Critics’ Picks: Jan. 2-8, 2015
Los Angeles Times entertainment, arts and culture critics choose the week’s most noteworthy openings, new releases, ongoing events and places to go in and around Southern California.
At the movies, “Into the Woods” emerges as an entertaining film, and “A Most Violent Year” is a gripping crime story reminiscent of classic Hollywood. In food, a top L.A. chef takes over a downtown neighborhood burger place.
Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.
‘Into the Woods’
With its soaring Sondheim showstoppers, this deliciously arch, deceptively deep, fractured fairy tale has made it to the big screen virtually untouched by Hollywood’s big, tall, terrible giants, whose meddling can make a mess. As you’d expect, the woods have been partly repopulated by movie stars — Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp among them. Director Rob Marshall pulls out performances that have already drawn awards nominations for Streep and Blunt. The story begs, borrows and steals liberally from many favorite fairy tales: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, etc. Though not perfect, mostly it is delightful to stroll “Into the Woods” and get lost in this musical, magical world. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
‘A Most Violent Year’
“A Most Violent Year” is the most welcome kind of throwback. It brings to mind the fierce New York-based productions of Sidney Lumet in particular but also the whole notion of character-driven, the-clock-is-ticking melodramas in general. A vibrant crime story filled to overflowing with crackling situations, taut dialogue and a heightened, even operatic sense of reality, “A Most Violent Year” captures us and doesn’t let go. Writer-director J.C. Chandor has now made a trio of gripping films (including “Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”) each dealing in its own way with people trying to hold their own as a world they thought they knew closes in and threatens to snuff them out. These pictures all have one foot in classic Hollywood, in the unapologetic movieness of films such as Lumet’s “Serpico” and “Prince of the City,” but they never feel less than completely modern. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
Biopics about American war heroes are a Hollywood tradition going all the way back to Gary Cooper starring as the legendary World War I sharpshooter "Sergeant York" and World War II's highly decorated Audie Murphy playing himself in "To Hell and Back." "American Sniper" is squarely in that mold, but because it's directed by Clint Eastwood, something else is going on as well. Taken from the autobiography of the same name, "American Sniper" stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL whose 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in Iraq made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. (Kenneth Turan) 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
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
'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
Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy, trenchant satire is very much a creature of Thomas Pynchon's biting deconstruction of the final daze of peace, love and understanding that gives "Inherent Vice" its inspiration and its name. Joaquin Phoenix and the terrific acting ensemble that joins him in this pot-infused 1970s-era beach noir create such a good buzz you can almost get a contact high from watching. A sprawling cast is required for the many vices and various intrigues, with Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, and many more. The movie catches Pynchon and Anderson at their funniest, loosest and most accessible. The cast seems to thoroughly enjoy being in on the joke. Maybe it's all the weed. (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
Movies to Catch Up With
While it's always tempting to rush out to see all the new, fresh-cut movies landing in theaters this week, consider skipping the crush to play a little catch-up. There are so many excellent films still hanging around the multiplexes, something for nearly everyone's taste. If you're in the mood for action, join Jennifer Lawrence for the adventurous first half of the final chapter of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" or Matthew McConaughey doing some interior exploring in outer space in "Interstellar." (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
Anchored in the rock of Timothy Spall's astonishing Cannes prize-winning performance as British painter J.M.W. Turner, this Mike Leigh film pushes hard against the strictures of conventional narrative and ends up pulling us into its world and capturing us completely. (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
Movie critics irritate Chris Rock. So do obsessed fans, reality TV, celebrity culture and Hollywood in general. Frankly, I’m thrilled all these things push Rock’s buttons. That pique produces the stinging, sweet hilarity of “Top Five.” As writer, director and star, Rock uses his power wisely and wittily, starting with casting some very funny friends, among them Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer and a contingent from “Saturday Night Live.” Basically, “Top Five” is fully loaded. The laughs are earned and the performers shine. But Rock is the diamond — raw, rough and rare. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
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
Last year marked the return of a show that at least in my mind is an institution, the indie-rocking, puppets-and-pop-stars, let’s-put-on-a-kind-of-kid’s-show, dance-party cult item known as “Pancake Mountain.” Born in 2004 as a Washington, D.C., cable-access series, with alt-cred instantly conferred by an original song from and appearance by Ian McKaye (Fugazi, Dischord Records), it has been revived under the color of PBS Digital Studios , the online hipster coffeehouse wing of the Public Broadcasting System. The component nature of the original makes it a good fit for the Web: Its sketches and songs and interview segments can each stand alone or come together at whatever length is convenient to the venue. PBS Digital, anytime. Read more
‘House of Cards’ Season 2
Season 2 of the Netflix flagship picks ups almost precisely where Season 1 left off — with power couple Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) out for a couples run in the dark while their various plots bubble and boil behind them. Frank, of course, is the Southern Democratic House whip who has done everything short of genocide to pay back a presidential administration he feels has disrespected him by taking it over. Step one, become vice president. Check. And this is where we meet him when Season 2 opens, days away from confirmation, finding a replacement he thinks will play ball with him (in this case a feisty veteran played by Molly Parker) and making certain that his is the only voice the president trusts. Oh, and cleaning up the few loose ends he left in season one. Claire, meanwhile, enters several scenarios as victim but with a few knowing twists of the blade, throws her opponent to the floor. (Mary McNamara) (Netflix, any time) Read more
Yonder comes the first fruit of Amazon Studios' semi-innovative pilot derby, upon which I reported and opined at length last spring marking its arrival as a producer of original streaming content alongside Netflix and Hulu. Of the eight contending comedies offered for public inspection (of which "Betas," a Silicon Valley sitcom, has also "gone to series"), it was clearly the heavyweight, with a script by "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, cameos from Bill Murray (cursing) and Stephen Colbert (wrestling), and John Goodman in a starring role as one of four Republican senators sharing a cramped townhouse. Big and floppy and perennially fatigued, Goodman is in excellent form here as a Southern senator whose only agenda is to stay a senator. "Everybody in the state knows my record," he says. "Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships." The series' look and feel and language are pure HBO/Showtime, though the Republican Party specificity is the sort of thing that would tend to keep it off a mainstream network. (Robert Lloyd) (Hulu, anytime) Read more
'The Wrong Mans'
James Corden and Mathew Baynton, both from Britain's "Gavin & Stacey," co-wrote and costar in this fine action comedy, co-produced by Hulu and the BBC. As the title suggests, it's Hitchcock times two, comically. The stars play acquainted quasi-co-workers — Baynton a "town planning and noise guidance adviser" for a suburban county council and Corden a "31-year-old mail distribution assistant" who "works for the building" — whom fate makes allies and friends after Baynton finds a cellphone containing the message "If you're not here by 5 o'clock, we'll kill your wife." Nervous skinny guy plus overconfident round guy add up to the adventure both desperately need. (In "Parks and Recreation" terms, if that's at all helpful, you can think of them as a less cool Ben Wyatt — Baynton resembles Adam Scott, in a stretched-out way — and more able Andy Dwyer, before Chris Pratt got buff.) I admit to having been lost at times within the story's tangled threads, which involve plots both local and international. There are many things in it familiar to the genre, but the borrowings fit the tone of the story, in which ordinary life suddenly becomes something out of a movie; it feels fresh in the way that kids at play make spy or space stories their own. (Robert Lloyd) (Hulu.com, anytime) Read more
When Angela Lansbury takes the stage as Madame Arcati, the lovably outlandish medium in Noel Coward’s otherworldly farce (handsomely revived by director Michael Blakemore), a supernatural charge is instantly detectable. This five-time Tony winner doesn’t need levitating tricks or inexplicable table knocks — they’ll come later — to provoke goose bumps. Ends Sun., Jan. 18. 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
'The Snow Queen'
The Troubadour Theater Company, that inimitable local treasure founded and led by clown extraordinaire Matt Walker, has never done a bad show. Even the group's lesser efforts have been reliably hilarious. For those few unfamiliar with the company, the Troubies blend classic source material with contemporary rock or pop music as the basis for their free-wheeling entertainments, which have been delighting Troubies fans for almost 20 years. "The Snow Queen" at the Falcon — the Troubies' perennial venue — is among the group's best offerings to date, a terrific holiday entertainment that may be the hottest ticket in town — that is, if any tickets are still to be had at this annual sell-out. (Ends Sun., Jan. 18) (F. Kathleen Foley) Read more
Album: ‘Black Messiah’
In a brief foreword in the liner notes for “Black Messiah,” the great new album from the soul artist known simply as D’Angelo, the creator declares his intentions with a dose of humility. “‘Black Messiah’ is a hell of a name for an album,” he writes, explaining that the title of his first long-player in 14 years, and only his third in 19 years, might be misconstrued as being about religion or paint the artist as some sort of egomaniac. But, writes D’Angelo, to him the title is “about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah. It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.” (Randall Roberts) Read more
Pop music critic
Album: ‘The Pinkprint’
Those who have followed Nicki Minaj’s often-thrilling ascent to hip-hop superstardom have been hoping for another straight-up rap album for years. After annihilating virtually all takers on mixtapes and guest verses starting in 2007, the 32-year-old began gunning for the pop charts, pouring forth two albums, “Pink Friday” (2010) and “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” (2012). Both often paired her charismatic wit and style with of-the-moment dance floor bangers and big-umbrella commercial sounds, along with a teasing dose of hard-edged hip-hop. She’s earned those hits, to the chagrin of some of her most devoted defenders — those who understand that when Minaj flips that switch and devotes herself to the art of the well-crafted hip-hop verse, uninterrupted electricity flows through her. When she’s on, her phrasing, her myriad personas, her playfully percussive vocal flow and the overall presentation combine to create as striking a presence as anyone who’s ever rhymed along to beats. “The Pinkprint,” released Monday, won’t fully placate the hard-core rap heads, but it’s got the bangs and the thrills many of us have hoped for, even if it’s a slow build kind of power and slacks at times. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Pop music critic
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
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
The old Pete’s was a place you stopped into for a plate of blue cheese fries after the bars closed. As rejiggered by Josef Centeno, the restaurant, renamed Ledlow, is a neighborhood restaurant for a different kind of neighborhood, a place where the chalkboard menu listed things like beef tongue salad and caramelized sunchoke remoulade, the crudités come straight from the farmers market, and both the chicken and the shrimp salad come straight from the pages of James Beard. Centeno, a master of genre cooking, is making a bold statement about serious American cuisine. Read more
Porridge and Puffs
We all have particular ideas of what a porridge restaurant might look like, whether a Hong Kong-style congee shop like Delicious Corner in Monterey Park or a Taiwanese porridge hall like Lu's Garden in San Gabriel, Atlacatl and its list of Salvadoran atoles, the Koreatown pumpkin-porridge specialist Bon Juk or Veronica's Kitchen in Inglewood, with its Nigerian fufu menu. I consider myself open-minded when it comes to porridge. But I never expected a spot like Porridge and Puffs, the semi-elegant restaurant that takes over the lunch counter Field Trip a few nights a week. The porridge is prepared with the obsessive care that the hairy-chested kitchens devote to charcuterie and is served in flights as if rare vintages of Montrachet. It is easy to laugh at the idea of a porridge-intensive restaurant until you taste a spoonful of the rice porridge with pickles and jam: an arrangement of herbs, fermented mustard greens and a spoonful of a sharp, lemongrass-infused chile condiment as dazzling in its complexity as anything coming out of the most famous kitchens in town. 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
‘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
'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
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
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
‘Super Smash Bros.’
My relationship with Nintendo is maybe not as healthy as it should be. This realization comes to me as the year draws to a close, when one is pressed to discuss the most innovative or thoughtful interactive experiences of the year. Games such as the haunting “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” or the whimsically lonely “Broken Age: Act 1” are some that immediately spring to mind. These are titles that made the same sort of lasting impression as a TV season of “Orphan Black” or a movie screening of “Big Hero 6,” which was full of unexpected considerations on loss. Like the getting-by struggles at the heart of hip-hop act Run the Jewels, these are all examples of pop culture with layers, where revisiting is encouraged. Yet there is one Wii U game in heavy rotation that I didn’t expect to be there. That game is “Super Smash Bros.,” a button-smashing, jump-and-sock ‘em extravaganza of punching, kicking and crazy moves with nonsense titles such as the “Peach blossom” and “konga beat.” There are fights at haunted mansions, fights in suburban streets and fights around space lava. Read more
Video game critic
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
'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
Burberry in Beverly Hills
Burberry has taken Beverly Hills by storm, just in time for the holidays. In quick order, the label opened its first Rodeo Drive flagship, accepted a Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award and launched an L.A. version of its Art of the Trench campaign. It’s all part of the vision of Christopher Bailey, who joined the brand in 2001, became creative director in 2004 and raised eyebrows when CEO was added to his title this year. Under Bailey, the nearly 160-year-old British heritage outfit known for trusty trench coats has been reinvigorated as a 21st century trendsetter and innovator. And the distinctive beige Burberry check, which fell out of favor in the early 2000s after it was overexposed and counterfeited, has been rediscovered by a new generation of celebs — Harry Styles, Olivia Palermo and Sarah Jessica Parker among them — who are bundling up this winter in monogrammed check scarves and blanket ponchos. The four-story Rodeo Drive boutique features the full range of the label’s products for men and women, including its Prorsum, London and Brit collections, handbags and accessories, as well as a dedicated alcove for Burberry Beauty. There’s a VIP floor to cater to celebs, with a wraparound rooftop terrace that has views of the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park. 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 Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala
When Kim Kardashian, in a draped petrol blue Lanvin gown, is one of the best dressed, you know it was a crazy night. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala for the fashion exhibition "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" was beyond fashion indeed. James, who is often called "America's first couturier," was at his height from the 1930s to the 1950s, when he revolutionized fashion from the inside out. A sculptor of cloth, he championed strapless dresses, the figure-eight skirt and spiral cuts. His work was the antithesis of today's disposable fast-fashion. Each piece was painstakingly constructed, hand-sculpted to the client's measurements, took hundreds of hours to complete, and only available to the super-wealthy. 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