Neal, Colleen Camp and Joanna Lumley. His friend Michael Shannon and director Quentin Tarantino also do the honors with short appearances. “The cameos in the film are wonderful,” enthuses producer Wiersma. “We were shooting in New York and we often cast our stars with no dialogue at all. We started with Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, who acts as Owen Wilson’s driver. At the hotel, Owen then meets Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman, who is a friend of mine. Other guests in the lobby include artist and designer Scott Campbell and Victoria Secret supermodel Erin Heatherton. Starring as Arnold’s exes are Anna O’Reilly and Jennifer Esposito. Among the audience in the theater, one discovers Susan Miller from the famous astrology website astrologyzone.com, the mother of Will Forte, and the critic Roger Friedman. It was great fun to put all the idea cameos together in the film.”

Small digression: The screwball comedy

Sassy mouths, whimsical eccentricities, and ambiguous entanglements — the blueprint for spot-on comedy seems simple, but requires actors and directors to have a keen sense of timing and pacing. Screwball comedy, the fast-paced phenomenon that turned Hollywood upside down in the 1930s and 1940s, is definitely the leader in terms of speed, wit and ludicrous twists: Howard Hawks and Frank Capra were the first filmmakers to let bickering and flirting couples bounce off each other, who didn’t want to be together at all yet ended up hugging each other {I and Google Translate obviously had trouble with this sentence]. In Bringing Up Baby, a milestone in screwball comedy, Katherine Hepburn as the eccentric millionaire Susan plays her game with the unworldly paleontologist David, involves him in a leopard hunt, tears his suit in a luxury restaurant and otherwise puts him in absurd situations, which he can only hide from his staid fiancée Alice with great effort.

Hepburn and Grant are considered one of the funniest couples in film history and inspired Peter Bogdanovich to create the 1972 blockbuster What’s Up, Doc? in which Barbra Streisand as the overexcited student Judy Maxwell is hot on the heels of the shy Howard Bannister aka Ryan O’Neal. Judy not only frees the shy musicologist from his beastly fiancée, but also draws him into a lunatic game of confusion in which high-quality contraband and sensitive government documents change hands several times. And as if the twisting story wasn’t fast-paced enough, Bogdanovich fills What’s Up, Doc? with cross-references and quotes from film history: With torn suits and pajamas, O’Neal is reminiscent of the screwball role model Cary Grant and takes aim at his tragic role in Love Story from 1970. Judy’s cheesy “Love is never having to say I’m sorry” — the most famous quote from O’Neal’s tearjerker, mind you — leads the grumpy Bannister to respond with an uncharming “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Broadway Therapy does not shy away from reminiscences of the past gems of New Hollywood: Bogdanovich shares with the grandmaster of screwball comedy, Frank Capra, the fondness for the eternal battle of the sexes, which Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable fought out in the first film of this new genre. It Happened One Night is still one of the most romantic road movie comedies, which filled cinemas in 1934 and filled Capra’s trophy cabinet with five Oscars.

Entanglements that are clearly ambiguous…

While Bogdanovich borrowed the theme from the screwball founder Capra, the narrative style of Broadway Therapy is clearly a homage to the comedy king of the 30s: Bogdanovich exuberantly uses the legendary “Lubitsch touch,” looking through keyholes and door gaps, causes embarrassing coincidences, misunderstandings and entanglements that are clearly ambiguous.

Especially Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film Cluny Brown is the inspiration for this frivolous social comedy about strong women, weak men and charming suits [translation issue, don’t ask me!], with which the film pokes fun at the social quirks of (Broadway) society. Bogdanovich adds the wit and seductiveness of Billy Wilder’s Marilyn Monroe to Lubitsch’s clever, stubborn female characters. Wilder, who was a close friend and screenwriter of Ernst Lubitsch, perfected his screwball humor under Lubitsch’s direction on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, and for the characters of Broadway Therapy Wilder’s 1950s works Some Like It Hot and The Seven-Year Itch are greatly influential.



Not Phony: Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE

By James Kenney

Below is an expanded version of notes written for the July 20th, 2022 screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque.

“A lot of stuff was improvised and then written down and then learned. The actors and I all worked on that endlessly. I told them I wanted to get their point of view. They were in their early twenties. I wasn’t. I wanted to know their attitudes, how they would react, how they would feel. I didn’t want it to be phony.”  Peter Bogdanovich, speaking with Peter Tonguette for Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2020)

July 16, 1999 is when Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love opened in New York City, remarkable only in that the film had originally snuck out six years earlier, in August 1993, without a New York release, just the latest in a run of high-quality commercial failures that dogged Bogdanovich after Mask’s success in 1985 (Love only tallied around 430,000 dollars on initial release against an announced 14-million-dollar budget). 

I was there on the16th, for an early afternoon show that Quentin Tarantino, without an entourage, quietly attended as well.  I had already seen the film on its home video release in 1994, and no doubt so had Tarantino, an avowed Bogdanovich fan who later put the director’s then-neglected They All Laughed on his Sight and Sound 2002 “Top 10 of all Time” poll. 

Tarantino knew it wasn’t important to see “big” films projected on the big screen; it was, and is, vital to see good films this way.

The Thing Called Love is most certainly a “good film” despite its disgraceful initial release, dropped indifferently into regional Southern U.S. theaters because of its country music angle, and then buried completely due to indecision in how to market it after one of its leads, River Phoenix, died of an overdose on a Hollywood sidewalk before the premiere. The film’s primary emphasis is on the weekly auditions for a Saturday night showcase at the legendary Bluebird Café (a real place, later made famous in television’s Nashville), here run by Lucy, played by a no-nonsense K.T. Oslin. While hanging around the Bluebird, and ultimately waitressing there, New York-native Miranda Presley falls in with three other songwriting hopefuls, the self-involved James Wright (Phoenix), Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), and Linda Lue Linden (an ascending Sandra Bullock), an unconfident but warm-hearted “Southern Belle” perhaps less talented but more giving and self-aware than the others.

Unsurprisingly for a Bogdanovich film, Love focuses less on the mechanics of the music business than on the need to become part of a like-minded community of kindred spirits. Like many of his films, such as The Last Picture Show and Saint Jack, The Thing Called Love is an unrushed exploration of friendship, romance, regret, and optimism – plot is hardly the concern. He makes what I call “gang comedies” (the term borrowed from David Mamet) — films that explore the interpersonal workings of a community, so we spend less time on contrived plot developments and more time on relationships, with plenty of time for eccentric Bogdanovichian forays such as the guy who wrote a top twenty hit the previous year but now drives a cab, the motel owner who puts song lyrics on his sign and kindly lets Miranda stay despite her attempts not to pay (and who figures prominently, eccentrically and winningly in the film’s climax, despite being a minor character), the barber who says he cut Elvis’ hair, etc.

The romantic longings, dreams, and insecurities of Nashville’s aspiring artists, and their attempts to define who they are and aren’t, is what Bogdanovich is really after, and he creates a beguiling, breathing environment, suggestive rather than explicit, at once light and serious. 

Bogdanovich always cares deeply about his characters, working here with his young actors to make them real enough you’ll wish they existed; they’ll stay with you long after Love ends. I can’t believe you won’t smile as the credits roll, Bogdanovich pulling off another one of his quietly bittersweet but optimistic finales that wisely hands itself over to the brilliant Bullock for a key moment before giving the rest of the ensemble its final bows.

Bogdanovich was not the first director on the project. Brian Gibson, who instead made the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It?, was originally attached, and The Thing Called Love has certain superficial similarities with “the struggling artist or athlete makes good” archetype utilized in films good and bad such as Flashdance and Rocky that Bogdanovich is clearly fighting.  Whether this fight is what a major studio, in this case Paramount, desired, is another consideration.

Bogdanovich worked intimately with his four young leads: “[They] were closely involved in the creative process. I learned a lot from these young people. I found that their generation is in some ways guardedly romantic and in other ways practical, inquiring, not easily duped, and suspicious of going in accepted ways just because their parents did,” he explained in the film’s press materials, “And I think this is a generation with a great deal of integrity – very conscious about what selling out does to someone.”

Even as a hired hand, Bogdanovich never compromised his artistic integrity on Love, battling to cast Bullock over studio objections: she later told the Los Angeles Times “Peter fought for me, even though I was nobody to fight for and he didn’t even know me.” The film is certainly a terrific showcase for Mathis, Mulroney, Bullock and indeed the tragic Phoenix, who gives an impressive performance (both as an actor and musician) as the narcissistic but decent James: as he said upon the film’s release, “[James] is very self-centered, yet he holds a certain amount of humor which I think is a saving grace…it’s as a songwriter where his vulnerability and true soul shines.”

While top country artists supplied new songs for the soundtrack (including longtime friend Rodney Crowell, whose songs Bogdanovich featured in Texasville and They All Laughed), he also had the young leads write their own songs for the film. Bullock wrote a song called “Heaven Knocked on My Door”: “It was supposed to be a metaphorically bad song, and they were paying talented songwriters all this money to do it,” she told the Times. “I told them if they wanted a bad song, they could pay me and I’d write them a terrible song.” Phoenix composed and sang “Lone Star State of Mind,” Mulroney the same with “Someone Else’s Used Guitar.”  The film’s song score was conceived to naturally emanate from sources within scenes, a stylistic trademark of Bogdanovich: “It gives the picture more reality. I like music to be counterpoint rather than always underlining what’s happening visually.”

The Thing Called Love was an assignment, yet Bogdanovich makes it his own through his sophisticated mise en scène, allowing you to fill in bits for yourself, clearly responsive to his performers and to the Nashville milieu. You can feel how much the characters in the film enjoy hanging out, singing, and writing together, and Bogdanovich’s influence is felt in the climactic song performed by Mathis, “Big Dream” (written by Alice Randall and Ralph Murphy). As he told Peter Tonguette, referring to the song’s motif of God being female, “Nobody wanted the song.  They wanted songs that were more upbeat or more flashy. I said ‘You know, when an audience first hears a song, they’re not going to love it. It takes time to get to know a song and to get familiar with a song. So it has to be something that’s a little surprising and a little revolutionary in the lyric, not so much the tune. It has to be something a little shocking or a little controversial.”

A film of delightful little moments and eccentric curlicues, about connection and community, The Thing Called Love will sneak up on you. Michael Wilmington, distressed by the film’s meager release, wrote an eloquent defense of it in 1994 for the Chicago Tribune: “The best things about The Thing Called Love are its cast, style and mood. It has a snap, pace and rhythm we don’t ordinarily see in today’s movies. The dialogue scenes have a headlong pace and crackling self-confidence reminiscent of Howard Hawks, and the three- and four-way love combats recall Ernst Lubitsch. At its best, The Thing Called Love has the inner life and brash stylization of a movie like To Have and Have Not….The Thing Called Love, which may just have been too smart for its early test audiences, is a movie without alibis.” It should also be noted that there is a director’s cut available for Love at this point; while the original film wasn’t taken away from him, the slightly longer director’s cut does reincorporate some very likeable bits, including a more memorable introduction to Bullock and extends some musical performances, but the theatrical version was not disowned by Bogdanovich or anything of that sort.

The Thing Called Love is not Peter Bogdanovich’s most personal film, but any film that has a couple of songwriters sitting in the back of a pickup truck trying to write a song based on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is clearly a Bogdanovich picture. I think back to the Book of Ecclesiastes when considering Bogdanovich’s impressive latter day work, made without the control or status he once held: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” Once handed the assignment, Bogdanovich fought for what was right from the beginning (Bullock’s casting) to the end (Mathis’ climactic song). Anyone who didn’t catch up with Love in 1993 should make the effort now, as the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that while the box-office diminished for latter Bogdanovich works, his talent did not.

Pretty Good is Good Enough: Edward Burns returns with SUMMER DAYS, SUMMER NIGHTS

By James Kenney

Hooray for Edward Burns, steadfast and true, whose latest unremarkable, enjoyable, affable and gently conventional feature film, Summer Days, Summer Nights, snuck out unannounced via Epix and Amazon streaming for rental or purchase. 

Burns, certainly out of fashion, has never deviated from his self-proclaimed mandate to be a working-class variation on Woody Allen, but, imperceptible to many, he has enhanced his craft through the years.

Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, still his two most popular films, are far from his best; superficial, and filled with characters who act in dimly unpleasant ways imposed on them by screenwriter Burns, not out of any organic character development.  These commercial successes nevertheless weren’t boring and were generally well-acted and mildly diverting, and young Burns was a nice success story who seemed amiable enough.

Sure enough, his next film, No Looking Back (initially given the much more evocative title Long Time, Nothing New) stiffed, which, sure enough, means it was by far the best of the three – an honest, credible scenario of a dissatisfied waitress briefly turning her back on her tried and true local plodder boyfriend to reengage with her scoundrel-ex.  Burns’ third film was both nicely shot and acted (Lauren Holly, Blythe Danner and Jon Bon Jovi costarred alongside Burns), but no one cared save me and Andrew Sarris, who gave it a nice notice. Seek it out if you like Burns.

Since then, a few of his films have been minor hits, many have sunk without a trace, but I posit that pretty much all his best work came in his “mature” period – the aforementioned Back, along with Sidewalks of New York, the Groomsmen, the Newlyweds and the excellent Fitzgerald Family Christmas all offered good actors reasonable parts to play, and Burns’ scripting and directing has been sensible, thoughtful and unsurprising.  If it sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, think again. I’m rooting for Burns, whose films pointedly lack comic book references and wild shootouts – his one film with a couple of guns waved around, Ash Wednesday, was more Scorsese than Bruckheimer, and it’s his worst film anyway. Burns likes dramatizing human-scale conflict and clearly likes actors.  Good for him.

As to be expected for any filmmaker who focuses on human-scale conflict, Burns has recently turned to television, with Bridge and Tunnel entering its second season for Epix, but mention must be made of his most recent feature film release (shot a couple of years ago), a lively, peppy ensemble piece following a bunch of 18-22 year olds during summer break on the South Shore of Long Island in 1982; some ready to start college, some ready to start their adult lives.  Shot in a nicely jaunty 2:35-1 frame filled with a collective of attractive young bodies, Burns doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before, but it is friendly and engaging, with a nice soundtrack of the hits of the time (Duran Duran, the Pretenders, Chaka Kahn, the Go-Go’s, etc.). Oddly, Burns left Twitter despite a sizeable following, which seems a mistake for an indie filmmaker whose films don’t receive an advertising budget — no doubt this film would have much more of a presence if Burns had continued to engage with his fans through social media.

Now it’s down to me alone to spread the word!

The young cast is wholly capable, with Pico Alexander as Burns’s son who works for him at a private beach club, Lindsey Morgan as Alexander’s slightly older coworker and potential love interest, and Anthony Ramos as a guy still hung up on the girl who abandoned him to marry a Van Halen producer making the strongest impressions. Burns himself is the only cast member I recognized, but it is both nice and destabilizing to see him age on the screen, now playing the dad part he’d have once given to John Mahoney. 

And we’ve all heard of the son-wants-to-be-an-artist-but-dad-wants-him-to-go-into-business trope used in coming-of-age movies, such as John Hughes’ Some Kind of Wonderful, yes?  An indication of whether you’ll like Summer Days, Summer Nights is that Burns’ character is instead exasperated with his son’s pursuing a business degree; he’d rather Alexander continues the creative writing he loved in high school, telling him the American dream isn’t to get rich, but “having the opportunity to follow your passion.” 

If that kind of benign inversion of formula sounds agreeable to you, you’ll likely enjoy Summer Days, Summer Nights. I did, and if seems unlikely Burns will ever make a truly great film, I’m pretty okay with him reliably making pretty good ones, and hope he gets to make a few more.

College Kids Versus the Old Hollywood Guard: Looking back at the First Annual 20th Century Fox College Weekend, Held in New York City in 1967

By James Kenney

John Boorman’s POINT BLANK, starring Lee Marvin (who 1967 college kids found “funny and cool”)

“Bonnie and Clyde.” “The Wild Bunch.” “Midnight Cowboy.” “Easy Rider.” “Point Blank.”  These were the films audiences were embracing by the late 1960s, as the old-school Hollywood machinery was sputtering, delivering overproduced roadshow backfires like “Star!,” “Doctor Doolittle,” and “Darling Lili” to dwindling public interest. 

Aging Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Charlie Chaplin were putting out inferior product such as “Topaz,” “Seven Women,” and “A Countess in Hong Kong.”  The studios, bleeding red, and not knowing what to make of upstart filmmakers like Dennis Hopper and Sam Peckinpah making critically venerated product that also made money, responded by temporarily tolerating their unseasoned ideas: Hollywood became for a brief golden period a directors’ paradise, where filmmakers such as Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Ashby, and Rafelson were given reign to make projects largely as they saw fit, resulting in what many feel is the ultimate period of American filmmaking, “the 70s” (which really began in the 60s with “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider” and “the Wild Bunch”). 

Naturally, following this first wave of uncompromising artists was a second wave of art where the director was still very much in charge, but certain visionaries were proving much more amenable to working in exploitable genres, leading to Spielberg’s “Jaws,” Lucas’s “Star Wars,” and  Carpenter’s “Halloween” while the auteurists with less innately commercial instincts began to stumble, their expensive projects such as “One From the Heart,” “At Long Last Love,” and “Raging Bull” not resulting in guaranteed box-office or critical success. 

By the mid 1980s the producers were determinedly back in control, as the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson grasped they could test market films like television commercials, hire television commercial directors such as the Scott brothers and Adrian Lyne, and put out often ludicrous but archetype-driven nonsense like “Flashdance” and “Top Gun” and clean up financially.  Everything from that point to our present quagmire has just been a tightening of these screws, the filmmaking decision process shifting wholly from qualitative to quantitative decision making, all discussion centering on “projects” and “tentpoles” and “extended universes.”

But, for a splendid instant in the late 60s, the studios were scared. 

Scared of the filmmakers, whom at least they could see, and scared of the filmgoers, who were proving an increasingly absent abstract concept snubbing the product they were expensively producing while showing up for oddball visions like “Harold & Maude,”  “M*A*S*H,” and  “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song.” Even more obviously identifiable commercial product like “Love Story” couldn’t be easily calculated – the film starred an unremarkable television actor and a model, had no major overpriced stars or veteran studio director with a “track record.”

But curiously, before the floodgates disintegrated and movies like “Emmanuelle,” “The Exorcist” and “Walking Tall” (all unthinkable as big-studio releases a decade earlier) topped the box-office charts, one studio, 20th Century Fox, made an earnest if unconventional effort to reach out to “Today’s Youth” and meet them halfway, in (as Fox’s press materials announced) “an unprecedented effort to establish an annual dialogue between the college generation and the creators of motion pictures.” 

While Fox was still rolling out expensive three-hour roadshow presentation of product like “The Bible” and “The Sand Pebbles,” they set up “The First Annual 20th Century-Fox College Weekend” for April 28th, 1967, involving previews of two upcoming Fox releases, press conferences, panel discussions, and private interviews with writers, producers, directors, actors and 20th Century Fox’s “key executives,” including the president of the company, Darryl F. Zanuck, and David Brown, vice president and director of story operations. More than “50 Eastern college newspaper editors” were summoned to participate in a dialogue with motion picture creators.

As Fox’s press release describes the situation:

With the strong feeling that the company is producing more and more films that will be of interest to college students, and with the ever-growing interest of students entering the industry, the discussions and panel sessions will center on the problems of making creative films in Hollywood.

They also proposed to host further weekends in the mid-West and the West Coast, with Chicago and Los Angeles the next two cities on the agenda after New York.

Oddly, the two films the studio chose to showcase for this audience don’t seem immediately identifiable as “youth programming”: Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road,” about difficulties in a long-term marriage and starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, and “The Flim-Flam Man”, a family comedy starring George C. Scott, Sue Lyon and Michael Sarrazin, directed by Irvin Kershner (later to helm “the Empire Strikes Back”).

The weekend’s schedule proves most interesting:

Friday, April 28:

7 pm:               A cocktail party in the Roman Room located at the 444 West 57th street Holiday Inn.

7:45 pm:          Depart by bus to the Tin Lizzie Steakhouse, 140 West 51st St.

9:45 pm:          Depart restaurant to walk to Radio City Music Hall, 50th St. and 6th Ave. to see “Two For the Road”; Gather in the front lobby – a fox representative will assure participants’ entrance.

Saturday, April 29:

9 am:               Breakfast with Stanley Donen and Frederic Raphael (“Road”’s screenwriter, who also wrote “Eyes Wide Shut” for Kubrick) – at the Roman Room in the Holiday Inn.

10:30 AM        Walk to the 20th Century-Fox, 444 West 56th St Screening of “the Flim-Flam Man” in the 6th Floor screening room.

12:30 PM        Depart Fox by bus for the Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Ave.

1 PM               Lunch at the Yale Club, 18th floor.

3 PM               Final session dialogue, in an adjoining room at the Yale Club.

5:30 PM          Cocktail Party – the Yale Club


8:30 PM          Dinner at Act I, Allied Chemical Tower, 16th Floor, 42nd street and Broadway.

Pages from the Tin Lizzie restaurant menu (found on the Culinary Institiute of America’s website)

Among the colleges partaking were: Harvard, Yale, Brown University, Villanova, University of Pittsburgh, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Drexel Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Radcliffe College, Boston University, American University, University of Connecticut, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Brooklyn College, St. John’s University, Adelphi University, Nassau Community College, Hofstra, CCNY, NYU, Pace College, Columbia and Hunter.

And how did the cutting edge of American youth react?

Well, not so well, if a letter from T.E.D. Klein, who at the time was attending Brown University (where he wrote his thesis on H.P. Lovecraft) is any indication. Klein later would go on to receive great acclaim for his work, winning some awards and writing the novel “The Ceremonies,” the collection of essays “Providence After Dark and Other Writings” and the screenplay for Dario Argento’s “Trauma,” among other things. 

Klein wrote to Rudy Franchi, a representative of Fox, on May 15, 1967, after attending the weekend’s festivities.  Klein’s response is both erudite and mildly insufferable if not condescending, fairly recognizable characteristics in late 60s college students, as they understandably were rather flummoxed with the older generation regarding not just Hollywood and its suspiciously outmoded and unhip product, but Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement and the Warren Commission and all that. On the other hand, Klein and others were indeed in college, not in the jungle near Than Khe, and they did get a bunch of free food and drink at the Yale Club and face-time with the likes of the New York Times’ lead critic Bosley Crowther and filmmakers Kershner and Donen. It was a group of predominantly (if not wholly) white young men interacting with a group of older white men to determine some future for the film industry, if not to alter the actual content than to certainly alter the marketing of said product. 

As Klein responded:

Dear Mr. Frenchi:

            I am very happy to hear that Twentieth Century-Fox consider the “College Weekend” a success, since your company obviously spent a great deal of time and money in organizing it. Personally I enjoyed your hospitality very much, yet don’t really think that the weekend accomplished anything.

            Undoubtedly a lot of kids have written letters to you criticizing the affair – most of us, after all, are critics! – but I hope you understand that, with whatever reservations I have about the success of the experiment, I am very grateful for having been invited.

            The panel discussion, I feel, was a complete waste of time, except that it was of course interesting to see Zanuck, Crowther, Valenti and [Richard]Goldstein [of the Village Voice] in person. (And the event was perhaps worthwhile for Fox’s publicity department – we really do like the creative young filmmaker, there is a place for him in Hollywood, etc. etc.) No one, I’m sure, was particularly convinced by any of the bull that was thrown around – it seemed that the speakers chose to examine the question rather than actually answer it – and the only aspect that interested me was the personality clash between Mr. Crowther and the arrogant but interesting Mr. Raphael.

            At the discussion a very interesting question was raised by the fellow from Yale, and no one seemed to respond to it. He asked just why the two films we saw over the weekend where chosen in the first place. Ostensibly they had some special relevance to a college audience, but I couldn’t find any. In fact, I think both were examples of what a college audience – at least what passes as an “intellectual” one – would find slick, typically “Hollywood,” and dull. “Two for the Road” might appeal to middle-aged married people and to those who flock to anything Audrey Hepburn appears in, but when I saw it with seven or eight of my fellow collegians, we all groaned at the triteness and artificiality of the dialogue, the predictability as to what would happen next (e.g. Finney says, lying in the sun, “My skin is made of asbestos,” and you know he’ll get an awful burn; he says that he’ll never pass a hitch-hiker when he has a  car and you know that in the next cut that’s precisely what he’ll do; etc.), and we were all terribly bored and happy to get out.

            As for “The Flim-Flam Man,” the only relevance to a college audience that could have had would be the name of George C. Scott, who is very popular right now (along with Lee Marvin – both are regarded as funny and cool). As one of the guys said after seeing the movie, it was “nice family entertainment,” and little more. It will probably do well, and I hope so, as it was, after all, fairly pleasant and occasionally funny and the director and producer seemed like nice people, etc.

            Which brings me to the best part of the weekend – talking with the men responsible for the films. Fascinating, nice to see that they’re human beings (who, though fallible, can like many artists convince themselves that they’ve created something truly great), and wish the breakfast-table lunch-table discussions could have been longer.

            The weekend was memorable because it was well-planned and lots of fun. I’m afraid that if you hoped all the college kid would leave with a much more sympathetic attitude toward Hollywood – or at least a different image – you are mistaken; but thank you very much anyway.

Ted Klein

I was able to find no evidence that Fox held the further College Weekends promised, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t.  But there was a schism between the “college kids” and the studio people that wasn’t to be bridged by a lunch at the Yale Club. That being said, the schism wasn’t that big – these young college students, male and white, were not that different than the people who invited them and no doubt more than one (such as Klein who, among other future jobs, was a script reader at Paramount ) joined the industry later at some level.  But they were confident, as the young often is, that they were different, searching for something new and more “real” than what came before, and with the characteristic indifference of youth, Klein suggested he liked the free food, wanted more of it, but otherwise was unresponsive to the studio’s efforts. Hey, I myself like both “Two for the Road” and “the Flim-Flam Man,”– I would have written a much more enthusiastic letter.  One suspects the handwritten message to Franchi found at the top of Klein’s letter suggestive of the studio’s puzzlement about the whole thing – “Rudy – noted – Is he typical”

If Fox had trouble parsing this crowd of Yale, Harvard and Brooklyn College newspaper editors, contemplate the head-scratching and hair-pulling at the grosses of “Sweet Sweetback” only a couple years later…

Nuts for the Squirrels: Peter Bogdanovich’s SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS at MOMA

By James Kenney

18 months or so ago, when I first “discovered,” and then delivered to Peter Bogdanovich his definitive version of Squirrels to the Nuts, I couldn’t have imagined a better premiere than this 2022 series of screenings with such receptive audiences at such a tremendous venue, particularly one like the Museum of Modern Art with truly personal meaning to Peter, who curated several series there in the 1960s. I also couldn’t have imagined that Peter would have passed away before he could see the results of his, my, Louise Stratten, Dave Kehr, and everyone else’s efforts to make what unfolded in these past few weeks a reality. But as his unproduced Wait for Me screenplay (a most Bogdanovichian masterwork that should have been greenlit after the proper version of Squirrels was released, and should still be published) indicates, Peter believed in the afterlife and in the possibility of redemption, and I’m sure if there was any possibility, he was there, triumphant in the restoration of, and redemption of, his vision for Squirrels to the Nuts.

Dave Kehr, the curator at MOMA, informed me that despite the post-Covid malaise that has hampered overall film attendance, attendance for the Squirrels run was indeed terrific, and unlike the notorious one-off screening the producers gave for Squirrels in 2014 that lead to it being disemboweled, audiences in 2022 never failed to respond. The film plays, restored to its proper dimensions dreamt up by cowriters Bogdanovich and Stratten, and it plays magnificently on the big screen– a film doesn’t have to be a Michael Bay spectacle to warrant the theatrical experience.

So many sublime moments completely missing from the crippled 2015 release She’s Funny That Way – George Morfogen’s “Follow that Buggy!”; Owen Wilson’s disbelief at seeing Rhys Ifans on both the cover and back cover of Esquire at an airport newsstand; Imogen Poots’s “Bye now! P.S. – I’m movin’ out!” to her grating parents upon landing a role; the Will Forte/ Austin Pendleton sequence and its “prewar building”; and, of course, the Sardi’s party sequence containing the entirety of Stephen Dorff and Joanna Lumley’s performances, and the lovely, self-aware final gag of Kathryn Hahn turning to Owen and incredulously saying “You mean, after all that, it wasn’t even original?” regarding the now-beautifully set-up and paid-off Cluny Brown gag, all play terrifically, receiving audible responses from receptive crowds. Squirrels has a different ending than the previously released version, different opening, different character fates, different editing, different chronology, different scoring — and this version, found on eBay and screened at MOMA, is Peter’s only uncompromised cut, the one he wished audiences to experience, not the reshaped-by-committee travesty that snuck out in 2015.

I can’t help but think that this great, idiosyncratic work could break out with proper handling moving forward, that people going in believing in its potential worth will respond to it, whereas a 2013 test audience pulled randomly off the street weaned on Adam Sandler comedies might not know how to respond because things aren’t spelled out in ten-foot tall dayglow letters; while Peter wasn’t making an art film, any film of his is a work of art –he never insults his audience’s intelligence.  As for the issue that apparently caused the original producers the most bewilderment – the Lubitsch-like happenstance of people’s destinies colliding in absurd ways that indicate a god with a wicked sense of humor is guiding from above – the MOMA audiences again and again broke out in knowing laughter at each developing entanglement.  They got the joke, they got the movie, they got its spirit. 

Most heartwarming was the audience reaction at screenings where neither I or Louise or editor Pax Wasserman spoke –I went to several screenings that had no special event attached, and the audience’s adoration never diminished. Not knowing anyone involved was there, they still burst into applause at the end of the film, cheering when Peter’s image appeared in the Sopranos clip on the television at the end. The majority of audiences stayed until the very last moment of the very end credits, entranced by the beautifully edited nighttime New York footage timed to Tom Petty’s “King’s Highway” that now resolves the film, staying until the very last drum-kick of the song.  Peter’s instincts to avoid scoring again prove sound as he got his laughs his way, not pushing the audience with any heavy-handed “whimsical” music added. 

But before I stand accused of just so much hyperbole, let me share actual, legitimate responses from audiences – in a modern world, for better and worse, you can get immediate fan reaction to a work via Twitter and Letterboxd alongside professional reviews.  People are responding terrifically; allow me to share (if anyone wishes their response removed, please let me know –I hope that those who responded positively to the film will have interest in seeing this aggregation): 

The Professionals Speak (Formally and Informally):

Brad Hanford, InReviewOnline

Squirrels to the Nuts breezily reasserts the legacy and artistry of Peter Bogdanovich…  a brilliant and committed artist further exploring the themes and obsessions that defined his career, with… utterly personal directness…Squirrels is undoubtedly an improvement on its theatrical version…Any case that still needs to be made for the artist’s original vision is sealed by the lovely final sequence, bafflingly cut to shreds in She’s Funny That Way, which caps off the romantic roundelays with as perfect a punchline to Bogdanovich’s career as one could hope for.

Josh Bogatin Screenslate:

Bogdanovich handles this constantly expanding series of mistaken identities, absurd coincidences, and badly-kept secrets with complete ease. He often crafts scenes with a circular structure, shifting focus between multiple characters within the span of minutes in order to gracefully connect them in surprising ways. His preference for medium two-shots, paired with his penchant for uninterrupted long takes, elegantly showcases the diverse abilities of his ensemble. From Forte’s gentle, confused shrug to Aniston’s disapproving grimace to Morfogen’s sigh of disbelief, Bogdanovich plays the members of the ensemble as sections of a symphony orchestra, deriving rhythm and structure from their unique quirks…[Squirrels] will stand as one of Bogdanovich’s most inspiring and appetizing visions.

Farran Smith Nehme (professional film scholar, via Twitter):

My husband and I had a great time last night at @MoMAFilmfor SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS, the Peter Bogdanovich film rescued by @jfkenney… A very funny movie that the audience clearly enjoyed.

Glenn Kenny –(New York Times and RogerEbert.com reviewer via Twitter)

It’s a really special picture,very stylized screwball but if you can catch its groove a complete riot. Exceeded my expectations. See it if you can!

Kenny on Letterboxd

 I expected an improvement on the jumbled She’s Funny That Way, but not necessarily first-stripe Bogdanovich. This maniacal post-screwball takes some acclimatizing — the declamatory style of the line readings …is very Contrary To Contemporary Practice but works once you get into it. The various meet-awkwards are hilarious and the treatment of erotic compulsion hits on something real about humankind and likely the filmmaker.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker:

In Squirrels to the Nuts, Bogdanovich has the space and the time to develop the intertangled connections of his characters at length and in detail. Here, he develops an aspect of his world view, of his artistic cosmology, which energizes the very best of his films, including What’s Up, Doc?, Daisy Miller, and At Long Last Love: the conversion of chance into destiny. (It’s a theme that links him with another great elder filmmaker and contemporary: Éric Rohmer.)

Niall Browne, Movies in Focus:

Squirrels To The Nuts is a markedly different film. Gone is the haphazard framing device which sees Imogen Poots’s call girl-turned starlet talking to Ileana Douglas’s journalist. The new cut gives each character a full introduction, letting the film breathe in a way which She’s Funny That Way fails to do. Squirrels To The Nuts is much more focused, letting scenes play out in their natural form in a fashion which is more in-keeping with Bogdanovich’s directorial style.

The original release featured a lot of ‘tell don’t show’ due to its last-minute voiceover narration – a major no-no for film-making. However, Bogdanovich’s director’s cut has more ‘show don’t tell’ and the audience gets to figure out on their own what is happening on screen. Gone is the Quentin Tarantino cameo from She’s Funny That Way (it was cool but it made no sense) and in comes Stephen Dorff and Joanna Lumley (who had a post-credits cameo in the original) and music cues from Frank Sinatra and Tom Petty. Ultimately, Squirrels to The Nuts also features a much more satisfying (and sensical) conclusion than the version released eight years ago.

Speaking of satisfying conclusions – it’s something of a cinematic miracle that Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels To The Nuts was ever released. The movie gods have granted divine dispensation for the film’s discovery and it’s great to know that Bogdanovich was able to leave cineasts one final film.

Reviews from the Letterboxd website:

Nicole PassageIncredible how much better this is than the She’s Funny That Way cut.

Mark Metzger: it’s a zany, absolutely bonkers screwball comedy that feels right at home with the comedies of the 1930s. The script is a sharp and intricate weaving of characters getting into hilarious coincidental situations – a la Neil Simon and Ernst Lubitsch (whose work the title comes from). It’s really a total riot, and it works extremely well when it dives head first into the unbelievable and self-aware lunacy….Austin Pendleton is the gem of this whole film, proving once again why he’s one of New York’s legendary actors

Klee_mation: I haven’t seen the original cut so I can’t comment on that, but this version was great. Bogdanovich doesn’t quite hit the heights of What’s up Doc? but delivers a classic screwball with …tons of great laugh lines and an incredibly funny setpiece in the middle that really steals the show.

Matthew: …but all of these weird little things add up to something really lovely, and I say this as a total Bogdanovich apologist.  the movie is a GOOD TIME. it needs to be released properly!  please!

Campbell George: Just an absurdly good time. Shame the studio didn’t go with this cut because it’s all the screwball you could ask for in a comedy and then some. The ensemble is terrific, the punchlines land (literally). Terrible shame we don’t get more movies like this. What a note for Bogdanovich to go out on.

Mike Mekus: Not even joking when I say it genuinely warms my heart that a movie like this was made in 2014 and eventually got a legitimate release and has been able to be seen by a few people. Hopefully it gets a wide release, too. Makes me sad that movies like this basically don’t exist any longer, though. That’s sad.  Can’t compare it to the release cut (She’s Funny That Way) cause I have yet to see it, but I genuinely loved this. Pete Bogdanovich is a real director with a genuine vision and wonderful feel for zany, madcap, screwball ensemble comedies.

Matt Hoffman: Stunning. The MOMA audience went wild.

Jackson Ross: This is a fully formed, well-oiled movie, very intricately plotted and finally available in a form where that plotting is able to let itself play out the smooth way it was intended….And a lot more Pendleton! Does this count as a 2022 movie? Can I mount a Best Supporting Actor campaign for Pendleton? Best Supporting Pendleton?

Bananananana: It’s a very magical movie from such incredibly rare circumstances…Jennifer Aniston is wildly funny, Owen Wilson is also a perfect cast. Really everyone in the loaded ensemble is great…Was nice seeing the MoMa crowd (in the excellent theater) applaud at the finale…

Mattstechel: an enjoyably quick-witted movie… there’s a lot of great off the cuff one liners throughout and a lot of fun moments too even if the story is one of those unlikely situations that abound because none of the characters can just tell each other the truth.. It’s fun on the whole [and] it’s also very light and fizzy

Nick Miller: Extremely charming, a loving homage/attempt to revive screwball comedies.

Joel Little: I’m nuts for squirrels to the nuts! Austin Pendleton’s best supporting actor campaign begins now.

Ayeen Forootan: Squirrels is always authentically funny and full of wit and charm.

Johnny Pomato: It manages to fix just about all of the problems that the theatrically distributed film had, and it’s essentially like getting what I lamented we never would, a brand new Peter Bogdanovich film…Now every gag has a purpose and a forward momentum that is driving all of our characters to convene and collide. It’s incredible to discover one last great film from the director, and hopefully others will get the opportunity to see it soon as well.

Matt Walker: This movie had me in f***ing stiches. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at a comedy.

Twitter responses:

Vikram Murthi: Squirrels to the Nuts is fantastic. Trades in the compressed mania of She’s Funny for a more luxurious farce where everyone gets an appropriate showcase, especially Pendleton who’s a goddamn hero. “After all that, it’s not even original” is a perfect career-capping line.

Nick Miller: “*eyes glowing* I’m going to go see Squirrels to the Nuts once more before it leaves the MoMA

Be Like Until the Boy: Traveled to NYC to see this on my birthday… it soon becomes clear that Bogdanovich still had his fastball… you’re in for a treat: great physical comedy, some lovely sentiment. The film belongs alongside “What’s Up, Doc?” and may well be a late masterpiece. After the film, I was outside leaning against the wall and texting my spouse. A woman looked at me and said, “Wasn’t it great?” That moment showed that, first, I still got it; and second, the movie–or Bogdanovich’s first crack at an edit–had the same magic we’ve seen in his other work.

Brendan: I’ve seen Squirrels to the Nuts twice this week and both times the people I took loved it! Thanks to @jfkenney for finding this gem! Hope it will be released to the general public soon!

Steve: Just saw it. The audience was in stitches. Might be Aniston’s best rolecaught squirrels to the nuts earlier and it’s uhhhh absolutely one of Bogdanovich’s best movies????????

Amy Robinson: “Squirrels to Nuts ” @MuseumModernArt this “lost” Peter Bogdanovich film really cheered me up after the toxic Oscar show.

Matt Prigge: Granted I have very little memory of Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, but Squirrels to the Nuts is…completely different? And it actually feels like a Bogdanovich? And it’s pretty great?

W. Montiel: She’s Funny That Way was already an important movie for me– Squirrels to the Nuts today – how infinitely more brilliant and charming it is – was one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of all time, thank you so much for that.

Sure, there is a minority of naysayers, too, but there are naysayers for What’s Up, Doc?, They All Laughed, Paper Moon, etc. –one man’s beer is another man’s p*** and all that — but this is Peter’s “lost child” returned to him unmolested and now being screened, and who can ask for more? The film fully reveals that Peter indeed had not “lost his fastball” and could still deliver singular work in 2014 at the same level he could in 1974 or 1984.  Its coming release (fingers crossed) will lead to a major reconsideration of not only this film but his career as it makes clear, that much like, yes, Orson Welles, his talent hadn’t slipped as he got older, just his opportunities.  As you likely know at this point, I “believed” enough in Peter that I recognized (with no, you know, actual evidence) that Funny That Way as released could not be his final project in his preferred form, and my suspicions paid off in October, 2020. While the film is Peter and Louise’s baby, I did adopt it and for an extended period proved a loving foster parent. I am thrilled that my efforts have led to this point and to whatever the future holds. And if new problems arise that keep it from being released, well, you can always come over to my house for a screening.

For those curious, I appeared on two terrific podcasts to discuss the film and my efforts at locating it and sharing it with Peter Bogdanovich: here (go U.S.A.!) and here (go Europe!).

Hepburn’s Hep!…When Audrey Rocks You’ll Roll!: A Look at the Eternal Classic, FUNNY FACE, and its Marketing

By James Kenney

Fashion photographer Fred Astaire shows bookish Greenwich Villager Audrey Hepburn the first step in making her a wold-famous model in scene from Paramount’s FUNNY FACE.

Stanley Donen’s 1957 Funny Face, an exquisite musical starring Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson, focuses on an impassioned but unfrivolous intellectual bookstore clerk, Hepburn, who as the press materials promise, “metamorphoses into a fledgling model, a Left Bank hep chick who dances bop with the gonest, the toast of the Parisian salons and finally a sophisticate conquered by love,” personified by the mildly cynical but good-hearted fashion photographer Astaire. Funny Facepeeks behind the facades of the bizarre Paris and New York fashion world and its slick magazines“!


Injustice collectors on Twitter would have a heart attack at 28-year old Hepburn falling in love with 58 year-old Astaire if Funny Face came out today, so let’s get that over with quickly so the rest of the universe can rightfully adore the charming, colorful VistaVision Technicolor near-masterpiece Funny Face, music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin (additional music by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe, but before you roll your eyes, they did write the brilliant “Think Pink”), choreography by Eugene Loring and Astaire, written by Gershe and directed by Donen. 

Funny Face only grows in reflection, amusingly romantic, spryly essential viewing, and a look at Paramount Pictures’s marketing campaign only reveals that much of what we decry modern Hollywood for (cynical cross promotion and crass product placement within the film) was pretty much in full effect in the mid-20th century; nevertheless it does seem to have been a more agreeable, less cynical exertion of capitalist instincts than what has progressed in its wake. When they sell cars and perfumes and dance lessons in tandem with Funny Face‘s release, Paramount makes it feel like they’re agreeably letting everyone in on the capitalist fun, as opposed to a targeted, militaristic corporate attack on humanity’s overburdened senses.

Step Aside, Mr. Astaire

Fred Astaire, while an undisputed legend on his second wind after Easter Parade returned him to film stardom, is clearly not the focus of marketing attention; Miss Hepburn is, her name first in billing and advertising focusing on audiences opportunity to see her in musical action: “Audrey dances and sings for the first time…to great Gershwin tunes!”  We also witness that the producers were concerned about the new trends prevailing in the youth-oriented 1950s—the repeated use of the word “rock” to describe the music of Face, which, while brilliant, most definitely is NOT in the style of Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry:

FUNNY FACE Rocking from Washington Square to the Champs Elysees”

“Now Hepburn’s Hep!…when Audrey rocks you’ll roll!”

The marketers also appeared to be somewhat concerned about the 3D explosion of the period as they quote Samuel Goldwyn promising “a real new dimension in motion picture enjoyment!”

Gay Paree and the Strange Case of Samuel Goldwyn

One of the most beguiling aspects of Face is its view of Paris as the height of fashion, romance, and Bohemia.  The marketing material promises audiences that Face is “the picture that presents the Paris fashions of tomorrow!” Interestingly, marketing of Face partially focuses on a letter ostensibly set to Mr. Barney Balaban, President of Paramount Pictures, by Samuel Goldwyn, who didn’t have anything to do with the film.

Everything about Funny Face is just brilliant. Not only the cast but the production, the direction, the choreography, the music, the photography, the color – the warmth, the gaiety, the fun, the beauty of the picture –are nothing short of extraordinary. Everyone who had anything to do with the picture deserves tremendous credit , for it proves that Hollywood is still capable of turning out the greatest entertainment in the world.”

He finishes the letter “I would be very proud to have Funny Face to my credit.”  Why so much of the marketing materials is made up with a “letter” sent to the head of Paramount by someone not involved in the making of a film with such exploitable elements as Hepburn, Astaire and Gershwin is curious, but would seem to indicate that Goldwyn was a name the public recognized and reckoned with. With auteurism still struggling to get footing, the Producer as King still reigned supreme.

Truth be told, Funny Face’s pace slackens a bit in the second half when in Paris Hepburn drifts away from the modeling to hang out with the one-dimensional (and as the film posits, phony) bohemian poets the film harmlessly mocks, keeping it from the masterpiece level of Band Wagon or Singin’ in the Rain; but it is romantic, pretty, extraordinarily stylish, and visually intoxicating. Funny Face is, to use a word not often used to describe current cinema, “charming,” even when it is not especially inspired in content. 

Astaire never phoned in a performance and has an, of course, perfect sparring partner in Hepburn, no singer and an awkward if enchanting and responsive dance partner, but of course she is one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses and presences. The marketing materials were big on this being Hepburn’s first musical, detailing how her “early ballet training and London musical stage background” foreshadows her role as a bookish Greenwich Villager transformed into a world-famous model by glamor photographer Astaire (described as “the grandmaster of all dancers“).


Hepburn is quoted as calling song-and-dance her “first love,” and as the marketing explains she “was in training for the ballet in Holland when the near-starvation brought on by the war ruined her hopes. Instead, she became a chorus girl on the London stage…”  The Paris-set, Gershwin-tuned Funny Face is described as the fulfillment of a dream for Hepburn, as she “ranges from a wonderful rendition of a romantic ballad to a mad bebop dance as she portrays a bookish girl transformed into a world-famed model.”


The marketing focus on Astaire is on relaying how the “dean of dancers retired at the zenith of his career and then came back to defend his title – with one major difference,” the difference being he has at this point unretired “seven times” including Face and he’s “still the undisputed champ.”  We’re told that the “man who revolutionized the art of the movie musical has once again had critics and audiences reaching for superlatives.”

As Paramount explains (and makers of 21st century musicals such as Chicago and The Greatest Showman would do well to educate themselves on), “Before Astaire, dancers were generally photographed in pieces – parts of their bodies rather than the whole. But to keep the extraordinary flow of movement that characterized his dancing, Astaire’s numbers, from his first picture on, were filmed full or nearly full figure. Almost every film musical since then has used that technique. It inevitably led to greater camera mobility and then to wider story scope, and with Fred’s uncanny ability to come up with novel and flexible routines, the true incorporation of the dance into the plot.”

In a Parisian basement bistro, Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson do an impromptu dance to Gershwin’s “Clap Your Hands,” in scene from the lavishly produced, uniquely photographed musical FUNNY FACE.

The War Against Television: VistaVision and Technicolor

The marketing focuses on the Paris locations “recorded with unusual VistaVision camera work and a revolutionary use of Technicolor.” The film captures Paris, the City of Light and of a thousand enchantments, not only the “Gay Paree of the tourists and the lesser known but even more exciting byways of the Left Banke and Montmarte.”  Lots of justifiable attention is paid to the lavish production and its VistaVision, Technicolor photography, still startling in its vivid saturated effect today: “scenes in a photographic darkroom, the smoky cellar spots of the Montmarte, on a barge in the Seine, in the Left Bank’s winding streets and the exquisite French countryside are presented with a startling new camera eye. All the well-known as well as the seldom-seen enchantments, filmed on the spot and from a hovering helicopter, are captured in amazing color that ranges from the hottest to the coolest imaginable.”

The marketing offers some interesting insight to the Technicolor process employed in Face: “especially striking is the unorthodox flashing of the screen from one color to another as the complementary hues are optically removed. The rhythm with which the screen changes color also helps set the pace for certain sequences.” However, there were problems, as it is noted that the Paris shooting “was slowed down by torrential rains, day after day.  Eventually, some scenes originally intended for sunlight were re-written and filmed in the rain.”

On the set of FUNNY FACE, Audrey Hepburn, who plays a mannequin and bows as a song-and-dance star, exchanges pointers with Dovima, America’s highest paid fashion model. Elfin Audrey stars opposite Fred Astaire.

Mannequins On Display

With fashion at the forefront of Funny Face, the press materials talk up Dovima, “America’s top mannequin” (!), appearing in the film, with Paramount’s Oscar-winning Edith Head and Paris’ famed coutier de Givenchy executing the fashions on display—and famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon is credited with “Special Visual Consultant and Main Title Backgrounds,” with the producers “most grateful to Mrs. Carmel Snow and Harper’s Bazaar Magazine for their generous assistance.

Top models (or, err, “mannequins”) Suzy Parker and Sunny Harnett are also featured in the film, wearing the pink poplin raincoats with pink calico linings, pink gloves pumps, handbags, cloches and cosmetics demanded by Kay Thompson’s fashion editor Maggie Prescott. Hepburn herself avoids the color, instead appearing in fashions such as a black sheath dress and tall white hat; a flaming red, back paneled strapless gown; a black daytime frock with gathered skirt; a long-torso dinner dress of pale silk; and a misty, danceable-length wedding gown.

Trivia I’ll put here because I don’t know where else to put it: Audrey Hepburn’s mother, the Baroness Van Heemstra, visited her daughter during filming and is an extra seen as a patron at a sidewalk café.


Think Pink!

Not yet mentioned is one of the primary aspects of why Funny Face is a winner: Kay Thompson, playing Prescott, editor of Quality Magazine, a slick fashion publication that sets all the trends (“Think Pink!” is the brilliant opening number where Thompson declares Pink is the thing, only to say moments later she “wouldn’t be caught dead in it!”).  Thompson had never acted in film before Funny Face, and didn’t do much after, but she’s unforgettable in her acerbic role as America’s preeminent fashion tastemaker.  Thompson had been an arranger and coach for some of the screen’s top stars, including Judy Garland and June Allyson, but she “finally rebelled at the anonymity,” writing herself a cabaret act with the Williams Brothers and quickly became a top night-club performer, as well as successfully selling her own brand of ladies wear and, most memorably, authoring the indelible series of Eloise at the Plaza children’s books.

There were many marketing ideas given to exhibitors by the busy Paramount team:

Sandwich Boards and BMWs

“Funny Face,” Fred Astaire’s pet name for Audrey Hepburn in the film could be used as a basis for sending an inquiring reporter around town to ask of young women: “Does your boyfriend or husband have a pet name for you, like ‘Funny Face’ – Fred Astaire’s name for Audrey Hepburn in their Paramount musical – and would you mind telling our newspaper what it is?” Guest tickets, of course, should be presented to those answering in the affirmative.”

Photos of Astaire photographing Hepburn were suggested as possible camera store window displays, photo sets of them in locations such as the Tuileries Gardens and the Arc de Triomphe were deemed perfect for travel bureau displays.


Most unusual was Paramount’s idea to send “attractive girls around town with sandwich boards reading”:

I wonder if any of those sandwich board girls are still alive (likely) and willing to talk about their experience (not so likely).

Further marketing ideas included having a local photographer take photos of local girls who think they look like Hepburn (“you’ll be surprised at how many there are around”) and the winner of the contest “will receive a glamour buildup similar to the one given Miss Hepburn.”

Reaching out to younger audiences, Paramount engineered a Seventeen Magazine merchandising tie-in, with the magazine devoting 12 pages to the “Think Pink” fashion theme (which no one mentions is considered passe 10 minutes into Funny Face!) and leading department stores across the country participating in the fashion promotion, including, as just a sample, E.W. Edwards in Syracuse, The Paris Co. in Salt Lake City, Rothschild-Young-Quinlan Co. in St, Paul, Pomeroy’s in Levittown Pa., and Lovemans in Oak Ridge, Tenn.  Curiously, no New York City or Los Angeles stores were listed in the promotion. Hmm.

Kay Thompson was prominently featured in effort to promote the fairly ridiculous looking BMW Isetta 300, which appears in Funny Face (product placement is a lot more charming in the rear-view mirror, I admit!)  They suggest theater managers arrange a parade of Isettas, or display an Isetta in the lobby (“if your lobby area permits.”)  They are aware the eccentric Isetta is “so unusual in appearance that it invariably attracts every eye on the street,” so make sure to have one parked in a prominent spot with promotional materials for the film draped on it. Local television stations should be approached to use an Isetta as a prop on a live show, which has already been done on a coast-to-coast basis on the Perry Como show and the Arlene Francis show. You’ll be happy to know Paramount describes all Isetta dealers as “extremely alert and cooperative” (!)

Well, reviewing Paramount’s publicity materials, it’s clear that newspaper plants, product placement, and tacky cross-promotional efforts were alive and well long before Top Gun and it’s naval recruiting and Tom Cruise’s Rayban avaitor sunglasses.  It does seem more “innocent,” then, when corporate monoliths and the internet didn’t control everything – the materials are all about reaching out to local travel agents and camera stores and Isetta dealers, all the different disparate elements of capitalism getting a chance to get in on and enjoy the Funny Face ride.  Plus the movie is an imperfect classic, a spring breeze of quality tunes, performers and photography that would make anyone smile.  Face may prove a bit too superficial and reactionary in content  (pretentious, plain hipster girl realizes that fashion does matter) to resonate with the deeper themes present in musical classics Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain, but it’ll do, and then some. It’s a great film, so after putting in a day wearing your promotional Funny Face sandwich board, don’t forget to hurry over to the local theater and steal one of the Hepburn-Astaire pink balloons hanging in the lobby!

Rewired Reality: Myriah Rose Marquez’s “The Sovereign”

By James Kenney

Not everyone is angling to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Myriah Rose Marquez was awarded Best First-Time Director by The Venice Fine Arts Film Festival and “Best Skate Short” at the Paris Surf & Skateboard Film Festival for her first self-written, edited and directed film, the superior “The Diary of Being Uncomfortably Comfortable,” which can be seen at Doc Weekly .

She has used her “heat” from this daring, notable debut to write, edit and direct “The Sovereign,” a short experimental “trance-film” whose lineage can be traced back to constructions by artists such as Stan Brakage, Maya Deren, Jean Genet and Jonas Mekas, following a visual dreamline that is seductive, deceptively erotic and fairly disquieting. Its protagonist, sharing the filmmaker’s name and described by her as the “central oneiric character,” navigates a reality both concrete, as represented by a handsome Southern California apartment building, and unreal, with Marquez employing slow and accelerated motion imagery, sequences shot in reverse, and evocative but unresolved digressions highlighting a possibly Native American man who is seen playing the piano in the lobby of the building (where she has acquired a new apartment that seems other-worldly to her due to her previous nomadic lifestyle) and later sitting on its stairs and guiding her onto a beach.

The film’s soundtrack is a mix of uncertain poetic rumination (that might need a stronger voice than Marquez’s to fully get across, her speaking voice is not as assertive as her visual storytelling), and “found” sounds such as an echoey archaic recording of “My Blue Heaven” and a radio DJ promoting a live music event he defines as “a stylized spring conducted by a blue-collar band,” which also aptly describes “The Sovereign” itself. 

While artistic and clearly designed, “The Sovereign” (produced by Mark Gordon, Emily Lazar, Marnie Dubos and Neil Cohen) doesn’t feel too thought out; as it progresses it feels as if Marquez has not set up the incidents and images for the camera but has instead slipped into them, and then moves in and out of them at will, at least until the disconcerting conclusion. Marquez directs with a lyrical freedom and sensual eye, but it all somehow seems moored to a past she can’t escape, represented by an attractive cemetery she visits and the unidentified pursuer she runs from throughout – Marquez has a poet’s gift for using objects and landscapes dramatically—she’s somehow made a Zen Buddhist peaceful nightmare of sorts. She presents prosaic items as sensuous entities, which makes the film’s ultimate surrender to corporeal reality even more troubling.

As she deadpans early in the film “you really can rewire your reality,” but the richest component of fantasy is that you might get pulled out of it at any time – this produces the tension of the make-believe, that at some point we’ll be forced to wake up. Marquez somehow has a “nostalgia for the present” that she may or may not be actually living but also knows may be denied without notice. The film carries some of the atmosphere of mystification that prime David Lynch carries – things ostensibly benign in nature feel imprecisely discordant, and by the end of “The Sovereign” there is a futility to perhaps dreaming too intensely, but I’m not satisfied with that reading, even though it is mine.

As Marquez says in the film “I chose the van life for a number of reasons” and perhaps apartment living with its walls and closets and composure is not really what Marquez requires – her relationships with the objects and people around her are both romantically charged and tenuous. Maybe the traveler life is exactly what she needs, and the film is Marquez’s way of working through a part of herself that she incompletely understands. Marquez dwells on what she doesn’t quite comprehend and depends on her intuition and filmcraft to give her fragmented feelings body and weight – “The Sovereign” feels like a lament for the dead, but it’s not clear who or what has died.

The eerie atmosphere, stylish staging and air of haunted memory could translate into a nifty art-house psychological horror feature for Marquez if she desires to pursue it – her filmmaking isn’t sloppy or overexpressive, and it would be worthwhile to see the result of Marquez fusing her visual gifts and natural melancholy to the right kind of narrative. Driven by her quiet power and tendency to doing odd little things that catch you off the elbow, “The Sovereign” is an impressive second step in what could prove a remarkable filmmaking career.

Confronting the Past with Adrian Brody and the Creepy BACKTRACK

By James Kenney (first published in February 2016, at WhatchaReading.com)

My Stealth Cinema series carries on with Backtrack, a tidy little ghost story starring Adrien Brody, who has been appearing fairly regularly in these overlooked releases, last seen performing in the unremarkable gangsta robbery picture American Heist. Here he uses his expressive, wiry intensity well as psychologist Peter Bower who, already traumatized by his daughter’s death, is visited by some very agitated patients and troubled by ominous dreams. His mentor, played by the formidable Sam Neill, knows that Bower isn’t ready to confront various repressed secrets from his past, starting with the moment of his daughter’s death.

I feel no need to share more than that, other than Backtrack does a respectable job generating a tense, creepy atmosphere which it efficaciously sustains over ninety minutes. The intrigue that writer-director Michael Petroni capably establishes in the exposition and initial complications of the plot may lead viewers to anticipate more than is eventually delivered; the film is good enough that you may become optimistic it will climax in some ingenious, sly way you didn’t predict, but the plot actually resolves a bit too prosaically, tying up its loose ends in a mildly unsatisfying way.

But a film that is good enough so that its ending vaguely dissatisfies is much better than a film that fails to engage, and strewn throughout Backtrack are atmospheric irritants that uphold the ominous mood. The movie is a bit like distant creepy whistling in the dark, never quite grabbing hold but keeping the viewer perturbed throughout.

Aussie director  Petroni, who made TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US, starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter, returns to the director’s chair with a feature that is, yes, a bit derivative of The Sixth Sense. However, the Aussie setting, well-captured for maximum foreboding by cinematographer Stefan Duscio; the luxurious evocative score by Dale Cornelius; and honorable performances by a supporting cast of solid professionals who play it straight (including Bruce Spence, best known from Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Aussie veterans Robin McLeavy and Jenni Baird, and relative newcomer Chloe Bayliss, who all make strong impressions) result in another small success story in a world of increasingly toxic hundred-million dollar event movies. Playing on one lonely screen in Manhattan, but available on Video on Demand (and soon on DVD), Backtrack is another honorable Stealth Cinema release for those who like their thrills on a human scale. You could do much worse than the unsettling Backtrack.

Sneaking in From Left Field: Nicolas Cage, Anna Hutchison and Don Johnson in VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY

By James Kenney Originally Published at Whatchareading.com October 28 2017

When Nicolas Cage scowls on the front cover of a Blu-ray in a film called Vengeance, alongside the tag line “Beyond Good and Evil is Justice,” one downsizes expectations that this may prove another Leaving Las VegasBringing Out the Dead, or even Valley Girl.  After seeing Cage scowl on the Blu-ray cover of Rage, a recent mostly seedy, banal Taken variation, one learns.  I have obediently seen every one of the 412 films Cage has made and released in the last two and a half years, and I can lay out the good ones.

The Trust, a nasty, efficient black comedy thriller where he gets to be a bit zany and unhinged, is nifty.  His two Paul Schrader films, the molested-by-producers The Dying of the Light and the not-molested-by-producers Dog Eat Dog, are humpback, blemished films, but worth seeing. Army of One, a broad comedy about that guy who went to Afghanistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, isn’t really good but tries.  After that, you’re on your own.

So when Vengeance was dumped by FilmRise, its distributor, on Video On Demand with a DVD-R and Blu-Ray-R On-Demand release only available through Amazon, I feared the worst and all the same ordered my Blu-Ray-R immediately.  With my post IRS-problems Cage collection complete, I couldn’t give up just because I had to pay full freight ($24.95!) to get my grubby little fingers on the latest Cage obscurity.

While I seem to be flying in the face of indifference-at-best and outright hostility at worst from other early reviews, I am here not to bury Vengeance but to praise it.  I should start by pointing out the title is actually Vengeance: a Love Story, a stranger title, and then point out that most unexpected is that the film is based on a Joyce Carol Oates novella, Rape: A Love Story, an even better title that understandably wasn’t used for the film.

The film isn’t a representative violence-drenched straight-to-video action revenge flick.  It is an ensemble piece detailing the brutal assault of a licentious widow (Anna Hutchison) by some local reprobates, witnessed by her 12-year old daughter. The unbearably devoted mother of two of the rapists (played by a re-emergent Charlene Tilton, from Dallas), who will broach no censure of her skeevy offspring, forces their more questioning father to put up their house to secure the services of a smooth, venal Defense Attorney played by Don Johnson, who is likely to make mincemeat of the single-minded but pedestrian prosecutor played by Kara Flowers.  Throw into the mix Crash‘s Deborah Karah Unger as Hutchinson’s mom, who can’t get along with her, or anyone, really, and Cage as a hero cop and widower who is the first on the crime scene and won’t stand for Johnson’s manipulations, and you have an interestingly dense and developed milieu, no doubt largely due to Oates’ source material.

The dialogue is at times a bit stronger and character-based than found in the usual recent Cage Video on Demand release.  One of the rapists has an amusing exchange where he asks for an apple pie as part of a tattoo he’s getting because his mom used to give him pie every birthday instead of cake, and many of the characters’ relationships are untidy and unresolved.  One can catch Oates’ themes of a society that has lost its soul (Johnson,the judge, the system, the other cops, and Unger’s reproachful mom all seem to be fading into corruption and indifference mostly through ennui or disappointment), compelling Cage’s cop to identify himself as a provisional emissary from God, but one can’t hold on to them; the themes are not fully realized.  Vengeance: A Love Story reminded me of another “dud,” Karl Reisz and Arthur Miller’s underappreciated Everybody Wins, also about a moral rot having spread like the flu to pollute an entire society, with the protagonists trying to help an abandoned victim receive justice of some sort.

It takes a few minutes to realize the film is fairly serious in intent.  Vengeance a Love Story starts with a spirited if unsurprising action scene featuring Cage and his partner performing an arrest that results in the death of the partner, but when Hutchinson steps into the movie as the lonely, promiscuous and good-hearted mom, we sense we’re in a universe without easy answers or predictable outcomes.  Hutchison is excellent, in a brave, free performance that credibly transmits the mental damage a physical assault can do; she’s feeling it in her very bones. Unger performs with grave, weary elegance as her mother, a woman whose rationality, she feels, allows her to condescend to the world. Tilton, Rocco Nugent and Joshua Mikel all make strong impressions with limited screen-time, as surly moral carcasses who because of money and a certain status in town (never quite explained) feel licensed to act and think wickedly.

Cage has a harder time, playing an enigmatic character that largely lives around the edges of the material; his character is, oddly, the most impersonally written. It is likely his faith in the material and Carol Oates that he took the part, and he uses his hurt eyes, which can convincingly go dead when his character chooses to act off the moral compass, to good effect.  Johnson, a proven authority at playing narcissists, whether playing sociopathically narcissistic in Guilty as Sin, amiably self-absorbed in Tin Cup, or shrewdly self-important in Vengeance: A Love Story, invests fully in his character’s cold proficiency and is both repellent and impressive as the only character truly comfortable in his own shoes.

It’s a slow building film, as we watch it develop to a climax that isn’t so much predictable but inevitable.  Director Johnny Martin, mostly known as a stunt-coordinator, coordinates some nifty stunts, and seems a little more at ease staging the action than the drama—the actors seem ready to throw a little more emotional desperation at the scenes than the director knows how to comfortably stage –and the violence and brutality of the rape (witnessed by a child) is so harsh and early in the film it takes a bit for the audience to re-engage with the drama that follows.   But the film holds interest even when some developments seem a little less clearheaded than others (Cage’s relationship with Hutchinson’s 12 year old daughter, played well by Talitha Bateman, seems to be missing a few dramatic beats), and, in a kind of misshapen compliment, I suggest this is one film that could have been ten minutes longer.  The Fick family of rapists and enablers is so convincingly malevolent in their self-satisfied heinousness that I would have welcomed them in an additional scene or two, and Cage’s character certainly could have used a bit more development, especially as he has the chops to convey further shading than what is on display here.

Still, I thought the film worked; I hold out a little more hope now for Martin’s The Hangman, a shortly arriving stealth-cinema thriller where a 77-year old Al Pacino plays an eccentric detective investigating a serial killer.  If S. Craig Zahler, director of the superior Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the Don Siegel of this nascent grotty subculture of stealth cinema, I’m going to be optimistic (before the Hangman comes out and proves terrible or something) and nominate Martins for the Barry Shear position.  I don’t know if I’m in love with Vengeance: A Love Story, but it was a pretty involving left-field low-budget surprise.

Hangman came out…and boy, it was terrible. Still, Vengeance: A Love Story is pretty good.

Hooray for Old-School European Pretension! Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko in the unnoticed CORRESPONDENCE

By James Kenney

Correspondence, starring Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko is a worthwhile semi-miss from veteran Italian director, Giuseppe Tornatore (maker of the classic Cinema Paradiso and a bunch of other stuff I haven’t seen). 

It’s very old-school European, which is a virtue of sorts, and its mix of lofty metaphysical/philosophical ambition, magic realism and old fashioned romanticism, if caught in the right mood, could be disarming, especially at this turgid date in cinema history.  A brilliant graduate student who also just happens, as a side job, to be the greatest stunt-woman on earth (I know, I know) is desperately in love with a much older, married-with-children, astrophysics Professor (I know, I know).

Such love is too deep to let commonplace obstacles as age and family stand in their way, and neither does death prove much of a deterrent, as Kurylenko is shocked by the sudden news of Irons’s demise, only to find him continuing to send her video messages and texts from the grave.  I won’t say much more about the plot, except it feels strangely out of time, as the Professor largely eschews USB-from-the-grave or Zoom-from-the-grave messages for circa 1998 burnt DVD communications-from the grave.

This kind of metaphysical oddball drama could have been an incorporeal feast in Kieslowski’s or Polanski’s hand.  Tornatore plays it rather straight, and it’s hard to initially adjust to the film’s somber, steady rhythms, as the plot is so daft.  You wonder early if he’s serious, as we smash cut from Kurylenko defending her dissertation (or some higher ed-related oral exam given by a stern-faced old white guy) to doing a death-defying (and CGI-enhanced) stunt that by all rights should make her preeminent in this dangerous field.  But no, she just does various perilous stunts here and there, then dutifully returns for her exams, all the while trying to parse why Irons keeps contacting her from beyond the grave, and what does love mean, anyway? It’s that kind of movie.

The film isn’t as creepy or as even as supernatural as you first think it will be.  No one will besmirch Irons’s bonafides as a grade A brilliant actor, but after films like Damage and Dead Ringers you spend a long time watching this assuming the reveal will involve him being some kind of psycho or at least a mental danger to Kurylenko.  But, no, he’s really a decent chap in love with a woman he wasn’t fated to be with. If guys are allowed the lovely and committed Kurylenko, then perhaps a Grant/Hepburn Charadeish move of hiring an older actor that is more immediately charming – say Pierce Brosnan – would have gone a long way into allowing audiences to embrace the oddball mysticism of the piece.  Irons is certainly intense, but it takes some effort to buy Kurylenko, drop-dead gorgeous and playing an Einstein-worthy astrophysicist/stuntwoman, giving herself over to a married near-70 Professor while never entertaining thoughts of another man.

But the film has its virtues, including, ultimately, its solemnity. It never undercuts its own self-importance, in a very old-school Eurofilm way.  After accepting that Correspondence buys its own premise, and accepting that you have two world-class talents committed to portraying these characters to the fullest (Kurylenko has to furiously text on-screen, a lot, and both do voiceovers reading their lofty texts), you have to admire that the film doesn’t smirk or destabilize its premise or turn into some kind of horror film with a Scooby-Doo reveal.  Kurylenko has long been underrated because of her Bond girl beginnings; she has carried herself admirably in several serious works, whether Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Oblivion with Tom Cruise, and Russel Crowe’s The Water Diviner. The exaggerated, unnatural, lyrical dialogue doesn’t necessarily do her (or Irons) any favors, but Ennio Morricone’s score does, as well as the well-shot and lovely European locations (Italy, York, and Edinburgh were primary filming locations).

So what can I say?  It wasn’t boring, despite a lot of on-screen texting (if nothing else, Correspondence proves Kurylenko is a great cinematic texter).  Correspondence has a genuine core of feeling, and feels oddly reassuring in its rather quaint mustiness.  By the end, I experienced some of the sadness and regret Tornatore desired of me, without understanding for a minute why I let the film’s romantic madness win me over. 

In a world where people stumble all over themselves discussing how deep and meaningful recent King KongSpider Man, and Wonder Woman movies are, I rather responded to this old-school schmaltzy art house romance-mystery.  I could imagine Woody Allen taking a date to this in the mid-1970s and then, afterwards over coffee, waving his arms in outrage at her when she quietly admits she likes it.