Critics’ Picks: Aug 15 - 21 , 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.

This week, LACMA offers a showing of paintings from Marsden Hartley, Saudi fashion designer Nora Al Shaikh is featured at Decades and Aqui Es Texcoco offers great barbacoa (but get there early). Also, a movie critic is staying home with an eclectic selection of Robin Williams’ films.

Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.

Robin Williams in "What Dreams May Come." (Polygram Films)

Robin Williams Retrospective

This weekend consider staying in for your own Robin Williams retrospective, spending some time savoring a few of the delights the actor left behind. Start with something upbeat and animated – both literally and figuratively. In “Aladdin,” Williams unleashed his comic beast, conjuring up all manner of fun via a big blue Genie. Then sample his more serious side with “The World According to Garp.” Next in the queue is “Dead Poets Society,” the actor’s English teacher suffusing the film with a sort of literary joie de vivre. Consider the little-seen “What Dreams May Come” next. Then dive into another, and better, contemplative work with Williams’ Oscar-winning turn as a psychologist and humanist reaching out to an overlooked genius in “Good Will Hunting.” Go completely B-movie bonkers with the nonsense of some of the actor’s, ahem, less notable efforts. Not art, but they have some quintessential Robin Williams’ comic moments. Wrap it up with another animation bit, “Happy Feet,” because Williams particular brand of humor pretty much gave the world happy feet. Read more

Betsy Sharkey

Film critic

Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Roadside Attractions)

A Most Wanted Man’

A taut, involving thriller, based on the novel by John le Carre, that’s a fitting final film for star Philip Seymour Hoffman, not only because it is so expertly done but because his role as a German spymaster combating terrorism was so challenging. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

Kenneth Turan

Film critic

Other recommendations:

'Begin Again'

There are many reasons why "Begin Again" continues to have such great staying power against the big guns this summer. Expanding its run in L.A. this weekend, the story is a catchy one, the music is great, and it is flavored by real musicians, including Mos Def, CeeLo Green and a star turn by Maroon 5's Adam Levine. Irish filmmaker John Carney, the writer-director whose indie sensation about a Dublin street busker, "Once," became a Tony-winning show (now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood), is a lover of musicians and their flaws. Those passions seep into his work in mysterious and mesmerizing ways. "Begin Again" is New York street through and through, with a link to London via its undiscovered singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), who's come to the city with her soon-to-be-rock-star boyfriend, played by Levine. Perhaps because we've meet Knightley's Gretta at a fragile moment in her life, love lost, all that, the actress shows a lovely softness we rarely see. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly bruised as the broken-down record producer in the midst of a bender when he discovers Gretta. The secret to the film's success is the way it lets the music — and the making of it — mend any broken heart in sight. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'Boyhood'

There is a telling scene deep inside "Boyhood" that gets at the essential core of the emotional appeal of Richard Linklater's startling new film, which stars Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and the director's daughter Lorelei. It takes place in a rural church with a pastor sermonizing about doubting Thomas and faith and those who believe without seeing. That ability to believe without seeing most certainly guides this film. Writer-director Linklater couldn't have known where 12 years of shooting this story would lead, following a boy and his family — and the actors who play them — across time. But we are blessed that he did, because it has resulted in an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a life unfolding and an exceptional, unconventional film in which not much else occurs. Never has so little meant more. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'Calvary'

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, "Calvary" reveals itself over and over to be a movie of surprises, a serious-minded, lightly comedic rumination on life, death, faith and community. From the jolting simplicity of the opening scene right through the final shots, it's never quite the film you expect it to be. It sneaks up on you. (Mark Olsen) Read more

'Guardians of the Galaxy'

Blessed with a loose, anarchic B-picture soul that encourages you to enjoy yourself even when you're not quite sure what's going on, this irreverent space opera takes us back to Marvel's comic book roots and the subversive satisfactions those early days provided. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

Coach Paul Cuadros. (AP / NUVOtv)

Los Jets’

This six-part documentary about an all-Latino North Carolina high school soccer team is also a tale of the changing face of the South and asks again that elastic and inexhaustible question, What Does It Mean To Be an American? Created and directed by Mark Landsman (“Thunder Soul,” “Peace of Mind”), it takes off from a 2007 book by head coach Paul Cuadros, “A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America.” (This isn’t mentioned in the series itself.) Cuadros, who also teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina, came to Jordan-Matthewes High School, in tiny Siler City, N.C., in 1999, at a time when the state was riven by anti-immigration rallies; seeing kids playing football in the street inspired him to propose that the school field a real team, a hard sell at the time in a town where soccer was identified with otherness. (Bringing home a championship title helped change that.) Thirteen seasons later, Jordan-Matthewes is two-thirds Latino and more students than ever sign up to play soccer. But there are still challenges, from Cuadros’ insistence on playing elegant ball in a state where things normally get rough, and from the race-based abuse the team can still encounter on away games. “Take those feelings of anger,” Cuadros tells them, “and score more goals.” NUVOtv and www.hulu.com, Anytime. Read more

Robert Lloyd

Television critic

Taylor Schilling. (JoJo Whilden / Netflix)

Orange Is the New Black’ Second Season

The new season continues Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) journey from privileged yuppie to self-aware survivor of penal incarceration. More importantly, it continues to deliver the most powerfully eclectic cast of characters, female or male, on any screen today. Netflix, anytime. Read more

Mary McNamara

Television critic

Other recommendations:

"Children of Tendu" and "Harmontown"

Two TV-related podcasts from well-known creator-writer types. I was going to describe them as "successful" creator-writer types, because each does make a living in the business called show — it is not a hobby they support with day jobs at the car wash or coffee shop — but they have all had their ups and downs, their ins, their outs. Which is the point, in different ways, of these very different series. In "Children of Tendu," "producer-level television writers" and fellow Puerto Ricans Javier "Javi" Grillo-Marxuach (creator of "The Middleman," veteran of "Charmed" and "Lost," currently working on "Helix") and Jose Molina ("Castle," "Grimm," "Vampire Diaries," "Sleepy Hollow") offer a "makeshift film school" intended to "spread some of the meager knowledge that we've acquired over the years." With lessons learned from their failures as well as from their successes, it's very much made for the the aspiring flatscreen-writer, but anyone interested in the nuts and bolts, the gears of cogs of TV production, should find these 13 episodes worthwhile. "Harmontown," though expressive of some of the same concerns, has a different flavor. It is inevitably but not specifically about television, being the online journal and megaphone of sometimes conspicuously embattled Dan Harmon, the creator of "Community" — from which he was famously fired and then rehired and which itself has been, in a kind of parallel motion, canceled by NBC and picked up by Yahoo! Screen. (Robert Lloyd) (Harmontown ; Children of Tendu) Read more

'90s Sleepover' and '#Funterruptions'

However short an episode, a series is a series is a series, and these two offerings from "Above Average," the YouTube extension of Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video — we have traveled there before, readers — make themselves quickly felt: For all their brevity, both feel solid, not ephemeral — the power, perhaps, of a well-honed theme, but also of the performances, which get up to speed in the blink of an eye. "90s Sleepover" is a serial series, covering a single night spent together by three kids on the cusp of 7th grade, played by Amos Vernon, Mike Lane and Nunzio Randazzo. In what might or might not be titled "#Funterruptions" — that could just be a hashtag, just as the whole business might be seen as a series of ads for the cracker shown on a card after each episode — the lively, divine Abby Elliott turns brief periods of downtime into interludes of Mittyesque daydreams and childlike play. (Robert Lloyd) (Above Average and YouTube, anytime) Read more

'Wizard Wars'

Magic is all around this summer ("The Carbonaro Effect" on TruTV, "Penn & Teller: Fool Us" and "Masters of Illusion" on the CW). In this exciting competition series, previously unacquainted teams of aspiring illusionists are pitted two-by-two against each other and then against the show's resident heavyweights; as in "Top Chef" and "Project Runway" and a thousand other series in which talented contestants must spin gold from hay, pronto, the challenge here is to create in short order a magic act using assigned "ordinary ingredients" (e.g., a pair of glasses, a mannequin and a fencing foil, or a deck of cards, a Super Soaker and Spam). The speed of the accomplishment adds astonishment to astonishment. As in the Penn and Teller series — the two are among the judges here — one gets a hint of the workmanship and structure behind the illusions without any secrets actually being revealed; and as with "Chef," "Runway," et al., one delights directly in the displays of excellence, and vicariously in the benediction of amazed experts. (Robert Lloyd) (Syfy, Tuesdays) Read more

Michael Urie. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Buyer & Cellar’

The premise of this bouncy tale is outlandish, and both playwright Jonathan Tolins and star Michael Urie delight in its playful absurdity: Alex, a struggling Los Angeles-based gay actor, gets hired to man the shops in Barbra Streisand’s sham mall, which is the scheme she comes up with to house her vast collections of antique dolls, vintage dresses and old stuff too saturated with memories and too darn expensive to throw away. On a stage sparely furnished with a cafe table, chair and bench, Urie etches Barbra with a few punctuating mannerisms and Alex with a puckish grin. What develops is a touching relationship between two lonely outsiders who, drawn to the make-believe world of show business, become daily playmates in an improvised game of shopping that is exhilaratingly fun to watch. Ends Sunday, Aug. 17. Read more

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Charles McNulty

Theater critic

Other recommendations:

'All's Well That Ends Well'

Although it has some stylistic quirks and still-refining aspects, this affable, accessible revival of the Bard's rambling comic study of class distinctions, romantic ambition and hard-earned wisdom is a representative Theatricum Botanicum outing. While the decision to cast actors of color as the nobility, Caucasians as the common folk, could be further examined within the staging, it certainly upends preconceptions and provokes thought. Despite some periodic vagaries of design and attack, the matchless venue and the zigzagging narrative fit fairly well under Ellen Geer and Christopher W. Jones' knowing co-direction. Their stalwart cast weathers some scattered overblown and/or under-baked beats to deliver the goods when it counts, centered by a never-better Willow Geer, whose supremely lucid Helena is an eloquent, self-actualized heroine for any era. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Saturday, Sept. 27) Read more

Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga

'The Brothers Size'

The Fountain Theatre follows up its award-winning 2012 production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's "In the Red and Brown Water" with the second, stand-alone installment in McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays, "The Brothers Size." This simple story of two brothers in Louisiana, one a hardworking mechanic, the other a restless adventurer, acquires a mythic resonance through its invocation of Yoruba archetypes. Shirley Jo Finney's vibrant direction, the vivid choreography and songs, and the remarkable three-man cast make this intimate production richly theatrical. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 14) Read more

Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood

‘Frederick Douglass Now’

Writer-performer Roger Guenveur Smith has done incisive work before, yet by recasting the words of the famed abolitionist into a 21st century context, this short, sharp solo piece makes a striking statement about where America has come and still has to go in terms of race, and his technique remains mesmeric. It's a genuinely entertaining polemic with a lingering point, and a personal benchmark for this remarkable artist. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, Aug. 24) Read more

Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

'Lear'

While this gender-scrambled take on Shakespeare's darkest tragedy has its limitations, it's impressive how well co-adapter/directors Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall succeed in both illuminating subtextual elements and broadening the scope of the source; Geer's performance in the title role rivals the best in intensity and heartbreak. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 28) Read more

Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga

'Much Ado About Nothing'

An evening under the stars at the Theatricum Botanicum rarely disappoints. No exception to that general rule, Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," playing in repertory in the theater's sylvan Topanga setting, is light of heart and deft of foot. Although they occasionally overdo the slapstick, co-directors Ellen Geer and Willow Geer have undoubtedly crafted a real crowd-pleaser. The story deals primarily with the unlikely romance between Beatrice (Susan Angelo) and Benedick (Robertson Dean), high-born marriage-haters who persistently skewer each other with their rapier wit. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 28) Read more

Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga

‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Independent Shakespeare Company's second entry in this summer's Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival is a zesty, playful, crowd-pleasing take on this battle of the sexes that continues to entertain and trouble. David Melville directs, Luis Galindo and Melissa Chalsma star, and a large, diverse crowd laughs and picnics in the park. Summer at its finest. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Fri., Aug. 29) Read more

The Old Zoo at Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Springs Dr., L.A.

'Twelfth Night'

Independent Shakespeare Company's winning combination of freewheeling irreverence and classical precision makes Shakespeare novice and devotees alike feel welcome in this lively outdoor romp in the park; free admission makes it a bargain at 10 times the price. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sun., Aug. 31) Read more

Griffith Park (Old Zoo), 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles

Britt Daniel of Spoon. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Album: ‘They Want My Soul’

With 10 songs that clock in at just under 40 minutes, Spoon’s eighth studio release, “They Want My Soul,” is a rock record to admire, and not just for the way its melodies and textures wheedle their way into the head. One of the most acclaimed rock bands of the last decade, Spoon is returning from the longest hiatus of its career, a time that saw leader Britt Daniel teaming with Canadian avant-pop singer Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade to explore dance-punk joy with Divine Fits. Like an architect who understands form and engineering so well that he seems able to bend the laws of physics while using them to the fullest, Daniel designs songs that waste little space and have a grand, undeniable logic, filled with volumes of mesmerizing curves and accents. Read more

Randall Roberts

Pop music critic

Other recommendations:

Album: 'A Friend of Mine'

At the center of DJ Dodger Stadium's frantic, mesmerizing debut full length, "Friend of Mine," is loop-heavy, joyously thumpy house music, the kind with nonstop four-on-the-floor stomp that helped birth what's now known as electronic dance music. An eternally optimistic genre, its natural habitat is on sweaty, crowded dance floors, where communal bliss can give rise to profoundly emotional moments. "Friend of Mine," though, upends house's central emotional conceit. Produced by the team of Samo Sound Boy and Jerome LOL, whose excellent imprint Body High has helped make Los Angeles an underground house hot spot based on its rethinking of Chicago's '80s and '90s house scene, Dodger Stadium's 10 songs use classic tools of the genre to explore post-weekend darkness. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Best albums of 2014 -- so far

Summer offers ample time for the kind of concentrated listening that drives musical love affairs. Whether aboard a luxury liner headed for Alaska or in a hand-me-down Hyundai road-tripping to Joshua Tree, the season presents opportunities galore to catch up on hot records that plugged-in friends have had on repeat. Here are 10 records released this year that I've been recommending to friends. The "best" so far? Sure, but don't expect the same list at the end of the year — or even the end of next week. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Album: 'Lazaretto'

Consider the wonder and magic of conjuring a song from the ether. Creating from a mix of oxygen, blood, water and energy a few minutes of something real, something melodically memorable, something as durable as the architecture surrounding us and the technology enveloping us. "Temporary Ground," off Jack White's new solo album, "Lazaretto," is an insta-classic ode to the fleeting beauty of life, delivered through fiddle, acoustic guitar, piano, pedal steel, voice and heart. It opens with a couplet that with precision and poeticism describes the earth and the "drifting continental shelf" upon which we toil. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Courtney Barnett

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 '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

Aqui es Texcoco. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Aqui Es Texcoco

The last time I went to Aqui Es Texcoco, the kitchen had run out of lamb. And while this might not have been a problem in most Mexican restaurants, where you’d shrug and move on to the roast pork or the mojarra, Aqui Es Texcoco is more or less a one-dish restaurant — that dish being barbacoa in the style of the Mexico City-adjacent Texcoco, an area as famous for pit-roasted lamb as it is for its Aztec ruins. When you see the word “Texcoco” on the sign of a restaurant or food stand, you know there is going to be pit-roasted lamb. When you get in your car and drive to the odd neighborhood of industrial parks in which you find Aqui Es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas, you are there for vast portions of lamb, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char, piled on sheets of aluminum foil. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. Lamb barbacoa at Aqui Es Texcoco is a perfect supper on a hot Sunday afternoon, perhaps accompanied by a Cucapá pale ale or two. Read more

Aqui Es Texcoco, 5850 S. Eastern Ave., Commerce

Jonathan Gold

Restaurant critic

Other recommendations:

Wexler's Deli

Micah Wexler first came to attention as the chef at Mezze, up in the old Sona space on La Cienega Boulevard, and in his stint at the short-lived restaurant he redefined what Middle Eastern food might be, garnishing braised tripe with nuggets of crunchy falafel, drizzling labneh onto foie gras and splashing manti with spiced almond milk. It was only after several months that a lot of people realized his inspiration was at least as deeply rooted in Jewish cooking as it was in the cuisines of Israel's neighbors, and his delicatessen Sundays, based on the food he grew up eating in Los Angeles, were sold out long in advance. So it perhaps makes sense that he opened Wexler's Deli in the newly revivified Grand Central Market downtown, a delicatessen reborn in a civic space that hasn't seen decent pastrami in years. The deli, which opened just this spring, looks as if it has been part of the market since the early 1950s, chubby neon sign, battered counter and all. Read more

Grand Central Market, 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles

Smoke.Oil.Salt.

Have you ever tasted real paella? And by "real," I should specify that I mean not the stuff you eat with sangria down by the beach or even the lovely yellow rice with seafood that you have to order a day in advance at Cuban restaurants, but the real thing, rare outside its birthplace in the mountains outside Valencia, which is less a vehicle for costly ingredients than it is a big, shallow pan of methodically toasted rice. An alarming percentage of the best paellas I have eaten have come from the well-seasoned steel pans of Perfecto Rocher, a third-generation paella chef now at the new Smoke.Oil.Salt. He is a fairly spectacular creative chef, fully conversant with the toys of the modernist kitchen and a master of the 62.5-degree egg, but what people still talk about are his Monday night paellas; traditionalist masterpieces of a sort we had never seen in Los Angeles. Read more

Smoke.Oil.Salt., 7274 W. Melrose Ave., Los Angeles,

At Pot in Koreatown

Roy Choi has gone through a lot in the last few years, and his journey — from a chef ingloriously fired from a high-profile restaurant to food truck pioneer to baron of a restaurant empire — has been much celebrated lately. His cookbook and memoir, "L.A. Son," is a bestseller. His talk on a chef's responsibility to his community moved René Redzepi's Mad conference ("mad" means "food" in Danish) in Copenhagen last fall. In the events surrounding the film "Chef" this spring, it is hard to know whether the bigger draw was Choi, a co-producer, or Jon Favreau, who directed and starred. Laid-back, a little surly and genuinely funny, Choi has become the current archetype of the L.A. chef, which is pretty good for a guy whose most famous dish is still a Korean taco served from a truck. But where you might expect Pot, his new restaurant in the Line hotel, to be a hipster joint, dishing out sleekly reimagined Korean fusion food to a generation whose first exposure to celebrity-cooked food may have been his Black Jack quesadillas, it is kind of a regular Korean place, home to bubbling tureens of crab soup and sizzling kimchi-fried rice, super-clean bowls of cold noodles with chile sauce and Korean pickles, and crisp potato pancakes like the ones you get at Kobawoo. He's still messing with expectations, but unless you happen to be a middle-aged Korean guy incensed at having to pay two bucks for kimchi and $3 for the wonderful pickled sea beans with sesame, the expectations that he's messing with are probably not your own. Read more

In the Line Hotel, 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Union

At first glance, Union, in a stripped-down storefront on a block lined with restaurants and bars, may not seem especially different from the Old Town Pasadena norm. The primary decoration is a chalkboard on which are scrawled quotes from Alice Waters and a schedule for local farmers markets. Where you might expect to find flowers on each table is a small Mason jar holding wheat stalks. The waiters do not need much prompting to tell you the provenance of the walnuts or where the asparagus may have been grown. Shelves on the wall display row after row of pickles — the chef, Bruce Kalman, is locally famous for the pickles he sells at farmers markets — and you can be sure that the duck prosciutto is house-cured, the pasta is house-made, and the duck egg is free-range. The wine list is modest, mostly Italian, and leaning toward natural wine and small producers. If such a thing as a California-cuisine theme restaurant existed, it would probably look a lot like this. Read more

Union, 37 E. Union St., Pasadena

101 Best Restaurants, 2014

High-end restaurants construct entrees out of what used to be considered weeds. Uni has replaced foie gras as the go-to luxury. And when you ask a local food-obsessive about her favorite restaurants, she is far more likely to mention a Thai noodle shop or a renegade taquero than she is anything with a Michelin star. Welcome to the Los Angeles restaurant scene, 2014. Read more

Q

It has never been easier to eat high-end sushi than it is now in Los Angeles — to surrender two hours and half a month's rent to the choreographed roll of the waves. You can experience the masculine crispness of Mori or the postmodern wackiness of Wa; the gentle experimentation of Kiriko or the discofied modernism of Nobu Malibu; the gold leaf and truffle oil of Go's Mart or the intellectual approach of Kiyokawa. The idea of purist edomae sushi, or at least its rigor, is well-established here. For years, unsuspecting diners have been booted from places like Hiko, Sasabune and Nozawa for the audacity of ordering the caterpillar roll they usually have for lunch down the street, and for the regulars, the walk of fame is part of the show. But until Q opened downtown last fall, there had been nothing like real edomae sushi in Los Angeles — plain-looking sushi that accentuates the flavor of the fish rather than of the rice or condiments, a universe of pickling and curing and aging whose culture may edge closer to a great charcuterie counter than to the sushi floor show at a place like Koi, but so subtly as to be almost imperceptible to a senior accountant stopping by for a quick expense-account lunch. Read more

Q, 521 W. 7th St., Los Angeles

Scratch Bar

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

Scratch Bar, 111 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills

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

Church & State, 1850 Industrial St., No. 100, Los Angeles

Settebello

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

Settebello, 625 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

Maccheroni Republic

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

Maccheroni Republic Restaurant, 332 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

Acabar

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

Acabar, 1510 N. Stanley Ave., Hollywood

Little Sister

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

Little Sister, 1131 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach

Marsden Hartley: Portrait; c. 1941-15 and The Iron Cross; 1915 (LACMA)

Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley was one of the two greatest painters the United States produced in the artistically tumultuous first decades of the 20th century (the other was Arthur Dove), and there hasn’t been an L.A. Hartley show since 1998. The show is deeply moving. The paintings Hartley made during a three-year European sojourn embody his startling artistic breakthrough: Call it modern public pageantry of private grief. (Christopher Knight) (Through Nov. 30) Read more

LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles

Christopher Knight

Art critic

Other recommendations:

Beautiful Ugly Things: Mitsuko Ikeno & Kim Tucker

The Los Angeles-based artists are paired in this complicated, rich, variably delectable and discomfiting show. Wonderfully dense with emotion, the sculptures here skitter between sweetness and sorrow, sex and the scatological (Leah Ollman) (Ends Fri. Aug. 29) Read more

Garboushian Gallery, 427 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills

Jo Ann Callis: Honey

By 1977, Callis had made all of the black-and-white and color photographs in this provocative, compelling show. Nearly all involve a single female figure partially concealed, costumed or bound. Visually, they are curious and complex, strange and charged (Leah Ollman) (Through Aug. 16) Read more

Rose Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica

'Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork'

Unless one is Native American, getting a grasp of complex Native American spiritual cosmologies is not easy. And that distinction, which might be called a quality of profound otherness, is in essence what drives a fascinating show recently opened at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park. It's a story of survival, of a will to endure in the face of crushing opposition. And it is a story told through beads. (Christopher Knight) (Through, April 26, 2015) Read more

Autry National Center of the American West, 700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles

Joe Goode

Recent paintings, most of them monumental in size, elaborate on themes with which Goode has been engaged for more than 40 years. Among them are some of his finest works, as notable for the skillful ease with which they are composed as for their sheer, rigorous beauty. At Michael Kohn Gallery, Goode typically juxtaposes one or two horizontal panels of mostly monochromatic color — two shades of deep blue, for example, or silvery gray above sea blue — to create a composition that inevitably reads as a landscape or seascape, even though nothing is present except abstract fields of color. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Fri., Aug. 29) Read more

Kohn Gallery, 1227 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood

'Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections'

Think of Byzantium, and a color leaps to mind. That color is gold. Why gold? On the evidence, because of its capacity to serve two rulers: The exhibition's title and its 187 objects together demonstrate how gold can represent power that is both earthly and heavenly at once. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Monday, Aug. 25) Read more

The Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

'Made in L.A.' 2014

According to catalog biographies for the Hammer Biennial, "Made in L.A. 2014," fewer than half the 35 artists have had solo shows in the city in the intervening two years since the last biennial (and many of those were at alternative venues). Under-exposed and emerging are the usual terms, but unfamiliarity lends some freshness to the exhibition. Once again, the biennial meets my yardstick for a successful survey: At least a third should be worth seeing. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Sept. 7) Read more

UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

Minor White

Is a revival of interest in the photographs of Minor White (1908-1976) worthwhile? Once, White's work was the epitome of all that art photography aspired to be. Since his death, however — and, actually, beginning several years before — his star has fallen. The J. Paul Getty Museum thinks rehabilitation of White's reputation is very much in order. A retrospective of his lush, poetically evocative silver gelatin prints is on view. It's the first such survey in a quarter-century, and it makes a very persuasive case. (Christopher Knight) (Through Oct. 19) Read more

The Getty Center, 1200 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles

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 Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

The Joseon Dynasty

The Joseon Dynasty being surveyed at LACMA represented a profound social and cultural transformation. Buddhism had been the official government religion on the Korean peninsula for a thousand years. Now, religious authority gave way to secularism. A large, bureaucratic government was led by royalty. Buddhism wasn't forbidden for private practice, but the religion was no longer officially sanctioned. Joseon introduced a separation of temple and state, which is reflected in the dynasty's art. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 28) Read more

LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles

June Wayne: Paintings, Prints and Tapestries

Artist June Wayne (1918-2011) started to make tapestries in 1971. The large wall-hangings are the most impressive works in this broad but modest survey at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Aug. 31) Read more

Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena

Haruki Murakami. (Elena Seibert / Knopf)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’

Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” begins with a simple premise: A Tokyo railroad engineer, the Tsukuru Tazaki of the novel’s title, finds himself borne back ceaselessly to the summer of his sophomore year in college, when, for no reason he can determine, he was cut off by his close-knit group of high school friends. The betrayal sent Tsukuru into a spiral. “It was as if,” Murakami writes, “he were sleepwalking through life, as if he had already died but not yet noticed it.” It’s a condition that lingers into adulthood. There is a rawness, a vulnerability, to this situation, a sense that the surface of the world is thin. This is true even after Tsukuru reaches back across the years to make contact with his former friends. How do we connect, or reconnect, Murakami wants us to consider, not only to those around us, but also to the very essence of ourselves? Read more

David Ulin

Book critic

Other recommendations:

'The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle'

Francisco Goldman's "The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle" is so sneakily brilliant, it's hard to put into words. Part travelogue, part memoir, part reportage on Mexican politics and the scourge of narcoterrorism, it is also, in the finest sense, a book that creates its own form. "I could use words as my compass to map the route I'd taken," Goldman tells us late in the first part of this journal-like accounting, "and give it a narrative order, a sequence of incident and meaning, and rescue it from being something other than just circumstantial and ephemeral. The stories one tells about oneself aren’t necessarily true, of course, but I wanted this one to be as true as I could make it. This didn’t mean that it all had to be factually true, but I decided that this story needed to be factually true too." Read more

'Ecstatic Cahoots' and 'Paper Lantern'

Stuart Dybek's stories occupy a territory somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Nelson Algren — beguiled by the play of language, but also gritty and specific, fundamentally urban at their core. And yet, to read him is to be reminded of the resonance of small moments, the connections that arise and dissipate with the passing power of a thought. "[T]he story might at first be no more than a scent," Dybek observes in "Fiction": "a measure of the time spent folded in a cedar drawer that's detectable on a silk camisole." What he's getting at is the power of inference, the longing implied, and inspired, by a gesture or a phrase. "Fiction" comes late in "Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories." It's a superlative collection and its appearance would be notable even if it weren't accompanied by a companion volume, "Paper Lantern: Love Stories," which has been published simultaneously. Read more

'My Struggle'

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is the buzz book of the moment — or more accurately a certain kind of buzz book, for a certain kind of audience. It is also a provocation, sharing its title with one of the most notorious works of the 20th century (Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”) while seeking to break down everything we thought we knew about personal narrative. And yet, deep in the second book of this six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical project, Knausgaard offers us an unexpected key. “A life is simple to understand,” he explains, “the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere.” There you have it, “My Struggle” in a nutshell ... although how to get at this simplicity is something else again. Self-absorbed, expansive, constantly doubling back on itself, “My Struggle” is an attempt to make an epic of the banal facts of the author’s existence. This is what makes “My Struggle” so brilliant: the understanding that, in recalling, or re-creating, our history, we give it a meaning it would not otherwise possess. 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

'Stories II'

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

'Salinger'

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

"Valiant Hearts: The Great War" (Ubisoft / AP)

Valiant Hearts: The Great War’

A tale of World War I, inspired partly by letters exchanged by soldiers and loved ones, “Valiant Hearts” is the rare video game in which military action evokes sympathy rather than aggression. Combat and the regrettable ways it touches the lives of a middle-aged farmer, a teenage student, a new father and an American widower make for the game’s backdrop. The emotional torture of warfare is the game’s center. Helping a bruised and battered soldier simply find a clean sock is treated as an act of heroism, and puzzles are fashioned out of the daily drudgery of a soldier’s life on the supply-barren Western Front. “Valiant Hearts” can wring great drama from the task of helping a lonely heart snare a feather from a bird so he can write a letter to his daughter. No, you cannot shoot the bird, despite a decade and a half of video games that have told us the opposite. Read more

Todd Martens

Video game critic

Other recommendations:

'Third Eye Crime'

The hand-held video game "Third Eye Crime" has all the trappings of a classic noir mystery. For starters, there's a tough-talking, no-good gumshoe for hire with "Dick Tracy's" eye for fashion. Then, of course, there's a double-crossing femme fatale modeled after Jessica Rabbit. Mix in a jazz soundtrack marked by bourbon-stained brass notes and a plot full of unsavory characters, and it's clear that the tales of the underworld here are rooted in vintage novels and black-and-white films. Yet "Third Eye Crime" also has a few thoroughly modern touches that James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler probably never foresaw. Take, for instance, a slick touch interface, one that brings a dash of "Angry Birds"-like movement to the hard-boiled genre. "Third Eye Crime," released in late April for Apple's mobile platforms, collects bits and pieces of familiar genres — the pick-up-and-play puzzle game, a pulpy comic style — and fuses them together for an interactive experience that has a new angle on tradition. 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

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'

"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'

"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'

"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

Decades' Cameron Silver. (Charley Gallay / Getty Images)

The Nora Al Shaikh Collection at Decades

On a mission to make his Decades boutique “the United Nations of fashion,” Cameron Silver welcomed Saudi designer Nora Al Shaikh and her fall 2014 “Futurista” collection to L.A. recently with a tea party at the store. The collection is wonderfully bold and sci-fi modern with architectural-looking tunics and tops made from duchesse satin interwoven with translucent black, pink, purple and blue yarns, to be worn over jeans, leggings or with corresponding skirts. The styles, many of which are cut into shard-like points, fit together like puzzle pieces. There are also several sculpted gowns that would work well for an adventurous star on the red carpet, Zoe Saldana, perhaps. Prices range from $1,066 for a top to $2,900 for an evening dress. (Ends Sun., August 31) Read more

Decades, 8214 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles

Booth Moore

Fashion critic

Other recommendations:

Kendall Conrad

Accessories designer Kendall Conrad's face brightens on a recent morning in her sun-filled Abbot Kinney boutique as she flips through pages of playful owl sketches, images of black-and-white ceramic vessels with Minotaur faces and the color blue, Picasso blue. She's turned to the books "Picasso: The Mediterranean Years" and "Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953" to explain the arty inspiration for her spring Vallauris collection, which may be her best yet. Read more

Kendall Conrad, 1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Bldg. 3, Venice

Figue

This summer, the Abbot Kinney shopping scene is becoming even more boho-chic. Figue, the New York-based gypset-lifestyle collection founded in 2012 by fashion vet Stephanie von Watzdorf, has opened a pop-up shop on the famed retail stretch in Venice. The store features the spring/summer collection, including folkloric beaded tuxedo shirts, ikat-print tunic dresses and fringed bags, as well as limited-edition accessories sourced from the designer's travels, such as hand-embroidered kaftans and one-of-a-kind, hand-embellished military jackets. Von Watzdorf designed the 1,300-square-foot space herself, with Moorish arches, filigree lanterns, a hammock and Berber blankets that make you want to stay a while. Read more

Figue, 1301 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice

Mary-Kate, Ashley Olsen open first flagship for the Row

Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, meet the Row. Taking its rightful place on Melrose Place, one of L.A.'s toniest shopping streets, is the new American luxury brand created just eight years ago by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The opening of the first retail store for the Row is a homecoming for the 27-year-old twin sisters, who were born in Sherman Oaks and made their fortune in Hollywood, starting at the age of 9 months, when they shared the role of Michelle Tanner on the TV series "Full House." Read more

The Row, 8440 Melrose Place, L.A. 90069

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala

When Kim Kardashian, in a draped petrol blue Lanvin gown, is one of the best dressed, you know it was a crazy night. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala for the fashion exhibition "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" was beyond fashion indeed. James, who is often called "America's first couturier," was at his height from the 1930s to the 1950s, when he revolutionized fashion from the inside out. A sculptor of cloth, he championed strapless dresses, the figure-eight skirt and spiral cuts. His work was the antithesis of today's disposable fast-fashion. Each piece was painstakingly constructed, hand-sculpted to the client's measurements, took hundreds of hours to complete, and only available to the super-wealthy. Read more

Lou & Grey

Ann Taylor and Loft have a new, free-spirited sibling. The American retailer has launched a brand called Lou & Grey that's a tomboyish fusion of active and street wear, or "lifewear" as its being positioned. Available in Loft stores, on LouandGrey.com, and in the first Lou & Grey freestanding store recently opened in Westport, Conn., the brand features sporty and loungey soft-dressing pieces in a pale color palette, including mélange knit moto jackets, slouchy linen T-shirts, textural oatmeal knit sweaters, sweat-shirt dresses and lace sweat pants from $30 to $100. I caught up with Austyn Zung, creative director of Loft and Lou & Grey, and a veteran of Loft, Gap's Fourth & Towne, and Oscar de la Renta before that, to chat about the new brand under the ANN Inc. umbrella, its roots in California ease, and the key building blocks of the collection. Read more

Sandro

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. The next local store opening? A Sandro outlet coming in August to Desert Hills Premium Outlets. Read more

Desert Hills Premium Outlets, 48400 Seminole Drive, Cabazon

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

Decorative Arts Museum, 107 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France

Tory Burch

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

366 N. Rodeo Drive Beverly Hills

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

Acne Studios

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

Acne Studios, Eastern Columbia Building, 855 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

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