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Articles by

<Jason Bogdaneris>

04/16/08 12:00am

From 1989 until 1995 a quintet of outwardly unassuming, slightly nerdy, Canadian smart-alecks revolutionized sketch comedy. Discovered by Lorne Michaels, The Kids in the Hall’s early shows were legendary on the Toronto comedy club circuit.  They eventually got their own show on CBC HBO and later Comedy Central. Specializing in utterly mundane set-ups that devolve into absurdity, the members all had impressive comedic range that could lurch from underplayed nuance to shrieking hysterics. Dave Foley, along with the others (Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney), achieved god-like status in Canada and has developed a cult following in the US. 

Dave Foley is also known to American audiences as the provider of dry color commentary on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown and as Dave Nelson on the sitcom NewsRadio, a role written specifically for him. The son of a steamfitter, Foley dropped out of high school and created the original Kids in the Hall group when he was paired with Kevin McDonald at an improv class. I talked to him at the beginning of the Kids Tour between shows in Merrillville, Indiana. and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

So do you like touring?

Yeah, I do. It’s fun. It’s fun for us to be out on the road together. Cause most of the big decisions are already made, so we don’t fight. And the guys make me laugh so it’s fun to hang out with them.

Do you find the act works better in certain places?
Most of the places we get good audiences, but there’s definitely some places that seem more excited. Oddly enough we always end up doing really well in Texas. We always end up having really great shows in Dallas and Austin. And our New York shows are always really great.

So you’re not sick of each other yet?
No, no. I mean, we went through times where we were sick of each other over the years, but we’re all really enjoying being together right now.

So you actually do hang out when you’re not performing?
Yeah, we’ve gone through different periods where we hang out more or less. But most of us are living in LA now, so we see more of each other than we have in a while.

I was wondering if you guys still have the same process for writing sketches as you did for the TV show?
Actually the way we’re working now is a lot more like before we had a TV show. We’re doing a lot more writing as a group. We used to do an entirely new club show every Monday. So we used to write an hour’s worth of material in two days every week, because we all had full-time jobs.

Is it collaborative at the writing stage or does someone come up with an idea and then you riff on that when you’re improvising?
For the most part it’s a collective writing process. We prefer to come to the group with ideas rather than fleshed-out scripts, then we all work on the scripts from there.

Are there times when you’re thinking to yourself, ‘God that’s a stupid idea, but sure go ahead’?
Oh sure. All the time. We had a piece in the show last night that I thought was really stupid… and I couldn’t believe we were doing it. ‘Do we really have to do this?’ And we did it and it was a huge hit. You never know. I think we’re at the point now where we can openly say if we don’t like something, but we’ll still try it do it as well as we can. But it turned out I was completely in the wrong last night.

It seems like you guys don’t want to be pigeonholed into having certain really popular bits that people will repeat when they see you on the street. Is there a conscious effort in the show to have new material?

The past tours had mostly been old bits from the TV show, but this tour we really wanted to do a lot of new stuff. Because it’s really a lot more fun to do comedy that the audience can’t sing along to, tell jokes people haven’t heard. But we’ve never been as focused on having recurring characters as much as other sketch shows are.

Is it true the name Kids in the Hall comes from an old Sid Caesar line?
Yeah. There was a whole group of guys trying to get into show business… writers on Your Show of Shows who would hang around the hallways of NBC who got referred to as “The Kids in The Hall.” The guys that were the kids in the hall were guys like Neil Simon and his brother. And Woody Allen and people like that who were the guys hanging in the hallway looking for a job.

And does that indicate the kind of stuff you grew up watching?

Well, that’s what Kevin and I were watching. Kevin and I were definitely interested in the history of comedy. Everything from the silent days onward.

Was there something that you watched growing up that clicked for you, that made you say “I want to do that”?
Actually, I never thought I wanted to do comedy when I was growing up, but I watched a lot of comedy. Growing up in Canada you never actually thought you could be in show business. It seemed outside the range of possibilities. My parents used to let us stay up to watch Python when it was first running in the late 60s. It was airing in Canada the same time it was running in England. The US got it a few years later.

There’s definitely a Monty Python element to your comedy.
Yeah… but also for me it was growing up watching things like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, WC Fields. Whatever comedy was on Saturday matinees on the TV. I would spend a whole day watching three Martin & Lewis movies.

Another element of your comedy is that it features “regular people.” Did you get any ideas for characters from specific people in your daily life?

Scott [Thompson] and Mark [McKinney] definitely. They’d start from the characters and work their way out. Whereas Kevin and I will work from a funny premise or a hook for a sketch and the characters are created to fit that. I know Buddy Cole is based on someone really specific… Scott said it’s based on an older gay man who he knew, but he won’t say who.

Your skits are also strangely timeless. There are almost no pop culture references, no celebrity impersonations — they’re absurd and mundane at the same time. Was that conscious?
It was a conscious thing in part because we were big fans of Second City Television — and in terms of celebrity impressions they were the best. Out of respect for their work, we didn’t want to be like them. But also the stuff that would break up the other guys in the group was usually just about how people interact or some weird premise. Like the “Bruce causing cancer” sketch.

How much do you think Toronto at that time was an influence? It was known sort of as “Toronto the Good” and had that reputation of being really uptight and having lots of yuppies. It seems like that was a big source of your comedy.

Yeah. That and also we were starting out on Queen Street… in sort of the early — or at least the middle period of punk. There was definitely a punk influence in what we were doing. There was a lot of great music happening at the time but not a lot of comedy. I think we were really influenced by the music scene in Toronto at the time. But yeah, there was also a lot of stuff about businessmen. We didn’t know anything about businessmen. They were just people we saw on the street who we didn’t understand.

You had a lot of office characters, and some of the observations are really spot on. Did any of you have experience in offices?

Not much. I know Mark used to have a part-time job at a bank. And Bruce actually went to business school. But we had very little experience in offices. I’d look at those office buildings downtown and think those buildings were full of people and they were doing stuff that filled up their 8- to 10-hour day every day. They had to keep track of papers that were apparently important. And I had no idea how it was possible to have things to do all day in an office.

The Kids in The Hall are playing four shows at The Nokia Theatre over 3 nights – April 18-20 — with two shows on Saturday the 19th. http://www.myspace.com/kithtour08.

12/19/07 12:00am


My parents spent time in Italy in the early 1960s and their slide collection from that era drives me absolutely mad with envy. That gray-scaled aesthetic, with its discrete lapels, bryl-creemed hairdos and women in loosely knotted headscarves would be enough for me to love Alberto Lattuada’s largely forgotten Mafioso. But there’s so much more. Existing in its own counterweighted world of oppositions — urban/rural, traditional/modern, Northern/Southern — Lattuada’s film builds up such an enormous reservoir of good will that his audience is willing to follow the protoagonist just about anywhere, up to and including a flight in a cargo hold crate from Sicily to New York to perform a murderous errand.

A comedy of manners wrapped around a neo-realist noir, Mafioso is a sort of adult coming-of-age story about Nino. He’s a straight arrow company man who works in a Milan factory ensuring that the gears of capitalist industry turn unimpeded. Taking his first vacation in years, he brings his blonde wife and young daughters back to his home village in Sicily, a smoldering outpost of carnality and honor far from the industrialized paradise that is Milan.

Nino is transformed when he reacquaints himself with his childhood home and it’s a pleasure to see actor Alberto Sordi personifying a man wading out beyond his depth. His eyes shine with recognition as he encounters the vivid shades of local color and then just as evocatively his expression withers in the face of the encroaching truth of mob brutality. Lattuada’s style transforms too, languishing in the details of the sleepy, suspicious village, then brightening into new-wavish jazzy rhythms when he enters city limits. That sense of discovery, translated so convincingly by the director, is what makes this experience so immediate even nearly 50 years later.

Opens January 19 at Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika

09/12/07 12:00am

Looming over any retelling of the oft-told Western is the specter of cliché. But from its opening, wide-angled views of the Missouri plains, it’s clear that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a distinct entity. It walks like a classic cowboy movie but talks like a graphic novel, possessing the former’s baroque mythology but the latter’s revisionist empathy for the marginal.

Brilliantly embodied by Casey Affleck as an emotionally brittle sycophant, Robert Ford first approaches Jesse James with the wild-eyed appreciation of a comic-book fanboy: a sort of deluded Mark David Chapman stalking a mid-19th-century John Lennon. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Jesse James in his final days seems neither fully convincing nor complete; he relies instead on his own celebrity to act as a stand-in for the outlaw’s assumed charisma.

The film’s aesthetic approach is one of refraction. Like the distortions of the prominently featured old window glass, writer-director Andrew Dominik shifts the film’s point of view with an artful incrementality within the sprawling narrative: Ford’s childish worship of James warps into vengefulness, and James’ back-slapping camaraderie stiffens into the brooding paranoia that characterized his final days.

Invoking the narrow-shouldered marginality of the men who later killed Lincoln and Kennedy, Assassination continues the rebuttal that began with other anti-westerns like The Left-Handed Gun and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Without achieving their subversiveness, it nevertheless advances a more explicitly plausible narrative of self-preservation and self-involvement as the most enduring features of the American West.

Opens September 21

08/01/07 12:00am

This memoir of a childhood spent in early 70s France amid a constellation of lefty political revolutionaries can’t resist emotional anachronisms. Each dramatically important moment is punctuated by an adult’s revisionist memory and bracketed with a query, functioning as a thesis statement, from saucer-eyed protagonist Anna: “Dad, what’s group solidarity?” Incidentally, the Dad in Julie Gavras’s life was legendary director and renowned lefty Costa-Gavras.

In the case of precocious Anna, a child of privilege who’s a de facto reactionary by virtue of her self-centered age, the questions lobbed at her newly radicalized parents carry with them an accusatory subtext. Sometimes kids say the most damning things.

The tension between a budding bourgeois child, who uses a knife and fork to cut her fruit, and parents who travel to Allende’s Chile as foot soldiers in a revolution, promises fertile dramatic possibilities that the film allows us to glimpse only briefly as it teeters between sentiment and sanctimony. Secondary characters are all metaphorical embodiments of imperial aggression (a maid is from Vietnam — where people get napalmed) and the art direction bleeds red in sympathy with its earnest bourgeois Marxist protagonists. It’s an approach that unfortunately draws increasing attention to itself, and away from the more interesting questions it raises.

Opens August 3 at Cinema Village

07/12/07 12:00am

Kim Ki-Duk is a frustrating director. Possessed of a truly original approach, he seemingly can’t resist sabotaging our expectations and his own intentions. A notorious autodidact, his style is an improvisational stutter that creates unconventional conflicts, and then resolves them in unexpected ways. In addition, almost all his characters seem enveloped by a thin layer of antipathy that makes them hard to feel close to.

Time is, on its surface, a socially conscious critique of the obsession with cosmetic surgery. A young couple, Ji-woo and See-hee, experience a ripple of discord when Ji-Woo can’t get it up until he thinks of another woman. Without informing him, See-hee goes off to remake her face and returns months later to seduce him as a stranger.

Kim uses the scenario to riff on identity, the superficiality of modern culture, and, of course, love, but from such an obtuse angle that you’ll find yourself continually shifting your genre expectations. One scene in particular demonstrates Kim’s maddening tendency toward self-sabotage. After masquerading as a new person, See-hee (calling herself She-hee in an absurdist Von Trier-like touch) meets her boyfriend in a café while wearing a mask of her old face, literalizing the metaphorical. Confronted with her creepily frozen paper-doll smile, Ji-woo storms out as she pleads with him from behind her mask. But because he’s either too confident or not confident enough in his abilities, Kim has his main character physically beaten up after being emotionally pummeled, and the tragic comic poignancy veers into absurdity. From there the denouement feels long, and any unreserved accolades for this wayward talent will have to wait until next time.

Opens July 13

07/04/07 12:00am

Backstory
The cinematic New Waves that rippled all across the globe in the late 50s and early 60s took many forms. Some were nakedly imitative of the most famous progenitor ­— the French — while others were more overtly political or closely tied to other burgeoning artistic movements. In Japan it emerged a short half–generation after the scarring effects of the Second World War and subsequent largely benign, if spirit-dampening five-year American occupation. This trio of releases spanning the years 1962-66 made in close collaboration with writer Kobo Abe stand out as a remarkably strident and inventively eloquent attack on the rigid side which existed before.

Feature

Can another trio of films made in such a short period compare with Teshigahara’s output, which included Pitfall (1962), Woman in The Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966) Seemingly tethered to nothing except his own socially conscious imagination, the films are a remarkable testament to the wedding of a rigorous, if overextended talent and a uniquely damaged moment in the history of a culture.

Pitfall, whose opening bid is a modest plea in the social realist vein, then goes off the rails with a sci-fi inspired device that allows its murdered protagonist (an itinerant miner) to rise from the dead and observe the machinations of his murder investigation. Threaded throughout with the character of an enigmatic man in a white suit who commits murders at the behest, presumably, of some unseen but nefariously well-disguised force, its mysteries are unsolved at the end of a circularly spellbinding film.

Woman in the Dunes has as its source material one of the most famous novels in Japan’s history. An everyman, wandering the dunes of a seemingly mythical land searching for insect samples to collect, is soon himself trapped at the bottom of a sand pit, captive to an oddly quiescent woman and villagers who require his labor in a Sisyphean struggle against the encroaching sand. Demonstrating a supreme visual confidence that occasionally threatens to overwhelm Teshigahara’s narratives, here it serves to make the story explode off the screen from close-ups of clinging sand granules to wide sweeping panoramas of the enslaving dunes. Swinging from mythical abstraction to fine-grained realism, it is considered the masterpiece of both collaborators and is a rare example of an adaptation not only exceeding its source material but also redefining it.

The Face of Another has as its spiritual counterpart in the west John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. Aside from sharing release dates they both present a pitch-black vision of the individual’s identity within an increasingly blank society rendered flat by an all-conquering conscience-less modernity. But while both films are visually inventive, Face is beyond anything attempted in a mainstream film. Pans, wipes and transparent sets combined with surreal elements and freeze frames, the story — also based on an Abe novel — is cunning yet unfailingly nihilistic. A man who suffered an industrial accident that disfigured him gets a mask for a face, allowing him the gift/curse of complete anonymity. By the time he pursues his formerly frigid wife in an attempt to seduce her as another man, the film has traveled a journey of spellbinding potency. Visually astounding and thematically troubling, the film falls apart (thrillingly) at moments, especially with its side plot of a woman disfigured by the nuclear bomb at Nagasaki. But really, we all should fail with such spectacular artistry.

Extras

The usual treasures from the gold standard of DVD packaging; a booklet of illuminating essays, an interview, film scholar commentary and very welcome short films.

Verdict

Nearly unparalled as a New Wave filmic trilogy.

06/06/07 12:00am

What to do with Michael Moore? His very name now prompts apopleptic reactions from those on the right (predictably) but also self-righteous derision (understandably) for those who sympathize with his point of view, but despair at his methods.

Sicko, his self-styled “comedy” about the horrors of the American health care industry, is vintage Moore, with all that entails: ironic archival footage, maudlin case studies of “ordinary Americans” caught up in a corrupted system, and his trademark aggressive disingenuousness. More propagandist than documentarian, Moore is very good at what he does. As with other American myopias — gun control, the Iraq War — he connects the dots between official explanations and observed realities (however selectively chosen).

In Sicko, the villains are the huge insurance conglomerates, pharmaceutical corporations and HMOs that control access to health care with an Orwellian arbitrariness and venality that is framed in such a way to make us gasp in disbelief. The case studies he focuses on include 9/11 victims and the chronically ill, and culminates in his now infamous trip to Cuba, where our ailing protagonists are embraced by the vilified Cuban health care system. It’s a typical Moore stunt that is as emotionally charged as it is compelling. From the departure point of the tainted health care industry — which he depicts as having unprecedented power over the executive and legislative branches of government — he casts his net ever wider to a larger problem with America’s flawed approach to public policy. The film depicts its most downtrodden citizenry as hopelessly disenfranchised as compared to their counterparts in Canada (naturally) as well as France and England, destroying myths about socialized medicine with typical overkill. But as with his indictment of the gun lobby or the military industrial complex, his assembled half-truths still constitute an irrefutable larger one.

Opens June 29

06/06/07 12:00am

China has now become an impossibly fertile ground for documentarians, sociologists and artists searching for a ready metaphor for any number of globalization’s myriad conequences. It’s a blank canvas of almost interminable width upon which cultural seismologists monitor every aspect of its accelerated growth — as if a Dickensian age of industrialization was playing itself out on CNN.

This doc is about the work of photgarapher Edward Burtynsy, who captures transformed land masses all over the world from nickel mines in Ontario to oil fields in Bangladesh. But it is in China that his fascination with transformed landscapes moves from aesthetic curiosity to moral imperative. Imagine a companion piece to Jia Zhang Ke’s The World, but in place of awed romanticized ambivalence, we find a sort of horrifed fascination with the scale of flattened human endeavour. It’s both a micro and a macro portrait, showing us whole villages transformed with a bird’s eye view, then the shades of personal despair within. One scene of a worker too nervous to speak extemporaneously is particularly striking. When she reverts to a verbatim oration of her company’s goals told in neo-revolutionary speak, the extent of the damage to the individual is sadly apparent.

Opens June 22 at Film Forum

06/06/07 12:00am

Backstory
Two chicks with a video camera, a dream (and a Sundance grant) go on a car ride to interview Americans and find out what the American Dream means to them.

Feature
Jack Kerouac has a lot to answer for. The road novel, which in turned spawned the road film, is an irresistible instrument through which to zeitgeist the state of the nation. This doc of modest means but vast ambitions is made with raffish charm by a couple of 20-something gals who make much of their off-the cuff approach, likely as a stanch against the flow of criticism. Their meandering car journey makes altogether too much of the process, documenting their false starts and missed opportunities in trying to interview notable and or famous figures to find out what they think the American Dream is. It has a tone that implicitly hopes to be liked and explicitly strives for relevance, narrating platitudes about the journey you find being unexpected, and other such well-worn phrases.
When they do nail down their interview subjects, they squeeze out some compelling footage with the likes of Studs Terkel, Hunter S. Thompson or George McGovern, along with more obscure activist types who thankfully have a more cynically tinged view of “The American Dream”. Unfortunately they have a tendency to let subjects ramble a bit and can’t help summing up their journey mid stream not once, not twice but thricely!

Extras
Nope

Verdict

Earnest, heartfelt and occasionally enlightening, but about twice as long as necessary.

06/06/07 12:00am

Backstory
Release of the History Channel special about the disgraced president who is the recent subject of a hit Broadway play and several new biographies.

Feature
If anyone has any interest in the American political process whatsoever (and they really should), this is a must. And for those who obsessively pore over any artifact about old Tricky Dick —not mentioning any names here — this will contain enough revelations spoken by the principal players to make it worthwhile. Conspicuously traditional and with the familiar made-for TV commercial break cliffhangers, it nevertheless compels through the sheer weight of the man’s corrosive personality and the enormous stakes for the country during his presidency, which turned on the Axis of Watergate, Vietnam and the Cold War. Those closest to the president — Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger, John Dean — still express amazement at the sheer awkwardness of the man, and the depth of his paranoia.

Extras
A very dry feature about the relationship between Nixon and President Eisenhower.

Verdict
America’s most Shakespearian president makes for fascinating viewing.