October 19, 2017

By Kam Williams

In 1887, 24-year-old Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was sent from India to England to represent India by presenting Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a gold coin that commemorated her Golden Jubilee year as the Queen. When he presented the coin at a banquet at Windsor Castle, he managed to catch the attention of the lonely monarch.

In fact, she was so taken with Karim that she made him her companion and promoted him to be her “munshi,” Urdu for teacher. Not surprisingly, this development didn’t sit well with members of the royal court, especially her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard). The crown prince was suspicious of the interloper’s intentions and was concerned about how things looked with his widowed mum having a handsome young Muslim at her side.

However, Victoria brushed aside any objections as racial prejudice, and kept Abdul on as her trusted confidant until she passed away in 1901. Based on Shrabani Basu’s bestseller of the same name, Victoria and Abdul describes the unlikely friendship that developed between her majesty and her devoted subject. Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen and The Grifters), this “mostly true” tale portrays the relationship as a dramatic comedy whose comedic elements outweigh its dramatic moments.

Dame Judi Dench, who won an Academy award for playing Queen Elizabeth, is again at her best here as an imperious, but vulnerable, Queen. She plays an empathetic visionary adrift in a sea of intolerance that is swarming with British bigots who are too blinded by hate to begin to understand a mild-mannered foreigner whose customs are different than theirs.

The picture’s transparent message about brotherhood is delivered in too heavy-handed a fashion to take seriously. Nevertheless, the movie’s lighter moments generate enough laughs to make the movie worth seeing.

Very Good (**½ stars). Rated PG-13 for profanity and mature themes. In English, Hindi, and Urdu with subtitles. Running time: 111 minutes. Production Studio: BBC Films/Working Title Films/Perfect World Pictures. Distributor: Focus Features.

October 18, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

One thing to be said for living in a country led by a deranged narcissicist is how it heightens your appreciation for explosive poets; it also exposes your stressed senses to outrageous fantasies. For days now I’ve been reading Rimbaud’s Season in Hell with special pleasure (“Alas! there were days when all active men seemed to him playthings of grotesque madness”) while enjoying a twisted vision out of Disney’s Snow White where an evil queen with an orange pompadour is staring in the mirror shouting, “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest ruler of them all?” and being told time after time in an icky sweet sugar-plum fairy voice, “Snobama! Snobama! Snobama!” And when Snobama’s face actually appears in the mirror grinning that ear to ear grin, the queen begins screaming. Once she’s calmed down she sends a troupe of rogues and jesters out to destroy everything Snobama created, a futile task because the documents of destruction have no substance, it’s like writing in water.

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“A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN”: Performances are underway for “A Night with Janis Joplin.” Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the musical runs through October 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Janis Joplin (Kacee Clanton, front and center) gives a high-energy concert, backed by the Joplinaires: Sharon Catherine Brown, left; Amma Osei; Sylvia MacCalla; and Tawny Dolley. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

A Night with Janis Joplin is playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Written and directed by Randy Johnson, this raw, high-energy entertainment is a tribute to Joplin and several of the artists who inspired her. Although the show undoubtedly holds special resonance for Joplin’s fans, multi-generational audiences are likely to enjoy this rousing mix of blues, soul, and psychedelic rock.
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October 11, 2017

By Kam Williams

William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) was a Renaissance man with an impressive array of talents. After earning his BA, PhD, and law degrees, the Harvard graduate taught psychology at Radcliffe. Despite a demanding academic career, he found time to write self-help books and to invent the precursor of the lie detector.

To this day, however, he remains best remembered as the creator of Wonder Woman. Selling the idea to a comic book publisher in 1941 was no mean feat, since until then, Superman, Batman, The Flash, Captain Marvel, The Green Lantern, and all the other superheroes, were male.

The character Marston envisioned was not just a powerful crime-fighter, but also was an attractive Amazon whose eroticism and dominance were deemed to be sexual and sado-masochistic in nature by her detractors. Although Wonder Woman wore a skimpy outfit, as did Superman, and used a rope to subdue and restrain adversaries, the comic books were far from pornographic. Marston had been inspired by the success of the suffrage movement that helped advance the feminist cause. In fact, he once stated that “The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women.”

Another source of inspiration were the two women in Marston’s life; his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their longtime lover, Olive (Bella Heathcote). He would father children with each woman, and they all lived under the same roof, although the scandalous arrangement led to the family being shunned by polite society.

Written and directed by Alexandra Robinson, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an intriguing and informative biopic that finally awards a brilliant visionary, who had been marginalized by history, his due. Thanks to our more enlightened LBGTQ-embracing times, William Moulton Marston can finally be fully appreciated.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, graphic sexuality, and lewd images. Running time: 108 minutes. Production Studio: Stage 6 Films/Boxspring Entertainment/Topple Productions. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures.

“AFGHAN GIRL, 2001”: This photograph by Princeton Day School photography teacher Thatcher Cook is featured in the school’s Visual and Design Arts Faculty Exhibition, on view from October 16 through November 9. An opening reception with the artists will be held on on Friday, October 20 from 5 to 7 p.m.

The Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School presents the Visual and Design Arts Faculty Exhibition, on view from October 16 through November 9. There will be an opening reception with the artists on Friday, October 20 from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit and reception are free and open to the public. more

“BELLE”: The collage paintings of Meredith Remz are on exhibit at Blawenburg Cafe in Skillman through January 5, 2018. Remz says she draws inspiration from contemporary and industrial design, as well as Mother Nature.

Meredith Remz debuts her work at Blawenburg Cafe in Skillman this fall with a solo exhibition of expressive collage paintings. The exhibit will be on display through January 5, 2018. It is is free and open to the public, child-friendly, and all art is for sale. more

By Stuart Mitchner

Movie actors are not always the most quotable beings. The value of their words depends not on substance or style so much as gossip potential, career-advancement, otherwise known as the publicity quotient. Then you have one-of-a-kind people like Robert Mitchum, who was born 100 years ago, August 6, 1917. Unless Mitchum has a ghostwriter named Hemingway slipping him gems, what he says fits perfectly with the big man dwarfing the screen at the Garden two summers ago in Out of the Past. Anyone who has seen Mitchum in that film or in other RKO noirs like Where Danger Lives will recognize him in these words — “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” I hope Hemingway read that line before he died.  more

October 4, 2017

By Kam Williams

Faith-based films usually have limited appeal beyond the Christian community because most tend to be heavy-handed morality plays that preach to the choir. A Question of Faith is a refreshing change of pace, because instead of proselytizing, the film features character development and a compelling plot.

This carefully crafted modern parable explores a mix of worldly and spiritual themes in a way that will entertain the faithful and sinners alike. The picture was directed by Kevan Otto, who recruited an impressive cast to perform Ty Manns’s script.

The cast disappears so thoroughly into their parts that it’s easy to forget you’re watching actors after just a few minutes into the movie. One of the stars is Kim Fields, who’s best known for the role of Tootie that she originated in the TV sitcom Different Strokes, and continued to play in the spinoff, The Facts of Life.

The film unfolds in Atlanta where we’re introduced to three families that are dealing with serious life issues. The first is Theresa Newman (Fields), who is worried that her husband (Richard T. Jones) is so obsessed with taking over as senior pastor of the church from his father (Gregory Alan Williams) that he might break a promise to attend their younger son’s (Caleb T. Thomas) basketball game.

Next, gospel singer Michelle Danielsen’s (Amber Thompson) father (C. Thomas Howell) is pressuring her to perform at a record company’s audition because he needs the money his daughter’s contract with the record company would provide to help save his business. He is apparently more concerned with avoiding an impending collapse of his business than with finding the cause of his daughter’s debilitating headaches.

Finally, restaurant owner Katie Hernandez (Jaci Velasquez) keeps reminding her daughter Maria (Karen Valero) to stop texting while driving when she is making deliveries to customers. Katie doesn’t want Maria to have an accident that might prevent her from becoming the first person in their family to attend college.

These parallel storylines converge in a very dramatic fashion. As their fates become intertwined the protagonists rise to the occasion in different ways.

The film is a moving tale of redemption that reveals God’s grace and makes a case for cross-cultural tolerance.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes. Running time: 104 minutes. Production Studio: Silver Lining Entertainment. Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment.

By Stuart Mitchner 

On one of last week’s unseasonably hot heavy days, deep in the late-afternoon do-nothing know-nothing blahs, I tried to pull out by reading the latest New Yorker and only felt worse. Next I tried King Lear, usually a reliable energy source, but this is the play that begins when Lear tells Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing,” which dooms them both and is the word at the dead center of my ennui. more

“ART AT KINGS OAKS”: A pop-up exhibition featuring the works of 26 artists will be at Kings Oaks Farm in Newtown, Pa. from October 6 to 15. An opening reception is on October 6 from 6-9 p.m. Shown here are a painting by Susan Jane Walp, top left; a monotype by Stuart Shils, top right; an installation by Margaret Parish, bottom left; and a sculpture by Maxwell Mustardo.

“Art at Kings Oaks,” a pop-up art exhibition in a historic barn and chapel on Kings Oaks Farm in Newtown, Pa., returns for its fifth year this October 6-15 to present its largest group of artists to date. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, ceramics, and installation works by 26 renowned and emerging artists from the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic U.S. and Italy. more

“A CITY SQUARE”: This oil on canvas by Bill Scott is part of Rider University’s exhibit featuring a 40-year survey of the artist’s work, which runs through October 29. An artist’s talk is October 5 at 7 p.m.

The Rider University Art Gallery presents “Bill Scott: The Landscape in a Still Life Paintings, Pastels, Prints, and Watercolors, 1977-2017” through October 29. An artist’s talk is Thursday, October 5 at 7 p.m.

The exhibit includes still life and figure compositions made before Scott’s painting veered toward abstraction. His recent abstractions include references to garden and landscape imagery: flowers, foliage, and tree branches. more

By Nancy Plum 

Princeton University Concerts has innovatively combined different forms of media in the past, most notably a concert a few years ago featuring actress Meryl Streep and the Takács String Quartet fusing literature and music in one performance. To open the 124th season of Princeton University Concerts, The Emerson String Quartet joined forces with seven well-established actors for a “multimedia theatrical realization” of Anton Chekhov’s story The Black Monk in a fantasy also exploring the lives of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Russian leader Josef Stalin.  more

September 27, 2017

By Kam Williams

Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco) must be the least liked student at Ninjago High. The unassuming 16-year-old is so unpopular that nobody will even sit on the same side of the bus with him on their ride to school.

What they don’t know, however, is that he has a super hero alter ego — the Green Ninja. He is the leader of the Secret Ninja Force, a team of five teens and an android who are helped by Lloyd’s wise and wisecracking uncle, Master Wu (Jackie Chan).

Master Wu has taught each of his protégés how to harness the different forces of nature that are contained in his magical treasure chest. The hot headed Red Ninja (Michael Pena) controls fire; the music-loving Black Ninja (Fred Armisen) has mastered earth; the Blue Ninja (Kumail Nanjiani), lightning; and the Gray Ninja (Abbi Jacobson), water; and the robotic White Ninja’s (Zach Woods) domain is ice.

Their mission is to prevent Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) from conquering Ninjago City. It turns out that the evil villain is Lloyd’s long-lost father, who abandoned his wife (Olivia Munn) and baby when she refused to accept his decision to go to the dark side.

As a result, all Lloyd knows about his father is what he’s been told by his mother and uncle. Consequently, Lloyd is eager to meet and defeat the diabolical warlord who has the reputation of being the world’s “Worst Guy Ever.”

If you’ve seen either LEGO or LEGO Batman, then you have an idea of what to expect from the third film in the animated series. Directed by Charlie Bean, the film is not only a visually captivating adventure, but also has pithy asides and clever allusions to screen classics that also make the movie interesting to adults.

In this critic’s opinion, Ninjago is the best episode in the series because of all the positive messages that are delivered by the picture’s end.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

By Anne Levin

After a decade of planning and four years of construction, the studios, rehearsal rooms, and theaters at Princeton University’s ambitious Lewis Center for the Arts have opened on schedule. Music, dance, and drama classes are underway in the three buildings along Alexander Street and University Place, part of the University’s $330 million Arts and Transit development.

“It’s rare to have a project to work on that is transformative on a performance level and on the programs housed within,” said Noah Yaffe of Steven Holl Architects, during a press tour of the complex on Monday. “What is so fascinating is that we’re maximizing the visibility of the arts while maximizing the porosity of the place.” more

NEW MUSIC: Sandbox Percussion (pictured) will be among the twelve acts performing at this Sunday’s Unruly Sounds festival. Now in its third year, the event features composers and performances by local artists and Princeton University affiliates.

By Doug Wallack

On Sunday, October 1, Hinds Plaza, adjacent to the Princeton Public Library, will play host to the third annual Unruly Sounds festival — a showcase of composers and new music from local artists and from the Princeton University Department of Music.

Mika Godbole, the festival’s organizer, says that this year’s lineup has more of a singer-songwriter focus than in past years — more of an emphasis on groove-based music than on the highly experimental music that has been Unruly Sound’s signature in past years. But it will hardly be a pop lineup. Acts will include smpl (an electronics and percussion duo, joined by dancer Ursula Eagly), the electro-country group Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves (equal parts synthesizer and slide guitar), and compositions by PU Professor Dan Trueman for prepared digital piano — full of otherworldly pitch-bending, delay, and waveforms played backward.  more

“SIMPATICO”: Performances are underway for A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of “Simpatico.” Directed by ensemble member Dado, the play runs through October 15 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen, left) threatens to sabotage the veneer of respectability that is carefully maintained by his ex-partner Carter (Michael Shannon. (Photo by Richard Termine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre has opened its season with Sam Shepard’s Simpatico. Asked by The New York Times what makes actors good in their work, the playwright — who died July 27 —responded, “Adventure. An actor who’s willing to jump off the cliff, he’s going to go anywhere.” This production proves Shepard’s point.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

Fifty years ago this week at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, the Beatles were recording John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” a rock and roll tour de force unlike anything in popular music before it, including other Beatles pinnacles like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon has claimed on numerous occasions that the bizarre, unabashedly nonsensical lyrics were written to baffle listeners looking for hidden meanings, including in particular the English teacher at Lennon’s old school whose class was studying Beatles lyrics.  more

September 20, 2017

By Kam Williams

Sometimes, substance trumps low-production values, such as in the movie Man in Red Bandana. Minutes after the World Trade Center was hit by United Airlines Flight 175 on the morning of 9/11, Welles Crowther called his mother to let her know he was okay. The 24-year-old stockbroker knew she’d be worried, because his office was located on the 104th floor of the South Tower.  more

“WATER SHARING”: This painting by Nancie Gunkelman is featured in the exhibit “Same Moon: Diverse Voices of Nature,” at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center, which runs through October 22. A reception will be held at the Center on Friday, September 29, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

D&R Greenway Land Trust’s newest exhibition, “Same Moon: Diverse Voices of Nature,” shows how artists, whether in China, Africa, or the U.S., view nature through divergent lenses. Artists Kenneth J. Lewis Sr., Nancie Gunkelman, and Chih Yu Fan are unified in their appreciation for nature. Some of the artwork for this exhibition has been shipped from China. A reception will be held on Friday, September 29, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton. more

“SHADOW AND LIGHT”: This painting by Paulette Van Roekens depicts a scene behind the stage of the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in the 1930s. It is included in the “New American Painting Collection” exhibit which will run at the Grantz Gallery and Conservation Studio in Doylestown, Pa., from October 1 through December 31.

Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio has announced the unveiling of a “New American Painting Collection” exhibit. Many of these paintings have never been offered before and are fresh to the market. This special event is the latest exhibition at the gallery’s new location on Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, Pa. The exhibition will be held at the Gallery and Conservation Studio location from October 1 through December 31.  more

Local Princeton painter Cvetko Ivanov (known as Ivan) sells his original acrylic paintings every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (weather permitting) on his front porch, located at 15 Vandeventer Avenue in the heart of Princeton. Originally from Bulgaria, Ivan specializes in images of flowers and the natural world. He is also an established muralist and has worked on several homes in Princeton, along with fine finishes for walls, ceilings, furniture, and mantels. To contact Ivan, call (609) 454-1334. 

“CHAPTER TWO”: Performances are underway for Pegasus Theatre Project’s production of “Chapter Two.” Directed by Jennifer Nasta Zefutie, the play runs through September 24 at the West Windsor Arts Center. Left to right: Leo Schneider (Frank Falisi, standing) and Faye Medwick (Sarah Stryker, standing) attempt to make — then stall — a match between George Schneider (Peter Bisgaier) and Jennie Malone (Heather Plank). (Photo by John M. Maurer)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Pegasus Theatre Project is presenting Chapter Two at the West Windsor Arts Center. In Neil Simon’s bittersweet romantic comedy, a widowed novelist begins a relationship with a divorced actress. The match is facilitated and encouraged by the novelist’s brother and the actress’s friend.  more

NEW ERA AT PASSAGE: C. Ryanne Domingues has taken over as artistic director at Trenton’s Passage Theatre, replacing June Ballinger, who guided the company for more than two decades in creating and producing socially-relevant new plays and community-devised arts programming.

By Donald Gilpin

Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company has a new artistic director as it prepares for the opening of its fall season.

C. Ryanne Domingues, co-founder and former producing artistic director of Simpatico Theatre in Philadelphia, has taken over the leading role from June Ballinger, who announced last month that she would be stepping down after 22 years at the helm. Ballinger will return to her career as a writer, actor, and teacher, continuing her association with Passage as an artistic advisor for this season and teacher of adult acting classes. more

By Stuart Mitchner

When my wife and I checked into the Library Hotel in New York eight years ago, we were installed in the Paranormal Room. We didn’t ask for the Paranormal Room. If we’d known about the hotel’s subject area concept, we might have requested a room on the 7th floor (the Arts) or the 8th (Literature). Even so, we were okay with being in room 11.05 on the 9th floor (Philosophy), though neither of us has ever been seriously into fantasy, science fiction, or the occult unless you count teenage readings of Ray Bradbury, a few seasons of Star Trek, and a brief fling with Carlos Castaneda (a copy of The Art of Dreaming was on the bedside table, along with volumes on ghosts, ESP, and UFOs).  more

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has never been an ensemble to sneak into the new concert season, but especially this year, when the orchestra is riding a wave of high attendance, Music Director Rossen Milanov chose to open the year with a musical tour de force. Joined by the Westminster Symphonic Choir (of Westminster Choir College) and four up-and-coming vocal soloists, Princeton Symphony filled both the stage and seats  this past weekend with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s towering Symphony No. 9, a work not often heard in Princeton for the understandable reasons of expense and musical demands. The expense portion of Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) received a helping hand from the Edward T. Cone Foundation, and the musical difficulties of this work were well met by all involved. more