October 24, 2012

‘Cloud Atlas’ explores meaning of our lives

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Spirituality at 10:58 pm by dinaheng

What is a life? What gives it meaning? Do we live more than one life?

Profound questions never have easy answers, but the new film “Cloud Atlas,” based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell, makes an intriguing attempt.

Six interweaving stories — told simultaneously in the past, present and future — show how decisions made by people in one period impact on the events and lives of others across the timeline.

Hugo Weaving, best known for his role as Agent Smith in the “Matrix” trilogy and as Elrond in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, portrays six characters in “Cloud Atlas,” making an appearance in all of the film’s time periods — 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2346.

“The characters I play are all agents of control, enslavement and selfishness,” explains Weaving, whose characters range from an assassin to a domineering female nurse in the film. “I didn’t envision the link between the characters, except in themes. But there’s a journey that the meta-soul represented by the characters goes on, starting with Haskell Moore, a businessman of good standing who believes in the ladder of civilization, and that there’s a different race on each rung of the ladder.”

From the prejudice of Moore in 1849 to Tadeusz Kesselring, a conductor in Nazi Germany who doesn’t stand up for what he believes in 1936, to the assassin Bill Smoke in 1973, we see people who make decisions by choosing selfishness over humanity. In 2012, the theme continues with Weaving’s portrayal of Nurse Noakes, who believes everyone in her charge should be treated like children. In 2144, Weaving’s Boardman Mephi is the bureaucrat who upholds a dystopian status quo in the future.

Weaving’s sixth character is a scary-looking fellow named Old Georgie, who taunts Tom Hanks’ goatherd Zachary, as he decides whether to help Meronym (Halle Berry), a representative from an advanced human community called Prescients in 2321.

“Old Georgie’s really the idea in your head that stops you from being free, that rejects change, and says you must be a certain way,” Weaving says. “So my characters make the journey from human to pure repressive idea.

“Personally, I don’t believe in the idea that I might be born inside the body of someone else. Reincarnation strikes me as a little too neat. I do believe energy is not lost. It goes somewhere else, and is a force that maintains itself in some form through time.”

If Weaving’s characters fail to change the tenor of their decisions over time, Susan Sarandon’s characters become more questioning and more evolved over time.  Sarandon, known for her portrayal of strong, intelligent women in films like “Bull Durham” and “Thelma and Louise,” appears in four of the six stories in “Cloud Atlas.”

“I loved exploring the idea that the spirit is more than gender, color or race,” Sarandon says. “All my characters questioned the place of women.”

There’s Madame Horrox, a suppressed woman in 1849, who disapproves of her husband’s cavalier treatment of women and slaves; Older Ursula, the long-lost love of a small-time publisher (Jim Broadbent), and the Abbess, who carries the spiritual wisdom of her people in 2321.

“I also play a male character (Yusouf Suleiman) who is a spiritual leader in 2144,” Sarandon says. “His philosophy that fabricants (genetically-engineered women) have souls — whether they’re born in the womb or a tank — influences the fabricant Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), who influences our heroines.”

The actress says “Cloud Atlas” explores what it means to be truly human, and shows the cyclical nature of the human experience.

“I think how you spend your energy, and how you frame your life creates the human being that you are,” she says. “To be human, in my mind, is to be generous, kind, and present. When you see periods of history where genocide and racial cleansing is accepted, it’s crazy. Today, we have a great deal of compassion fatigue. Society has started to accept things that should be unacceptable, and we have to fight that.”

Sarandon points to a legacy of war that can be seen in veterans from the Vietnam War helping today’s soldiers in Iraq.

“I wonder, will we ever learn?” she says. “Is greed always going to be the short-term path we’ll be on? Hugo (Weaving)’s characters are all of a piece where fear is used to control. We’re living in a fear-based society now, which is why things are so partisan. There’s a big disconnect between morality and power.”

Sarandon loves the words of Sonmi-451, read by her character, the Abbess, in the dystopian future of “Cloud Atlas” — “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”

This film, like life, is disjointed in the beginning, but if you hang in there, the stories and themes come together to deliver a thoughtful message about the often unseen ways in which we all are connected.

October 17, 2012

‘Alex Cross’ turns on emotional complexity

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Entertainment, Movies at 5:52 pm by dinaheng

Fans of James Patterson’s detective/psychologist Alex Cross will find a nuanced portrayal of the character’s early years as a homicide detective in the new film “Alex Cross,” which stars Tyler Perry in the title role.

Set in Detroit, the film is based on Patterson’s novel “I, Alex Cross,” and reveals the origin of the character previously played by Morgan Freeman in “Along Came a Spider” and “Kiss The Girls.”

Director Rob Cohen, conscious of the need to satisfy both fans of the books and the films, has created an intricate action thriller with the emotional make-up of hero and villain intertwined. For as Cross pursues a serial killer named Picasso (played by Matthew Fox), the detective must confront his own urge for revenge when the killer strikes close to home.

“I wanted to be true to the James Patterson character, rather than the earlier interpretations,” says Cohen, a prolific producer whose directing credits include “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “The Fast and the Furious,” and “xXx.”

“Alex Cross was written to be a 40-year-old, big, athletic guy. A couple years ago, I went to see ‘Madea’s Family Reunion,’ the theater piece Tyler tried out before the film, and wanted to meet him. He’s a big man, and my reaction was, ‘You could be an action movie star.’ He laughed and said, ‘Maybe we’ll work something out.’ “

A year later, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Cohen received a call from producer Bill Block, who wanted the director to take the helm of a thriller based on the Cross character. When the producer asked what Cohen would think of casting Tyler Perry in the lead role, Cohen gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“Within days, we sat down with Tyler and wrapped it up,” Cohen says. “I told Tyler he’d have to do two things — lose weight and learn Krav Maga (a self-defense technique used by many law enforcement agencies). And he did it. I’m very proud of Tyler and his courage. To go head-to-head with stars like Cicely Tyson and Jean Reno, who have scores of credits, and hold your own as the eponymous character takes guts.”

Cohen says he had no doubts that Perry, known for comedic roles in film and television, had the dramatic chops to play the homicide detective/psychologist.

The filmmaker recalls that years ago, in working with comedian Richard Pryor, he learned that creating comedy can come from understanding pain. By figuring out where people hurt, Pryor would try to ease the pain with his humor.

“The dramatic actor has to find the truth of a dramatic character, without having to make that turn to comedy, so I knew Tyler could do it,” Cohen says.

The interplay between Alex Cross and Picasso is particularly meaningful because it’s this case that ends up defining the hero’s psyche.

“The Cross that emerges from this experience has been forged by his experience with Picasso,” Cohen says. “My take on Picasso is that he was a serial killer who channeled his energy into being an assassin, rather than picking up victims in supermarkets. The serial killer in him was at odds with the assassin, and every time the two conflicted, Picasso would start to cleave apart. In chasing Picasso, Cross ends up getting on the slippery slope of revenge, and by the end, he’s every bit as dangerous as the man he’s hunting.”

The character who is the moral center of the story is Nana Mama, played by renowned actress Cicely Tyson. Cohen says Tyson, known for her Oscar-nominated role in “Sounder” and numerous other film and television roles, is the only actress he wanted in the role of Alex Cross’s mother.

“Nana Mama is immovable and the inexorable force in the house when Alex is going for revenge,” Cohen says. “I feel Cicely is everyone’s mother, the mother we all wish we had — the one who would fight for our soul, as much as our safety. You see how Alex Cross gets his strength, from this woman.”

Cohen, who was raised by an African-American nanny named Ophelia Chambers while both parents worked, says Nana Mama is a mixture of Chambers, Tyson and the character Patterson created.

“I love people and different cultures,” says Cohen, who received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Harvard University. “I like it when a film has a root in culture. When cultures collide, we see what happens to make people do what they do.”

He notes that Tyson worked with the set decorator to make the Cross residence an African-American home in the Obama era.

“She came to me the first day and said, ‘This is not a black home,’ “ Cohen recalls. “So she set the menus for the meals, and made it an African-American home. No one knows better than Cicely what that should look like.”

Tyson says she decided to take the role of Nana Mama after listening to Cohen’s stories   about going to a Baptist church in Harlem as a child with his African-American nanny.

“Rob is so humane because he has encountered humanity in so many different cultural experiences,” Tyson says. “He’s able to reach out to anyone because of that.”

After reading the script for “Alex Cross,” Tyson decided that the Nana Mama she would play had a warped sense of humor, as well as a deep spiritual center and faith in God.

“When I get a script offer, the first thing I do is read, and read, and read,” Tyson says. “I’m looking to see what the author had in mind when he decided to write the script, and what he wants me to project in the character. I try to absorb it, and then little things that are unlike me begin to emerge, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so, not me.’

“I became deeply emotional about Nana Mama because she’s the mother of a son whose life is constantly in jeopardy. She doesn’t know when he walks out the door if she’ll ever see him again or not. Internally, she’s on the edge all the time.”

Tyson says women were born the stronger gender, and having gone through the Civil Rights era, the model-turned-actress doesn’t take her success for granted. Being a recognized performer, she takes the responsibility that comes with that seriously.

“If you’re going to project an image to people, it should be as truthful as you can get it,” Tyson says. “You never know what someone will take away from it. One time, I was going to get an honorary degree from a major college, and a young woman came into the ladies room in tears. She said they had pulled her out of the graduation line because she didn’t have something.

“I couldn’t believe they waited until then to tell her. So I said, ‘That won’t happen.’ I went out and said if she leaves, I will have to leave. So she graduated. Years later, I was walking on the street when someone yelled my name. She came up, and asked if I remembered her. She said, ‘I’m the girl who graduated from Spelman because of you. I’m now an engineer.’ So you never know how the things you do impact others.”

Supporting educational efforts is important to Tyson, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the island of Nevis in the West Indies. She tells the story of once being asked to lend her name to a magnet school in East Orange, N.J., and refusing to do so because she felt no tie to the school.

“The principal would not give up, and one day, my cousin said I should do it,” Tyson says. “She told me that when my parents first came to the United States, they came to live with his brother, and that house is six blocks away from the school, and still standing. That means I have to complete the circle. So I said yes, as long as they allow me to be actively involved.”

So Tyson wholeheartedly supports The Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, looking at each of its 1,223 students as if they were her own children.

As for “Alex Cross,” the woman who plays Nana Mama clearly brought her own deep faith to the scene where Cross decides he must confront Picasso himself.

“Nana Mama tells him he can’t leave his children without a father,” Tyson says. “She asks how is he going to explain the things he does to them? Like all things, she believes it’s best to leave it to God.”

And as Cross discovers, a body can’t truly live unless its soul is at peace.

October 11, 2012

Heroic tales make good autumn reads

Posted in Between Us column, Books at 6:07 am by dinaheng

Going against conventional wisdom is usually risky, and often what we most admire in others.

The heroes and heroines in a trio of new novels find out just how strong they really are when they’re forced to go against the wishes of many around them. Along the way, they face some issues that will be familiar to many.

A world full of “Hidden Things” by Doyce Testerman ($14.99, Harper Voyager) reveals an intriguing mixture of mystery, mystical mayhem, and matters of the heart as Calliope Jenkins, a singer turned private investigator, unravels the secrets behind the death of her business partner and former lover Joshua White.

When she gets a 2 a.m. call from Josh, warning her to “watch out for the hidden things,” Calli has no idea that a few hours later, she’ll be getting another call from the police, informing her that Josh is dead. When she gets a voicemail message hours later from Josh, the question becomes — is Josh really dead, and can she get him back?

To find the answer, the former singer heads across the country to the place Josh disappeared in Iowa, which also happens to be near her estranged family’s home. Traveling with her is a Guide named Vikous, who may look like a clown, but whose mission is deadly serious.

What Calli discovers teaches Vikous that “things don’t have to bind you if you don’t let them.” What she learns about forgiveness and reconciliation gives her the strength to be who she really is.

For Alina, Quinn, and Bea, figuring out who they are and what they must do in order to survive in a world where oxygen has become a commodity will determine whether the teenagers continue to live in “Breathe” by Sarah Crossan ($17.99, Greenwillow Books).

In this dystopian novel, the Earth has lost its greenery and survivors must stay under a glass dome that maintains oxygen levels for survival. When the three teens find themselves walking out of the dome, with only two days’ worth of oxygen in their tanks, they must confront what they’ve always been taught about the Earth’s atmosphere and the way of life that has evolved since the big Switch.

The author tells her tale through the three teens’ viewpoints, exploring today’s issues of the changing environment, corporate greed, and what it means to truly do what’s right.

Most young adult novels today seem to revolve around dystopian themes, which can get boring after a while. Fortunately, the fast-paced action and romantic tension in “Defiance” by C.J. Redwine ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) sets this tale apart from the pack.

In a land where every girl is required by law to have a male Protector, Rachel Adams defies convention by learning the skills of tracking and hunting, rather than sewing and dancing. When her father disappears, Rachel is placed under the protection of her father’s apprentice Logan, a boy who rebuffed her declaration of love two years earlier.

Branded as a rebel, Rachel must fight for her life while outwitting the Commander who rules over their city-state, and confronting her love for the boy who has grown to be more than her match.

With characters like these, we can only hope that it won’t be long before Redwine pens the sequel.

It’s nice to know heroism can always be found in the pages of the right book.

October 8, 2012

It’s a lot like Hogwarts…

Posted in Between Us column at 4:32 pm by dinaheng

I miss Harry Potter. The tales of the boy who went to Hogwarts School for Wizardry captured the hearts and imaginations of more than one generation, and became a cultural phenomenon that reminded the world to believe in magic.

Last weekend, I visited with my nephew Peter, a junior who attends The Lawrenceville School, a private co-ed boarding and day school in New Jersey. His father enjoys working internationally, so Peter, his brother Sam, and their mom (my sister) have lived in numerous countries abroad — The Netherlands, Malaysia, and now Oman.

While there are three English language high schools in Oman, Peter chose to attend Lawrenceville in the United States, and Sam is getting ready to choose his high school, as well.

In January 2011, I spent a snowy Martin Luther King weekend with Peter during his first year at Lawrenceville. Having learned English from British teachers, he had a marked British accent, and I couldn’t help but think of Harry Potter when we talked.

He was so excited about being on his own, and since he lived in a “house” where you had to sign in and out before leaving campus, he was anxious to get back each night before curfew. I was curious to see how things have changed two years later.

The first thing I noticed last weekend was how much taller he is. The second was that he’s lost his British accent. “It’s too bad,” he said, when I mentioned it. The charming lilt from childhood has given way to the deeper voice of young adulthood, and the ready boyish smile is a tad more serious these days.

He still loves Lawrenceville, and has no regrets about spending his high school days there. “It’s a lot like Hogwarts,” he says, noting that this year, he’s living in one of the nicest houses on campus. There’s definite rivalry between the houses, but unlike many places, Peter says there’s no bullying at this school.

“There are a lot of international students here, and people respect each other,” he says.

Life is filled with classes, jazz band, soccer practice, and he’s helping as a tour guide for  prospective students and their families. He’s working on sets for the annual musical and is looking forward to getting his driver’s license. Did anything surprise him about life in boarding school?

“There’a a lot more homework,” Peter says. “The year before coming here, the most homework I had to do was a half hour after school. Now, it’s four or five hours a night.”

Our visit was short — a dinner one night, and lunch the next day — before I had to leave for New York and business meetings. For him, it was no doubt long enough. Teenagers, after all, prefer the company of their peers.

For me, it was all too short. The older we get, the more precious time with loved ones becomes. In a world where families are scattered far and wide, the chance to hug and say “I love you” should be taken at every opportunity.

Hogwarts may just be a memory as the years go by, but if we’re lucky, the spirit of Harry Potter will stay alive and well — even if we only get a glimpse of it through the eyes of the young.