Critics’ Picks: Feb 26 - March 3, 2016
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.
Johnny Depp stars in a wild send-up of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” and a family drama unfolds amid dragons and mythology in a new video game and with the Oscars on Sunday night this week may be your last chance to catch some of last years best movies in theaters.
Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.
‘Embrace of the Serpent’
This Oscar-nominated Colombia film is a strikingly photographed black-and-white epic that intertwines a passionate attack on the depredations of invasive capitalism with a potent adventure story. Read more
A droll Coen brothers tribute to and spoof of Hollywood past that amuses from beginning to end with its site specific re-creation of the studio system and the movies that made it famous. Read more
Accomplished British veterans Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay conduct a master class in understated acting that explores what happens to a long-term marriage when a disturbance in the field shifts the ground under everyone's feet. Read more
'The Big Short'
Adam McKay, with the help of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, has made a very funny film about a very serious situation, 2008’s global financial collapse. Read more
'Bridge of Spies'
Steven Spielberg’s superior directing skills and fine acting from Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance do the trick in this espionage thriller about a successful insurance lawyer who has to defend a Soviet spy and then attempt to trade him to the Russians for one of ours. Read more
Impeccably directed by John Crowley, feelingly adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín's fine novel and blessed with heartstopping work from star Saiorse Ronan and the rest of the cast, "Brooklyn" is about love and heartache, loneliness and intimacy, what home means and how we achieve it. Read more
Impeccably acted by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as women in love, with an exquisite look captured by cinematographer Ed Lachman, “Carol” has been made under the complete and total control of Todd Haynes, a gifted director who always knows what he’s doing. Read more
In the hands of director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, what is nominally a spinoff of the celebrated “Rocky” series plays like a spiritual remake of the 1976 film that retells the original story in the kind of involving way one would not have thought possible. Read more
'The Good Dinosaur'
The latest Pixar event is antic and unexpected as well as homiletic, rife with subversive elements, wacky critters, and some of the most beautiful landscapes ever seen in a computer animated feature. Read more
'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Words are not really the point when it comes to dealing with this barn-burner of a post-apocalyptic extravaganza in which sizzling, unsettling images are the order of the day. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are the leads, but the real star is filmmaker George Miller. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
Turning the plight of astronaut Mark Watney, inadvertently abandoned on the planet Mars, into the most polished of crowd-pleasers was the work of many hands, most especially star Matt Damon and experienced director Ridley Scott. Read more
Brie Larson excels in a film able to give full weight to both sides of the emotional equation as it tells the story of a young woman imprisoned for years in a single room in a tiny shed and the young son who was born to her there and knows no other world. Read more
'Son of Saul'
This drama set in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 is an immersive experience of the most disturbing kind, an unwavering vision of a particular kind of hell. No matter how many Holocaust films you’ve seen, you’ve not seen one like this. Read more
The saga of how the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for uncovering sexual abuse by Catholic priests, "Spotlight" is mightily impressive not only because of the importance of the story it tells but also because of how much effort and skill went into bringing it to the screen in the best possible way. Read more
‘Funny or Die Presents Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie’
Former “Onion” Editor Joe Randazzo wrote this hour-long sketch about the future Republican front-runner’s younger days. It stars a prosthetically altered, barely recognizable Johnny Depp as Donald Trump in what purports to be Trump’s own TV-movie adaptation of his memoir “The Art of the Deal,” supposedly preempted from its original scheduled airing by a football game and subsequently — in the words of Ron Howard, who introduces it — “thought to be lost in the Cybill Shepherd blouse fire of 1989.” (It later “turned up at a yard sale in Phoenix, Arizona,” says Howard. “I had to physically wrestle it from a nice woman named Jennie.”) Director Jeremy Konner, who also directs “Drunk History,” knows some things about re-creating a past world on a budget. It is not meant to be a perfect pastiche — the characters use words that could not be spoken on television then, they exhibit a knowledge of future events; Trump, who sometimes doesn’t understand references in a script he supposedly wrote himself, assesses his own performance, as himself, as Oscar worthy. Funny or Die. Read more
‘Mom’ Third Season
It’s tough to imagine a more winning duo than the stars of “Mom,” in which Anna Faris plays Christy, a recovering addict and single mom, and Allison Janney plays Bonnie, her even more troubled mother. And indeed Janney has won two Emmys for the role. But if creators Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker are happy to embrace mother-daughter dysfunction as a comedic trope, they were more interested in the comedy, and drama, of their characters getting better. With the same result for their show. The queasy joke of a familial twin set — not only are Christy and Bonnie both alcoholics, they both became single mothers at a very early age — is continually made but increasingly as an entry point for empathy and understanding as much as a punchline. CBS, Thursdays. Read more
'Super Sentai: Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series'
Japanese pop culture has grown deeply entwined with our American own, going back to Godzilla and Mothra and Gidorah, the Three-Headed Monster; "Star Wars," then and now, is a samurai space opera; manga and anime and mecha are no longer exotic terms. And yet it remains at the same time satisfyingly foreign. The elements of Japan's "Super Sentai" TV franchise are familiar, because we have long since seen them domestically repurposed as "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." There are color-coded masked and helmeted heroes skilled in balletic-gymnastic martial arts; giant sentient transforming mechanical animals; monsters who grow big and stomp around miniature landscapes like Godzilla before them. But the unaltered original item has a flavor of its own — at once more spiritual, if that's quite the word, and more slapstick, more romantic and more comical. Recently issued in its entirety, "Gosei Sentai Dairanger (Five-Star Squadron Dairanger)" — "dai" can be translated either as "generation" or "great," research reveals — is the 17th installment in the series, which ran weekly from February 1993 to February 1994. (The preceding series, "Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger," was the basis for the original "Power Rangers"; it has also been issued complete by Shout Factory.) The currently running "Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger (Animal Task Force Beast King Ranger)" is the 40th entry in the franchise. (Robert Lloyd) (Shout Factory DVD) Read more
Megan Fox on 'New Girl'
In case you didn't hear, Megan Fox joined the cast of "New Girl" last week, and it turned out just fine! Better than fine! Though Fox's Reagan is no Jess — Jess remains sequestered on jury duty (translation: star Zooey Deschanel remains on maternity leave) — she has an astringent deadpan that adds just the right amount of sting to the group's often overwhelming adorableness. Presented as both bombshell and no-nonsense pharmaceutical rep, Reagan is in town for an extended business trip and, after much sturm and high jinks (it turns out that she and Ceci hooked up years ago at the MTV beach house!), decides to rent Jess' room. It may be the first time in television history that a lead character has been even temporarily replaced, but if the rest of the season (Deschanel will return for the season finale) goes as well as Fox's intro did, it may not be the last. (Mary McNamara) (Fox, Tuesdays) Read more
This wily two-character drama by Bess Wohl never becomes the play you think it’s going to become. In this erotic tale of two strangers stumbling through a drunken pickup, the playwright stays one step ahead of theatergoers — not to trick them but to hold out for deeper truth. Under the assured direction of Trip Cullman, this Geffen Playhouse production stars the superb Betty Gilpin (formerly of “Nurse Jackie”) as a brash and clumsy American tourist and a near-perfect Carlos Leal as the moody Spaniard who is both attracted and repelled by his intoxicated visitor. Ends Sunday, March 13. Read more
‘Safe at Home: An Evening With Orson Bean’
In this gem of a solo show, master raconteur and television personality Orson Bean, an 87-year-old theatrical prodigy, takes his audience on an autobiographical stroll through his life. A natural performer who delights in enthralling a paying crowd, he has a twinkling manner even when his material is streaked with sadness. When the old childhood sorrow threatens to become too much, he performs goofy magic tricks, tells a few hoary jokes and captivates with the canny stage sense of an all-around entertainer who knows how to keep an audience in the palm of his hand. Ends Oct. 6. Read more
In this new drama by Stefanie Zadravec (a name to remember), the plight of missing children and their distraught parents lends a framework to the main canvas: the tale of a teen who’s about to go missing in plain sight as the adults in his life fail him in ways large and small. Set in rural Oregon, this is a portrait of a wounded America. Jessica Kubzansky directs with her usual magic. Jessica Kubzansky directs with her usual magic. (Daryl H. Miller) (Ends Sunday, March 20) Read more
Samuel D. Hunter sympathetically chronicles Middle America’s quiet despair. His sorrowful yet laugh-out-loud funny tale is set in a struggling branch of an oppressively generic chain restaurant where the manager, his family and his staff are losing their sense of self and their connections to one another. The performers disappear into these very real people. John Perrin Flynn directs Rogue Machine’s production with quiet insight. (Daryl H. Miller) (Ends Sunday, April 10) Read more
‘Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara’
The local watershed and genuine phenomenon returns to Southern California in triumph. Although some measure of intimate impact has been lost, the property remains original, most entertaining and frequently electrifying, courtesy of director Taylor Hackford's tightened grip on the script, a superb band and stellar headliners Anthony Crivello and Vanessa Claire Stewart. It's the most infectious show in town. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, March 27) Read more
'Man Covets Bird'
The 24th Street Theatre follows up last year's award-winning “Walking the Tightrope” with another play for families that touches on struggle and loss, “Man Covets Bird,” by the Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer. If the storyline is a bit poetic and meandering, the performers are winsome and the production elements (including live music as well as charming, cartoony video projections) are beautifully designed. Both children 7 and up and adults will find something to enjoy in the experience. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sunday, May 15) Read more
You can’t name your album “Anti” without inviting your audience to think about what you oppose. So what is Rihanna standing against on her eighth studio record? A smoothly choreographed product rollout, for one. After repeated delays, “Anti” finally appeared online Wednesday night, first in an apparently unauthorized leak, then as an exclusive on the streaming service Tidal; Samsung also gave away a limited number of free downloads through a complicated promotion. By Friday, the album was available for sale through iTunes (where it quickly topped the chart) and Tidal, though it hasn’t yet shown up on other streaming services such as Spotify, and a physical release date has yet to be announced. (Mikael Wood) Read more
Pop Music Writer
There’s something delightfully perverse that David Bowie waited until he was 69 to release what’s being described as his first jazz album. It was at that age too when veteran rock stars who include Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney took up with big bands or reached for the Great American Songbook to demonstrate their taste and hard-won stature. Even Bob Dylan got in on the act last year with “Shadows in the Night,” his lovely (if desolate) tribute to Frank Sinatra. So when you hear that Bowie hooked up with a New York saxophonist and his crew for “Blackstar,” out Friday (just two days before his death from cancer), you think perhaps that Bowie has joined the club — that after cycling through countless styles and personas over his half-century career, he’s finally become a finger-snapping crooner with Count Basie on his mind. Ah, no. Read more
Pop Music Writer
Album: ‘HitNRun Phase Two’
Is this becoming a habit? That’s the question Prince raised Saturday morning when without warning he released a new album, “HitNRun Phase Two,” on the streaming-music service Tidal. As its title suggests, the 12-track set follows an earlier album, “HitNRun Phase One,” which Prince had made available in similar fashion in September — proof, it would seem, that this legendary control freak has shed his once-famous disdain for the unruly Internet. Maybe this double-shot system is how Prince, as prolific as he’s ever been, intends to roll from here on out. Works for me. A proudly organic companion to the EDM-inflected “Phase One,” Prince’s latest album shows that he hasn’t lost his interest in (or his knack for) the creeping funk and lush R&B balladry he was making in the early 1990s on records like the great “Diamonds and Pearls.” Read more
Pop Music Writer
When Adele sings on her new album, "25," about an emotional experience so vivid that "It was just like a movie / It was just like a song," she's probably thinking of a tune by one of her idols: Roberta Flack, say, or Stevie Nicks. But for fans of this 27-year-old British singer, such a moment could only be captured by one thing: an Adele song. With her big hair and bigger voice, Adele broke out in 2008 as part of the British retro-soul craze that also included Duffy and Amy Winehouse. Her debut album, "19," spawned a hit single in "Chasing Pavements" and led to a Grammy Award for best new artist. Yet she outgrew any style or scene with the smash follow-up, "21," which presented Adele as a great crystallizer of complicated feelings, an artist writing intimately about her own life (in this case about a devastating breakup) in a way that somehow made the music feel universal. Clearly, the pressure is on to duplicate that commercial success with "25," which comes after a long period of public quiet in which Adele recovered from throat surgery and gave birth to a son (and tweeted no more than a few dozen times). "Hello," the record's brooding lead single, set a record when it was released last month, racking up 1.1 million downloads in a week. But the song's enthusiastic embrace only underscored the other, more pressing demand on the singer as she returns: that her music still provide its trademark catharsis. Put another way, Adele's fans have been waiting for years for new Adele songs to explain their experiences to them. And they get a worthy batch on "25." Read more
Album: 'Bob Dylan — The Cutting Edge'
Among the many things Thomas Edison famously said, he remarked that "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration," and he also insisted that "I have not failed once. I have simply found 10,000 ways that do not work." Both precepts are clearly evident in "1965-1966: Bootleg Series Vol. 12," the revelatory latest release of Dylan archival recordings that comes out Nov. 6. Culling a mind- and ear-boggling wealth of outtakes, alternate versions and rehearsal snippets during sessions over the 14 months of an astonishingly fertile period for Dylan, which yielded three of the most influential albums in rock history — "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" — the new set throws open a panoramic window into the creative process of one of the 20th century's greatest artists. (Randy Lewis) Read more
Album: 'Crosseyed Heart'
On Keith Richards' first solo album in more than 20 years the Rolling Stones co-founder crafts songs using the same tools and templates he's employed throughout his creative life: blues, early rock 'n' roll, classic country & western and a pinch of reggae. You will not find a Diplo production credit or guest verse from Chance the Rapper anywhere on this album. But as Richards' reflexes suggest, the guitarist still possesses the skills to whittle a stick into a rock song if so inclined. That's a diplomatic way of saying that our hero is a creature of habit who knows what he does and doesn't like. Recent interviews suggest he's as dismissive of contemporary music as Frank Sinatra was to the sound of the Stones. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'Hall of Records'
Lionel Williams, who makes music and visual art as Vinyl Williams, crafts sparkly electronic beat music that exists in its own curious realm. "Hall of Records" is one of 14 tracks on his new album, "Into," and makes for a good portal. Tinted with the sonic tone of an overused Maxell cassette, rich with humming frequencies that recall German Krautrock and dense with muffle-tone beats suggestive of 1990s label Too Pure, the track swirls with synthesizers and waves of untethered noise. Williams is less skilled as a vocalist, though. He quivers in pitchy falsetto throughout "Into." It hardly matters, though. The stuff is mesmerizing. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'Heaven's Room'
Guitarist Matt Mondanile is perhaps best known for his work with New Jersey guitar pop band Real Estate, but his solo project Ducktails has generated equally sublime tracks across four albums. The fifth, "St. Catherine," is filled with many languid, jangled guitar lines. Among the best is "Heaven's Room," which features Los Angeles musician Julia Holter. Mondanile, who relocated to Los Angeles, is a master of smooth, shimmering guitar tones, but "Heaven's Room" blossoms through masterful arrangements and a sonic depth courtesy of producer Rob Schnapf. (Randall Roberts) Read more
While most other superstar artists are either on vacation, on tour or otherwise removed from the conversation, Prince is spending the summer focused on protest and injustice. The artist just released the lyric video for "Baltimore," his invective against police brutality that draws attention to the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and others. The track, released earlier this year, is one of the most searing protest songs the Minneapolis artist has recorded, and the video is just as pointed. It documents the protests that followed Gray's death in the back of a Baltimore police van, matching shots of frustrated citizens with the artist's lyrical questions. "Are we going to see another bloody day? We're tired of crying and people dying — let's take all the guns away." (Randall Roberts) Read more
It is cold in Los Angeles. Rain is in the air. What you want to be eating is dizi, an Iranian lamb and chickpea stew, flavored with turmeric and dried lime — a popular street food dish from Tehran that seems to have a tonic effect against the chill. And for dizi, you should probably be at Nersses Vanak, a slightly faded restaurant in an industrial district of Glendale, where dizi, served with long-pickled garlic, platters of fresh herbs, and hot slabs of flatbread snatched smoking from the grill, is always the thing. Read more
Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants, 2015
Your next great meal in Southern California is as likely to come from that tiny storefront next to the 7-Eleven as it is from a Beverly Hills gastronomic palace. Los Angeles, which is both where American ideas about food tend to be formulated and where they come back eventually to die, can be a spectacular place to eat. Read more
Is it possible to become converted in a single bite? Because with a single fried chicken wing at the original Portland Pok Pok in 2007, I dropped my prejudices about non-European cooking in Oregon, the crossover potential of extreme Asian funk, and the ability of a non-Thai to prepare anything like upcountry Thai food. So eight years, many affiliated restaurants, a James Beard award, a Michelin star and a Chinatown noodle stand later, here we are at Pok Pok Los Angeles, an enormous restaurant in the old Fu Ling space in the Mandarin Plaza at the relatively deserted north end of Chinatown. Chef Andy Ricker's gift is the ability to make Thai food seem new again, to take it out of that comfortable place in the suburban strip mall, where it has become the default takeout comfort food for a huge chunk of Los Angeles, and put it back into the roadside stands and rural villages of Northern Thailand. Read more
Five of the tastiest Chinese restaurants in the SGV with the name 'Tasty'
In last week's column, I alluded to the flood of San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants with the word "Tasty'" tucked somewhere into their English-language names. Depending on whether you count doughnut shops, burger stands or branches of the same restaurant as Tasty, Not-Tasty or Tasty in their own right – well, there are a lot of them. Here are five of the tastiest. Read more
We have visited Seafood Palace before, back when it was called Seafood Village, on the occasion of the visit from a group of Michelin-starred chefs from Hong Kong. The chefs adored the Monterey Park seafood specialist enough to return the very next evening. And why wouldn't they? There are hollowed-out jalapeno peppers stir-fried with salty crumbles of pork, flat omelets stuffed with shreds of preserved turnip, Chiu Chow-style duck, braised in a thick, brown gravy with sheets of dried tofu, and baked oysters with ginger and scallions. But really, the reason to visit Seafood Palace is for the house special crab, dipped in a gauzy batter, deep-fried and showered with sliced chiles, chopped scallions and crunchy handfuls of golden fried garlic. I can attest: It is remarkable crab. Read more (And another location, 9669 Las Tunas Ave., Temple City)
The Los Angeles ramen aficionado has in recent years learned to differentiate shio ramen from tonkotsu ramen, miso-tinged Sapporo ramen from tangy Kitakata ramen, and fishy Tokyo-style ramen from pork-intensive Tokushima-style ramen. Now comes Anzutei, the first local shop to serve the ramen characteristic of the industrial city Nagoya — in a light, soy-kissed pork-chicken broth, topped with a salty handful of sautéed pork crumbles, and garnished with a few strands of crimson corn silk, some bean sprouts and a symmetrical halo of chopped Chinese chives. The Nagoya-style ramen is usually called Taiwan ramen in Japan, in honor of the Taiwanese-born chef who invented it in Nagoya back in the 1970s, although on the menu at Anzutei it is identified as spicy shoyu ramen. And it is extremely, three-napkin spicy, to the point that you may fail to notice for a bit the tautly balanced umami of the broth. Read more
Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957
The fit is ideal: A large and absorbing exhibition analyzes a legendary school that had a profound influence on the emergence of the midcentury American avant garde, and it opens in the city now known for a proliferation of first-rate art schools that have had a profound influence on the shape of late 20th and early 21st century international art. “Leap” offers an engrossing bit of back story to where we are today. Ends May 15. Read more
Ken Price: A Career Survey, 1961-2008
To get a taste of Price's genius, visit the inaugural exhibition of Parrasch Heijnen Gallery. As thrilling to visit as the 2012 LACMA retrospective (which included about four times as many pieces), the Parrasch Heijnen survey zeroes in on the way Price's pieces play so well with one another. (David Pagel) (Ends Tuesday, March 8) Read more
Amy Bessone: In The Century of Women
Bessone takes us back to a time when divorce was shameful for women, so much so that it might land one's picture in the newspaper. The artist found and collected these images from newspaper archives of the 1930s through the 1970s. Blown up to respectable portrait size, they are exhibited alongside powerful sculptures of female torsos and comically curvaceous tobacco pipes. Together, they are a cheeky celebration of women living outside the lines. (Sharon Mizota) (End Saturday, March 5) Read more
‘Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From the Afghanistan War’
“I perceive the world through the medium of human voices,” Svetlana Alexievich declares near the end of “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From the Afghanistan War,” explaining both her method and her point of view. For Alexievich — who in October became just the third nonfiction writer and 14th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature — testimony may be as close as one can get to faith. “We’ve worshipped many gods,” she writes in this slender but vivid account, told in the voices of survivors of the Soviet Afghan war. “Some have been consigned to the scrapheap, others to museums. Let us make Truth into a god! A god before whom each of us shall answer according to his own conscience, and not as a class, or a university year, or a collective, or a people….” Read more
‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’
Stephen King, I’ve come to think, is at his most adept when writing in the midlength range. His big novels — “The Stand,” “It,” “11/22/63” — have always felt a little baggy to me, while his shortest work (he has published more than 200 stories, gathered in a number of collections) can feel sketchy, more idea than nuanced narrative. That middle zone, however: His finest efforts emerge from this territory, shorter novels “Misery,” “Joyland” and “The Shining,” novellas such as “The Body” or the chilling “A Good Marriage.” In this material, King has the breadth to do what he does best, which is to evoke the very human underpinnings of terror, while also remaining constrained by certain limitations of space. As he explains in “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,” which gathers 20 pieces of fiction, along with brief reflections on their composition, “Only through fiction can we think about the unthinkable, and perhaps obtain some sort of closure.” The key word there is not the unthinkable in which King traffics but “closure,” the closure of the midrange form. Read more
'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink'
New wave rocker, country crooner, balladeer, collaborator and showman: Elvis Costello has been all of these and more in the course of what is now a 40-year run. Of all the first-generation punkers, he remains (with Patti Smith and possibly David Byrne) among the few who can claim the longevity and diversity of, say, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, both of whom appear in this book. Like minds, perhaps, or water seeking its level. Either way, this is the company to which Costello belongs. And yet, if "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink" has anything to tell us, it is that its author remains a fan. Here he is, for instance, on his first experience singing with Paul McCartney, a rehearsal duet on "All My Loving": "I locked on to the vocal harmony the second time around, as I'd done a thousand times before while singing along to the record. It never really occurred to me that learning to sing either vocal part on a Beatles record was any kind of musical education. I was just a kid singing along with the radio in our front room." Or this, recalling a good-natured cutting contest, trading lyrics with Bob Dylan: "It was just fun to be in the ring with the champ for a minute or two." Read more
'City on Fire'
A long book represents an act of faith. On the writer's part, to be sure: The faith that he or she has something to say that's worth all the hours it will take for us to hear it, that it won't dissolve in ephemera and flash. But on the reader's part, also: The faith that we can trust the writer, that there will be a payoff, that it will add up. Certainly, this is the challenge faced by Garth Risk Hallberg's first novel, "City on Fire," which, clocking in at more than 900 pages, seeks to re-create, in panoramic fashion, the New York City of the late 1970s. Hallberg's book, of course, is much anticipated, for its length, its scope and its deal (he sold the book for $2 million) — but all of that is beside the point. The only criteria worth considering is whether, or how, the narrative works, the extent to which it draws us in. Read more
First, let's clear up a misconception: Patti Smith's "M Train" is not a sequel to her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir "Just Kids." In fact, "M Train" is not a memoir at all, except in the loosest sense — a book of days, a year in the life, a series of reflections, more vignettes than sustained narrative. By saying that, I don't mean to be critical, for vignettes are what Smith does best. Read more
'So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood'
Patrick Modiano opens his most recent novel, "So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood," with an epigraph from Stendhal: "I cannot provide the reality of events, I can only convey their shadow." It's an almost perfect evocation of the book, not to mention Modiano's career. The French writer, who won the Nobel Prize last year for a body of work as deft and beautiful as any in postwar European literature, is an excavator of memory — not only his own or those of his characters (many of whom bear, as J.D. Salinger once observed of his fictional alter ego Seymour Glass, "a striking resemblance to — alley oop, I'm afraid — myself"), but also that of Paris. That's why his fiction resonates so deeply; it occupies an elusive middle ground between place and personality. Read more
Among my favorite aspects of Clancy Martin's second novel, "Bad Sex," is that it is not about bad sex; in fact, the sex is relentless, passionate. Rather, it is about all the bad stuff sex — or sexual obsession — can make us do. Narrated by Brett, a recovering alcoholic who betrays her sobriety, and her marriage, for a yearlong affair with her husband's banker Eduard, the book records the spiral, the ripple effect, of transgressive behavior, the way that once we slip the bounds of propriety, it can be ever more difficult to find a passage back. Read more
On the acknowledgments page of his third novel, "Undermajordomo Minor," Patrick deWitt cites as inspiration a variety of writers, including Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson and Jean Rhys. This tells us something important about his intent. Like DeWitt's last book, "The Sisters Brothers," which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, "Undermajordomo Minor" is a work of fiction with its roots in literature, a response to other books more than to any interaction with the world. That's not a criticism, just an observation; DeWitt is not interested in straight naturalism so much as in the mechanics of a particular kind of story, narrative as fairy tale. In "The Sisters Brothers," it was the western, which he deconstructed as neatly as Charles Portis and E.L. Doctorow did. This time, it's the fable, as DeWitt tells the story of a young man, Lucien — also known as Lucy — Minor, who travels from his home village of Bury to become the Undermajordomo (or assistant to the assistant) "of one Baron Von Aux's estate in the remote wilderness of the eastern mountain range." Read more
Jonathan Franzen's career offers a cautionary narrative — for us as much as him. As far back as 1996, with "Perchance to Dream," his long essay published in Harper's on the state of contemporary fiction, he has filled the role of both avatar and scapegoat, an ambitious writer who can't (or won't) steer clear of controversy. Such a process began in earnest with "The Corrections," his masterful 2001 portrait of a Midwestern family, that led to an infamous tiff with Oprah Winfrey after he objected to her book club logo on the cover. More than a decade later, "Freedom," a moving meditation on marriage and friendship, provoked a campaign on Twitter, under the hashtag "franzenfreude," protesting the attention Franzen had received. By now, Franzen is often regarded less as writer than as cultural signifier, emblem of white male hegemony. That this has little if anything to do with the substance of his novels is (perhaps) the point and the tragedy; when it comes to Franzen, the writing is where we go last. Just consider the recent uproar over his remarks about wanting to adopt an Iraqi war orphan — tone-deaf, yes, but irrelevant to the success or failure of his work. This is the culture into which Franzen is releasing his fifth novel, "Purity," with its admonition that one "could either ignore the haters and suffer the consequences, or he could accept the premises of the system, however sophomoric he found them, and increase its power and pervasiveness by participating in it." Such a line captures almost perfectly the key conundrum of the Digital Age, with its easy (and dangerous) sanctimony. Read more
'Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii'
"The task of understanding the past is never-ending," Susanna Moore observes late in "Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii," her fascinating account of the "short 120 years from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1777 to the annexation of the Islands in 1898 by the United States." Such a point of view — imbued as it is with a sense of story as malleable, dependent on teller as much as character — belongs as much to the novelist as to the historian. That, of course, is as it should be, for Moore is best known for her fiction. Author of seven novels, including "In the Cut" and "The Whiteness of Bones," she has staked out a territory in which women must find a place for themselves in a world where history conspires against them and identity is a shifting sea of codes. Small wonder, then, that she would bring an equivalent perspective to Hawaii, where she grew up and about which she has written two earlier nonfiction books, "I Myself Have Seen It" and "Light Years." For Moore, Hawaii is where it all begins (it permeates her fiction too), a template of fantasy and hard truths, opportunities lost and found. As she writes, "It will be the obvious view of most readers that the Hawaiians should have been left to work out their own history." Read more
'Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story'
On Nov. 8, 2000, David Payne's younger brother, George A., died in a car wreck north of Roanoke, Va. Payne, the lead driver in an impromptu two-vehicle caravan, watched the whole thing unfold in his rearview mirror. His brother was helping him transport belongings from Vermont to North Carolina as part of a move. This is the impetus for "Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story," Payne's first book of nonfiction after five novels, including "Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street." To say "Barefoot to Avalon" is about the accident, however, is to underestimate what Payne has achieved. George A., who was 42 when he died, suffered from bipolar I disorder and had been through multiple breakdowns and hospitalizations; he had lost his job, his marriage, his self-sufficiency, living with his mother for the last nine years of his life. Payne, for his part, had "failed to see what had happened to George A. and had let things shutter down till there was almost no light left between us." The brothers' trip together, then, was meant to be a reclamation project, a way of bringing them back into proximity again. That it ended as it did is just one of the many tragedies that permeate this piercing book. Read more
'Poetry Is Useless'
Anders Nilsen is called a comics artist, but that's not exactly what he does. Yes, his books are visual, but Nilsen seems at times to be about the deconstruction of form itself in favor of a purer style of storytelling, gathering evidence: images, correspondence, notes from the author to himself.... It's a vivid approach to narrative, immediate and unexpected, and it encourages — no, requires — us to engage. On the one hand, a stunning, apparently unfiltered humanity, and on the other, a sense of form as malleable, as less straitjacket than structure, a way of piercing the surfaces to get at all the uncontrolled or uncontrollable material underneath. And yet, filtering is what an artist does — the shaping of perception, of experience — and this creates the tension at the heart of Nilsen's work. How to make order out of chaos and still give the chaos its due? The question echoes through Nilsen's new book, "Poetry Is Useless," which reproduces seven years of his sketchbooks; much of the work here originally appeared on his blog "The Monologuist." Read more
'The Meursault Investigation'
Give Kamel Daoud credit for audacity. In his debut novel, "The Meursault Investigation," the Algerian journalist goes head-to-head with a pillar of 20th century literature: Albert Camus' existential masterpiece "The Stranger." First published in France in 1942, Camus' novel tells the story of Meursault — like the author, a French Algerian, or pied-noir — who under the influence of heat or fate kills an Arab on the beach at the peak of a summer afternoon. "I shook off the sweat and sun," Meursault informs us. "… Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness." "The Meursault Investigation" takes place on the other side of that door, offering a glimpse of the fallout from Meursault's futile violence. Read more
'Maintenance of Headway'
Partway through Magnus Mills' "The Maintenance of Headway," the narrator, a bus driver in a city that must be London, is stuck on a crowded road behind a truck with a warning reading, "If you can't see my mirrors I can't see you." Bored and frustrated, the driver starts to frame a song. "If you can't see my mirrors," he sings to himself, "I can't see you anymore / I can't see you … anymore." The logic is inescapable: "Sitting in a bus composing songs might seem pointless, but there was nothing else to do." The same might be said of this strange and lovely novel, published in the U.K. in 2009 and now available in the United States for the first time. Read more
‘Fire Emblem Fates’
In my first 25 hours with Nintendo 3DS’ “Fire Emblem Fates,” families argued, attempts at flirting were rebuffed and relatives threw a fit over poorly cooked meals. Were it not for the swords and the spells and the half-fox/half-human, the game wouldn’t be all that different from the last month or so of my life. Though there is sword and sorcery here, including a main character who has the ability to turn into a dragon, “Fire Emblem Fates” is really about family drama. In this case, it’s about the pull of one’s blood family versus the connection with an adopted one. Do you help the stepbrothers and stepsisters who always supported you, or the brothers and sisters you’ve only just met? The player’s avatar, which can be male or female, was kidnapped at a young age and raised as a warrior prince/princess. Her (I chose a female avatar and named her Kes) adopted-but-criminal family took good care of her, and it’s clear she’s tight with her siblings. But her father — a.k.a. the king — is a monster. Read more
Video game critic
The Top 10 Video Games of 2015
The top 10 video games of 2015, ranked below, include both the extremely personal and the return of a household name, Lara Croft. The bulk of my favorite games of the year allowed me to explore the world from unexpected points of view — a teenager with unexplainable powers, a dying tree struggling to come to life or a woman losing her virginity. Today, there’s more diversity than ever in interactive entertainment, not just in characters but in experiences, as the games that made a lasting impression range from big-budget console endeavors to experimental mobile titles. Read more
Video game critic
"Firewatch," set in the quiet Wyoming wilderness, is a game in which its main character does little more than walk. Yet at its heart this is a game about running. It's about running from our pasts, running from our emotional trials and running from the unknown. It's about how avoidance often makes things worse and how the road to conquering our fears can be downright frightening. And things get pretty bad in "Firewatch." Read more
'Leo's Red Carpet Rampage'
Winning an Academy Award, it proves, can be nearly an impossible task, at least according to the lighthearted Web game "Leo's Red Carpet Rampage." The game puts players in control of a mini, vintage-style Leonardo DiCaprio in a quest for an Oscar. And while the game is pure goofiness when it starts — simply mash a couple of buttons to run the red carpet and dodge photographers — it goes dark, and quickly. Read more
Draw a line. It sounds simple, doesn't it? "The Witness," from a sort of zoned-out satellite view, is a game about drawing lines. To be even more precise, it is a game populated with puzzles, the bulk of them solved by drawing a line. Again, it all sounds so simple. Yet "The Witness" just so happens to be the rare puzzle game that's less about answers and more about mysteries and epiphanies. Read more
Meet Yarny. Yarny doesn't look like much at a quick glance. Yarny is red, the size of an index finger with an alien, triangular face and nimble body made up of a single piece of, well, yarn. Yarny is quite fragile. Keep Yarny out of water, and don't let Yarny near a critter. A single claw of a crab will wreak havoc on Yarny. Yarny is also full of personality, the standout star of a new video game dubbed "Unravel." Those old family photographs collecting dust on a bookshelf? Yarny wants to explore them, transport inside them and make old connections feel new again. Among Yarny's likes is nostalgia. Dislikes? Families that drift apart. Read more
Young superheroes were once at the heart of the game that Glendale's tiny Night School Studio set out to create as a reputation-making title. Then the company's two lead designers hit on characters even crazier than those with unexplainable powers: ordinary teenagers. Scrapping the superhero idea is not the only leap of faith that Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, cousins who cofounded Night School in 2014, are making with the game they call "Oxenfree." The company — essentially six people crammed into a hallway-thin office near Glendale's GameHäus Café — is betting that players will be open to an independent game with a funny name and is counting on audiences being hungry for story and characters placed at the forefront, above all else. Read more
'Disney Infinity: The Force Awakens'
Pretend, for a brief moment, that new "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" villain Kylo Ren isn't so bad. Perhaps he's good after all. Welcome to the world of "Disney Infinity," where fans and players can remix the "The Force Awakens" to suit their imagination. J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars" vision isn't confined to movie theaters this weekend. Disney Interactive and Lucasfilm on Friday released a "Force Awakens" addition for the popular kids- and family-focused game "Disney Infinity." It adheres to the guidelines set up by the film — to a point. Fly the Millennium Falcon on the war-torn desert planet of Jakku, or engage in a blaster battle on a lush forest green planet. Or maybe make that a lightsaber battle. Like previous iterations of "Infinity," the game will twist and turn depending on which character is used. That means Adam Driver's Kylo Ren can be re-imagined as a hero, or Daisy Ridley's hardscrabble Rey can participate in scenes in which her character wasn't present for the film. Read more
'Star Wars Battlefront'
In "Star Wars Battlefront" players can rewrite "Star Wars" history. The arcade-like action allows for the narratives of battle to change at a moment's notice. Play as Luke, Leia, Han or maybe Boba Fett and be prepared to play with others. This is a multiplayer-focused game that skimps on single-player content. The Electronic Arts-published game is the first major "Star Wars" title to be released since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, and it's coming at a time when "Star Wars" mania, the 2015 edition, is at a high point. The release of "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens" is weeks away and plenty of opening-weekend screenings around the country are sold out. Read more
'Rise of the Tomb Raider'
The Lara Croft of "Rise of the Tomb Raider" may believe in fairy tales, but that doesn't mean she's willing to put up with nonsense. Early on a man who, like most men in this retooled take on the classic adventuring archaeologist, is viewed with general distrust, tells Croft that she isn't likely to survive the vast ancient ruins of the game sans his help. "You won't get far without me," he says. Croft doesn't miss a beat. "You don't know how far I've come," she says, proving as adept with a put-down as she is with an arrow and a bullet. One of gaming's great surprises in recent years is indeed just how far Lara Croft has come, shedding her late-'90s image as eye candy in a catacomb to the fully realized character she is today. Once a symbol for how gaming accentuated a woman's features for a male audience, the Croft of 2015 is as worthy a hero as Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road." The Croft of "Rise of the Tomb Raider" is intelligent, stubborn, complicated, empathetic and a heck of a good shot. She's as consumed with rare artifacts as she is her own demons, a character with supreme intellect and superpower-like abilities who still manages to feel human. Read more
'Call of Duty: Black Ops 3'
The "Call of Duty" franchise has had players (as soldiers) do battle underwater, shoot in outer space, wear jet packs and even attack zombies. But for all the series' fantasy warfare over the past dozen or so years, the game never imagined women as equal players on the battlefield. "Call of Duty," instead, has long been considered a game for dudes who love their digital guns. But that may be changing. The release this week of "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3" marks a gender milestone for the Activision-published blockbuster series, one of the video game industry's few household names. A female character is, for the first time, playable in the game's core story. Read more
Michael Frith spent the bulk of his career working with the Muppets. Today, the latest project from the semiretired artist has him reimagining history and bringing his flair for expressive, handcrafted characters to the mobile game space. "Leonardo's Cat" is the master of puppetry's first venture into the game space. But he downplays the shift to the digital world. You see, Frith has always been tinkering with technology. "One of the things that's always driven the work that we do is experimentation, trying to see what we can do in and with media we had not worked with before," Frith says. "With 'The Muppets,' we pioneered things like motion capture." Whether he is working with games or puppets, the questions Frith asks himself are the same: "How do you take the place that you are in, the tools that you are given, and find new and interesting and exciting and hopefully beneficial ways to use those tools?" "Leonardo's Cat," scheduled for release Thursday to Apple's app store, is a child-friendly game with an educational bent and grownup-worthy brainteasers. It imagines an alternate history, one where Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were thieving rivals and a cat was a muse. Read more
'Minecraft: Story Mode'
"Minecraft," the video game that can essentially be anything you want it to be, is everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in my home. Even though it's the world's most popular game, with global sales that long ago rocketed past the 50-million mark (more than 21 million people have bought the game for home computers alone), I was reluctant to buy in because there was one terrain the Mojang-created "Minecraft" had yet to conquer: the narrative space. The Bay Area's Telltale Games wants to change that. The company this past week released "Minecraft: Story Mode," available now for most major platforms, and it attempts to do the very thing "Minecraft" was created to avoid: construct a linear plot. It's a "Minecraft" for the rest of us, or at least those of us who prefer our games to feel a little more defined from the start. Read more
'The Beginner's Guide'
"The Beginner's Guide" is a video game that opens with an existential question rather than an objective: Is it possible to get to know someone by analyzing his art? Play the game, and over the course of its two or so hours a number of even more compelling inquires arise, all of them relating to the difficulty of maintaining friendships, fostering intimacy and recognizing selfishness. It's an odd, thoughtful and beautifully surreal game, and its images — a door floating in space, a wormhole that opens during a self-help talk and a country café that turns into a prison — linger long after it comes to a conclusion. Read more
Just in time for the holiday shopping season, a new boutique has opened on Robertson Boulevard marrying East and West Coast style. Reservoir is the concept of New York City transplants Aliza Neidich and Alissa Jacob and features a well-edited mix of clothing, accessories and home goods with an easy sophistication made for L.A., including Ryan Roche hand-knit sweaters, Denis Colomb ponchos, Ellery sleek crepe dresses and tops, Solid and Striped denim jumpsuits, Madeworn tees, Newbark shearling slides, Dosa patchwork totes and Wendy Nichol fringed leather bucket bags. Read more
'Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897'
With famed film mogul Sam Goldwyn as her grandfather, Liz Goldwyn's family name is practically synonymous with old-school Hollywood glamour. But it's Los Angeles before it became the capital of the motion picture industry that's the subject of the style maven's new book, "Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897" (Regan Arts). The work of historical fiction looks back on the city's seedier past, with loosely connected stories about the madams, prostitutes, orphans, hustlers and tramps who roamed Alameda, Los Angeles and Spring streets. I chatted with Goldwyn about what drew her to this time period in L.A., her impressions of the book's rough characters, and what role women had in a culture where prostitution was tolerated. Read more
'Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe'
Ladies, the next time you are teetering on high heels, you can blame men. But not for the reason you think. In Western fashion, high heels were popularized by men, starting in the court of Louis XIV where a talon rouge (red heel), identified a member of the privileged class centuries before Christian Louboutin made red soles the calling card of his luxury shoe brand. That's just one of the tasty tidbits in "Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe," an exhibition scheduled to run through Dec. 13 at the Palm Springs Art Museum that examines the fashion accessory we all love to hate, including its history, its relation to gender identity, sex appeal and power. Read more
Apartment by the Line
Vanessa Traina Snow, designer muse and stylish daughter of novelist Danielle Steel, has brought her home-as-store concept Apartment by the Line to Los Angeles, two years after opening in New York City's Soho. Now open on Melrose Place, the second-floor store takes the retail trend of curation to a new level. Airy and light-filled, it's set up like a residential space except that absolutely everything is for sale, from the $50,500 Helmut Newton photograph hanging on the wall, to the $895 pair of exclusive alligator Alexandra Knight Birkenstocks in the walk-in closet, to the $8 Morihata charcoal toothbrush on the sink in the bathroom. The concept stores are the bricks-and-mortar incarnation of Snow's e-commerce site, The Line. Read more
The thinking man's sex symbol. That's the woman Los Angeles designer Maria Korovilas is catering to with her label, Korovilas, launched through the Gen Art Fresh Faces in Fashion show in 2012. Korovilas and her business partner, Katie Bernhisel, who met at USC, have developed a growing business out of their downtown Los Angeles studio, selling their lace-and-beaded dresses to Neiman Marcus online, Nordstrom Via C, Anthropologie and Satine at prices ranging from $395 to $1,800. And the label's collections, inspired by chalky marble, Romanian peasant dresses, Edwardian laces, Deco jewelry, rustic vistas, 1990s granny boots and more, have caught the attention of Blake Lively and Sophia Bush. The designer decided to show her spring 2016 collection during Los Angeles Fashion Week but away from the fray, hosting a cocktail party poolside at the Mondrian Hotel with models posed against the glittering skyline. The collection took inspiration from "La Nouvelle Vague," or French New Wave cinema, in particular, Jean-Luc Godard's lesser known film "Pierrot le Fou" (1965). "It's the one no one ever knows," Korovilas joked, adding that the pastel color palette and dilapidated grandeur of France portrayed in Godard's films were what intrigued her. Read more