May 1, 2017

Pops of Color and Whirls of Music

Photography by Erica Cardenas

Communiversity 2017 took place on Sunday, April 30. The streets of downtown Princeton swelled with visitors who enjoyed non-stop entertainment, food, and vendors from 1 to 6 p.m. Various stages were erected around town and performances ranged from alternative rock concerts to flamenco. Witherspoon Media Group was there, handing out the latest editions of Town Topics Newspaper, Princeton Magazine, and Urban Agenda Magazine. Witherspoon Media Group photographer Erica Cardenas made sure to capture all of the action.  more

April 26, 2017

In Eastern Turkey in 1914, druggist Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is working and living in his half-Armenian/half-Turkish village where Christians and Muslims are living together in peace. However, the ambitious apothecary would rather be a doctor, so he courts and marries a neighbor (Angela Sarafyan), whose family is relatively wealthy, in order to get the dowry.

With the money, he is able to afford medical school. However, while studying in Constantinople, he falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian who has recently returned from France. Mikael is taken with her beauty and urbane sophistication that she acquired while rowing up in Paris. Unfortunately, Ana has returned accompanied by her lover, Chris Meyers (Christian Bale), an American photojournalist who was assigned by the Associated Press to find evidence of ethnic cleansing.

When World War I erupts, Mikael is forced to flee the Turkish army’s roundup of Armenian civilians and he returns to his hometown to help rescue his relatives and friends. Ana is in a similar struggle to survive and her lover Chris Meyers does his best to take photos that document the slaughter of Armenians that is rumored to be occurring.

The Promise is a riveting documentary drama directed and co-written by Oscar winner Terry George (The Short). The movie bears a strong resemblance to Hotel Rwanda, which George also directed and co-wrote.

Both of his films depict extraordinary heroism in the face of a complete collapse of civilization. If this picture has a flaw, it’s that it appears to trivialize the ethnic cleansing of one and a half million Armenians by making that genocide a backdrop to the love story that is at the center of the movie.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, sexuality, violence, disturbing images, and war atrocities. Running time: 134 minutes. Production Studio: Survival Pictures. Distributor: Open Road Films.

The Arts Council of Princeton is gearing up for the annual Communiversity ArtsFest, set for April 30, 2017 in downtown Princeton from 1-6 p.m. Central New Jersey’s largest and longest running cultural event will have more than 200 booths showing original art and contemporary crafts, merchandise, and food from around the globe, plus six stages of continuous live entertainment. The event draws more than 40,000 to the streets of downtown Princeton. (Photo Credit: Emily Reeves, Town Topics Newspaper) 

Beginning a column about Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday (April 25, 2017) on my mother’s 105th birthday (April 20, 2017), feels sentimentally right if only because she lived in the songs Ella sang, notably “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Whenever my father played either of those classics on the piano, my mother would be, as she liked to say, “reduced to rubble.”

In Visions of Jazz (1998), Gary Giddins makes the point that Ella “taught us something vital about joy, as Billie Holiday taught us something vital about pain.” He also observes that she was one of those jazz performers “who have become public monuments,” her “enduring authority” having “more than a little to do with an image of youthless (which is to say ageless) maternalism, sturdy and implacable.” Terms like “enduring authority” help explain why I never owned a single Ella album, never was a fan, even though she’d been magnificent the few times I’d seen her in person. Another problem was that, as Henry Pleasants notes in The Great American Popular Singers (1974), she’d “never been one for exposing her own heart in public,” preferring to share “her pleasures, not her troubles,” so that listening to her was “a joyous, exhilarating, memorable, but hardly an emotional experience.” more

“PRETTY IN PINK”: Wondrous on Witherspoon Pop Up Art Gallery at 14½ Witherspoon Street is presenting “WoW, Spring into Art! An Artist Invitational.” It will feature the works and demonstrations by accomplished and emerging artists from April 28–June 8. There will also be a reception and art walk on May 19 from 6–9 p.m. Pictured here is a watercolor by artist Sandy O’Connor.

Beginning April 28 and just two days before Communiversity ArtFest, Wondrous on Witherspoon (WoW) will once again be “popping up” to offer works of art for sale by some of New Jersey’s most accomplished artists. Thanks to owner, Jeffrey Siegel, this show will mark WoW’s fourth pop-up gallery event in the former Army and Navy Store, located just steps away from Nassau Street and the gates to Princeton University. more

“ST. MICHAELS FARM PATH”: This piece by Lucy Kalian is among the works on display at the D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center as part of the “Eternal Beauty, Perpetual Green” exhibit.

D&R Greenway Land Trust presents Eternal Beauty, Perpetual Green: Preserves through the Seasons at the Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place in Princeton until June 16, with a reception on Friday, April 28 from 5:30–7:30 p.m.; light refreshments will be served. RSVP by (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. The artists in this exhibit celebrate the beauty of preservation with many works depicting D&R Greenway preserves throughout the year. Also on view in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery is Eden/Habitat: Celebrating April as Autism Awareness Month. In this exhibit, Eden Autism students share creative views of their campus, through May 12. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit www.drgreenway.org.  more

For its annual concert commemorating founder and long-time conductor Walter L. Nollner, the Princeton University Glee Club reached high into the professional choral arena to lead the ensemble’s closing performance of the season. British conductor and composer James Burton, recently appointed choral director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the orchestra’s resident Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led the Glee Club on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium in a concert featuring works of Francis Poulenc and Ralph Vaughan Williams, an opportunity made possible by the spring sabbatical of University Director of Choral Activities Gabriel Crouch. While Mr. Crouch has been on sabbatical, the Glee Club has been ably directed by Renata Berlin, assistant director of choirs at the University and conductor of the William Trego Singers. Sunday afternoon’s performance showed the strength of the Glee Club as an organization and its consistent quality under different conductors. more

April 19, 2017

Created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo, the Smurfs started out as a comic strip in 1958. Over the years, the popular series about a clan of small blue humanoids moved to television and the movies, and in 2011 and 2013 two live-action films were released.

Smurfs: The Lost Village is an animated tale of female empowerment co-written by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon. Pamela Ribon’s previous screenplay was for the movie Moana. In this film, the heroine also has many of the same characteristics as the heroine of Moana.

The Lost Village is about Smurfette (Demi Lovato), until now, the only female Smurf. In fact, she’s not actually a Smurf, but a facsimile fabricated from a lump of clay by the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson).

As the film opens, we find Smurfette frolicking with her best friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer). The narrator and patriarch Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) points out that all the other smurfs’ names describe their dominant traits, such as Grouchy (Jake Johnson), Jokey (Gabriel Iglesias), and Nosey (Kelly Asbury), while Smurfette’s name does not give any hints about her character.

The plot thickens when Smurfette, with the help of an inverted leaf, hang-glides over the wall that separates the Smurf compound from the Forbidden Forest. Her three worried friends follow her, and the quartet finds a mysterious map with directions leading to the Lost Village. The village turns out to be an all-girl enclave of Amazonian Smurfs who are led by Smurfwillow (Julia Roberts).

The four Smurfs find themselves in a race with Gargamel to reach the Lost Village. He’s hatched a diabolical plot to kidnap all the Smurfs and then become the most powerful wizard in the world by ingesting their essence after boiling them in his lab.

Fortunately, there’s a two-fisted shero (she-hero) who proves that a girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

MUSIC AND HISTORY: Joe Miller, Choral Director at Westminster Choir College, is the conductor of this weekend’s performances of “Anthracite Fields” at Trenton’s Roebling Wireworks. Mr. Miller spent two years working to bring the Pulitzer-winning oratorio by Julia Wolfe to the Wireworks, where he is pictured.

When Westminster Choir College embarked on Transforming Space, a project exploring how the arts can alter a site not originally intended for that purpose, Trenton’s historic Roebling Wireworks immediately fit the bill. more

“NASSAU INN”: This charming oil painting of the Nassau Inn is among the 27 works by James McPhillips currently on view on the second floor Reading Room of the Princeton Public Library. The exhibit titled, “Nassau Hall to Hoagie Haven,” includes familiar scenes of Princeton along with McPhillips’ pop rebus images. The paintings are on display and available for purchase until July 31.

If you don’t already have James (Jay) McPhillips’ Princeton rebus on your car, you’ve likely seen the bright orange bumper stickers around town. Mr. McPhillips’ pop rebus graphics have certainly made their mark on Princeton, and most recently, the Princeton Public Library (PPL). In conjunction with the redesign of the library’s second floor, Mr. McPhillips debuted his biggest art show to date, “Nassau Hall to Hoagie Haven.” On display in the Reading Room until July 31, the body of work features paintings of Princeton and the surrounding areas, along with the pop rebus graphics synonymous with Mr. McPhillips’ name.  more

ARTJAM 2017: ArtSpace, the art therapy program at HomeFront, is welcoming sponsors for this year’s ArtJam. Opening in May, the art show and sale brings together established artists and HomeFront client-artists to celebrate community, creativity, and the love of art. Pictured here is a piece by one of the HomeFront artists titled, “Mountains.”

HomeFront’s ArtJam, a fun and funky pop-up art gallery, will open Friday, May 19 at 19 Hulfish Street, Princeton and run for three weeks. The 7th annual event brings together professional artists and HomeFront client-artists in a celebration of creativity. It will feature a rotating collection of art for sale and meet-and-greets with the artists.  more

The Lewis Center for the Arts is presenting Into the Woods in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter. In this musical, fairy tale characters undertake individual quests, encountering temptations — and each other — along the way. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, and the book is by James Lapine. An imaginative directorial concept and strong performances reward audiences for joining these characters on their journey.

This production, which celebrates the launch of Princeton University’s Program in Music Theater, is part of a spring semester course that provides students with rigorous experience in creating theater under near-professional circumstances. The students have worked with a professional director (Ethan Heard), design team, and stage manager either performing an onstage role or serving on the production team. more

THE FIRST COUPLE OF THE BANJO: Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck played material from their Grammy-winning 2014 album at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium. (Photo by Jim McGuire)

Finishing their second or third piece of the evening, Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck rose from their seats to acknowledge an appreciative full house in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium on Thursday. “Clapping sounds really good in here!” Ms. Washburn exclaimed, eliciting laughter and a further wave of applause. But if, superficially, her remark sounded like preening, it was also true. Every sound reverberated warmly in the intimate, wood-lined hall. Clapping did indeed sound good there. But more to the point, the space wonderfully supported each note of the banjo duo’s engrossing performance that evening. more

I love poetry. I love rhyming.

—Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

If he had not become such an extraordinary director, Jim would now be a rock star.

—Wim Wenders on Jim Jarmusch

Several times a week I drive up the hill into Kingston, always with music on the stereo. One morning it’s Ella Fitzgerald singing “Lush Life,” and I take the hill nice and easy, true to the late-night flow of the lyric about “those come-what-may places/where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life/to get the feel of life.” But when Chuck Berry’s singing, the axis is tilting, the wheel of life is spinning, the come-what-may places have gone south, the car’s “rocking like a hurricane,” Beethoven’s rolling under the wheels, Tchaikovsky’s running for his life, and my CRV is a Coupe de Ville with mad Maybellene in the passenger seat urging me on (“go, go, go!”) as Chuck comes up from behind in his Ford V8. Now we’re side by side, Kingston’s turned into Cape Girardeau, and we’re motorvatin’ down I-55 on our way from Chuck’s St. Louis to Elvis’s Memphis, the setting of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The method behind my vehicular madness is simple: one of the wisest, most interesting, most humane filmmakers in the world is in town today, Wednesday, April 19, and will be appearing on campus at 4:30 in McCosh 50. more

April 12, 2017

Released in 1979, the original Going in Style was about three retirees who broke the monotony of their dreary lives by robbing a bank. That critically-acclaimed comedy co-starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg.

Ordinarily, one would think twice before remaking a classic. However, despite the challenge, Zach Braff (Garden State), decided to try.

He had Oscar nominee Theodore Melfi (screenplay for Hidden Figures) write a terrific script that was loosely based on the original movie. He retained the main characters’ names and the basic “bank heist” premise and updated the dialogue and plot to yield a rollicking adventure.

Zach also convinced Academy Award-winners Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin to play the leads. Although they are 79, 84, and 83 years old, respectively, they generate an endearing camaraderie, and deliver every punchline with perfect timing.

At the point of departure, we find Joe (Caine) in the midst of complaining to an unsympathetic loan officer (Josh Pais) about Williamsburg Savings Bank’s impending foreclosure on his home when the bank is held-up by a gang of masked men. Later, while talking with his former co-workers Willie (Freeman) and Al (Arkin), Joe realizes that they’ve all fallen prey to the bank’s shady practices that included the bankrupting of the pension fund that they were all dependent upon.

The victims decide to take the law into their own hands and conspire to retrieve precisely the amount of money that was “stolen” from them by the bank. Of course, the hold-up proves easier to plan than execute.

Fortunately, the threesome are not to be deterred, even after a disastrous dry run attempt at shoplifting at a local supermarket. However, what’s bad for them is great for the audience, and the laughs just keep coming, even through the closing credits.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, drug use, and suggestive material. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

AT HOME ABROAD: London-based sitar player, Anoushka Shankar, captivated a full house at McCarter Theatre last Thursday as she played material from her 2015 album, “Home.” (Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel; CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On Thursday, Grammy-nominated sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar presented a concert of hindustani music to a rapt full house at the McCarter Theatre’s Matthews auditorium.

Ms. Shankar’s current tour centers on material from her 2015 album Home. The strictly Indian classical nature of the compositions marks a return of sorts for Ms. Shankar, whose preceding four studio albums had integrated elements of many disparate genres and musical traditions. Like her father, the world-renowned late Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar is a champion of both her instrument and its versatility. more

Every week I spin the online roulette wheel. Round and round it goes and where it stops I always know because what I’m metaphorically spinning is the date of next week’s column. The real game of chance begins with the names that show up on that date, actors, writers, artists, major celebrities, world, or national events. While the second spin sometimes leads nowhere, this week’s number brought up two actors: France’s Harry Baur, who was born on April 12, 1880 and died mysteriously in 1943; and Homeland star Claire Danes, who was born in Manhattan on April 12, 1979, almost exactly 100 years after the man who played the most memorable Jean Valjean came into the world. I might have passed Baur by had I not recently viewed five of his films, all from the 1930s. more

At the time Gaetano Donizetti composed Lucia di Lammermoor, opera was a major form of entertainment in Italy. Composers were masters of melodies, and people expected to hear heroic tenors, virtuosic sopranos, and great Romantic love stories. Lucia di Lammermoor did not disappoint in its original Naples premiere, and this past weekend’s production by Boheme Opera NJ captured the opera’s musical flavor, combined with a hi-tech set design that Donizetti could never have imagined.  more

April 5, 2017

In 1928, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) became the director of the Warsaw Zoo. For the next ten years, he ran it with the help of his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain). With their help, the zoo flourished until the outbreak of the Second World War in September of 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland.

The zoo was closed to the public after being repeatedly bombed by the Luftwaffe during the siege of the city. However, the Zabinskis continued to live on the grounds with their young son (Timothy Radford) and tended to the animals that managed to survive the bombings.

After Warsaw was occupied by the Nazis, the couple was ordered to report directly to Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Third Reich’s chief zoologist. Despite being married, Heck was attracted to Antonina, and he shamelessly forced himself on her as they were attending to the animals in the zoo.

Knowing that resistance was futile and might cost his wife her life, Jan told her to submit to the unwelcome advances. Understandably, he felt utterly emasculated because he was unable to prevent Antonina from being ravished by Heck.

However, the Zabinskis did find a way to work against the Nazis through the Polish resistance movement. Joining the underground, they secretly helped smuggle Jews destined for the concentration camps out of the Warsaw ghetto. They also hid the escapees on the grounds of the zoo even though death was the punishment for assisting a Jew.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a fact-based dramatic documentary adapted from Diane Ackerman’s bestseller of the same name. Ackerman’s book is based on an unpublished memoir written by Antonina Zabinski.

Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), the picture stars Jessica Chastain as the title character. The two-time Academy Award-nominee (The Help and Zero Dark Thirty) delivers an excellent performance.

Excellent (****) Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, mature themes, smoking, sexuality, and brief nudity. Running time: 126 minutes. Studio: Scion Films. Distributor: Focus Features.

Wordsworth & his exquisite sister are with me …. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, July 1797

Besides inspiring and uniting Londoners and Londoners-in-spirit the world over, the terrorist atrocity on Westminster Bridge two weeks ago generated numerous online shares of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.” Lines like “A sight so touching in its majesty” and “Earth has not anything to show more fair” were everywhere. One blogger declared “We must never stop seeing this through Wordsworth’s eyes,” and someone posted a clip of actor Ian McKellan reading the poem.  more

“PURIFICATION 1”: This photo by Vita Forlenza of Langhorne, Pa. was selected for the Phillips’ Mill Photographic Exhibition that runs from June 4-25 in New Hope. The photo was taken in a himba village in southwest Africa and shows a woman undergoing a purification ritual.

For three weeks in June, the 124 photos selected for the 25th annual Phillips’ Mill Photographic Exhibition will be on display at the Phillips’ Mill Community Association in New Hope. Held June 4-25, the exhibition, themed “Photography as Art” and “Photographer as Artist,” features a vast array of images that jurors selected from a pool of 462 framed submissions. In all, 114 photographers entered their work and 78 were chosen for the exhibition.  more

ART: Performances are underway for the Pegasus Theatre Project’s production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jennifer Nasta Zefutie, the play runs through April 9 at the West Windsor Arts Center. From left: Marc (Peter Bisgaier), Yvan (Matthew Cassidy), and Serge (David Nikolas) are shown above. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

Art is a comedy about aesthetic differences, personality clashes, and a need people have for others to see things their way. A long-standing but uneasy friendship between three men is tested when one of the friends pays a lavish amount of money for an all-white painting. Spending decisions by the other characters also are called into question. more

JANE AUSTEN ON POINTE: American Repertory Ballet’s new production of “Pride and Prejudice,” at McCarter Theatre April 21 and 22, is the culmination of five years of work by choreographer Douglas Martin. Shown here are Erikka Reenstierna-Cates, who plays Caroline Bingley; Mattia Pallozzi, portraying Mr. Darcy, and Monica Giragosian as Elizabeth Bennet. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Over lunch with a friend, American Repertory Ballet artistic director Douglas Martin was brainstorming about possible full-length ballets to choreograph for the company. His friend made an unusual suggestion: Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of manners, Pride and Prejudice. more

CZECH FOLK MUSIC AND DANCING: Shown rehearsing for Westminster Opera Theatre’s production of Bedrich (Frederick) Smetana’s comic opera “The Bartered Bride” are Avery Peterman (Marie, left) and Evan Stenzel (Jenik). Performances are Friday, April 7 and Saturday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert L. Annis Playhouse on the campus of Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Learn more at www.rider.edu/wcc.

Westminster Opera Theatre will present Bedrich (Frederick) Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride on Friday, April 7 and Saturday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert L. Annis Playhouse on the campus of Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It will be performed in Czech with English supertitles and a chamber ensemble orchestra. William Hobbs is musical director for the production and Ivan Fuller is stage director. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. They can be purchased online at www.rider.edu/arts or by calling (609) 921-2663. more

March 29, 2017

Recently Hollywood has been making some outer space adventures, such as The Martian (2015) and The Space between Us (2017), in which the Red Planet is a benign environment that is free of hostile creatures. In contrast, Life is a horror film about a terrifying alien force from Mars that comes to an international space station.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), the thriller co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds as Dr. David Jordan and Roy Adams, respectively, the space ship Pilgrim 7’s flight engineer and chief medical officer. The rest of the six-person crew members are Center for Disease Control quarantine specialist Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), systems engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), eco-biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and the spaceship’s captain, Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya).

As the film opens, we learn that their mission is to receive a single-cell organism that will be arriving via a space probe from the surface of Mars and deliver it to Earth. It all sounds easy as the disarming plotline initially devotes itself to developing the characters’ back stories, such as David’s service in the Iraq War. When the capsule arrives, they celebrate the discovery of the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth. Sho’s daughter even gives the apparently innocuous substance a cute name, unaware of the danger that is lurking.

The plot thickens when “Calvin” begins reproducing via mitosis, and every cell of its luminescent ectoplasmic mass contains a mix of brains and muscles. By the 25th day, the sentient creature develops proto-appendages and becomes strong enough to breach its container.

Initially, it nibbles on Hugh’s finger, who somehow discerns that “Calvin doesn’t hate us, but he’s got to kill us to survive.” What ensues is a desperate race against time to return to Earth before the mushrooming monster devours them one at a time.

Reminiscent of science fiction classics such as Alien (1979) and Species (1995), Life is a worthy addition to the extraterrestrial threat genre. Substantial credit goes to Jake Gyllenhaal who gives an impressive performance. Prepare yourself for a screamfest that will keep you squirming in your seat.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, terror, and profanity. In English, Japanese, and Chinese, with subtitles. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.