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The Babadook: Daytime Viewing Recommended—Movie

December 16, 2014

So very disturbing, but extremely well done, Australia’s “The Babadook” may be one of the creepiest movies ever. And it’s that excellence which makes it so horrific and terrific at the same time.


Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, “The Babadook” is the story of widowed Mom, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to deliver Samuel. Since then it’s been just the two of them. Amelia works as an orderly and seemingly has few friends except for a tenuous relationship with her sister who has a daughter the same age as Samuel. Samuel is in first grade and it’s his increasing aggressive behavior that has driven many of their friends away and has strained her relationship with her sister.

Samuel has a hard time sleeping soundly. He sees monsters everywhere. He has absolutely no problem speaking exactly what’s on his mind and what’s often on his mind is very weird and dark. He is very smart for his age and to counteract the monsters he “sees,” he has developed some fairly dangerous weapons to kill them. Amelia is in the habit of reading him stories before he goes to bed. One night the two of them read the pop-up storybook “The Babadook.” In retrospect that might not have been the best thing to do. Samuel becomes obsessed with “Babadook” and not in a good way.

What makes “The Babadook” so terrific is its acting. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are astounding in their range. From where did they find Wiseman? He is absolutely fantastic. His Samuel is such an obnoxious child at times, that in the beginning you almost want go to the screen and hug his mother to let her know she’s not alone. He is terrifying in his earnestness that someone or something is out to get them and he will do anything to protect the two of them, most especially his mother. Wiseman does an amazing job in conveying how smart and resilient Samuel is. Davis is equally convincing as the mother dedicated to the well-being of her son while being at her wit’s end in trying to figure out how to help him.  Her portrayal of the over-whelming fatigue Amelia feels in raising Samuel is palpable. Her character’s transformation from soft and gentle Mom to something else entirely is beyond spine-chilling.

“The Babadook’s” script and direction is very sharp in its story-telling. Some of the film almost looks black and white and that adds to the movie’s sinisterness.

Jennifer Kent has come up with a horror film for the ages. By all means see it, but a viewing while it’s still daylight outside is highly recommended.

“The Babadook” is in limited release and available On Demand.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Million Dollar Arm: A Perfect Game—Movie

May 22, 2014

Baseball fan or not, “Million Dollar Arm” is an unexpected home run. Directed by Craig Gillespie with screenplay by Thomas McCarthy, “Million Dollar Arm” is a feel-good movie to be sure, but sometimes feel-good movies can be more than good and “Million Dollar Arm” is that movie. And what better company to be producing a real-life fairy tale than the Disney Company?million-dollar-arm-poster2

Inspired by the true story of sports agent/marketer J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), “Million Dollar Arm” tells how his one night of TV channel flipping ignited a spark with the possibility of rescuing his business and launching a few careers. After failing to land some potentially big clients, Bernstein is close to losing his business. That particular evening he keeps going back and forth between “Britain’s Got Talent” and a cricket match in India. He wonders…what if he was to look for the next great baseball pitcher in India and do it as some sort of reality competition? With its huge population, this could be a big deal. He and his colleague, Aash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi), pitch (pardon the pun) the idea to investor, Chang (Tzi Ma). He agrees to back the project with the stipulation that the winner of the contest make it to tryouts within a year. And thus the reality show, Million Dollar Arm, was born. Bernstein heads to India, followed later by baseball scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), to begin his search and gets way more than he expected in the bargain.

Part of what makes “Million Dollar Arm” so wonderful is the way in which it looks at life in India and life in America…through Bernstein’s eyes and through the eyes of the eventual contest winners. Bernstein is a type-A plus person, so adjusting to the pace of India and having to learn how things get done in the country is quite a challenge for him…something he doesn’t handle well at first. The film also does a fantastic job, without belittling, in showing  just how small the contest winners’ villages are and how sheltered the two boys have been. When they go to their hometowns to say good-bye to their families they are treated like conquering heroes. Then it’s off to Los Angeles and some real culture shock. The boys are thrown into a variety of athletic and societal challenges. They speak little, if any, English. They’ve never been outside India and Bernstein and his “entourage”  aside, know no one in this country. Their loneliness and slight fear is palpable.  And the overall largess and richness of America is overwhelming. Couple all of that with the reality that they know next to nothing about their newly chosen career—they never followed baseball and, in fact, were track and field athletes—and it’s easy to understand how they feel. What happens to these two and how they face all of these obstacles is what helps make “Million Dollar Arm” so appealing. But “Million Dollar Arm” is not just a great story. It is also full of terrific acting.

Led by Jon Hamm, everyone seems perfectly cast. How Hamm managed to stay under the radar for so long… until “Mad Men”… is an enigma. The man can do drama and comedy and is over-the-top handsome. What was wrong with Hollywood? Brash, smart, egotistical, obnoxious—J.B. Bernstein seems to have all of these qualities and Hamm simply nails the role. But he also manages to make Bernstein likeable. Helping Hamm in his humanizing endeavor is Lake Bell as Bernstein’s tenant and possible romantic interest, Brenda. Prior to India, they’ve only had a landlord/tenant relationship, but it’s that relationship which bonds them via Skype while he’s in India, and continues once he’s back in Los Angeles. Bell is not your typical Hollywood beauty, but she projects intelligence and humor and that holds her in good stead against Hamm’s character. Aasif Mandvi is terrific as Bernstein’s business colleague. He offers just the right amount of sarcasm to his part and really works well with Hamm. Then there is Alan Arkin as Ray. I’m not sure when Arkin became the official curmudgeon of Hollywood, but it’s something he does perfectly. What’s so great about Arkin is that he never phones in his role. Yes, he’s played plenty curmudgeon-like characters as of late, but each characterization is distinctly different from the last. He’s completely believable as a pitching scout who knows what he’s seeing without ever opening his eyes. Pitobash is excellent as Amit, Bernstein’s newly-hired, eager-beaver assistant in India. Possibly the only person in India who not only understands, but loves baseball, Amit shows Bernstein how to navigate India and helps translate for him with the Indian players. Bill Paxton has a fine turn as Tom House, the UCLA baseball coach who’s skeptical about the project, but agrees to help. Finally there are the two athletes. Suraj Sharma as Rinku Singh, the contest winner, and Madhur Mittal as Dinesh Patel, the runner-up, are fantastic as the two pitchers. Rinku is more laid back and has the most unusual pitching stance ever seen in baseball. Dinesh seems to come from a humbler background and is more of a worrier. Both actors are fantastic in conveying all the emotions assorted with coming to a new environment with the weight of family obligations and expectations on their shoulders.

Much like Rinku and Dinesh, you don’t need to know a lot about baseball to love “Million Dollar Arm.” It’s Disney at its absolute best. And be sure to sit through the credits for the final ending of the story and a look at the real personalities.

4 nuggets out of 4

The Counselor: So Out of Order—Movie

October 25, 2013

“¿Cómo?”  (What? How?) A bartender says this to the Counselor in his last scene in the movie. I think the bartender speaks for all of us who manage to sit through the entire 117 minutes of “The Counselor.”  “¿Cómo?—How did so many A-listers and terrific actors sign up for this mess of a film?The Counselor Poster 2

“The Counselor,” directed by Ridley Scott with screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, is the story of the downward spiral of a lawyer (Michael Fassbender), known only as Counselor. When we first meet the Counselor, he’s in bed with his soon-to-be fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz).  Although he lives large, the Counselor has money problems which lead him to shady dealings with drug lord, Reiner (Javier Bardem). Reiner lives with girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who has a thing for cheetahs and watches over her own sinister businesses.  Brad Pitt  has a small, but critical role as Westray, the Counselor’s world-weary middleman.  The Counselor is quickly in over his head and his stint in the drug business predictably goes south. Frankly, the rest of the movie is a hodge-podge and makes no sense. There’s a monologue here, a monologue there. Characters come and go. With five minutes left in the film, we are introduced to new characters…Well, hello there Dean Norris and John Leguizamo. And wait, isn’t that Goran Visnjic?

Everyone… and I do mean everyone… is a philosopher in “The Counselor.”  I don’t think I’ve heard so much pretentious gobbledygook in one film…ever. How did the actors manage to deliver this dialogue without cracking up?  Either there were multiple takes or they are all even better actors than I imagined.

As bad as this movie is, Michael Fassbender manages to rise above the screenplay. For my money, he’s actually much better in this…showing a range of emotions… than he is in “12 Years a Slave.” Brad Pitt is still the best looking character actor in the business. Penélope Cruz doesn’t have all that much to do except look beautiful and she certainly succeeds on that score. What to make of Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz? Bardem does a laudable job in playing a very likeable drug dealer, but with that kind of laid-back attitude, it’s hard to understand how his character has lasted that long in the drug business. And his hair—really? What is the point? In reality, the way everyone in the film is sweating from the heat, there is no way his hair would be able to stand up like that. Cameron Diaz is a hoot. She’s over the top in every way. Some of it is self-inflicted as this is one of her worse performances. But do they really have to hit us over the head with how much she admires cheetahs? From her cheetah-like hair to her cheetah tattoos to  her print clothing, there’s nothing understated about her. And it is a miracle that she is able to lift her hands and hold her head up with the amount of heavy jewelry she’s wearing.

I’m at a loss. Ridley Scott is not some schlock director nor is Cormac McCarthy a hack writer—quite the opposite. How did they come up with this piece of junk? Save your money. If you want to ponder that question, ponder it when “The Counselor” comes to your television.

1 nugget out of 4

Azur: Scrumptious DC Sea Breeze—Restaurant

June 26, 2013

In the heart of DC…in the Penn Quarter…is an island of mouth-watering seafood dishes with a European twist. Welcome to Azur.

Helmed by Chef Frederik de Pue and assisted by Chef de Cuisine Robert Rubba, Azur is more than a welcome addition to the neighborhood.  Set on the site that once housed Café Atlantico, Azur is a festival of blue, white and airiness. You feel refreshed just by walking inside. Once you’re seated and open the menu, you are in for a treat…especially if you love fish as much as I do. There’s a virtual cornucopia of dishes from which to choose.AZUR1-inside

I asked my waiter for a drink recommendation. I wanted something alcoholic, light, but not terribly sweet. He suggested the Azur. It was just delicious and contained Adami Prosecco, Don Diccio & Figli, hibiscus liqueur and hibiscus flower.  I admit, I have no idea what these ingredients are, but when served together in a glass, they become perfection…so perfect, in fact, that when I returned for a second visit I again ordered the Azur, and it was just as good as the first time.

On my first visit, I ordered the Hand Harvested Sea Scallops, coupled with asparagus, pine nut purée, grapefruit and puffed red quinoa. The Scallops were seasoned perfectly. Everything about this dish was wonderful. If I could have licked the plate I would have.  My dining companion ordered the Steak Frite—a grilled flat-iron steak served with a bernaise sauce and pomme frites. It came just as requested—medium rare—and she was in heaven.  She also loved the fries—nicely salted and crisp. For dessert we split the Grapefruit & Honey—a brown sugar meringue with moscato granite. I’m not much of a meringue person, but this was tasty and my friend gave it a solid thumb’s up.

For my second Azur visit with another friend, we decided to split an appetizer—the Crispy Calamari served in a nuoc cham vinaigrette (Vietnamese), spiced peanuts and mint. It was positively yummy. We then went on to the entrée. My friend chose the Branzino with farro verde, gribiche sauce (mayonnaise-style cold egg sauce) and bacon. It was presented like a work of art and she ate every morsel. I decided to try a fish I’d never before eaten—a lightly poached Pollock paired with young carrots, tokyo turnips, pearl onions, fava beans and dashi bouillon. The Pollack was absolutely delicious—light and tasty. We had no room for dessert, but will definitely be back to try one out.

Azur offers a Pre-Theatre, three-course prix fixe menu ($35), available daily from 5pm – 7pm, which allows you to get to one of the nearby theatres in plenty of time. My goal is to work my way down the wonderful menu and finally branch out in my drink selection. I can’t wait to go back. Care to join me?

Lunch: M-F 11:30a-3p
Bar: M-F 3p-5p
Dinner: M-Th 5p-10:30p
F-Sa 5p-11p
Sun closed

405 8th St. NW, DC 20004

4 nuggets out of 4

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