Critics’ Picks: Dec. 12-18, 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.
In theater, “Into the Woods” is the perfect holiday treat. At the movies, Reese Witherspoon’s performance in “Wild” takes the actress to a new level. And on TV, “Forever” is worth another look, as is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” of course.
Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.
Reese Witherspoon in ‘Wild’
To put it bluntly, it took Cheryl Strayed wandering in the woods to get Reese Witherspoon back on track. In “Wild,” based on Strayed’s bestselling memoir of her punishing 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the actress discovers her deeper self much like the character she played. Witherspoon — worn down and unwashed — lets herself go, taking on the weight of a backpack dubbed “the monster,” along with all the pain and the troubles of Cheryl’s life, from indiscriminate sex to a heroin habit. As her character reclaims herself one step at a time along the trail, the actress finds a new level of emotions and a new comfort with showing raw vulnerability. In “Wild” she willingly exposes both her scarred body and soul. The portrait of a young woman coming to terms with life’s challenges is a far cry from the actress’ perky, put-together law student of “Legally Blonde.” Though 2001’s “Blonde” put her on the map, it is navigating tougher terrain like she found in “Wild” that will keep her there. Her Screen Actors Guild nomination certainly suggests she is on the right path. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
‘The Imitation Game’
If you care about involving cinema, the career of actor Benedict Cumberbatch, or both, a holiday visit to the smartly entertaining “The Imitation Game” and its look at the life of Alan Turing is inevitable. Turing was a brilliant man whose top-secret work as a code breaker of genius shortened World War II, saved millions of lives and was so central to the Allied victory that it was said the war could not have been won without it. But Turing was also gay at a time when that was a crime in Britain, and he paid an awful price for that after the war. Giving Turing’s wartime exploits as well as the entire film, the unexpected pacing of a thriller is the work of Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, whose crackling “Headhunters,” adapted from the novel by Jo Nesbo, became the highest-grossing film in that country’s history. And as good as Cumberbatch has been, the richness and complexity of Turing’s character make this portrayal of an arrogant, difficult, sure-of-himself individual the role of the actor’s career. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
"The Babadook "is a smart, darkly drawn modern-day horror movie of monsters, memories and mothers. For it is a mother's love on the line that heightens the provocation in this thriller set off when a children's book about the dreaded Babadook comes to life — dook, dook, dook — three bumps in the night at a time. The script is nimble in weaving together the psychological breakdown of a tapped-out mother (Essie Davis), her disturbed young son (Noah Wiseman) and many of the tropes of horror movies that keep you wavering on the question of whether an evil supernatural Babadook is taking over or if Amelia is losing her mind. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
'Big Hero 6'
This new animated action adventure might sound like more of the same Marvel-inspired superhero stuff already saturating movie theaters with its flashy 3-D animation and futuristic nerd kids doing their world saving in bright plastic-plated armor and spiffy Spanx. Which it might have become, if not for the big guy, the awwww-inspiring Baymax. This towering, huggable, robotic bag of air and brains steals the show and probably seals a franchise. There's lots of action in this adventure, but Baymax makes sure there's a heart. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
In “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” Michael Keaton is something of a cross between an aging Icarus and the emperor with no clothes — metaphorical until the tighty-whitey Times Square streak. As a latter-day celluloid superhero come to Broadway's proving ground for a rebirth, the Burning Man histrionics are hysterically on point. Irony lurks in every shadow. Fittingly the film begins with a fiery object streaking toward Manhattan where the highly agitated life of the actor Riggan (Keaton) plays out. The city is the perfect spot for filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu to build his pyre. Exactly whose death is being celebrated or mourned — Hollywood? Theater? Society? A single shooting star? — well, that is the question. And oh, the flames that follow. Delicious. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
An advocacy documentary with a compelling You Are There quality. Director Laura Poitras puts us in the room when NSA leaker Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald conferred over eight days as they made decisions about what was to be published and why. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
A shrewd, bitingly comic and psychologically astute Swedish film, a prize winner at Cannes, in which the life of a picture-perfect family changes not because of any catastrophe but because of the threat of one. (Kenneth Turan) (In Swedish, French and English, with English subtitles.) Read more
A brooding, brilliant, particularly American horror story of seduction, rejection, betrayal and murder directed by Bennett Miller, starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, and set in the under-the-radar world of Olympic wrestling. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'
A vampire is such a handy creature for filmmakers in search of a metaphor or two. Mortality is usually the first bite, and Ana Lily Amirpour's stunning first feature definitely takes a stab at that. But it is the way in which the writer-director uses the specter of vampires and vices to take an off-center cut at Iranian gender politics and U.S.-Eurocentric pop culture that sets the film apart. They might seem poles apart, but the mash-up is unexpectedly on the nose, or neck, or wherever else a vampire might choose to feed. In Farsi with English subtitles. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
The newest Christopher Nolan film is the rarest beast in the Hollywood jungle: a mass audience picture that's intelligent as well as epic, with a sophisticated script that's as interested in emotional moments as immersive visuals. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
A smart, engaged film about the dark side of local TV news powered by an altogether remarkable performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. This is melodrama grounded in a disturbing reality, an extreme scenario that is troubling because it cuts close to the bone. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'The Theory of Everything'
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are beautifully compatible as physicist Stephen Hawking and his then-wife Jane as they navigate the ebb and flow of 25 years of their relationship. A film that posits that the complexities of the universe are as nothing compared to the intricacies of the human heart. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'The Theory of Everything'
It's simplistic to think of "The Theory of Everything," which traces many years of Stephen Hawking's life, as one of those typical scratch-the-surface movies about the man. To be sure, Hawking's ground-breaking work in theoretical physics and the origins of the universe as well as his refusal to be stopped by the neuromuscular disease that has taken nearly everything from him but his mind make for a rich and thrilling story. All that is in this movie. But what director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have given us is a paean to the power of ideas and emotions. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
With an amazing Miles Teller on drums and a terrifying J.K. Simmons setting the tempo, "Whiplash" is a movie you feel as much as you see, and what you see is both exquisite and excruciating. Writer-director Damien Chazelle draws on his nightmare memories of high school, an intense time when the aspiring jazz drummer was driven to excel by a merciless teacher who favored verbal torture and humiliation to mold young minds. The question Chazelle poses is whether psychological pain is the price of greatness. These sorts of stand-offs and power games have given us some truly great films — Duvall in "The Great Santini," De Niro in "This Boy's Life" come to mind. Now "Whiplash" will too. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
I was initially unconvinced by this police procedural featuring New York Medical Examiner Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd), a 200-year-old Brit who for mysterious reasons can neither die nor age. But the appealing presences of Gruffudd and the always wonderful Judd Hirsch as Abe, Henry’s adopted (and mortal) son, kept me coming back, and now I’m legitimately hooked. Especially since the addition of “Torchwood’s” Burn Gorman, here playing Lewis Farber, a Bellevue psychiatrist who was just last week revealed to be Henry’s fellow but very evil immortal. ABC, Tuesdays. Read more
Final two episodes of 'The Affair'
People have all manner of reactions to Showtime's he said/she said tale of adultery that somehow led to a possible murder. Love it, hate it; find Noah (Dominic West) a jerk and Allison (Ruth Wilson) sympathetic or vice versa. Whatever the reaction, though, it's strongly felt, and that's saying something. Narratively, it opened strong then bogged down for several episodes, often in its choice of artsy exposition over plot or character development, but as the focus moved away from Noah's and Alison's versions of how they fell for each other and more on the other issues in their lives and families, things picked up. Now heading into the final two episodes, the question becomes: How will it end? (Mary McNamara) (Showtime, Sunday) Read more
'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'
Before there was "Glee" there was "Rudolph," with its doe-eyed but different hero, its elfin dentist and it island of misfit toys. Now made available, by nostalgic baby boomers, in all manner of collectible reproductions, but still. You will laugh, you will cry, and it isn't Christmas until you've watched it, and who knows, maybe your kid will want to become a dentist. Which is a very good job, even at the North Pole. And while you're at it, stick around for "Frosty the Snowman," with its equally odd but endearing supporting cast and mind-numbing but still fabulous song. (Mary McNamara) (CBS, Saturday) Read more
‘Into the Woods’
This Oregon Shakespeare Company revival begins in a flamboyantly deconstructed manner, only fitting given that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical is itself an insouciant deconstruction of classic fairy tales. Amanda Dehnert’s staging hits its stride as the imaginative world springs to life life with droll costumes and bursts of scenic color. Seeing this dark fantasy musical in this jewel box theater is the perfect holiday treat for self-reflective adults and precocious theater-loving teens. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 21) Read more
'Bob's Holiday Office Party'
Sporting its original creators and longtime cast members, this long-running yuletide parody of small-town eccentricity thrives on the qualities that made it a staple of the L.A. theater scene 22 years ago – it’s irreverent, crude and devastatingly funny. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sun., Dec. 17) Read more
Rebecca Gilman's latest, about the custody of a baby taken from meth-addicted young parents, receives a thoroughly absorbing and cracklingly well-acted production directed by Robert Falls. The play, which slyly ventures beyond its topical social concerns, is worth seeing alone for Mary Beth Fisher's stunningly honest performance of a social worker working through her own buried trauma. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 21) Read more
New Orleans playwright John Biguenet's ripely poetic tale of an Appalachian crone who may or may not be a witch receives a striking West Coast premiere starring the redoubtable Jenny O'Hara. Director Stephen Sachs exerts taut control over tempo and effects. And O'Hara, always one of our best character actresses, here goes for the jugular. Tightly woven, richly detailed and fully enjoyable, this "Broomstick" sweeps away any resistance we might have to its ostensible slightness, leaving us with giggles, shivers and even a lump in our throat. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 14) Read more
'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) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 21) Read more
First produced in London at the height of WWII, Terence Rattigan's "Flare Path" centers on a group of RAF fighters, their wives, and their various travails in a small Lincolnshire hotel nearby the airdrome. This superbly designed, beautifully acted and subtly staged production captures the poignancy and terror of that period. An RAF tail gunner himself, Rattigan knew whereof he wrote, and his wartime experiences directly inspired this play — a heartening reminder of the human capacity for valor. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sunday, Dec. 14) Read more
'Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin'
That indefatigable purveyor of composers Hershey Felder applies his singular blend of musical biography, character study and piano virtuosity toward the iconic American songwriter. Although the richly entertaining, ultimately touching result could stand a few trims and affords less concert fireworks than previous excursions, the empathy, showmanship and craft on tap may just be the best match of historical figure and performing artist yet in this franchise, wholly attuned to a gratefully participating audience. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, Aug. 7) Read more
'Smoke and Mirrors'
As actor and Magic Castle illusionist Albie Selznick’s superb theatrical magic show explores the connections between his life and art, perhaps his greatest feat is making any trace of boredom completely disappear. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sunday, March 15) Read more
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels is the team of two indie titans, El-P and Killer Mike, who have upended convention by remaining idealistically true, artistically adventurous and creatively emboldened well into their second decade as rapper-producers. The pair’s second album, released as a free download, proves it 11 times over. As smart as it is sonically imaginative and unpredictable, “Run the Jewels 2” proves the team’s debut was less a fluke than a portent. Headphone rap of the highest order, tracks on this sequel hum and groove, laced with texture and hidden sonic accents. Psychedelic jams — but not in the hippie sense — including “Close Your Eyes (And Count to …)” and “Lie, Cheat, Steal” are both trippy and menacing, the product of two rappers whose understanding of cadence, phrasing and language as syllabic percussion is often awe-inspiring. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Pop music critic
CD Set: 'The Basement Tapes Complete'
It's the most famous room in the annals of pop music, its history equal parts legend and truth. In the decades since its use as a rehearsal space, this subterranean refuge has become known as the birthplace of some of America's most examined (non-Paris-Hilton-sex, non-Watergate) tapes. The Basement Tapes. Many of a certain generation know the basics: In and around Woodstock, N.Y., Bob Dylan and his then-backing band, the Hawks, converged to create stripped-down, defiantly un-psychedelic artistic magic. As the story goes, while recuperating from a motorcycle crash and starting his life as a husband and father of two, Dylan and his compadres, who soon rechristened themselves the Band, crafted a mysterious vessel on more than 40 reels of tape that have since become sacred texts of sorts. The most famous of these works are well known: "This Wheel's on Fire," "I Shall Be Released," "Tears of Rage," "Sign on the Cross," "I'm Not There," "Lo and Behold." Many were traded on the underground circuit through the decades: as whispers on poorly mastered bootleg albums starting with the "Great White Wonder" from 1969, on hissy cassettes, duped CDs and voluminous megabytes. But until this week, the full set has never been officially issued. Nearly 50 years after Band keyboardist Garth Hudson started setting up recording gear, Columbia/Legacy's new six-CD set "The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11" gathers everything the team recorded from February through December 1967, more than 100 songs or fragments. A two-CD volume collects highlights. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'Too Bright'
Wearing a loose-knotted black sweater that revealed his carved torso beneath, the pianist, singer and songwriter known as Perfume Genius sat before a whisper-quiet sold-out crowd at the Roxy in West Hollywood and tried to explain the raw, full-throated wail he'd just unleashed. Dubbing it his "general horror movie scream," the artist born Mike Hadreas had just poured forth during "Grid," a highlight from his new album, "Too Bright," and devastating as performed live in a room with so much history. It was a harrowing cry amid a remarkable set, delivered from the thin membrane that separates singing and raging, a place expertly inhabited by artists including Jeff Buckley and his father, Tim, Fiona Apple and the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser. A realm that straddles an egoless display of creative emotion and uncontrollable onstage breakdown. (Randall Roberts) Read more
John Cage CDs
Classical music has a habit of burning out on birthdays. Two years ago, John Cage's music was everywhere, what with Los Angeles and the world celebrating the centennial of his birth on Sept. 5 at Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown L.A. The party lingered. Last September, Gustavo Dudamel opened the Los Angeles Philharmonic season with a performance of Cage's famous so-called silent piece, "4'33"." This year, though, the pickings are slim for Cage's 102nd birthday. But three excellent ongoing Cage CD series have new releases to frost the Cage birthday cake. (Mark Swed) Read more
Best albums of 2014 -- so far
Summer offers ample time for the kind of concentrated listening that drives musical love affairs. Whether aboard a luxury liner headed for Alaska or in a hand-me-down Hyundai road-tripping to Joshua Tree, the season presents opportunities galore to catch up on hot records that plugged-in friends have had on repeat. Here are 10 records released this year that I've been recommending to friends. The "best" so far? Sure, but don't expect the same list at the end of the year — or even the end of next week. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'Manipulator' Ty Segall
By the time that Ty Segall hit age 26, he had already recorded and released six solo albums, appeared or collaborated on a dozen or so other albums of frantic guitar rock, issued 20 singles or extended-plays through various record labels, appeared on dozens of compilations and composed a few hundred songs. In that burst of inspiration, the Laguna Beach-born guitarist, singer, surfer, skater and songwriter toured nonstop, gigging hundreds of shows across the country. He produced similarly minded bands, played punk and indie festivals and tore through many wickedly searing guitar solos. The Memphis garage rock label Goner had already released the first Segall singles collection by the time he was 24. His titles for these records included "Sleeper," "Gemini," "Horn the Unicorn," "Lemons," "Melted," "Reverse Shark Attack," "Twins" and "Goodbye Bread." Each recorded with immediacy and on the cheap, they captured the uncontainable energy of a muse so busy both consuming and producing music that few but the most devoted could keep up. Before starting work on his new album, "Manipulator," Segall (pronounced like the bird) had accumulated a bulldozer's worth of distorted rock 'n' roll riffs, amassing ideas while sweating the proverbial 10,000 hours required of an expert craftsman. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint'
When trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire released his Blue Note debut three years ago, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” it felt as if his talents could take him anywhere. So it makes sense that in crafting his follow-up, Akinmusire nearly goes everywhere. Engrossing, elusive and packed to its literal limits with ideas at 79 minutes, “The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint” beautifully takes Akinmusire’s distinctive tone to new realms, including slow-burning orchestral swells and convention-defying vocal collaborations that attempt to translate his vision into words. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Blank Project'
"Good things come to those who wait," Neneh Cherry sings over stormy electronics and a skittering rhythm on her first solo album in 16 years. If there's a lingering take-away from "Blank Project," that's it. Cherry, whose breakout hit "Buffalo Stance" was practically inescapable in the late '80s, left music for years before reemerging with "The Cherry Thing" in 2012. A brash stab of skronky jazz-punk that paired Cherry's soulful vocals with a blustery Scandinavian saxophone trio, the record was one of the year's best. Here Cherry proves that comeback was no fluke. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Blue Film'
Lo-Fang is the pseudonym of Matthew Hemerlein, a singer and pop composer who wrote, recorded and played all the instruments on this debut. Drawing on digital R&B, modern pop, "Kid A"-era Radiohead and electronic music, he presents three- and four-minute song bursts that are tightly structured but labyrinthine in detail. "When We're Fine" floats on a digital loop, a tiny-but-mighty rhythm, backward-spinning bleeps and bloops and a catchy chorus. An early contender for debut of the year, "Blue Film" comes out Feb. 25. Lo-Fang goes on tour with his most famous fan, Lorde, this spring. Highly recommended. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'The Invention of Animals'
Looking back from the fragmented media landscape of 2014, it's hard to imagine someone like John Lurie was ever possible. An immediately recognizable character actor who appeared in landmark indie films including Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" and "Stranger Than Paradise," Lurie was also a brilliant saxophonist who helped push the boundaries of jazz in the '80s and '90s with his band, the Lounge Lizards. But Lurie was forced to give up music and acting after being stricken with advanced Lyme disease and has since switched to painting (his work has been exhibited numerous times and was collected in a 2007 book, "A Fine Example of Art"). Lurie's low profile in recent years is also because of significant trouble with a stalker — a situation that was examined in a 2010 New Yorker profile (the facts of which Lurie has vigorously disputed). Still, he recently ventured back into the public eye with "The Invention of Animals," a new set of live tracks and rarities by the John Lurie National Orchestra, his trio with drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Gathering Call'
You can't talk about drummer Matt Wilson without talking about swing, that pulse of jazz that's been his specialty on more than 250 recordings as a sideman. Reconvening his longtime quartet, Wilson again shines with some unexpected help in keyboardist John Medeski. Often lumped into some jam-band ghetto for his ventures with the avant-funk trio Medeski Martin and Wood, Medeski's talents have long been harder to pigeonhole, including a contemplative solo record in 2013. Here, he's a precisely moving part on an album that should be mandatory listening for traditionalists and jazz-curious Phish-heads alike. (Chris Barton) Read more
Claudio Abbado Recordings
When Claudio Abbado, the revered Italian conductor who died Monday, turned 80 last summer, record companies celebrated with several super-sized box sets of his recordings and videos. It's not hard to find discs with which to spend the weekend remembering one of the greats. Abbado's career was a grand one, fairly well documented. He headed and/or recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, with the London Symphony and Chicago Symphony, with the Vienna State Opera and La Scala. His interpretations of the 19th-century masters – Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Mahler, Verdi, Rossini – are exquisitely accomplished. Abbado was a polisher and took no note for granted. But sometimes his mid-career recordings can sound almost too reliable. It's the vibrant early and the masterly moving late performances that really shine, as well as the more offbeat. (Mark Swed) Read more
Box set: The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932
The ambitious new set "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1" comes packaged in a sturdy wooden suitcase dubbed "The Cabinet of Wonder," an apt title considering the awe-inducing sounds and history it resurrects. A label whose ragtag story stars two white Wisconsin business partners more concerned with record player sales than music, an A&R man whose race and history as a Chicago bootlegger (and ex-pro football player) allowed him access to the clubs where unrecorded talent gigged and a roster of artists with equally fascinating biographies, the Paramount and affiliated labels' output during its 15-year life comprises more than 1,600 songs. They were released through a subsidiary of a Port Washington, Wis.-born furniture company during the rise of the phonograph era. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Scopa Italian Roots
Scopa is a second collaboration between Antonia Lofaso, also chef of Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City, and the team of Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix, who have been involved with half of the stylish bars in Los Angeles, including Black Market, La Descarga, Pour Vous and Harvard & Stone. Lofaso, a protégée of Spago’s Lee Hefter, is on television a lot — she was a star of “Top Chef’s” fourth season and is on “Cutthroat Kitchen.” She also wrote the 2012 “Busy Mom’s Cookbook,” which is actually kind of good to have around if you need an easy recipe for braised brisket or blueberry muffins. In the book she confesses that her restaurant jobs have also included stints waiting tables at Chin Chin and Puff Daddy’s soul food restaurant Justine’s. Her heritage is Italian American, but her experience is fairly eclectic. A traditional Italian American meal? Almost, but not quite. Read more
Barrel & Ashes
Los Angeles, in the last several years, has become something of a paradise for what I've taken to calling Chefs Without Portfolio, highly skilled young cooks, killing time between major projects, who have done things like reinvent gastropubs, run oversubscribed pop-ups, or open taquerias that honor the precepts of modernist cuisine. CWPs — Ludo Lefebvre, Walter Manzke and Jeremy Fox were among their ranks — are presumably OK with underachieving, because they know that stardom waits in the wings. Timothy Hollingsworth is among the most prominent CWP bouncing around Los Angeles at the moment. He was not so long ago chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, and the designated U.S. competitor in the Bocuse d'Or culinary championships. This spring, he will be chef of the restaurant in the upcoming Broad Museum. He is a highbrow in the kitchen, legendary for his French technique. So although he was born in Texas, and his name sounds as if it could belong to a white-hat country music singer, the last place you might expect to find him is running a barbecue pit in the San Fernando Valley. But there he is, behind the stoves at the new Barrel & Ashes in Studio City, supervising long-smoked brisket, spareribs and pulled pork, all of it properly free range or certified Angus beef. Read more
Your opinion of Saint Martha, a cramped new bistro in a Koreatown mini-mall, will probably correlate pretty closely with your view on steak and oyster tartare, the default signature dish. The tartare appears on the short menu under the heading Rawesome. It comes to the table flanked by two scorching-hot empanadas stuffed with molten bone marrow. A pair of sauces, tart sabayons, are presented one inside the other and look like a fried egg. And while you may have tasted the combination of raw meat and raw seafood before — a raw beef-octopus dish is popular in the South Korean city of Gwangju — Saint Martha's surf 'n' turf is a little odd, the bits of oyster discernible mostly as a briny note almost lost among the bloody tang of the chopped steak and the crunch of minced pickles. The scarlet mound is almost a self-saucing mechanism, designed to maximize umami. I think I like it, but I change my mind every time I taste it. The dish is a shotgun marriage of opposites. Read more
Santa Rita, Jalisco
This taco truck, parked permanently deep in the Eastside, is famous for pescuezos, delicious deep-fried chicken necks The skin is pushed up the shaft of the neck before frying, which gives the effect of a tanned, meaty cylinder surmounted by an Elizabethan collar of pure crunch; hidden bits of chewy meat and a corona of pure, fatty pleasure. Because the truck has colonized a largish brick-and-mortar taqueria, there are plenty of tables to sit around, and you can always find parking. If pescuezos aren't your thing, the pork al pastor, sliced from its spit to order is decent. But really, you should try the necks. Tear off a bit of meat, and wrap it in a warm tortilla with a splash of peppery tomato salsa. At $2.25 for an order of four necks, it's about the cheapest happiness in town. And on weekends, Santa Rita is open until 3 a.m. Read more
Anybody can make a pork chop taste good. It takes dedication to cook a memorable carrot. Roy Choi is the Los Angeles chef who became famous selling Korean tacos from his Kogi truck. His takes on student rice bowls, Hawaiian beach food and Jamaican party eats at Chego, A-Frame and Sunny Spot are both intelligent and easy to eat. If he listened to venture capitalists, there would probably be Kogi stands in half the food courts in America. But as steeped as he is in L.A.'s working-class cuisine, Choi is part of world chef culture now — jetting off to conferences in New York, Copenhagen and Melbourne, where his ideas on food and community are taken seriously. He has a bestselling memoir and a show on CNN. He plans to collaborate on a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants with Patterson, who is perhaps the most cerebral chef working in the U.S. When Choi hinted that Commissary, his new restaurant in the Line Hotel in Koreatown, would be vegetable-focused, it made sense. Highbrow chefs concentrate on vegetables now. It is a given. Read more
Alimento, a new Italian restaurant from Zach Pollack, has, in just a few months, established itself as one of the better small Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, a place so fantastically popular that the valet station occasionally backs up Silver Lake Boulevard and even TV stars content themselves with sitting at the bar. You may know Pollack from Sotto, where he has been cooking Southern Italian food with Steve Samson for the last few years, or from South Coast Plaza's Pizzeria Ortica before that. This is an era of solo acts, young chefs breaking away from the strictures imposed by serial restaurateurs and their pocketbooks, and Silver Lake may be an appropriate place for chefs as well as musicians to go indie. And Pollack is turning things upside down. Read more
When you are evaluating a sushi bar, you can tell a lot by looking at the tamago, the sweetened omelet often served as a last course. To casual customers, it may be a throwaway, but the consistency and texture reveal a lot about a chef's concentration and skill. In Hong Kong-style restaurants, I was surprised to learn last year, chefs may judge one another on the excellence of their sweet and sour pork, a plebeian dish that relies on superb technique. And in a new bistro, you can probably discover everything you want to know about a chef by his escargot, a dish that in the wrong restaurant can resemble nothing so much as chunks of black rubber in scented grease. Great escargot is earthy, a little tender, adding a distinct hit of umami to the garlic and herbs. In Los Angeles, you can get truly wonderful escargot at Church & State and at République. But there may be no better plate of escargot in town than at the new Petit Trois: six fat snails arranged on a custom metal plate, shells brimming with garlic, minced parsley and melted butter. Read more
Since the day it opened, Tsujita has attracted mobs to Sawtelle's Little Osaka neighborhood; on sunny weekends, the wait for a table can last an hour or more. Tsujita, a spinoff of a well-respected Tokyo ramen restaurant, is small and accepts no reservations. It also happens to serve the best ramen in a ramen-crazed part of town, and only at lunch. Across the street, the newer Tsujita Annex serves an ultra-rich, somewhat different kind of ramen for lunch and dinner, soaked in a gravy-thick pork broth and garnished with what seems like double handfuls of chopped back fat. Tsujita Annex also has its lines. But when you discover the latest addition to the Tsujita empire up the block from the annex, hidden behind a patio festooned with a massive crystal chandelier, you will find that it does not serve noodles at all. L.A.'s Sushi Tsujita is the Tsujita-san's version of a classic edomae-style sushi bar, intimate and stunningly expensive, specializing in fish prepared using century-old techniques developed to preserve seafood as much as to flavor it: curing with seaweed, salting, pickling. Chef Shigeru Kato, as well as most of the seafood, is imported from Tokyo. As at Q Sushi downtown, the sushi can sometimes remind you less of fresh fish than of delicate, exquisitely scented Japanese charcuterie. The aim is sushi without compromise. Read more
If you are looking for a clue to Shi Hai, the new Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant in Alhambra, you might find it in the cold cucumber appetizer, a dish that appears at both dim sum breakfast and at dinner. If this is your first time at the restaurant, you might be anticipating the well-garlicked hacked cucumbers you find at Shandong-style delis, or possibly something in the vein of the lightly fermented pickles from Japan. But the cold cucumbers turn out to be just that — cucumbers cut into neat spears and jammed into crushed ice in a sort of vegetable Stonehenge. If the cucumbers are pickled, the cure is too subtle to taste, but they are cool and perfectly crunchy. A small saucer of soy sauce and wasabi is served alongside if you care to dip. The dish is plain. You will probably wonder why you ordered it. And then halfway through the meal, at the point when you are sated with new and unfamiliar flavors, you will be delighted to rediscover the cucumber, your chilly new friend. Occasionally, simplicity can be key. Read more
Finest Foods for the Thinnest Wallets
Is it possible to spend more than $400 per person at some of the restaurants on this year's list of the best 101? Of course. Cuisine costs. But great cooking takes many different forms in Los Angeles, and some of the most exquisite flavors belong to us all. Read more
If you have been following the Chinese-restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley in the last few years, you probably know about Chengdu Taste, the restaurant that showed California the world of Sichuan cuisine that lay beyond mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork — if only for the famous two-hour wait for a table on weekends. And if you had been driving along Valley Boulevard in Alhambra in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed another enormous crowd outside a Sichuan restaurant: the brand-new Szechuan Impression, home to yet another brand of modern Sichuan cuisine. Read more
Aqui Es Texcoco
The last time I went to Aqui Es Texcoco, the kitchen had run out of lamb. And while this might not have been a problem in most Mexican restaurants, where you'd shrug and move on to the roast pork or the mojarra, Aqui Es Texcoco is more or less a one-dish restaurant — that dish being barbacoa in the style of the Mexico City-adjacent Texcoco, an area as famous for pit-roasted lamb as it is for its Aztec ruins. When you see the word "Texcoco" on the sign of a restaurant or food stand, you know there is going to be pit-roasted lamb. When you get in your car and drive to the odd neighborhood of industrial parks in which you find Aqui Es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas, you are there for vast portions of lamb, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char, piled on sheets of aluminum foil. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. Lamb barbacoa at Aqui Es Texcoco is a perfect supper on a hot Sunday afternoon, perhaps accompanied by a Cucapá pale ale or two. Read more
Micah Wexler first came to attention as the chef at Mezze, up in the old Sona space on La Cienega Boulevard, and in his stint at the short-lived restaurant he redefined what Middle Eastern food might be, garnishing braised tripe with nuggets of crunchy falafel, drizzling labneh onto foie gras and splashing manti with spiced almond milk. It was only after several months that a lot of people realized his inspiration was at least as deeply rooted in Jewish cooking as it was in the cuisines of Israel's neighbors, and his delicatessen Sundays, based on the food he grew up eating in Los Angeles, were sold out long in advance. So it perhaps makes sense that he opened Wexler's Deli in the newly revivified Grand Central Market downtown, a delicatessen reborn in a civic space that hasn't seen decent pastrami in years. The deli, which opened just this spring, looks as if it has been part of the market since the early 1950s, chubby neon sign, battered counter and all. Read more
Rob Wynne has a way with eccentric materials, including limpid mirrored-glass wall reliefs and lovely drawings of birds and insects made from embroidery thread and beads tediously stitched onto vellum. Focused labor is the work’s poetic subtext — labor physically applied to an ephemeral arena of worldly contemplation. Ends Saturday, Dec. 13. Read more
The Zurich-born, Los Angeles-based artist weaves tapestries in wool, cotton and linen. Her charged narratives conflate the epic and the intimate, visual distillation and psychological complexity. They are steeped in pain, humor, anger and grief. (Leah Ollman) (Ends Saturday, Dec. 13) Read more
Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take
A measure of respect is due any artist who has the nerve to take on a revered masterpiece. That's what Hodges did in 2008 with a sculpture born of Albrecht Dürer's "The Great Piece of Turf" (1503). Hodges' take on it is one of 56 works in the 25-year retrospective of his career concluding its national tour at the Hammer Museum (Christopher Knight) (Through Jan. 18) Read more
Samuel Levi Jones: Black White Thread
The artist tears the covers off encyclopedias and reference books and stitches the skins, face-in, together in grids, which he then mounts on canvas. Destruction and creation are both harnessed to generate these works of defiant beauty. (Leah Ollman) (Through Jan. 4, 2015) Read more
'Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork'
Unless one is Native American, getting a grasp of complex Native American spiritual cosmologies is not easy. And that distinction, which might be called a quality of profound otherness, is in essence what drives a fascinating show recently opened at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park. It's a story of survival, of a will to endure in the face of crushing opposition. And it is a story told through beads. (Christopher Knight) (Through April 26) Read more
'An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan and Their Circle'
The circle of artists and writers around Bay Area painter Jess Collins and his lifelong romantic partner, poet Robert Duncan, didn't have a memorable name or a specific program. But it was to San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s something of what the Bloomsbury group was to London in the first decades of the 20th century. The California crew was composed of exiles — not entirely refugees from the upper-middle professional class, as their British forebears were, but from the dull, often small-minded and oppressive American realities of the day. Like the Bloomsbury group, and not unlike the West Coast Beats with whom they overlapped, they were bohemians. Art for them was a self-created — and privileged — refuge. In true democratic style, anyone was welcome to join in, choosing the privilege for himself or herself, regardless of past social standing. The group did not produce a raft of major art, but overall the ethos is beguiling. At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a thorough and impressive survey lays out the contours of their work. "An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan and Their Circle," organized by Michael Duncan (no relation to the poet) and Christopher Wagstaff for Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum, is completing a yearlong national tour. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Jan. 11) Read more
Rembrandt at the Getty
When is a portrait not a portrait? (Or, to be more precise, not exactly a portrait?) The answer: When it's a tronie, the theatrical 17th century Dutch invention in which artists weren't after a specific person's likeness but, instead, examined facial expressions as characteristic types of human emotion. Rembrandt van Rijn was good at it. When he was young and starting out, he looked into a mirror and used his own face to produce a tronie of laughter — and the result is now on view in the Getty's permanent collection galleries as the museum's newest acquisition. (Christopher Knight) Read more
Samurai: Japanese Armor
Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection, the touring show comes from a private Dallas museum. In more than 140 objects of warrior regalia, it surveys often stunningly designed samurai suits of armor, face masks, swords, shin guards and breast plates, horse garments (including remarkable lacquered stirrups), helmets — even metal fans. (Christopher Knight) (Through Feb. 1) Read more
Spectacular Rubens: 'The Triumph of the Eucharist'
Tapestry exhibitions are rare. "Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist" displays an intense slice of one monumental project the artist produced for a royal convent chapel at the request of his powerful patron, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia. Four of the chapel's 11 monumental tapestries are in the show, together with six of the luxuriously painted wooden panels in which Rubens worked out their designs. The tapestries are still used by the convent, while the panels have been lent by the Prado Museum. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Jan. 11) Read more
‘How to Be Both’
Ali Smith’s sixth novel, “How to Be Both,” is a book of doubles, featuring twin narratives paired back to back and published in separate editions. In one, the first part evokes the 15th century Italian painter Francesco del Cossa and the second the contemporary saga of a British teenager named Georgia; in the other, these two stories are reversed. That this is a gimmick goes without saying, and yet it is a gimmick that resonates. “[T]he first thing we see,” Smith writes late (or early) in the novel, “S and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?” What she’s describing is the art of the fresco, which was Del Cossa’s, and involves a certain tension between what are called “underdrawings” — think of them as basic sketches — and the finished work. The same could be said about this book. Read more
When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in October, a lot of readers (myself included) were taken by surprise. Until now, he has been relatively unknown in the U.S., although he is a bestseller in his native France and winner of the Prix Goncourt who has published steadily since his first novel, "La Place de l'Étoile," appeared in 1968, and co-wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle's 1974 movie "Lacombe Lucien." Like that film, much of Modiano's fiction has roots in the paradoxes of the Vichy era, which remains, for him, a matter of both personal and collective history. Read more
'Family Furnishings: Selected Stories'
The most astonishing aspect of Alice Munro's "Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014" may be its chronology. The two dozen efforts here come from late in her career, after she had established herself as (perhaps) the preeminent short-fiction writer of her time. Munro's first book came out in 1968; she had already received pretty much every award possible before winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 2013. Yet rather than fall into any sort of expected pattern, she has, as Jane Smiley notes in her introduction to this deep and constantly surprising collection, "in the last six volumes, written since 1996 ... gotten more experimental rather than less." This is especially true of the "not quite stories" Munro has written over the past decade, pastiches the author calls "autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact." Three of them ("Working for a Living," "Home" and "Dear Life") appear in "Family Furnishings," and they bring a certain resonance to the enterprise. Why? Because they remind us that fiction, at its most profound and moving, is about human endurance, which makes it very much a reflection of reality. Read more
'The Laughing Monsters'
Denis Johnson tends to let his work speak for itself. Since the publication of his debut novel, "Angels," in 1983 he's written some of the most essential books in contemporary American literature, but he doesn't often talk about them. "My general policy," he tells me in an email, "is to duck every such opportunity to make a fool of myself." And yet to mark the publication of his 10th novel, "The Laughing Monsters" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 228 pp., $25), Johnson has agreed to what he calls "an electronic back-and-forth" an email correspondence about the new novel, a political thriller set in Sierra Leone, Uganda and the Congo (a region he has covered as a journalist for Harper's, among other publications), writing in general and the breadth of his career. Read more
'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate'
Naomi Klein has made a career critiquing the effects of global capital and consumerism. Her 2000 book "No Logo" looked at the exploitation of workers by large multinationals, including Nike; her follow-up, "The Shock Doctrine" (2007), examined the ways in which corporations benefit from disasters, wars and other upheavals, often with the assistance of policy initiatives. These books have led to the Canadian-born Klein being called "the most visible and influential figure on the American left." For Klein, the tensions between individual freedom, individual rights and the primacy of the political-corporate complex exist in something of a crisis state. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to climate change, the subject of her new book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate," which argues, in the starkest terms imaginable, that we as a culture have reached a tipping point. Read more
First, a few facts: Edward Hirsch's son, Gabriel, died on Aug. 27, 2011, at age 22. Hurricane Irene was making landfall in New York. The previous evening, he went to a party in New Jersey, where he took GHB (known in the vernacular as Grievous Bodily Harm). He had a seizure and went into cardiac arrest. It took Hirsch and his ex-wife four days to find out what had happened to their son. That is the back story, the bare-bones context for Hirsch's book-length poem "Gabriel," which is as raw, as relentless in its inconsolability, as anything I've read. But the real point here is that facts, that context, offer no comfort. What we most want — for things to work out differently — is what we cannot have. "I wish I could believe in the otherworld," Hirsch writes. "I wish I could believe in a place / Of reunions outside of memory." Read more
'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage'
Haruki Murakami's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" begins with a simple premise: A Tokyo railroad engineer, the Tsukuru Tazaki of the novel's title, finds himself borne back ceaselessly to the summer of his sophomore year in college, when, for no reason he can determine, he was cut off by his close-knit group of high school friends. The betrayal sent Tsukuru into a spiral. "It was as if," Murakami writes, "he were sleepwalking through life, as if he had already died but not yet noticed it." It's a condition that lingers into adulthood. There is a rawness, a vulnerability, to this situation, a sense that the surface of the world is thin. This is true even after Tsukuru reaches back across the years to make contact with his former friends. How do we connect, or reconnect, Murakami wants us to consider, not only to those around us, but also to the very essence of ourselves? Read more
'The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle'
Francisco Goldman's "The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle" is so sneakily brilliant, it's hard to put into words. Part travelogue, part memoir, part reportage on Mexican politics and the scourge of narcoterrorism, it is also, in the finest sense, a book that creates its own form. "I could use words as my compass to map the route I'd taken," Goldman tells us late in the first part of this journal-like accounting, "and give it a narrative order, a sequence of incident and meaning, and rescue it from being something other than just circumstantial and ephemeral. The stories one tells about oneself aren’t necessarily true, of course, but I wanted this one to be as true as I could make it. This didn’t mean that it all had to be factually true, but I decided that this story needed to be factually true too." Read more
'Ecstatic Cahoots' and 'Paper Lantern'
Stuart Dybek's stories occupy a territory somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Nelson Algren — beguiled by the play of language, but also gritty and specific, fundamentally urban at their core. And yet, to read him is to be reminded of the resonance of small moments, the connections that arise and dissipate with the passing power of a thought. "[T]he story might at first be no more than a scent," Dybek observes in "Fiction": "a measure of the time spent folded in a cedar drawer that's detectable on a silk camisole." What he's getting at is the power of inference, the longing implied, and inspired, by a gesture or a phrase. "Fiction" comes late in "Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories." It's a superlative collection and its appearance would be notable even if it weren't accompanied by a companion volume, "Paper Lantern: Love Stories," which has been published simultaneously. Read more
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is the buzz book of the moment — or more accurately a certain kind of buzz book, for a certain kind of audience. It is also a provocation, sharing its title with one of the most notorious works of the 20th century (Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”) while seeking to break down everything we thought we knew about personal narrative. And yet, deep in the second book of this six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical project, Knausgaard offers us an unexpected key. “A life is simple to understand,” he explains, “the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere.” There you have it, “My Struggle” in a nutshell ... although how to get at this simplicity is something else again. Self-absorbed, expansive, constantly doubling back on itself, “My Struggle” is an attempt to make an epic of the banal facts of the author’s existence. This is what makes “My Struggle” so brilliant: the understanding that, in recalling, or re-creating, our history, we give it a meaning it would not otherwise possess. Read more
'The Days of Anna Madrigal'
The first time Armistead Maupin ended his "Tales of the City" serial — in 1989, with his sixth novel, "Sure of You" — he did it with a departure. Mary Ann Singleton, who had initiated the series by calling her mother in Cleveland to say she was staying in San Francisco, took a network TV job and left the Bay Area for New York. It was a sad if not unexpected outcome. In the 15 years since Maupin had first started writing about Mary Ann, her friends Michael, Mona, Brian and their irrepressible landlady, Anna Madrigal, a lot had happened: Anita Bryant, the People's Temple, AIDS. Maupin was ready to move on. It was nearly two decades before he returned to these characters, first with the 2007 novel "Michael Tolliver Lives" and then with the follow-up, "Mary Ann in Autumn," in 2010. What makes "Tales of the City" so resonant is Maupin's ability to draw broad, human lessons from the particularity of his characters' lives. This is why it has struck such a chord for close to 40 years now: adapted into three miniseries and an opera, the source of "Tales"-related San Francisco tours. Now, Maupin has chosen to end the series again with "The Days of Anna Madrigal," a work that is less about departure than coming home. Featuring the full complement of "Tales" regulars (with the exception of Mona, who died in the 1984 novel "Babycakes"), the book is an elegy — for San Francisco, for its characters, for a way of life. Read more
T.C. Boyle's "Stories II" gathers all the short fiction he has published in the past 15 years — 58 stories, including 14 that have never appeared in book form. This is no mere collection, in other words, but an edifice intended, not unlike its equally massive predecessor "Stories" (1998), to define a legacy. To some extent, that's a sign of Boyle growing older; he will turn 65 in December. Death, or the threat of death, is all over these stories — or more accurately, a sense of mortality, of time zeroing in. But even more, it's a signifier that here, he is holding nothing back. In "Stories II" we stare down 15 years of fiction, and how does it add up? "All part of the questing impulse," Boyle suggests, "that has pushed me forward into territory I could never had dreamed of when I first set out to write — that is, to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration." Read more
When news emerged three years ago that filmmaker Shane Salerno and writer David Shields were working on an oral biography (with accompanying documentary) about J.D. Salinger, I assumed it would be all smoke and no fire. Salinger, after all, had gone to ground after the publication of his novella “Hapworth 16, 1924” in June 1965; even in the wake of his death, in January 2010 at age 91, his estate had preserved the silence of his final 45 years. But if Salerno and Shields' book “Salinger” is, at nearly 700 pages, a bit of a shaggy monster, what may be most astonishing about it is its (largely) even tone. The idea is to present a portrait of Salinger as both his own savior and something considerably darker, and for the most part, the co-authors get the goods. Read more
Alan Gershenfeld was already skeptical that this January 2012 trip to Alaska would yield a video game. The blizzard wasn’t helping. But his business partner, Michael Angst, was insistent. “[He] said, ‘We have to go! I’ve been to 49 states but not Alaska.’” For the Alaskans awaiting Gershenfeld’s arrival, this two-day business adventure carried much more weight than whether a video game executive completed a travel bucket list. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an Anchorage-based nonprofit supporting eight tribes in the region, wanted to launch a for-profit arm. The goal? Make money and be less dependent upon government assistance. The big plan? At one point it was funeral homes. This month it was a video game. Read more
Video game critic
'That Dragon, Cancer'
One of the first things you hear in Ryan Green's video game is a voice mail. Though it's not a horror game, the sound isn't just frightening; it's borderline bone-chilling. A woman leaving a message for her husband sounds exasperated. She's leaving the doctor's office and coming home without any answers. The couple's baby boy is vomiting. Maybe it's this? Maybe it's that? There is no diagnosis. And why is the child's head always cocked to one side? Everyone is thinking the worst, but no one is saying it. Read more
The long-standing Mad magazine comic strip "Spy vs. Spy" is occasionally like a puzzle — a short back-and-forth that asks the reader to piece together images to see which spy has the upper hand. If it were a film, the cuts would be fast and the swapping of one frame for another would change the entire outcome. Now imagine dragging the frames around the page. Instead of resulting in one's demise, the larger-than-life hammer or roped-together dynamite could set off a brief tale of revenge. Or we could call a truce. Perhaps we could rewrite the end of the narrative to reveal a twist. Maybe the two spies had been played as pawns in a larger scheme all along. If you get rid of the Looney Tunes-like imagery and turn all that into a game, the result would feel something like "Framed." Read more
'A Bird Story'
There are first loves, which are important, yes, and then there are first pets. "A Bird Story" documents the mysterious emotional grip of the latter, tracing the connection between a humble winged critter and the little boy who dreams of joining his pal in flight. The power of imagination as well as a little ingenuity when it comes to crafting the perfect larger-than-life paper airplane goes a long way toward forging the relationship in this heartwarming tale, one that just so happens to be completely wordless and textless. Read more
'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter'
“The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” is a ghost story. Or maybe it’s a game about the mind’s powerful ability to fool itself. In both execution and play, however, it’s a tale about what’s missing. It’s a search for a boy, one whose family appears to have a mysterious and murderous history, and it unravels with a patience and exploratory nature that will challenge players and test the narrative conventions of gaming. With traces of pulpish sci-fi and hints of hard-boiled noir, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” makes clever use of the interactive medium. There is no designated order to the game; its puzzles are random and need to be stumbled upon. Players are set free, dropped in a gorgeous, photorealistic world and told essentially nothing. Read more
The ridiculousness in “Sunset Overdrive” borders on anarchic. There are rules, like any game, but long before players discover a gun that fires a stuffed kitten — a plushy that’s used to send a robotic dog on a killing spree — “Sunset Overdrive” manages to excitedly toy with many of them. None of it should work. The look is cartoonishly crass (imagine a mash-up of every West Coast city, remade in the blunt architecture style of a rock festival), the music out of date (see the Warped Tour, circa 1995), the plot simple (humans consume too many energy drinks and turn into giant monsters) and the sociopolitical targets obvious (as for those sugary drink peddlers, yes, they’re probably insidious, but we learned that from Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”). There are also guns. Lots and lots of guns. Read more
'Fantasia: Music Evolved'
Walt Disney's 1940 film "Fantasia" opens with a series of bold, inventive proclamations. Audiences are welcomed to a "new form of entertainment," one in which the animation isn't afraid to veer toward the abstract and the music isn't concerned with what's on the charts. But as the British narrator early in the new "Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved" says, "Let's see how you handle something a little more contemporary." Words that sent a shiver down the spine of this stubborn "Fantasia" loyalist. Indeed, the first voice we hear in "Fantasia: Music Evolved," a just-released interactive interpretation of the experimental but venerable brand, is that of Lady Gaga. This is dangerous territory. Beethoven is timeless, but "Applause" is already dated, its glittery melodic tendrils firmly gripping 2013. Of course, those who own the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One are the target market here, not the millions of Americans priced out of symphony halls. Read more
Though she's long considered one of the great cinematic heroes, Ellen Ripley has generally been a forgettable one when it comes to video games. Steely in her beliefs yet unafraid to show emotion and a friend to felines, the character made famous by Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" films possesses as much thoughtfulness as action-star bullheadedness. It's a combustible cocktail of very human emotional traits that until recently were not easily translated into action video games. But is it any wonder the video game industry has struggled to turn "Alien," especially the 1979 sci-fi horror film of the same name from Ridley Scott, into a notable game? After all, it's a story in which firing a gun at the enemy, one that bleeds corrosive acid, is essentially suicide. So guns, the favored weapon for nearly all interactive heroes, are largely useless. "Alien: Isolation" is an attempt to strip things back, the video game equivalent of a venerable band returning to the basics. Read more
'Smarter Than You'
The very name of the game is like a glove slapped across the face. "Smarter Than You," released this week for Apple's mobile devices, is a taunt and a challenge. Bold words for a game that, on the surface, is essentially a virtual match of rock-paper-scissors. And yet "Smarter Than You," a free game with a minimalistic presentation that asks little of its players, manages to carve its way into a rather complex psychological head space. That's because it's partly a game about the little ways in which we casually lie — to strangers, friends and loved ones. So maybe, depending on your level of cynicism, "Smarter Than You" is also a game about the ways in which we communicate. "You don't have to tell the truth," the game tells us in its opening tutorial, spelling out what is already tacitly understood in any engagement of one-upsmanship. For what it's worth, "lie" may be too harsh a word. "Smarter Than You" is a game of bluffing, of tentatively revealing half-truths or nonsense to stay one step ahead of our sparring partners. Note: The ultra-competitive may need to be warned before playing with friends. Read more
The opening moments of "Destiny" are mesmerizing. It's a Mars landing, complete with sparkling views of our galaxy and crystallized red space dust. It's a vision that looks lifted straight from photographs sent in by NASA's Curiosity rover. It's immediately inviting — optimistic, even. This is "present day" Mars, the game tells us, and considering that manned spaceflight isn't a top legislative priority anymore, watching an astronaut leave a footprint on the surface of Mars is a reminder that a venture into the unknown can be downright inspiring. Then out come the rifles. Read more
This summer's "80 Days," based on the texts of Jules Verne and available for Apple's mobile devices, is a book that can be played. Or maybe it's more accurately described as a game that can be read. Regardless, the emphasis in "80 Days" is on the wonders of global exploration — and history, albeit with a twist of sci-fi. This combination has made "80 Days" a summer reading highlight. Or is that a summer gaming highlight? Created by small English studio Inkle, "80 Days" is a re-imagining of Verne's well-known "Around the World in Eighty Days," only here boats and rails are joined by all sorts of steampunk-inspired creations — mechanical horses, magnificent steel airships and practically magical bicycles — and prose is more important than any new railway. All of this serves to open up the world, the routes and the narrative options afforded to the player. Read more
There are times when even I feel embarrassed about my accruing games knowledge. It's the moment, for instance, when I'm reminded that the majority of my recent cultural references are more likely to be recognized by the children of co-workers than anyone in my actual peer group, or the realization that the 30 minutes I spent slicing fruit with a virtual ninja blade could have been spent with the new Jules Feiffer novel. Then along comes a game like "Hohokum," one that celebrates the sheer joy of play with an exquisite soundtrack and a dash of highbrow abstractness. There's no mission to complete or grand quest to conquer, as the end goal is the exploration. "Hohokum" could be called an art-house game, but it's too dastardly cute for niche status. Utilizing the bright, rounded and heartwarming work of artist Richard Hogg, "Hohokum" looks as if it belongs in a gallery — or at least in the outtakes from the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" film. Read more
'Road Not Taken'
Adulthood, and how it weighs on us, has been an obsession of late. It's at the core of Spry Fox's "Road Not Taken," a vexing puzzle game with magical overtones released this month for home computers and the PlayStation 4.The questions it raises linger long after a play session. The game has a message: You're not getting any younger. Or maybe it's saying you're running out of time. This is the emotional head space occupied by "Road Not Taken," a game where life is rough and the kittens are adorable. And thank heavens for the cats, furry little creatures that, in the words of "Road Not Taken," are "an adorable balm for this mortal coil." The story is simple and Grimm — play as a ranger who must rescue children trapped in a fantastical forest filled with dire wolves and tasty swine. But how it handles themes of aging is cause for reflection, as its characters are more meddlesome than deadly. Read more
London designer darling Simone Rocha is following her New Establishment British Fashion Award win this week with a denim capsule for J Brand now available online. Rocha is the daughter of the well-established, Dublin, Ireland-based designer John Rocha, who was until recently a mainstay on the runways in London. She launched her namesake collection at London Fashion Week in 2011, after graduating from fashion school Central Saint Martins. Since then, she’s been racking up young designer awards across the globe and gaining a steady following for her darkly feminine, goofy-glam, ruffled and sparkly designs, which sell at Colette, Dover Street Market and Net-a-Porter, among other places. Read more
'Tory Burch: In Color'
Tory Burch has created an American brand that's both aspirational and attainable, and she's become a billionaire in the process. In the 10 years since she started her business, she's opened stores around the world, most recently in Shanghai, launched a fragrance, dressed tastemakers in the White House, in Hollywood and beyond and formed the Tory Burch Foundation to support female entrepreneurship. And she's done it all by telling a story through color. A new book, "Tory Burch: In Color" (Abrams), brings readers into her world through 11 color-themed sections. Read more
Gucci's, Beverly Hills
On a recent afternoon at Gucci's newly remodeled Rodeo Drive flagship, creative director Frida Giannini is looking very at home in L.A. She's wearing a colorful patchwork print silk blouse from the label's forthcoming spring collection, a pair of perfectly faded Gucci boyfriend jeans and metallic platform sandals that hint at her love of all things David Bowie and 1970s. This is the look of Giannini's Gucci now: everyday luxe. "Evening gowns are an incredible market for us," she says in the store's lush new third-floor VIP suite, built for celebrity dressing, with crystal-embroidered gala gowns hanging nearby. "But for me, it's important to have special items in each collection that you can keep in your closet for years. I call them essentials, but they are still objects of desire." Under construction for two years, the remodeled boutique at 347 Rodeo Drive announces itself in gold and crystal, with a sparkling façade. Read more
Barneys New York in Beverly Hills
Just in time for its 20th anniversary, celebrated on Oct. 15, Barneys New York in Beverly Hills has had a face-lift. The main floor, cosmetics floor and men's fifth floor have all been redesigned, and the store includes the first Freds restaurant on the West Coast, creating a new see-and-be-seen scene in Beverly Hills, complete with terrace tables with views of the Hollywood sign. Shoppers will notice the changes immediately. The store's curving Regency-style staircase remains the centerpiece, except now that curving motif is being carried throughout the design of the store and its fixtures, which have a soft but modern style that might be described as organic minimalism. Read more
The new "Hollywood Costume" exhibition at the May Co. building — future home of the Academy Museum of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, opening in 2017 — is on view through March 2 and features more than 150 costumes from the golden era to the present, including pieces from "American Hustle," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Great Gatsby," and the most famous shoes of all time, Dorothy's ruby-red slippers. The expansive show includes a soaring soundtrack composed especially for it by Julian Scott, and multimedia displays highlighting how costume designers work with directors and actors. Read more
Elyse Walker's Online Boutique
For 15 years, Elyse Walker's Pacific Palisades boutique has been the destination for high-end designer fashion in a neighborhood where residents would rather cross the Gobi Desert than the 405. But it's what Walker has been doing outside the store, using technology to create an omni-channel experience, that's taking the tradition of the plugged-in L.A. retailer-to-the-stars into the future. Walker can sell a pair of $2,300 Saint Laurent boots without ever having to put them on the floor, just by sending a text message to a well-heeled client. She can blow out $4,600 Stella McCartney lace jumpsuits before they've even been unpacked from the box by posting a runway photo to her Instagram account with the hashtag #Everydayisarunway. Launched two years ago, her e-commerce site, ForwardByElyseWalker.com, is poised to hit $100 million in sales this year. Read more
New York Fashion Week: Michael Kors
If there is one phrase that sums up the spring season at New York Fashion Week, Michael Kors has it: optimistic chic. His collection brought many of the week's trends together, including 1950s-inspired circle skirts and crop tops: garden florals and embroideries; natural hues; gingham checks; spare, simple accessories and shoes made for walking. Read more
The Emmys: The Best of the Red Carpet Looks
The Emmys' red carpet was one of the best displays of fashion and style in recent Hollywood history. The looks were modern and not overwhelming. These women wore the clothes; the clothes didn't wear them. Red was the hot color and the best red dresses had unusual details -- whimsical red crystal butterflies at the neckline of Claire Danes' Givenchy stunner, for example, and sexy burgundy patent leather strap details on Julia Louis-Dreyfus' raspberry red Carolina Herrera gown. Read more
Accessories designer Kendall Conrad's face brightens on a recent morning in her sun-filled Abbot Kinney boutique as she flips through pages of playful owl sketches, images of black-and-white ceramic vessels with Minotaur faces and the color blue, Picasso blue. She's turned to the books "Picasso: The Mediterranean Years" and "Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953" to explain the arty inspiration for her spring Vallauris collection, which may be her best yet. Read more
This summer, the Abbot Kinney shopping scene is becoming even more boho-chic. Figue, the New York-based gypset-lifestyle collection founded in 2012 by fashion vet Stephanie von Watzdorf, has opened a pop-up shop on the famed retail stretch in Venice. The store features the spring/summer collection, including folkloric beaded tuxedo shirts, ikat-print tunic dresses and fringed bags, as well as limited-edition accessories sourced from the designer's travels, such as hand-embroidered kaftans and one-of-a-kind, hand-embellished military jackets. Von Watzdorf designed the 1,300-square-foot space herself, with Moorish arches, filigree lanterns, a hammock and Berber blankets that make you want to stay a while. Read more
Mary-Kate, Ashley Olsen open first flagship for the Row
Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, meet the Row. Taking its rightful place on Melrose Place, one of L.A.'s toniest shopping streets, is the new American luxury brand created just eight years ago by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The opening of the first retail store for the Row is a homecoming for the 27-year-old twin sisters, who were born in Sherman Oaks and made their fortune in Hollywood, starting at the age of 9 months, when they shared the role of Michelle Tanner on the TV series "Full House." Read more
Lou & Grey
Ann Taylor and Loft have a new, free-spirited sibling. The American retailer has launched a brand called Lou & Grey that's a tomboyish fusion of active and street wear, or "lifewear" as its being positioned. Available in Loft stores, on LouandGrey.com, and in the first Lou & Grey freestanding store recently opened in Westport, Conn., the brand features sporty and loungey soft-dressing pieces in a pale color palette, including mélange knit moto jackets, slouchy linen T-shirts, textural oatmeal knit sweaters, sweat-shirt dresses and lace sweat pants from $30 to $100. I caught up with Austyn Zung, creative director of Loft and Lou & Grey, and a veteran of Loft, Gap's Fourth & Towne, and Oscar de la Renta before that, to chat about the new brand under the ANN Inc. umbrella, its roots in California ease, and the key building blocks of the collection. Read more
Like Vince, Joie and A.L.C.? Meet their French cousins Sandro, Maje and Iro. Los Angeles, birthplace of some of America's most successful contemporary fashion labels, is seeing a new wave of brands from Paris opening stores with their own French take on affordable luxury. One such brand is Sandro, which made its presence known in Los Angeles last week by hosting a star-studded bash at the Chateau Marmont on Thursday night to celebrate two new stores, one on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, and the other in the Beverly Center. Read more