April 26, 2017

“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.

AUTUMN PATH: This photographic work by Frank Sauer is from his exhibit “Mountain Lakes: A Lens on the Seasons,” which will be on view at the Arts Council of Princeton through April 30. There will be an artist talk with the photographer at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 1.

Watching snow flurries from the south-facing rear windows of our house a day after the opening of Frank Sauer’s exhibit, “Mountain Lakes: A Lens on the Seasons,” I seemed to be seeing his photography again in the white haze of distant trees, the way limbs and branches were sharply defined and at the same time fluid in the fallen and falling snow.  more

CONVERSATION OF A FRIDAY: Gallery 13 North in Lambertville recently signed international artist, Lourdes Ral from Barcelona, Spain. She is showcasing her work at the Gallery in a group show called “Abstract Innovation,” which is opening on April 8. Pictured here is one of Ral’s paintings, titled “Conversation of a Friday.”

Since its opening last year, Gallery 13 North in Lambertville has hosted several art-related events involving established artists known throughout the region. Gallery 13 North is pleased to announce the representation of an innovative young artist from Barcelona, Spain: Lourdes Ral. Along with other international artists, Ral will be showcasing her works for Gallery 13 North’s upcoming group show “Abstract Innovation” which will run from April 8 to July 9. The opening reception is scheduled for April 8 at 2 p.m. more

SIZE MATTERS: When this Martha’s Vineyard mega-mansion came close to falling into the sea, the owner simply bought up the neighboring property and had it moved back. The house is among several that inspired the filmmaker to make “One Big Home,” one of the offerings at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival through this weekend at Princeton Public Library.

Thomas Bena was working as a carpenter on the idyllic island of Martha’s Vineyard when he started noticing that homes being built were getting bigger — a lot bigger. On land overlooking the ocean where modest, clapboard homes once stood, huge mansions many times their size were going up at a rapid pace.  more

Two-time Emmy and Tony Award winner Judd Hirsch and stage and screen veteran Dan Lauria perform at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick on May 11 in The Value of Names. Tickets start at $35. To purchase, call the box office at (732) 246-7717 or visit GSPonline.org.

In The Value of Names, Benny Silverman (Hirsch) is a retired comic whose career was derailed by the McCarthy-era blacklist. His actress daughter is working on a project when the director falls ill and is forced to step down. Taking his place is the man who betrayed Benny to the House Un-American Activities Committee — and his former best friend, Leo Greshen (Lauria). These circumstances converge to give the two men the opportunity to confront each other — face-to-face. more

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.