“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.

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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.

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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 smashburger.com

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.; http://www.georgetowncupcake.com

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.

U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan made a name for herself at the recent London Olympic as she helped to lead the American women to a gold medal. Now she plans to make a name in the literary world. This week, Simon & Schuster announced the signing of Morgan to a 3-book deal for a middle-grade series. This series, entitled The Kicks, deals with some girls – Devon,  Jessi, Zoe, and Emma – who play together on a soccer team Berryvale Bruisers.

Alex Morgan (courtesy of US Soccer)

Morgan, who grew up playing soccer in Diamond Bar, plans to have her debut novel published next summer.

I just caught up with the film Big Miracle and was totally won over by it. If you have a chance to see it in the theater, do it. If not, make sure to watch it on the small screen. The story is about the 1988 rescue attempt of 3 whales trapped by ice near Barrow, Alaska.

 

The screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler did a fine job of adapting Tom Rose’s non-fiction book Freeing the Whales into a delightful family-friendly movie and special kudos to director Ken Kwapis for creating a superb tonal balance of heartfelt drama and human comedy, never swinging too far one way or the other. He also makes good use of archival footage to blend in with the filmed footage.

Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski are charming – as usual – as a determined Greenpeace activist and struggling TV reporter, respectively. However, the film is expertly acted by the entire cast, with special mention deserved by Ted Danson as an oil tycoon, Tim Blake Nelson as a local environmentalist and Dermot Mulroney as a tough colonel.

It should be mentioned that this Universal Pictures release isn’t without some heavy moments, so some of the drama might be too intense (as in “too sad”) for little kids. Also, the film is “inspired” by a true story, so some liberties have been taken to dramatize the story. However, overall, the movie is a terrific film that will pull at your heartstrings as well as bring a smile to your face – as is there much more that you can ask for from a film?

So what’s a film-maker to do when you make a film but a large segment of your intended audience can’t “legally” see it? That is the problem  facing filmmaker Lee Hirsch and the Weinstein Company, the company distributing Hirsch’s upcoming documentary, Bully. The MPAA ruled  that the documentary deserves an R rating. The Weinstein Company appealed this rating but their appeal fell one vote short today. While it had a majority of votes, it didn’t have the 2/3 majority to change the rating to a PG-13.

The film takes a look at how bullying affects students and their families, and apparently this look is too real – according to the MPAA – for the peers of the kids portrayed in the documentary. I will say that I haven’t seen this documentary but it does seem misguided (just to use one word) that teens and preteens who are part of the bullying epidemic (on one side of it or the other) can technically see this movie according to the MPAA. According to a press release from the Weinstein Company, the Cincinnati School District cancelled a screening for 40,000 students because of the R rating.

In the past, there have been many dust-ups over ratings rulings, with the reasons typically being sex, violence and/or language issues. However, most (if not all) of these controversial films are aimed at the adult audience (Blue Valentine was a recent example of a film whose rating was overturned from NC-17 to R). However, Bully seems to be a movie that teens should see (and again I have saying this without the benefit of viewing the documentary) since it dealing with issues that they live with everyday.

You can view a trailer for Bully at

http://news.moviefone.com/2012/02/21/bully-trailer-documentary_n_1291229.html?1329847399

Mary Norton’s Borrowers series of books has been a beloved piece of children’s literature since the 1950’s. The story about the tiny “borrowers” holds a magical quality that has enchanted readers small and tall.

Southern California Borrower fans have a rare opportunity to experience two separate adaptations of the Borrowers books. The Walt Disney Pictures is presenting The Secret World of Arrietty, which was created by Japan’s fabled animation company Studio Ghibli, while South Coast Repertory is staging The Borrowers.

Both productions are magical in their own rights; however, both are unique. In the film, Arietty is more of an adventuress, while in the play she longs to see life outside of her small home. She is the one seen by the boy in the movie, while her father is seen in the play. Some of the names in the film are different as are some of the portrayals (Will Arnett plays papa Pod Clock with a Clint Eastwood-like growl); however, the differences don’t dilute the strength of the source material. It’s still a story of the wonderful of the wee people and the power of friendship. The film wonderfully brings the story into contemporary times while maintaining the original story’s endearing qualities.

The film has a lovely look to it that comes as no surprise to fans of Studio Ghibli films (best known for the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote the adaption). There are lush images of flowery fields as well as detailed scenes of Arietty and her dad making their ways through the inner-workings of the house. The animation of the people still reminds me of the animation of the old Astroboy series, but there is a charming old fashion quality to that as well.

The play, which hues a bit closer to the original books (it covers the first two books) that the film does, has the trickier job of translating the miniature world of the Clock family to life on stage – and they succeed marvelously. The play (adapted by Charles Way and directed Shelley Butler) well utilizes theatrical devices to convey the contracts between the Borrowers and the Human Beings. One of the best choices is having the actors portraying the Clock family use stick puppets when interacting with the full-size Humans. The production also utilizes shadow puppets and oversized puppets to make the Clocks look like the 4-inch high people that they are. While there is a good deal of humor in the film, the play version comes off as slightly more comical but still with plenty of heart too.

Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

It makes for a particularly interesting experience to take in both the film and the play, and to see how both deal with the original story (the choices that they had to make to the story to adapt it and to visualize it) and to see how children react to these adaptations. My daughter favored the theater production but was glad to have seen both.

The Secret World of Arietty, now playing in various cinemas, times vary. http://disney.go.com/arrietty/

The Borrowers, now playing through Feb. 26, various times, Fri.-Sun., South Coast Rep, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. www.scr.org