Critics’ Picks: April 11-17, 2014
Los Angeles Times entertainment, arts and culture critics choose the week’s most noteworthy openings, new releases, ongoing events and places to go in and around Southern California.
When you’re not at the Festival of Books this weekend, you might visit REDCAT for performances of Anne LeBaron’s compositions, or catch “Breathe In” at the movies. If you’re staying home, “Fargo” premieres on TV and “Mad Men” returns.
Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.
‘Under the Skin’
To truly get “Under the Skin,” it’s helpful to come in with no preconceptions, no expectations, and just give yourself over to the primal ooze of the experience filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has created and Scarlett Johansson has made brilliantly, unnervingly real. Watching this film feels like a genesis moment — of sci-fi fable, of filmmaking, of performance — with all the ambiguity and excitement that implies. It’s as if director and star have gone into some alien space to discover what embodies a person, exposing the interior dynamic of psyche and soul and its relationship to the exterior. If that all sounds very abstract, not to mention bewildering, it is. Yet for all the esoteric notions floated, “Under the Skin” also affords concrete ways to see the world fresh through new eyes. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
An exquisitely calibrated romantic drama in which filmmaker Drake Doremus explores a fraught mutual passion between high-school exchange student Sophie Jones and father-in-the-family Guy Pearce with honesty, intimacy and complete emotional involvement. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
The British broadcast personality Steve Coogan first brought to life in 1991 on the BBC radio news spoof “On the Hour” is back. Older, none the wiser, his bloated ego and vast array of insecurities are very much intact. The movie plays to all of Coogan’s strengths and all of the character’s foibles, the downward-trending, 55-ish DJ soon at the center of a hostage siege at the radio station and thus back as the center of attention, a spotlight he’s clearly been missing. Though it’s taken nearly 20 years for Partridge to make it from radio, TV and webisode to the big screen, all that seasoning no doubt contributed to the nearly flawless performance Coogan turns in. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
If you haven't made it to "Bad Words," Jason Bateman's directing debut and sarcastic takedown of the spelling bee game, it has just become much easier to indulge in this guilty pleasure. Like Bateman's 40-year-old Guy with a grudge and unbeatable spelling chops, the movie is turning up everywhere now. The competitive spelling world, teeming with bright kids, obsessive parents and rigid educators, proves to be rich terrain for a caustic, clever comedy. The actor-director puts himself in good funny company too — Kathryn Hahn and Allison Janney among others. Screenwriter Andrew Dodge's word play is smartly conceived and terribly un-PC. As Guy chalks up wins, his verbal assaults become merciless, but not mirthless. It is almost impossible not to laugh as kids and adults alike are brought to tears. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
'Finding Vivian Maier'
Forget the tree that fell in the forest with no one around to hear it. What if someone took more than 100,000 photographs over decades of shooting and absolutely no one was around to see them? And what if they turned out to be really, really good? That in a nutshell is the stranger-than-fiction tale behind the gripping documentary "Finding Vivian Maier," a film that asks a pair of equally involving questions: Exactly who was this hidden master and how did her work and her life finally come to light. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
A playful yet poignant film, anchored by a knockout performance by Ralph Fiennes, that tells the Boys' Own Adventure yarn of how a celebrated hotel concierge and a lowly lobby boy team up to have the adventure of a lifetime. Writer-director Wes Anderson at his best. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'The Lego Movie'
"The Lego Movie" is a massive collision of subversive humor, hyper-kinetic energy, mind-jangling design, spinning colors and about 15 million Legos, no exaggeration. It is tempting to use the movie's pounding pop anthem — "Everything Is Awesome" — to put this insane sensory experience into sound-bite perspective. It helps that the cast — including Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Ferrell — knows precisely how to play with a good line. The result is strikingly, exhilaratingly, exhaustingly fresh. Not plastic at all. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
A warm and affectionate human comedy from India that is charming in a delicate and unforced way. Mixing a love of food with stronger emotions, it succeeds by leavening its simple story of mistaken identity with neo-realistic observations of ordinary middle class life in Mumbai and environs. (Kenneth Turan) (In Hindi and English, with English subtitles) Read more
'Muppets Most Wanted'
The only thing better than one Kermit is two. And the only thing better than two Kermits is one with a Russian accent. Throw Tina Fey into a gulag, force Ricky Gervais to play second fiddle to a nefarious frog, stick Ray Liotta in a chorus line and you have a sense of the zany extremes to be found in "Most Wanted." With the film's sensibilities constantly shifting, some of the emotional quotient we expect from the Muppets gets lost. Still, it's hard not to have a good time. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
For those who remember that miracle of watching the Coen brothers’ deeply dark and hilarious 1996 masterpiece unfurl across the big screen, FX’s bold, brave experiment in cinematic crossover takes some getting used to, but it’s well worth the effort. Written by Noah Hawley (with the Coens’ blessing), this “Fargo” is at once eerily similar and completely different than the film that inspired it. Yes, we are once again traveling down a narrow strip of highway that bifurcates the snowy plains of Minnesota into a tiny town where the local accent is a running joke and the introduction of violence is about to turn everything inside out. As in the film, there is a hit man, played with dark brilliance by Billy Bob Thornton, a whining milquetoast (Martin Freeman) and a canny if generally good-hearted female police officer (Allison Tolman).There are murders, fumbling lies and the blinking bewilderment of people forced from the numbing reverie of congenial ignorance; this last provides much of the humor. FX, Tuesdays. Read more
‘Nature: Touching the Wild’
“That deer was willing to see me as an individual, and he very clearly saw that I granted him his individuality,” says naturalist Joe Hutto of the meeting that led to years spent becoming one with the mule deer of Wyoming. “I was not seeing something, I was seeing someone.” If any part of that sentence or this one — “I don’t mind going beyond science, and I try to walk a fine line between the science and the sentiment; this is about making contact with the wild” — seems wrong to you, you will want to stay far from this lovely film, presented as an episode of “Nature,” a companion to Hutto’s book “Touching the Wild: Living With the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch.” Also the author of “Illumination in the Flatwoods,” which became the Emmy-winning “Nature” film “My Life as a Turkey,” Hutto has a talent for blending in — wild chipmunks eat from his hands, birds settle upon his shoulders, deer give him a lick. Seasons change, at special-effect speed; the mule deer go here and there, individuals in a group their personalities define. There are helicopter shots. The usual circle-of-life caveats apply — I looked away or sped through at times — with the added challenge of neighboring humans, whom Hutto attempts to see through a deer’s eyes: “We must have always represented a conundrum of schizophrenic proportions: We’re that strange creature who’ll pull you as a helpless faun from the frozen water or cut you free from a tangled mass of barbed wire and then tomorrow kill your mother standing at your side and leave her gut piled in the sagebrush for you to ponder.” PBS, Wednesday. Read more
'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' (April)
I have never issued a spoiler alert for a pick, but if you have not yet seen the new "Captain America" movie or this show before, and you have any interest in doing same, then stop reading, go catch up and come on back. Like "Fargo," "S.H.I.E.L.D." has obvious movie tie-ins, obvious being the key word. In an unprecedented move, the folks at Marvel launched the series as a narrative companion to the film franchise; the action of the show began in the wake of the events of the "The Avengers." Now, it turns out, much of it has been establishing syncopation leading up to a main event ... (Mary McNamara) (ABC, Tuesdays) Read more
'Mad Men' Season Premiere
They're back, with their funny clothes and haircuts and their unresolved issues, in a final season to be split into two, like "The Deathly Hallows," but thankfully not into three, like "The Hobbit." (Robert Lloyd) (AMC, Sundays) Read more
'Mad Men' Season Premiere
The show that launched the recent renaissance of television is entering its final, albeit two-part, season, and as per usual, it will not be rushed. The slow 'n' stately season premiere came with the now-signature request from creator Matthew Weiner that critics reveal Absolutely Nothing about the plot. Which is, frankly, pretty hilarious. Season premieres of "Mad Men" are almost always more exposition than plot — Pete's sweater may be the biggest reveal of the hour. But this year Weiner did ask nicely, so I'll stop there. (Mary McNamara) (AMC, Sunday) Read more
Ken Burns in a different mode — no Ken Burns effect, even. The Address in question is the one Abraham Lincoln gave at Gettysburg, but this is not the director's usual languorous evocation/examination of an America past or an American pastime — indeed, there is hardly any history in it at all. Rather, it is a mostly fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Greenwood School, a Vermont boarding school, "often a place of last resort," whose students, boys ranging in age from 11 to 17 and subject to a range of "complex learning differences" (including dyslexia, ADHD and speech pathologies), study, memorize and publicly perform Lincoln's great 272-word prose poem in order to focus their energies and elevate themselves. It is a school tradition, an optional "rite of passage" rewarded with a commemorative coin and intramural bragging rights. Burns lets the camera roll at length in classrooms and common rooms and every so often inserts an old photograph to advance the Civil War story, with narration read by a number of students; but mostly he just hangs around, which is all the subjects require. It's an oddly homely, homemade sort of film, given Burns' usual big-budget blockbusters, but (apart from a strangely random soundtrack) it suits the subject. Not, for the most part, sentimental, but heart-wrenching. (Robert Lloyd) (PBS, Tuesday) Read more
'The Trials of Muhammad Ali'
As one of the world's most famous, controversial, admired and beloved men, Muhammad Ali has had his life documented and docudramatized many times over; the climactic portion of Bill Siegel's film — which finds the title-stripped champ in the Supreme Court, fighting for conscientious object status and his career — was the subject of Stephen Frear's dramatized "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," which aired last fall on HBO. But Siegel's film is unusually propulsive and evocative; he has chosen the right clips and clippings, the most artful and evocative photographs, talked to a range of people familiar (some intimately) with the subject, and put it all together to a sympathetic score by Chicago jazz stalwart Joshua Abrams. Presented by "The Independent Lens," the film focuses on Ali's spiritual journey and worldly trials, in the courts and the courts of public opinion, in both of which he was vindicated. (A clip from 1968 of TV presenter David Susskind calling Ali "a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession ... a simplistic fool and a pawn," is followed by footage of George W. Bush awarding him the Medal of Freedom.) Like boxing itself, a problematic sport that, nevertheless, produces many useful metaphors and instructive stories, Ali's most troublesome times provide a way to think about ... us. "There are so many ways of looking at him that have only to do with us," says one commentator, "that have nothing to do with him." (Robert Lloyd) (PBS, Monday) Read more
Created by "Adventure Time" storyboard artist Skyler Page, who also voices the lead character, a sweet and doughy, happily unsophisticated elementary-school kid whose oddness does not cost him any friends. (He has odder friends, as it happens.) Perhaps not surprisingly, its look somewhat favors that of "Steven Universe," from fellow "Adventure Time" alumna Rebecca Sugar, also on Cartoon Network. The setting is familiar yet mythic, mixing the ever-so-humble and the numinously Arcadian, as in childhood memory. There is a quotation from "Five Easy Pieces," and Page has named David Byrne, Mark Twain, Alexander Payne and Mike White as influences. (It is also reminiscent of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," whose Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi are producing another crazy-tales-of-childhood animated adventure, "Sanjay & Craig," over at Nickelodeon.) Sample dialogue: "I'm sorry I took your fries." "I'm sorry I tried to kill you." "That's OK; it made it more fun, I guess." (Robert Lloyd) (Cartoon Network, Mondays) Read more
If the producers of the HBO series “Getting On” go to Costa Mesa to see Samuel D. Hunter’s latest play, the American theater might lose another talented playwright to television. Set in a retirement home in Idaho that’s about to shut down, “Rest” similarly mixes quirkiness with poignancy in a drama that elicits steady laughter by juxtaposing stark facts of mortality with existentialist aches and neurotic pains. The play, expertly acted by an ensemble cast under the supple direction of Martin Benson (who staged Hunter’s “The Whale” last year), is at its best when its plot (revolving around a missing 91-year-old resident with severe dementia) is more subdued. But even when the action grows somewhat contrived, Hunter continues to shed light on the spiritual emptiness and longing in contemporary America. Ends Sunday, April 27. Read more
'Come Back, Little Sheba'
Playwright William Inge was part and parcel of the 1950s, a time of scenery-chomping melodrama in the American theater zeitgeist. If not delicately interpreted, his plays can seem positively sappy by modern standards. Fortunately, the current revival of Inge's 1950 drama "Come Back, Little Sheba" at A Noise Within largely steers clear of blatancy, thanks to the skillful co-direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. When the characters do veer into apparent superficiality, it's very much to a poignant and devastating point. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Through May 17) Read more
'Time and the Conways'
If any doubts remained that J.B. Priestley was one of the most insightful British dramatists of the 20th century, this translucent revival of his multi-layered 1937 look at one well-heeled Yorkshire family between the wars should set them to rest. Rebecca Taichman may be the ideal director for the property, gleaning metaphoric levels of stagecraft from a sharp design team and heightened naturalistic acting from a strikingly capable cast. Despite some fleeting oddities of tempo and accent, the net effect feels incisive, fascinating and definitive. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, May 4) Read more
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts revives Tina Landau and Adam Guetell's odd, haunting 1996 musical about a Kentucky caver who got stuck underground in 1925, triggering the first media "deathwatch carnival." Director Richard Israel, music director David O and the strong cast rise to the challenge of Landau's daunting book and Guetell's spiky bluegrass-inflected songs. The seating on the stage (the auditorium hovers, empty and dark, behind the audience, like the undiscovered cavern that lured poor Floyd) lends an irresistible immediacy to this dreamlike allegory of American ambition. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, April 13) Read more
Guillermo Cienfuegos stages Shakespeare's great military play, in which the dissolute Prince Hal transforms himself into the triumphant commander of the Battle of Agincourt, in the Pacific Resident Theatre's black-box space, with no set, no costumes, one prop (a cheap crown), and one completely unexpected and magical special effect. The spare, stripped-down staging brings the thrilling story vividly to life. Joe McGovern, who co-adapted the text with Cienfuegos, stars as a charismatic, punk-rock Henry V; and the radiant Carole Weyers, in only her second Los Angeles stage role, lights up the whole room as his French princess, Katherine. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, July 20) Read more
'The Last Act of Lilka Kadison'
That rarified place where craft, collaboration and content achieve true theatrical poetry is everywhere in this delicately potent West Coast premiere from Chicago's Tony-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company, which often seems to be composing itself before our eyes. Director Dan Bonnell, atop his game, maneuvers a superb design team and perfectly balanced cast into an enchanting parable of memory, mothers and mortality. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, April 27) Read more
'My Name Is Asher Lev'
"Every great artist has freed himself from something — his family, his nation, his race," warns the worldly mentor to an aspiring painter in Chaim Potok's semi-autobiographical novel, "My Name Is Asher Lev." As the Fountain Theatre's affecting L.A. premiere of Aaron Posner's three-actor stage adaptation eloquently illustrates, the greater the artist, the more painful sacrifices that separation entails. Posner's script skillfully retains the book's introspective narrative voice, philosophical insights and essential plot points, as its title character (played with convincing passion by Jason Karasev) wrestles with conflicted loyalties between his deeply-held Jewish faith and his artistic gift. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sunday, May 18) Read more
In this co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre Company of a play by Greg Pierce, directed by Randall Arney, a brash teenager (Rae Gray) is shipped off to visit her reclusive uncle (William Petersen) in the jungle of Costa Rica. Both have shameful secrets, which they proceed to expose layer by layer in a sort of psychological striptease. The deft pacing and strong characterizations add suspense and emotional resonance to a brief story. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, April 27) Read more
'A Song at Twilight'
In one of his last plays, Noël Coward confronts the subject he had spent his career sophisticatedly skirting with knowing winks and glancing repartee — homosexuality and the cost of repression. Art Manke's sumptuously designed and supremely well-acted production makes a case for this being an overlooked gem in the Coward canon. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, April 13) Read more
Molière's deathless assault on religious hypocrisy could hardly be more pertinent at present, which gives Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's elegantly quirky staging an extra soupcon of satirical thrust. If the darker nuances at times threaten the cascading hilarity, that won't prohibit crowds from flocking to so swankily appointed, proficiently acted a classical bauble as this representative company melee. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Saturday, May 24) Read more
The Antaeus Company's production of Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls," directed by Cameron Watson, brings us refreshingly back to the basics of great theater: a sharply intelligent, poetically daring play; a company of actors dedicated to serving both their characters and an author's unique dramatic style; and a director, unencumbered by lavish resources, able to concentrate our attention on what matters most. First produced at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1982, the play is a feminist classic. Ends Sunday, May 18 Read more
Performance: The War on Drugs
On Friday and Saturday, the band the War on Drugs gigged two sold-out shows at the Troubadour in West Hollywood and rightly toasted the gigs with champagne during Saturday’s encore. Success was in the air. In a less diffuse musical landscape, the band would have arrived at the Troubadour in a figurative Econoline van, only to be whisked away after the shows in a stretch limo with A&R guys plying them with cocaine and hookers as they cruised up Doheny toward a Sunset Marquis suite. Perhaps a television or two would have been chucked onto the strip below. That isn’t to say the War on Drugs, which makes big, bold rock songs with humming organs and runaway-train momentum, is a throwback. On the contrary, the Saturday set was invigorating because the six players were so planted in the here-and-now. While drawing on a hint of electrified Bob Dylan, sheets of nuanced guitar distortion, a sound formed in part through his work with kindred creator Kurt Vile and a rolling heaviness generated through thick grooves and rhythms, the band offered a near perfect set of future rock. Read more
Pop music critic
Los Angeles composers complain, often with cause, about the difficulty of getting attention on their home turf. Some hope a move to Brooklyn will help them be noticed. Anne LeBaron, who has been at California Institute of the Arts for the last 13 years, does far better than most. She is on the wavelength of most of our musical institutions. She is a favorite of Southwest Chamber Music. Her environmentally mystical opera “Wet” had its premiere at REDCAT in 2005. Two years ago, she made a real splash with her hyper-opera “Crescent City,” performed by L.A.’s vital new experimental opera company, the Industry. Two Anne LeBaron “portrait” programs at REDCAT on Saturday and Sunday will be the first chance to experience an extensive overview of a composer whose music and musical activities have included transforming the angelic harp (her instrument) into an agent of the avant-garde as well as erotically transforming a vacuum-cleaner-obsessed housewife in a one-woman cyber-opera. Read more
To describe this Australian artist's new release, "The Double EP: A Split of Peas," as the product of a "singer and songwriter" is to suggest something less menacing than she is. Barnett's got a great way with lyrics and hooks, packing a lot of information, for example, into "Canned Tomatoes (Whole)," about a former neighbor/lover. "David" takes a basic blues pattern and turns it into a bouncy, insistent piece on the many reasons why the titular ex-boyfriend is getting the boot. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint'
When trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire released his Blue Note debut three years ago, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” it felt as if his talents could take him anywhere. So it makes sense that in crafting his follow-up, Akinmusire nearly goes everywhere. Engrossing, elusive and packed to its literal limits with ideas at 79 minutes, “The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint” beautifully takes Akinmusire’s distinctive tone to new realms, including slow-burning orchestral swells and convention-defying vocal collaborations that attempt to translate his vision into words. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Let's Fly a Kite'
A lovely record about the heart, children, commitment, joy and other Saturday afternoon-style pleasures, "Let's Fly a Kite" presents Los Angeles singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell at her lyrically precise best. Nick Lowe's backing band on the standard guitar, keyboards and drums employs a tasteful array of instruments — vibraphone, flugelhorn, violin and trumpet — to craft sophisticated but playful parlor music. "Little Joy" is one of the most loving songs to a child you'll hear this season (Mandell is the mother of toddler twins). "Maybe Yes" takes a stand against ambivalence in a delicately expressed work that outlines reasons why "maybe" won't cut it. Here and throughout "Kite," Mandell's wonderfully direct: "Maybe doesn't turn me on/ Maybe's not filet mignon/ If your answer's 'I don't know'/ Maybe I will let you go." Read more
Album: 'Blank Project'
"Good things come to those who wait," Neneh Cherry sings over stormy electronics and a skittering rhythm on her first solo album in 16 years. If there's a lingering take-away from "Blank Project," that's it. Cherry, whose breakout hit "Buffalo Stance" was practically inescapable in the late '80s, left music for years before reemerging with "The Cherry Thing" in 2012. A brash stab of skronky jazz-punk that paired Cherry's soulful vocals with a blustery Scandinavian saxophone trio, the record was one of the year's best. Here Cherry proves that comeback was no fluke. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Blue Film'
Lo-Fang is the pseudonym of Matthew Hemerlein, a singer and pop composer who wrote, recorded and played all the instruments on this debut. Drawing on digital R&B, modern pop, "Kid A"-era Radiohead and electronic music, he presents three- and four-minute song bursts that are tightly structured but labyrinthine in detail. "When We're Fine" floats on a digital loop, a tiny-but-mighty rhythm, backward-spinning bleeps and bloops and a catchy chorus. An early contender for debut of the year, "Blue Film" comes out Feb. 25. Lo-Fang goes on tour with his most famous fan, Lorde, this spring. Highly recommended. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'The Invention of Animals'
Looking back from the fragmented media landscape of 2014, it's hard to imagine someone like John Lurie was ever possible. An immediately recognizable character actor who appeared in landmark indie films including Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" and "Stranger Than Paradise," Lurie was also a brilliant saxophonist who helped push the boundaries of jazz in the '80s and '90s with his band, the Lounge Lizards. But Lurie was forced to give up music and acting after being stricken with advanced Lyme disease and has since switched to painting (his work has been exhibited numerous times and was collected in a 2007 book, "A Fine Example of Art"). Lurie's low profile in recent years is also because of significant trouble with a stalker — a situation that was examined in a 2010 New Yorker profile (the facts of which Lurie has vigorously disputed). Still, he recently ventured back into the public eye with "The Invention of Animals," a new set of live tracks and rarities by the John Lurie National Orchestra, his trio with drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Gathering Call'
You can't talk about drummer Matt Wilson without talking about swing, that pulse of jazz that's been his specialty on more than 250 recordings as a sideman. Reconvening his longtime quartet, Wilson again shines with some unexpected help in keyboardist John Medeski. Often lumped into some jam-band ghetto for his ventures with the avant-funk trio Medeski Martin and Wood, Medeski's talents have long been harder to pigeonhole, including a contemplative solo record in 2013. Here, he's a precisely moving part on an album that should be mandatory listening for traditionalists and jazz-curious Phish-heads alike. (Chris Barton) Read more
Claudio Abbado Recordings
When Claudio Abbado, the revered Italian conductor who died Monday, turned 80 last summer, record companies celebrated with several super-sized box sets of his recordings and videos. It's not hard to find discs with which to spend the weekend remembering one of the greats. Abbado's career was a grand one, fairly well documented. He headed and/or recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, with the London Symphony and Chicago Symphony, with the Vienna State Opera and La Scala. His interpretations of the 19th-century masters – Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Mahler, Verdi, Rossini – are exquisitely accomplished. Abbado was a polisher and took no note for granted. But sometimes his mid-career recordings can sound almost too reliable. It's the vibrant early and the masterly moving late performances that really shine, as well as the more offbeat. (Mark Swed) Read more
Box set: The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932
The ambitious new set "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1" comes packaged in a sturdy wooden suitcase dubbed "The Cabinet of Wonder," an apt title considering the awe-inducing sounds and history it resurrects. A label whose ragtag story stars two white Wisconsin business partners more concerned with record player sales than music, an A&R man whose race and history as a Chicago bootlegger (and ex-pro football player) allowed him access to the clubs where unrecorded talent gigged and a roster of artists with equally fascinating biographies, the Paramount and affiliated labels' output during its 15-year life comprises more than 1,600 songs. They were released through a subsidiary of a Port Washington, Wis.-born furniture company during the rise of the phonograph era. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile'
Matana Roberts does not make easy listening music. Although in mainstream culture jazz is frequently relegated to an awards show backdrop or an oh-so-spooky bit of shading for pay-cable political dramas, the music remains a springboard into avant-garde expression for this Chicago-born saxophonist, who explores both personal and social history on "Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile." A challenging, engrossing listen that follows her ambitious "Chapter One" from 2011, this 49-minute piece (broken into 18 seamless tracks) continues Roberts' synthesis of free improvisation and spoken word into a unique, shape-shifting compositional voice that she calls "panoramic sound quilting." Where Roberts' last record could be tumultuous with passages of fiery blowing offset by a big band drive, "Mississippi Moonchile" is a swirling celebration of smaller-ensemble free jazz. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Soundtrack
A single song bookends "Inside Llewyn Davis," the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen about a week in the life of a struggling singer in the New York folk scene of the early 1960s. It's a gentle guitar ballad starring a dangling noose called "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and its best-known version is by the late Dave Van Ronk, a towering singer whose recollections of Greenwich Village during the folk boom informed the narrative. In its opening scene, the movie focuses on the song as performed by the titular Davis, played by actor and musician Oscar Isaac. Shot in intimate close-up as he sings and picks on an acoustic guitar in a Village coffeehouse, the rendition introduces the character through lyrics about a man staring across an abyss. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: '12 Stories'
This has been a great year for women's voices in contemporary country music, starting with the auspicious debut album from Kacey Musgraves in March and ramping up now with an even bolder new arrival, Brandy Clark. The question out of the gate is whether she'll be heard amid the parade of frat boy country dominating the airwaves with cliche-ridden songs of tailgate parties by the swimming hole populated with sexy babes in their Daisy Duke shorts. Never mind that — find this record and listen to a dozen dazzlingly witty and insightful takes on the struggles of the working class ("Pray to Jesus"), neglected and/or mistreated women ("Crazy Women," "The Day She Got Divorced"), the battle between right and wrong ("What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven") and the pros and cons of chemical mood enhancers ("Hungover," "Get High"). (Randy Lewis) Read more
Hyper-intellectual cuisine has its place, but parody can be more fun. So in a Los Angeles restaurant scene dominated at the moment by extreme localism, modernist trickery and the marriage of European and Asian technique, Scratch Bar, a sleek, dim gastropub next to Matsuhisa on La Cienega’s restaurant row, is a welcome bit of comic relief, the wiseguy telling jokes in the corner while the popular kids forage miner’s lettuce and make buttermilk cheese with a centrifuge. At Scratch Bar, chef Phillip Frankland Lee and his band roast half-cylinders of sourdough bread, scoop out grooves in the center and fill them with bone marrow — trompe l’oeil marrow bones, garnished with ruddy bits of beet-marinated vegetables. They bake whole smelt inside crackers, so that the little fish appear to be emerging from the flat surface like nudes in a Robert Graham sculpture, and set them upright in blood-red smears of beet and beef marrow. Read more
Church & State
Most people with even a passing interest in local cooking have visited Church & State since it opened half a dozen years ago, a ground-level bistro on the ground floor of an old Nabisco factory, known for bringing dim lighting, expressive cocktails and Alsatian tarte flambée to a part of downtown then better known for illicit commerce than for kitchens serving blanquette de veau. Its first year or so saw a restaurant perhaps more centered on the cocktail trade than it was on the world of cuisine beyond steak-frites and chocolate mousse. Walter Manzke took over the stoves for a while, fresh from his term at Bastide, and he took the restaurant in the direction of southern France, inflecting his savory tarts with herbs and summery vegetables (or even Époisses cheese), cooking his deeply flavored short ribs sous-vide and plucking live spot prawns from a tank before sizzling them with garlic and burying them under drifts of diced cucumbers. Manzke had a pretty spectacular run for a guy whose signature dish was probably fried pig's ears. Read more
Without putting too fine a point on it, the pizza at Settebello is closer to real Naples pizza than anyplace that has ever existed in Los Angeles: 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, bufala mozzarella, olive oil from Campania, and a trip through the 900-degree domed wood-fired oven that typically lasts no more than a minute, minute and a half. Whether the soft, thin, sparingly topped pizza is your thing or not is a different question — a lot of people prefer heft and crunch — but the pizza from the Las Vegas-based chain might do fairly well if it were plunked down on Spaccanapoli. Read more
On a warm January night in Los Angeles, one of those evenings when we have trouble visualizing what the phrase "wind-chill factor" might even mean, the patio outside Maccheroni Republic is one of the most pleasant places downtown, a long, alley-narrow space, all greenery and soft air. The financial district's glass towers peeking out over the shrubbery is a distant part of the view. The restaurant is on Broadway but somehow not of Broadway, although Grand Central Market is right across the street. The downtown boom has seen a lot of Italian restaurants open in this part of the city, sleek dining rooms with wood-burning ovens, hot and cold running truffles, and rivers of expensive Super-Tuscan wine. In some parts of downtown you are never more than a few blocks from shade-grown coffee or a plate of wood-roasted pigeon. But Maccheroni Republic isn't a temple of cuisine, it's a trattoria — the kind of place where it is possible to go for both lunch and dinner on a single day, a restaurant where waitresses race down the aisle with four identical bowls of rigatoni with eggplant. Read more
A lot of chefs in Los Angeles are associated with a favorite ingredient in ways that seem fairly indelible. It is hard to imagine Walter Manzke without his pig's ear, Nancy Silverton without her bread or Suzanne Goin without her short ribs. The lineage goes back at least as far as John Sedlar and tamales, Jonathan Waxman and roast chicken, and Wolfgang Puck and pizza. But until I visited Acabar, the grand neo-Moroccan lounge-restaurant in the space long occupied by Dar Maghreb, I had rarely seen a chef rub up against an ingredient with quite as much passion as Octavio Becerra shows a simple can of sardines. Read more
If a theme has emerged in Los Angeles restaurants over the last several years, from Picca and Spice Table to Lukshon, A-Frame, Rivera and Corazon y Miel, it is the idea of Asian American and Latin American chefs trained in classical European kitchens, driven to reinterpret the tastes they grew up on through rigorous French technique. This isn't fusion food, which tends largely to be the application of Asian flavors to non-Asian dishes; this is chopped-and-channeled cooking designed to heighten the original sensations, a kind of reverse colonialism of the plate. The latest anti-fusion hero on the block is Tin Vuong, chef and owner of the Manhattan Beach restaurant Little Sister, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, worked his way up through grand hotel kitchens and has spent the last couple of years as chef at the well-regarded Hermosa Beach gastropub Abigaile. Read more
If you dine regularly in Los Angeles' Italian restaurants, you have probably lived through the fresh-pasta wars, the head cheese skirmishes and the incursion of the massive T-bones. We have not yet quite climbed out of the charred rubble of the wood-fired pizza moment, where the mozzarella comes from buffaloes and the thermostat is always set to 800 degrees. So you may be surprised to discover that the latest battleground may be the obscure Ligurian specialty called focaccia di Recco, a stuffed flatbread from a town 20 minutes outside Genoa. Like burrata, a cheese whose fame until recently was confined to a few square miles of central Puglia, focaccia di Recco is a food whose time has come. When prepared correctly, as it is at the Factory Kitchen in the arts district east of downtown (and also at chiSpacca on Melrose), focaccia di Recco is a marvelous thing, oiled dough stretched thin as filo and folded around milky, tart crescenza cheese. Read more
Colonia Taco Lounge
Are we living in the golden age of the California taco? We may be — or at least it can seem as if we are when your tummy's full late on a Saturday night. You can find tacos here from almost every region of Mexico, from Baja sting ray tacos to Zacatecas goat tacos; from Sinaloan marlin tacos to Yucatecan tacos made with pit-roasted pork. The Colonia Taco Lounge is the newest and possibly most consequential restaurant from Ricardo Diaz, in the southwest corner of La Puente, an area not previously noted for its fine cuisine. You may remember Diaz from Cooks Tortas in Monterey Park, which was dedicated to whimsically constructed Mexican sandwiches, or from Dorado's, his ceviche bar up the street. He was one of the people behind Guisados, which introduced the Eastside to a kind of stew-based taco popular in Mexico City; he is set to open the crunchy-taco house Duro in Silver Lake, and he continues to serve the region's best guacamole, aguachile and fried huauzontle at his Bizarra Capital in Uptown Whittier. So it may come as a surprise that, unlike his other restaurants, Colonia is basically a bar — a family-friendly bar perhaps, with plenty of kids crowded in on Sunday mornings when the soccer games are on the corner TVs, but a bar nonetheless, windowless, fragrant and gloomy even at noon. Read more
If you have spent much time in L.A.'s farmers markets, you have probably run into C.J., Chris Jacobson, an affable chef, tall enough to be an NBA power forward, who seems to know every farmer in town. He worked on the line for a while at the old Campanile, where everybody called him Stretch, and he ran the Yard, a small gastropub in Santa Monica known for its beer list and fish tacos but which he managed to nudge toward fine dining at the end. As you might expect from a young Los Angeles chef, Jacobson did his time on TV, including "Top Chef." Girasol, really Jacobson's first restaurant of his own, in many ways resembles a typical Studio City place, located on a fast avenue lined with more condos than cafes, occupying a building that has been more restaurants than I can remember, in a neighborhood where the sidewalk is empty but the parking spaces are full. Read more
If you follow the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, you have known about Govind Armstrong for years, possibly since he was a teenage cooking prodigy whose mom drove him to stints on the line at the original Spago the way that other moms drive their kids to Little League practice. Or perhaps you know him from his long collaboration with locavore Ben Ford, or from his solo gigs at Table 8 and 8 Oz. Burger Bar. You may have followed Armstrong's short-lived adventure in New York, which wasn't well-received, and his appearances on "Top Chef" and on the list of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. It is more likely that you noticed his restaurant Post & Beam, which he started a couple of years ago with business partner Brad Johnson and is the most ambitious restaurant ever to open in the Crenshaw District. At Willie Jane, the new restaurant he runs with Johnson on Abbot Kinney's restaurant row, Armstrong's style has become more refined yet — it's kind of a fantasy mash-up of Low Country cuisine with farm-driven California presentation, heavily reliant on the sharply tart notes that have become his trademark, and heavily reliant on Geri Miller's urban farm Cook's Garden next door. Read more
How do you know you're in a serious restaurant at the moment — a place where the chef ferments his own turnips, keeps a copy of "Modernist Cuisine" by his bedside and dreams of visiting Spain's Mugaritz restaurant? There will probably be a seaweed or two on any given plate, for the color, the crunch and the occasional spark of brininess, and bits of citrus zest will make it into places where you have never tasted citrus before. You will see at least one slow-poached egg, cooked to a perfect near-runniness at 63 degrees Celsius; top-shelf boutique greens that disappear long before you straggle into the farmers market on Wednesday morning; and a couple of flavors snagged from the bartender's cache. The presentation will be modern French, but the dishes may well be inspired by Italy, China and especially Japan, because Japanese (and New Nordic) cooking are what young chefs are crushing out on these days. Read more
Los Angeles burgers
The eyes of the world were recently focused on what surely must be the most repulsive hamburger in the history of mankind: 10,000 bits of cloned cow stem-cell tissue formed into a patty, seared in foaming butter and served to three food scientists in front of a crowd of decidedly unhungry journalists. If you would rather eat a hamburger than grimace at what your great-grandchildren might be forced to consider lunch, you can do better. Read more
Mike Kelley Retrospective
The sprawling Mike Kelley retrospective has the restless feel of a morbid fun house. The way it is installed generally conforms to the show’s excellent catalog — groupings determined not solely by date but according to discrete bodies of work. Kelley, for all his art’s low-down sources in the ephemera of popular culture and the rag-tag crudeness of many of his materials, was a brilliantly well-read intellectual. He often returned to themes and revisited materials, deepening his explorations as he went and extrapolating among them. Seeing those bodies of work together helps to underscore his art’s ricocheting resonance. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Monday, July 28) Read more
"#sweetjane," the newest group of drawings, video and installations by artist Andrea Bowers, takes as its emotionally wrenching subject a widely reported 2012 news story. A drunken 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was raped after a raucous party by two high school football players not much older than she. Like Théodore Géricault grappling with the scandalous news stories of government malfeasance in the deadly shipwreck of the Medusa in 19th century France, Bowers' art has often merged piercing insight about current events with social activism. She continues that fusion here, to impressive effect. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, April 13) Read more
Calder and Abstraction
If you like Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, you'll love the sculpture of Alexander Calder. And vice versa. As an artist Calder certainly wasn't in the business of illustrating difficult scientific postulates. (Born on the cusp of the 20th century, he died at 78 in 1976.) In fact, one frequent knock on him was the claim that, while charmingly whimsical, his sculpture is physically, emotionally and intellectually lightweight. After all, this is the guy who built an entire miniature circus out of cardboard, some buttons and a bunch of twisted wire. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, July 27) Read more
'John Divola: As Far As I Could Get'
Principally organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, this show is a collaborative endeavor with the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont and LACMA. Because of the trifurcation, few will see the entire show. And those who do will be deprived of some fundamental benefits of a museum retrospective. That's a shame. The good news is that, even seen in disordered chunks, Divola's photographs can provide immensely satisfying rewards. (Christopher Knight) (Emds Sunday, July 6) Read more
The lines in Exposito's new paintings do things the lines in his old paintings didn't: slip away from the shapes they demarcate to float in spaces that are more atmospheric than anything the artist has painted since he began exhibiting 15 years ago. (David Pagel) (Ends Saturday, April 12) Read more
Peter Fischli and David Weiss
What lies before us appears self-evident: clustered arrangements of studio debris. The installation is, however, a trompe l'oeil still-life. Everything, down to the strewn peanut shells, is carved from dense, rigid foam and painted.The work feels refreshingly earnest, born of curiosity, reverence and abundant good humor (Leah Ollman) (Ends Saturday, April 12) Read more
Jacob Hashimoto: Gas Giant
Hashimoto's installation is a lot like the weather: all around us and bigger than everyone. "Gas Giant" may be massive, but it's as gentle as a summer breeze and as intimate as a whisper, its simple shapes, basic colors and attractive patterns user-friendly. (David Pagel) (Ends Sunday, June 8) Read more
Jackson Pollock's 'Mural'
For the last 21 months, Jackson Pollock's landmark painting "Mural" (owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art) underwent much-needed conservation in a project led by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute. The intensive study is laid out in a fascinating, clearly explained exhibition. (Christopher Knight) (Through June 1) Read more
Rembrandt at the Getty
When is a portrait not a portrait? (Or, to be more precise, not exactly a portrait?) The answer: When it's a tronie, the theatrical 17th century Dutch invention in which artists weren't after a specific person's likeness but, instead, examined facial expressions as characteristic types of human emotion. Rembrandt van Rijn was good at it. When he was young and starting out, he looked into a mirror and used his own face to produce a tronie of laughter — and the result is now on view in the Getty's permanent collection galleries as the museum's newest acquisition. (Christopher Knight) Read more
The dark side of childhood may not be something adults like to think about. But it takes haunting shape in Nara's wide-ranging exhibition at Blum & Poe, its presence all the more potent for being subdued. (David Pagel) (Ends Saturday, April 12) Read more
'Take It or Leave It: Institutions, Image, Ideology'
With 118 works by 36 artists, many represented by large-scale installations, the galleries are jam-packed. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one work ends and another starts. But that mash-up seems intentional. The show charts the intersection of two genres that together gained considerable traction in the 1980s — appropriation art and institutional critique -- and undermining the usual museum conventions makes a point. (Christopher Knight) (Through May 18) Read more
‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’
The first time Armistead Maupin ended his “Tales of the City” serial — in 1989, with his sixth novel, “Sure of You” — he did it with a departure. Mary Ann Singleton, who had initiated the series by calling her mother in Cleveland to say she was staying in San Francisco, took a network TV job and left the Bay Area for New York. It was a sad if not unexpected outcome. In the 15 years since Maupin had first started writing about Mary Ann, her friends Michael, Mona, Brian and their irrepressible landlady, Anna Madrigal, a lot had happened: Anita Bryant, the People’s Temple, AIDS. Maupin was ready to move on. It was nearly two decades before he returned to these characters, first with the 2007 novel “Michael Tolliver Lives” and then with the follow-up, “Mary Ann in Autumn,” in 2010. What makes “Tales of the City” so resonant is Maupin’s ability to draw broad, human lessons from the particularity of his characters’ lives. This is why it has struck such a chord for close to 40 years now: adapted into three miniseries and an opera, the source of “Tales”-related San Francisco tours. Now, Maupin has chosen to end the series again with “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” a work that is less about departure than coming home. Featuring the full complement of “Tales” regulars (with the exception of Mona, who died in the 1984 novel “Babycakes”), the book is an elegy — for San Francisco, for its characters, for a way of life. Read more
T.C. Boyle's "Stories II" gathers all the short fiction he has published in the past 15 years — 58 stories, including 14 that have never appeared in book form. This is no mere collection, in other words, but an edifice intended, not unlike its equally massive predecessor "Stories" (1998), to define a legacy. To some extent, that's a sign of Boyle growing older; he will turn 65 in December. Death, or the threat of death, is all over these stories — or more accurately, a sense of mortality, of time zeroing in. But even more, it's a signifier that here, he is holding nothing back. In "Stories II" we stare down 15 years of fiction, and how does it add up? "All part of the questing impulse," Boyle suggests, "that has pushed me forward into territory I could never had dreamed of when I first set out to write — that is, to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration." Read more
When news emerged three years ago that filmmaker Shane Salerno and writer David Shields were working on an oral biography (with accompanying documentary) about J.D. Salinger, I assumed it would be all smoke and no fire. Salinger, after all, had gone to ground after the publication of his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924” in June 1965; even in the wake of his death, in January 2010 at age 91, his estate had preserved the silence of his final 45 years. But if Salerno and Shields' book “Salinger” is, at nearly 700 pages, a bit of a shaggy monster, what may be most astonishing about it is its (largely) even tone. The idea is to present a portrait of Salinger as both his own savior and something considerably darker, and for the most part, the co-authors get the goods. Read more
Optic Nerve 13
Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve is one of my favorite alternative comics: smart, understated and with a subtle yet pointed bite. Merging straight realism with an impressionistic sense of narrative, his stories often seem to be offhanded when, in fact, they are highly structured and defined. As an example, look at "Winter 2012," one of three pieces in the newly released Optic Nerve 13, a one-pager, told by way of 20 small panels, in which Tomine portrays himself as a Luddite, distressed by the indignities of the electronic age. Optic Nerve 13's other stories include a long central piece, "Go Owls," in which a woman meets an older man in a 12-step program and winds up in a relationship that becomes increasingly abusive and fraught, and the exquisite "Translated, From the Japanese," a love letter from a mother to her baby that is among the most beautiful things Tomine has ever done. Read more
'Never Built Los Angeles'
When, in the 1920s, the pioneering Southern California social critic Louis Adamic called Los Angeles "the enormous village," he didn't mean it as a compliment. Rather, he was referring to L.A.'s insularity, its status as what Richard Meltzer would later label "the biggest HICK Town (per se) in all the hick land," a city of small-town values and narrow vision that "grew up suddenly, planlessly." A similar sensibility underpins "Never Built Los Angeles," a compendium of more than 100 architectural projects — master plans, skyscrapers, transportation hubs, parks and river walks — that never made it off the ground. Edited by former Los Angeles magazine architecture critic Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, West Coast editor of the Architect's Newspaper, and accompanied by an exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum, it's a lavish counter-history of the city as it might have been: a literal L.A. of the mind. Read more
'The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey'
"He who makes a beast of himself," Samuel Johnson famously observed about inebriation, "gets rid of the pain of being a man." And yet, if Lawrence Osborne's new book, "The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey," has anything to tell us, it's that there is more to drinking than derangement, that it may lead to a transcendence more profound. "The Wet and the Dry" is a paean to drinking, but it is also a travelogue unfolding largely through the Islamic states of the Middle East and a memoir of sorts, in which Osborne's upbringing, in "a steadfast English suburb" during the 1970s, becomes a lens through which to read his life. "The drinker knows that life is not mental and not a matter of control and demarcation," he argues. "The teetotaler, on the other hand, knows full well how even a molecule of alcohol changes body and mind. The Muslim, the Protestant puritan, and the teetotaler are kin; they understand the world in a very similar way, despite all their enormous differences, while the drinkers know that the parameters that contain us are not all human, let alone divine." Read more
'Men in Miami Hotels'
Charlie Smith's terrific new novel, "Men in Miami Hotels," walks a line between genre and something considerably wilder, a fictional territory where a character might lose his or her soul. The story of a Miami hoodlum named Cotland Sims, on the run from a brutal mob boss, it is both existential thriller and a book of homecoming, as Cot returns to Key West, where he was born and raised, to confront the living ghosts of his past. These include his on-again-off-again girlfriend Marcella and her husband Ordell (the county prosecutor), as well as his mother and his oldest friend from high school, a drag queen named CJ. To this mix, Smith adds an army of hired killers out to wreak vengeance on Cot, although their violence, while pervasive, ends up seeming almost incidental. Read more
'Return to Oakpine'
Ron Carlson's new novel "Return to Oakpine" revolves around a group of high school friends 30 years after graduation, in the small Wyoming town where they were raised. The book begins with a simple errand: A man named Craig Ralston is called upon to refurbish a garage apartment for his old compatriot Jimmy Brand, who is coming home to die. The year is 1999 and Jimmy is nearing 50, a writer who left home after high school, in the wake of a family tragedy. And yet, Carlson wants us to understand, we never escape the past, not even a little bit of it. In a town such as Oakpine, that can't help but bleed into the present, reminding us of old hurts, old longings, of who we were and who we never will become. This is the tension that drives "Return to Oakpine," between what we want to do and what we need to do, between our dreams and our responsibilities. Or, as Carlson observes late in this elegant and moving novel, "There was a vague lump in his throat that he had thought was excitement but now felt like an urgent sadness; actually it felt like both." Read more
Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s haunting graphic novel “Genius” revolves around a physicist named Ted who was once a prodigy, before his priorities became realigned. Ted has two kids, and a wife who may be dying; do we need to say that he feels trapped, that his pressures have become too much for him? Still, Ted has one saving grace, which is his love for Einstein, who holds a place in his life akin to God. “I mean, I’m an atheist —” Ted explains, “most thinking people are — But Einstein is the pinnacle of a thinking man.” As “Genius” progresses, this relationship becomes increasingly prominent, until Einstein himself is animated in these pages, discussing the nature of the universe, the nature of discovery, and the essential notion that our lives are always in constant evolution, just waiting for that one idea, that one revelation, for everything to “start anew.” Read more
'The Faraway Nearby'
Rebecca Solnit's latest book, "The Faraway Nearby," began with a delivery of 100 pounds of apricots to her San Francisco home. The apricots came from her brother, who had collected them from a tree in their mother's yard. At the time, the older woman was in the throes of Alzheimer's; she had been moved into an assisted care facility, making the fruit a metaphor, an allegory, for everything that she had lost. First and foremost, this meant stories, which are at the center of "The Faraway Nearby," a book about narrative and empathy that moves between a dizzying array of tales — including "Frankenstein," the Arabian Nights and that of Solnit's own breast cancer scare — to look at the way stories bind us, allowing us to inhabit each other's lives with unexpected depth. Read more
Joe Ollmann's graphic novel “Science Fiction” is a minutely observed account of a relationship in crisis, from which there is (or might be) no way out. The setup is simple: Mark, a high school science teacher, and his girlfriend Susan, who works in a convenience store, rent an alien abduction movie that triggers what Mark decides are repressed memories of his own abduction years before. If this is difficult for Mark, it’s even harder for Susan because she can’t believe what he is telling her. Here we see the central conflict of “Science Fiction”: What happens when a loved one goes through an experience that is, in every way that matters, life-changing, and yet, we can’t go along for the ride? Read more
What makes Stephen King resonate for me is the way he can get inside the most mundane of situations and animate it, revealing in the process something of how we live. His new novel, "Joyland," operates very much from this territory: It's a drama that unfolds in miniature. The story of a college student named Devin Jones who spends the summer and fall of 1973 working at a North Carolina amusement park, "Joyland" is a thriller but it's also a homage to the disposable culture of the early 1970s, a time when "oil sold for eleven dollars a barrel." What King is getting at is what he's always getting at, that life is inexplicable, that joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, are all bound up and can assert themselves at any time. Read more
Richard Lange's third book, "Angel Baby," is a thriller that makes its own terms. Beautifully paced, deftly written, it's a novel of moral compromise, in which we have empathy for everyone (or almost everyone) and no one at once. The story of Luz, who runs away from her husband, a Mexican drug cartel leader, and heads for Los Angeles, "Angel Baby" takes us into uncomfortable territory -- only partly because of its brutality. Rather, Lange effectively upends our sympathies by drawing us close to not just Luz but also Jerónimo, the reluctant enforcer sent to find her, as well as Malone, a San Diego County burnout who makes his money ferrying illegals across the border, and Thacker, a corrupt border cop. Read more
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
For the last three decades, one of the video game world’s greatest antiheroes has been a barrel-throwing ape. He’s arrogant, ornery and not nearly as dexterous as he thinks he is. A kidnapper whose jungles were construction sites, he’d steal your girlfriend and trap her atop a skeletal steel structure. But as males-behaving-badly became a pop-culture norm — and an unfortunate requirement of most video games — Donkey Kong softened up. The once attention-desperate gorilla shed his hostage-taking ways and settled into a more healthful lifestyle with the launch of “Donkey Kong Country” in 1994. Now five iterations of the game later, he’s morphed into a rather lovable grump who just wants to enjoy a slice of cake with a frosted banana on top in peace. “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze,” released last weekend for Nintendo’s home console the Wii U, finds the king of the jungle continuing the makeover from villain to reluctant hero. Arctic creatures are invading the lush isles he calls home, and Kong wants the polar beasts off his lawn. Read more
Video game critic
PlayStation 4 / Xbox One
The next-gen video game consoles are here, and so far the games look an awful lot like the ones from the generation coming to an end. But the presentation of the consoles — the arguments they put forth about how games can and should be integrated into our lives — varies greatly. Sony's PS4 takes a targeted approach by emphasizing games and the places players go to talk about those games. Microsoft's Xbox One has broader, non-gaming ambitions, relying heavily on voice controls (look ma, no remote!) to have viewers magically shifting among television, film, music and sports apps. Read more
'The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds'
Another long-standing Nintendo franchise gets spruced up. Like "Mario 3D," the look and controls are familiar, the tone is entirely new, as this action-adventure emphasizes smarts and exploration over tedious dungeon crawling. Read more
'Super Mario 3D World'
Nintendo's Italian brothers Mario and Luigi are the closest thing the video game world has to a Mickey and Minnie, and this Wii U-exclusive may be the freshest spin yet on a trustworthy gaming tradition. The secret? Cats. Mario and pals shape-shift into felines with the help of a little video game magic, allowing the characters to crawl, scratch, climb and meow in completely unexpected ways. Trust us. Read more
"Rain," Sony's download-only PlayStation 3 title, plays with an idea central to many fairy tales. What monsters come out to play when the lights are turned off? But ultimately, it ends up dealing with a far darker question — is there any monster quite so scary as loneliness? With such an emphasis on text and narration, this could be considered an interactive book more than a game but is, instead, a moderately paced exploration through a fantastically realized nighttime setting, where narrowly escaping the clutches of pursuers rewards players with more pieces of the narrative rather than larger battles. Read more
"Spaceteam" is high-stress nonsense, but high-stress nonsense at its most absurd, addictive and ridiculous. Available now for iOS and Android, think of "Spaceteam" as a board game for mobile devices. The concept is simple, as players are crew members on a ship that's in danger of exploding and must shout technobabble at one another to prevent destruction. But each has a different view, so one player's Voltsock is another player's Newtonian Photomist. Read more
"Gone Home," out now as a PC download, will likely feel more personal than any game you'll play this year. Players explore it from the first-person perspective of a college-aged daughter, Katie, who has been studying abroad and is visiting her family's new home for the first time. Traverse just one house and discover untold secrets about a family, be it struggles with failed ambitions or the teenage unease that comes with discovering one's sexuality. Read more
'The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD'
A remake of an old Gamecube title is not the Zelda game Wii U fans have been clamoring for, but Nintendo has freshened up "Wind Waker" to the point that it feels a new experience. This early 2000s Zelda title still stands as one of the franchise's crowning moments, as it set its main character loose on the high seas and gave the universe a zippy, cartoonish makeover. The animated film look works even better in HD, and the subtle adoption of new control techniques offered by the Wii U makes it one of the more accessible adventure role playing games around. Read more
'The Last of Us'
"The Last of Us" is not your typical doomsday narrative. Zombie-like attacks aside, tension here comes from an underutilized game-play tactic: conversation. Dialogue is almost as plentiful as weapons in this patiently cinematic tale of a smuggler and the reluctant bond he forms with the 14-year-old girl he's hired to protect. Developed by Sony-owned Naughty Dog, responsible for the hit "Indiana Jones"-inspired "Uncharted" series, "The Last of Us" acknowledges gaming clichés and then skillfully avoids them by keeping its focus on the relationship between Joel (the smuggler) and Ellie (the teen he watches over). It's an action game, but one with characters worth fighting for. Read more
‘The Dark Sorcerer’
A short film and not a game, but one designed to show what next-gen console the PS4 may be capable of. Quanitic Dream, the Paris-based developer working on the patient narrative "Beyond Two Souls," concocted this fantasy-comedy as a way to illustrate that character depth and detail can be sustained over long scenes filled with gameplay. But forget the technical stuff — it's a cute little video about a film shoot gone wrong, with goblins. Though there are no plans to turn "The Dark Sorcerer" into a game, director David Cage said fan response may inspire him to change his mind. Read more
'Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move'
The minis are diminutive, wind-up figurines that represent well-known Nintendo characters. They walk forward, they don't stop and it's up to the player to control and tinker with the cubic paths in front of them. That about covers the basics, but not the details. Every couple of puzzles a new element is added, be it cubes that rotate, bombs that can blow up cubes, cubes that come equipped with springs that will send the characters flying over spikes, cubes with hammers or cubes that can generate all-purpose, multi-use cubes. With 240 stages, there are a lot cubes. Read more
Like Vince, Joie and A.L.C.? Meet their French cousins Sandro, Maje and Iro. Los Angeles, birthplace of some of America’s most successful contemporary fashion labels, is seeing a new wave of brands from Paris opening stores with their own French take on affordable luxury. One such brand is Sandro, which made its presence known in Los Angeles last week by hosting a star-studded bash at the Chateau Marmont on Thursday night to celebrate two new stores, one on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, and the other in the Beverly Center. Read more
Dries Van Noten: 'Inspirations'
"I feel a bit like a spoiled child with all these beautiful things around me," says Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, giving a tour of the spectacular new exhibition chronicling his nearly 30-year career, which opens Saturday at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. He's referring to the wealth of artworks from the Renaissance to the present day on view as part of "Dries Van Noten: Inspirations." The show is a tour of his creative mind, placing his runway collections in context of his many cultural reference points. In the galleries, works by Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Peyton and more are shown alongside vintage fashions ranging from Christian Dior's famous 1947 New Look, to a funky 1967 jacket that belonged to Jimi Hendrix. (In the run up to the exhibition, Van Noten found the flowery jacket that inspired one of his men's wear collections for sale on EBay and was able to score it with the help of a generous donor.) The romance of dance partners Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire seen in a clip from the 1935 film "Top Hat" was the starting point for the swaying ostrich feather dresses in the fall 2013 collection, and lightscapes by British photographer James Reeves inspired city lights prints in the spring 2012 collection. (Ends Sun., Aug. 31) Read more
'Journey of a Dress'
Diane von Furstenberg's wrap-dress army is a force to be reckoned with in the 20,000-square-foot gallery of the historic May Co. department store building in Los Angeles, where her "Journey of a Dress" exhibition opens Saturday with 200 vintage and contemporary interpretations of the iconic design. There they are, 200 mannequins strong, standing in formation and ready to conquer the world. And conquer the world is exactly what this dress did. The show, which was put together for the 40th anniversary of Von Furstenberg's brand, celebrates her singular contribution to fashion history: the wrap dress, which is on par with the T-shirt and blue jeans when it comes to its cultural impact. The dress — which wraps in front and ties at the waist and was originally made in drip-dry, cotton jersey — became part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s, when women started to enter the workforce en masse, a symbol not only of women's liberation but of sexual liberation, too. (Ends Thursday, May 1) Read more
Tory Burch celebrated the opening of her Rodeo Drive boutique with a star-studded party Jan. 21 and the release of the limited edition Rodeo Drive collection inspired by the flowers of Southern California and the glamour of Old Hollywood. The capsule collection includes resort-ready pieces embellished with coral flowers and embroidery, including the gladiator sandals above and the caftan-style dress. The capsule collection includes resort-ready pieces embellished with coral flowers and embroidery, including the gladiator sandals above and the caftan-style dress and flower-drop earrings Burch is wearing. There are also several styles in guipere lace, such as the shorts above. L.A. style maven and artist Lisa Eisner shot a dreamy short film featuring the collection in the gardens at Lotusland near Santa Barbara. You can see it here. Burch's website includes several other L.A.-centric editorial features geared to the opening, including Kaling, Hailee Steinfeld and other celebs discussing why they love L.A. Read more
10 Fashionable Things
As we all try to get back into the swing of work after the holidays, here are 10 stylish things on my to-do list for the next few months. 1) Celebrate the dress that started it all. 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Diane von Furstenberg's iconic wrap dress, which will be celebrated with "Journey of a Dress" on Jan. 11 to April 1 at the Wilshire May Co. building in Los Angeles, a retrospective exhibition of vintage and contemporary wrap designs — from the first sample to what has become a symbol of power and freedom for generations of women. 2) Pick up some cold-weather style inspiration... Read more
The coolest store now open in downtown L.A. is called Acne Studios. That's right. Get over it. If you don't know, Acne (an acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expression) was founded in 1996 in Stockholm by musician-turned-fashion designer Jonny Johansson. In seven years, it has grown into a $120-million brand with 40 stores around the world, men's and women's fashion collections, runway shows in Paris, as well as a publishing wing that has collaborated on projects with the likes of photographers Lord Snowden and William Wegman. Which is why when you walk into the new 5,000-square-foot boutique in the historic Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway, it's appropriate that you first lay eyes on "Giant Triple Mushroom," a trippy toadstool of an installation by Belgian artist Carsten Holler that seems to symbolize the curious rise of a brand that is known for doing things differently. Read more
Standout Books on American Design
Several new style books focus on great American jewelry design. Here we zero in on two of the standout volumes of the season. 'David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler' and 'Jewels by JAR' have an eye for the dazzling. "David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler" American jewelry designer David Webb was a fixture on New York's social scene during the 1960s and '70s, beloved by Diana Vreeland, Nan Kempner, Doris Duke, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and many other style-setters. Webb is perhaps best known for his animal bracelets, more fierce than cute, featuring lions, tigers and dragons, which were part of the ladies-who-lunch uniform of the day. "Jewels by JAR," the catalog for the exhibition of the same name that runs through March 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a jewel of a book with 69 photographs of incredible pieces by Joel Arthur Rosenthal, today's preeminent American jewelry designer, who has been working in Paris since the late 1970s for a small group of in-the-know clientele. Designing under his initials, JAR, Rosenthal creates works of art using colorful gemstones, pearls and other materials such as beetle wings. Each piece is unique and "set in metals that are sometimes subject to a degree of alchemy," art dealer Adrian Sassoon writes in the introductory essay. Read more
Isabel and Ruben Toledo
Ignored by mainstream fashion designers for years, the plus-size market got a boost with the announcement that Isabel and Ruben Toledo would be designing a collection for size 14-plus retailer Lane Bryant. Isabel Toledo famously made the lemongrass yellow coat and dress that First Lady Michelle Obama wore to President Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Speaking about the collaboration with Lane Bryant, Isabel Toledo told Women's Wear Daily that she and her husband "were intellectually on board from the first moment." That statement to me is key. The excuse so many designers use for ignoring the plus-size market, and showing their clothes on increasingly skinny models, is that clothes just look better on bodies resembling bony hangers. But any designer worth his or her salt should look at designing for a different size or shape as an intellectual challenge. Read more
"Bohemian isn't a trend; it's a lifestyle." That's the motto upon which L.A. designer Cynthia Vincent has staked her decade-old brand, Twelfth Street, named after the street she grew up on in La Verne. The brand is known for its tribal print maxi-dresses and rompers, serape-stripe cardigans, rugged short Western boots and gladiator wedge sandals, all with a multi-culti, beach-and-canyon vibe. In a city where designers can come and go in a few seasons, Vincent is a fashion success story. She attended L.A.'s Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, winning the Silver Thimble Award while she was there. In 1993, she started her first line, St. Vincent. She also opened a retail store, Aero & Co. in Los Feliz, to feature local independent designers. Read more
Designer Natalie Martin has mastered the art of gypset dressing, L.A.-style. In two years, the Aussie transplant has emerged as a go-to for boho-chic styles, including breezy kurtas, tunics, wrap skirts and maxi dresses, all priced under $300, and all crafted out of colorful, Balinese block print silks. Martin has a background in fashion marketing, putting in years at Italian leather goods brands Tod's and Hogan. Her namesake collection, which is sold at Barneys New York, Calypso St. Barth and other boutiques, as well and on her own website, brings a touch of Bali to L.A. Read more
Charlotte Olympia opens in Beverly Hills
London-based accessories designer extraordinaire Charlotte Dellal has opened her first L.A. Charlotte Olympia store, a glamorous, Art Deco-feeling boutique at the top of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The decor is an ode to Old Hollywood glamour from the moment you step inside the door, where Dellal (who has the curves and finger-wave blond hairstyle of a 1940s starlet herself) has her own pink marble Hollywood Walk of Fame star set into the ground, with "Charlotte Olympia" etched inside. "It's celebrating Los Angeles from an outsider's point of view," said Dellal, who launched her whimsical line in 2006. "I guess it's not all about Hollywood and film, but I'm a nostalgic person and I have always loved Old Hollywood." Read more
Malibu Barbie gets a makeover
With her beach blond hair, cheeky tan lines and chic shades, Malibu Barbie has been a style icon for many a young girl, including this one. Now, more than 40 years after she first hit the pop culture wave, Malibu Barbie is getting a makeover, from Los Angeles designer Trina Turk. The mythical Malibu icon is the perfect canvas for Turk’s cheerful 1960s and '70s-inspired SoCal aesthetic. Turk dresses the doll in a printed bandeau bikini and hexagon white lace cover-up and accessorizes her head-to-toe with a beach tote, pink shades, short-shorts, a peasant blouse, floppy sun hat and white wedge sandals. She’s even got a chunky cocktail ring, pink cuff bracelet and a bottle of sunscreen. To add to the fun, Turk’s June 2013 fashion collection, titled “Malibu Summer,” features the same items for women, so life-size Barbies can dress like their miniature muses. Read more