This week marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church by Klu Klux Klan that left four young girls dead. The Hallmark Channel is honoring this tragic, and historic, event with their original TV movie, The Watsons Go To Birmingham.


The TV movie is based on the novel Christopher Paul Curtis, which earned him both the 1996 Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor Award. The story, based in 1963, is about the Watsons, an African American family living in Flint, Michigan who take a summer vacation to Birmingham (Mrs. Watson’s hometown). The Watsons have three children: Byron (a trouble-maker of the 15-year-old), Joetta (an angelic 8-year-old) and Kenny (a bookish 11-year-old), who serves as the story’s narrator.

As in the book, the movie nicely balances a family drama with the larger historical story, although the adaptation doesn’t fully achieve the novel’s emotional depth or character development (understandable since it condenses the book into not-even a 90-minute film) so young fans of the book may come away a little disappointed.


Still, there is much to recommend with the Hallmark adaptation. The movie offers a wonderfully warm portrait of a family who loves one another although they may fuss and fight some.  The actors make it feel like this is a real family with Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose (as the mother) and The Wire’s Wood Harris (as the dad), in particular, showing a fine chemistry together. The child actors are fine too (Disney Channel fans will recognize Skai Jackson as Joette) although their characters are a little thinly drawn and the nerdish Kenny brings to mind the old sitcom character Urkel.

This Watsons’ family story, however, serves as an excellent way to introduce the larger social/historical story about segregation and the Civil Rights movement. It provides a good vehicle for elementary school age kids to learn more about this turbulent time in American history. The film makes strong use of archival footage, as well as black & white recreations, to ground the story in the hard realities of life in the South at that time and to offer a glimpse of why the Civil Rights movement arose. Director Kenny Leon also does a good job (particularly without the benefit of a big Hollywood budget) with the final act’s big dramatic sequence (which I won’t give away).

This family story succeeds in being a film that families can watch and enjoy together while learning a little more about what America was like in the early Sixties at the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Older kids (and adults) who want to know more about what took place at the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, might want to check out the Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls, which Spike Lee made in 1997.

The Watsons Go To Birmingham premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.

Two of the big talents in the family music world, Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell, have recorded an album together entitled Turn, Turn, Turn. No major details yet  but here is a performance of them doing “Sail Away Ladies.”

I’d call this project – the Monsters of Family Folk  (with apologies to the Jim James/M.Ward/Conor Oberst short-lived supergroup)

A quartet of classic Danny Kaye movies are now available on iTunes from Paramount Home Media. The four films are: the Oscar-nominated Red Nichols biopic The Five Pennies (1959), the musical comedy On the Double (1961), the caper/comedy Knock on Wood (1954) and The Court Jester (1955), which is one of his quintessential performances as a bumbling but sweet performer.  Out of this foursome, The Five Pennies probably is most adult (although it also features an appearance by Louis Armstrong) and The Court Jester serves as the best introduction to Kaye.

Here is probably his most famous scene

These releases are part of the Danny Kaye Centennial celebration and this year also is the 60th anniversary of Kaye being the UNICEF ambassador (not only was he a hilarious performer but he was a great humanitarian too).




Angelenos with a big sweet tooth have more to love at the Grove.  On Friday, local confectionery legends See’s Candies opened up a shop on Bow St. next to the Whisper Lounge. This opening comes just months after Sprinkles popped up in a nook by the Grove’s parking structure and Dylan’s Candy Bar arrived from New York back in September. Coupled with the Grove veterans the Cheesecake Factory and Haagen-Dazs plus the Farmer’s Market’s offering of Dupar’s pies, Short Cake’s, Bob’s Doughnuts, Bennett’s Ice Cream and Short Cake treats –it makes for a paradise for dessert devotees.


The new See's store at the Grove

The new See’s store at the Grove

See’s Candies is a particular sweet addition as it is sits in Southern California’s candy pantheon. The first See’s store, with its still signature black and white design, opened on Western Ave. in 1921. Although it now has locations across America (and even in Japan, Hong Kong and Macau), there is still something inherently Los Angeles about See’s. Beyond the fact that the preservative-free candies are made locally, See’s represents Southern California history while still being in the present. The shops are stocked with Mary See’s originals (such as Victoria Toffee and Chocolate Walnut Fudge), traditional favorites (Scotchmallow and Dark Bordeaux are perennially popular) and seasonal delicacies like chocolate bunnies and St. Patrick’s Day gold coins (just to mention Springtime specials). Personally, I like the Marzipan and the Milk Cocoanut. But everyone can have their own favorites with over 100 types of candies to choose from – not to mention the jelly beans, the lollypops, the peppermint twists and the…


See’s Candies, 189 Grove Dr., L.A. (as well as other locations); daily. 10 a.m-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-6 p.m. Sun.

Somewhere between slapstick vaudeville and elegant cirque artistry exists the world of Circus Oz. The “Oz” here isn’t referring to the place where Dorothy visited but to Australia, and this unconventional circus troupe definitely reflects that country’s off-the-beaten-path sensibility.

Circus Oz Swings Into Royce Hall This Weekend

Circus Oz Swings Into Royce Hall This Weekend

Their current production, From The Ground Up, is set on a construction site and offers a general theme of needing teamwork to build something – and what they build is a marvelously entertaining show (2-hour including an intermission) populated with rock ‘n’ roll baton action, a swinging drum pendulum, a human jump rope, a comically inept magician and a roller-aerobics instructor with an attitude.

The performers’ goofiness can overshadow their tremendous skills and the show’s casualness masks how just well staged it is. That is until there are “ah” moments (and I won’t give away too many acts) where gravity is defied or clumsiness turns graceful. Spunky and spirited, clever and, yes, corny, this wonderfully rollicking family-friendly entertainment (probably best for 7 and older) will be at Royce Hall through Sunday. For ticket information visit

Parental Advisory Movie Review (films about families but not family movies): 56 Up – The latest edition on the landmark documentary series offers a wonderfully engaging look at being 50-something.


The new documentary 56 Up is the latest installment in the impressively long-running Up Series of documentaries that Britain’s Granada Television started in 1964 with 7 Up. A fore-bearer to today’s Reality TV, these documentaries have followed a set of people (originally 14 kids) beginning at the age 7 (an age inspired by the famous quote: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”) and returning at 7-year intervals.

Not only is this a remarkable cinematic project, but these documentaries are remarkable films too – with 56 Up being no exception. The film does a wonderful job balancing the personal portraits of the participants (this edition includes 13 of the 14 original participants agreed to be filmed – the most since 21 Up) with showing something of the society at large.   

While the original children chosen came from a cross-section of early ‘60s British culture (although there is only one non-white participant), they don’t come off as stereotypes – at least to American viewers. While the people range from working class through middle class to more well-to-do, they mostly just feel like folks living their lives. There is little sense of the people performing for the camera, unless you count Peter who admits to participating in order to promote his band (his folk-rock outfit The Good Intentions actually has a rather good sound).

Part of the subject’s comfortableness with the filmmakers undoubtedly is due to the fact that director Michael Apted (who also has made films like Gorillas in the Mist, Coalminer’s Daughter and James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough) worked on 7 Up and has directed all the other ones. Several of the participants do remark, however, that the films give only a partial portrait of them. One woman, Suzy, comments to her friend, and fellow Up subject, Nick that she has “a ridiculous sense of loyalty (to this documentary series) even though I hate it.”

They actually don’t have much to be concerned about since everyone is presented in pretty positive light. In fact, one of the joys of 56 Up is that these people (old friends to regular series viewers) basically have achieved a certain level of contentment in their lives. While about half the people have been divorced, most of them have either remarried or are in relationships. Several others have enjoyed long marriages. It is heartwarming, for example, to see that Tony (a colorful East-Ender who once dreamed up being a jockey but has become a cabbie) has worked through his marital troubles and still is with the wife of over 30 years.

One fascinating quality of the Up documentaries is how they utilize footage from the prior films. Besides letting viewers (first-timers or regular viewers) get a sense of these individuals as well as creating a quick montage of how people change and evolve over the years. Neil, for example, was a homeless wanderer at 28 and now he is a small town politician; however, the social awkwardness of his younger days is still part of him today. Suzy, who was sullen, chain-smoking young woman in 21 Up into an article woman with a husband, children and, what appears to be, a nice life.

56 Up, like its earlier installments, holds a charmingly old fashion documentary quality. There aren’t any splashy TMZ moments or the tawdriness of the Real Housewives, Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo. While this might sound too reserved and too British, the terrific documentary succeeds because of its universality – by just showing regular people trying to survive with what life throws at them, the good and the bad.

First Run Features’ 56 Up will be screening at six Southern California cinema starting on Jan. 25

“This is the best burger I’ve ever had!,” exclaimed my daughter’s friend. My 10 year old flashed two thumbs up; her mouth was too full to speak.

The cause for their excitement was their first encounter with Smashburger, a Colorado-based “fast, casual” restaurant chain that is opening a Culver City location (its first in the L.A. basin and follows last year’s opening in Thousand Oaks).

The name Smashburger suggests a colorful, action-filled food den fit for kids; however, the menu reveals a sophisticated side that foodies will dig. My dinner choice was the L.A. Smashburger, an item designed specifically for Southern California. This burger comes topped with a fried egg, a crispy wonton, lettuce, tomato, cilantro and cucumber, along with a ginger dressing. While it sounds like a big mess, the wonton adds a nice crunch, the egg isn’t runny and the ginger dressing isn’t overdone.


The menu offers a half dozen options, from classic styles (regular, bacon cheeseburger, bbq bacon cheeseburger) to more colorful concoctions (the Fresh Mex and the Avocado Club, which was quite tasty), that come as a hamburger or chicken breast sandwich. There is also a “Create Your Own Burger” option as well as a couple tasty looking salads.

The name Smashburger comes from the cooking concept of smashing the meat on to the grill to sear in its juices. This technique, as founder Tom Ryan explained to our table, allows them to cook an item fresh to order and cook it fast. Smashed burger also makes for a burger that is a good, normal size (although you can also add a patty or two) and not that sloppy to eat.


Besides their signature cooking style, Smashburger has a couple other great menu items. The sides were all sensational. Smashfries are typically shoestring fries lightly seasoned with rosemary, garlic and olive oil. Their sweet potato fries are both soft and crispy, while haystack onions aren’t some oversized brick of fried-ness. The most impressive side was the Veggie Frites. Ryan admitted that he took the idea of Szechuan green beans and flash-fried green beans and carrots, for a healthier finger-friendly side than the standard fry.

This healthy option gets deliciously undercut by Smashburger’s offering of thick and tasty milk shakes. Made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream, the flavors range from the typical V. C.S. trio (Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry) to cooler flavors like Oreo, Nutter Butter, Butterfinger and Chai.

This is a type of place that will be enjoyable for everyone in the family. The menu contains items simple and recognizable for the little ones along with more adventurous fare for a more adult palate (plus there is also a selection of beers too). In a town with enough burger spots to keep Wimpy busy, Smashburger should find a place of its own to squeeze into between the greasy spoons and the silver spoons, the fast food joints and the sit-down diners. It’s a restaurant that serves up food with enough quality, style, simplicity and tastiness to satisfy everyone.

Smashburger is located at 10704 Venice Blvd. in Culver City. For information, visit

Watch out Sprinkles. Move over Crumbs. There’s a new cupcake boutique in town. Sisters Sophie Kallinis La Montagne and Katherine Kallinis Berman are bringing their Georgetown Cupcake shop to Los Angeles – specifically to the fashionable stretch of Robertson Blvd. between 3rd Street and Beverly. The sisters and their cupcakery have become well known as stars of the TLC show, DC Cupcakes, and this is their first store west of the Mississippi.

I had the pleasure to attend a pre-opening tasting event with my daughter (and aspiring baker). We maneuvered our way through the folks packed into the simple but well-appointed store/bakery so we sample a number of mini-cupcakes that came in a variety of tasty and inventive flavors. Georgetown Cupcake boasts a repertoire of around 100 types of cupcakes with 18 typically available daily.

A box of scrumptious Georgetown Cupcakes.

Among the flavors we got to taste, my favorites included the chocolate coconut and the salted caramel while my young assistant enjoyed the citrus flavors (lemon and key lemon) as well as the red velvet. One touch that she liked was the little candied toppings (like a candy lemon slice on the lemon cupcake).

Opening day is Saturday November 17 around noon, and as a special sweet treat they will be serving up one free cupcake per customer – while supplies last. See if you can eat just one.


143 S. Robertson Blvd. (between 3rd and Alden Dr.), L.A.;

Recently we had a family movie double-header, watching ParaNorman one day and The Odd Life of Timothy Green the next. While the two films are quite different from one another, they share some…odd…similarities.

ParaNorman is a comic horror movie (or maybe a “horrific comedy”) about a boy who – to borrow the old Sixth Sense catchphrase – “can see dead people.” Everyone in his small New England town knows this about Norman and it makes him a pariah at school. Things aren’t much better at home where he is an embarrassment to his dad and his older teenage sister (his mom is more understanding but doesn’t know how to help him). Only his grandmother is a comfort to him, but she is dead.

The film’s plot concerns Norman’s inherited responsibility to save his town from a 300-year-old curse from a vengeful witch. Norman winds up getting help from his one friend, the overweight Nick who is another school outcast plus his sister, Nick’s brother, and, in a strange plot twist, Norman’s principal bully, the dimwitted Alvin.

The filmmakers (directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, writers Butler, Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone and Laika animation studio) give some clever twists to the traditional horror movie elements (as in the confrontation between the townspeople and the zombies, but I won’t spoil things with too many details). The plot does have its muddy moments (the curse, for example, isn’t particularly explained clearly) but it isn’t the movie’s main attraction.

Where the movie does shine is in its dialogue. The film is packed with clever lines. Not just amusing pop culture references (as often is the case in animated comedies), but very much character based humor. At one crisis point, Norman says to Nick’s lunkhead brother Mitch “You’re the oldest one.” To which he replies, “Not mentally.” However, Norman isn’t made out to be a smart geek, just (refreshingly) an average geek. He is also an outcast who has to figure his place in the world. This storyline also nicely dovetails with the witch’s tale, and gives the movie an unexpected emotional resonance (again without giving away too much of the film).


This outsider story is something ParaNorman shares with Timothy Green, although the two films have very different tones. Where ParaNorman is a dark comedy, Timothy Green is a picturesque fantasy. Jim and Cindy so desperately want a child that they bury in their yard a wishlist of qualities that they’d want in a kid. After a mysterious storm one night, they discover a mysterious boy who seems to possess these qualities. He seems to have come from their garden – a  “fact” underscored by Timothy having leaves attached to his legs.

Timothy is one of those characters, like Chauncey Gardner in Being There, who affects others by his naïve, guileless behavior. Besides providing Jim and Cindy the joys (and difficulties of parenthood), Timothy brings joy to the old, ailing Uncle Bub, humanizes Jim’s tough dad and is a needed kindred spirit to the teenaged Joni. While the filmmakers (director Peter Hedges who wrote the script from Ahmet Zappa’s story) do a good job revealing these relationships, they aren’t as sure-handed with the storytelling. They present this fantasy in a rather realistic world, which raises many unasked questions. While the townspeople think he is… odd, they basically accept him as Jim and Cindy’s son. For instance, how do the Greens enroll him in school with transcripts? While Timothy Green works well playing with the heartstrings, it is less successful in matters of the head.

In an…odd way, the animated Norman comes off as a more real character than the live action Timothy Green. But both boys show how being different isn’t something to be afraid of; that an outsider can do important things. This is a significant message nowadays where bullying has become such a major issue.

On a film level, I would rank ParaNorman above the Odd Life Of Timothy Green. Green certainly is a fine family drama, although a bit too precious plotted and emotionally sweet for my tastes. ParaNorman offers a terrific combination of humor, horror and stop-action animation. The film, however, is not for the faint of heart, for young or old. A lot of the film concerns ghosts, cemeteries and zombies (even if they are zombies who are scared by living humans). The scares are too extreme but it is a dark film but it has a good heart, as well as a smart head. Recommended for 10-year-olds and older – or young Tim Burton fans. Meanwhile, the PG-rated Timothy Green, which addresses serious issues like death, infertility and economics, might be not a good fit for young children.