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

As Black History Month winds down, Sam Cooke’s singing “Don’t know much about history” while the video for “Wonderful World” shows a checkerboard montage of familiar faces, Einstein, Churchill, Castro, Krushchev, the Kennedy brothers, and Martin Luther King. But you can’t dance to history, and right now Sam Cooke’s voice matters more to me than the issues and events suggested by the theme of the month. It was black music, not black history, that energized landlocked high school seniors like myself as we drove through the night listening to WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. Our texts were by Bo Diddley (“I’m a Man”), Chuck Berry (“Sexy Ways”), the Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle” of southern Indiana), and Little Walter teaching us how to “mellow down easy.” The other day, a friend who shared those night rides Shazamed me Little Walter’s “I Hate to See You Go,” from a coffee house in Oaxaca.  more

February 15, 2017

When we first met John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he had gone on a bloody killing spree after losing the love of his life (Bridget Moynahan). And at the end of that film we saw the wounded assassin walk into the sunset with a puppy that he had rescued from the dog pound.

John Wick Chapter 2 opens with Wick vowing to retire after he retrieves his stolen Mustang from a Russian gang. However, before he can retire, he is recruited by mafioso Santonio D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to perform one last hit.

The mobster wants his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) assassinated so that he can take the reins of the powerful Mafia family that were left to her by their late father. Wick grudgingly agrees to kill her only because Santonio is holding his marker, that ironically turns out to be a blood oath in which he promises to leave his grisly line of work.

Next, Wick goes to Rome to track down Gianna, who commits suicide when she realizes the reason for his visit. Unfortunately, her death doesn’t sit well with her gang of guards, especially her personal bodyguard, Cassian (Common).

So, Wick kills wave after wave of Gianna’s bodyguards while running through the catacombs. After a miraculous escape, things are no better back in America where the senseless slaughter continues.

That is the sum and substance of John Wick: Chapter 2. Keanu Reeves seems to excel when he is called upon to dispatch dozens, if not hundreds, of adversaries in a variety of creative ways.

The picture reunites Reeves with Laurence Fishburne, who was his co-star in The Matrix trilogy. Laurence has a minor role, however, but Common is a standout who proves to be Wick’s worthy adversary in a protracted hand-to-hand showdown.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, brief nudity, and pervasive violence. In English, italian, Hebrew, and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Summit Entertainment.

“Gimme Some Truth” was never one of my favorite John Lennon songs, certainly not compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which the Beatles released on a single with “Penny Lane” 50 years ago this month. But in February 2017 when truth is being blitzed by the unhinged president and his toxic handlers while the Republican Congress looks the other way, it’s time to listen to a song from the Nixon era that nails “neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians” and “uptight short-sighted narrow-minded hypocrites.”

Without knowing the numbers, my guess is that the same people who are making a surprise bestseller of George Orwell’s 1984 may soon be searching out this song, with its searing George Harrison guitar break and the passionate singing of a man who might have become a world-class rapper had he lived through the 1980s.

If you want truth with the dimensions of Keats’s “Truth is beauty beauty truth,” however, it can be found in Rectify, the Sundance show that helped my wife and me survive the post-election blues. Having seen all four seasons of Ray McKinnon’s courageous series in the span of a week, as if it were a single work of cinematic art, I’d nominate it for Best Picture and Best Actor of 2016 and throw in a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Given the crowded field, the best Rectify has done so far is a 2015 Peabody Award recognizing it as “a powerful, subtle dramatic series.” Besides some Critics Choice nominations and appearances on numerous Top Ten lists, Rectify is the only television drama to score a rating of 100 percent on Metacritic. more

INHERIT THE WIND: Rehearsing for Rider Theatre’s production of “Inherit the Wind” are Shelly Walsh in the role of Drummond and Dan Maldonado in the role of Matthew Harrison Brady in Rider University’s upcoming production of the play, that will be presented in the Yvonne Theater on the campus of Rider University in Lawrenceville. February 22-26. Learn more at www.rider.edu/arts.

Rider Theatre will present the Tony Award-winning play Inherit the Wind in the Yvonne Theater on the campus of Rider University in Lawrenceville. February 22 — 26. A preview performance will be Wednesday, February 22 at 7:30 p.m., and performances will be Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. The production, directed by Miriam Mills, will be performed by Rider University students. more

With picturesque towns and medieval castles, the Baltic nation of Estonia is known to many as a stop on a Baltic sea cruise; much of the classical world is unaware of the rich Estonian choral tradition dating back to the 12th century. In and out of Russian control from the early 1700s, Estonia most recently came into its own politically in 1991 and since that time, the worldwide choral community has been eager to devour the unique music of Estonia’s composers. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with its own 35-year high-level performance history, brought this long-standing musical tradition to the Princeton University Chapel last week. more

“BREAKING POINT”: Starting February 28, this piece by Kahlilah Sabree will be on display at the Prindiville Mohey Gallery at Artworks Trenton. “Explorations in Geometry,” an exhibition of prints by Bill Brookover will open the same day in the Artworks Community Gallery.

Artworks Trenton presents two exhibitions opening February 28, 2017. There will be an opening reception March 11, 6-8 p.m. for both exhibitions. more

“CONCRETE REEF”: This photo by Valerie Chaucer-Levine is part of the “Cell Phone Images Only” art exhibition on display in the Considine Gallery at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton from March 3– April 13. The public is invited to the Opening Reception on Sunday, March 5, 2-4 p.m. and the Gallery Talk on Tuesday, March 7, 1-2 p.m.

Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart announces the spring exhibition in the school’s Considine Gallery will feature works from the Princeton Photography Club. Over 25 photographers are represented in the innovative exhibition, “Cell Phone Images Only,” which runs March 3 — April 13, and is made up entirely of images taken on cell phones. The opening reception is Sunday, March 5 from 2-4 p.m. There will be a gallery talk with the artists on Tuesday, March 7 from 1-2 p.m. The gallery is open from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, when school is in session.  more

February 8, 2017

Not since the campy TV-sitcom in the 60s has Batman been so successfully lampooned. In this movie, the superhero is the perfect material for parody in this madcap animated adventure.

More concerned with jokes than plot development, this spoof is relentless in its rush to find the next punch line. Fortunately, the picture never disappoints, whether the laughs are generated by clever quips, silly sight gags, or allusions to earlier versions of the Batman franchise.

For example, right before confronting a couple of villains, Batman (Will Arnett) tells Robin (Michael Cera) that, “We’re going to punch these guys so hard that words are going to magically appear out of thin air.” That, of course is a reference to the cartoon bubbles (such as “Crack!” and “Pow!”) that appeared on the screen during fist fights in the 60s television series.

And it’s not just the TV Batman that gets knocked off a pedestal, every other version of The Caped Crusader is fair game. In this film, Chris McKay makes a remarkable directorial debut with this frenetically-paced farce.

The picture does have a plot that is really just another stock Batman storyline. At the point of departure, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is planning to level Gotham City with the help of a host of super-villains. In turn, Batman enlists the assistance of Robin (Michael Cera), Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), and his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).

However, before the action begins between these archenemies, the Joker demands that Batman actually say “I hate you” to his face. When that phrase isn’t forthcoming, the Clown Prince of Crime vindictively responds with “I’m done — and on my way out, I’m going to blow up Gotham City.”

The ensuing mix of mirth and mayhem is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching LEGO figures.

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

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something is watching and listening …. —C.K. Williams (1936-2015), from “The Singing”

With Valentine’s Day approaching, here’s a bouquet of love notes from three writers who were all born on this date, February 8. According to the peerless prose stylist John Ruskin (1819-1900), he of the unconsummated marriage, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” Jules Verne (1828-1905), the author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, sounded the amorous depths when he asked, “Is not a woman’s heart unfathomable?” While it’s a challenge to pick any one gem from the riches Robert Burton (1577-1640) compiled for his “Symptoms of Love” in The Anatomy of Melancholy, it’s hard to top this spectacular valentine: “better a Metropolitan City were sackt, a Royal Army overcome, an Invincible Armada sunk, and twenty thousand Kings should perish, than her little finger ache ….”

Another literary luminary born into the world of love and loss on this date, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) begins her poem “Three Valentines” by claiming, “Love, with his gilded bow and crystal arrows/Has slain us all.”  more

A SATIRICAL FANTASIA: Princeton University freshman Tri Le (left) as Frank and senior Kathy Zhao (right) as Kathy in rehearsal for Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery to be presented at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and directed by faculty member Peter Kim on February 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. Performances will take place at the Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio located at 185 Nassau Street in Princeton. (Photo Credit: Justin Goldberg)

The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Charles Francis Chan, Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery by Lloyd Suh, directed by faculty member Peter Kim and featuring senior Kathy Zhao, on February 10, 11, 16, 17, and 18 at 8 p.m. Performances will take place in the Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio located at 185 Nassau Street in Princeton. The February 17 performance will be American Sign Language-interpreted. A symposium presented in collaboration with the student theater group East West Theater Company will precede the February 11 performance, beginning at 2 p.m. in the Matthews Acting Studio. more

“WITHIN THE LIGHT TENT: A SELF- PORTRAIT”: This photo by Shana Mimnaugh ’17, will be a part of Princeton Day School’s upcoming exhibit, “Identity.” The student artwork explores the individual identities of the PDS community and will be on display from February 13 until March 8.

The Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School is pleased to present an exhibit titled “Identity,” on view from February 13 to March 8. Entirely composed of work created by Princeton Day School students in all three divisions, the exhibit centers around individual identities and the diversity of the PDS community. The artists reception will take place on Thursday, February 16, from 12:30–1:30 p.m. Both the exhibit and reception are free and open to the public. more

February 6, 2017

On Tuesday, February 7 from 6-8 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, The Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College will hold a Westminster Community Town Hall Forum to discuss the recent announcement by Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo that the Rider Board of Trustees is considering a plan to sell the Westminster campus in Princeton and move the college to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus.

The forum panel will include representatives from student, alumni, and faculty groups from both campuses, including Art Taylor, president of the Rider University chapter of the AAUP faculty union. The university administration is looking for ways to stabilize  low enrollment and a projected $13.1 million deficit this year. Friends and neighbors of the college and the university are invited to participate and discuss how this proposed campus consolidation would affect their community.  The forum is open to the public.

February 1, 2017

20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners), is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The nostalgic drama is about the efforts of a neurotic single mother to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who desperately needs a role model.

The picture’s protagonist is Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a middle-aged chain-smoker who owns the rooming house where the story is set. She recruits two considerably younger females, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie and, for some reason, ignores her handyman, William (Billy Crudup), who is actually a pleasant father figure.

Abbie tries to reach the impressionable teenager by having him read popular feminist manifestos such as Sisterhood Is Powerful. On the other hand, Julie, 17, establishes a Platonic relationship with him because they’ve known each other since they were little.

The engaging drama uses flashbacks to develop each of the lead characters’ back stories. For example, we hear Jamie thinking about life with his mother — who is fretting about her inability to understand him less and less every day. We also learn about Abbie’s concern about her cervical cancer scare, and Julie’s resentment of her therapist mother who is forcing her into group therapy sessions.

20th Century Women transports the audience back to the late 70s. The movie resurrects the era’s fashions and decor and the action unfolds against familiar backdrops of the period. In addition, the film’s score features a mix of musical artists such as Rudy Vallee, Louie Armstrong, David Bowie, and The Talking Heads.

Excellent (***½). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and brief drug use. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: A24 Films.

GOING OR STAYING: That’s the question on the minds of students at Westminster Choir College, which could be relocated to Lawrenceville if Rider University, which owns the school, decides to put the Princeton campus up for sale. A 24-hour musical performance marathon by Westminster students, faculty and alumni this week was mounted as a protest by those who want the campus to stay where it is. (Photo by Emily Reeves)

Jody Doktor Velloso’s warm, melodious soprano filled the sanctuary of Nassau Presbyterian Church Tuesday afternoon, thrilling those seated in the pews. It was a sparse crowd. But Ms. Velloso’s recital was only the beginning of a 24-hour marathon held by The Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College. It was in protest of a proposal by Rider University, which owns Westminster, to sell the Princeton campus and relocate the music school to Rider’s Lawrenceville location. more

Man is like a ball, the plaything of Chance and Passion. — Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Right now the late Dr. Seuss may be the only author with the vision to do antic justice to the doomsday chaos spiraling out of Breitbart’s White House. Even if we could bring back the author of The Cat in the Hat, my guess is he’d throw up his hands and let his creation, the fussy fish, speak on his behalf, as the hysterical little scold does when he comprehends the extent of the devastation created by The Cat and Thing One and Thing Two: “This mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we can not pick it up, there is no way at all!”

In case you’re wondering what the new regime in Washington has to do with Franz Schubert, whose 220th birthday was Tuesday, the answer is that after two weeks of Trump this level of disorder is so big and so deep that words written, spoken, and thought 200 years ago jump out at you like the line about Chance and Passion from Schubert’s diary of September 1816, or this description of the Big Brother regime in Schubert’s Vienna — “absolutism mitigated by sloppiness” — during an era when “youthful high spirits … were viewed with suspicion.” The way things are going in D.C., “sloppiness” or Schlamperei (also defined as “muddleheadedness”) isn‘t doing much to mitigate the rush toward “absolutism.” more

“FACES”: This oil and gold leaf on linen by artist Phyllis Plattner is from the “Chronicles of War” series, 2014. Two of Plattner’s most recent series are on display at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery.

Artist Phyllis Plattner’s two most recent series, “Legends” and “Chronicles of War,” are open at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery in Robertson Hall. There will be an opening reception on Friday, February 10 at 6 p.m.

The exhibit, “Gods of War,” will be open to the public through March 2, 2017. The exhibit and reception are free, open to the public, and sponsored by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. more

“FALL FISHING”: Watercolorist Robert Sakson will be showing his work at the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn until March 3. The opening reception for the exhibit, “Through My Eyes” will be held February 3. Pictured here is one of Sakson’s paintings, which will be available for purchase.

The Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, located at 15 East Broad Street in Hopewell, will premiere the exhibition “Through My Eyes: The Watercolors of Robert Sakson” on Friday, February 3. The exhibit will continue through Friday, March 3, 2017. This is the second installation in a series of artist presentations at the Inn. more

When planning a season of performance, it is impossible to predict how news events will impact music in the coming year, or vice versa. At the end of a tumultuous weekend of national affairs, Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented a concert which could not have been more appropriate — music of a composer born in Belarus, a composer rooted in Middle Eastern musical heritage, music of an individual working in a repressive artistic climate, and a performer who has made a life mission excelling in a genre rooted in Eastern Europe. If there were ever an instance of music to reflect and inform a troubled time, Princeton Symphony’s concert Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium was it.  more

January 25, 2017

When it was released in 2002, xXx grossed over $250 billion dollars worldwide in theaters alone. The espionage adventure, that starred Vin Diesel, was reminiscent of a James Bond film, but with a handsomer hero and more spectacular stunts and special effects.

It’s taken 15 years for Diesel to reprise the role he originated. The picture is filled with the death-defying feats that made the first xXx such a hit. That means plenty of action sequences in which the protagonist is impervious to bullets and the law of gravity. Directed by D.J. Caruso (Disturbia), xXx: Return of Xander Cage also acknowledges earlier episodes by showing cameos of Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube.

At the point of departure, we find Xander living under the radar in exile in Latin America. He’s an extreme sports enthusiast, and just for fun, skis across the treetops of a verdant rain forest and then switches to a skateboard in a breathtaking ride down a winding mountainside highway.

However, he is coaxed out of retirement by a CIA chief (Toni Collette) in order to keep the world safe. His mission involves retrieving a devastating weapon of mass destruction code-named “Pandora’s Box” that’s fallen into the hands of a gang led by a diabolical trio (Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, and Deepika Padukone) who are bent on world domination.

Refusing the aid of a U.S. military support team, Xander recruits a crew of renegades. Can that rag-tag posse, composed of a crack sniper (Ruby Rose), a fearless getaway driver (Rory McCann), a state-of-the-art gadget wizard (Nina Dobrev), and an affable DJ/ jack-of-all-trades (Kris Wu), rise to the occasion?  Anything is possible, with cartoon physics on your side!

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, and pervasive violence. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

The morning after the Inauguration we’re out of milk so I drive over to the shopping center. Maybe because I’ve had no breakfast, everyone I see looks grim and hung-over. It’s a William Blake crowd, “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on every face. Or maybe it’s just me remembering how it seemed on January 21, 2009, everyone smiling, high on hope, strangers shyly nodding hello. Eight years ago! Was the contrast really so stark? Surely life’s more subtle than that.

When I get behind the wheel of my green 2000 CRV, the key won’t turn, steering wheel’s locked, so I give it a turn or two, no use. Then I look up and see almost directly across from me in the parking lot the green 2000 CRV that actually belongs to me.

No, life’s not subtle. I’ve begun January 21, 2017 by getting into the wrong car.

Driving home, the date begins sinking in. At sunrise on January 21,1966 I was with seven million pilgrims at Sangam, the meeting of holy rivers, the Ganges and the Jumna. Seven years later a friend who’d shared the moment with me writes from England with the news that his first child was born in the early morning hours of January 21. A year later living nearby in Bristol, my wife and I come to know and love the little girl and begin to think, “We can do this,” and so we do, and here we are in Princeton on the morning after.  more

ON TRIAL: After all her miraculous success in leading the French to victory, Joan (Andrus Nichols) finds herself captured, brought before an ecclesiastical court on charges of heresy, and interrogated by the Inquisitor (Eric Tucker) in Bedlam theater company’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson) 

The young heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923) has a lot in common with the celebrated Bedlam theater company that is presenting the play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. “There is something about the girl,” says a soldier in the opening scene of the play, as Joan of Arc wins over the local squire to supply her with a horse, armor, and troops, and, following orders directly from God, she sets out to free the city of Orleans from the English.  more