Critics’ Picks: Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2014

Los Angeles Times entertainment, arts and culture critics choose the week’s most noteworthy openings, new releases, ongoing events and places to go in and around Southern California.

At the movies, Teller — of Penn & Teller fame — directs a fascinating documentary; on TV, the comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” gets a special airing on Super Bowl Sunday; and Christopher Plummer has “A Word or Two” on stage at the Ahmanson.

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

Tim Jenison. (Tim Jenison / Sony Pictures Classics)

Tim’s Vermeer’

If you missed the very fine, fine-art documentary “Tim’s Vermeer” during its brief stop last month, it is back in town for its official run. Director Teller (better known as the droller half of the ironic comedy/magic team Penn & Teller) follows inventor Tim Jenison’s journey to understand how the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer tripped the light so fantastically. A tale of art and obsession unfolds as Jenison experiments with various optical techniques Vermeer might have used to achieve his luminous interplay of light and shadow. As intriguing as the question is the way Jenison — an engaging, curious, brainy fellow — answers it, meticulously replicating everything from the brush strokes Vermeer took to the room in which he worked. Teller captures artistic creation, and appreciation, in such dynamic, beautiful detail it begs to be seen on the big screen. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

Betsy Sharkey

Film critic

Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono. (Sundance)

Like Father, Like Son’

Like Father, Like Son” is a deceptively simple title for a film of considerable emotional complexity. Its children-switched-at-birth story sounds schematic, but what we see on screen is both meaningful and deeply moving. If you are familiar with the work of writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, none of this will come as a surprise. As one of Japan’s most respected filmmakers (his earlier films include “After Life,” “Nobody Knows” and “Still Walking”), there is a gentleness and delicacy of touch about his work that almost defies belief. Stories like this one, which would run the risk of being overdone in other hands, become quite the opposite in his. A film that quietly but deftly examines what defines a family, “Like Father, Like Son” began with Kore-eda’s own thoughts (“all of my quandaries and questions and, indeed, regrets,” he says in a director’s statement) on becoming a father himself. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

Kenneth Turan

Film critic

Other recommendations:

'Gloria'

There is a naturalistic charm to the truth-telling going on in "Gloria," Chilean director Sebastian Lelio's near-perfect film about the very imperfect world of a divorced woman of a certain age. Starring the incomparable Paulina Garcia in every scene — every single one, no exaggeration — the film settles comfortably between romantic comedy and drama. Perhaps the better way to characterize it is affectionately ironic love story. A quick series of scenes set the pace for a film that keeps moving its characters through various emotional phases. It doesn't take long to get a sense of Gloria and what she's up against. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'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

'American Hustle'

David O. Russell is a director on a hot streak, an audacious original with an affinity for edgy American madness. His dizzying, outlandishly entertaining "American Hustle" is a 21st century screwball farce about 20th century con men, scam artists and those who dream of living large, a film that is big-hearted and off the wall in equal measure. As he demonstrated in his previous two pictures, "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter," out of control people are Russell's specialty. Like a cowboy working in the biggest of corrals, he lets his characters roam as far and wide as they please before reining them in with perfect control at the close. In this film, Russell has surrounded himself with actors he's worked with before — Christian Bale and Amy Adams from "The Fighter" and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper from "Silver Linings" — and gone for broke. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'Before Midnight'

It was a risk for director Richard Linklater to go so dark in “Before Midnight,” the latest round of the romantic musings he began with his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, nearly 20 years ago. The illusions of a young couple’s more pristine love so captivating in “Before Sunrise” have been shelved so that the tipping point in their relationship can be laid bare. A devastating fight is the centerpiece now, the teasing flirtations a distant memory. Though the gauzy beauty of the earlier films remain, as does a sun-drenched European setting, this time Greece, what you will remember, what you will feel compelled to talk about long after, is the fight. It sears with an intensity that rivals another classic battle between the sexes, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (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

'Gravity'

Words can do little to convey the visual astonishment this space opera creates. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut in trouble, this is a film whose impact must be experienced in 3-D on a theatrical screen to be fully understood. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'Her'

Spike Jonze has a knack for disturbing our peace, and his new film "Her" does that with a vengeance. A different and daring futuristic tale starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, "Her" is a look at the pleasures and perils of new technology that's a smart entertainment and a subtle warning, a love story and a horror show. Acerbic, emotional, provocative, it's a risky high dive off the big board with a plot that sounds like a gimmick but ends up haunting, odd and a bit wonderful. Previously responsible for the singular "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" as well as the self-indulgent "Where the Wild Things Are," Jonze is a director who goes his own way with ideas no one else could have imagined. With "Her," Jonze for the first time has sole writing credit. He not only came up with a killer idea, he's had the nerve to go all the way with it, to tease out multiple implications of his lightly dystopian "what if" plot all the way to the unforeseen but perfectly logical denouement. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

'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

'Lone Survivor'

Director Peter Berg's hard-charging war drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster is very much about the physical damage wrought by fierce, face-to-face combat. It is also a movie about the unexpected humanity that finds a way to exist even when battle lines are drawn. The film is loosely based on a 2005 special ops mission in Afghanistan that went terribly wrong, and the unraveling begins when the operation's leader, played by Taylor Kitsch, makes a controversial decision to release a trio of unarmed goat herders. That one act of decency, and in line with military code, leads to a disaster for the men as Taliban rebels are soon alerted and shooting. But the decency theme doesn't end there. The survivor of the skirmish, Wahlberg's Marcus Luttrell, is close to death when he's found by a Pashtun villager. Gulab (Ali Suliman) defies the Taliban at great risk to save the soldier. So while the warfare is visceral, violent and in the trenches, there is also a great heart at work in the film and hope in the humanity Berg exposes alongside the bullet wounds. (Betsy Sharkey) 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

'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Think you already hate those Wall Street high rollers who took so many investors for a ride in the '90s? Just wait until Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and "The Wolf of Wall Street" are through with you. Man, does this movie have a savage bite. Yet it is such a kick to watch the filmmaker and the star in their fifth collaboration. They go at the black-hearted comedy full throttle, fully tanked and, for DiCaprio, full monty — almost. The script by Terence Winter stays close to Jordan Belfort's audacious 2007 memoir of his highly leveraged life. Scorsese adopts the former stockbroker's irreverent tone, then amps it up so that the film fairly crackles with electricity from beginning to end. A very fast three hours, "Wolf" is a fascinating, revolting, outlandish, uproarious, exhilarating and exhausting master work on immorality. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more

'The Invisible Woman'

The numerous works of Charles Dickens, perhaps the English language's preeminent storyteller, have been turned into films and television over and over again for more than a century. "The Invisible Woman," however, might be the first film to be made about the great man's private life, and it turns out to be as compellingly dramatic as anything he put on the page. More than that, as directed by and starring the superb Ralph Fiennes as Dickens and splendidly assisted by Britain's Felicity Jones as the title character, "The Invisible Woman" is an exceptional film about love, longing and regret. It's further proof, if proof were needed, that classic filmmaking done with passion, sensitivity and intelligence results in cinema fully capable of blowing you away. (Kenneth Turan) Read more

Andre Braughe, left, and Andy Samberg. ( Eddy Chen / Fox)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ on Super Bowl Sunday

Before you vacuum up the chip crumbs from the sofa and wipe down the seven-layer dip smears from the coffee table, catch the freshman comedy that swept the Golden Globes in a special post-Super Bowl slot Sunday night. Its low ratings have kept it on the bubble, but by giving it a slot after the big game, Fox is clearly positioning it for growth. And for good reason. “Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg stars as Det. Jake Peralta, a bumbling smart-mouth who is also a very good police officer, but “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” comes from Daniel Goor and Michael Shur, who gave us “Parks and Recreation,” one of the best ensemble comedies going. Playing foil to Samberg’s irritating-but-lovable man-child are eager overachiever Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), goofy Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), street-savvy Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), cute but cuddly Sgt. Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) and the ever unreadable Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher). Separately, they could each anchor an Unlikely Cop comedy; together, they could make “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” the next “Barney Miller.” (Mary McNamara) (Fox, Sunday, before settling into a new time slot on Tuesdays) Read more

Mary McNamara

Television critic

Martin Clunes as "Doc Martin." (Patrick Redmond / Buffalo Pictures / ITV)

Doc Martin’ Season 6

The sixth season of this British series, which has become popular here via public television, DVD and streaming sites, makes its local TV premiere this week. Martin Clunes plays Dr. Martin Ellingham, as capable in his work as he is hopeless with people. Martin has gotten over the suddenly acquired fear of blood that ended his successful career as a London surgeon and found him working, not quite happily, as a GP in the Cornwall fishing village where he had spent presumably happy summers as a boy. (It is difficult to tell with him) But he is still there, having fallen in love not with the town but with Louisa (Caroline Catz), who would be called the schoolmarm were this an old western. As a couple — an improbable but also an inevitable one — they have had their ups and downs, or perhaps more accurately, their downs and ups, but in the fifth season they became parents and at the dawn of the new one are on the verge of getting married. KCET, Thursdays. Read more

Robert Lloyd

Television critic

Other recommendations:

'The Middle'

Season for season, episode for episode, "The Middle" is one of the most substantial, emotionally satisfying and inevitably hilarious comedies on TV. Following the financially challenged, sporadically ambitious and consistently eccentric Hecks as they navigate work, life and child-rearing, "The Middle" doesn't have the zeitgeist flash of super-geek characters or the high concept of multiple wives / story lines, but it does explore and celebrate the sort of family a person might actually have, or at least know well. (Mary McNamara) (ABC, Wednesday) Read more

'American Experience: The Amish: Shunned'

Presented as part of the "American Experience" series, "The Amish: Shunned" — a sequel to the 2012's "The Amish" — tells the stories of several men and women who have left their communities to try to make a life among the people they call "the English," and what they lose and what they gain. (That's us, car-driving, zipper-using newspaper readers.) It's a subject with which reality TV has also had its wicked way: TLC's ongoing "Breaking Amish," like UPN's 2004 "Amish in the City," turned "Rumspringa" — a period in which Amish youth are allowed greater freedom, even to live for a while among the English — into versions of "The Real World." This is not that. Directed by "The Amish" producer Callie T. Wiser, "Shunned" is deliberately paced, with a floaty chamber score and lots of pretty shots of country life, and it lets people in and out of the life have their say, which is never the same say. (Robert Lloyd) (PBS, Tuesday) Read more

'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' (January)

It took a while for this Marvel-ous experiment to find its feet, but with big story arcs — Coulson's (Clark Gregg) death, Skye's (Chloe Bennet) birth and a new nemesis known as the Clairvoyant — this show just keeps getting better and better. And don't get me started about the fabulous possibilities of the newly revealed S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. Or the affair between agents Ward (Brett Dalton) and May (Ming-Na Wen). Seriously, is Agent May, with her lethal moves and killer stare, not the coolest character on TV? Sure, the Avengers are there, off-screen, but it's getting more and more difficult to miss them at all. (Mary McNamara) (ABC, Tuesday) Read more

'P.O.V.: American Promise'

Part of the series "P.O.V.", "American Promise" follows a pair of middle-class Brooklyn black kids, best friends Idris Brewster and Seun Summers, through the whole of their primary and secondary education as they become students at the exclusive and largely white Dalton School on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Seun will transfer after middle school to Brooklyn's public Benjamin Banneker Academy. The directors are Idris' parents, psychiatrist Joe Brewster and filmmaker Michele Stephenson, whose at-some-point stated purpose is to explore "the black male educational achievement gap," but what might have been a polemic on the one hand or a glorified home movie on the other, has, like the kids it follows, grown into its own thing, which, like "The Amish: Shunned," is less about ideas than individuals. (Robert Lloyd) (PBS, Monday) Read more

'Sherlock' Season Three Finale

Well, that went quickly. The third and final episode of Season 3 of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' modern-day re-imagining of the world's most famous detective is upon us. And what an episode it is. More than the previous two seasons, this triptych has focused on the emotional awakening of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and what it means to partner John Watson (Martin Freeman) and brother Mycroft (Gatiss). What it has meant to viewers is fewer straight-up investigations and more fanciful flashbacks and dream sequences. Not, perhaps, to everyone's taste — this episode's big reveal is guaranteed to rub more than a few Baker Street Irregulars the wrong way — but the writing, the performances and the sheer derring-do of the story lines leaves us hoping it won't be another two years before "Sherlock" returns. (Mary McNamara) (KOCE, Sunday) Read more

Christopher Plummer. (Doriane Raiman / Los Angeles Times)

A Word or Two’

If you’ve ever said to yourself after being wowed by an actor of Christopher Plummer’s caliber, “They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” then you won’t want to miss Plummer’s one-man show, “A Word or Two,” at the Ahmanson Theatre. He more or less explains why. This 80-minute star vehicle, directed with elegant finesse by Des McAnuff, is less an autobiographical tour of an illustrious thespian’s career than an anatomy of a sensibility. It is a love letter to reading and the written word, the building blocks of a classical actor’s talent. The incubation of a great Shakespearean interpreter — and Plummer, renowned for his Iago, Hamlet and King Lear, is incontestably one of the best — starts early. For Plummer it began as far back as his first encounter with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the memory of which causes this impossibly dashing and vigorous 84-year-old to erupt in childlike excitement: “Damn it! I was hooked! Hooked on words, I mean … the color, the music, the intoxication of words.” Ends Sunday, Feb. 9. Read more

Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

Charles McNulty

Theater critic

Other recommendations:

'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

'The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord'

Imagining three great historical thinkers locked in a room to spend the afterlife debating philosophy, religion and personal morality provides an entertaining and informative engagement of ideas; if you like the notion of "Steve Allen's Meeting of Minds" crossed with Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit," this is the play for you. (Philip Brandes) (Exteneded through Dec. 7) Read more

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

'An Iliad'

Aristotle placed spectacle near the bottom of his list of tragedy's essentials, and anyone who ventures to see this Broad Stage offering will agree that special effects aren't needed to bring to the stage Homer's deathless epic in all its agonizing, heroic glory. The set is largely bare, save for some scattered props and backstage equipment that never let us forget we are in a theater. The cast consists of one actor, Denis O'Hare. Little did we know from his Tony-winning turn as the gay baseball fanatic in Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out" that he harbors legions of legendary Greeks, Trojans and immortal deities within himself. There's a musician, bassist Brian Ellingsen, who slashes away at Mark Bennett's emotive score with the intensity of a sword-carrying soldier on the front lines. And at the center of it all is perhaps the greatest story about war ever told. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, Feb. 2) Read more

The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St, Santa Monica

'I'll Go On'

Irish actor Barry McGovern is once again gracing our shores with his Beckettian virtuosity. In 2012, he and Alan Mandell starred in a luminous revival of "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper Forum. Now he's performing "I'll Go On," his solo show composed of selections of Samuel Beckett's trilogy of novels, "Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable." The stronger pre-intermission half of this barely 90-minute piece, directed by Colm O Briain, concentrates on the first part of "Molloy," in which an old cantankerous wretch lies in what was his mother's deathbed recounting the journey in which he was reunited with the woman he never forgave for giving birth to him. The post-intermission section revolving around "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable" is commandingly performed but severely truncated. The books are meant to be savored, sentence by diabolical sentence, in private. But an actor as absurdistly adroit as McGovern will whet the appetite for the full reading experience of these landmark novels. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, Feb. 9.) Read more

Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

'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

'The Twilight of Schlomo'

Timothy McNeil's maturation into one of our most original playwrights continues with this compelling study of a former stand-up (the excellent Jonathan Goldstein) at the crossroads, possibly his best work yet. Few directors are as perceptively simpatico with the author's intent as David Fofi, who pulls his estimable cast into taut seriocomic cohesion. (David C. Nichols) (Extended through Friday, Feb. 14) Read more

The Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles

Beyoncé. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

Album: ‘Beyoncé’

Though she certainly doesn’t need the press, Beyoncé’s self-titled new album is a daring, and notable, pop album. Through 14 tracks and 17 accompanying music videos, the Houston-raised singer proves that she still rules not just pop but R&B — and that she might be absorbing husband Jay Z’s way around a rhymed stanza. At times it’s progressive: “Haunted” during a break feels like Madonna’s “Ray of Light” sessions, chopped-and-screwed Houston-style. She’s brash on “Partition” — “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker” — and syrupy on “Flawless,” a bass-heavy crawl through Southern bounce. “Superpower” channels doo-wop and features a gem of a hook by Frank Ocean. Best, the star proves she’s as uninterested in coasting as she is with expectations. Read more

Randall Roberts

Pop music critic

Claudio Abbado. (Riccardo Musacchio / EPA)

Claudio Abbado Recordings

When Claudio Abbado, the revered Italian conductor who died Monday, turned 80 last summer, record companies celebrated with several super-sized box sets of his recordings and videos. It’s not hard to find discs with which to spend the weekend remembering one of the greats. Abbado’s career was a grand one, fairly well documented. He headed and/or recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, with the London Symphony and Chicago Symphony, with the Vienna State Opera and La Scala. His interpretations of the 19th-century masters – Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Mahler, Verdi, Rossini – are exquisitely accomplished. Abbado was a polisher and took no note for granted. But sometimes his mid-career recordings can sound almost too reliable. It’s the vibrant early and the masterly moving late performances that really shine, as well as the more offbeat. (Mark Swed) Read more

Mark Swed

Music critic

Matt Wilson. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Album: ‘Gathering Call’

You can’t talk about drummer Matt Wilson without talking about swing, that pulse of jazz that’s been his specialty on more than 250 recordings as a sideman. Reconvening his longtime quartet, Wilson again shines with some unexpected help in keyboardist John Medeski. Often lumped into some jam-band ghetto for his ventures with the avant-funk trio Medeski Martin and Wood, Medeski’s talents have long been harder to pigeonhole, including a contemplative solo record in 2013. Here, he’s a precisely moving part on an album that should be mandatory listening for traditionalists and jazz-curious Phish-heads alike. (Chris Barton) Read more

Chris Barton

Jazz critic

Other recommendations:

Album: 'Have Fun With God'

A companion to last year's acclaimed "Dream River," Bill Callahan's new "Have Fun With God" is a remix record that reimagines each of the eight tracks as though channeled through Kingston, Jamaica. This is Bill Callahan in dub: bass-heavy, echoed examinations of "Dream River" songs that have been stripped of much of their structure to create something else altogether. The practice was common in 1970s reggae, when artists such as Burning Spear and Peter Tosh offered both studio recordings and "versions" of the same song. The most influential producers, most notably King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry, helped give birth to remix culture. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Box set: The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932

The ambitious new set "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1" comes packaged in a sturdy wooden suitcase dubbed "The Cabinet of Wonder," an apt title considering the awe-inducing sounds and history it resurrects. A label whose ragtag story stars two white Wisconsin business partners more concerned with record player sales than music, an A&R man whose race and history as a Chicago bootlegger (and ex-pro football player) allowed him access to the clubs where unrecorded talent gigged and a roster of artists with equally fascinating biographies, the Paramount and affiliated labels' output during its 15-year life comprises more than 1,600 songs. They were released through a subsidiary of a Port Washington, Wis.-born furniture company during the rise of the phonograph era. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Album: '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: 'Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile'

Matana Roberts does not make easy listening music. Although in mainstream culture jazz is frequently relegated to an awards show backdrop or an oh-so-spooky bit of shading for pay-cable political dramas, the music remains a springboard into avant-garde expression for this Chicago-born saxophonist, who explores both personal and social history on "Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile." A challenging, engrossing listen that follows her ambitious "Chapter One" from 2011, this 49-minute piece (broken into 18 seamless tracks) continues Roberts' synthesis of free improvisation and spoken word into a unique, shape-shifting compositional voice that she calls "panoramic sound quilting." Where Roberts' last record could be tumultuous with passages of fiery blowing offset by a big band drive, "Mississippi Moonchile" is a swirling celebration of smaller-ensemble free jazz. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Soundtrack

A single song bookends "Inside Llewyn Davis," the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen about a week in the life of a struggling singer in the New York folk scene of the early 1960s. It's a gentle guitar ballad starring a dangling noose called "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and its best-known version is by the late Dave Van Ronk, a towering singer whose recollections of Greenwich Village during the folk boom informed the narrative. In its opening scene, the movie focuses on the song as performed by the titular Davis, played by actor and musician Oscar Isaac. Shot in intimate close-up as he sings and picks on an acoustic guitar in a Village coffeehouse, the rendition introduces the character through lyrics about a man staring across an abyss. (Randall Roberts) Read more

Album: '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: '12 Stories'

This has been a great year for women's voices in contemporary country music, starting with the auspicious debut album from Kacey Musgraves in March and ramping up now with an even bolder new arrival, Brandy Clark. The question out of the gate is whether she'll be heard amid the parade of frat boy country dominating the airwaves with cliche-ridden songs of tailgate parties by the swimming hole populated with sexy babes in their Daisy Duke shorts. Never mind that — find this record and listen to a dozen dazzlingly witty and insightful takes on the struggles of the working class ("Pray to Jesus"), neglected and/or mistreated women ("Crazy Women," "The Day She Got Divorced"), the battle between right and wrong ("What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven") and the pros and cons of chemical mood enhancers ("Hungover," "Get High"). (Randy Lewis) Read more

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: '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: '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: 'Magnetic'

Although it's been almost four years since Terence Blanchard's last album, it's not as if the trumpeter hasn't kept busy. In addition to the Poncho Sanchez collaboration "Chano y Dizzy," he's remained a first-call film composer (with Spike Lee's "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" and George Lucas' "Red Tails" among his latest), and in his spare time wrote an opera, which debuts in St. Louis next month. Though Blanchard has no shortage of outlets, he still sounds overflowing with inspiration. Again surrounded by top-tier young talent, Blanchard is equally at home with the unsettled atmospherics of "Hallucinations" as with the hard-swinging "Don't Run," which features stirring guest-turns from Ravi Coltrane on soprano saxophone and bassist Ron Carter. (Chris Barton) Read more

Album: 'Big Sur'

Is there an artist as well-suited to record an album inspired by Big Sur as Bill Frisell? Having spent much of his long career working a fertile seam in the jazz world that shares ground with Americana and folk, Frisell and his often twang-dusted tone seems tailor-made for sweeping vistas and pastoral wonders. Stemming from a 2012 commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival, “Big Sur” is the result of Frisell holing himself up in a cabin at the 860-acre Glen Deven Ranch and writing music for wherever this natural muse took him. (Chris Barton) Read more

Maccheroni Republic Restaurant (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Maccheroni Republic

On a warm January night in Los Angeles, one of those evenings when we have trouble visualizing what the phrase “wind-chill factor” might even mean, the patio outside Maccheroni Republic is one of the most pleasant places downtown, a long, alley-narrow space, all greenery and soft air. The financial district’s glass towers peeking out over the shrubbery is a distant part of the view. The restaurant is on Broadway but somehow not of Broadway, although Grand Central Market is right across the street. The downtown boom has seen a lot of Italian restaurants open in this part of the city, sleek dining rooms with wood-burning ovens, hot and cold running truffles, and rivers of expensive Super-Tuscan wine. In some parts of downtown you are never more than a few blocks from shade-grown coffee or a plate of wood-roasted pigeon. But Maccheroni Republic isn’t a temple of cuisine, it’s a trattoria — the kind of place where it is possible to go for both lunch and dinner on a single day, a restaurant where waitresses race down the aisle with four identical bowls of rigatoni with eggplant. Read more

Maccheroni Republic Restaurant, 332 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

Jonathan Gold

Restaurant critic

Other recommendations:

Acabar

A lot of chefs in Los Angeles are associated with a favorite ingredient in ways that seem fairly indelible. It is hard to imagine Walter Manzke without his pig's ear, Nancy Silverton without her bread or Suzanne Goin without her short ribs. The lineage goes back at least as far as John Sedlar and tamales, Jonathan Waxman and roast chicken, and Wolfgang Puck and pizza. But until I visited Acabar, the grand neo-Moroccan lounge-restaurant in the space long occupied by Dar Maghreb, I had rarely seen a chef rub up against an ingredient with quite as much passion as Octavio Becerra shows a simple can of sardines. Read more

Acabar, 1510 N. Stanley Ave., Hollywood

Little Sister

If a theme has emerged in Los Angeles restaurants over the last several years, from Picca and Spice Table to Lukshon, A-Frame, Rivera and Corazon y Miel, it is the idea of Asian American and Latin American chefs trained in classical European kitchens, driven to reinterpret the tastes they grew up on through rigorous French technique. This isn't fusion food, which tends largely to be the application of Asian flavors to non-Asian dishes; this is chopped-and-channeled cooking designed to heighten the original sensations, a kind of reverse colonialism of the plate. The latest anti-fusion hero on the block is Tin Vuong, chef and owner of the Manhattan Beach restaurant Little Sister, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, worked his way up through grand hotel kitchens and has spent the last couple of years as chef at the well-regarded Hermosa Beach gastropub Abigaile. Read more

Little Sister, 1131 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach

Factory Kitchen

If you dine regularly in Los Angeles' Italian restaurants, you have probably lived through the fresh-pasta wars, the head cheese skirmishes and the incursion of the massive T-bones. We have not yet quite climbed out of the charred rubble of the wood-fired pizza moment, where the mozzarella comes from buffaloes and the thermostat is always set to 800 degrees. So you may be surprised to discover that the latest battleground may be the obscure Ligurian specialty called focaccia di Recco, a stuffed flatbread from a town 20 minutes outside Genoa. Like burrata, a cheese whose fame until recently was confined to a few square miles of central Puglia, focaccia di Recco is a food whose time has come. When prepared correctly, as it is at the Factory Kitchen in the arts district east of downtown (and also at chiSpacca on Melrose), focaccia di Recco is a marvelous thing, oiled dough stretched thin as filo and folded around milky, tart crescenza cheese. Read more

Factory Kitchen, 1300 Factory Place, Los Angeles

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

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

Ephemera (Lost Time). (Grant Mudford / Rosamund Felsen Gallery)

Jean Lowe

Jean Lowe is not an illusionist in the conventional sense of the term. Her painted images and papier-mache sculptures don’t typically fool the eye by closely resembling the things they represent. Maybe a better term for her would be delusionist, for she stabs satirically at broad-scale practices of deception, as well as personal patterns of self-deception. Her work is hilarious and cutting. (Leah Ollman) (Ends Saturday, Feb. 8) Read more

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica

Leah Ollman

Art reviewer

Other recommendations:

Calder and Abstraction

If you like Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, you'll love the sculpture of Alexander Calder. And vice versa. As an artist Calder certainly wasn't in the business of illustrating difficult scientific postulates. (Born on the cusp of the 20th century, he died at 78 in 1976.) In fact, one frequent knock on him was the claim that, while charmingly whimsical, his sculpture is physically, emotionally and intellectually lightweight. After all, this is the guy who built an entire miniature circus out of cardboard, some buttons and a bunch of twisted wire. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, July 27) Read more

LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister

As family trees go, the one created inside Canterbury Cathedral nearly a thousand years ago is pretty impressive. Monumental stained-glass windows feature nearly life-size figures that represent the ancestors of Christ. The lineup starts with Adam and runs through such memorable Old Testament men (and only men) as Noah and Abraham, along with less well-known folks such as Enoch and Rehoboam. The colorfully translucent depictions embed ancestry right into the mighty cathedral's stone walls. Like a family album writ large, the patriarchs of the Christian church appear to help keep the soaring structure standing. Colorfully dappled sunlight transforms the vast interior into a mesmerizing space of shimmering magnificence. The power of history fuses with the power of art, making a politically potent spectacle. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday Feb. 2) Read more

J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood

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

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

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

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

Armistead Maupin. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Days of Anna Madrigal’

The first time Armistead Maupin ended his “Tales of the City” serial — in 1989, with his sixth novel, “Sure of You” — he did it with a departure. Mary Ann Singleton, who had initiated the series by calling her mother in Cleveland to say she was staying in San Francisco, took a network TV job and left the Bay Area for New York. It was a sad if not unexpected outcome. In the 15 years since Maupin had first started writing about Mary Ann, her friends Michael, Mona, Brian and their irrepressible landlady, Anna Madrigal, a lot had happened: Anita Bryant, the People’s Temple, AIDS. Maupin was ready to move on. It was nearly two decades before he returned to these characters, first with the 2007 novel “Michael Tolliver Lives” and then with the follow-up, “Mary Ann in Autumn,” in 2010. What makes “Tales of the City” so resonant is Maupin’s ability to draw broad, human lessons from the particularity of his characters’ lives. This is why it has struck such a chord for close to 40 years now: adapted into three miniseries and an opera, the source of “Tales”-related San Francisco tours. Now, Maupin has chosen to end the series again with “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” a work that is less about departure than coming home. Featuring the full complement of “Tales” regulars (with the exception of Mona, who died in the 1984 novel “Babycakes”), the book is an elegy — for San Francisco, for its characters, for a way of life. Read more

David Ulin

Book critic

Other recommendations:

'Stories II'

T.C. Boyle's "Stories II" gathers all the short fiction he has published in the past 15 years — 58 stories, including 14 that have never appeared in book form. This is no mere collection, in other words, but an edifice intended, not unlike its equally massive predecessor "Stories" (1998), to define a legacy. To some extent, that's a sign of Boyle growing older; he will turn 65 in December. Death, or the threat of death, is all over these stories — or more accurately, a sense of mortality, of time zeroing in. But even more, it's a signifier that here, he is holding nothing back. In "Stories II" we stare down 15 years of fiction, and how does it add up? "All part of the questing impulse," Boyle suggests, "that has pushed me forward into territory I could never had dreamed of when I first set out to write — that is, to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration." Read more

'Salinger'

When news emerged three years ago that filmmaker Shane Salerno and writer David Shields were working on an oral biography (with accompanying documentary) about J.D. Salinger, I assumed it would be all smoke and no fire. Salinger, after all, had gone to ground after the publication of his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924” in June 1965; even in the wake of his death, in January 2010 at age 91, his estate had preserved the silence of his final 45 years. But if Salerno and Shields' book “Salinger” is, at nearly 700 pages, a bit of a shaggy monster, what may be most astonishing about it is its (largely) even tone. The idea is to present a portrait of Salinger as both his own savior and something considerably darker, and for the most part, the co-authors get the goods. Read more

Optic Nerve 13

Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve is one of my favorite alternative comics: smart, understated and with a subtle yet pointed bite. Merging straight realism with an impressionistic sense of narrative, his stories often seem to be offhanded when, in fact, they are highly structured and defined. As an example, look at "Winter 2012," one of three pieces in the newly released Optic Nerve 13, a one-pager, told by way of 20 small panels, in which Tomine portrays himself as a Luddite, distressed by the indignities of the electronic age. Optic Nerve 13's other stories include a long central piece, "Go Owls," in which a woman meets an older man in a 12-step program and winds up in a relationship that becomes increasingly abusive and fraught, and the exquisite "Translated, From the Japanese," a love letter from a mother to her baby that is among the most beautiful things Tomine has ever done. Read more

'Never Built Los Angeles'

When, in the 1920s, the pioneering Southern California social critic Louis Adamic called Los Angeles "the enormous village," he didn't mean it as a compliment. Rather, he was referring to L.A.'s insularity, its status as what Richard Meltzer would later label "the biggest HICK Town (per se) in all the hick land," a city of small-town values and narrow vision that "grew up suddenly, planlessly." A similar sensibility underpins "Never Built Los Angeles," a compendium of more than 100 architectural projects — master plans, skyscrapers, transportation hubs, parks and river walks — that never made it off the ground. Edited by former Los Angeles magazine architecture critic Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, West Coast editor of the Architect's Newspaper, and accompanied by an exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum, it's a lavish counter-history of the city as it might have been: a literal L.A. of the mind. Read more

'The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey'

"He who makes a beast of himself," Samuel Johnson famously observed about inebriation, "gets rid of the pain of being a man." And yet, if Lawrence Osborne's new book, "The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey," has anything to tell us, it's that there is more to drinking than derangement, that it may lead to a transcendence more profound. "The Wet and the Dry" is a paean to drinking, but it is also a travelogue unfolding largely through the Islamic states of the Middle East and a memoir of sorts, in which Osborne's upbringing, in "a steadfast English suburb" during the 1970s, becomes a lens through which to read his life. "The drinker knows that life is not mental and not a matter of control and demarcation," he argues. "The teetotaler, on the other hand, knows full well how even a molecule of alcohol changes body and mind. The Muslim, the Protestant puritan, and the teetotaler are kin; they understand the world in a very similar way, despite all their enormous differences, while the drinkers know that the parameters that contain us are not all human, let alone divine." Read more

'Men in Miami Hotels'

Charlie Smith's terrific new novel, "Men in Miami Hotels," walks a line between genre and something considerably wilder, a fictional territory where a character might lose his or her soul. The story of a Miami hoodlum named Cotland Sims, on the run from a brutal mob boss, it is both existential thriller and a book of homecoming, as Cot returns to Key West, where he was born and raised, to confront the living ghosts of his past. These include his on-again-off-again girlfriend Marcella and her husband Ordell (the county prosecutor), as well as his mother and his oldest friend from high school, a drag queen named CJ. To this mix, Smith adds an army of hired killers out to wreak vengeance on Cot, although their violence, while pervasive, ends up seeming almost incidental. Read more

'Return to Oakpine'

Ron Carlson's new novel "Return to Oakpine" revolves around a group of high school friends 30 years after graduation, in the small Wyoming town where they were raised. The book begins with a simple errand: A man named Craig Ralston is called upon to refurbish a garage apartment for his old compatriot Jimmy Brand, who is coming home to die. The year is 1999 and Jimmy is nearing 50, a writer who left home after high school, in the wake of a family tragedy. And yet, Carlson wants us to understand, we never escape the past, not even a little bit of it. In a town such as Oakpine, that can't help but bleed into the present, reminding us of old hurts, old longings, of who we were and who we never will become. This is the tension that drives "Return to Oakpine," between what we want to do and what we need to do, between our dreams and our responsibilities. Or, as Carlson observes late in this elegant and moving novel, "There was a vague lump in his throat that he had thought was excitement but now felt like an urgent sadness; actually it felt like both." Read more

'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

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

Diane von Furstenberg. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images)

Journey of a Dress’

Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap-dress army is a force to be reckoned with in the 20,000-square-foot gallery of the historic May Co. department store building in Los Angeles, where her “Journey of a Dress” exhibition opens Saturday with 200 vintage and contemporary interpretations of the iconic design. There they are, 200 mannequins strong, standing in formation and ready to conquer the world. And conquer the world is exactly what this dress did. The show, which was put together for the 40th anniversary of Von Furstenberg’s brand, celebrates her singular contribution to fashion history: the wrap dress, which is on par with the T-shirt and blue jeans when it comes to its cultural impact. The dress — which wraps in front and ties at the waist and was originally made in drip-dry, cotton jersey — became part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s, when women started to enter the workforce en masse, a symbol not only of women’s liberation but of sexual liberation, too. (Ends Thursday, May 1) Read more

Wilshire May Co. Building, 6767 Wilshire, Los Angeles

Booth Moore

Fashion critic

Other recommendations:

Tory Burch

Tory Burch celebrated the opening of her Rodeo Drive boutique with a star-studded party Jan. 21 and the release of the limited edition Rodeo Drive collection inspired by the flowers of Southern California and the glamour of Old Hollywood. The capsule collection includes resort-ready pieces embellished with coral flowers and embroidery, including the gladiator sandals above and the caftan-style dress. The capsule collection includes resort-ready pieces embellished with coral flowers and embroidery, including the gladiator sandals above and the caftan-style dress and flower-drop earrings Burch is wearing. There are also several styles in guipere lace, such as the shorts above. L.A. style maven and artist Lisa Eisner shot a dreamy short film featuring the collection in the gardens at Lotusland near Santa Barbara. You can see it here. Burch's website includes several other L.A.-centric editorial features geared to the opening, including Kaling, Hailee Steinfeld and other celebs discussing why they love L.A. Read more

366 N. Rodeo Drive Beverly Hills

10 Fashionable Things

As we all try to get back into the swing of work after the holidays, here are 10 stylish things on my to-do list for the next few months. 1) Celebrate the dress that started it all. 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Diane von Furstenberg's iconic wrap dress, which will be celebrated with "Journey of a Dress" on Jan. 11 to April 1 at the Wilshire May Co. building in Los Angeles, a retrospective exhibition of vintage and contemporary wrap designs — from the first sample to what has become a symbol of power and freedom for generations of women. 2) Pick up some cold-weather style inspiration... Read more

Acne Studios

The coolest store now open in downtown L.A. is called Acne Studios. That's right. Get over it. If you don't know, Acne (an acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expression) was founded in 1996 in Stockholm by musician-turned-fashion designer Jonny Johansson. In seven years, it has grown into a $120-million brand with 40 stores around the world, men's and women's fashion collections, runway shows in Paris, as well as a publishing wing that has collaborated on projects with the likes of photographers Lord Snowden and William Wegman. Which is why when you walk into the new 5,000-square-foot boutique in the historic Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway, it's appropriate that you first lay eyes on "Giant Triple Mushroom," a trippy toadstool of an installation by Belgian artist Carsten Holler that seems to symbolize the curious rise of a brand that is known for doing things differently. Read more

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

Standout Books on American Design

Several new style books focus on great American jewelry design. Here we zero in on two of the standout volumes of the season. 'David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler' and 'Jewels by JAR' have an eye for the dazzling. "David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler" American jewelry designer David Webb was a fixture on New York's social scene during the 1960s and '70s, beloved by Diana Vreeland, Nan Kempner, Doris Duke, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and many other style-setters. Webb is perhaps best known for his animal bracelets, more fierce than cute, featuring lions, tigers and dragons, which were part of the ladies-who-lunch uniform of the day. "Jewels by JAR," the catalog for the exhibition of the same name that runs through March 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a jewel of a book with 69 photographs of incredible pieces by Joel Arthur Rosenthal, today's preeminent American jewelry designer, who has been working in Paris since the late 1970s for a small group of in-the-know clientele. Designing under his initials, JAR, Rosenthal creates works of art using colorful gemstones, pearls and other materials such as beetle wings. Each piece is unique and "set in metals that are sometimes subject to a degree of alchemy," art dealer Adrian Sassoon writes in the introductory essay. Read more

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

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

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