Spoilers: What is Omega Mart, really?

October 27, 2021

In my previous post about Omega Mart I talked about it in general without any spoilers. 

Well now it’s time to dig in and discuss everything down to the last detail about Omega Mart with spoilers.

So if you want to avoid spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

 

Omega Mart

 

Yes, the above photo is of an actual sign inside Omega Mart. Seriously though: spoilers follow.

Getting in

As you enter Omega Mart, you’re handed a “Boop Card.” This is your employee badge of sorts. There’s no rush to become an employee and of course you’re not really signing up to work here.

I should point out that the real employees here have different roles. Some of them are actors, others are there to keep the place clean and safe. Regardless, guests need to follow their instructions.

What you see entering the store is a little under 1/4 of the total physical space you’ll go through on this adventure. To the left of the entrance is the bag check, and to the right is the checkout.

To be absolutely clear, Omega Mart is a real store in the sense that they have items you can buy. The only food items are things like snacks, cereal, and soda. Basically stuff that has a long shelf life. There are also gimmick boxes such as the mysterious “Done” and a can of something called “tattoo chicken.” The rest of the items for sale tend to be more gift shop items like t-shirts.

Oh and yes there’s also a typical gift shop. It’s located outside of Omega Mart though.

Back to the store. If you walk in and straight to the fridges in the back, on the left there’s the bathrooms, elevator, and stairs. To the right is the hall to the pharmacy, which is the location of the “hidden” bar called Datamosh. To be perfectly clear it’s entirely optional to visit Datamosh and has no impact on the story.

Datamosh is an upscale cocktail bar with prices to match. The theme from Omega Mart extends into the bar with drinks allegedly made from their products. One particularly alarming example is Old Fashioned Spray, a typical old fashioned cocktail dyed a shade of blue that makes it look like Windex. The worst part? The blue dye is sprayed out of a plastic bottle labeled “Old Fashioned Spray.”

There are a number of secret passages in the Omega Mart storefront, and all but one of them lead behind the store. There’s also an opening near the bathrooms where you can skip the secret passages to the back.

Before we get to what’s behind Omega Mart, let’s discuss your first mission.

Mission 1: Become an Omega Mart Employee

  • You simply need to “boop” your card with all the terminals in the store at the ends of the aisles and follow the directions on screen.
  • Two of the terminals on the back wall in the store show you your progress. The same information is displayed if you scan the QR code on your phone, or log into the Dramcorp website with the ID code on your card. Similar terminals exist throughout the installation.
  • Once you’ve learned about what the different colored cones are for, head upstairs to the employee breakroom to take a quiz on which colored cone goes with which spill.

And that’s it! You’re now an Omega Mart employee and more of the story unlocks.

Aside from the stairs, there are two other passages out of the employee breakroom. So let’s talk about what’s behind and above Omega Mart.

 

 

Secret passages: Dramcorp and The Forked Earth

On the first floor several portals to the left lead to a polluted desert town known as Seven Monolith Village, and the ones on the right lead to either Omega Mart’s factory or Dramcorp. Some also lead to the office of Seven Monolith’s gas station (“Alpha Service”) most notably the fridge door you probably saw people entering the second you walked into Omega Mart.

All of this back area is part of The Forked Earth. It’s sort of like a pocket dimension that you can enter or exit from via various secret passageways, or wormholes. Omega Mart built its factory there to take advantage of a well of an inter-dimensional life energy called the Source.

The Forked Earth was created when an alien race experimented with the Source in their dimension, and somehow accidentally fused them together.

Meanwhile former CEO Walter Dram has been adding the Source to all Omega Mart products because it increases customer satisfaction. It also has some unexpected side effects, especially on the Dram family themselves.

But before we get there, I should mention the next mission.

 

Omega Mart

 

Mission 2: Become a factory worker at Dramcorp

I forget if you have to do these in any specific order? Apologies in advance there.

  • There are two places you boop into outside the Dramcorp office on the second floor facing the factory. Both of these involve pushing a button or whatever, there’s not much to it.
  • The Source Door is downstairs behind a structure shaped like a beehive. You boop into this and then twist the on-screen knobs for a few seconds and you’re good to go.

In my opinion this mission is the least interesting one. It does two things though: it unlocks a mission and it gives you an excuse to explore the Factory.

While in the factory I encourage you to explore and experiment with the DJ pads upstairs. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover you have a new career in music? Probably not but it never hurts to try.

The Dram family

Still cool with the spoilers? Because I’m going to distill the crux of the story which takes an hour or two of reading letters, emails, etc.

So let’s get back to the Source and how it’s affected the Dram family.

Walter Dram founded Omega Mart and was CEO up until recently. He moved the Omega Mart factory into the Forked Earth to take advantage of the Source.

The new CEO is Walter’s daughter, Cecelia Dram who wants to push some kind of new age agenda based around leadership principles. She also wants you to believe that she’s supposed to be the new CEO and is pretty cagey about what happened to Walter.

Cecelia became pregnant with her now-teenage daughter Marin in a ceremony in The Forked Earth where she drank the Source with her uncle Charlie and his neighbor, an herbalist named Rose. Charlie’s an odd man who runs the local gas station, operates a paranormal tour, and makes a beverage called Mish Mash out of the mysterious glowing runoff from the Dramcorp factory.

Marin’s story is chronicled in her blog on her computer and is brought to life in this music video from the band Beach House:

 

 

Marin Dram (Marin is pronounced MAY-rin) has your typical teenage girl issues. On top of that she can’t leave The Forked Earth because she’s forever tied to the Source. Her mother rarely visits or communicates at all. She feels lucky to have a few friends her age in Seven Monolith Village.

The big Dramcorp spoiler

The big reveal is on several terminals in the Dramcorp office. This is easy to get to from upstairs but a plus one in my book if you figure out the secret passage from downstairs at Omega Mart.

So here it is: Cecelia introduces her father Walter to Marin for the first time. Marin is nearly an adult at this point. Walter reacts to the news that the Source is her father by suggesting that Marin could be the template for a new product. A furious Cecelia gets into an altercation with Walter where she accidentally pushes him into the Source Well. Marin jumps in to save him.

Since then Cecelia has been trying to rescue her daughter from the well through Dramcorp technology. However, she clearly isn’t making any sort of rescue efforts on her father.

Once you’ve learned all this you have a choice. 

Branching story paths

From here you have two options. You can help Cecelia locate Marin, or you can help Marin’s friends rebel against Omega Mart.

I should stop here and say I don’t think there’s anything stopping you from doing both on the same Omega Mart employee card. There’s no way I can say for certain because rebel activities don’t show up Dramcorp’s boop cards.

Let’s start with helping Cecelia. This is the less interesting of the two missions in my opinion, I’d skip it if you don’t have time.

Mission 3: Help Cecelia and Dramcorp

  • There’s a decryption program on Cecelia’s computer in the corporate office. Boop into the computer and save the program to your Dramdrive.
  • In Seven Monolith Village, boop into the computer at either Charlie or Rose’s hut. Run the decryption software and forward that mysterious email to Cecelia.
  • Return to the Dramcorp office and boop into any available computer. Run the leadership ascension program and wow, you’re on your way to becoming a VP or something!

Okay but really, did you want to help Cecelia? Why did you do that? At the end you get a notification that Cecelia will need your help again. Sigh… okay.

Let’s get to the mission you can and should do.

Mission 4: Side with the Rebels (Marin’s friends)

  • Visit either hut in the desert and when the hacker’s prompt appears, agree to join the rebels.
  • The three rebels have maps to where you need to boop your card in different parts of the building. Save these maps to your Dramdrive.
  • The most exciting part is the takeover of Omega Mart where the rebel’s message appears on the TV and speakers while employees “freeze” and the lighting changes. 

Once you’ve finished this storyline you will currently be asked for a name and email address for when the next part becomes available.

This is the most satisfying ending even though nothing is resolved. What I find interesting is that the same boop card allowed me to do both competing missions. Can I only finish one or the other in the future? 

Would I go back to complete the missions? I’m not sure I’d travel back to Las Vegas to finish it anytime soon… maybe if I got a really cheap flight.

 

 

In my previous post I recommended visiting Omega Mart. Since we’re going into details here I want to go into more depth.

Criticisms

Key parts of the narrative can only be accessed on one computer with your boop card. This often causes slow moving lines to form as people realize they need to access that computer. Like most people it makes me feel rushed in these situations when it’s my turn.

Although technically all of the story can be accessed from a wheelchair, some of the passageways are very narrow and short. The two huts in Seven Monolith Village have physical entryways that might be a challenge.

The slides… oh these are bad. They’re really fast and knock you around. Keep your chin tucked into your chest if you do ride them to avoid the worst of it.

The cost may turn some away, and I think that’s unfortunate. At the same time while I don’t have any insider info about the company, Meow Wolf is known for paying and crediting their artists, and providing a decent benefit package for their employees.

Praises

The physical space is really well thought out. For example, anytime there’s a piece of paper to read like someone’s mail or a pamphlet, there’s a reading light nearby. Might sound like a small thing but these design elements add up, letting you know when you’re on to something.

The employees were the right amount of helpful. As the story went on they became a little less helpful, unless they noticed a guest who was frustrated. I think this is a good balance. They’re not throwing you into the deep end nor are they coddling you all the way through.

None of this would work without the videos. The cast is good overall though I have to say Rachel de la Torre absolutely nails it as Cecelia Dram. Likewise the ads for Omega Mart have a dark sense of humor that set the tone perfectly. This extends to the entrance of Omega Mart where the somewhat disturbing Super Family Store video plays on a loop.

 

Omega Mart

 

My takeaways

Some critics call this sort of installation a “playground” which I think is fair in some ways… I mean there are slides after all. At the same time that can sound dismissive; since when did playgrounds have a lengthy story to follow and a sense of humor?

Meow Wolf went to great lengths to put this together: aside from the amazing physical space the story is told through videos, music, emails, physical mail, phone calls, lighting effects, etc. There’s so much to it I’m sure there’s a lot I missed over my three visits. I didn’t even get around to cracking the substitution cypher found in one room to be honest. Maybe I should have gone back one more time?

Despite the linear progression of the boop cards, the storytelling is entirely non-linear. The more time you spend exploring and reading the details you find, the more of the story you’ll uncover. 

Ultimately the question isn’t whether I like Omega Mart because I absolutely do. The true question is whether or not there’s a sustainable audience. I certainly hope so and I realize the current marketing push won’t last forever.

This is my first visit to a Meow Wolf installation. There are currently two others: The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe and Convergence Station in Denver. I’m planning on visiting both at some point in the future.

I think if I had to recommend Omega Mart to a type of person, it’s the type who’s either creative or analytical enough to have immediately noticed that if you remove the first two letters of each word you’ve gone from Omega Mart to Mega Art. Because that’s what this is: one big art installation that’s up to you to figure out.

Downtown Las Vegas street art: Fremont Street and the Arts District

October 20, 2021

Street art may not come to mind when you think of Las Vegas. That’s fair, I thought the same thing. Are there even opportunities for street art in Las Vegas?

The brief answer is yes: Las Vegas has top notch street art. Better yet it’s all within walking distance if you’re staying downtown.

 

Street ArtStreet Art Street Art Street Art Street Art

 

Downtown Las Vegas is filled with street art on and around Fremont Street thanks in part to the annual Life Is Beautiful festival. The epicenter of the street art downtown is roughly around Container Park, roughly a ten minute walk from the downtown casinos. The area has a mix of world famous artists with a handful of local artists here and there.

The mural spaces for Life is Beautiful are often in alleys or on abandoned buildings, which there are unfortunately a lot of in this part of downtown. Outside of the street art there’s not a lot to see and do in this area.

That said you’ll find Atomic Liquors in this area, the bar where patrons famously used to go up on the roof and watch the nuclear bomb tests in the distance.

 

Arts District Arts District Arts District Arts District Arts District

 

The Arts District is also downtown but a little more of a walk, maybe 20-30 minutes from the downtown casinos. It’s also not far from The Strat (formerly The Stratosphere.) The free Downtown Loop Shuttle has two stops in the Arts District as well.

Despite the name, the Arts District feels like a nice small town within a city — plenty of great dining, cafe, and bar options — but you have to ignore The Strat’s giant tower looming over you.

My opinion might be different if I’d visited during one of the special events thrown in the Arts District, but on a weekday afternoon I found it a nice break from the all the “Las Vegasness” of Las Vegas, and a rare glimpse into the local art scene in a city not known for local art.

Review: Omega Mart (no spoilers)

October 18, 2021

 

By now you’ve probably seen ads for something called “Omega Mart,” beckoning you to a specific address in Las Vegas.

If you’ve read this far, I bet you’ve already visited the Omega Mart website and learned it’s part of something called Dramcorp.

After visiting Omega Mart three times last week I thought I’d provide a review that doesn’t really spoil anything. (But don’t worry, I’m saving those for a post in the future.)

 

Omega Mart

 

What is Omega Mart?

Omega Mart is a new immersive experience from Meow Wolf, best known for The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.

This new story is framed by an allegedly normal American supermarket, Omega Mart. Just like your local Safeway, Kroger, or whatever the interior of Omega Mart has the same harsh lighting, the same metal shelves and price tags, and various sections like produce and dairy.

But just as the cheery jingle in some of their ads proclaim, “You have no idea what’s in store for you!”

Which is to say there’s a lot more to this exhibit than a supermarket. For one thing it’s a deeply weird supermarket. The products seem almost alien in nature. Oh and for some reason you’re invited to the employee training program.

And then there’s some sort of family drama going on behind the scenes. You need to explore and pay attention. At some point you need to make decisions about who you trust.

 

Omega Mart

 

Practical stuff

How do you get there? Taxis and ridesharing services are the best way to get to Area 15 and there are designated drop off and pick up zones. Limited parking is available on a first come basis. Unfortunately it’s not realistic to get there on public transit. Don’t consider walking there unless you’re staying on the same side of the freeway — it’s probably an okay walk from The Rio or Palace Station.

It’s strongly encouraged to buy tickets in advance. The center it’s located in is called Area 15, which may not let you in if you don’t have a ticket to Omega Mart or any of the other attractions in the building.

The entry requirements for Omega Mart forbid guns, knives, etc. and you will have to go through a metal detector and bag check on the way in. Larger bags have to be checked in for an additional fee.

Bathrooms, stairs, and the elevator are located to the left of the entrance. The staff will help guide you there if (or more likely when) you find yourself lost and need to pee.

With COVID-19 you must wear a mask at all times. Staff go around and disinfect spaces on a regular schedule so you may be asked to leave an area temporarily. 

Although all the key areas of the exhibit are available to wheelchair users there are plenty of physically challenging passages that I feel fortunate enough to still be able to do at my age. The most uncomfortable ones were the slides. These are not well made slides, they’re fast and knock you around. 

Also be aware that some areas have strobe lights, fog machines, and projection effects. There’s a lot that might give you a headache here if you’re not in the right frame of mind.

If you go to Omega Mart as a couple or small group (maybe four people max) you should stick together and use the same card. The card saves your progress in the story and you can access it anywhere on your phone by scanning the QR code on the front.

In theory the exhibit is all ages though I doubt the story would be relatable to anyone who’d never been a teenager. That said, most younger kids would probably lose interest by the time the more mature themes of the story appear. When I say mature themes I mean specifically: the story features elements of parental alienation, body image issues, and an implied “off camera” death. If you’re particularly sensitive to any of these issues at this time you may want to opt out.

There’s a bar located inside of Omega Mart. Where? You’ll have to find it on your own. For those who enjoy cocktails and don’t mind spending a little extra, I recommend ordering The Source.

Professional recording equipment is not allowed in Omega Mart but you’re encouraged to take photos and videos with your phone and share your experiences online.

I recommend booking tickets early in the day to beat the crowds if possible.

 

Omega Mart

 

My experience

For me these strange new immersive worlds are nothing new — they are the very reason I started this blog to begin with.

What sets Omega Mart apart for me was how well put together and contained it all is. The more I looked around and explored the more the story slowly unfolded itself. There were plenty of hidden clues I walked right past the first time — or a dozen times — before I realized there was something I could interact with. 

I went on three separate days during my time in Las Vegas though I could have finished all the stories in two if I’d pushed myself more. Personally I enjoyed spending my time there. By the end of my visit I kept finding myself eager to help out others who were confused or frustrated.

However there’s one very big caveat: as of October 2021 part of the story is unfinished. There’s a way to get notified when it becomes available. As a completionist type this bothers me more than it should. 

 

My recommendation: Omega Mart is an exemplary work of immersive storytelling within a large physical space. Although it’s not yet complete there’s already many hours of entertainment. Still, I understand some might want to wait until the last mission is built out.

Wink World at Area 15

October 16, 2021
Selections from Wink World (no audio)

 

After checking into Wink World and putting on a pair of (optional) 3D glasses, I was told to make my way past a series of psychedelic 3D framed paintings to the end of the hallway.

From there, a series of small rooms with funhouse mirrors and wacky objects illuminated by blacklights and other whimsical lighting effects danced around to a rhythmic soundtrack. Think the sort of stuff you’d get at Spencer’s Gifts but attached to motors. Meanwhile a narrator explained pop psychology concepts related to the infinite.

Each room has a limited time before the door opens to the next and you’re expected to step through. All in all it took around half an hour to complete.

If pop psychology and rhythmic music is of interest to you there’s another show you should check out in Las Vegas: The Blue Man Group. Sure it’s about three times more expensive, but it’s also far more entertaining. And wouldn’t you know it, Wink World creator Chris Wink is also co-founder of the Blue Man Group.

My recommendation: This might be worth it if you’re looking to pass the time and you’re already at Area 15, otherwise skip it and go get tickets for the Blue Man Group instead. Now that’s a fun show.

The Neon Museum, aka the Boneyard

October 15, 2021
Neon Museum Neon Museum Neon Museum Neon Museum Neon Museum

 

For a city with as much history as Las Vegas, you hardly ever see it. Almost nothing on the strip is older than about 30 years. Even downtown the older buildings have had their facades replaced so many times you often can’t tell the difference between a 10 year old building and a 90 year old building.

That’s where the Neon Museum — better known as the Boneyard — steps in. They’re a non profit that’s collected many signs from casinos that went defunct, changed names, etc. and put them on display. In a few cases the signs have been restored to their former glory.

Although the museum is technically open during the day, you want to get a ticket for the night tour. The signs that still work are wired up and glow brightly in the night sky. But better yet, the tour guide explains the significance of the businesses they represent; stories about old motels, the dry cleaner who was responsible for Liberace’s outfits, and the insane way 100+ foot tall signs were maintained before those pesky OSHA laws went into effect. (I was just about ready to faint at that last one.)

The signs range in age from a little before World War II all the way up to a few years ago. One of the newest signs in their collection is the Hard Rock Cafe’s 80 foot tall sign shaped like a Gibson Les Paul guitar.

Not all of the signs in their collection are at the museum. Several of them are in the street medium on Las Vegas Boulevard in a deal they have with Clark County, so you may very well see part of their collection without ever visiting.

My recommendation: If you’re interested in the history of Las Vegas it’s worth a brief stop. The tour is only about 45 minutes, but by taking the tour you’re supporting their preservation efforts in a city that’s not interested in its own history.

The Mob Museum

October 13, 2021
The Mob Museum The Mob Museum The Mob Museum

 

Located in an old courthouse building in Downtown Las Vegas, The Mob Museum tells the story of the mafia in America. It’s a story that most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with, but how often do you learn about it in a museum setting rather than from a secondhand story in a movie?

After a recommendation from a tour guide and the convenience that it’s located directly across the street from my hotel I figured… why not check it out? And I’m glad I did.

The exhibit begins on the third floor and works its way down. After a brief introduction as to what made certain young immigrants turn to crime in the first place, they cut right to the chase: the rise of the temperance movement and the massive black market created by the prohibition.

Once alcohol became legal again, the crime families and the dirty cops and other officials who accepted bribes didn’t all disappear overnight. So the mafia branched out, using their connections on all sorts of other criminal enterprises.

One of those as it turns out was back home in San Francisco, where a now defunct mob family started — what else — Fisherman’s Wharf. Somehow that’s both a little surprising and at the same time, it explains a lot.

One of the big new crime schemes was of course gambling. There’s a reason The Mob Museum is located in an old courthouse in Las Vegas, and a video presentation on the second floor followed by a gallery on the history of the mob in Las Vegas explain that connection in more detail that I could possibly fit into this post.

The exhibits on the first floor go into the eventual fall of the mafia in America with new laws and new policing methods that made it simpler to prosecute career criminals on charges other than tax evasion. Of course it’s not all sunshine and rainbows these days if you look outside of this country, and there’s a section about large gangs in other countries responsible for everything from animal poaching to human trafficking.

The final room ends on a much lighter note with depictions of the mafia in popular media and even features props and pages of scripts from everything from The Godfather to Breaking Bad to The Sopranos.

Now I shouldn’t need to say this but this is a museum with mature themes like death and features graphic images and disturbing stories. They’re not trying to sugarcoat anything that happened, but at the same time it’s not a bunch of shock images either. Given the museum setting I think they struck the right balance in that respect.

My recommendation: If you’re interested in the history of the mafia it’s worth checking out. I recommend the off-hours “happy hour” ticket as it’s a significant discount. Skip the audio tour as the museum already has plenty of interactive and video exhibits anyway and the audio portion is largely redundant.

Review: Penn & Teller’s new 2021 Las Vegas show at the Rio

October 12, 2021

 

I’m spending this week in Las Vegas — I’ll get to exactly why I chose to visit Las Vegas later on, but this is my first trip of any kind in over two years. (Yes, I know there’s still a pandemic going on but I’m vaccinated and Las Vegas has a perfectly reasonable mask requirement that I’m happy to follow.)

The last time I was in Vegas I got to see The Blue Man Group, which was a bucket list show for me. This time I wanted to cross another show off the bucket list: Penn & Teller.

I probably don’t need to introduce Penn & Teller as they’re arguably the most famous comedy magic duo of our time. Penn Jillette is the tall loud guy who’s the carnival barker of the two, and Raymond Teller is the smaller guy who does like 90% of the actual magic tricks. The pair have performed together since the mid 1970’s and there’s a good chance you’ve seen them on TV, either on a talk show or on their long running Fool Us show.

Oh and if you’ve somehow never seen their spin on the old cups and balls trick, go watch it now!

Though Penn & Teller have mixed up their Vegas act over the years, they had the entire pandemic to come up with new material, which Penn claims is a huge relief because they were out of tricks to perform on Fool Us.

While everyone found their way to their seats in the Rio’s theater, the show’s pianist was joined by Penn on an upright bass. They went through some classic jazz tunes before Penn had to leave and prepare for the opening act. 

And that was the first joke: the opening act involved Penn playing the same upright bass as the pianist played on a different piano, while Teller struggled to play a prop saxophone that seemingly only existed to “charm” a piece of tissue paper as it floated around the stage, fell on the floor, came back up, and even landed on Teller’s head after he fashioned it into a hat.

That’s just a small taste of what the new version of their show had to offer. There was only one trick in the entire set that I’ve seen them do before (a double misdirection involving a gorilla costume) though a more hardcore Penn & Teller fan than I might have seen versions of some other tricks before.

There was a trick that involved “gambling” with the entire audience participating where somehow I was one of the last five or so people standing until the final round. When Penn pointed out the prize was going to be extremely cumbersome to take home I honestly felt a sense of relief at not being the winner.

For those who remember seeing Penn & Teller decades ago I should point out that their act isn’t as physically demanding as it once was. This can’t be a big surprise considering their ages, particularly Teller who had his 70th birthday a couple years ago.

My recommendation: If you like Penn & Teller’s style of comedy magic this is a solid ~90 minute live show with plenty of new tricks. I had a great time, but if I had one gripe it’s that advance tickets are sold through Ticketmaster and as such come with Ticketmaster’s exorbitant fees.

teamLab: Continuity at the Asian Art Museum

October 4, 2021
 

Recently I went to see teamLab: Continuity, the new special exhibit at the Asian Art Museum.

The basics

Haven’t been to the Asian Art Museum before? It’s a museum across from City Hall filled with ancient art and artifacts from Eastern religions. Also some stuff from the Middle East, which is only “Asian” if we largely ignore religion.

The collection isn’t the biggest but tickets are relatively cheap and you can easily spend an hour or so there if you do the audio tours — which are free if you download the app and bring your own headphones.

So what’s up with this special exhibit at the Asian Art Museum? Why is this here? The studio behind this exhibit, teamLab, is based in Tokyo. So in the most basic sense of the word it is “Asian art.” But it’s Asian Art in the contemporary sense, which isn’t the same definition as the rest of the museum. It’s an awkward fit but this is typical of special exhibits in smaller museums.

The exhibit

Let’s get into what Continuity actually is. At this point you’ve almost certainly watched the above video but let me put it into words.

Continuity is a series of rooms with a series of bright and pulsating organic computer generated scenery projected all over the walls and floor. A continuous soundtrack accompanies the visuals. Once in a while the scenes respond to visitors touching the wall.

The overall effect of the moving images and the high-end projection system creates an impression somewhere between dizzying and hypnotic. At times it was difficult to judge spatial distance. To some extent other people help because the size of other people is easy to intuit, but the fact that everyone is covered in projection effects can at times effectively camouflage them.

Allegedly there’s an element of scents involved but I don’t know, maybe it’s the mask requirement but I didn’t notice this at all.

The most intense room in the exhibit — and the one I spent the most time in — is located in the back. This room is by far the most dizzying with effects spinning all around you, especially when you first walk in. No worries though, there’s a staff member at the entrance who acts as a spotter for those having trouble.

After sitting down on the carpet for a while and laying against a slanted wall, I not only gained my bearings but realized I enjoyed feeling wrapped in this light show and the score that went along with it. As I started tuning in more to the music than the visuals the experience went from overwhelming to calming in the span of a few minutes. 

That’s the key duality to Continuity: a funny line between relaxing and unnerving. The artists behind this exhibit describe the visual effects as “Ultrasubjective Space,” an intentional blending of two dimensional and three dimensional planes. I think they’ve largely succeeded; at times the illusion is enough to make you feel like you’re in an otherworldly place despite the largely typical interior structure.

The only thing that worried me about this exhibit was a couple of children running around. While I think some of this falls on the parents there are also measures the museum could take like more active security or family hours. I’m definitely not saying kids should be banned, I probably would have loved it as a kid. But I also don’t want to accidentally trip (or trip over) anyone.

So… what is it?

Personally I think Continuity is primarily a light and sound show. I’ve never seen anything quite like it; teamLab has similar types of installations at other museums but I haven’t been to any of them.

One word I see getting tossed around to describe Continuity and similar exhibits is “immersive.” I don’t think that applies here for one simple reason: there’s no story. Nothing to really hook you in and make you want to uncover more.

While I don’t mean to gatekeep what the word immersive means when it comes to art, I think it’s important for terminology to have consistent meanings. Imagine a tour guide at a museum pointing at a Van Gogh and claiming it’s a classic example of Cubism. If that misuse of terms doesn’t make you frustrated, it should.

I also don’t want to use any terms that might back memories of planetarium laser shows with hippie music synced to boring visuals. For those too young to remember those, let me tell you a secret: you didn’t miss anything.

teamLab themselves describe their works as “digital art,” which is both technically true and kind of meaningless. But at least it’s good to know that even the creators can’t easily categorize their own works.

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. I clearly don’t have a concise description, but if I had to come up with one it would be “an in person walkthrough audio/video experience.” Did I mention I don’t work in marketing?

In conclusion

In my opinion teamLab has kicked the… “digital art” (?) genre up a notch here. The original music and wild visuals with interactive elements, the incredible projection system that somehow prevents large shadows, and that room so dizzying they need a spotter to keep it safe are all elements I was on board with.

I know teamLab has many other installations and I’m curious as to how they compare. It’s probably not something I’d go far out of my way to see but I’d definitely check them out if I were in the area.

My recommendation: If you’re in San Francisco and this sounds interesting to you, the adult tickets fluctuate in price but I think are about $20 on average and the special exhibit tickets include general admission to the museum. It’s a totally reasonable price, particularly if you’ve never visited the Asian Art Museum before and need an excuse to go.

826 Valencia’s Pirate Supply Store

August 16, 2021
Pirate Supply Store

 

The other day I was walking down the 800 block of Valencia Street and something clicked — while on vacation I’d written on this very blog about the Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles and the Secret Agent Supply Co. in Chicago, but I’d never written anything about this nonprofit group’s original location: 826 Valencia here in San Francisco.

The quick version of the story behind why there’s a store for pirates at 826 Valencia Street is this: author Dave Eggers opened a youth writing workshop in the space, but to comply with zoning regulations they were required to have a retail storefront. So a very small part of the footprint of the building is dedicated to a whimsical gift shop.

While all of 826’s other writing workshops follow this same model, they all have different themes for the storefronts. But I think it’s safe to say the original has the most work put into the theme.

The Pirate Supply store sells everything a pirate could need: wooden legs, eye patches, even treasure! And something called “Unicorn Horn Polish.” Of course you’ll also find books, this is a writing workshop after all.

There’s no sales pressure whatsoever and I doubt they make many sales. But then again they’re very open about the fact that this store is a front for something else.

 

Pirate Supply Store Pirate Supply Store

 

The store’s theme doesn’t end with the merchandise. One example is a wall with cabinets and drawers you can open up. Many of them have cryptic labels like “repairs” on them, and inside you’ll find it’s items to repair clothing like buttons and buckles.

Unfortunately some of the drawers are stuck. Pirates have better things to do than repairing furniture.

 

Pirate Supply Store

 

Various information is framed on the walls, including the above and one labeled “USES FOR LARD (partial list).” My only question here is what kind of pirate has access to a printing press?

The dry sense of humor on display both here and in some of the mini-books sold in the store should seem familiar to readers of McSweeney’s, which is edited by Eggers.

 

Pirate Supply Store

 

In one corner of the store there’s a periscope, which is strange because I don’t recall going below deck…

The Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia is only open on weekends. If you’re interested in visiting, here are some questions I’ll leave you with:

  • What do you see when you look into that periscope?
  • There’s a place in the store where you can dig for treasure. What can you find?
  • Next to the cash register there’s a curtain with some theater seats behind it. What’s playing on the screen?

If you do visit the Pirate Supply Store I’d also recommend checking out their next door neighbor, upscale curiosity shop Paxton Gate for all your crystal, succulent, and taxidermy needs.

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2021)

July 19, 2021

Once again it’s movie time! Similar to my last movie review roundup I watched all of these movies from home, although now that most of us are vaccinated a few theaters have reopened. Personally I can’t see myself going back to theaters until things are fully back to normal — no temperature screenings, masks that stop you from eating popcorn, etc. That’s my big hope for the movie review roundup next time: actually seeing movies in theaters again.

Or maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Either way without further ado, here are the movies I watched in the first half of this year.

 

Synchronic

Steve and Dennis, a pair of paramedics in New Orleans, come across some victims with unusual injuries. The injuries turn out to be related to Synchronic, a new recreational designer drug. At first this might sound an awful lot like the 2011 film Limitless but the similarities end there.

See, the hallucinogenic effects of Synchronic are not hallucinogenic at all — the effects are the result of unpredictable time travel. When Dennis’ daughter disappears after using the drug Steve takes it upon himself to administer the drug on himself in order to rescue her.

Sometimes this movie is listed as a sci-fi horror, yet it’s more of a sci-fi drama. After the mysterious opening sequence it’s not scary or suspenseful enough to be a horror movie at all. 

The main problem with this movie is it takes the concept and explores it in an interesting way, but then takes it way too seriously for how ridiculous and illogical it is in the first place. The tone is very uneven — personally I think it would have worked better as a comedy as some of the film’s strongest beats are firmly in the comedy realm.

Best moment: Steve systematically exploring and documenting how Synchronic works.

Rating: 5/10

 

Willy’s Wonderland

After experiencing car trouble a mysterious mute unnamed tough guy (Nicholas Cage) accepts a job for one night as the janitor at Willy’s Wonderland — a dilapidated Chuck E. Cheese knockoff — in exchange for car repairs.

The small town where Willy’s is located has a surprising number of missing persons cases, all of whom had accepted a similar offer in the past.

Where did they go? Well obviously the animatronics at Willy’s come to life at night and murder people. A band of young townsfolk arrive to burn the place down and warn the new janitor, only to find he’s completely unphased by the situation.

Armed with nothing more than cleaning supplies and a steady diet of caffeinated sodas, Cage’s janitor takes on the deadly animatronics one by one, tearing them apart before wrapping their remains in garbage bags as though they are nothing more than the trash he was hired to remove. Unfortunately most of the locals aren’t so fearless.

Played more for laughs than scares, Willy’s Wonderland is like if you took a supernatural slasher movie and then tossed in an action hero with predictable yet satisfying results. It’s simple, dark, and funny in all the right ways. While it’s far from perfect I wish more ridiculous films like this existed.

Some people have pointed out the similarities between this movie and the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series. While there’s certainly a resemblance, I think this isn’t entirely fair for two reasons. First the idea of animatronics coming to life is only a slight twist on the age old nightmare about statues coming to life. Second, the overall stories are otherwise dissimilar.

My main caveat with this film is the sloppy fight scene editing. I realize this was shot on a low budget with a tight schedule, but these scenes are so integral to the story that it would have benefited from having a fight scene coordinator to give these scenes a coherent flow. That said the puppeteering work does capture the threatening nature of the animatronic creatures.

Best moment: When the first animatronic draws blood and Cage’s expression slowly turns to an evil grin before he goes absolutely apeshit.

Rating: 7/10

 

Bad Trip

Chris (Eric Andre) gets into an embarrassing situation with a vacuum cleaner at a car wash right as he spots his high school crush, Maria, for the first time in years. Meanwhile his best friend Bud is working at a computer repair store when Bud’s sister Trina pulls up in a bright pink car and robs the store.

This sets a few events into motion: After getting fired from the car wash Chris gets a new job at a smoothie shop and runs into his crush again, who tells him she has an art gallery in New York City. Trina is sent to jail, while Chris and Bud decide to “borrow” her pink car to take a road trip from Florida to NYC in an attempt to track down Chris’ crush again. Unfortunately for the two of them, Trina breaks out of jail, steals a police car, and chases after them to retrieve her beloved pink car.

To be clear the story is really nothing more than a loose framework on which to hang a bunch of hidden camera pranks. Like most comedy films the story both supports the jokes and occasionally feels like padding for time. However some of the funniest and most extreme moments aren’t in the trailer which is very unusual for a comedy.

Many reviewers compared this to the Borat movies but I think that largely misses the point — the majority of the people being pranked in the Borat movies are completely aware they’re on camera, whereas here they are only made aware they’re being filmed after the fact. This is made clear in scenes played over the credits with the people being pranked laughing with the actors and crew as the hidden cameras are pointed out to them.

The more obvious comparison is to the film’s star Eric Andre’s The Eric Andre Show which features hidden camera pranks in every episode. There’s one prank in this movie that’s essentially recycled from The Eric Andre Show but fortunately it’s a good one, and the reaction here is more shocking.

As a fan of The Eric Andre Show I think other fans will enjoy it, as will fans of cringey hidden camera pranks in general. Be aware there’s a lot of dick jokes, fake vomit, etc. If you’re on the fence go watch an episode of the show first to get a sense of the type of humor involved since each episode is only 11 minutes long.

I have to point out that Tiffany Haddish who plays Trina here is absolutely perfect for the role. She comes across as both sympathetic and terrorizing, and in one memorable scene repeatedly whips the patrons of a diner into an absolute frenzy. 

Best moment: The ending, which I should have seen coming in hindsight. 

Rating: 9/10

 

Come True

“Dreams aren’t what you think” has been a staple premise in scary stories since… well probably as long as humans have been around.

Come True takes this basic concept and tosses in some science fiction in a way that makes you think “Hey, remember Inception? I could be watching that instead.”

The story focuses on a teen runaway named Sarah who joins a sleep study just for a place to sleep. All is not as it seems of course, and this mysterious dream study which turns out to be a slight twist on the “Ever dream this man?” meme.

While Come True does an admirable job of amping up the suspense, it never quite manages to build to anything worthwhile. It’s like a rollercoaster with a really big lift hill but the drops aren’t very sudden and the corkscrew loop is pretty boring.

I’m not going to beat it around the bush: the ending to this movie is both dumb and completely unoriginal. In fact, given the topic of “dreams” I bet you’ve already guessed what it is. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Despite flaws in the story I will say Julia Sarah Stone is great in the lead role. Credit where credit is due.

Best moment: Sarah learning the truth about the sleep study.

Rating: 3/10

 

Nobody

Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is presented as your average suburban dad. One night his home is invaded by a pair of robbers. After deciding to let them go — there wasn’t much to take anyway — he feels emasculated. Something in him is re-awakened; specifically his past work as “auditor,” which turns out to be more of an asskicker role than a financial one.

Borrowing his dad’s FBI badge, Hutch tracks down the thieves only to find they’re extremely desperate. He gives up but on his way home a bunch of young Russian punks terrorize a girl on a bus. Hutch resolves the issue by beating all the punks to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, one of the guys he beat up on that bus is related to a scary Russian mobster, leaving Hutch no choice but to single-handedly take down an entire mob.

Much of what makes this film work is the casting choices. Bob Odenkirk is totally believable as a suburban dad, but as a one man killing machine? It’s just so ridiculous that you can’t help but to laugh. Likewise for Hutch’s dad, a scary ex FBI agent with a huge stash of guns played by — who else? — Christopher Lloyd. 

This is one of those films where if you watch the trailer, you pretty much know what you’re in for. That isn’t to say there are no twists or anything but if the trailer is appealing you’re going to enjoy the movie.

One thing I personally found amusing is that most of the time when you see characters in a movie using a computer, it’s either product placement, some generic operating system that looks like it could be either Windows or Mac OS, or something completely ridiculous like that 3D file system in Jurassic Park. In this film we see a Russian hacker running Ubuntu Linux with its recognizable custom Gnome 3 shell… something a real hacker might actually use.

Best moment: The spectacular way in which the gangsters’ plan to kidnap Hutch backfires.

Rating: 8/10

 

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star, a pair of eccentric middle aged women who “worked” in a furniture store find themselves laid off and directionless. Ostracized from their group of equally eccentric middle aged friends they decide to take a vacation together to — you guessed it — Vista Del Mar.

Meanwhile, a group of villains are planning on killing the entire population of Vista Del Mar using deadly mosquitos. In an “Austin Powers” like move both Star and lead villain Sharon are played by the movie’s co-creator Kristen Wiig. Sharon’s murderous intentions stem from being embarrassed as a child at Vista Del Mar’s annual seafood festival.

Barb and Star wind up unintentionally taking drugs and dancing with one of the evil henchmen, Edgar, accidentally disrupting the plan.

The movie never quite finds its sweet spot, wavering between a journey of self discovery in the Barb and Star subplot and the ridiculous scene chewing in the villain’s subplot. It doesn’t help that Barb and Star come across as mildly annoying and half fleshed out characters.

While the overall premise is funny, what this movie lacks is connective tissue between comedic beats up until the last quarter of the movie. By that point I can’t help but to feel the average viewer may have sighed and thrown in the towel.

This is a difficult movie to rate. As a comedy it’s occasionally dull until the end when it all comes together. The problem is there’s a runtime of 107 minute but maybe 80 minutes of it feel necessary. 

Best moment: The reveal that both Barb and Star are each running away with Edgar separately.

Rating: 6/10

 

Boss Level

Roy, a former soldier turned alcoholic is stuck in a Groundhog’s Day style time loop where he’s the only one who recalls the previous events. But unlike Groundhog’s Day this isn’t merely about trying to improve his life, it’s about maintaining it: the same killers come after him every day and he has to learn how to fight them all off, dying day after day just to get one step further.

Oh and to make things worse he has no idea who’s after him or why. To the audience it’s all clearly connected to a military project run by an evil contractor (Mel Gibson, surrounded by a cloud of cigar smoke) and his unwitting scientist, Roy’s ex-wife (Naomi Watts.)

Without saying too much throughout the violent action/sci-fi/comedy there’s a recurring video game motif (hence the name of the movie) that only sort of makes sense toward the end without ever coming completely full circle.

While it’s by no means a great film, there’s enough campy, quirky humor with some genuinely great quips where  I could see it become one of those B-movies which eventually lands as a sleeper hit. This assumes the right audience finds it though, and to be honest I have no idea what the “right” audience would be for this film.

Again I don’t like to include spoilers in these reviews but the ending is deeply lacking and unsatisfying. Supposedly they filmed more than one ending, so it’s totally possible this gets re-released as a better film in the future.

Best moment: When Roy finally realizes killing all the bad guys isn’t nearly enough.

Rating: 4/10

 

Super Mario Bros: The Morton Jankel Cut

Normally I only review new movies in these blog entries, but here I’m reviewing a new cut of an old movie — a movie that’s pretty much universally hated — the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie.

There’s a lot of backstory as to why the film was such a disaster, but the short version is that co-creators Morton and Jankel had a vision for the movie that significantly clashed with what Hollywood Pictures (aka Disney) had in mind. Specifically, Morton and Jankel were the creators of Max Headroom and wanted to create something with a similar gritty steampunk vibe. The studio on the other hand wanted a family friendly film. The result? A movie with a wildly inconsistent tone and a story that’s borderline incomprehensible.

This new cut is the work of artist Garrett Gilchrist who took an early workprint of the film on VHS, restored it, and re-edited the entire movie to include missing scenes and even restored/modified some of the soundtrack. According to Gilchrist there will be a cut that incorporates better quality footage from the Blu Ray release in the future.

The footage that was edited back in is very obvious as it includes timestamps over the footage, as was typical of workprints at that time. This additional footage ranges from short sequences which add a small amount of context to entirely “new” scenes that were edited out of the theatrical cut.

At the end of the day the real question is, does this edit redeem the movie? The short answer is no; the story is a mess, but a much better organized mess. The longer answer is that it’s still an improvement over the original cut and I think for those interested in watching this movie as a historical curiosity this is the best cut to watch of the two available. I also want to point out that like some movies released around the same (Jurassic Park, etc.) the special effects and early computer graphics largely hold up.

So for this edit I’ll give it an A for effort but… there’s only so much even the best editor can do to polish a turd. Still, aside from some missing audio here and there and a brief moment with missing composite effects this is clearly an improvement over the theatrical release — but mostly because it’s not bafflingly incoherent.

Let me repeat that again: this is the first time I’ve watched this movie and actually understood what was happening.

I should note it’s probably not technically legal to watch this movie, but… who cares? There’s absolutely no reason to watch the original, and even this version is still an exercise in self-punishment.

Best moment: The new (to us) Iggy and Spike rap sequence, which finally explains why Koopa turns against them.

Rating: 3/10 (The theatrical cut may not even deserve a 1/10 so this is intended as high praise to the editor.)

 

Luca

Off the coast of Italy, a pair of small-time fishermen accidentally discover a young “sea monster.” As we soon discover the sea monster’s name is Luca and he lives in an underwater village of his fellow brethren along with some dopey fish. In his society the humans boating around above them are “land monsters” which they’re terrified of. Luca is curious about these land monsters and some of the technology he managed to steal from the fishermen, like a record player (the first indicator of when this story is set.)

After a chance encounter with Alberto, an older boy sea monster, they swim up to the surface together where they do “the change,” transforming into their human counterparts — something Luca was warned never to do by his parents. Yes this is a similar concept as The Little Mermaid but the comparison between the stories pretty much ends there.

The pair slowly learn about human life in Italy circa 1960 through trial and error, making this a fish out of water story in the most literal of ways. I don’t want to spoil the whole story but it involves a somewhat convoluted quest to acquire a Vespa and standing up to a bully.

The animation really nails a realistic looking Italian seaside village and perhaps more impressively the motion of water — something notoriously difficult to animate. Unfortunately this has the unintended consequence of making the human characters look out of place, particularly the ones with more cartoony character designs. Still, that’s a minor quibble as Pixar’s animation has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years and this film is no exception.

At first the idea that Luca and Alberto change back to sea monsters as soon as they get wet is treated like a joke that never quite sticks the landing. However toward the end of the movie it winds up redeeming itself as it becomes integral to the story.

The voice acting is on point in this film especially considering the main roles are all voiced by effectively unknown teenage actors playing against a strong supporting cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen and stand up comedy legend Jim Gaffigan.

Even by Pixar’s standards this is an amazing film, but it’s even more impressive when you consider the entire team was working from home due to the pandemic.

Best moment: The surprisingly happy ending.

Rating: 10/10

 

Pig

Rob, (Nicolas Cage) a local celebrity chef turned recluse lives in the woods of Oregon with his pet truffle hunting pig. Rob trades his truffles to a wealthy yuppie named Amir in exchange for ingredients and supplies. When Rob’s pig is kidnapped in a violent attack, Amir takes Rob back to Portland to find his beloved pig. Despite his disheveled and bloody appearance Rob is still recognized by every chef.

Now any time you have a movie featuring Nic Cage you have to ask yourself, is this going to be one of those “Nic Cage movies?” Willy’s Wonderland (see above) is certainly one of them. Or the Wicker Man remake (“NOT THE BEES!”) But then you have movies like Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas proving Cage is a perfectly serious actor when he’s working with a serious script.

Despite its unusual premise this film fits squarely in the latter category. It boils down to the fact that the mystery of tracking down the pig isn’t really what this movie is about: it’s a portrait of a broken man.

Or should that be broken men? Every single chef Rob meets in the world of fine dining is sketchy, empty inside, or both. While it’s never said outright the theft of the pig merely seems as though it was merely one minor event in some dark underbelly of the restaurant scene. Except of course for Rob — for him it’s personal.

Pretty much everything about this film works. It looks fantastic though some small part of that could be chalked up to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The pace isn’t leisurely though it takes a leisurely pace at the right moments. And while there aren’t many characters they’re all perfectly cast.

First time film writer/director Michael Sarnoski clearly set himself up to win here and he largely did. What doesn’t quite work is the tendency of the story to bring up more questions than answers: we learn a lot about these characters but the film leans heavily on the actors to sell their inner struggles without offering much insight on their pasts.

Best moment: Rob bringing a grown man to tears (I won’t tell you how or why, just go watch the movie.)

Rating: 8/10