By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, February 25, 2013 - 0 Comments
Right off the top, you knew something fishy was going on when Canada’s own William Shatner, in full Captain Kirk regalia, loomed above Oscar host Seth MacFarlane as a retro patriarch from the future, putting that young upstart in his place. Sure, the 85th annual Academy Awards belonged to Hollywood, and to America—right down to Michelle Obama announcing Best Picture from the White House. But Canada was the surprise winner in this strange spectacle, as the Great White North kept usurping the limelight throughout the evening.
Spielberg’s Lincoln led the pack with 12 nominations, but it won just two of them, for Production Design—shared by B.C. set decorator Jim Erickson—and Best Actor. (Spielberg got more notice from the orchestra, which used the theme from Jaws to amputate acceptance speeches). In the end it was Life of Pi, based on the novel by Saskatchewan-based author Yann Martel, that won the night’s biggest haul with four Oscars. They include Best Original Score for Canadian composer Mychael Danna, and a Visual Effects Oscar for Vancouver-based Guillaume Rocheron. And when the film’s director, Ang Lee, accepted his Best Director prize (favoured to go to Spielberg), he said “I need to thank Yann Martel for writing this incredibly inspiring book.” Ang also took care to thank his Canadian crew—most of the movie was shot on a Montreal soundstage. Continue…
By Luiza Ch. Savage - Monday, October 22, 2012 at 11:06 AM - 0 Comments
His new film, Argo, may not give Canadians all the credit, but the Hollywood star smooths things over.
Ben Affleck’s new film, Argo, recounts the joint Canadian-U.S. effort to rescue six American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis. Yet Affleck, who co-wrote and directed the movie, has been accused of understating the role of the Canadian government and then-Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor. In an exclusive interview after the movie’s premiere, Taylor told Maclean’s, “We’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.”
By last week any hard feelings appeared to be smoothed over. On Oct. 10, the Canadian Embassy in Washington hosted an elegant reception for Affleck and the cast of Argo—including Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and John Goodman. Ken Taylor and his wife, Pat, also attended, as did several of the U.S diplomats portrayed in the film. It helped that before the movie hit theatres, Affleck had asked Taylor to rewrite the postscript.
After the event, there was a screening of the movie at a downtown theatre. There, Affleck took a moment to address the audience. While noting that the movie tells the story of the rescue through the perspective of CIA agent Tony Mendez, Affleck praised the Canadians for their role. “There were folks who didn’t want to take in our people,” he said. “Governments, some friends of ours said, ‘You know what, this isn’t appropriate for us. We don’t want to absorb this risk.’ But the Canadians did absorb the risk. And when they did, there was a man who was the ambassador whose name was Ken Taylor. And Ken allowed folks to come stay, putting himself at great risk. And his wife also agreed, putting herself at great risk.
“It demonstrates the danger our diplomats put themselves in for our lives every day. We were reminded of that tragically in Benghazi, and this is yet another reminder.”
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 3:12 PM - 0 Comments
The stranger-than-fiction tale of Argo, has taken yet another bizarre twist. Ben Affleck, the movie’s director and star, has extended an olive branch to Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, who was distressed that Argo belittled the role that he and Canada played in the rescue of six American diplomats hidden in Tehran’s Canadian embassy in 1979. In an exclusive Maclean’s interview published after the film’s TIFF premiere, Taylor condemned the movie for rewriting history and giving CIA spy Tony Mendez most of the credit. He had not yet seen the movie—the filmmakers never contacted Taylor during production and he wasn’t invited to the premiere. But he’d gleaned enough from media reports and friends who saw it to become concerned. And his comments prompted Affleck and Warner Bros to do some major damage control.
Taylor told me he was surprised to pick up the phone at his Manhattan residence last week and hear: “Hello Ambassador, it’s Ben Affleck.” Warner Bros. then flew Taylor and his wife, Pat, to Los Angeles to see the film, meet Affleck and contribute a commentary to the DVD. “The movie is made and Tony Mendez dominates it,” says Taylor, well-aware that can’t be changed. But the ex-diplomat did succeed in making one crucial change to the film—replacing what he calls an insulting postscript that, as he says, “suggested the Canadian embassy received citations when really it was all the work of the CIA.” He says Warner Bros. agreed to remove it. “They said, ‘It’s expensive but we’ll take it out—why don’t you write something?’ ” So Taylor ended up scripting this new postscript that will appear at the end of the movie: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”
A character in a political thriller getting to rewrite the final words of a Hollywood movie—that must be a historic precedent.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
‘Argo’ shifts the spotlight from Ken Taylor, our man in Tehran, to CIA spy Tony Mendez
For a country that has a hard time finding heroes in its own history, Ken Taylor’s role in the Iran hostage crisis marks a glowing exception. When armed student militants occupied the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, six U.S. staff members escaped and found refuge in the Canadian Embassy. Taylor, then Canada’s ambassador to Iran, hid them as “house guests” for three months, then helped smuggle them out of the country. Two decades later, declassified CIA files showed Taylor had been working closely with America’s spymasters. And now the cloak-and-dagger tale takes on a bizarre twist with Argo, a Hollywood movie that had its premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival—by coincidence on the same day Stephen Harper’s government closed the Canadian Embassy in Tehran.
Directed by Ben Affleck, who stars as CIA officer Tony Mendez, Argo turns the story into a caper movie that’s part comedy, part thriller. It tells how Mendez worked with Hollywood to concoct a fake sci-fi movie about space aliens called Argo so that the six American hostages could pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran. With the help of a wise-cracking Hollywood producer (played by Alan Arkin) and a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman), Mendez forges an elaborate cover, compete with poster, script, storyboards and a production office.
A cheering audience at the TIFF premiere lapped up its bonanza of Canuck references—there’s a scene where Mendez coaches the Americans not to pronounce the second “t” in Toronto. Critics, meanwhile, stoked Oscar buzz. There’s just one problem. The movie rewrites history at Canada’s expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga’s heroic saviours while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge. Mendez did indeed work with Hollywood to forge an elaborate cover for the Canadian Embassy’s clandestine house guests. But Affleck’s movie underplays Taylor’s role. And Taylor is not amused.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, September 7, 2012 at 8:38 PM - 0 Comments
A thriller about the 1980 escape of six Americans from the Canadian embassy in Tehran lands with uncanny timing
On Day 2 of TIFF, movies are spinning like wheels in a slot machine and producing some startling match-ups. At last night’s party hosted by the Toronto Film Critics Association I tried to keep my end up a conversation with the Globe and Mail‘s Johanna Schneller and the Movie Network’s Teri Hart, who were amazed at the number of hand jobs they’d seen in movies at the festival. Between them, they’ve counted four, including scenes in The Master and Picture Day, which I haven’t seen yet. But I’ve witnessed a couple—one in Hyde Park on Hudson that’s powerful enough to the rock a parked car occupied by the polio-hobbled Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray); and in The Sessions, during a lesson from a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) treating a man paralyzed by childhood polio. Two hand-job polio movies in one festival—what are the odds? Then again, as I noted in an earlier blog, this is also a festival with two films about aging musicians losing their grip, A Late Quartet and Quartet.
In other news, tonight actor-director Ben Affleck premieres Argo, the stranger-than-fiction story of a fake Canadian sci-fi movie that was cooked up as a cover to facilitate 1980′s Great Escape of six Americans hiding in Iran’s Canadian embassy. Even stranger, just hours before the premiere Canada announced that it has closed that very same embassy in Tehran.
I saw Argo last night. It tells an extraordinary story about an operation that the C.I.A. had to keep under wraps for two decades, while then-Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor received all the credit. It starts as a comedy that unfolds like a real-life Wag the Dog, with a priceless, Oscar-worthy performance by Alan Arkin as the Hollywood producer who mounts the fake movie, lying through his teeth in a town where lies are hard currency. But then it morphs into a white-knuckled thriller, which—not unlike Apollo 13—keeps us on the edge even though we know the ending in advance.
The movie’s pulse is juiced by a lot of obvious fictional embellishment. It’s a caper movie, not a docudrama, which brings the Hollywood fakery of the original ruse full circle. It’s a good ride. Starring as the heroic C.I.A. officer, Tony Mendez, a bearded Ben Affleck keeps his head down and delivers a tight, modest performance. But as a director he’s impressive, expanding on the promise he showed in Gone Baby Gone and The Town. He’s adopted a much lighter style for Argo, with a zippy curve-ball narrative spins from wit to suspense. It could be this year’s Moneyball.
The film, meanwhile, is jammed with references that will tickle local audiences, ranging from the observational detail that Canadians don’t pronounce the second ‘t’ in ‘Toronto’ to a mention of the now-defunct Canadian Film Development Corporation—which financed more than its share of tax-shelter movies that were scams of one sort or another. There’s far more Cancon in this Hollywood picture than the two officially Canadian movies I saw today, both stories of foreign characters in foreign settings—Midnight’s Children (set in India) and Rebelle (set in Africa).
With its flamboyant mix of Canadiana and Hollywood self-satire, Argo would have made an ideal opening night film for TIFF. Looper, the sci-action movie that did kick off the festival, was an adequate choice but nowhere near as ironically appropriate. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. But one can only assume that Warner Bros. did not want that somewhat stigmatized opening night slot, and opted for the hotter showcase of Friday night.
By macleans.ca - Friday, January 29, 2010 at 9:10 AM - 3 Comments
That, and they look kind of silly
Russian champion ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin wowed European judges with their program based on Australian Aboriginal music and dress, but they face an uncertain welcome at Olympic competition in Vancouver. Their costumes, dark-toned bodysuits decorated with paint, eucalyptus leaves and red loincloths, have enraged Australian Aboriginal leaders. Spokesmen for the four Olympic host First Nations in B.C. have already said they want to meet with the skaters to discuss issues of cultural sensitivity.
The photo of sleeping Toronto Transit Commission fare collector George Robitaille has become, it must be said, the sleeper hit of the Internet. Since the picture taken by Jason Wieler was posted online and then displayed on the front of Friday’s Toronto Sun, Photoshoppers have had a field day with the “TTC Sleeper”: having him nap with Homer Simpson at the Springfield nuclear plant, inserting him into the iconic painting of the Last Supper, replacing his head with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s. Robitaille blamed medication for a heart procedure and said he was sorry if he embarrassed his fellow workers and the TTC.
Every Rose has his thorn
Has Axl Rose taken his feud with ex-bandmate Slash to a new level? The gossip site TMZ reports fans attending a Guns N’ Roses concert in Regina last Wednesday were told by security to turn Slash T-shirts inside out, and to leave his signature top hats outside. Later, Rose’s camp issued a denial that any sort of apparel was banned. Still, there’s bad blood aplenty. When Slash recently floated the idea of an earthquake relief fundraiser, an angry Rose twittered: “Pretty low n’ selfish usin’ the devastation in Haiti 2 start (false) reunion rumors.”
Lost, and found
David Idlout has a missing snowmobile and a big satellite phone bill, but odds are he won’t complain. The Inuit hunter from Resolute, Nunavut, spent almost four days on a crumbling ice floe drifting toward the Northwest Passage. He’d set out to retrieve a snowmobile that broke down while he was scouting for seals when the floe broke away from the ice pack. He used a satellite phone to reach his wife, who called search and rescue. A military plane dropped supplies, but equipment problems and bad weather delayed the rescue by a helicopter crew from CFB Greenwood, N.S., until Monday.
Tinker, Taylor, diplomat, spy
Those Austin Powers-style glasses should have been a clue. Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, was hailed as a hero for sheltering six Americans in his official residence after they avoided capture when militant students seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Now it turns out Taylor’s role went far beyond smuggling the Americans out of Iran in 1980 on false Canadian passports. He also spied for the Americans, gathering intelligence for a planned U.S. rescue of hostages trapped in the U.S. Embassy, according to Our Man in Tehran, a new book by Robert Wright. Taylor served “as the de facto CIA station chief in Tehran,” says Wright. “It was extremely dangerous work,” he writes.
TV to the rescue
American network medical correspondents, at least those who are also certified doctors, have pulled double duty while covering the earthquake in Haiti. Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC treated a man with an infection, trying to keep him alive until a necessary amputation could be performed. And CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, treated several patients, even operating to remove debris fragments from a 12-year-old girl’s brain. “Yes, I am a reporter,” he said, “but a doctor first.” In a different vein, actor and Scientologist John Travolta, another camera-friendly face, underwrote the cost of a plane to Haiti, staffed with food, medics and 80 volunteer Scientology ministers to assist with “spiritual first aid”—and maybe administer some of those personality tests.
Maybe Don Cherry can make peace
Ron MacLean is supposed to be the reasonable half of the Hockey Night in Canada tag team. But his Jan. 16 attack on Vancouver Canuck forward Alex Burrows inspired the entire team to boycott CBC on-air interviews last Saturday night. MacLean accused Burrows of being a chronic diver to draw penalties, and discredited Burrows’s claim that referee Stéphane Auger threatened to take revenge on Burrows for making him look stupid with a previous call. MacLean declined to apologize, so when Vancouver hammered the Chicago Blackhawks 5-1 last Saturday, none of the three stars, Canucks Roberto Luongo, Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler, would be interviewed. It’s not clear if they’ll carry their boycott to Toronto on Saturday, when they play the Leafs as part of CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada.
A Cardinal? A Padre? Nope, a priest.
Outfielder Grant Desme was a top prospect for the Oakland Athletics, with a solid reputation as a home-run hitter despite a plague of injuries. But Desme is aiming higher than the outﬁeld fence. Last week the 23-year-old announced he was quitting baseball to enter a Catholic seminary. He now sees his injuries as “blessings” that helped sort out his priorities. His theological studies will take about 10 years, he says. “I desire and hope I become a priest.” The sudden career change is a bit, he added, like “re-entering the minor leagues.”
Senator-elect Scott Brown arrived in Washington carrying the weight of Republican expectations, but perhaps not so many clothes. Brown, who toppled the Massachusetts Democrat dynasty of the late senator Ted Kennedy, famously posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine as a law student in 1982. His equally photogenic wife, Gail Huff, strutted in and out of a microscopic black bikini in a 1984 music video. The leaked images only helped his cause with voters. Also generating bipartisan interest among Americans is a skin-intensive Internet photo of Brown’s bikini-clad daughters Ayla and Arianna—though calling them “available” during his acceptance speech was a bit over the top. “I want a chastity belt on this man,” said right-wing broadcaster Glenn Beck. “I want his every move watched in Washington. This one could end with a dead intern,” he said, cryptically.
And for his 21st, a small country
Rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs has set a scary new standard for 16-year-old birthday bashes. He rented a hot New York bar for his son Justin Dior’s party and invited 1,000 friends. Guests included cast members from Jersey Shore and performances from the likes of Lil’ Kim and Trey Songz. MTV cameras filmed the event for an episode of My Super Sweet 16. As for prezzies, they included US$10,000, and a chauffeur-driven Maybach car worth $360,000. In a classy move, Justin donated the cash to Haitian earthquake relief.
Li Shiming was a much unloved Communist party official in Xiashuixi, China, who used corruption and hired thugs to grow rich and hold power. When he was stabbed to death in 2008, the village set off fireworks in celebration. But last Wednesday his admitted killer, Zhang Xuping, 19, was sentenced to death. Zhang was paid about $150 to do the killing by a farmer whose land was stolen by Li. A petition of 20,000 signatures asking for leniency was ignored during sentencing. Zhang’s lawyer has filed an appeal. “I wanted to kill Li myself,” said one villager, “but I was too weak.”
All the news that ﬁts, in a D cup
The New York Times has admitted it did Mad Men star Christina Hendricks wrong. Its fashion writer had said of the low-cut, ruffled gown Hendricks wore to the Golden Globe awards: “You don’t put a big girl in a big dress.” It compounded the sin with a photo that made her even more voluptuous than the reality. It later conceded the photo was distorted “due to an error during routine processing.” No word, though, about its swipe at the “big,” all-natural Hendricks, though several siliconed starlets escaped a similar slagging.
Vlad the paler
Russian PM Vladimir Putin may be the very image of a macho man of action, but it wasn’t always so, says Tatyana Yumasheva, the daughter of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Yumasheva, a former presidential aide, says in her increasingly popular blog that Putin was nervous and “troubled” when Yeltsin said unexpectedly he would hand over power to him on New Year’s Eve in 1999. “It was not easy for Putin to become accustomed to the thought that in two days the responsibility for the whole country would be on his shoulders,” she says. Yumasheva may be building her profile for a return to politics. She is almost certainly enraging Russia’s most powerful man.
Trouble down under
Tennis phenom and clothing designer Venus Williams came close to stepping over the line at the Australian Open this week, but it wasn’t her feet at fault. It seemed that Williams had broken the event’s prohibition against revealing clothing by playing in a low-cut outfit without underwear. Closer examination by, oh, about every male tennis fan on earth proved she was more modestly dressed than first impressions indicated. “My dress for the Australian Open has been one of my best designs ever,” she said. “It’s all about the slits and V-neck. I am wearing undershorts the same colour as my skin, so it gives the slits in my dress the full effect!” Play on.