Critics’ Picks: Dec. 13-19, 2013

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.

The film “Inside Llewyn Davis” and its soundtrack album are both picks, along with a new exhibition featuring perfume and an interesting 1956 film collaboration between sculptor Richard Lippold and composer John Cage.

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

Inside Llewyn Davis’

As much as any directors working today, the brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel, are unmistakable auteurs, filmmakers who place their own distinctive stamp on everything they do. But while the bleak, funny, exquisitely made “Inside Llewyn Davis” echoes familiar themes and narrative journeys, it also goes its own way and becomes a singular experience, one of their best films. Like the Coens’ earlier “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Inside” sends a protagonist with links to Homer’s Odyssey (here it’s an ornery cat named Ulysses) on a drawn-out and difficult journey: Not for nothing is the film’s production company called Long Strange Trip LLC. Both films have the wizardly T Bone Burnett as music producer, but because “Inside” is a celebration of folk singers in general and the bad-luck Llewyn Davis (beautifully played by Oscar Isaac) in particular, the songs here and the specific time period they come out of move from the soundtrack to center stage. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

Kenneth Turan

Film critic

Bruce Dern, left, and Will Forte in "Nebraska." (Paramount)

Nebraska’

Filmmaker Alexander Payne has a subtle gift of infusing the most fraught of relationships with a quiet humanity. He’s particularly astute at catching the crosscurrents when it comes to men: George Clooney’s grieving but betrayed spouse in “The Descendants,” Paul Giamatti’s conflicted writer in “Sideways,” Jack Nicholson’s prickly retiree making amends, sort of, in “About Schmidt.” His latest, “Nebraska,” with a fine script by Bob Nelson, will stand alongside his best. Bruce Dern’s aging failure of a father and June Squibb’s long-suffering and insufferably nagging wife stand in for countless couples worn out by life and each other. The movie is filled with many textures of disappointment, but central is the way in which age itself begins to undermine you. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

Betsy Sharkey

Film critic

Other recommendations:

'12 Years a Slave'

When a director who never ever blinks takes on a horrific subject, a nightmare in broad daylight is the inevitable result. Welcome, if that is the right word, to the world of "12 Years a Slave." Based on an 1853 memoir detailing the appalling experiences of Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was brazenly abducted and sold into slavery, this film intends to do more than tell us a story. It wants to immerse us in an experience, and it does. Obviously, no film can re-create the unspeakable degradation of one human being owning another, but in making the attempt "12 Years" insists we feel things in a particularly oppressive way. This is impressive filmmaking, but it is not easy to take in. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'Aftermath'

"Aftermath" is a bombshell disguised as a thriller. Its devastating story involves Jews and the Holocaust, yet not a single Jewish character appears on-screen. Instead there are only Poles, grappling to different degrees with a history that is as difficult as it is complex. If the celebrated William Faulkner quote "The past is never dead, it's not even past" is true anywhere, it's in Poland, where this film was made and caused a national sensation. The narratives of competing victimization between Poles and the international Jewish community over who suffered most during World War II remain unresolved even decades after the fact, and it is into this maelstrom that "Aftermath" has inserted itself. In Polish with English subtitles. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'All Is Lost'

"All Is Lost" begins in darkness. There is a voice, though. Weary, almost apologetic, our man speaks of struggle, of trying and failing against an unforgiving sea. But soon the words stop and other languages — sight, sound, silence — pick up the story. And a face. Weathered and worn by time, Robert Redford is our man. The only one you will see in this spare and unsparing film. A superhero in a hoodie and sneakers in the unlikeliest of action adventures. The mission impossible is not to save the world, but himself. And the emotional crosscurrents we see on it become the film's narrative anchor. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'Blue Is the Warmest Color'

The moral of "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is simple: Sex without love is nothing; life without love is even less. French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche's story of sexual awakening and real love stretches over 10 years. Loosely based on Julie Maroh's superbly illustrated graphic novel and adapted for the screen by Kechiche and Ghalya Lacroix, it traces the life cycle of a relationship beginning to end. The telling is beautiful and explicit. The truth of its emotionally raw, romantic drama is eternal and universal. In French with English subtitles. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'Frozen'

With a cool, contemporary spin on a fairy-tale classic, a dramatic Nordic landscape animated in splendid storybook style and Broadway vets belting out power ballads, “Frozen” is an icy blast of fun from the very first flake. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel star in this sisterhood saga loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Filled with heart and heart-stopping action, it also has a playful sense of humor. The 3-D effects are killer, the music soaring. In fact, there are so many good reasons to see “Frozen” that I can’t begin to count them all. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'The Great Beauty'

As its name promises, this is drop-dead gorgeous moviemaking, a film that is luxuriously, seductively, stunningly cinematic. But with the great actor Toni Servillo on his team, larger questions of meaning in life turn out to be on director Paolo Sorrentino’s mind. In Italian with English subtitles. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'Nebraska'

It's the letter everyone's received. The one that gets your attention by saying you've won a million dollars but is actually all about selling magazine subscriptions. But what if someone truly believed they'd won that million? And what if that individual was your crabby, cranky and cantankerous father and he insisted on going to prize headquarters to collect his money? In person. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Alexander Payne's poignant and ruefully funny "Nebraska." But summations can't convey the filmmaking delicacy that marries tart-tongued comedy with unexpected warmth in a story that touches on family, memory, getting old and staying alive. Plus allowing 77-year-old Bruce Dern the opportunity to give the performance of a lifetime. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'12 Years a Slave'

The critical praise for "12 Years a Slave" has hit with all the fervor of a revival preacher, the film's significance so heavily underscored as to be almost intimidating. Now, I'm not suggesting this horrific piece of our history isn't challenging material, but director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley use the full measure of filmmaking's potential to gripping effect. The actors, fearless and fierce, do exceptional work to convert the abstract idea of slavery into concrete shape and form. For those of you still conflicted about seeing it, here are seven more reasons why you should. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in "Masters of Sex." (Michael Desmond / Showtime )

Masters of Sex’ Season Finale

Showtime’s docu-drama depiction of iconic sex researchers Willam Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virgina Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) comes to its season, um, climax on Sunday. What seemed in early episodes as a sexed-up answer to “Mad Men,” all retro-wear and midcentury repression, has become an increasingly nuanced exploration of sex as both physiological mystery and symbol of the many ways in which Americans are confined by ignorance and expectation. In many ways, it’s the ultimate romantic odd-coupling conceit. Sheen’s Masters is a buttoned-down obsessive researcher, his nose in his notes even as couples moan and writhe a few feet away, unable to connect what he is learning in the lab with his own life; one of the show’s most frustrated characters is Masters’ wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald). On the very other hand is Caplan’s Johnson, a free-spirited, truth-telling divorced mother who unapologetically accepts sex as an act of mutual pleasure rather than the permanent, life-changing bond the times demands it to be. Midway through the season, the two began participating in the study together, and since we all know they eventually marry (and later divorce), much of the narrative is devoted to bringing their opposing forces together. Showtime, Sunday. Read more

Mary McNamara

Television critic

Other recommendations:

'Grimm' Midseason Finale

In back-to-back episodes, NBC's monster procedural marks its midseason finale and celebrates the holidays (the second episode is titled "The Twelve Days of Krampus"). And apparently an alligator-like creature haunting the sewers is part of the program! Also, and more important, Alexis Denisof, alum of both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" will be making his series debut as the scheming cousin of Captain Renard (Sasha Roiz) out to make a European power grab. (Name another network monster show that toggles between English and French, Portland and the capitals of Western Europe. Police detective/Grimm Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) has just discovered his kickass mother is still alive, his formerly comatose-then-spellbound girlfriend Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) has become a full-fledged member of the Grimm team, while the ever witty and wise Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) has moved in with Rosalee (Bree Turner), making them the power couple of the Wesen world. (Mary McNamara) (NBC, Friday) Read more

'Homeland' Season Finale

So now what? Carrie (Clare Danes) is now obviously pregnant and Brody (Damian Lewis) has redeemed himself by offing a super-terrorist, but it's difficult to imagine a happy ending for one of the most conflicted and controversial couples in television history. If anyone can get Brody out the scene of the crime, and Iran, it's Carrie, but in this tale of two broken people, one has always been more irrevocably shattered than the other, and this season the narrative focused more on Carrie's relationship with Saul (Mandy Patinkin) than Brody. A hail of bullets seems more likely than some sort of Saul-approved protection plan, but who knows? The only thing predictable "Homeland" has been its willingness to swing for the fences. (Mary McNamara) (Showtime, Sunday) Read more

"Peter and the Starcatcher." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Peter and the Starcatcher’

Based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, this touring Broadway production does for J.M. Barrie’s classic what “Wicked” did for “The Wizard of Oz” — namely, imagine the back story of the characters in an irreverent manner that still manages to honor what is so enduringly captivating about the tale. This cheeky prequel specializes in theatrical simplicity: a rope, a couple of toy ships and trunks, a few sticks and some recycled odds and ends colorfully redeployed by an ingenious design team are all that’s needed to launch this voyage of the audience’s imagination. Ends Sunday, Jan. 12. Read more

Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Charles McNulty

Theater critic

Other recommendations:

'Evita'

This glossy touring edition of director Michael Grandage's revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Tony-winning phenomenon doesn't reinvent the popera, just gives it a shrewdly evocative makeover. The show's liabilities have not vanished, yet Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford, along with an imposing design scheme and a formidable triple-threat ensemble, minimize those flaws in an impressively graceful rethink. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 22) Read more

Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

'Aspirin & Elephants'

Despite some formulaic aspects, this smooth 25th anniversary revival of Jerry Mayer's boulevard comedy about inter-generational marital issues on a cruise ship is a surefire date show, high-end sitcom with flashes of emotional heft. Original director Chris DeCarlo adroitly revisits the old-school material, which his accomplished cast deftly puts over. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, March 16) Read more

The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica

'El Grande de Coca-Cola'

Prolifically produced for almost 40 years, this lunatic revue, set in a seedy cabaret somewhere south of the border and delivered mostly in gibberish Spanish, has been directed by Alan Shearman and stars Ron House, both of whom have been with the show, as writers and performers, since its inception. Formerly two acts, the play has been judiciously pared to a breezy 75 minutes — and the comic momentum never flags. Wearing a hairpiece that looks like a small animal in distress, House is the lynchpin of a superlative, marvelously agile cast. If you don't like broad slapstick, give "El Grande" a very wide berth. But if you're in the mood to get goofy and giggle, this could be your ticket. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Saturday December 14) Read more

Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica

'Falling'

Rogue Machine Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Deanna Jent's harrowing drama based on her own experiences as the mother of a severely autistic teenager. A mother wrestles with a conflict of almost Sophoclean sparity: reconciling her love for her son with her obligation to the rest of her family. Beautifully directed by Elina de Santos with a remarkable cast. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 22) Read more

Rogue Machine at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

'In the Heights'

This galvanic chamber edition of the 2008 Tony winner about the denizens of a Washington Heights barrio has enough heartfelt energy to alleviate a citywide power outage. Director Rico Tejeda and his creative team keep it unpretentiously honest, and the terrific cast follows suit. It would be loco to miss it. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 22) Read more

New Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights

'Lost Girls'

John Pollono, author of the much-feted "Small Engine Repair," has supplied Rogue Machine with the world premiere of another gritty New Hampshire drama. The play, about the reunion between a stressed-out retail clerk and her recovering alcoholic ex-husband after their teenage daughter goes missing, provides further theatrical evidence that the traumatic past doesn't die but rather moves underground, waiting for justice yet grateful for even a flicker of sympathetic acknowledgment. The production, directed by Rogue Machine artistic director John Perrin Flynn, lays on the working class New England local color a bit thick, but the excellent cast movingly enacts this truthful psychological study of characters trying to figure out how to coexist with their grievances. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Monday, January 27) Read more

Rogue Machine at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

'Play Dead'

An evening of macabre thrills and chills courtesy of illusionist Todd Robbins and his co-writer and director Teller (of Penn & Teller). The total darkness, horror stories and grisly illusions create a cozy, snuggly atmosphere, so take a date. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, Jan. 12) Read more

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

'The Rainmaker'

N. Richard Nash’s 1950s-era chestnut about a “spinster” swept up in romance by a dazzling con man can be laughably archaic. However, director Jack Heller crafts a striking, specific portrait of a bygone time. As for the pitch-perfect performances, they should all be distilled, bottled and preserved for posterity. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 22) Read more

Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica

'Side Show'

When "Side Show" first appeared on Broadway in 1997, the critics had plenty of nice things to say but audiences weren't rushing out in droves to see a musical about conjoined twins. Yet this musical by Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and "Dreamgirls" composer Henry Krieger (music) has been haunted by its unrealized potential. This retooled version doesn't solve all the musical's problems, but it capitalizes on the lurid showbiz milieu and it powerfully magnifies the heart of this more or less true tale of the Hilton sisters, "Siamese twins" who became a vaudeville sensation. The book needs another round of revisions and the best songs in the extensively refurbished score are still the old ones. But the production, directed by Bill Condon, who adapted and directed the movie version of "Dreamgirls," has the flash and velocity of a Hollywood motion picture. "Side Show" probably isn't fated to be a blockbuster, but this tender freak show will break your heart. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 15) Read more

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

'Smoke and Mirrors'

As actor and Magic Castle illusionist Albie Selznick’s superb theatrical magic show explores the connections between his life and art, perhaps his greatest feat is making any trace of boredom completely disappear. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Tuesday, December 31) Read more

The Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

'Totem'

This latest entry from the matchless Quebec-based franchise nominally concerns the evolution of mankind. Yet in the masterful hands of writer-director Robert Lepage, a mesmeric creative team and 46 Olympic-worthy athletic artistes, it's really about transformation in totum, not to mention humanity's determination to achieve superhuman feats. It's why we love Cirque du Soleil, and always will. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, March 16) Read more

Santa Monica Pier, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica

Richard Lippold in 1985 (Los Angeles Times)

New Restorations and Discoveries from Center for Visual Music

Ask John Cage in 1956, as the sculptor Richard Lippold did, to make a film and you take your chances. The composer was adamantly, and with increasing daring, using elaborate chance processes to create all his work. Still, Lippold, who was a close friend and neighbor of Cage, thought the composer would be just the person to edit a mass of footage shot during the three-year process of his making “The Sun,” a huge, geometric sculpture involving more than two miles of pure gold wire and now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But at one point Lippold became concerned about Cage’s unwavering nonjudgmental attitude toward his chance systems, the sculptor saying that he would really rather reserve the right not to use some frames of his work upside down, backward or overexposed. Cage responded: “Oh Richard, you have a beautiful mind. It’s time you got rid of it!” That anecdote comes from a study of Cage and film by a young scholar, Richard Brown, who will introduce a newly discovered and restored copy of “The Sun, Variations Within a Sphere No. 10” — or at least 14 of its original 20 minutes — when it is shown for the first time in the U.S. Read more

Read Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

Mark Swed

Music critic

Oscar Isaac. (Alison Rosa / Long Strange Trip / CBS Films)

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

Randall Roberts

Pop music critic

Other recommendations:

Album: 'September'

Trafficking in a mixture of chamber music, intricate post-rock and jazz, the Claudia Quintet has carved out a distinctive niche under the leadership of Grammy-nominated drummer/composer John Hollenbeck (even if it's obviously a challenge to define where exactly that niche lies). Regardless, this album marks a return to all-instrumental composition for the quintet, which in 2011 featured vocalists Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann on "What Is the Beautiful?" which was inspired by the poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Still, in the best music there's a sense that someone is talking to you, and here the subject is Hollenbeck's favorite month in "September," a time when the composer typically finds creative solitude. Though the 10 pieces are the result of Hollenbeck (for the first time) communicating them to the band without writing them down, each bears the group's tightly composed signature. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'Reflektor'

Arcade Fire has certainly found itself on a strange perch with its new album, "Reflektor." The last time the Montreal-based group made a record, "The Suburbs," it did so as an acclaimed indie band — not a Grammy album of the year-winning act on the verge of becoming a household name. "Reflektor" accepts the challenge that comes with millions of ears, eyes and lenses aimed at it but does so by taking listeners on a journey unlike any they've taken before. Its most confident and experimental yet, "Reflektor" features songs steeped in punk, dance rock, disco, reggae and noise, and themes ranging from love in the Digital Age to faith amid profound tragedy. But the album can be best described using a line from one of its most striking songs, "Here Comes the Night Time": "A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire." Big, brash, percussive and bass heavy, the band gallops through its fourth album, taking only occasional breaks to cool off. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Fiio X3

That was fast. This summer was the first time portable music players finally went really high end, thanks to Astell&Kern, a South Korean audio outfit. The AK 100 and it’s big brother AK 120, which came out in time for a hi-def Fourth of July, make  iPods and Android devices sound, in comparison, downright primitive -- like an AM car radio in a ’55 Chevy. The only problem has been price. Hold your breath: The two A&K models are, respectively, $699 and $1,299. Now for Labor Day, and from China (where Labor Day may not mean too much), there is the Fiio X3. It, too, will play HD downloads and it has the same digital-to-analog converter (which has a major influence on the quality of any files, even lowly mp3s) as the A&K players. It may not have A&K’s same sweet and open sound, but the price is $200.The means there really is a better alternative to the iPod, which will not play HD downloads. Yes, the X3 is thicker and clunkier than an iPod Touch and significantly more so than a Nano. (Mark Swed) 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: 'My Name Is My Name'

As Walter White would surely tell you, slinging drugs is a dirty job. But if you’re going to do it, own up and do it right. On his new album, “My Name Is My Name,” rapper Pusha T does just that, boasting that he “sold more dope than I sold records” with the pride of Heisenberg, and using musical sounds as glistening and well-crafted as his underground lab. The debut solo record from half of the duo the Clipse and member of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music collective is hard and minimal, filled with state-of-the-art beats that pop with bravado. A masterful rapper, Pusha’s flow contains multitudes: He hints at Mase on “Let Me Love You” by moving through lines with a similar rhythm, and does the same with fellow Virginia rapper Missy Elliott’s flow elsewhere. He does this not as mimicry but as verbal nods to the big history behind him, one he’s pushing forward with an ear for just-weird-enough beats that can soothe one minute and shock the next. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Album: 'Holding It Down'

If there's any one thread running through today's pop music, it's the amazing ability for most songs to be about absolutely nothing. Despite scores of crises around the world, the biggest hits of the summer (i.e. "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines") are party-ready, escapist marshmallow fluff. The year's revolving door of package music festivals — events once at least peppered with voter registration and social outreach booths — mostly exist as target marketing efforts and a means of giving music fans the sunny feeling of how wonderful it is to attend a music festival. At their best, hip-hop and jazz remain most adept at breaking the mold, and the footprints of both genres can be heard on Vijay Iyer's and Mike Ladd's inspiring new album. An ambitious collaboration between one of the most celebrated jazz pianists today in Iyer and poet-MC Ladd, who has worked with a host of underground rap acts including El-P's Company Flow and Saul Williams, "Holding It Down" is the duo's third in a series of unclassifiable blends of music, theater and spoken word that paint a vivid oral history of post-9/11 America. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'Wise Up Ghost'

Few musical pleasures are as satisfying as an eloquent artist with a sharpened pen and bitter tongue delivering perfectly pitched poison -- especially if the songwriter name-checks Disco-Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes and cites soldiers “playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned.” It doesn’t hurt if the band propelling these darts is the Roots. Bitterness and Elvis Costello, how sweet the sound. On “Wise Up Ghost,” the musician's powerful new collaboration with the hip-hop group (and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” backing band), the artist offers a dozen songs that tackle war, peace, dishonor, disappointment and strife. A record that pops with urgency, it’s a journey into the world of big-picture alienation, one that highlights the little lives trying to survive amid the chaos. (Randall Roberts) Read more

'Tootie's Tempo'

It can be a delicate thing, honoring jazz history. On one hand, you might lose count when trying to tally the many tribute concerts and reissues dedicated to an artist like Miles Davis, but on the other, no other music carries such a vital link to its past like jazz. Take, for example, the continuation of jazz tradition that is "Tootie's Tempo," a gorgeous showcase for 78-year-old drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, who can be heard on recordings from one side of jazz tradition to the other with the likes of Lester Young, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton and Herbie Hancock. Backed by a pair of talented artists from this generation in the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson and in-demand bassist Ben Street, the record is a study honoring tradition even while maintaining a sharp focus on forward motion. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'World Boogie Is Coming'

Brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson were raised on Memphis blues, soul, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Their late father, Jim, is an unsung hero of rock ‘n’ roll who worked with, among others Big Star, the Rolling Stones and the Replacements. For nearly two decades his Grammy-winning sons have explored similar musical terrain while expanding the conversation — no small feat for a music born in these same woods nearly a century earlier. Teamed with longtime bassist Chris Chew, the brothers' eighth studio album as the North Mississippi Allstars gathers many styles of primal American music, including Southern boogie, rural blues and electrified foot-stomping guitar music. (Randal Roberts) Read more

Album: 'Psychic Temple'

As has been thoroughly documented, the past decade or so has not been easy for independent musicians, particularly for those with a taste for venturing outside typical bounds of rock and pop. Consider producer-musician Chris Schlarb, who at 36 years old has a wife, two kids and a full-time job as a short-haul truck driver that carries him around Southern California. “I’ve been working there off and on for about 10 years and what I’ve found is it ... allows me to think about music all day,” Schlarb said, speaking by phone while driving home in Long Beach. “Because I could -- and often do -- just turn the radio off and if a melody comes to me I can sing it into my phone. It allows me the freedom of thought, which is so important to me because my mind is always going.” In between job and family obligations, Schlarb also ran the indie label Sounds Are Active (which has released albums from local explorers Nels Cline and Anthony Shadduck), wrote the music for the Nintendo 3DS game “NightSky” and as well as recording on his own and as part of the experimental-jazz duo I Heart Lung. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'Dawn of Midi'

How, exactly, does one define Dawn of Midi? Composed of bassist Aakaash Israni, drummer Qasim Naqvi and pianist Amino Belyamani who have roots in Morocco, India, Pakistan and the fertile music program at CalArts, the group that is superficially a piano trio is far from anyone's definition of jazz with this album, which has a single, locked-groove composition that spirals through nine tracks and 47 engrossing minutes. The closest analogue may be the Necks, a category-defying Australian trio who built a following around long-form improvised sets. But where the Necks' sound features an in-the-moment ebb and flow, Dawn of Midi is dedicated to perpetual forward motion, a rigorously composed blend of minimalism and trance music. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'North Hero'

Never underestimate the power of the Midwest. Continuing a recent run of Minnesota-born jazz talent that includes guitarist Todd Clauser and the Bad Plus, bassist Chris Morrissey offers a snapshot of his inviting way with melody on the wryly titled “North Hero.” The product of a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, the album was also produced by Bad Plus drummer Dave King, a connection that stands to reason given Morrissey also performed with King’s limber Minneapolis-based project Happy Apple. With those kinds of connections you might expect Morrissey to have nimble chops, and he's also been heard backing the intricate indie rock of Andrew Bird along with fellow singer-songwriters Ben Kweller and Sara Bareilles. (Chris Barton) Read more

Colonia Taco Lounge. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

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

Colonia Taco Lounge, 13030 E. Valley Blvd., La Puente

Jonathan Gold

Restaurant critic

Other recommendations:

Girasol

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

Girasol, 11334 Moorpark St., Studio City

Willie Jane

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

Willie Jane, 1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice

Allumette

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

1320 Echo Park Ave., Echo Park

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

101 Best Restaurants

If you take into account Los Angeles’ superb produce, its breathtaking diversity and its imagination, it can be one of the most pleasurable places to eat on Earth. What follows is a ranking of the best restaurants. How many have you tried? Where would you like to go? Create a list and share it with your friends. Read more

14 great Mexican restaurants

No places matches the breadth and depth of Mexican restaurants we have in Southern California, except Mexico City itself – and maybe not even there. You can find the cooking of almost every region in the country here, crafted at street-corner taco trucks as well as cutting-edge places like the new Corazon y Miel and Bizarra Capital. Here are Los Angles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s choices for 14 of the most essential places to try. 1. Babita: One of the most serious Mexican restaurants on the Eastside, a casual corner joint whose service is burnished to a white-tablecloth sheen. Chef-owner Roberto Berrelleza is especially gifted at the cuisine of his hometown of Los Mochis on the Sinaloa coast. Read more

Corazon y Miel

"Corazón y miel," your waitress wants it to be known, is the signature dish of Corazón y Miel. Corazón y miel, hearts and honey, is a small bowl of warm, seared chicken hearts in a sweet, honeyed vinaigrette, tossed with a few slivers of onion, like a chicken heart escabeche. The grayish hearts look a little gnarly, organy, probably more than you want to be dealing with before your third margarita. The bowl travels around the table twice. Someone finally spears a heart. She chases it with a shot of tequila. She spears another. She corrals the bowl for herself. Like the restaurant, a dim tuck 'n' roll gastropub in the working-class suburb of Bell, the hearts are an unlikely source of deliciousness. The hearts have won again. Read more

Corazon y Miel, 6626 Atlantic Ave., Bell

M.A.K.E.

If you are the kind of restaurant-goer who gets hung up on first impressions, M.A.K.E., Matthew Kenney’s raw-vegan restaurant in Santa Monica Place, may not be for you. But Kenney, who was a renowned New York chef well before he adopted the raw-food thing, is solidly a creature of the food world, and a lot of his techniques are also found in the famous modernist kitchens where dehydrators and Vege-Mixes are as commonly used as pots and pans. The spray of thinly sliced carrots erupting from a base of cumin-scented nut butter is a dish you might see in any modernist dining room. And if the lasagna, sushi rolls and kimchi dumplings are more raw-vegan riffs than the things themselves, it’s just the way the juice-cleanse generation wishes things to be. Read more

M.A.K.E., 395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica

Muddy Leek

A former underground dining club from Julie Retzlaff and her husband, chef Whitney Flood, Muddy Leek is less an edgy pop-up than a comfortable place to drop in for a glass of grenache and a snack on a Tuesday night. There may be the occasional tiny rabbit kidney garnishing a plate of rabbit hash, a little dish of rillettes made with the shredded remnants of duck confit, or a smear of chicken liver mousse on toast, but you are not here to be challenged, you are here because you want to eat nicely composed small plates, and it is nice. Read more

Muddy Leek, 8631 Washington Blvd., Culver City

Tamarind of London

Is it easy to mistake Tamarind’s careful spicing for blandness or the mild juiciness of its chicken tikka for timidity? Could it be a good thing that the parade of grilled-mushroom salads, coconut-scented vegetable korma, chickpea dal, smoky eggplant curry and hot nan stuffed with coconut and dates tends to complement the scent of a pretty Sonoma Chardonnay? Tamarind, the Newport Beach sibling of the first London Indian restaurant to earn a Michelin star, is Southern California’s most luxurious Indian restaurant. Read more

Tamarind of London, 7862 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach

Littlefork

The new restaurant from Jason Travi, whose Mediterranean-style cooking you may have tried at the late Fraiche in Culver City, is a really good bar with high-concept eats – channeling a 1950s New England seafood joint crossed with grungy Montreal bistro, and almost inexpensive unless you let the cocktails, the maple syrup eggs and the crunchy oyster sliders add up. You would be surprised how quickly you can inhale a plate of chilled oysters, nostalgia-flavored fish sticks or even a half dozen clams casino, whose blanket of crisp, bacony bread crumbs in no way slows you down. And there are freshly fried apple-cider doughnuts for dessert. Read more

Littlefork, 1600 Wilcox Ave., Hollywood

A photo by Bob Mizer (Western Project)

Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland

MOCA curator Bennett Simpson and artist Richard Hawkins, who organized the show, have assembled scores of photographs by Bob Mizer and drawings by Tom of Finland, plus vintage Physique Pictorial magazines, page layouts and story boards. One revealing surprise is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between works made decades apart. (Mizer died at 70 in 1992, Laaksonen at 71 in 1991.) But Mizer and Tom could be very, very funny, the wit in their pictures of wizards, gladiators, devils and truck-stop denizens happily worn on their sleeves. (Christopher Knight) (Through Jan. 26) Read more

MOCA, Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood

Christopher Knight

Art critic

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

The new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, designed by Zoltan Pali and the firm Studio Pali Fekete, is a work of architecture that arrives with a long list of storylines attached. In mixing historic preservation with unapologetically contemporary architecture, the $75-million complex, known as “The Wallis,” marks a step forward for Beverly Hills, a city that has not always treated its aging landmarks thoughtfully. It’s a clear example of how tricky it can be in Southern California to design a new building that’s architecturally sympathetic to its neighbors. (Christopher Hawthorne) Read more

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

Christopher Hawthorne

Architecture critic

Other recommendations:

Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible

In 1946, when he was 35, Bess began to transcribe his abstract visions into paint on canvas. Now 52 of those visionary paintings are on view in a show of heartbreaking beauty. According to best estimates, it includes between a third and a quarter of his output. Why it took so long is difficult to say, but we can be grateful that it finally happened. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, Jan. 5.) Read more

Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

American landscapes at LACMA

The subject of a yearlong, one-room permanent collection installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is 19th century American landscape art. The west wall has a spare lineup of all five LACMA paintings that show the American West, hung to create a continuous horizon line. The east wall is entirely covered, floor to ceiling and corner to corner, by a salon-style installation of 25 of its East Coast views. The face-off is stark between Eastern profusion and Western scarcity, the East Coast as unfolding history and the West as an elusive border. On the south wall in between, six photographs show Eastern landscapes, while 24 depict the West — a nearly exact reversal of the numbers in the two walls of paintings. Old and new landscapes are identified with old and new technologies: Paintings are "back there," photographs are "out here." (Christopher Knight) (Through Dec. 31.) Read more

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966

The exhibition charts the extensive give and take between total abstraction and representational painting that characterized Diebenkorn's productive years in the Bay Area. It has been slightly trimmed from its June debut in San Francisco; but, with roughly 100 works almost evenly divided between paintings and drawings, the Palm Springs version offers a reasonably full accounting of his development. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, Feb. 16) Read more

Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs

'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

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting

Renaissance art made in Florence, Italy, more than half a millennium ago wouldn't look the way it does without art and artists working elsewhere in Europe. It's easy to forget that travel and trade between Italy and other countries was frequent, including travel by artists and trade in art. Yet cosmopolitan interchange played an indispensable role in the blooming notion of a Renaissance. One of the most important of these interchanges is the subject of a newly opened exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. "Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting" is a knockout, the fall's first great museum show. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Monday, Jan. 13) Read more

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino

Sam Francis

Throughout his career — Sam Francis died in Santa Monica in 1994 at 71 — the artist engaged philosophical conundrums in paint. He was an avid student of Jungian psychology and Japanese aesthetics. Watercolor was his most-common choice of painting medium, whether in the conventional form used on paper or its popular 1960s canvas-cousin, acrylic paint. Fluidity is key to all his most successful series, starting with luminous examples from the 1950s made with thinned oil paint. It applies to the early 1960s orbs of expanding color in the "Blue Balls" works; the mid-1960s edge paintings, which use lush color only along the framing edges of the canvas while leaving the central area a bright, somehow muscular and visually aggressive white; and, the incredibly complex 1970s grids, in which crisp linear structure melds with oozing liquidity. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, Jan. 5) Read more

Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 East Union Street, Pasadena

Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos

Dürer, Wang Hui, Constable, Cézanne, Ruscha, earlier Hockney and no doubt more — watching a mature artist use present technologies to engage in deep conversation with the art of the past is profoundly pleasurable. "Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos" can be enjoyed in its own right, as a luxuriously sensuous visual ride unlike any our automobile-dependent city has to offer. Or it can be indulged as a deceptively simple work of art that actually contains multitudes — a conceptually faceted history of photographs within paintings within imagination within memory. (Christopher Knight) (Through Jan. 20) Read more

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire 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

'Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions'

"Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions" surveys the impact of the devout Franciscan friar who established nine of the state's 21 missions, transforming the region. Serra also towed the colonial line for Spain, was fervent about his religion and saw no contradiction between Christian charity and a slave system that destroyed the Indians' traditional way of life. The exhibition, which coincides with the 300th anniversary of Serra's birth, looks at all sides of his mixed legacy. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Monday, January 6) Read more

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino

James Turrell: A Retrospective

Light, the essential ingredient for sight, is Turrell's principal medium. Spiritual perception is his art's aim. The ancient metaphor of light as the engine of enlightenment is conjured in a modern way. (Christopher Knight) (Through April 6) Read more

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Lesley Vance

Lesley Vance makes the kind of small, abstract paintings that would be easy to dismiss if they weren't so solid, so alive. The large main space at David Kordansky has been divided to better suit the work's intimate dimensions — the largest is 26 inches wide, but most are closer to letter size. At this scale, Vance uses surprisingly large brushes, confidently creating swirls and swipes of striated color that weave in and around flatter, more solid masses. The paintings continually flirt with recognition, suggesting a body part here, a wisp of smoke there, but these references flit by as if animated and the works continue to elude apprehension. They seem to be endlessly interesting. (Sharon Mizota) (Ends Saturday, Jan. 4) Read more

David Kordansky Gallery, 3143 S. La Cienega Blvd., Unit A, Los Angeles

Author T.C. Boyle. (Jamieson Fry / Penguin Group)

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

David Ulin

Book critic

Other recommendations:

'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

'Genius'

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

'Science Fiction'

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

'Joyland'

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

'Angel Baby'

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

'Appointment in Samarra'

Fran Lebowitz has called him “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Ernest Hemingway said he was “a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well.” But mention John O’Hara today — 43 years after his death — and you’re likely to draw a look as blank as an unwritten book. Why? In part, perhaps, it’s because he was, by all accounts, difficult to get along with, a social climber, a bully, a vicious drunk. And yet, he also wrote three of the finest novels of the 1930s — “Appointment in Samarra,” “BUtterfield 8” and “Hope of Heaven.” Now, the first of these books is back in print: a tale of social success and social failure observed in precise miniature. Originally published in 1934, it unfolds over two days during Christmas 1930 and involves a socialite named Julian English, who is caught in a death spiral of alcoholism and bad behavior, as he loses everything he has ever held dear. Read more

Sony's Playstation 4; left; and Microsoft's XBox. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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

Todd Martens

Video game critic

Other recommendations:

'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

‘Guacamelee!’

Games are wonderful at creating crazy, colorful universes full of whip-cracking vampire killers and interstellar space pirates, but they are less good at crafting ones inspired by more earth-bound cultural traditions. "Guacamelee!” is an exception. Perhaps not since LucasArts’ 1998 “Day of the Dead” noir title “Grim Fandango” has a game so lovingly draped itself in Mexican folklore. "Guacamelee!” is a colorfully humorous game centered almost entirely on the customs surrounding Day of the Dead. It’s a simple stylistic conceit that seems so obvious that it’s almost confusing it hasn’t been done with any regularity. Who needs zombies and vampires when there’s an entire holiday steeped in calavera imagery? Read more

Chandler Burr (Charley Gallay / WireImage)

Timeless Scents: 1370 to 2013

Did you know that many consider Hungary Water, which dates back to the 14th century, to be the first perfume? Or that the 1982 mass market men’s cologne Drakkar Noir, which uses the same synthetic molecule that gives Tide laundry detergent its clean, fresh scent, was a work of 1980s industrialism just like techno-music? You’ll learn — and sniff — the stories behind both those fragrances and more at the interactive exhibition “Timeless Scents: 1370 to 2013,” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. (Just hold off spritzing any of your own perfume before you go.) The exhibition was created by Chandler Burr, curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, who is also an author and the former fragrance critic for the New York Times. Burr is an ambassador of the aromatic arts whose goal is to place scent in the context of mainstream art history, and establish its creators as equals to artists in other mediums. Ends Sunday, Dec. 22. Read more

The Wallis Annenberg Center, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

Booth Moore

Fashion critic

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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

Richard Avedon exhibition

Richard Avedon was one of the most accomplished photographers of the last 50 years and a new solo exhibition of his work at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, "Avedon: Women," explores his interpretations of beauty, both conventional and unconventional. There are more than 100 images in the show, ranging from a portrait of artist June Leaf (1975), which is beautiful in its unvarnished earthiness, to highly stylized fashion photos of models Penelope Tree, Suzy Parker, China Machado and Twiggy. Avedon, who died in 2004, starting working for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and other magazines in the 1940s. In addition to his most iconic fashion images (Dovima with elephants, Nastassja Kinski with snake, Veruschka twisted like a pretzel), the exhibition features Avedon's reportage work as well. Ends Saturday, Dec. 21. Read more

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills

Tony Viramontes Retrospective

The L.A.-born fashion illustrator Tony Viramontes captured the gender-bending electricity of the 1980s like no one else. He made a name for himself with his drawings of dominant women dressed in the theatrical haute couture of the day. In addition to putting pencil to paper, he was also a clothing stylist, makeup artist and hairdresser who collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Chanel, Christian Dior and more to create images with attitude. Viramontes, who died in 1988, has been celebrated this year with a new book, "Bold Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes" by British journalist Dean Rhys Morgan, an online auction and a window display at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. And now his work is coming home to Los Angeles, where 40 of his illustrations are on exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Ends Saturday, Dec. 21. Read more

Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, 919 S Grand Avenue, Los Angeles

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

Cynthia Vincent

"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

Natalie Martin

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

Charlotte Olympia, 474 North Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills

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

Tadashi Shoji

2013 marks 30 years that L.A.-based designer Tadashi Shoji has been making elegant formal wear for the rest of us. He got his start in the glitzy world of Hollywood, creating costumes for Stevie Wonder and Elton John, and more elaborate gowns for the red carpet for Florence Welch and Octavia Spencer. But the bulk of Shoji's $50-million namesake business is in department store sales of tasteful, figure-flattering and wallet-friendly cocktail dresses and evening gowns ranging in price from $198 to $508 for women who want to feel like celebrities in their own lives -- prom queens, mothers of the bride and the brides themselves. I recently sat down with the designer to discuss his favorite career moments, his new focus on selling in Asia, and what's next.n with the designer to discuss his favorite career moments, his new focus on selling in Asia, and what’s next. Read more

Aviator Nation

In just seven years, Paige Mycoskie has turned a passion for 1970s nostalgia into the next California lifestyle brand. Walking into her Aviator Nation store on Abbot Kinney in Venice is like stumbling into a frat house with a feminine influence. Steely Dan, Doors and Grateful Dead album covers and vintage skate decks nailed to the walls, a record player spinning Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," a 720 Degrees arcade game in the corner, stacks and stacks of foam trucker hats, T-shirts and hoodies spreading good vibes like "Pray for Surf" and "California Is for Lovers."... It's such a sensory experience, you half expect your shoes to be sticking to the floor from last night's kegger. Read more

Aviator Nation, 1224 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice

Wear LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has released its second Wear LACMA collection of fashion accessories created by local designers and inspired by the museum’s permanent collection. Custom perfumier Haley Alexander van Oosten of L’Oeil du Vert, accessories mavens Maryam and Marjan Malakpour of NewbarK and women’s clothing designer Juan Carlos Obando were tapped for the collection, which is for sale at the LACMA store and online, with all proceeds benefiting the museum. They had the run of the museum and could choose any piece as a starting point. What they came up with offers insight into who they are as designers and a chance to see a distinct part of their brand vision distilled. Read more

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Paloma Picasso

Style icon Paloma Picasso has been creating jewelry for Tiffany & Co. since 1980, famously reinterpreting Xs and O’s in bold silver and gold and celebrating the raw beauty of colorful stones in her modern-looking Sugar Stacks rings. Her newest collection for the jeweler, Olive Leaf, is more naturalistic than what has come before, with prices ranging from $150 for a thin silver ring band to $975 for a silver cuff to $100,000 for a diamond and white-gold bib. Picasso, 64, is married to French osteopathic doctor Eric Thevenet and splits her time between Lausanne, Switzerland, and Marrakech, Morocco. Read more