Mariah Carey directs and stars with Lacey Chabert in ‘A Christmas Melody’

By Kellie Freeze,

 Lacey Chabert Lacey Chabert Mariah Carey’s music is an integral part of the holiday season, and now the Christmas chanteuse is gifting her talents to Hallmark’s most musical holiday film. The singer/actress is directing her first film, the aptly named A Christmas Melody, premiering Dec. 19 on Hallmark Channel.

The film stars Lacey Chabert as Kristin, a young fashion designer who shutters her big-city boutique and moves back to her hometown with her daughter (singing sensation Fina Strazza, of Broadway’s Matilda) in tow. The duo face a tumultuous adjustment to small-town life, further complicated by Kristin’s highschool nemesis (Carey). But the plucky family braves each challenge with the help of Kristin’s aunt — a local coffee shop owner (Kathy Najimy) — and the hunky local music teacher (Brennan Elliott).

Chabert reveals that one thing she and Carey bonded over was their mutual love of the holiday season. “I never thought anyone could love Christmas as much as I do until I met Mariah Carey,” she says. “She absolutely adores Christmas!” The pair also chatted about their love of holiday tunes, and Chabert admits that she has Carey’s holiday CDs on a near-constant loop.

Chabert also delights in the scenes she shot with her director, where Carey gets to flex her comedy chops as a mean girl. “She was excellent at those scenes,” says Chabert. “I really enjoyed those scenes with her so much, because they are really funny and of course, because it is Hallmark, you know that nothing’s too mean-spirited.” The repartee in the duo’s scenes is the film’s funniest.

The film, part of Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” has all of the family-friendly trappings we would expect from the network’s popular holiday programming block. And, of course, Carey adds her impeccable taste to the film’s visual design. “She is Miss Christmas,” laughs Chabert. “She has such a great eye for aesthetics and knowing what looks best, and what looks flattering and beautiful. She really wanted to capture the Christmas spirit and I feel like the movie did that. She really is a fantastic director.”

In addition to directing and starring in the festive flick, Carey also lends one of her most charming holiday hits to the film’s soundtrack. Carey isn’t the one singing “Oh Santa!” — but the upbeat and cheerful Christmas tune is pure perfection when sung by young phenom Strazza.

When we spoke, Chabert gushed about her young costar. “She is amazing. Fina is remarkably talented and so smart for her age. I mean … I shouldn’t even say ‘for her age.’ She is so smart in general. Just a wonderfully talented child and it was funny all that we have in common. I was actually on Broadway in Les Misérables at the same exact age. and she has been doing Broadway’s Matilda.” She adds, “I looked at her and she is just so tiny and young and it was hard to imagine myself ever being that tiny and young and handling your responsibility of performing in front of thousands of people live every night. It was just kind of cool to walk down memory lane with her.”

Chabert also shares high praise for her other castmates, saying Najimy “is a doll,” and considering Elliot — with whom she recently costarred in Hallmark’s All of My Heart — “a good friend.” The actress adds, “It is really nice to work with people who you get along with so well.”

The cast’s chemistry is palpable, their talent divine, and with Carey’s attention to directorial detail and discerning eye, this Christmas charmer may enjoy the same longevity as her other holiday classics.

Tom Hardy delivers a master class

In theaters now

Director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) introduces viewers to the Kray twins in his new film, Legend. The identical twin gangsters, Reggie and Ronnie, were two of the most notorious criminals in British history. Their empire rose in London’s East End during the 1960s and they dominated much of the illegal activity there. Helgeland’s film is a close examination of the twins, both portrayed by Tom Hardy.

Reggie Kray was the quiet but merciless twin — feared and revered at the same time, as many gangsters have been throughout history. He fashioned himself into a club owner, and though that wasn’t his primary source of income, it had a more legitimate ring to it. Frances Shea (Emily Browning) caught his eye and he was willing to do anything for her, though the one thing he could never seem to do was to become a truly legitimate businessman.

Ronnie Kray had been in a mental institution due to his instability. Quick to snap, Ronnie was the less rational of the two, and after his brother had him declared sane — through threats, of course — he worked with Reggie in their rise to dominance.

Despite disagreements between the two, they were brothers so devoted to each other that, to solve matters, each looked past the other’s shortcomings. While Reggie often looked out for Ronnie, Ronnie also had his own way of looking out for Reggie. Together their rise was impressive and, yes, legendary.

Brutal, yet orchestrated like a carefully crafted symphony, Legend tells us a story with visually striking images that are disconcerting but necessary — necessary to relay the otherwise indescribable violence that took place during the Krays’ rise to prominence. Helgeland, in both writing and directing the film, is deeply invested in the portrayal and walks a fine line with Legend’s violence. It’s harsh but not gratuitous.

The real star of this film is Tom Hardy, who portrays both twins; it’s a master class in acting. He transports himself from brother to brother with seeming ease, all the way down to the simple physical mannerisms of each twin. It feels as though he totally embodies each twin for who they are and what they possess. There aren’t many other actors who could be counted on to display this level of nuance in these roles.

This Legend is worth the price of admission just to see Tom Hardy; the rest is a bonus. The film is beautiful yet violent, compassionate yet abusive — all at once.

Rated: R
Stars: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning,
Taron Egerton
Director: Brian Helgeland
Grade: B

Monroe to name historic school after former councilman Miller

Staff Writer

MONROE — The 19th-century historic Prospect Plains Road Schoolhouse will be named after former long-time Councilman Henry L. “Hank” Miller.

The Township Council voted in favor of a resolution of the dedication at a council meeting on Dec. 9.

Miller served as a councilman for 24 years before retiring in 2013. During his tenure, he was instrumental in establishing the Monroe Township Historical Preservation Commission.

The schoolhouse along Federal Road is the only remaining one-room schoolhouse of 16 that served as the local educational facilities until 1936.

The first phase to restore the schoolhouse and barn was underway in August on the site of the Charles Dey farm.

The Dey Farmhouse, which already stands on the site, serves as a museum, packed with historic artifacts ranging from Native American arrowheads to World War II-era news clippings and 1940s television sets, all donated by local residents.

The 16 one-room school buildings were all built between 1838 and 1850, officials said. Those schools were shut down when the Barclay Brook School and the Applegarth School were built in 1936 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration.

The school under reconstruction on Federal Road then became the old municipal building on Prospect Plains Road until the current town hall opened in 1982.

It was then periodically used by the local recreation department, as well as utilized as a food pantry until it was taken down and preserved.

The project to restore the schoolhouse and the original Dey Barn is taking place on a 40-acre tract donated by Renaissance Properties, developer of nearby Southfield Estates, in 2001. Monroe received a $1 million grant from Middlesex County to undertake the historic preservation.

Mayor Richard Pucci said he spoke with Council President Gerald Tamburro about doing something special at his last official council meeting as mayor.

He said Miller’s service to the township, which also included a position as chairman of the Planning Board and an educator, made Miller special to not only his administration, but to the entire community.

“We wanted to have a remembrance picture plaque name in honor of your great achievements,” Pucci said to Miller at the meeting.

Miller said it is remarkable how Monroe Township has grown and said the township is fortunate for the many “good people” who live here.

“Ladies and gentleman, it has been an honor to serve … thank you so much for what you have given to me,” he said.

Tamburro said the official ceremony for naming the building would take place in spring 2016.

Monroe, Woodbridge receive sustainable grant funding

The Monroe Township and Woodbridge school districts were among seven public school districts and seven municipalities selected to receive Sustainable Jersey grants funded by the Gardinier Environmental Fund.

Monroe received $10,000 for “Energizing our Future.” Six online learning modules on energy sources and energy use will be created. The modules will be shared at each of the district’s eight schools by green team members. The green team will also present hands-on activities related to sustainable energy to students at each grade level. The project will culminate with a Sustainable Energy Tell a Friend Contest, which will be open to all classes in grades K-8.

Woodbridge received $30,000 for a microgrid study. Township resiliency will be increased by connecting several facilities throughout the town to establish a microgrid, which is made of small energy systems comprising distributed generation and electrical infrastructure that runs parallel to traditional grids. The grant will be used to plan and implement preliminary steps to build a microgrid, including a broad range of data collection aimed at identifying categories of facilities that may require power during a blackout.

“Investments in local energy projects will help us make progress toward the goal of a more sustainable and resilient New Jersey,” said Randall Solomon, who co-directs Sustainable Jersey with Donna Drewes. “Congratulations to the forwardthinking school districts and municipalities that developed these projects.”

“The Gardinier Environmental Fund is committed to conserving the earth’s energy resources and enhancing renewable energy measures,” said Gene Wentzel, president of the Gardinier Environmental Fund. “We are proud to stand alongside Sustainable Jersey, and to continue to fund worthy projects that support our mutual goals in New Jersey.”

To date, the Gardinier Environmental Fund has provided $365,000 to the Sustainable Jersey Small Grants program.

Food drive

 PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS PETERSON PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS PETERSON Democracy House, Middlesex County College’s service-learning program, recently collected more than 100 bags of food from the college community that it donated to Elijah’s Promise, the soup kitchen in New Brunswick. Pictured are Halimat Oshun of Iselin, left to right, Faculty Advisor Pattiann McMahon of South Plainfield, Coordinator Arianna Illa of South Brunswick, Cierrah Williams of Somerset, Mia Brenton of New Brunswick and Modepe Bello of Edison.

Coats for kids

 PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS PETERSON PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS PETERSON The Association of Middlesex County College Nursing Students held its annual “Coats for Kids” coat drive, delivering 27 coats and six other items of winter apparel to the Raritan Bay Medical Center Pediatric Department. Pictured are Nursing Instructor/ Association Advisor Patricia Fox of East Brunswick, left to right, Treasurer Elisabeth Martinez of South Brunswick, Vice President So Chung of Edison, Secretary Nichole O’Donnell of Woodbridge, President Tara Renter of Old Bridge and Instructor/Association Advisor Luiza Asahme of Woodbridge.

Arlene H. Reich Montanaro

Arlene H. Reich Montanaro, 85, went to her eternal rest on Dec. 4 after a long illness.

A Jersey (City) girl, Arlene was the great-granddaughter of Irish famine immigrants, who came to Jersey City in 1846, and the granddaughter of German immigrants, who arrived there in 1889.

Arlene and her five brothers were raised by devoted parents in a family of modest means and an abundance of love. She brought the love of family to her own children, Maureen and Joseph, and to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Arlene worked conscientiously for many years in branch banking and was a favorite of her customers. She enjoyed going on bus rides to Atlantic City with friends and family; loved watching ice skating competitions on television; and had a gift for sewing.

Her generous spirit and unlimited love will be missed by her family and friends.

Arlene is survived by her daughter (and son-in-law) Maureen and Walter Wlodarczyk; her son (and daughter-in-law) Joseph and Suzanne Montanaro; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Arlene’s name to the hospice organization that cared for her: Grace Healthcare Services, 105 Fieldcrest Ave., Suite 402, Edison, New Jersey, 08837.

Funeral arrangements were made by Silverton Memorial Funeral Home. 2482 Church Road, Toms River. Entombment was at Ocean County Memorial Park, Toms River.

For more information, visit

Robert D. Azzara

Robert D. Azzara, 56, of East Brunswick passed away suddenly on Nov. 20.

Born in New Brunswick, he was a lifelong resident of East Brunswick and a graduate of Boston College.

In 2013, he retired from TD Bank, Morristown.

Surviving are his parents, Nicholas and Ann (Battaglia) Azzara of East Brunswick; his sister, Jamie Malloy and her husband, Michael, of Berwyn, Pennsylvania; his three nephews, Christofer, Nicholas and Michael Ryan; and his niece, Cara.

Funeral services were made by Rezem Funeral Home, 457 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, and a Mass was held at St Bartholomew’s Roman Catholic Church, 470 Ryders Lane, East Brunswick.

Country legend Dolly Parton brings her most personal song to TV

By Lori Acken,

I was a little kid growing up in a home filled with country music when Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” became a radio hit in 1971. I already loved the story of the original coat thanks to Sunday school, and since I was a small-town girl with a loving mama, too, I fell hard for that song. I love it still.

On Thursday, Dec. 10, NBC brings the tender tune of a family’s love and resilience, exemplified by a little patchwork jacket, to television as part of a deal with the country music legend and her production partner Sam Haskell to produce films based on Parton’s most enduring hits. (Jolene begins filming in early 2016.) The film — which stars Ricky Schroder and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles as Parton’s parents Robert Lee and Avie Lee, and sparkling 8-year-old Alyvia Alyn Lind as a young Dolly — dramatizes Parton’s true-life tale of growing up in a dirt-poor but unfailingly loving and creative home. Parton calls the movie her gift to viewers in the most faith- and familycentric time of the year.

“I’ve had so many people tell me that [the song] has touched them even though it might not have been about a coat or a piece of clothing, but a handicap or being overweight or just being different,”

Parton says. “It just touches me that my work has been able to touch people through the years like that.”

Because of that, Parton and Haskell worked closely with screenwriter Pamela K. Long to make sure the film echoed the song’s timeless message. “They teach this little ‘Coat of Many Colors’ in so many schools now and use it as an anti-bullying song, that we should celebrate the differences in each other.

“So when we started putting this show together, Sam and myself wanted to make sure that it really was about celebrating those differences. And I really wanted to pay tribute to my mom and dad and to show who the family was that I came from.”

And what a family it is — one Parton credits with her own ability to bloom where she’s planted. “Mom had a house full of kids and a love for my daddy that wouldn’t quit,” she says. “They married when Mama was 15 and Daddy was 17. My dad was such a hardworking person, and he never had the chance to go to school. So they had nothing to work with except love and faith and one another — and Mama had enough faith to move a mountain. I think I got my spirituality and my positive attitude and my faith from my mother. And I’ve got my dad’s hard work ethic.”

Understandably, Parton was careful about choosing the people who would step into their shoes. Of Nettles, she trills, “She actually did her own little audition tape and sent it in to us, and we just absolutely flipped out! I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s Mama!’ She’s spectacular! And Ricky, he looks like my brothers and my daddy’s people — his coloring, and just his body structure. He and his wife were very involved in the story. They had lost a child, too — something that we talk about in the movie (Parton’s brother Larry — “my baby,” she calls him — died at birth). I think that was very healing for them.”

As for little Lind, Dolly says it was a match made in heaven.

“We auditioned hundreds of kids and I said to Sam, ‘God’s going to send her. We’re going to get the right one!’ Then the day I saw her, I said, ‘That’s her! I see her! I see me! She’ll make me look good!’ I never was that cute, but that little thing can sing, she can act. The second our eyes met, it was like I knew that we were right!”

County schools receive grants

Several schools in Middlesex County were recently awarded Sustainable Jersey for Schools Project Grants funded by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA.)

At an event held on Dec. 3, the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools in Perth Amboy received a $10,000 grant for installing a school garden in order to instill a life-long passion for plants and respect for the environment.

Recipients of a $2,000 grant include Edgar Middle School in Metuchen for the Student Wellness Organization, Monroe Township High School for Farm to Fork and North Brunswick Township High School for Filling Station Fabulous.

“We know that schools and districts are in the best position to determine the needs for their schools,” said Donna Drewes, who co-directs Sustainable Jersey with Randall Solomon. “These NJEAfunded grants will allow school communities to come together to improve outcomes for students, teachers and the environment. Collaboration is key, and we are proud to have support from important strategic partners like NJEA.”

Proposals were judged by an independent Blue Ribbon Selection Committee.