Critics’ Picks: Dec 2 - Dec 8, 2016
Los Angeles Times entertainment, arts and culture critics choose the week’s most noteworthy openings, new releases, ongoing events and places to go in and around Southern California.
The Los Angeles Theater Center offers the holiday treat “The Latina Christmas Special,” and at the movies the magnificent collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune is celebrated with a new documentary.
Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.
‘Mifune: The Last Samurai’
A galvanic performer who was as present in his roles as anyone who ever lived, the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune is the subject of this smart and thoughtful documentary examination of who the man was and how he got that way. Read more
‘The Edge of Seventeen’
Hailee Steinfeld gives a superb performance as a high school misfit in Kelly Fremon Craig’s disarmingly smart teen dramedy, the rare coming-of-age picture that feels less like a retread than a renewal. (Justin Chang) Read more
Los Angeles Times Movie Critic
‘Manchester by the Sea’
Powerful, emotional filmmaking that leaves a scar, Kenneth Lonergan’s drama starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams is both heartbreaking and heartening, a film that just wallops you with its honesty, its authenticity, and its access to despair. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
Paul Verhoeven’s brilliantly booby-trapped new thriller starring Isabelle Huppert is a gripping whodunit, a tour de force of psychological suspense and a wickedly droll comedy of manners. (Justin Chang) Read more
Los Angeles Times Movie Critic
Amy Adams stars in this elegant, involving science fiction drama that is simultaneously old and new, revisiting many alien invasion conventions but with unexpected intelligence, visual style and heart. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'The Eagle Huntress'
A portrait of a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia who defies eons of tradition by learning to hunt with fierce golden eagles is a documentary so satisfying it makes you feel good about feeling good. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
The most absorbing feature in years from the South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) is a teasingly witty and elegant puzzle box of a thriller about women (played by Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee) pursuing their destinies in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. Read more
'Kubo and the Two Strings'
In this 3-D wonderment steeped in ancient Japanese folklore and brought to life by the stop-motion innovators at Laika Entertainment, magic is both an eye-popping phenomenon and an everyday reality. (Justin Chang) Read more
Beautifully acted by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, this involving, socially conscious Jeff Nichols drama shows the personal lives of the interracial couple whose marriage led to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
Superb filmmaking and an exceptional level of emotional honesty universalize a very specific coming-of-age experience, that of a gay black man growing from child to adult starting in 1980s Miami’s crack cocaine epidemic years. Read more
A straight-ahead, unapologetic family film, this re-imagining of the 1977 film about a boy and his dragon is the kind of foursquare movie its distributor Disney could have made decades ago. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
‘Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party’
Although the superficial contrasts are what drive the high concept, the pairing of pot-smoking Snoop Dogg, 45, and pot-cooking Martha Stewart, 75, in a VH1 lifestyle-party show makes a certain sense. Two of America’s most chill celebrities, both are television veterans, both have done time. Both sell a version – not entirely incompatible – of the Good Life. It’s odd at first; Stewart seems dazed by the noisiness of the production, to be moving as if on castors. But once they’re past the awards-show scripted banter and into their improvisational comfort zone, the hour gets interesting and amiable. (VH1, Mondays) Read more
2016 Fall TV Season
The fall TV season is here, and between the many options delivered by premium cable channels, multiple streaming services and a new slate of shows from the major networks, there’s a lot of programming to choose from. If you were hoping that that "Peak TV" bubble was going to burst anytime soon, allowing you a moment to do something other than watch television, you can disabuse yourself of that notion tout de suite. It's TV all the time now, and like the Hydra of legend, every show that's canceled seems to sprout three in its place. Worse luck, many are excellent — so you’re sunk. Here, we run down what to watch this season as they debut weekly. Read more
‘The Latina Christmas Special’
Under the direction of Geoffrey Rivas, the massively talented trio of Maria Russell, Diana Yanez and Sandra Valls, who all play themselves, hilariously and heart-wrenchingly recapitulate memories of Christmases past in this very special “Special” — which is most distinctively and most memorably a loving tribute to their feisty, funny Latina mothers. Ends Jan. 7. Read more
Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.
'Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass'
Imaginatively integrating video, animation and live performance, Bryan Davidson’s new adaptation set in Depression-era Appalachia links the fairy tale horrors of child abandonment with real-world dire poverty. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sunday, May 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
Based on an actual incident, Stephen Sachs' delightful and provocative comedy pits a boozy Bakersfield trailer dweller who has supposedly discovered an authentic Jackson Pollock at a local thrift shop against the intellectually snide art expert who has been sent to evaluate her find. In this reprise of his 2011 production, Sachs, who also directs, has once again cast delightful husband-and-wife acting team Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett as surprisingly equal adversaries in his intellectually well-balanced dialectic. For those who missed the production the first time around, this is a welcome opportunity to redress that oversight. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sun., Feb. 26) Read more
‘The Play About the Baby’
Arguably one of the lesser works in Edward Albee’s late-life creative flowering, this expressionistic play about idyllic young lovers menaced by an older couple with dire designs on their newborn baby nonetheless exemplifies Albee’s enduring spirit of youthful experimentalism, as well as his lifelong refusal to knuckle under to the demands of the marketplace. Andre Barron’s sterling staging, which features a superlative cast spearheaded by the remarkable Sam Anderson, is a must see. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sat., Dec. 10) Read more
The Road on Magnolia, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood
Single: ‘A Living Human Girl’
Out of the gate, teen band the Regrettes aren’t holding back. The group’s first major single, “A Living Human Girl,” takes aim at the patriarchy in one verse and societal expectations of beauty in another, with lead singer Lydia Night rattling off perceived faults as if they’re cause for celebration. Pimples? Check. Stretch marks? Bring ‘em on. “I can dress how I want, not looking for a show of hands,” she snarls over a snappy, ‘60s-inspired groove. Although the 15-year-old says the song was inspired by her first few days of high school in downtown Los Angeles, the tune’s worldview transcends adolescence. (Todd Martens) Read more
Video game critic
The Best Pop Music of 2016 (so far)
So much about the first few months of pop in 2016 has been about mourning. David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Paul Kantner, George Martin, Prince, Scotty Moore, Maurice White, Bernie Worrell and the just-starting-out Christina Grimmie are among those who have left us. But while the music community has been dealt serious blows, the first six months of 2016 have also given us much to celebrate. What follows is a look at some of the most notable albums and singles of 2016, as picked by the pop staff of the Times. Happy listening. Read more
Los Angeles Times Pop Music Staff
Album: ‘Stranger to Stranger’
“Sound is the theme of this album,” Paul Simon writes in the press notes accompanying this new album, “as much as it’s about the subjects of the individual songs. If people get that, I’ll be pleased.” True to his word, the visceral sonic qualities of the 11 tracks on the collection are as commanding as his ever-literate lyrics and consistently inviting melodies. Yet this is nothing new for one of the premiere singers and songwriters of the rock era. At 74, Simon reaches ever further for new textures, musically and sonically, to help him say what he wants to say, making “Stranger to Stranger” a distinguished and captivating extension of, rather than a dramatic departure from, his rich body of work. It’s a work reflective of an artist still hungry for exploration. Read more
Album: 'Take Me to the Alley'
Last year Gregory Porter told me that "Holding On," his sleek, skittering collaboration with the British dance duo Disclosure, started out as a bare-bones piano ballad. Given how much I'd thought of Porter's fine 2013 album, "Liquid Spirit," this was something I had to hear. Now I can: A handsome, slow-and-low rendition of "Holding On" — not merely unplugged, but with different chords that alter the vibe of the song — opens Porter's new record, "Take Me to the Alley," due Friday. The tune's placement on the album speaks to the importance of "Holding On" in Porter's career, the way it put this Southern California native in front of unfamiliar listeners after years of hard work in jazz clubs and on Broadway. Read more
Album: 'Everything You've Come to Expect'
In the music video for "Aviation," the first song on their new album as the Last Shadow Puppets, Alex Turner and Miles Kane play two men forced to dig what look like their own graves by a suave but sadistic crime-boss type. There's a woman too, weeping in the back seat of a vintage Rolls-Royce, and we seem meant to understand that she's been caught carrying on with one of these guys; now her wicked husband is punishing the whole lot. Whatever the specifics, Turner and Kane — both Jason Statham-soulful in their grimy undershirts — are clearly identified as the noble victims in this little drama. Yet that's rarely what they look like on "Everything You've Come to Expect," the second full-length from this British orchestral-pop duo. Due Friday, the album comes nearly a decade after the Last Shadow Puppets' swooning 2008 debut, "The Age of the Understatement." Read more
Album: 'Mind of Mine'
A year after Zayn Malik quit One Direction (which likely led to the remaining four band members hitting pause), this 23-year-old singer has become the first of the bunch to release a solo record. And listening to "Mind of Mine," due Friday, it seems clear that Zayn left not because he couldn't handle the pressure of global stardom, as he intimated at the time, but because he wanted to get serious — really serious — about music. Read more
Album: 'This Is What the Truth Feels Like'
Sixteen years ago, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt sang about wanting "a simple kind of life." That's not how things turned out. Sure, No Doubt — the Anaheim ska-pop band that blasted off in 1995 with the zillion-selling album "Tragic Kingdom" — continued its straightforward ascent for a few more years, racking up hit songs with impressive efficiency through the mid-2000s. But then Stefani launched a solo career that added new wrinkles to her sound and persona. She went into fashion and starting having children, which she's said made a mess of her schedule. Following two huge solo records, she returned to No Doubt for a reunion album, 2012's "Push and Shove," which quickly fizzled, disrupting a narrative neatly defined to that point by success. Then last year, her life got really screwy: Stefani's marriage to Gavin Rossdale, frontman of the band Bush, fell apart (reportedly because of his affair with the couple's nanny), and she began dating Blake Shelton, the country star with whom she recently appeared on NBC's "The Voice." "Never thought this would happen ... Don't know what I'm feeling," she sings in "Used to Love You," a moody, down-tempo single released only months after she filed for divorce. Stefani dives deeply into those complications on her first solo album in a decade. Due Friday, "This Is What the Truth Feels Like" has songs about betrayal and disappointment, and songs about moving on from a broken relationship and falling in love again. Read more
You can't name your album "Anti" without inviting your audience to think about what you oppose. So what is Rihanna standing against on her eighth studio record? A smoothly choreographed product rollout, for one. After repeated delays, "Anti" finally appeared online Wednesday night, first in an apparently unauthorized leak, then as an exclusive on the streaming service Tidal; Samsung also gave away a limited number of free downloads through a complicated promotion. By Friday, the album was available for sale through iTunes (where it quickly topped the chart) and Tidal, though it hasn't yet shown up on other streaming services such as Spotify, and a physical release date has yet to be announced. (Mikael Wood) Read more
There's something delightfully perverse that David Bowie waited until he was 69 to release what's being described as his first jazz album. It was at that age too when veteran rock stars who include Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney took up with big bands or reached for the Great American Songbook to demonstrate their taste and hard-won stature. Even Bob Dylan got in on the act last year with "Shadows in the Night," his lovely (if desolate) tribute to Frank Sinatra. So when you hear that Bowie hooked up with a New York saxophonist and his crew for “Blackstar,” out Friday (just two days before his death from cancer), you think perhaps that Bowie has joined the club — that after cycling through countless styles and personas over his half-century career, he’s finally become a finger-snapping crooner with Count Basie on his mind. Ah, no. (Mikael Wood) Read more
Album: 'HitNRun Phase Two'
Is this becoming a habit? That's the question Prince raised Saturday morning when without warning he released a new album, "HitNRun Phase Two," on the streaming-music service Tidal. As its title suggests, the 12-track set follows an earlier album, "HitNRun Phase One," which Prince had made available in similar fashion in September — proof, it would seem, that this legendary control freak has shed his once-famous disdain for the unruly Internet. Maybe this double-shot system is how Prince, as prolific as he's ever been, intends to roll from here on out. Works for me. A proudly organic companion to the EDM-inflected "Phase One," Prince's latest album shows that he hasn't lost his interest in (or his knack for) the creeping funk and lush R&B balladry he was making in the early 1990s on records like the great "Diamonds and Pearls." Read more
When Adele sings on her new album, "25," about an emotional experience so vivid that "It was just like a movie / It was just like a song," she's probably thinking of a tune by one of her idols: Roberta Flack, say, or Stevie Nicks. But for fans of this 27-year-old British singer, such a moment could only be captured by one thing: an Adele song. With her big hair and bigger voice, Adele broke out in 2008 as part of the British retro-soul craze that also included Duffy and Amy Winehouse. Her debut album, "19," spawned a hit single in "Chasing Pavements" and led to a Grammy Award for best new artist. Yet she outgrew any style or scene with the smash follow-up, "21," which presented Adele as a great crystallizer of complicated feelings, an artist writing intimately about her own life (in this case about a devastating breakup) in a way that somehow made the music feel universal. Clearly, the pressure is on to duplicate that commercial success with "25," which comes after a long period of public quiet in which Adele recovered from throat surgery and gave birth to a son (and tweeted no more than a few dozen times). "Hello," the record's brooding lead single, set a record when it was released last month, racking up 1.1 million downloads in a week. But the song's enthusiastic embrace only underscored the other, more pressing demand on the singer as she returns: that her music still provide its trademark catharsis. Put another way, Adele's fans have been waiting for years for new Adele songs to explain their experiences to them. And they get a worthy batch on "25." (Mikael Wood) Read more
Album: 'Bob Dylan — The Cutting Edge'
Among the many things Thomas Edison famously said, he remarked that "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration," and he also insisted that "I have not failed once. I have simply found 10,000 ways that do not work." Both precepts are clearly evident in "1965-1966: Bootleg Series Vol. 12," the revelatory latest release of Dylan archival recordings that comes out Nov. 6. Culling a mind- and ear-boggling wealth of outtakes, alternate versions and rehearsal snippets during sessions over the 14 months of an astonishingly fertile period for Dylan, which yielded three of the most influential albums in rock history — "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" — the new set throws open a panoramic window into the creative process of one of the 20th century's greatest artists. (Randy Lewis) Read more
Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants, 2016
White chocolate is the new black. A serious chef farms her own vegetables. Silver Lake is the new Brooklyn. Tokyo is the new Paris. And it is possible to eat superbly well in Los Angeles without knowing any of that, because we are at the nexus of a great center of world trade and a fine agricultural region, and the best meal of the year could as well come from that place in the mini-mall by the 99 Cents Only store as from that place with the thousand-bottle wine list and the chef that you’ve seen on TV. Read more
Everson Royce Bar
Everson Royce Bar isn’t really a restaurant. To be fair, it doesn’t even try to be a restaurant – the word Bar is in its name. When you glance at the menu, the food takes up slightly less real estate than its shortlist of shots, and if you are a drinker of a certain bent, your attention is likely to linger on the sherry-cask Japanese whiskey than it is on the shrimp roll and the chicken thighs. Beard Award-winning chef Matt Molina is more or less serving regular bar snacks here, but superbly well, like the kitchen equivalent of a band like Metallica doing a covers set just because it can: steamed buns with pork belly, smoked potato taquitos, shrimp rolls and flaky, extra-rich biscuits with maple butter that happen to be about the best things it is possible to eat with bourbon. Read more
Gus’s Fried Chicken
You’re probably going to want to try Gus’s Fried Chicken. Because it’s pretty remarkable stuff, even in chicken-obsessed Los Angeles: a burnished red-gold, pieces bigger than they are small, whose peppery heat at first seems mild, even nonexistent, until it starts creeping up a few bites in, a heat that makes you glad you have a pint of sweet iced tea by your side. You may be thinking of Nashville hot chicken, the kind you can stand in line for at Howlin’ Ray’s in Chinatown, but this isn’t that — you don’t worry whether you’ve renewed your life insurance after a wing or two, and the crunch, although considerable, is of a completely different sort. Classic Nashville chicken has a complex, multilayered crunch that maintains much of its integrity even after a day or two in the fridge. Gus’s chicken is more of a batter-fried phenomenon, with a thin, fragile crust that shatters under your teeth, releasing a flood of scalding juice. Read more
Favorite Asian fried chicken joints
Does Los Angeles live by Nashville hot chicken alone? No — not as long as there’s a universe of Asian fried chicken too. Read more
Kettle Black is a new Italian restaurant from Beau Laughlin and his team, who also own Sawyer and the juice bar Clover on the block. The chef is Sydney Hunter III, who has been cooking in Los Angeles for 15 years or so, many of them at the right hand of Ludovic Lefebvre. Hunter’s Italian cooking is sure but eccentric, hewing to no particular regional cuisine and slightly edgy in its way, favoring a sweet-sour flavor palette, lots of crunch, and chiles used as much for fragrance as they are for heat: pizza, good handmade pastas, and fat purple slices of Japanese eggplant passed through the fire just long enough to add a bit of smokiness. Read more
There has never been a tempura restaurant in Los Angeles quite like Tempura Endo, the first American branch of a Kyoto, Japan, institution that dates to 1910. The restaurant occupies a modest storefront next door to a Japanese knife shop and right by a rental car yard. The location, although it is in the Beverly Hills triangle, has never been noted for fine dining – I remember a sushi bar that seemed really to specialize in sukiyaki. Tempura Endo is the other kind of tempura bar – an exquisitely expensive place that exists to serve intricate omakase dinners, well-calibrated multi-course meals presented with the detail and attention to seasonality of kaiseki, the lightness and purity you might not associate with two hours of deep-fried food. Read more
It is cold in Los Angeles. Rain is in the air. What you want to be eating is dizi, an Iranian lamb and chickpea stew, flavored with turmeric and dried lime — a popular street food dish from Tehran that seems to have a tonic effect against the chill. And for dizi, you should probably be at Nersses Vanak, a slightly faded restaurant in an industrial district of Glendale, where dizi, served with long-pickled garlic, platters of fresh herbs, and hot slabs of flatbread snatched smoking from the grill, is always the thing. Read more
Is it possible to become converted in a single bite? Because with a single fried chicken wing at the original Portland Pok Pok in 2007, I dropped my prejudices about non-European cooking in Oregon, the crossover potential of extreme Asian funk, and the ability of a non-Thai to prepare anything like upcountry Thai food. So eight years, many affiliated restaurants, a James Beard award, a Michelin star and a Chinatown noodle stand later, here we are at Pok Pok Los Angeles, an enormous restaurant in the old Fu Ling space in the Mandarin Plaza at the relatively deserted north end of Chinatown. Chef Andy Ricker's gift is the ability to make Thai food seem new again, to take it out of that comfortable place in the suburban strip mall, where it has become the default takeout comfort food for a huge chunk of Los Angeles, and put it back into the roadside stands and rural villages of Northern Thailand. Read more
Five of the tastiest Chinese restaurants in the SGV with the name 'Tasty'
In last week's column, I alluded to the flood of San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants with the word "Tasty'" tucked somewhere into their English-language names. Depending on whether you count doughnut shops, burger stands or branches of the same restaurant as Tasty, Not-Tasty or Tasty in their own right – well, there are a lot of them. Here are five of the tastiest. Read more
‘Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach’
LACMA’s show does an excellent job of translating 16th century German culture into a revealing 21st century exhibition. The museum has a reputation for organizing important shows of German art, mostly from the modern era, and “Renaissance and Reformation” impressively extends the range. Ends Saturday, March 26. Read more
LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
U.S. Courthouse Downtown
The $350-million, 633,000-square-foot federal courthouse, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, between Hill Street and Broadway, across the street from The Times, is an unusually polished work of civic architecture — especially by the standards of Los Angeles, where well-wrought public buildings have been comparatively rare in recent decades. Ten stories high, with broad shoulders and careful posture, it takes the form of a cube sheathed in walls of glass. Read more
For his first local solo show in 14 years — and one of the best gallery exhibitions of the season — Los Angeles-based Conceptual artist Sietsema has fashioned a challenging reconsideration of classic artistic themes of decay and transformation. It begins with the color of money. Through Dec. 23. Read more
Matthew Marks Gallery, 1062 N. Orange Grove Ave., West Hollywood
John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction
McLaughlin’s painting retrospective is the most moving and viscerally beautiful exhibition to be installed in BCAM since the building opened eight years ago. This is the first time a major institution has mounted a proper, full-scale retrospective. That such an indispensable painter didn’t merit one until 40 years after his death tells you all you need to know about how passed over this brilliant artist has been. In fact, I’ve been waiting those same 40 years for it. Ends Sunday, April 16. (Christopher Knight) Read more
LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Alternative Dreams: 17th Century Chinese Paintings From the Tsao Family Collection
With Dong Qichang’s own scholarly acumen as a guide, the collection Tsao assembled unfolds the widespread influence the artist gained as the Qing dynasty consolidated its power. The work of more than 80 artists is on view in a handsome, minimalist installation. It’s a demanding show, one that defies casual perusal. But it rewards close looking. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Dec. 4) Read more
Polly Apfelbaum: 'Face (Geometry) (Naked) Eyes'
A secular chapel might seem an impossible contradiction in terms. The mystery of mortality doesn’t merge easily with the empirical here-and-now. Yet that is what is invoked by a large, lovely new installation by Apfelbaum. (Ends Sun. Dec. 4) Read more
Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles
Nothing rests easily in Khedoori's work, its drama typically tamped down — even in a romantic, wall-size painting of billowing black clouds. They hang in the air, a pregnant pause, quietly setting a stage for something momentous to happen. Khedoori starts with a primary paradox of art, in which an image is also an object. Playing with contradictions intrinsic to Modernist painting, she comes up with enchanting, unexpected hybrids. (Christopher Knight) (Through March 19) Read more
The small exhibition is an elegiac tone poem, spoken in visual shades of black. With just 10 works by eight artists, it presents no defined thesis but resonates beyond its modest scale. (Christopher Knight) (Through March 31, 2017) Read more
The Underground Museum, 3508 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles
Betye Saar: Blend and Black White
Saar, at 90, is what the Japanese would call a Living National Treasure. Any opportunity to see the Los Angeles native’s work is a privilege, one that promises to wrench, incite and nourish. This work in this show spans more than 50 years and includes found object assemblage, installations, mixed media paintings and drawings, collages and a print. It oscillates between toughness and beauty and typically fuses the two. (Leah Ollman) (Through Dec. 17) Read more
Kay Sekimachi: Simple Complexity
Sekimachi works in an astonishing range of materials but is primarily known as a fiber artist. This handsome, at times breathtaking show touches down lightly across the range of her nearly 60-year output. (Leah Ollman) (Ends Sunday, Jan. 8) Read more
'The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena'
Giovanni di Paolo was barely 24 when he painted the so-called Branchini Madonna, a wonderfully weird confection of big, doll-like figures framed within a furious flutter of cherubim wings. The work is among the great treasures of Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum. Currently, however, the monumental painting is installed across town as the centerpiece of this small but engrossing one-room exhibition. Ends Sunday, Jan. 8. Read more
I’m Batman. I’ve waited years — since the release of 1989’s “Batman” — to say those words and mean them. Considering that I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life writing rather than building a superhero’s physique, it seemed unlikely, save for Halloween, that such a day would come. This year we saw the release of the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive, which makes it possible to put on a pair of goggles and disappear into a digital landscape — as long as you have a high-priced, top-of-the-line computer. Now with Sony’s PlayStation VR, an add-on to the PlayStation 4 so many of us already have hooked up to our TVs, virtual reality is coming to the masses. Read more
Video game critic
The opening screen of the new Variable States video feature “Virginia” welcomes players to a small town named Kingdom. It’s laid before us as if it were a board game, with little trails leading to a cave or a gas station, a schoolyard or an observatory, all presented with the simple, cheery look of a brightly filled-in coloring book. Come in, stay awhile and bask in the beauty of small-town life, it seems to say. Press play, however, and things get twisted, and not with the typical things-are-not-what-they-seem subversion. Read more
Video game critic
The Wii U era is over. On Thursday morning, Nintendo unveiled its new console, the Nintendo Switch. Long code-named the Nintendo NX, the Nintendo Switch is a hybrid of sorts. The system, which will use cartridges rather than discs, will work with television sets. But it also will allow for portable use — a home gaming system that will work in the family room and on the go. Read more
'No Man's Sky'
Fourteen minutes and 54 seconds. I'm on a distant planet, and I need to get to my spaceship. Yet "No Man's Sky" is telling me that the vessel is a 14-minute, 54-second hike away. So I settle into the couch. But after three minutes of strolling through a salmon-colored rocky surface — and admiring some lavender plant life — I need a break, perhaps for good. This was the second time in one week I had quit "No Man's Sky." That's because there's another, more important number to mention when it comes to discussing "No Man's Sky": 18.4 quintillion. That is, there are more than 18.4 quintillion planets to discover in "No Man's Sky." You will not live long enough — here on Earth, that is — to collect them all. Read more
There are peculiar stone structures in the shape of sharks throughout the game "Abzu." They exist not to be investigated or warn of foreboding territory ahead. Instead, these objects are built for meditating. Have a seat, they beckon, and take in marine life. Play voyeur to a whale, a jellyfish, a shark or any number of undersea inhabitants. While "Abzu" is far from a documentary or a simulation, perhaps no other video game has ever been so singularly focused on re-creating the vast, majestic and mysterious nature of an aquatic universe. It does this with no voice, no text and no conflict. Your character in "Abzu" cannot "die" in the traditional video-game sense. Instead, the game centers on postcard-worthy imagery — swarming, silver schools of fish or sparkling green leaves or warm, orange coral — and Austin Wintory's thoughtful, patient score. Read more
'Mirror's Edge Catalyst'
Imagine if the world were filtered through the home screen of a smartphone. Picture opening your eyes to an image overloaded with headlines and messages. Notifications no longer buzz, they flash before you. "Warning," the display blinks in the lower right, "your bank balance is low." This is the view of Faith, early in "Mirror's Edge Catalyst." Having just been released from prison, Faith may not be happy with her financial prospects, but she definitely isn't too keen with the sensory overload of this futuristic, uncomfortably modern society. "Is this what the employees see all the time?" she wonders. In the world of "Mirror's Edge Catalyst," there aren't citizens so much as employees — workers for one of a handful of conglomerates that controls the world. You are identified not by your ethnicity or your interests but your job. Read more
'The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds'
Another long-standing Nintendo franchise gets spruced up. Like "Mario 3D," the look and controls are familiar, the tone is entirely new, as this action-adventure emphasizes smarts and exploration over tedious dungeon crawling. Read more
Early in the game "Severed," one of the more striking images you'll see this year in a video game appears. A woman of mixed-race descent stands before a mirror, her yellow dress bloody, her arm a stub and her eyes wide in shock. The world is bright and blocky — a handcrafted-looking universe that seems constructed of paper, but immediately the tone drifts toward melancholic. The art almost appears lifted from a Día de los Muertos display, and though this is the beginning of the journey for young Sasha, it also feels like the beginning of an end. Read more
Early in the film "Late Shift," Matt, a student on his way to a night job, faces an easily relatable dilemma: help a lost tourist with directions and risk being late to work or ignore the man and hop on a waiting subway train. Here is where you would expect director Tobias Weber to show the audience the outcome of Matt's decision as the story unfolds. Matt's choice, however, is up to you, the viewer. In fact, you control every major plot turn in the film. "Late Shift," created by CtrlMovie, a small studio in Switzerland, and written by Weber and Michael Robert Johnson, best known for Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes," may be the world's first fully realized choose-your-own-adventure film. Read more
Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hollywood
The opening of Universal Studios' new Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hollywood brings to the West Coast what many consider the grandest theme park attraction in North America. A mix of fully realized sets — including a steamy, fire-breathing dragon — as well as screens interspersed with actors from the "Harry Potter" films, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a highly kinetic motion simulator that aims to re-create the sense of flying. Guests sit on what appears to be a bench, pull down an over-the-shoulder harness and are soon whisked into the air, gliding in and out of filmed moments and elaborately constructed scenes. Read more
Universal Studios Hollywood, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City
A Few New Mobile Video Games
There are a lot of mobile games out there — last year more than 100,000 iOS games were released in North America. Here are a few recent mobile games worthy of exploration: "Love You to Bits" (Alike/Pati). Breakups stink. They're worse when your girlfriend is scattered around the galaxy. In this iOS game a young boy tries to put back together his first love, a female robot, and learns to live on his own along the way. "Story Warriors: Fairy Tales" (Below the Game). Tales such as "Snow White," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella" and more get remixed in this text-driven puzzler about a young woman who gets trapped in folklore. Tap on words to bring them to life, and piece together nouns and adjectives as if they're math problems, the right solution inspiring a cutesy animated sequence. "SPL-T" (Simogo). Swedish studio Simogo is one of the most adventurous companies out there, specializing in head-scratching, text-heavy games such as "Device 6" and "The Sailor's Dream." "SPL-T" is a back-to-basics puzzle game. In the black and white game, players place a horizontal line and then a vertical one, trying to create as many splits as possible. "Super Phantom Cat" (Veewo). Cats! Robots! "Super Phantom Cat" takes the weirdness of "Super Mario Bros.," gives it a zany feline-meets-sci-fi makeover, and uses slick touch controls to create a freshly retro experience. It's all delivered with a gooey feel-good message and some rainbow-hued prettiness. "The Swords." (Sunhead Games). Imagine a scene in an action movie, one in which one swordsman is surrounded by an army on all sides. Now imagine all the action is presented in a minimal ink wash art style. By zeroing in on the blades, "The Swords" emphasizes the chaos of battle. Swipe fast, and do so with precision. Read more
Dave Hagewood didn't set out to create the next big thing in electronic sports. Ten years ago he simply envisioned a game in which cars did crazy things. Cars with rockets on them. The result was the breakout independent game of 2015, "Rocket League." The key to its success was one simple addition to Hagewood's original vision: a giant, bouncy soccer ball. Thus, a zany game in which cars crashed into one another became something else entirely, a madcap sport. "Rocket League" has now reached more than 12 million players, with revenue topping $70 million. In late February, the game — already a hit on Sony's PlayStation 4 and computing platform Steam — arrived on Microsoft's Xbox One, where in less than a month it attracted more than 1 million players. Read more
‘Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From the Afghanistan War’
“I perceive the world through the medium of human voices,” Svetlana Alexievich declares near the end of “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From the Afghanistan War,” explaining both her method and her point of view. For Alexievich — who in October became just the third nonfiction writer and 14th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature — testimony may be as close as one can get to faith. “We’ve worshipped many gods,” she writes in this slender but vivid account, told in the voices of survivors of the Soviet Afghan war. “Some have been consigned to the scrapheap, others to museums. Let us make Truth into a god! A god before whom each of us shall answer according to his own conscience, and not as a class, or a university year, or a collective, or a people….” Read more
'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams'
Stephen King, I've come to think, is at his most adept when writing in the midlength range. His big novels — "The Stand," "It," "11/22/63" — have always felt a little baggy to me, while his shortest work (he has published more than 200 stories, gathered in a number of collections) can feel sketchy, more idea than nuanced narrative. That middle zone, however: His finest efforts emerge from this territory, shorter novels "Misery," "Joyland" and "The Shining," novellas such as "The Body" or the chilling "A Good Marriage." In this material, King has the breadth to do what he does best, which is to evoke the very human underpinnings of terror, while also remaining constrained by certain limitations of space. As he explains in "The Bazaar of Bad Dreams," which gathers 20 pieces of fiction, along with brief reflections on their composition, "Only through fiction can we think about the unthinkable, and perhaps obtain some sort of closure." The key word there is not the unthinkable in which King traffics but "closure," the closure of the midrange form. Read more
'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink'
New wave rocker, country crooner, balladeer, collaborator and showman: Elvis Costello has been all of these and more in the course of what is now a 40-year run. Of all the first-generation punkers, he remains (with Patti Smith and possibly David Byrne) among the few who can claim the longevity and diversity of, say, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, both of whom appear in this book. Like minds, perhaps, or water seeking its level. Either way, this is the company to which Costello belongs. And yet, if "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink" has anything to tell us, it is that its author remains a fan. Here he is, for instance, on his first experience singing with Paul McCartney, a rehearsal duet on "All My Loving": "I locked on to the vocal harmony the second time around, as I'd done a thousand times before while singing along to the record. It never really occurred to me that learning to sing either vocal part on a Beatles record was any kind of musical education. I was just a kid singing along with the radio in our front room." Or this, recalling a good-natured cutting contest, trading lyrics with Bob Dylan: "It was just fun to be in the ring with the champ for a minute or two." Read more
'City on Fire'
A long book represents an act of faith. On the writer's part, to be sure: The faith that he or she has something to say that's worth all the hours it will take for us to hear it, that it won't dissolve in ephemera and flash. But on the reader's part, also: The faith that we can trust the writer, that there will be a payoff, that it will add up. Certainly, this is the challenge faced by Garth Risk Hallberg's first novel, "City on Fire," which, clocking in at more than 900 pages, seeks to re-create, in panoramic fashion, the New York City of the late 1970s. Hallberg's book, of course, is much anticipated, for its length, its scope and its deal (he sold the book for $2 million) — but all of that is beside the point. The only criteria worth considering is whether, or how, the narrative works, the extent to which it draws us in. Read more
First, let's clear up a misconception: Patti Smith's "M Train" is not a sequel to her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir "Just Kids." In fact, "M Train" is not a memoir at all, except in the loosest sense — a book of days, a year in the life, a series of reflections, more vignettes than sustained narrative. By saying that, I don't mean to be critical, for vignettes are what Smith does best. Read more
'So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood'
Patrick Modiano opens his most recent novel, "So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood," with an epigraph from Stendhal: "I cannot provide the reality of events, I can only convey their shadow." It's an almost perfect evocation of the book, not to mention Modiano's career. The French writer, who won the Nobel Prize last year for a body of work as deft and beautiful as any in postwar European literature, is an excavator of memory — not only his own or those of his characters (many of whom bear, as J.D. Salinger once observed of his fictional alter ego Seymour Glass, "a striking resemblance to — alley oop, I'm afraid — myself"), but also that of Paris. That's why his fiction resonates so deeply; it occupies an elusive middle ground between place and personality. Read more
Just in time for the holiday shopping season, a new boutique has opened on Robertson Boulevard marrying East and West Coast style. Reservoir is the concept of New York City transplants Aliza Neidich and Alissa Jacob and features a well-edited mix of clothing, accessories and home goods with an easy sophistication made for L.A., including Ryan Roche hand-knit sweaters, Denis Colomb ponchos, Ellery sleek crepe dresses and tops, Solid and Striped denim jumpsuits, Madeworn tees, Newbark shearling slides, Dosa patchwork totes and Wendy Nichol fringed leather bucket bags. Read more
Reservoir, 154 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles
'Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897'
With famed film mogul Sam Goldwyn as her grandfather, Liz Goldwyn's family name is practically synonymous with old-school Hollywood glamour. But it's Los Angeles before it became the capital of the motion picture industry that's the subject of the style maven's new book, "Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897" (Regan Arts). The work of historical fiction looks back on the city's seedier past, with loosely connected stories about the madams, prostitutes, orphans, hustlers and tramps who roamed Alameda, Los Angeles and Spring streets. I chatted with Goldwyn about what drew her to this time period in L.A., her impressions of the book's rough characters, and what role women had in a culture where prostitution was tolerated. Read more
'Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe'
Ladies, the next time you are teetering on high heels, you can blame men. But not for the reason you think. In Western fashion, high heels were popularized by men, starting in the court of Louis XIV where a talon rouge (red heel), identified a member of the privileged class centuries before Christian Louboutin made red soles the calling card of his luxury shoe brand. That's just one of the tasty tidbits in "Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe," an exhibition scheduled to run through Dec. 13 at the Palm Springs Art Museum that examines the fashion accessory we all love to hate, including its history, its relation to gender identity, sex appeal and power. Read more