March 29, 2013

Humanity challenged in ‘The Host’

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Entertainment, Movies, Spirituality at 3:57 am by dinaheng

If aliens took control of our human bodies — eliminating disease, cleaning up the environment, and ending war — would that be a bad thing?

In “The Host,” a film based on “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling novel of the same name, extraterrestrials have taken over the Earth, and are searching for a pocket of human resistors who continue to elude capture.Dinah Eng

When Melanie Stryder (played by Saoirse Ronan) is separated from her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons) and younger brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), she is forced to become the host for Wanderer, an alien life form that struggles to understand its new human feelings and experiences.

Escaping from her Seeker captor (Diane Kruger), Melanie/Wanderer takes refuge with the resistance group led by Melanie’s Uncle Jed (William Hurt). Melanie’s return is met with suspicion, forcing her and the alien spirit inside her body to work together in order to keep the humans safe. When Wanderer falls in love with Ian (Jake Abel), one of the resistors, things get complicated.

“The movie’s about a greater love,” says Andrew Niccol, director and screenwriter of the film, out in theaters this Friday, March 29. “Can we co-exist with a species from another planet? Can we co-exist with other species on our planet? The universe is a very big place, and for us to assume we’re the only species is very arrogant.”

Niccol, who also penned “The Truman Show” and “Gattaca,” was intrigued by the idea that the alien life forms in Meyer’s story might be better for the world than people are, and that the “Souls” who come to Earth might be more humane than humans.

Casting Saoirse Ronan for the dual role of Melanie/Wanderer, he says, was easy. “She’s one of the most truthful actors of any age,” Niccol says. “I’d been watching her since she made ‘Atonement,’ and I knew from the movie ‘Hanna’ that she could do anything.”

Ronan was 13 when she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” and played the title role of “Hanna” in 2011, playing a teenage girl trained from birth to be an assassin.

Ronan, 17 when “The Host” began filming, says she likes how feisty and human her character is, not surprising since Ronan’s first name Saoirse (pronounced Sursha) means freedom in Gaelic.

“Melanie never backs down, and the only reason she lets Wanderer take over her body is because she knows it’s best for her family,” Ronan says. “I preferred playing Melanie, maybe because I played Wanderer more than Melanie in the film. The challenge with playing Wanderer is that she’s not human. She didn’t have natural human reactions to things.”

Having a natural Irish accent meant Ronan had to learn the American Louisiana accent for the role of Melanie, while speaking in a more generic American dialect for the role of Wanderer. Melanie’s walk was decisive, while Wanderer almost floated in her movements, Ronan adds.

“Wanderer’s very composed and calm,” Ronan notes. “Melanie’s very impatient, and everything’s a rush or a threat for her. She doesn’t have as much time for people as Wanderer does.”

Does Ronan believe that extraterrestrials exist?

“I’m sure it’s not just us,” she says. “We humans could be somewhere else, too.”

Now that would give new meaning to the phrase “alien life forms.”


March 23, 2013

Vampires abound in ‘The Blood Gospel’

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Spirituality, Women at 4:51 am by dinaheng

Science, history, religion, and romance come together in an intriguing story that explores the origin of vampires in “The Blood Gospel,” a gothic tale of suspense written by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell ($27.99, William Morrow).

Rollins, known for his Sigma Force adventure thrillers about a secret government team of scientist-soldiers, has come up with a storyline that explores early Catholicism through the eyes of vampires who hope to save their souls by fighting evil for the church and God.Dinah Eng

For his first collaborative work, Rollins teamed up with Cantrell, a former student of his at the Maui Writers Conference who went on to publish four historical thrillers.

“James was at a museum where he saw a painting of ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ by Rembrandt,” explains Lyssa Keusch, executive editor at William Morrow/Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, who edits Rollins’ novels. “He was thinking about religion, fear, and early Catholicism, and saw how some of the symbolism in the painting — like the robes and drinking wine — is similar to what’s in vampire mythology. He wanted to write a new, more sophisticated, vampire mythology, exploring the line between faith and science, and envisioned a series.”

“The Blood Gospel” is the first in the Order of the Sanguine series, telling the tale of Dr. Erin Granger, an archaeologist, who teams with Sergeant Jordan Stone, a military forensic expert, and Father Rhun Korza, a Vatican priest who’s a warrior in the secret sect, to investigate the crucified body of a mummified girl. What they discover leads them to an enemy from aeons past.

Keusch, who bought Rollins’ first book (“Subterranean,” published in 1999), says Rollins focused on the physical action and plot points in writing “The Blood Gospel,” and Cantrell focused on the psychological development of the characters.

Photo courtesy of William Morrow/Avon Books

Photo courtesy of William Morrow/Avon Books

“They complemented each other well,” Keusch says. “He gave her a detailed outline of the story, and she did a first draft. He did revisions, and they went back and forth, tweaking each other’s work. By the time I got it, it was a seamless blend of their styles.”

Keusch, who tries to develop franchise authors in thrillers, suspense, and women’s fiction, says the realm of vampires in the book was an interesting and fun world to develop.

“James is trying to challenge the more popular vampire mythologies by authors like Charlaine Harris or Lauren Hamilton, coming out of the mystery-crime or romance genre,” says the editor. “He talks about the scientific aspect of changing wine into blood, and why silver affects vampires. It’s Anne Rice meets Dan Brown. I don’t think anyone’s done this scientific-thriller angle before.”

She says part of readers’ fascination with vampires lies in exploring the classic struggle of good vs. evil. Romance fans may flock to the fantasy of falling in love with a non-human, and others may be attracted to the element of fear in stories like the Dracula books.

“James is really convincing in the way he lays out his speculative ideas, so he draws people in,” Keusch says. “It’s a page turner, so the response has been really positive.”

March 11, 2013

El Capitan brings magic to the movies

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 8:39 pm by dinaheng

There’s something magical about seeing a movie in an historic theater. You know, the kind that has grand balconies and opera boxes, where actual stage shows were once performed.

For the first three weeks, through March 31, audiences at the historic El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood will enjoy a special treat with each showing of Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.” In addition to live organ music before the show, movie-goers will get to peruse costumes from the film, and see a live magic show, “Mysteries of Magic,” starring Greg Wilson, an award-winning magician who has performed on stage and television since childhood.Dinah Eng

Wilson, the son of famed magicians and entertainment producers Mark Wilson and Nani Darnell (“The Magic Land of Allakazam”), performed on “The Mickey Mouse Club” as a kid, and has toured the world creating illusions ever since. His appearance at the El Capitan is a perfect introduction to the film that tells the origins of Oscar Diggs, a carnival magician (played by James Franco) who becomes the Wizard of Oz.

“One of my favorite illusions to perform is levitation, and I’d seen reference to that in the trailer for the movie,” explains Wilson, who decided to recreate illusions from the first stage show with Mickey Mouse characters done by an outside vendor (his parents) at Disneyland in 1967.

“Their Allakazam Railroad illusion, which I do in this show, was their signature piece. I’d performed it many times with Dad cutting Mom in half, but never in my own show. Mom was gracious enough to let me take the box out, and share it with audiences again.”

Greg Wilson and assistants in Disney's Mysteries of Magic show at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises.

Greg Wilson and assistants in Disney’s Mysteries of Magic show at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises.

Wilson performs before every show daily, from 10 a.m. to 7:45 p.m., with a fifth show at 10: 55 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The 18-minute magic show includes audience participation and traditional tricks sure to please.

“The magic I’m presenting is an older style magic designed for a historic theater this size,” Wilson says. “So the fit is perfect. Being able to change the scenery, with a modern light and sound system also allows me to do things like create the illusion of a girl vanishing on stage, flying through the air, and re-appearing in the opera box.”

Watching Wilson’s show at The El Capitan is a special treat for audiences who’d like to experience what going to the movies in the past was like, while enjoying the latest in projection and sound technology for the film itself.  Built in 1926, the movie palace was billed as “Hollywood’s First Home of Spoken Drama,” and has been meticulously restored to its original splendor.

History comes alive at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises.

History comes alive at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises.

Wilson says performing on the historic stage is an honor, and it was great fun designing his show to complement “Oz the Great and Powerful.” He notes that he particularly enjoyed watching Franco perform magic tricks in the opening sequence of the film.

“Producing a dove is not an easy trick, and he did a good job,” says the expert. “I got a chance to meet him, and he told me that he dedicated a lot of time learning to do the magic in the show. The film itself is great fun. I’d love to go to Oz and be the Wizard.”

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March 9, 2013

Journey back to the land of Oz

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 2:36 am by dinaheng

L. Frank Baum didn’t write much about the Wizard of Oz’s background, but the character’s imagined backstory in Disney’s new “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a satisfying tale set against the backdrop of a reimagined Emerald City.

Yes, there are the expected nods to the Yellow Brick Road, Munchkins, and a twist on the flying monkeys, but it’s the excellent special effects that make you forget you’re wearing those clunky 3-D glasses. While some of the adventures on the way detract from the plot, the story progresses to a poignant ending that explains how the land discovered by Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and its characters came to be.Dinah Eng

The movie, in theaters on Friday, March 8, was produced by Joe Roth, co-founder of Morgan Creek Productions, and a former chairman of 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Studios. Roth, who’s had a string of recent hits, including “Alice in Wonderland” and “Snow White and the Huntsman,” says telling the origin story of the wizard really appealed to him.

“(Screenwriter) Mitchell Kapner pitched me some ideas that didn’t work for me, but then mentioned that he was reading all the Baum books to his children,” Roth says. “I never knew Baum wrote more than ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I asked him to detail some of the storylines, and the idea of the man behind the curtain and how he got there appealed to me.

“I was also attracted to it because as chairman of Disney Studios, it was always difficult to find a male protagonist. There were lots of stories about mermaids and princesses, but few leads for men.”

In “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the wizard’s story begins in dusty Kansas, where a traveling carnival magician named Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco) is seeking fame and fortune while, um… dazzling every pretty girl who comes along. When a tornado whisks him away to the Land of Oz, the opportunist thinks he’s hit the jackpot, until he meets three witches — Theodora, Evanora and Glinda — and must prove he’s the great wizard everyone’s been waiting for.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" - Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

“Oz the Great and Powerful” – Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

“Sam (Raimi), the director, wanted Oscar to be a selfish man who ended up being a selfless man,” Roth explains. “I like stories that show human potential is almost unlimited; stories about people who have the opportunity to rise above everyday lives. The theme of second chances is one I’m partial to, as well. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do for a living.”

A perennial name on Hollywood’s power list, Roth has shepherded more than 300 movies as a producer or studio executive, including the Academy Award-nominated films “The Insider” and “Blackhawk Down,” and popular hits like “Home Alone” and “The Sixth Sense.”

“I’m a very curious person,” Roth says. “I was curious about running a large organization, so was fortunate to run 20th Century Fox and Disney. I was curious about starting a soccer team, so I started the Seattle Sounders Soccer team. Today, I feel lucky enough to be an entrepreneur, working independently on projects.”

Roth says the two genres he’s attracted to most now are fantasies, and stories grounded in real life where “you see people able to do things from their soulful selves.” Such films, he notes, allows the audience to escape from the problems and challenges of daily life.

It took three and a half years to bring “Oz the Great and Powerful” to the big screen, and Disney no doubt hopes it will become another franchise success.

“I hope audiences will get the theme of second chances,” Roth says. “I hope they get the message that it’s better to be good, than great, and that it’s good to change selfishness into being selfless.”

Spoken like a true wizard.