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

Wait, which California city is the “adult Disneyland”?

July 5, 2021
Solvang

Image used under a Creative Commons license

 

SFGate recently ran an article that compared the small town of Solvang in Santa Barbara County to Disneyland. Although the comparison was seemingly intended to be positive they took a lot of heat for this clearly questionable take.

Go ahead and read the article… and then think about it for a second.

If the criteria for an “adult Disneyland” is food, fake ye olde fashioned looking buildings, a tiki bar, and a couple of windmills then guess what? 

You don’t need to leave San Francisco to find this “adult Disneyland.” It’s been right here all along. Who knew?

The best part? I know people love paying outrageous ticket prices to visit Disneyland and the prices in and around San Francisco are just as wild. Yay!

While we may not have Space Mountain, you can get on a cable car and close your eyes. A fireworks show every night? You bet your ass! Here, light this and throw it quick or you might lose a finger.

Though the last animatronic figures probably left town when FAO Schwarz closed their Union Square store, you can find outdoor street performances in the same part of town. Just look for the Michael Jackson impersonator at 4th and Market (gets call from Disney) sorry, I’m being asked by corporate to retract that last part. Apparently there’s some sort of branding issue regarding Captain EO.

But in the “comparing Disneyland to San Francisco” department it turns out I’m kind of late to the party as Mr. Show with Bob (Odenkirk) and David (Cross) did this exact bit… back in 1996. 

 

 

Oh and by the way, if that Mr. Show sketch seems familiar it might be because I covered it here on this blog a decade ago.

… and history repeats itself. See you here again ten years from now with a new take on this same joke.

The many resurrections of Valencia Street’s restaurants

June 21, 2021
Freekeh (Pork Store Cafe) on 16th Street

 

As documented on this very blog many businesses in San Francisco were boarded up during the beginning of the pandemic, with many if not most gradually returning. But what’s more surprising are the places that officially went out of business only to reopen — some of which closed long before the pandemic. Here are the restaurants along the Valencia Street corridor that went through this unlikely chain of events.

 

Pica Pica

The original and last location of the Pica Pica chain known for its Venezuelan food closed its doors for good in August 2020, only to quietly return in March with new investors.

The closure of Pica Pica felt like a blow simply because Venezuelan restaurants are hard to come by in the Bay Area. However it turned out to be a sign of things to come when they reopened their doors.

 

Valencia Pizza & Pasta

Despite closing forever at the start of 2020, Valencia Pizza & Pasta returned with a fresh coat of paint and a renovated interior.

Of all the restaurants on this small list, this one has to be the most surprising as it was a fairly unassuming restaurant that certainly never made anyone’s top ten lists. Though there is something to be said for reasonably priced wine and carbs.

 

Pork Store Cafe’s Mediterranean offshoot

Those with longer memories might remember the 2009-era “Morak Lounge,” the hookah bar on 16th Street just off Valencia which was the nighttime moniker of Pork Store Cafe. To sell the vibe customers would enter Pork Store through a Moroccan-themed side entrance, which later became Stanza Coffee.

Despite being an American style diner, Pork Store never completely abandoned Mediterranean cuisine (though they did drop the hookahs.) However as seen in the image at the top of the post, Pork Store’s side hustle as a full on Mediterranean restaurant is back, now under the name “Freekeh.” It remains to be seen if Stanza Coffee fully reopens.

 

Luna (Park)

The team behind Wayfare Tavern have been quietly working to reboot Luna Park as just “Luna,” and while it’s not open just yet they’ve renovated the interior of the place and put “now hiring” signs in the window.

This effort is seemingly unrelated to several previous efforts to reopen Luna Park, including one from the owner of Mission Beach Cafe which crashed and burned long before Mission Beach itself went under, and by governor Gavin Newsom’s Plumpjack Group. Indeed, the efforts to bring back Luna Park are more storied at this point than the original restaurant. Fingers crossed, this time is the charm.

 

Update: Luna has now opened.

Lawyer reacts to the (On Cinema) Trial of Tim Heidecker

June 20, 2021

The cult comedy series On Cinema has had many crowning achievements, but arguably the largest is The Trial of Tim Heidecker. In the trial the host of the series is accused of a felony regarding an unpermitted concert in San Bernardino where 20 people died after using a toxic vape system Heidecker was promoting.

In the trial Heidecker takes a wide defense, not only defending himself pro se against the charges but also bringing in witnesses to testify against his On Cinema guest/co-host Gregg Turkington and attempts to litigate their ongoing disagreements under oath. This goes so far as to bring in writer/director Nicholas Meyer to settle a dispute about which Star Trek movie is the one that takes place in San Francisco.

YouTube’s mysterious algorithm led many outsiders to believe The Trial was a real event, leading to an unlikely if confusing introduction to On Cinema for those who had never even heard of it.

Due to this unlikely combination, many fans have been pushing for a “reaction” video. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a reaction video can be anything from kids trying to use some obsolete technology like a VCR to (in this case) a real life lawyer reacting to a fictional trial.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with the format there are plenty of videos out there of lawyers reacting to Better Call Saul or even the last episode of Seinfeld. Lawyer reaction videos are very much a thing.

While it may be a couple years late, credit where credit is due to YouTube channel AttorneyTom for covering The Trial of Tim Heidecker. Though Tom is unfamiliar with the series he’s easily able to grasp what’s going on and for the most part praises the realism of the trial and explains some of the legal concepts.

Without further ado, here are the reaction videos from AttorneyTom: