March 22, 2017

Every couple of years or so, this reviewer is approached by a friend or acquaintance who is excited about some great new product that they’ve just quit their job to sell. Curiously, instead of trying to make me a customer, they’re always more interested in offering me an opportunity to share in their good fortune by becoming a distributor.

That’s a red flag that the business isn’t legitimate, but a pyramid scheme. Such an operation is easy to identify, because its participants profit primarily by recruitment rather than by the sale of goods or services to consumers.

Directed by Ted Braun (Darfur Now), Betting on Zero chronicles hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s campaign to expose the health food corporation Herbalife as being a multi-level marketing Ponzi scheme. What makes the movie intriguing is that Ackman may not have been acting altruistically, since he had also shorted Herbalife by placing a billion-dollar bet that the company’s stock price would plummet.

Nevertheless, Ackman was considered a Robin Hood in working-class circles, because he promised to distribute any profits he might make — when the stock’s value plummeted — to the unsophisticated minorities who had lost their life savings that they had invested in the company. The millions of victims were predominantly undocumented immigrants who were afraid to report how they’d been fleeced to the authorities because they were afraid of being deported.

To prove his case, Ackman first needed to convince the Federal Trade Commission that Herbalife was indeed a criminal enterprise. That would not be easy, considering all the prominent individuals who were lobbying on behalf of the firm, such as CNBC investment adviser Jim Kramer, Donald Trump’s crony Carl Icahn, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and ex-Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa.

For instance, billionaire Carl Icahn not only propped up Herbalife’s stock by taking a huge stake in the company but even went on television to refute Ackman’s pledge to give his financial gains from short selling the stock to charity. Ultimately, the controversial case is resolved in one side’s favor, though it would be unfair for me to spoil the ending.

Is Herbalife a con game being run by shady snake oil salesmen, or a benign operation affording average people a realistic shot at the elusive American Dream? You be the judge.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Zipper Bros. Films.

One of the most intense reading experiences of my life happened when I worked as a freelance proofreader for Knopf and was Fed-Exed the galleys for Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994) on Friday with the task of getting the proofed work back no later than Monday. I was looking at well over 400 pages of narrative that included a fair amount of Spanish, a language of which I knew little beyond adios. By Sunday I was glassy-eyed, dazzled, mesmerized, and so swept up in the power of the thing that all I could talk about when I came up for air was The Crossing.  more

“UNTITLED”: This photograph is from Ricardo Barros’s exhibit “Figuring Space.” He will speak at 7:30 p.m. at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton on Monday April 3. The event is free and open to the public.

In his most recent work, noted photographer Ricardo Barros tackles the inexpressible — the abstraction that is space itself. Barros will be giving a lecture on his portfolio “Figuring Space” on Monday, April 3 for the Princeton Photography Club at the D&R Greenway. more

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: Performances are underway for McCarter Theatre Center’s world premiere production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Adapted by Ken Ludwig and directed by Emily Mann, the play runs through April 2 on McCarter’s Matthews Stage. Hercule Poirot (Allan Corduner) is shown in the top photo and the play’s company appears in the bottom photo. (Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson) 

Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express received its world premiere at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre March 17. As expected, the story keeps the audience guessing about the solution to the murder until near the end. Early on, however, it is no mystery that playgoers will find much to entertain them in this first-class production. more

Taking Princeton’s mind off the recent spring snowstorm, the Takács String Quartet returned to Richardson Auditorium this past week to close its Complete Beethoven string quartet cycle.  Last Wednesday night’s concert (the closing performance of the series was Thursday night) featured violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér in three string quartets showing both the classical structure and style of the genre and how Beethoven stretched the boundaries of the string quartet form. more

March 15, 2017

The original King Kong (1933), starring Fay Wray, was about an expedition to an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean that was inhabited by prehistoric creatures. The explorers captured and caged a gigantic ape and put it on exhibition in New York as the 8th Wonder of the World.

Kong escapes and wreaks havoc in the city before scaling the face of the Empire State Building during one of the most iconic climaxes in the annals of cinema. A spin-off, Son of Kong, was released later that year, and launched a series of sequels and remakes.

Kong: Skull Island is a refreshing remake of the original and co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, and Tom Hiddleston. The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts who made his debut in 2013 with the comedy The Kings of Summer.

The special effects adventure unfolds in the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam conflict. As the film opens, we find Bill Randa (Goodman) pressuring a U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to underwrite an expedition to a Pacific island that is constantly surrounded by treacherous storms that have caused the mysterious disappearance of countless boats and airplanes.

Once the expedition is approved, Randa assembles a crew composed of a photographer (Larson), a geologist (Corey Hawkins), a biologist (Jing Tian), and a bureaucrat (John Ortiz). The team is escorted to the island by a squadron of Vietnam veterans led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson).

It’s man versus monsters in a struggle to survive in a hellhole that time forgot. Stay until the end of the credits and you’ll see an extended postscript previewing Godzilla vs. Kong, a sequel slated for release in the spring of 2020.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action, intense violence, and brief profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

The cover image of Fitzgerald’s Thoughtbook shown here is from the recent University of Minnesota reprint, subtitled A Secret Boyhood Diary, which is available in Kindle and paperback; the copy in Collector’s Corner is the much rarer 1965 Princeton University Library edition of the facsimile of Fitzgerald’s handwritten journal. For more information on the book sale, visit bmandwbooks.com.

It’s so quiet a moment you can hear the earth turning. “Here’s the book I sought,” Brutus says. “I put it in the pocket of my gown.” He’s talking to his servant Lucius in a scene near the end of Act IV of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Let me see, let me see, is not the leaf turn’d down where I left reading? Here it is, I think.” more

University orchestras frequently sponsor student concerto competitions, with resulting performances of single movements of a winning concerto or a standard work from the Baroque or Classical periods. Not the Princeton University Orchestra — the 2017 Concerto Competition winners presented this past weekend played some of the most difficult music in the concerto repertory. Hornist Nivanthi Karunaratne and pianists Kevin Chien and Seho Young chose complete and substantial works from the 19th and 20th centuries for their performance with the University orchestra. Led by conductor Michael Pratt in a performance last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Saturday night), these remarkable soloists demonstrated performance abilities and composure way beyond their years.  more

At age 32, Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will perform on McCarter’s Berlind stage on Sunday, March 19 at 3 p.m. His McCarter program will include a mixture of old and new, including works by Cowell, Kalabis, Bach and  Scarlatti. Single tickets are $50 and can be purchased online. For further information, visit www.mccarter.org(Photo Credit: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon)

BANJO DUO: On Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 7:30pm at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, 16-time Grammy award-winner Béla Fleck will collaborate with singer, fellow banjoist and wife, Abigail Washburn, to present vernacular music of Appalachia. This special event hosted by Princeton University Concerts (“PUC”) spans the genres of bluegrass, jazz, African and Asian styles. The duo will bring highlights from the their recent album, which won Best Folk Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards. Tickets are only $40 ($15 for students), available at princetonuniversityconcerts.org, and by calling (609) 258-9220. (Photo Credit: Jim McGuire)

16-time Grammy award-winner Béla Fleck will collaborate with singer, fellow banjoist and wife, Abigail Washburn, to present vernacular music of Appalachia at Richardson Auditorium on Thursday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m. more

March 8, 2017

Samantha “Sam” Kingston (Zoey Deutch) was a spoiled brat who was killed on the night February 12th in a tragic car crash. She and her younger sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay) grew up in the lap of luxury as they were raised by their loving parents (Jennifer Beals and Nicholas Lea).

Also, the unfortunate 17-year-old was leaving behind a handsome boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) and an ardent admirer — Kent (Logan Miller), a platonic friend whom she had taken for granted since grade school. Sam was also popular at her High School where she was part of an exclusive clique that also included her three best friends, Liz (Halston Sage), Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Ally (Cynthy Wu).

The quartet delighted in teasing classmates like the lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson) and a reclusive outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouri). Sam would think nothing was wrong with dumping drinks on Juliet while calling her a “psycho bitch.”

However, after the accident, she was given the unusual opportunity to reconsider her cruel behavior when, instead of dying, her spirit miraculously reentered her body. When she awoke, she realized that it was again dawn on February 12th, and that she was about to relive the day.

In fact, Sam experiences February 12th over and over, learning valuable lessons in tolerance each go-round. Thus unfolds Before I Fall, a bittersweet tale of redemption based on Lauren Oliver’s novel of the same name.

Of course the picture’s premise is reminiscent of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day (1993). The movie was directed by Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), who puts a fresh spin on the theme so that you forget Groundhog Day after the first 15 minutes.

Zoey Deutch is incredibly convincing as Sam in a demanding role which calls for a considerable acting range over the course of the story. Her supporting cast delivers stellar work in portraying an escapist fantasy that might easily have fallen apart.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, bullying, sexuality, violent images, profanity, and underage drinking. Running time: 99 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.

I have no idea who I am. — James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Exactly when or where the novelist James Michener came into the world has never been officially documented. Which is why I’ve never had a satisfactory answer to the question I’ve been asked most of my life the moment people hear my last name:

“Any relation to the author?”

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this perennial minor dilemma occurred recently at the Doylestown museum that bears Michener’s name. Although I’ve been showing my press card at the admission desk for 13 years in the course of covering close to 30 exhibits, this was the first time I’ve been asked the any-relation question. I gave my usual answer: “Well, uh, um, no, not really, but —”

If I have time or energy for the conversation that often follows, I’ll offer the standard storyline, which is that the famous, fabulously successful author was a foundling taken in by a distant cousin of mine, Mabel Michener, a Quaker woman in Doylestown, Pennsylvania who raised him along with a coming, going brood of as many as 13 homeless children.  more

YOUNG NEW JERSEY ARTISTS: Shannon L. Kerrigan, who is a senior at Somerville High School, was one of the artists from Somerset County selected for a statewide exhibition at the Statehouse in Trenton. Pictured here is Kerrington’s award-winning painting.

Each year for the past 16 years, in recognition of Youth Art Month, The Center for Contemporary Art has presented exhibitions of Somerset County student work in partnership with Art Educators of New Jersey. Youth Art Month has an extensive history going back to 1961 and is supported by the National Art Education Association.  more

“THISTLE”: Noted ceramicist Kay Hackett’s “Thistle” pattern ceramic dinnerware is on display at the Trenton City Museum until April 2017. Hackett, who passed away last year, designed many pieces for Stangl Pottery from 1951 to 1967.

To celebrate National Women’s History Month during March 2017, the Trenton City Museum is displaying a collection of ceramic dinnerware created by artist Kay Hackett in the “Thistle” pattern. Kay Hackett is credited with designing 40 Stangl dinnerware patterns that were put into production along with over 100 miscellaneous novelty and artware items.  more

In the most recent performance last week presented by Princeton University Concerts, it was fitting that the music of Franz Schubert, who played in a family string quartet ensemble, was performed by a mostly family quartet of musicians. The Salzburg-based Hagen String Quartet is comprised of three siblings — violinist Lukas, violist Veronika, and cellist Clemens Hagen — with the quartet completed by violinist Rainer Schmidt. The Hagen Quartet came to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night to perform Schubert, Shostakovich, and Dvořák, showing the nearly full house that maybe there is something to sibling intuition and musical clairvoyance.  more

Feste the jester (Mort Paterson, right) entertains Sir Toby Belch (George Hartpence) in Twelfth Night, being presented by ActorsNET from March 10 through 26 at the Heritage Center Theatre, 635 N. Delmorr Avenue in Morrisville, Pa.  William Shakespeare’s popular comedy plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.  Admission is $20 for adults, $17 for seniors (62+), $15 for students and WHYY card members, and $10 for children.  To reserve, phone (215) 295-3694 or email actorsnet@aol.com.  The company’s website is www.actorsnetbucks.org

March 1, 2017

After the untimely death of his father, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) was crowned the King of Bechuanaland when he was only four-years-old. Therefore, his Uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) assumed the reins of power until Seretse completed his education.

While studying law in Great Britain, he fell in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London. Their romance ignited an international firestorm of controversy because of their color, not their class, differences.

He was black and she was white, and this was 1946, when there was strict racial segregation. So, the couple’s scandalous liaison was met with resistance in England and in Africa.

Although they were the target of racial slurs like “slut” and “savage” while out on dates, the hostility served to intensify their feelings for one another. Additionally, Seretse was threatened with the loss of his throne, since Bechuanaland was a protectorate of neighboring South Africa, a white supremacist nation. Nevertheless, he proposed to Ruth and they were married a year after they had met.

Unfortunately, major impediments were placed between the exiled young monarch and the governing of his country, and that struggle is the subject of A United Kingdom. Directed by Amma Asante (Belle), the film was shot on location in Botswana, which is now the country’s name after it gained independence in 1966.

Because the movie focuses on Ruth and Seretse’s relationship, its success or failure depends on the performances of the co-stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Fortunately, they’re both very talented actors who generate the chemistry that is necessary to make their characters’ relationship convincing.

The movie is based on the book Colour Bar. Unfortunately, the film’s only flaw is that it feels rushed, as if director Asante had a long list of items — taken from the 432-page book — that she wanted to include in the movie. Nonetheless, the final product is a praiseworthy production.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 111 minutes. Studio: Harbinger Pictures. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Every now and then the right movie comes along at the right time. If you’re writing a column celebrating Robert Lowell’s 100th birthday, March 1, 2017, the right movie is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. The minute I saw the view of the buildings and boats along the harbor, I thought of Lowell’s “bleak white frame houses/stuck like oyster shells/on a hill of rock,” and of the way “the sea lapped/the raw little match-stick mazes of a weir/where the fish for bait were trapped.” The poem “Water” draws on a 1948 encounter between Lowell and his soulmate poet Elizabeth Bishop in Stonington, a fishing town on the Massachusetts coast. The closing stanza, which refers to the bonding between two poets, also, as it happens, evokes the emotional ambiance of the film’s most talked-about scene: “We wished our two souls/might return like gulls/to the rock/In the end, the water was too cold for us.” more

YOUTH ART: This drawing by Shannon Boyle is among the works selected for the upcoming art show at the Gourgaud Gallery. The exhibit showcases artwork from Cranbury School students of various ages in celebration of National Youth Art Month.

In celebration of National Youth Art Month, Cranbury School student artists will be featured at the Gourgaud Gallery at Town Hall in Cranbury. The show will run from March 7 — March 30.  more

“A LENS ON THE SEASONS”: The upcoming exhibition of Frank Sauer’s photographs of The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve show our town’s beauty in all four seasons. Pictured here is a photo by Sauer entitled “Dogwood.”

Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS) is sponsoring an exhibit of photos taken in the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve by long-time Princeton resident Frank Sauer. The exhibition, titled “Mountain Lakes: A Lens on the Seasons,” includes both color and black-and-white photographs and will be shown at the Arts Council of Princeton. more

For a number of years, Princeton Singers has enjoyed a successful collaborative relationship with the Princeton University Art Museum, performing a cappella sacred choral music surrounded by the iconic paintings and statues of the Museum’s Medieval chapel. This past Saturday night, the 16 voice professional vocal ensemble presented a double-header — a concert of unaccompanied works centered on the theme “As the Lily Among the Thorns,” performed twice during the evening to two different audiences. Artistic Director and Conductor Steven Sametz well researched the eight pieces from five centuries to find the “Lily” in the music, composers, or circumstances in which the work was written. more

February 22, 2017

When novelist/social critic James Baldwin passed away in 1987, he left behind an unfinished work titled Remember This House. The 30-page manuscript assessed the plight of African Americans in the United States and specifically discussed the assassinations of three civil rights icons: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck (Lumumba), cinematically fleshes out Baldwin’s musings into a searing indictment of the United States as an unapologetically racist nation. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the movie has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category.

The focus of the film never strays far from Baldwin, alternating between archival footage of him challenging the status quo and Jackson’s readings from Remember This House and Baldwin’s other writings. Again and again, he questions the depth of the country’s commitment toward reversing the damage inflicted upon the black community by generations of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow segregation.

For example, he asserts that most Caucasians are perfectly comfortable relegating African Americans to a second-class status. He even goes so far as to refer to them as morally blind monsters who see blacks as sub-human. Until that attitude is eradicated, whites will never recognize that “I am flesh of their flesh.”

Baldwin concludes that “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” Therefore, with black and white fates inextricably linked, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro. The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”

Given today’s precarious state of race relations, the late visionary’s insights prove timely now.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, violent images, and brief nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

FIVE DECADES OF DANCE: Twyla Tharp Dance visits McCarter Theatre as part of the choreographer’s 50th year of creating eclectic work. John Selya, offering his hand to the woman in blue, appears here with the company in “Preludes and Fugues.”

Since forming her own dance troupe after graduating from Barnard College more than five decades ago, Twyla Tharp has continued to challenge the way we think about dance. Starkly modern at first, her style has expanded over the decades to encompass classical ballet while weaving in elements of jazz, slapstick, even boxing. more

SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL JR: Travis Gawason as the Cat in the Hat and Jason Weiland as Jojo in the Downtown Performing Arts Center production of Seussical the Musical Jr.

Celebrate the 113th birthday of America’s favorite children’s author and see his fantastical world come to life in Seussical the Musical Jr. Presented by the Downtown Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and Curtain Up Productions, Seussical the Musical Jr. will be performed at the Little Theatre at Hunterdon Central Regional High School located at 84 Route 31 in Flemington, N.J. Performances are Friday, February 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, February 25 at 3 and 7:30 p.m. more

England is known for things green — spacious meadows, rolling hills — all part of “England’s green and pleasant land.” On a February Sunday afternoon, warm enough to make any gardener’s heart race with anticipation, the Richardson Chamber Players presented an instrumental and vocal concert devoted to England’s lush and opulent early 20th-century musical tradition. With an expanded ensemble including talented students, the Chamber Players musically reminded the audience at Richardson Auditorium that spring may not be that far off. more