Critics’ Picks: Sept 26-Oct.2, 2014
Los Angeles Times entertainment, arts and culture critics choose the week’s most noteworthy openings, new releases, ongoing events and places to go in and around Southern California.
This week Jeffrey Tambor stars in a new online TV series. At the movies, “Life’s a Breeze” has its charms and a new documentary revisits the end of the Vietnam War. In fashion, a designer takes her boutique, and her savvy, online with great success.
Click through to explore more and, where applicable, find directions to venues.
‘Life’s a Breeze’
Comic and idiosyncratic, this Irish film about a lost fortune stars Fionnula Flanagan and takes a warmhearted view toward its protagonists while still seeing them for exactly who they are. Read more
‘Two Faces of January’
“The Two Faces of January,” the new thriller starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac, is set in the 1960s in sun-washed Athens, Greece. This cat-and-mouse game begins with a chance encounter between a handsome tour guide (Isaac) and a wealthy American couple (Mortensen and Dunst). Their eyes lock, and though the moment seems innocent enough, there is a sense of something darker coming. A series of events conspires to keep their paths crossing; soon an unfortunate turn locks them in a run for their lives. As they make their way from Athens to Crete and then Istanbul, there is a twist around every corner. Mortensen and Dunst are as good as you’ve come to expect. But this is Isaac’s film. He smolders on screen. It may be called “The Two Faces of January,” but Isaac’s is the one you can’t stop watching. Read more
'Last Days in Vietnam'
This altogether splendid documentary, filled with first-person stories both heroic and heartbreaking, is a thrilling and dramatic narrative of what happened in Vietnam as the wheels started to fall off of America's involvement. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
Documentaries on DVD
Documentaries are particular favorites of mine, and three recent releases show just how far-ranging the subjects and techniques of nonfiction film can be. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Blessed with a loose, anarchic B-picture soul that encourages you to enjoy yourself even when you're not quite sure what's going on, this irreverent space opera takes us back to Marvel's comic book roots and the subversive satisfactions those early days provided. (Kenneth Turan) Read more
One song kept playing through my mind as I watched "The Skeleton Twins," an introspective indie drama starring the very exciting post-"Saturday Night Live" Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as siblings damaged by their father's death. "Suicide Is Painless," "MASH's" indelible and ironic musical anchor, is very much the sensibility that director Craig Johnson confers on his film — emotionally authentic, atypical in the way it looks at suicide and its ripple effects. The stars, who specialized in over-the-top nonsense on "SNL," till the terrifying terrain of adults who lost their father to suicide when they were young with such eloquent grace that it speaks volumes about the depth of their talent. It would be a loss if comedy were to lose them entirely, but "The Skeleton Twins" makes you glad they're taking on life's weightier issues too. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
The desert trek in “Tracks” is as brutal as it is beautiful; the performance by Mia Wasikowska as raw as the reality. And the camels? If they don’t steal your heart it must be stone-hinged. Based on Robyn Davidson memoir chronicling her epic walk across 1700 miles of Australia’s outback in 1977, there are other key players including Adam Driver portraying the “National Geographic” photographer who would record it. But as Robyn, this is Wasikowska’s film from the opening frame, curled up against a train window on her way to Alice Springs, unsure and untested, to the moment she wades into the Indian Ocean nearly three years later, a desert and the experiences of a lifetime behind her. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
'The Trip to Italy'
Instead of packing up its bags and leaving L.A. as so many of this summer's indies have had to do, "The Trip to Italy" is settling into a few more theaters. It seems as if Michael Winterbottom's latest culinary road trip intends to linger. As the filmmaker captures actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing slightly more comic and slightly more absurd versions of their real selves, the old friends dine on exquisite dishes along the picturesque Amalfi Coast and dissect middle age, the acting craft and more. As Winterbottom did first for "The Trip" and now for "Italy," he takes a season of the popular British TV show and pares it to its funniest bone for the big screen. There are side trips, at least metaphorically. But the main course is their clever conversation across the table; the eavesdropping is delicious summer fun. (Betsy Sharkey) Read more
Amazon’s first scripted drama is an amazing thing. In it, Mort, a retired professor (Jeffrey Tambor), finally finds the courage to live truly as herself, which is to say as a woman, Maura. But how to tell his adult though not terribly mature children? Especially when they are all embroiled in (mostly self-inflicted) troubles of their own. Written by Jill Soloway, “Transparent” is gorgeously grounded in modern-day Los Angeles, where there is nothing but third acts and endless support for both transformation and stagnation. The cast, which includes Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass as “the kids,” is universally good, but the show belongs to Tambor. Amazon, beginning Friday. Read more
'How to Get Away With Murder'
Viola Davis is the reason to watch this promising law-school-based crime/legal procedural. Playing Annalise Keating, she is just as formidable and magnetic as the great John Houseman was in "The Paper Chase," albeit with more sensational effect: We meet her hand-picked star students as they try to dispose of a body. These students also work with Keating in her high-profile and morally smudgy law office, defending those who perhaps don't deserve a defense. Or do they? Created by Peter Nowalk and produced by the prolific Shonda Rhimes, "Murder" gives us one of those glorious enigmatic leads. Is Annalise a smart woman making defensible choices, or is she morally corrupt? (Mary McNamara) (ABC, Thursdays) Read more
The pilot of this nicely noir prequel to the Batman franchise offered much in the way of mood and menace, as well as introducing some of the Caped Crusader's more famous friends and foes. Villainy back stories are always fun, and Ben McKenzie's Jim Gordon (here a detective) and his partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), were solidly promising in a "Dragnet"-goes-DC-Comics sort of way. But we won't really know where the story is going for a few weeks: With big event series, the pilot is less of an indication than subsequent episodes. So tune in to watch how Bruno Heller uses old-fashioned 'tecs in hats to addresses the genesis of both super-accessorized crime and its equally tricked-out fighter. (Mary McNamara) (Fox, Mondays) Read more
'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Season Premiere
In the aftermath of HYDRA's resurrection and infiltration of International Governments At Every Level, Agent Colson (Greg Clark) is tirelessly trying to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D., even though he must now do it secretly and with few of the cool geegaws once supplied by a now-antagonistic U.S. military. The team has been deeply affected by last season's revelations and near-death experiences — Fitz is still suffering from brain trauma and having hallucinations of his beloved Simmons, who is off on some ill-defined hiatus; Skye is forced to interrogate her traitorous lover Ward, who may or may not be feeling remorse; and May is still monitoring Colson's physical and mental health. More important, last week's season premiere gave us a sneak peek at "Agent Carter," as well as some new recruits and a new villian — Crusher Creel. This is a make or break year for the series; much of its initial narrative clunkiness could be chalked up to its rather revolutionary existence — as connective tissue between films — and then the S.H.I.E.L.D.-busting appearance of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Now it's time for Colson and his team to proceed under their own steam, and so far, all systems are go. (Mary McNamara) (ABC, Tuesdays) Read more
The uncanny familiarity and unforced neighborliness of Brooke Adams’ Winnie in Andrei Belgrader’s superb revival of Beckett’s classic, about a woman chirpily going about her day while planted in the earth, allowed me to experience the play with new eyes — and spot the Winnies all around us. This production preserves the universality of Beckett’s vivid stage metaphor while making it seem right at home in Southern California. (Charles McNulty) (Ends Sunday, Oct. 19) Read more
Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
'The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?'
Edward Albee's unlikely but brilliant play about one man's ill-fated love affair with a barnyard animal unfolds into a modern-day Greek tragedy all the more devastating for its sheer improbability. Director Ken Sawyer's staging is consummately well-realized, and the cast is superb, but it is Ann Noble who commands our awe as a modern-day Fury bent on a mission of righteous and appalling vengeance. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sun., Nov. 23) Read more
Davidson/Valentini Theatre, Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood
David Lindsay-Abaire's 2011 comedy-drama of socioeconomic dynamics in South Boston is in some ways his finest construct to date, as its rock-solid La Mirada rendering grippingly demonstrates. Director Jeff Maynard takes a more measured, realism-meets-Epic Theatre approach than previous encounters, but it works like gangbusters, with the top-drawer cast surrounding Katie MacNichol's rending sort-of-heroine delivering the trenchant goods. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sunday, Oct. 12) Read more
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada
'All's Well That Ends Well'
Although it has some stylistic quirks and still-refining aspects, this affable, accessible revival of the Bard's rambling comic study of class distinctions, romantic ambition and hard-earned wisdom is a representative Theatricum Botanicum outing. While the decision to cast actors of color as the nobility, Caucasians as the common folk, could be further examined within the staging, it certainly upends preconceptions and provokes thought. Despite some periodic vagaries of design and attack, the matchless venue and the zigzagging narrative fit fairly well under Ellen Geer and Christopher W. Jones' knowing co-direction. Their stalwart cast weathers some scattered overblown and/or under-baked beats to deliver the goods when it counts, centered by a never-better Willow Geer, whose supremely lucid Helena is an eloquent, self-actualized heroine for any era. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Saturday, Sept. 27) Read more
‘Animals Out of Paper’
Rajiv Joseph’s engrossing 2008 dramedy receives an elegant production as the opening show of East West Players’ 50th-anniversary season. Although not without quirks, this funny, touching three-hander about a blocked artist and the two men who enter her downtrodden milieu reminds us anew that the author of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” has a truly original voice. It’s a beautifully judged L.A. premiere. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sun., Oct. 5) Read more
David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles
'The Behavior of Broadus'
The father of behaviorism and subliminal Madison Avenue tactics may seem a peculiar subject for a tuner; no doubt so did Mormon missionaries in Uganda or Andrew Jackson as rock star when first proposed as ideas. You have just been psychologically programmed to reserve tickets immediately. (David C. Nichols) (Ends Sat., Oct. 25) Read more
Set in 1955 in the heavily fictionalized Northern California community of Booneville, Eisa Davis' Pulitzer-nominated play, now in its Los Angeles premiere, concerns the coming of age of its eponymous heroine, a mixed-race clairvoyant rescued in infancy from the nearby river. Races mingle freely in Boonville, but echoes of the recent Emmett Till atrocity are rattling the nerves of these familial townfolk. Unfolding with mesmeric leisureliness, Davis' sometimes undisciplined outpouring can frustrate and fascinate in equal measure. Nevertheless, in director Nataki Garrett's precisely rendered, beautifully designed and consummately well-acted staging, this flawed but remarkable drama takes on the power and potency of myth. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sun., Oct. 5) Read more
A splendid cast takes on Bill Cain's witty, suspenseful, breathtakingly knowledgeable if gleefully anachronistic fantasy about how "Macbeth" came to be written. In 1606, popular playwright William "Shagspeare" (a contemporary spelling) receives a commission from King James I to write about the Gunpowder Plot. "We don't do current events!" Shag retorts — but soon finds himself embroiled in political deception as he, his troupe and his daughter, Judith, struggle to tell the truth in dangerous times. (Margaret Gray) (Ends Sat., Oct. 4) Read more
While this gender-scrambled take on Shakespeare's darkest tragedy has its limitations, it's impressive how well co-adapter/directors Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall succeed in both illuminating subtextual elements and broadening the scope of the source; Geer's performance in the title role rivals the best in intensity and heartbreak. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 28) Read more
'Much Ado About Nothing'
An evening under the stars at the Theatricum Botanicum rarely disappoints. No exception to that general rule, Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," playing in repertory in the theater's sylvan Topanga setting, is light of heart and deft of foot. Although they occasionally overdo the slapstick, co-directors Ellen Geer and Willow Geer have undoubtedly crafted a real crowd-pleaser. The story deals primarily with the unlikely romance between Beatrice (Susan Angelo) and Benedick (Robertson Dean), high-born marriage-haters who persistently skewer each other with their rapier wit. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 28) Read more
'Smoke and Mirrors'
As actor and Magic Castle illusionist Albie Selznick’s superb theatrical magic show explores the connections between his life and art, perhaps his greatest feat is making any trace of boredom completely disappear. (Philip Brandes) (Ends Sunday, March 15) Read more
Rich new emotional depths are plumbed in Michael Arden's brilliant staging of this Tony-winning rock musical based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play about sexually curious adolescents pitted against Germany's repressive status quo. As with all Deaf West productions, the show melds speaking and deaf actors — a seamless blend that dazzles on all levels. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more perfectly realized production than this gem, which should be seen. (F. Kathleen Foley) (Through Nov. 9) Read more
Album: ‘Syro’ Aphex Twin
Few artists over the last few decades have as successfully thrived beneath various interfaces as Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin. A composer and beat-music innovator whose way with intricate electronic-synthetic melody spawned entire instrumental subgenres, James has over two-plus decades constructed a veiled mythology around his artistic self involving truths, half-truths and outright lies. Which is to say, if news were to break tomorrow that James, 43, were, in fact, the mysterious graffiti artist Banksy, or had pranked critics by hiring a bunch of hack imitators to create his new “Syro,” few could argue that signs pointing to such things weren’t in his past. It’s an impressive, influential body of work. Read more
Pop music critic
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
Album: 'Junto' Basement Jaxx
Back in the EDM stone ages, when producers carved beats out of boulders, two teams reigned supreme when it came to international house music: Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx. While commercial EDM in the late 1990s was lapping up the progressive house sounds of Sasha & Digweed and Paul Van Dyke, the helmeted Parisians Daft Punk were working with a minimalism inspired by early Chicago tracks and dropping warning shots like "Da Funk" and "Around the World." It's hard to believe it's been 15 years, both because those body-belters still sound great and due to Basement Jaxx's return-to-form new album, "Junto." Thirteen songs that strive for peaks as high as a flooded dance-floor rocking "Where's Your Head At" at full volume, "Junto" hits with heated bangers while also stepping away from the steam to cool off. (Randall Roberts) 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: 'Grayfolded' John Oswald
Warning: The Grateful Dead is the focus of this story, so there will certainly be skeptics from the outset. After all, the San Francisco band, with its extended improvised excursions, is as polarizing a group as there ever has been. Those not already clicking ahead or flipping the page should also be aware that, specifically, today's topic is a particular Dead song called "Dark Star," which when performed live could stretch beyond 30 minutes. It's one of the band's most alluring and beloved songs. And in 1994, at the Dead's behest, sound artist John Oswald transformed nearly 100 live recordings of the song into an epic 109-minute "ultimate" version called "Grayfolded." An immersive experience, equal parts mystical and baffling, wigged-out and mesmerizing, the work has just been remastered and reworked by Oswald for a new 20th-anniversary three-LP edition. Reconfiguring the original two-movement double CD, Oswald has moved pieces around, building new endings for five sides as a means to avoid fade-outs. As a result of the fresh edits, the artist considers this new version to be superior. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint'
When trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire released his Blue Note debut three years ago, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” it felt as if his talents could take him anywhere. So it makes sense that in crafting his follow-up, Akinmusire nearly goes everywhere. Engrossing, elusive and packed to its literal limits with ideas at 79 minutes, “The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint” beautifully takes Akinmusire’s distinctive tone to new realms, including slow-burning orchestral swells and convention-defying vocal collaborations that attempt to translate his vision into words. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Blank Project'
"Good things come to those who wait," Neneh Cherry sings over stormy electronics and a skittering rhythm on her first solo album in 16 years. If there's a lingering take-away from "Blank Project," that's it. Cherry, whose breakout hit "Buffalo Stance" was practically inescapable in the late '80s, left music for years before reemerging with "The Cherry Thing" in 2012. A brash stab of skronky jazz-punk that paired Cherry's soulful vocals with a blustery Scandinavian saxophone trio, the record was one of the year's best. Here Cherry proves that comeback was no fluke. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Blue Film'
Lo-Fang is the pseudonym of Matthew Hemerlein, a singer and pop composer who wrote, recorded and played all the instruments on this debut. Drawing on digital R&B, modern pop, "Kid A"-era Radiohead and electronic music, he presents three- and four-minute song bursts that are tightly structured but labyrinthine in detail. "When We're Fine" floats on a digital loop, a tiny-but-mighty rhythm, backward-spinning bleeps and bloops and a catchy chorus. An early contender for debut of the year, "Blue Film" comes out Feb. 25. Lo-Fang goes on tour with his most famous fan, Lorde, this spring. Highly recommended. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'The Invention of Animals'
Looking back from the fragmented media landscape of 2014, it's hard to imagine someone like John Lurie was ever possible. An immediately recognizable character actor who appeared in landmark indie films including Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" and "Stranger Than Paradise," Lurie was also a brilliant saxophonist who helped push the boundaries of jazz in the '80s and '90s with his band, the Lounge Lizards. But Lurie was forced to give up music and acting after being stricken with advanced Lyme disease and has since switched to painting (his work has been exhibited numerous times and was collected in a 2007 book, "A Fine Example of Art"). Lurie's low profile in recent years is also because of significant trouble with a stalker — a situation that was examined in a 2010 New Yorker profile (the facts of which Lurie has vigorously disputed). Still, he recently ventured back into the public eye with "The Invention of Animals," a new set of live tracks and rarities by the John Lurie National Orchestra, his trio with drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood. (Chris Barton) Read more
Album: 'Gathering Call'
You can't talk about drummer Matt Wilson without talking about swing, that pulse of jazz that's been his specialty on more than 250 recordings as a sideman. Reconvening his longtime quartet, Wilson again shines with some unexpected help in keyboardist John Medeski. Often lumped into some jam-band ghetto for his ventures with the avant-funk trio Medeski Martin and Wood, Medeski's talents have long been harder to pigeonhole, including a contemplative solo record in 2013. Here, he's a precisely moving part on an album that should be mandatory listening for traditionalists and jazz-curious Phish-heads alike. (Chris Barton) Read more
Claudio Abbado Recordings
When Claudio Abbado, the revered Italian conductor who died Monday, turned 80 last summer, record companies celebrated with several super-sized box sets of his recordings and videos. It's not hard to find discs with which to spend the weekend remembering one of the greats. Abbado's career was a grand one, fairly well documented. He headed and/or recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, with the London Symphony and Chicago Symphony, with the Vienna State Opera and La Scala. His interpretations of the 19th-century masters – Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Mahler, Verdi, Rossini – are exquisitely accomplished. Abbado was a polisher and took no note for granted. But sometimes his mid-career recordings can sound almost too reliable. It's the vibrant early and the masterly moving late performances that really shine, as well as the more offbeat. (Mark Swed) Read more
Box set: The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932
The ambitious new set "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1" comes packaged in a sturdy wooden suitcase dubbed "The Cabinet of Wonder," an apt title considering the awe-inducing sounds and history it resurrects. A label whose ragtag story stars two white Wisconsin business partners more concerned with record player sales than music, an A&R man whose race and history as a Chicago bootlegger (and ex-pro football player) allowed him access to the clubs where unrecorded talent gigged and a roster of artists with equally fascinating biographies, the Paramount and affiliated labels' output during its 15-year life comprises more than 1,600 songs. They were released through a subsidiary of a Port Washington, Wis.-born furniture company during the rise of the phonograph era. (Randall Roberts) Read more
Album: 'Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile'
Matana Roberts does not make easy listening music. Although in mainstream culture jazz is frequently relegated to an awards show backdrop or an oh-so-spooky bit of shading for pay-cable political dramas, the music remains a springboard into avant-garde expression for this Chicago-born saxophonist, who explores both personal and social history on "Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile." A challenging, engrossing listen that follows her ambitious "Chapter One" from 2011, this 49-minute piece (broken into 18 seamless tracks) continues Roberts' synthesis of free improvisation and spoken word into a unique, shape-shifting compositional voice that she calls "panoramic sound quilting." Where Roberts' last record could be tumultuous with passages of fiery blowing offset by a big band drive, "Mississippi Moonchile" is a swirling celebration of smaller-ensemble free jazz. (Chris Barton) Read more
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
Shi Hai, 1412 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra
Finest Foods for the Thinnest Wallets
Is it possible to spend more than $400 per person at some of the restaurants on this year's list of the best 101? Of course. Cuisine costs. But great cooking takes many different forms in Los Angeles, and some of the most exquisite flavors belong to us all. Read more
If you have been following the Chinese-restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley in the last few years, you probably know about Chengdu Taste, the restaurant that showed California the world of Sichuan cuisine that lay beyond mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork — if only for the famous two-hour wait for a table on weekends. And if you had been driving along Valley Boulevard in Alhambra in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed another enormous crowd outside a Sichuan restaurant: the brand-new Szechuan Impression, home to yet another brand of modern Sichuan cuisine. Read more
Aqui Es Texcoco
The last time I went to Aqui Es Texcoco, the kitchen had run out of lamb. And while this might not have been a problem in most Mexican restaurants, where you'd shrug and move on to the roast pork or the mojarra, Aqui Es Texcoco is more or less a one-dish restaurant — that dish being barbacoa in the style of the Mexico City-adjacent Texcoco, an area as famous for pit-roasted lamb as it is for its Aztec ruins. When you see the word "Texcoco" on the sign of a restaurant or food stand, you know there is going to be pit-roasted lamb. When you get in your car and drive to the odd neighborhood of industrial parks in which you find Aqui Es Texcoco, you are not there for the Mexican craft beers, the promise of handmade pulque or the sturdy quesadillas, you are there for vast portions of lamb, chewy and gelatinous and touched with crunchy bits of char, piled on sheets of aluminum foil. You eat the lamb with stacks of hot tortillas, puddles of beans, freshly made guacamole and foam cups of consommé fashioned from the drippings of the lamb, served so hot that your flimsy plastic spoon is likely to curl up in its depths. Lamb barbacoa at Aqui Es Texcoco is a perfect supper on a hot Sunday afternoon, perhaps accompanied by a Cucapá pale ale or two. Read more
Micah Wexler first came to attention as the chef at Mezze, up in the old Sona space on La Cienega Boulevard, and in his stint at the short-lived restaurant he redefined what Middle Eastern food might be, garnishing braised tripe with nuggets of crunchy falafel, drizzling labneh onto foie gras and splashing manti with spiced almond milk. It was only after several months that a lot of people realized his inspiration was at least as deeply rooted in Jewish cooking as it was in the cuisines of Israel's neighbors, and his delicatessen Sundays, based on the food he grew up eating in Los Angeles, were sold out long in advance. So it perhaps makes sense that he opened Wexler's Deli in the newly revivified Grand Central Market downtown, a delicatessen reborn in a civic space that hasn't seen decent pastrami in years. The deli, which opened just this spring, looks as if it has been part of the market since the early 1950s, chubby neon sign, battered counter and all. Read more
Have you ever tasted real paella? And by "real," I should specify that I mean not the stuff you eat with sangria down by the beach or even the lovely yellow rice with seafood that you have to order a day in advance at Cuban restaurants, but the real thing, rare outside its birthplace in the mountains outside Valencia, which is less a vehicle for costly ingredients than it is a big, shallow pan of methodically toasted rice. An alarming percentage of the best paellas I have eaten have come from the well-seasoned steel pans of Perfecto Rocher, a third-generation paella chef now at the new Smoke.Oil.Salt. He is a fairly spectacular creative chef, fully conversant with the toys of the modernist kitchen and a master of the 62.5-degree egg, but what people still talk about are his Monday night paellas; traditionalist masterpieces of a sort we had never seen in Los Angeles. Read more
At Pot in Koreatown
Roy Choi has gone through a lot in the last few years, and his journey — from a chef ingloriously fired from a high-profile restaurant to food truck pioneer to baron of a restaurant empire — has been much celebrated lately. His cookbook and memoir, "L.A. Son," is a bestseller. His talk on a chef's responsibility to his community moved René Redzepi's Mad conference ("mad" means "food" in Danish) in Copenhagen last fall. In the events surrounding the film "Chef" this spring, it is hard to know whether the bigger draw was Choi, a co-producer, or Jon Favreau, who directed and starred. Laid-back, a little surly and genuinely funny, Choi has become the current archetype of the L.A. chef, which is pretty good for a guy whose most famous dish is still a Korean taco served from a truck. But where you might expect Pot, his new restaurant in the Line hotel, to be a hipster joint, dishing out sleekly reimagined Korean fusion food to a generation whose first exposure to celebrity-cooked food may have been his Black Jack quesadillas, it is kind of a regular Korean place, home to bubbling tureens of crab soup and sizzling kimchi-fried rice, super-clean bowls of cold noodles with chile sauce and Korean pickles, and crisp potato pancakes like the ones you get at Kobawoo. He's still messing with expectations, but unless you happen to be a middle-aged Korean guy incensed at having to pay two bucks for kimchi and $3 for the wonderful pickled sea beans with sesame, the expectations that he's messing with are probably not your own. Read more
At first glance, Union, in a stripped-down storefront on a block lined with restaurants and bars, may not seem especially different from the Old Town Pasadena norm. The primary decoration is a chalkboard on which are scrawled quotes from Alice Waters and a schedule for local farmers markets. Where you might expect to find flowers on each table is a small Mason jar holding wheat stalks. The waiters do not need much prompting to tell you the provenance of the walnuts or where the asparagus may have been grown. Shelves on the wall display row after row of pickles — the chef, Bruce Kalman, is locally famous for the pickles he sells at farmers markets — and you can be sure that the duck prosciutto is house-cured, the pasta is house-made, and the duck egg is free-range. The wine list is modest, mostly Italian, and leaning toward natural wine and small producers. If such a thing as a California-cuisine theme restaurant existed, it would probably look a lot like this. Read more
101 Best Restaurants, 2014
High-end restaurants construct entrees out of what used to be considered weeds. Uni has replaced foie gras as the go-to luxury. And when you ask a local food-obsessive about her favorite restaurants, she is far more likely to mention a Thai noodle shop or a renegade taquero than she is anything with a Michelin star. Welcome to the Los Angeles restaurant scene, 2014. Read more
It has never been easier to eat high-end sushi than it is now in Los Angeles — to surrender two hours and half a month's rent to the choreographed roll of the waves. You can experience the masculine crispness of Mori or the postmodern wackiness of Wa; the gentle experimentation of Kiriko or the discofied modernism of Nobu Malibu; the gold leaf and truffle oil of Go's Mart or the intellectual approach of Kiyokawa. The idea of purist edomae sushi, or at least its rigor, is well-established here. For years, unsuspecting diners have been booted from places like Hiko, Sasabune and Nozawa for the audacity of ordering the caterpillar roll they usually have for lunch down the street, and for the regulars, the walk of fame is part of the show. But until Q opened downtown last fall, there had been nothing like real edomae sushi in Los Angeles — plain-looking sushi that accentuates the flavor of the fish rather than of the rice or condiments, a universe of pickling and curing and aging whose culture may edge closer to a great charcuterie counter than to the sushi floor show at a place like Koi, but so subtly as to be almost imperceptible to a senior accountant stopping by for a quick expense-account lunch. Read more
Hyper-intellectual cuisine has its place, but parody can be more fun. So in a Los Angeles restaurant scene dominated at the moment by extreme localism, modernist trickery and the marriage of European and Asian technique, Scratch Bar, a sleek, dim gastropub next to Matsuhisa on La Cienega's restaurant row, is a welcome bit of comic relief, the wiseguy telling jokes in the corner while the popular kids forage miner's lettuce and make buttermilk cheese with a centrifuge. At Scratch Bar, chef Phillip Frankland Lee and his band roast half-cylinders of sourdough bread, scoop out grooves in the center and fill them with bone marrow — trompe l'oeil marrow bones, garnished with ruddy bits of beet-marinated vegetables. They bake whole smelt inside crackers, so that the little fish appear to be emerging from the flat surface like nudes in a Robert Graham sculpture, and set them upright in blood-red smears of beet and beef marrow. Read more
Church & State
Most people with even a passing interest in local cooking have visited Church & State since it opened half a dozen years ago, a ground-level bistro on the ground floor of an old Nabisco factory, known for bringing dim lighting, expressive cocktails and Alsatian tarte flambée to a part of downtown then better known for illicit commerce than for kitchens serving blanquette de veau. Its first year or so saw a restaurant perhaps more centered on the cocktail trade than it was on the world of cuisine beyond steak-frites and chocolate mousse. Walter Manzke took over the stoves for a while, fresh from his term at Bastide, and he took the restaurant in the direction of southern France, inflecting his savory tarts with herbs and summery vegetables (or even Époisses cheese), cooking his deeply flavored short ribs sous-vide and plucking live spot prawns from a tank before sizzling them with garlic and burying them under drifts of diced cucumbers. Manzke had a pretty spectacular run for a guy whose signature dish was probably fried pig's ears. Read more
Without putting too fine a point on it, the pizza at Settebello is closer to real Naples pizza than anyplace that has ever existed in Los Angeles: 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, bufala mozzarella, olive oil from Campania, and a trip through the 900-degree domed wood-fired oven that typically lasts no more than a minute, minute and a half. Whether the soft, thin, sparingly topped pizza is your thing or not is a different question — a lot of people prefer heft and crunch — but the pizza from the Las Vegas-based chain might do fairly well if it were plunked down on Spaccanapoli. 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
Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E Union St, Pasadena
Mimi Lauter: Thresholds of a Wave
Mimi Lauter’s new oil and pastel drawings are just as rapturous as ever. Just as reticent to reveal their forms and narratives. Just as fervent, just as urgent. There seems at first to be less going on within them -- less density of detail and fewer traceable subplots — than in the pieces in her revelatory debut show at Marc Selwyn in 2010 or her equally stunning follow-up here two years later. The new work is more distilled, somewhat less ornate, but the energy and intensity remain high. One can immerse oneself in these images and stay, and stay. (Leah Ollman) (Through Oct. 11) Read more
Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 9953 S. Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills
'Another Thing Coming: New Sculpture in Los Angeles'
This is the kind of exhibition more museums should do, and more often. It checks in on the status of a misplaced but provocative artistic thread, providing a welcome update. The Torrance Art Museum's exhibition shows that, a decade later, object-sculpture is alive and well. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sat., Oct. 18) 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
Autry National Center of the American West, 700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles
Is a revival of interest in the photographs of Minor White (1908-1976) worthwhile? Once, White's work was the epitome of all that art photography aspired to be. Since his death, however — and, actually, beginning several years before — his star has fallen. The J. Paul Getty Museum thinks rehabilitation of White's reputation is very much in order. A retrospective of his lush, poetically evocative silver gelatin prints is on view. It's the first such survey in a quarter-century, and it makes a very persuasive case. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Oct. 19) Read more
Marsden Hartley was one of the two greatest painters the United States produced in the artistically tumultuous first decades of the 20th century (the other was Arthur Dove), and there hasn't been an L.A. Hartley show since 1998. The show is deeply moving. The paintings Hartley made during a three-year European sojourn embody his startling artistic breakthrough: Call it modern public pageantry of private grief. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sun., Nov. 30) 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
The Joseon Dynasty
The Joseon Dynasty being surveyed at LACMA represented a profound social and cultural transformation. Buddhism had been the official government religion on the Korean peninsula for a thousand years. Now, religious authority gave way to secularism. A large, bureaucratic government was led by royalty. Buddhism wasn't forbidden for private practice, but the religion was no longer officially sanctioned. Joseon introduced a separation of temple and state, which is reflected in the dynasty's art. (Christopher Knight) (Ends Sunday, Sept. 28) 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
Optic Nerve 13
Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve is one of my favorite alternative comics: smart, understated and with a subtle yet pointed bite. Merging straight realism with an impressionistic sense of narrative, his stories often seem to be offhanded when, in fact, they are highly structured and defined. As an example, look at "Winter 2012," one of three pieces in the newly released Optic Nerve 13, a one-pager, told by way of 20 small panels, in which Tomine portrays himself as a Luddite, distressed by the indignities of the electronic age. Optic Nerve 13's other stories include a long central piece, "Go Owls," in which a woman meets an older man in a 12-step program and winds up in a relationship that becomes increasingly abusive and fraught, and the exquisite "Translated, From the Japanese," a love letter from a mother to her baby that is among the most beautiful things Tomine has ever done. Read more
'Never Built Los Angeles'
When, in the 1920s, the pioneering Southern California social critic Louis Adamic called Los Angeles "the enormous village," he didn't mean it as a compliment. Rather, he was referring to L.A.'s insularity, its status as what Richard Meltzer would later label "the biggest HICK Town (per se) in all the hick land," a city of small-town values and narrow vision that "grew up suddenly, planlessly." A similar sensibility underpins "Never Built Los Angeles," a compendium of more than 100 architectural projects — master plans, skyscrapers, transportation hubs, parks and river walks — that never made it off the ground. Edited by former Los Angeles magazine architecture critic Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, West Coast editor of the Architect's Newspaper, and accompanied by an exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum, it's a lavish counter-history of the city as it might have been: a literal L.A. of the mind. Read more
'The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey'
"He who makes a beast of himself," Samuel Johnson famously observed about inebriation, "gets rid of the pain of being a man." And yet, if Lawrence Osborne's new book, "The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey," has anything to tell us, it's that there is more to drinking than derangement, that it may lead to a transcendence more profound. "The Wet and the Dry" is a paean to drinking, but it is also a travelogue unfolding largely through the Islamic states of the Middle East and a memoir of sorts, in which Osborne's upbringing, in "a steadfast English suburb" during the 1970s, becomes a lens through which to read his life. "The drinker knows that life is not mental and not a matter of control and demarcation," he argues. "The teetotaler, on the other hand, knows full well how even a molecule of alcohol changes body and mind. The Muslim, the Protestant puritan, and the teetotaler are kin; they understand the world in a very similar way, despite all their enormous differences, while the drinkers know that the parameters that contain us are not all human, let alone divine." Read more
'Men in Miami Hotels'
Charlie Smith's terrific new novel, "Men in Miami Hotels," walks a line between genre and something considerably wilder, a fictional territory where a character might lose his or her soul. The story of a Miami hoodlum named Cotland Sims, on the run from a brutal mob boss, it is both existential thriller and a book of homecoming, as Cot returns to Key West, where he was born and raised, to confront the living ghosts of his past. These include his on-again-off-again girlfriend Marcella and her husband Ordell (the county prosecutor), as well as his mother and his oldest friend from high school, a drag queen named CJ. To this mix, Smith adds an army of hired killers out to wreak vengeance on Cot, although their violence, while pervasive, ends up seeming almost incidental. Read more
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
Video game critic
This summer's "80 Days," based on the texts of Jules Verne and available for Apple's mobile devices, is a book that can be played. Or maybe it's more accurately described as a game that can be read. Regardless, the emphasis in "80 Days" is on the wonders of global exploration — and history, albeit with a twist of sci-fi. This combination has made "80 Days" a summer reading highlight. Or is that a summer gaming highlight? Created by small English studio Inkle, "80 Days" is a re-imagining of Verne's well-known "Around the World in Eighty Days," only here boats and rails are joined by all sorts of steampunk-inspired creations — mechanical horses, magnificent steel airships and practically magical bicycles — and prose is more important than any new railway. All of this serves to open up the world, the routes and the narrative options afforded to the player. Read more
There are times when even I feel embarrassed about my accruing games knowledge. It's the moment, for instance, when I'm reminded that the majority of my recent cultural references are more likely to be recognized by the children of co-workers than anyone in my actual peer group, or the realization that the 30 minutes I spent slicing fruit with a virtual ninja blade could have been spent with the new Jules Feiffer novel. Then along comes a game like "Hohokum," one that celebrates the sheer joy of play with an exquisite soundtrack and a dash of highbrow abstractness. There's no mission to complete or grand quest to conquer, as the end goal is the exploration. "Hohokum" could be called an art-house game, but it's too dastardly cute for niche status. Utilizing the bright, rounded and heartwarming work of artist Richard Hogg, "Hohokum" looks as if it belongs in a gallery — or at least in the outtakes from the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" film. Read more
'Road Not Taken'
Adulthood, and how it weighs on us, has been an obsession of late. It's at the core of Spry Fox's "Road Not Taken," a vexing puzzle game with magical overtones released this month for home computers and the PlayStation 4.The questions it raises linger long after a play session. The game has a message: You're not getting any younger. Or maybe it's saying you're running out of time. This is the emotional head space occupied by "Road Not Taken," a game where life is rough and the kittens are adorable. And thank heavens for the cats, furry little creatures that, in the words of "Road Not Taken," are "an adorable balm for this mortal coil." The story is simple and Grimm — play as a ranger who must rescue children trapped in a fantastical forest filled with dire wolves and tasty swine. But how it handles themes of aging is cause for reflection, as its characters are more meddlesome than deadly. Read more
Giant Spacekat's "Revolution 60," released in late July for iPhones and iPads, is a pocket-sized game that dreams big, ambitiously attempting to marry a complex narrative and fully drawn characters with pick-up-and-play accessibility. That's not its only mission. Developed by a Boston-based team of four led by Giant Spacekat's head of development, Brianna Wu, the four female characters of "Revolution 60" also bring a little gender parity to video games, an entertainment medium in which the gruff male hero has long been the norm. But if it's no secret that the gun-driven mainstream game industry has over-emphasized testosterone, Wu says that during the three-year development period for "Revolution 60" she learned there may be some differences in the way men and women approach games. Read more
'Valiant Hearts: The Great War'
A tale of World War I, inspired partly by letters exchanged by soldiers and loved ones, "Valiant Hearts" is the rare video game in which military action evokes sympathy rather than aggression. Combat and the regrettable ways it touches the lives of a middle-aged farmer, a teenage student, a new father and an American widower make for the game's backdrop. The emotional torture of warfare is the game's center. Helping a bruised and battered soldier simply find a clean sock is treated as an act of heroism, and puzzles are fashioned out of the daily drudgery of a soldier's life on the supply-barren Western Front. "Valiant Hearts" can wring great drama from the task of helping a lonely heart snare a feather from a bird so he can write a letter to his daughter. No, you cannot shoot the bird, despite a decade and a half of video games that have told us the opposite. Read more
'Third Eye Crime'
The hand-held video game "Third Eye Crime" has all the trappings of a classic noir mystery. For starters, there's a tough-talking, no-good gumshoe for hire with "Dick Tracy's" eye for fashion. Then, of course, there's a double-crossing femme fatale modeled after Jessica Rabbit. Mix in a jazz soundtrack marked by bourbon-stained brass notes and a plot full of unsavory characters, and it's clear that the tales of the underworld here are rooted in vintage novels and black-and-white films. Yet "Third Eye Crime" also has a few thoroughly modern touches that James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler probably never foresaw. Take, for instance, a slick touch interface, one that brings a dash of "Angry Birds"-like movement to the hard-boiled genre. "Third Eye Crime," released in late April for Apple's mobile platforms, collects bits and pieces of familiar genres — the pick-up-and-play puzzle game, a pulpy comic style — and fuses them together for an interactive experience that has a new angle on tradition. Read more
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
For the last three decades, one of the video game world's greatest antiheroes has been a barrel-throwing ape. He's arrogant, ornery and not nearly as dexterous as he thinks he is. A kidnapper whose jungles were construction sites, he'd steal your girlfriend and trap her atop a skeletal steel structure. But as males-behaving-badly became a pop-culture norm — and an unfortunate requirement of most video games — Donkey Kong softened up. The once attention-desperate gorilla shed his hostage-taking ways and settled into a more healthful lifestyle with the launch of "Donkey Kong Country" in 1994. Now five iterations of the game later, he's morphed into a rather lovable grump who just wants to enjoy a slice of cake with a frosted banana on top in peace. "Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze," released last weekend for Nintendo's home console the Wii U, finds the king of the jungle continuing the makeover from villain to reluctant hero. Arctic creatures are invading the lush isles he calls home, and Kong wants the polar beasts off his lawn. Read more
PlayStation 4 / Xbox One
The next-gen video game consoles are here, and so far the games look an awful lot like the ones from the generation coming to an end. But the presentation of the consoles — the arguments they put forth about how games can and should be integrated into our lives — varies greatly. Sony's PS4 takes a targeted approach by emphasizing games and the places players go to talk about those games. Microsoft's Xbox One has broader, non-gaming ambitions, relying heavily on voice controls (look ma, no remote!) to have viewers magically shifting among television, film, music and sports apps. Read more
'The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds'
Another long-standing Nintendo franchise gets spruced up. Like "Mario 3D," the look and controls are familiar, the tone is entirely new, as this action-adventure emphasizes smarts and exploration over tedious dungeon crawling. Read more
'Super Mario 3D World'
Nintendo's Italian brothers Mario and Luigi are the closest thing the video game world has to a Mickey and Minnie, and this Wii U-exclusive may be the freshest spin yet on a trustworthy gaming tradition. The secret? Cats. Mario and pals shape-shift into felines with the help of a little video game magic, allowing the characters to crawl, scratch, climb and meow in completely unexpected ways. Trust us. Read more
"Rain," Sony's download-only PlayStation 3 title, plays with an idea central to many fairy tales. What monsters come out to play when the lights are turned off? But ultimately, it ends up dealing with a far darker question — is there any monster quite so scary as loneliness? With such an emphasis on text and narration, this could be considered an interactive book more than a game but is, instead, a moderately paced exploration through a fantastically realized nighttime setting, where narrowly escaping the clutches of pursuers rewards players with more pieces of the narrative rather than larger battles. Read more
"Spaceteam" is high-stress nonsense, but high-stress nonsense at its most absurd, addictive and ridiculous. Available now for iOS and Android, think of "Spaceteam" as a board game for mobile devices. The concept is simple, as players are crew members on a ship that's in danger of exploding and must shout technobabble at one another to prevent destruction. But each has a different view, so one player's Voltsock is another player's Newtonian Photomist. Read more
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
Elyse Walker, 15306 Antioch St, Pacific Palisades
New York Fashion Week: Michael Kors
If there is one phrase that sums up the spring season at New York Fashion Week, Michael Kors has it: optimistic chic. His collection brought many of the week's trends together, including 1950s-inspired circle skirts and crop tops: garden florals and embroideries; natural hues; gingham checks; spare, simple accessories and shoes made for walking. Read more
The Emmys: The Best of the Red Carpet Looks
The Emmys' red carpet was one of the best displays of fashion and style in recent Hollywood history. The looks were modern and not overwhelming. These women wore the clothes; the clothes didn't wear them. Red was the hot color and the best red dresses had unusual details -- whimsical red crystal butterflies at the neckline of Claire Danes' Givenchy stunner, for example, and sexy burgundy patent leather strap details on Julia Louis-Dreyfus' raspberry red Carolina Herrera gown. Read more
Accessories designer Kendall Conrad's face brightens on a recent morning in her sun-filled Abbot Kinney boutique as she flips through pages of playful owl sketches, images of black-and-white ceramic vessels with Minotaur faces and the color blue, Picasso blue. She's turned to the books "Picasso: The Mediterranean Years" and "Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953" to explain the arty inspiration for her spring Vallauris collection, which may be her best yet. Read more
This summer, the Abbot Kinney shopping scene is becoming even more boho-chic. Figue, the New York-based gypset-lifestyle collection founded in 2012 by fashion vet Stephanie von Watzdorf, has opened a pop-up shop on the famed retail stretch in Venice. The store features the spring/summer collection, including folkloric beaded tuxedo shirts, ikat-print tunic dresses and fringed bags, as well as limited-edition accessories sourced from the designer's travels, such as hand-embroidered kaftans and one-of-a-kind, hand-embellished military jackets. Von Watzdorf designed the 1,300-square-foot space herself, with Moorish arches, filigree lanterns, a hammock and Berber blankets that make you want to stay a while. Read more
Mary-Kate, Ashley Olsen open first flagship for the Row
Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, meet the Row. Taking its rightful place on Melrose Place, one of L.A.'s toniest shopping streets, is the new American luxury brand created just eight years ago by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The opening of the first retail store for the Row is a homecoming for the 27-year-old twin sisters, who were born in Sherman Oaks and made their fortune in Hollywood, starting at the age of 9 months, when they shared the role of Michelle Tanner on the TV series "Full House." Read more
Lou & Grey
Ann Taylor and Loft have a new, free-spirited sibling. The American retailer has launched a brand called Lou & Grey that's a tomboyish fusion of active and street wear, or "lifewear" as its being positioned. Available in Loft stores, on LouandGrey.com, and in the first Lou & Grey freestanding store recently opened in Westport, Conn., the brand features sporty and loungey soft-dressing pieces in a pale color palette, including mélange knit moto jackets, slouchy linen T-shirts, textural oatmeal knit sweaters, sweat-shirt dresses and lace sweat pants from $30 to $100. I caught up with Austyn Zung, creative director of Loft and Lou & Grey, and a veteran of Loft, Gap's Fourth & Towne, and Oscar de la Renta before that, to chat about the new brand under the ANN Inc. umbrella, its roots in California ease, and the key building blocks of the collection. Read more
Like Vince, Joie and A.L.C.? Meet their French cousins Sandro, Maje and Iro. Los Angeles, birthplace of some of America's most successful contemporary fashion labels, is seeing a new wave of brands from Paris opening stores with their own French take on affordable luxury. One such brand is Sandro, which made its presence known in Los Angeles last week by hosting a star-studded bash at the Chateau Marmont on Thursday night to celebrate two new stores, one on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, and the other in the Beverly Center. Read more
Tory Burch celebrated the opening of her Rodeo Drive boutique with a star-studded party Jan. 21 and the release of the limited edition Rodeo Drive collection inspired by the flowers of Southern California and the glamour of Old Hollywood. The capsule collection includes resort-ready pieces embellished with coral flowers and embroidery, including the gladiator sandals above and the caftan-style dress. The capsule collection includes resort-ready pieces embellished with coral flowers and embroidery, including the gladiator sandals above and the caftan-style dress and flower-drop earrings Burch is wearing. There are also several styles in guipere lace, such as the shorts above. L.A. style maven and artist Lisa Eisner shot a dreamy short film featuring the collection in the gardens at Lotusland near Santa Barbara. You can see it here. Burch's website includes several other L.A.-centric editorial features geared to the opening, including Kaling, Hailee Steinfeld and other celebs discussing why they love L.A. Read more
10 Fashionable Things
As we all try to get back into the swing of work after the holidays, here are 10 stylish things on my to-do list for the next few months. 1) Celebrate the dress that started it all. 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Diane von Furstenberg's iconic wrap dress, which will be celebrated with "Journey of a Dress" on Jan. 11 to April 1 at the Wilshire May Co. building in Los Angeles, a retrospective exhibition of vintage and contemporary wrap designs — from the first sample to what has become a symbol of power and freedom for generations of women. 2) Pick up some cold-weather style inspiration... Read more
The coolest store now open in downtown L.A. is called Acne Studios. That's right. Get over it. If you don't know, Acne (an acronym for Ambition to Create Novel Expression) was founded in 1996 in Stockholm by musician-turned-fashion designer Jonny Johansson. In seven years, it has grown into a $120-million brand with 40 stores around the world, men's and women's fashion collections, runway shows in Paris, as well as a publishing wing that has collaborated on projects with the likes of photographers Lord Snowden and William Wegman. Which is why when you walk into the new 5,000-square-foot boutique in the historic Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway, it's appropriate that you first lay eyes on "Giant Triple Mushroom," a trippy toadstool of an installation by Belgian artist Carsten Holler that seems to symbolize the curious rise of a brand that is known for doing things differently. Read more
Acne Studios, Eastern Columbia Building, 855 S. Broadway, Los Angeles
Standout Books on American Design
Several new style books focus on great American jewelry design. Here we zero in on two of the standout volumes of the season. 'David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler' and 'Jewels by JAR' have an eye for the dazzling. "David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler" American jewelry designer David Webb was a fixture on New York's social scene during the 1960s and '70s, beloved by Diana Vreeland, Nan Kempner, Doris Duke, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and many other style-setters. Webb is perhaps best known for his animal bracelets, more fierce than cute, featuring lions, tigers and dragons, which were part of the ladies-who-lunch uniform of the day. "Jewels by JAR," the catalog for the exhibition of the same name that runs through March 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a jewel of a book with 69 photographs of incredible pieces by Joel Arthur Rosenthal, today's preeminent American jewelry designer, who has been working in Paris since the late 1970s for a small group of in-the-know clientele. Designing under his initials, JAR, Rosenthal creates works of art using colorful gemstones, pearls and other materials such as beetle wings. Each piece is unique and "set in metals that are sometimes subject to a degree of alchemy," art dealer Adrian Sassoon writes in the introductory essay. Read more
Isabel and Ruben Toledo
Ignored by mainstream fashion designers for years, the plus-size market got a boost with the announcement that Isabel and Ruben Toledo would be designing a collection for size 14-plus retailer Lane Bryant. Isabel Toledo famously made the lemongrass yellow coat and dress that First Lady Michelle Obama wore to President Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Speaking about the collaboration with Lane Bryant, Isabel Toledo told Women's Wear Daily that she and her husband "were intellectually on board from the first moment." That statement to me is key. The excuse so many designers use for ignoring the plus-size market, and showing their clothes on increasingly skinny models, is that clothes just look better on bodies resembling bony hangers. But any designer worth his or her salt should look at designing for a different size or shape as an intellectual challenge. Read more