Posts Tagged ‘san francisco’

826 Valencia’s Pirate Supply Store

August 16th, 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.

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

July 5th, 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 21st, 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.

The Apple Maps screw up at WWDC 2021

June 8th, 2021

When the initial release of Apple Maps was so botched it led to widespread mockery (and a hilarious video from The Onion) Apple opted to play the long game, slowly improving the Maps app with better data and numerous new features.

Today at Apple’s virtual 2021 Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) they announced among many other things improved public transit directions in Apple Maps. Seems pretty nice, right?

But there was just one tiny problem — one of their example slides shows directions using the J-Church line of Muni Metro and getting off at Embarcadero — a route that has been terminating at Church & Market since August of last year.

There are three possibilities here, and I’m going to enumerate them from least likely to most likely:

  1. This screenshot is a year old or so, and Apple has been working on this feature since then but the UI hasn’t changed much so they went ahead and used it. Apple working on a new feature and not changing the UI for so long doesn’t pass the sniff test for me.
  2. Apple Maps is just so bad that it’s somehow displaying route information that’s wildly out of date. Of course this is possible, and it does happen with even the best mapping apps out there. But I checked just now and when getting transit directions from the Ferry Building to an address on Church Street, sure enough it knew that I’d have to transfer to the J-Church at Church & Market.
  3. This isn’t a screenshot at all: it’s just a mockup. This would also explain why someone would have 5G service (see “screenshot” above) in the Market Street tunnel, something that’s not scheduled to be completed until 2022. In a way this is also the most worrying possibility because if this is just a mockup, what else are they promising us at these events that may never see the light of day? Aside from that AirPower charger, of course. Perhaps Apple should go back to doing live demos in their presentations, even if those sometimes caused Steve Jobs to get pissed off at the audience for ruining them.

Recent movie review round-up (second half of 2020)

January 18th, 2021

In the last installment of my movie review roundups I expressed some concern about new movies in 2020 due to the pandemic. Thankfully I was wrong: while many big budget movies were delayed, 2020 turned out to be a great year for new indie and medium budget movies debuting on streaming services.

Surprisingly three movies on this list take place right here in San Francisco, which I was not aware of going in to any of them.

So in no well thought out order here’s what I watched in the latter half of the year.

 

Black Bear

An outcast actress named Allison who was deemed “difficult to work with” tries forging her own path by becoming an indie filmmaker. She’s sharing a giant cabin in the woods near a lake with an unmarried couple with a child on the way. The couple doesn’t get along at all and after a series of arguments and too much wine, all three of them become the third wheels of the trio.

Without spoiling too much there’s a film within a film aspect happening here which is revealed about halfway through. What’s real? Who’s acting and to what extent? Is this all imaginary?

This film has some great moments and plenty of thoughtful dark comedy. But it ultimately just made me go re-watch Mulholland Dr. again. Both movies share very similar neo-noir and film-within-a-film concepts. However, Black Bear doesn’t feed on the uncertainty it creates nearly as well as Mulholland Dr., which makes it the weaker — though more approachable — of the two films.

Best moment: When the first twist hits, and you realize in retrospect that you should have seen it coming a mile away.

Rating: 6/10

 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character from Da Ali G Show is back for a second film. This time there’s more upfront explanation of the backstory, which starts to drag after a while despite some genuinely hilarious moments. The gist is that once again Borat is coming to America, but this time he’s stuck with his 15 year old daughter Tutar who, naturally, lives in a cage.

Cohen’s typical cringe comedy antics are on display here with various disguises, trying to learn about different aspects of American society and failing miserably, etc.

While you’ve probably already read about at least one spoiler for the movie, there are plenty of shocking moments that surprisingly did NOT make the news. Perhaps that’s more of a testament to 2020’s crazy news cycle than what happens in the movie though. And yes, that Rudy Giuliani scene is far more alarming than it was made out to be in the news.

One unfortunate aspect of this movie’s distribution on Amazon is that you will most likely have to enable subtitles to understand certain scenes as their player — at least for me — didn’t turn on subtitles automatically for non-English scenes. 

Although I have to admit I didn’t see the twist ending coming, this particular style of prank/cringe comedy is so widely imitated these days that it doesn’t feel as fresh as it did when Cohen debuted his Borat character two decades ago, let alone his more recent efforts like Who Is America. But it’s still a wild movie with plenty of uncomfortable laughs.

Best moment: Professional babysitter Jeanise Jones who isn’t just the only sane person in the entire movie, but actually cares about Tutar’s well being.

Rating: 7/10

 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

This is the story of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests in Chicago told primarily through a courtroom drama and flashbacks to a Vietnam War protest. 

Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen also starred in this movie, cast perfectly as 1960’s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman. It’s hardly the only spot-on casting choice in this film though it’s interesting that Cohen appeared in two very different political films this year.

Let me point out that the film gets a lot of things correct, in particular the ideological clashing between the protestors themselves and the courtroom antics. It also gets the gist of the case correct with the judge being unsympathetic to the defendants, how the defendants should have been tried separately (if at all), and most notably that you don’t want a high profile jester in the court, let alone two — Hoffman and Rubin.

At the same time, I think the film’s flashbacks undercut the true story with a variety of embellishments from inventing new characters to inaccurate representations of events.

Taking some liberties with a true story clearly worked for writer (and director here) Aaron Sorkin before with his script for The Social Network, yet this time his tale fizzles out as he attempts to dramatize a much better known story that simply doesn’t need any additional drama. The actors manage to elevate the material from time to time but can’t salvage it entirely.

The biggest issue is there never seems to be any justification as to why this story needed to be told in 2020. I appreciate not being hit over the head with an obvious message, but the parallels to Trump’s America could have at least been ever so slightly underlined.

Best moment: Hoffman and Rubin’s courtroom antics are all funny, but the best one was when they came in dressed in judicial robes. And yes, that’s based on a real event.

Rating: 5/10

 

Sonic the Hedgehog

Remember Sega? Remember their iconic 90’s Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games? For a lot of people the answer to both questions is going to be a resounding no, which leads to a pretty obvious question: who is this movie made for? That was the main question I went into with this one and I’m still not sure I entirely have an answer.

While it’s a pretty universal law that all movies based on video games are going to be bad, a notion cemented by 1993’s Super Mario Bros., in Sonic the Hedgehog thankfully nobody is taking anything seriously. This is a movie well aware of its own absurdity.

The story setup is basically this: after being hunted on his home world, the speedy Sonic the Hedgehog is given a bag of rings that let him teleport to other planets. He winds up on Earth in a small town and eventually befriends a sheriff’s officer named Tom who’s on his way to becoming a police officer in San Francisco.

Meanwhile after Sonic accidentally causes a power outage, the Pentagon decides to bring in Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist played by a mustache-twirling Jim Carey, to hunt down and eliminate the problem.

My expectations were low going in and while I can’t say Sonic is going to be a classic film by any means, it’s a reliable and fun diversion. Not every joke lands — or even most of them to be honest — though the movie manages to capture a similar feel to not-very-serious comic book movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Best moment: The mix of real footage and computer animation is solid throughout the movie — if I had to pick just one example I’d go with the bar fight scene. The animation is particularly remarkable as Sonic’s design underwent significant alterations shortly before release.

Rating: 6/10

 

The Invisible Man

This new adaptation of The Invisible Man is very loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel, so if you’ve read it or seen the previous film adaptations you’ll still be going in fresh. Even the genre has shifted slightly to lean on horror more than science fiction.

Cecilia is trapped in a controlling relationship with her husband, an optics engineering genius named Adrian. One night she makes an escape with the help of her sister and goes to live with a detective friend for her safety.

Cecilia soon gets the news that Adrian has killed himself, a relief at first… but given the title of the movie you can easily guess where this is headed.

Can’t say too much more about the plot without going into spoilers. Check out the trailer though, which provides the gist of the story while slightly misdirecting the viewer. At least one scene in the trailer is not even in the movie.

Overall I enjoyed this film. Like the best horror movies it keeps the audience guessing without revealing the villain too soon, for obvious reasons in this case. The cinematography masterfully presents empty space as potentially treacherous. For a two hour film it manages to keep viewers on their toes until the very end.

My only complaint is why set this in San Francisco when only the establishing shots are filmed here? Places have their own distinct visual language and it’s distracting when it doesn’t line up with what’s presented on screen, occasionally breaking the tension.

Best moment: The big reveal and its immediate aftermath. Can’t much more without going into spoiler territory, except that it’s the best kind of jump scare: the one you’ll anticipate long in advance.

Rating: 9/10

 

Feels Good Man

This documentary is like peeling back the layers of an onion to explain a strange phenomenon; an alt-right internet meme that started out as an innocent and completely unrelated comic.

Matt Furie, a soft spoken San Francisco artist created a comic called Boys Club while working at Community Thrift. One of the characters in the comic is Pepe the Frog, a humanoid with a frog head. At one point Pepe takes his pants off to pee while standing up with the dialog “feels good man.” For various reasons both this phrase and the image of Pepe become an instant internet meme, eventually finding its way to the 4chan imageboard popular with disenfranchised basement dweller types.

Matt Furie initially ignores the spread of Pepe across the internet until it becomes classified as a hate symbol after being associated with white supremacy. Far too long after it’s spiraled out of control Furie decides to fight back, officially killing off the character and suing sellers of counterfeit Pepe merchandise such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Oh and just like the “doge” meme before it, Pepe becomes the mascot of a cryptocurrency because of course it does.

Much of the film centers on interviews with Furie and his wife with a mix of archival footage and animation. Self-described druid John Michael Greer is presented as a voice of reason in this completely insane story.

It’s a very well put together documentary and while I do recommend it at times it comes across as a little too sensationalized. I legitimately do feel bad for Matt Furie though.

Best moment: On a personal note as someone who’s been stopping by Community Thrift here in San Francisco every now and then for ages, this one surprised me. If anything I’d expect an anarchist zine to come out of that place.

Rating: 8/10

 

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns hasn’t had a hit in decades. To make matters worse they now have to write a song to unite the world and don’t have much time to do it; not only is time itself collapsing, but a killer robot named Dennis is coming after them. Given access to their old time traveling phone booth they decide to go into the future and attempt to steal the song from their future selves

Meanwhile their respective daughters — Billie and Thea, naturally — borrow a more modern time machine to recruit some of the best musicians from throughout history to join their dads’ band. 

Going in I was skeptical of a sequel to a funny but old pair of movies from nearly 30 years ago. Turns out when the concept essentially boils down to an absurd lighthearted comedy with time travel, outdated slang, and music, there’s plenty to room to craft a ridiculous tale that only needs to be fleshed out enough to get from one funny moment to the next. What more can you expect from a Bill & Ted movie, dude?

My only real complaint is it left me wanting to learn more about Billie & Thea’s relationship as it felt like a one-note joke here. That said the last half of the movie really delivers. In terms of making a new entry in a movie series from decades ago I’d rate this as a solid effort.

Stay for the post-credits sequence which is most excellent, my dudes.

Best moment: A posthumous George Carlin “hologram” as a nod to the previous two films.

Rating: 7/10

 

Another Round

Normally I won’t see a film just because of who’s in it, but after seeing Mads Mikkelsen’s eccentric performances in everything from Casino Royale to the Hannibal television series, I’ve been curious to see him in a film from his home country of Denmark. When this one appeared on my radar with good critical reviews I figured why not, if you’ll pardon the pun, give it a shot?

Another Round is an original dark comedy about a middle aged teacher named Martin (Mikkelsen) at the equivalent of a high school in Copenhagen. He’s stuck in a rut, rarely gets to see his wife, and when his students (and their parents) blame him for their bad grades it seems clear his interest in life is fading.

In the first quarter or so of the film we see Martin and three of his fellow school employees bond over drinks. One of them gets to talking about an obscure philosopher who once remarked that humans were born with a blood alcohol content 0.05% too low. This leads to an experiment starting with Martin taking a swig of vodka in the school bathroom. Soon all four of them become day drinkers.

Best moment: Again I’m steering clear of spoilers here but the ending is very memorable and surprisingly fun.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Last Blockbuster

Remember Blockbuster Video? Even though most of us probably associate Blockbuster with fees for not rewinding your tapes, the company didn’t go under until well into the age of DVDs. Despite the company’s demise a few franchisees held on — and now there’s only one left. 

This documentary presents several different angles about Blockbuster: nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, the rise and fall of Blockbuster corporate, and a look at the life of the woman who runs the last Blockbuster.

The first two aspects of the film are largely through talking heads. The nostalgia angle is covered by the likes of director Kevin Smith and comedian Brian Posehn, the latter of whom rented VCRs since he couldn’t afford to buy one.

Likewise a separate roundup of talking heads familiar with Blockbuster’s business guide us through how the company started, the tactics they used to muscle out (or acquire) their local competitors, and ultimately why the company didn’t make it.

And finally we also get the story of Sandi, the woman running the last Blockbuster. She’s a very hands-on type who does everything from purchasing movies to solving IT issues. Her family and various current and former employees from the store are interviewed along with her. These glimpses into the daily life at the store end with Sandi trying to figure out how the store can survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the film the number of remaining stores steadily decreases, despite the efforts of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight promoting the three remaining Blockbusters in Alaska by sending one of them memorabilia from Russell Crowe movies.

While all these individual stories and tidbits are interesting, unfortunately they hardly overlap enough to make for a cohesive documentary. It banks so heavily on (frankly, undeserved) nostalgia that it struggles to find a good argument for why Blockbuster should still exist as a physical store. Many of the people we see treat the last Blockbuster more like a living museum than an actual store. Even Sandi herself seems nostalgic, looking backward rather than to the future.

Best moment: Gen-Xers remembering how they struggled to find a good date night movie at Blockbuster. I laughed out loud at this, as though younger generations don’t spend time scrolling through Netflix or whatever for the same reason.

Rating: 7/10

 

Wild Mountain Thyme

Perhaps the weirdest movie of the year — but not necessarily for the intended reasons. The movie kicks off with Christopher Walken’s character telling us he’s dead before backtracking a couple years.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. The real problem with this movie are the Irish accents, which seem evenly split between “actual Irish actor” to “failed an audition for a Lucky Charms commercial.”  Walken in particular doesn’t sound like he’s even trying. The differences are so jarring it’s hard to believe these actors are even in the same scenes together.

Getting back to the story it’s about a man named Anthony Reilly and a woman named Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) who work neighboring farms in Ireland. The two are clearly in love but too stubborn to do anything about it.

This all changes one day when Anthony’s cousin (Jon Hamm) comes to town from New York City with eyes not only on the farm, but on Rosemary as well.

Aside from the accents the big problem with this movie is the script: the dialog is cheesy, the characters are flimsy with little backstory, and there’s no real sense of pacing.

Whereas an average movie tends to sag in the middle, Wild Mountain Thyme’s entire first half is largely pointless. It’s all very day-dreamy filler until Jon Hamm shows up and kicks the story in motion. From the halfway mark it’s at least enjoyable, if not completely obvious where it’s headed.

At some point I had to stop the movie and look up if it was written by an Irish or American screenwriter. Turns out it was written and directed by an Irish-American living in NYC. I’ve never been less surprised in my entire life.

Best moment: Any moment Emily Blunt is on screen as she’s the only actor trying to make this idiotic movie work.

Rating: 2/10

 

I Used To Go Here

Kate is a writer whose first book “Seasons Passed” isn’t selling well and her book tour has been cancelled as a result. This comedy film more or less begins when Kate’s former writing professor invites her for a reading at her old college (hence the name of the film) and she jumps at the chance.

From there it turns into a predictable nostalgia trip for Kate, catching up with old friends and meeting the new batch of roommates who live in the same home she used to.

The characters are very much cookie cutter tropes, which is fine for a comedy. I mean if you expected Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun movies to have any character development, you were watching the wrong movie. But what works fine for a comedy (and worked for the first two acts of this movie) doesn’t work when it shifts suddenly into a drama in the last act. A drama with no well established stakes simply cannot work.

While I will have to say this is a funny movie with a lot of sharp jokes and cringey moments, the ending let all the steam out for me. That said it’s not a long movie so it’s tough to complain too much about something I got a kick out of, even if it didn’t work entirely.

Best moment: The line “Honestly I just can’t think of a good lie here,” which I may have to use if I’m ever in a similar situation.

Rating: 6/10

 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Lucy goes on a long drive with her new boyfriend Jesse, despite her apathetic feelings toward him, to meet his parents. During the drive they have a long, philosophical, and meandering conversation filled with silent pauses. During the silent moments, Lucy’s inner thoughts are presented to us as a voiceover, with Jesse’s voice interrupting her internal monologue.

During the ride Lucy recites a poem she wrote about the dread of coming home, which foretells what’s about to come.

The meeting with parents gets inexplicably awkward at first, with her boyfriend’s embarrassingly oversharing mom telling uncomfortable stories about Jesse’s childhood.

Soon various shifts and jumps happen which I won’t spoil here, other than to add that a (seemingly) different story cuts in here and there. 

If you liked Charlie Kaufman’s other movies (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) you’ll probably find much to like in this movie’s maze of dream logic. Otherwise you might consider checking out those earlier films first.

Best moment: Whatever moment you first notice that something is off, which I’d suspect is a little different for each viewer.

Rating: 7/10

 

Jiu Jitsu

A tough young American man suffering from severe amnesia wakes up in an army base in Burma, proceeding to kick everyone’s ass with his bare hands for no clear reason. After being reunited with his team of fellow ass-kickers it’s revealed his name is Jake — and he’s a key part of their mission.

Jake soon meets the eccentric Wylie (Nicolas Cage) who explains the backstory: an alien fighter named Brax returns to Earth regularly and, according to legend, demands a “fair” fight for some definition of fair that is never explained. The stakes? If Brax isn’t satisfied it’s the end of life on Earth.

As you can easily guess from the above description this is not a good movie. At the same time it’s not the unwatchable schlock some critics made it out to be. Yes, the story is very thin, the CGI is mediocre, and cinematography is wildly inconsistent.

Yet at the same time the story is so goofy and the fight scenes have such laughable sound effects (whoosh! whip!) that it’s clearly an homage to action comedy movies from twenty plus years ago. Come to think of it, if this came out in the 1990’s it would probably feature Jackie Chan. Even the major plot points are so absurd and often inconsequential I couldn’t help but to laugh at them.

Best moment: Whenever Nicolas Cage is on screen doing his thing. Unfortunately despite receiving top billing that’s maybe 20 minutes of the entire movie at most.

Rating: 4/10

 

Soul

Joe, a music teacher at a New York City middle school is tiring of his students’ poor performances just as he’s offered a full time teaching position. Meanwhile he’s excited by an offer to perform on stage with a famous jazz musician at a local club, foreshadowing that if he could perform with her he could “die a happy man.”

So naturally after auditioning for the part, Joe dies and ends up in a cartoon pastel-colored purgatory of sorts where all of the administrators are abstract beings named “Jerry.” In this afterlife the former and future souls appear as Smurf-like caricatures of themselves.

Unlike most of Pixar’s works, Soul focuses on an adult character facing adult issues. I suspect children might find Soul watchable or even fun but won’t fully appreciate it. 

Which leads me to my only complaint about this film. If Pixar can pull off a unique story like this that can only be told through animation, why does it need to be dumbed down with a sense of humor for six year olds? I wish Pixar’s writers weren’t always so bound to Disney’s “we need a comic relief character” mentality. But then again, Hollywood seems addicted to making movies for children (and adult children) so it wouldn’t be entirely fair to take out these general annoyances on this particular film.

Best moment: Joe’s cartoonish walk past a number of dangerous obstacles before he inevitably enters the purgatory.

Rating: 8/10

Signs of the COVID-19 times part 5

January 1st, 2021

The summer is long over since my last post in this series, and tomorrow marks a whole new year.

A lot changed since that last post we’ve had a presidential election and the first vaccines are (slowly) rolling out to hopefully put an end to this pandemic before next summer.

Though in the more immediate term, things seemed to get better before getting worse.

 

COVID-19 changes

 

The first big changes is just how fancy the outdoor dining parklets became. And yes, I know they’re not the same thing as parklets legally but the difference is negligible for most practical perspectives.

Many of the newer ones took on a more patio-like appearance with patio umbrellas, flooring level with the sidewalk, and even plants and grass.

If nothing else this at least gave people with design and light construction skills some work during the pandemic.

 

COVID-19 changes COVID-19 changes

 

Another big change to outdoor dining was trying to bring the outside in. Above we see whiskey-focused bar Elixir trying to entice patrons with an outdoor TV showing a football game, despite not having a reputation as a sports bar.

 

COVID-19 changes

 

One of the more alarming changes were the outdoor dining spaces that seemed to all but forget what “outdoor” means, complete with roofs. When the whole point is to maximize airflow to reduce the rate of transmission these types of parklets seem ill-advised.

Then again, this whole program was put together with unclear guidelines and it’s not reasonable to expect restaurant owners to be infections disease experts.

 

COVID-19 changes COVID-19 changes

 

Eventually other businesses clamored to restart operations outdoors, sometimes to unusual looking results like the gym in the photos above that was able to move some of their equipment out to the sidewalk.

Some of these seemed a little questionable from a legal perspective. For example at a gym if I’m just walking by and someone drops a dumbbell on my toes, is that their fault or the gym’s fault?

 

The answer to that question and many others would never be put to the test though as far as I know, as with all this new outdoor activity — as well as a very short-lived experiment in “limited capacity” indoor dining — infection rates went up again, hospitals were running out of capacity, and it was time to go back into lockdown mode.

 

COVID-19 changes COVID-19 changes COVID-19 changes

 

In early December the state began rolling out stay at home orders again, just like at the beginning of the pandemic. A whole bunch of new signs appeared out on the streets telling us to stay home and warning of airborne transmission. This is an about-face from the focus on washing your hands that public health officials first suggested about nine months ago.

The last of the three posters above initially looks like it’s from the Health Department, but if you look closely it’s not: it’s an anti-racism poster from the Human Rights Commission telling people to stop attacking Asians. Perhaps even sadder than the pandemic is that something like this even needs to be said at all.

Why I have reservations about the Measure RR Caltrain tax (but I’m voting for it anyway)

October 14th, 2020

Recently the three main counties that serve CalTrain were asked to add an additional sales tax to fund CalTrain service. This was initially rejected by San Francisco leading to some finger wagging, before ultimately landing on the ballot.

Many transit advocates decried San Francisco’s decision, but let me point something out: of all the counties asked to add an additional tax for CalTrain, San Francisco is the only one within an existing transit tax district — the BART sales tax district. In other words San Francisco is being asked to join a second public transit tax district.

Meanwhile, while BART does go into San Mateo County and recently into Santa Clara County as well, both of those counties opted to pay for BART service separately instead of joining the BART tax district.

To put it simply, CalTrain should be part of BART. If the two entities were folded into one and were part of the same tax district, what’s to lose? Think about it: CalTrain serves San Mateo and Santa Clara counties much the same way BART does, and with the upcoming electrification project should have a BART-like more frequent schedule in the future.

Let’s call this BART/CalTrain merger “BARTrain” for the purpose of this conjecture.

Before anyone complains with “hey I don’t like the way BART is governed” well BART is a democracy. You can get involved with the BART board if you live in the district, from emailing them with your dissatisfaction all the way up to running for a board seat.

There’s many more obvious gains here as well. The worst part of public transit is transferring between lines with unpredictable schedules. BART does timed transfers within its own system, which is convenient when transferring between lines in the East Bay. Imagine if BARTrain had timed transfers at the existing Millbrae station and the upcoming San Jose Diridon BART extension?

On a longer timeline the planned BART extension into San Jose could simply terminate at the new BARTrain Diridon Station as it would make the plans to extend BART to Santa Clara redundant. That money could be used for other projects like the long-planned CalTrain Dumbarton project which would provide a second bay crossing for BARTrain, or even something else entirely — BARTrain to Half Moon Bay? — just spitballing here.

For now anyway the existing San Jose/Gilroy CalTrain corridor could be operated as a special commuter extension, very similar to the recent Antioch BART extension which uses diesel trains and extends into less populated counties outside the core operating area.

Should you vote yes on the 2020 Measure RR? Yes, it will help upgrade CalTrain and get cars off the road in the post-pandemic era. But it’s not ideal at all — let’s have one transit tax district that covers the entire Bay Area to provide simple, equitable, convenient transit for everyone.

The forgotten monument that was once on top of San Francisco’s Mount Olympus

September 4th, 2020
San Francisco's Mount Olympus San Francisco's Mount Olympus San Francisco's Mount Olympus

 

While poking around Atlas Obscura the other day I came across a truly odd monument that I immediately knew I had to check out.

Eccentric businessman and former mayor Adolph Sutro had a statue named “Triumph of Light” built to mark the center of San Francisco. The problem is if you consider the landmass on the peninsula, the true center of San Francisco is a good deal south from this point. Like many of Sutro’s ventures this was likely a gimmick to draw tourists to the area.

Although the statue mysteriously disappeared decades ago and the plaque has faded away, today the statue’s pedestal and what remains of the plaque is still visible in a San Francisco park called Mount Olympus. 

 

San Francisco's Mount Olympus San Francisco's Mount Olympus

 

Never heard of this Mount Olympus? That’s no surprise; it’s a tiny park on a small hilltop peak. Today the area around it is surrounded by housing and you have to walk up some staircases and through a narrow street to find the park itself. Look for either Monument Way Stairs or Mount Olympus Stairs to find your way up the hillside on your way to the park.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Do beware that the address listed on Atlas Obscura is currently incorrect; look for Mount Olympus on Google Maps to find correct directions.

Signs of the COVID-19 times part 4

August 20th, 2020

It’s been a couple months since my last entry in how this global pandemic has transformed daily life in San Francisco. There’s still no vaccine on the horizon despite Russia’s premature announcement, and likewise the United States has utterly failed to combat the pandemic under Trump’s leadership.

In other words, the important things haven’t changed since last time.

Fortunately there are many far less important things to focus on here in San Francisco: the many ways we continue adapting to the pandemic.

 

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For work I had to take Muni downtown and walk through SOMA to the office a couple times to help wind down the office operations and clear out my stuff. Much of the area around Market Street downtown felt unusually empty — boarded up storefronts, no cable cars, etc.

Today I heard The Gap’s flagship location will be closing for good. For those who remember that was a Woolworth location back in the day, which used to have an entrance directly from the Powell Street subway station.

Oddly the Westfield SF Centre mall across the street was open at the time, but has since closed again. There was a time when I suppose the grocery store in there could have been considered essential (remember Bristol Farms?) but those days are long gone.

 

COVID-19 changes

 

Construction on the new Four Seasons tower is much further along than when the pandemic started. The bottom floors will one day house the Mexican Museum, assuming those plans are still on the table.

Across the street the Yerba Buena Gardens had obviously not been cleaned recently, with the pathways absolutely covered in pigeon droppings.

 

COVID-19 changes

 

Entering the office was a little surreal — very few others were there, and the elevator had markings indicating it was now only suited for two people at a time. Normally we’d pack it with eight people easily, but not anymore.

 

COVID-19 changes

 

Muni is still operating at a very reduced capacity with surface-level buses only and is enforcing a mandatory mask policy. At some stops attendants remind people to wear masks and try to stop buses from getting even slightly crowded.

As seen above signs on the doors indicate that a mask is required. To protect the operators, passengers are only allowed to board through the back doors unless they require special assistance.

 

COVID-19 changes

 

Several streets have been converted to outdoor dining areas, including two blocks of Valencia for four days of the week. The sidewalk, parking, and bike lane areas have been converted to outdoor dining with the middle of the street reserved for walking; technically bikes are supposed to be walked but that isn’t really enforced.

Personally I’d love to see this continue on a regular basis — weather permitting of course — though with hundreds of wildfires burning throughout the state right now and smoke billowing through San Francisco this experiment clearly came at the wrong time.

 

COVID-19 changes COVID-19 changes COVID-19 changes

 

Street art continues to dominate blank, boarded up walls. In July the theme shifted largely to Pride, since there were obviously no “official” Pride celebrations this year.

That said, there was definitely an LGBTQ+ presence at the Black Lives Matter protests in June, with people holding signs with slogans such as “Black Trans Lives Matter.”

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2020)

July 4th, 2020

It certainly hasn’t been a great year for movies with the global pandemic so a handful of these are from last year. What can I say, it’s been a good year for streaming and catching up on good movies we missed in theaters.

The order here is disjointed just like last time. Whatever, roll with it.

 

Spaceship Earth

This documentary looks back at Biosphere 2. For those unfamiliar, Biosphere 2 was an experiment where a group of eight people lived in a large greenhouse with an airtight seal for two years starting in 1991. Ostensibly the goal was to attempt to live as though they were on the moon or another planet. (Biosphere 1 being the planet Earth.) The project was largely met with skepticism from scientists and created a media sensation.

The movie starts when everyone involved met in the 1960’s in San Francisco and formed a theater company that sailed around the world. After returning to the US, the group moved to Arizona and got started on their new project: Biosphere 2. It doesn’t go into the personality clashes or the tourism aspects very much — but it does contain a lot of footage from inside Biosphere 2 and interviews with the various participants you won’t see anywhere else. 

Oh, and it does cover the part where a certain Wall Street guy named Steve Bannon got involved, tossed out all the data, and tried to use it to “disprove” climate change.

Like a lot of documentaries, Spaceship Earth covers an interesting topic broadly, though barely scratches the surface of any of the questions it answers. It’s also remarkably non-critical of the inherent problems with Biosphere 2. I think it would have been better as a miniseries where each episode takes a deep dive into each of the questions it’s asking about the project and the group (or cult?) that was behind it.

Best moment: Let’s just say it’s an oddly fitting movie to watch during a pandemic when we’re all sealed off from the outside world.

Rating: 5/10

 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Somehow I missed this one when it was in theaters — a big mistake on my part. The story centers on a young Black man named Jimmie living with his friend Mont in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. A bit of an outcast, Jimmie’s obsessed with the Victorian home he grew up in in the Fillmore neighborhood. When the current owners get kicked out of the home, Jimmie and Mont squat the place.

This is one of those rare low-budget indie films where everything from the writing to the performances are completely perfect. But this movie has another trick up its sleeve; it depicts San Francisco as a real place with real people instead of some postcard idealist fantasy.

From its heartfelt message to its philosophical moments, this is the kind of movie that would win an Oscar in an alternate universe. 

Best moment: The skateboarding scenes, especially the long one near the beginning. These add a sense of scale and space to the movie that I suspect would simply come across as padding in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

Rating: 10/10

 

The Vast of Night

Framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone style TV show, this indie sci-fi film tells the story of a small town in the southwestern United States in the 1950’s where a teenage switchboard operator and her friend at a nearby radio station investigate a mysterious electronic signal.

Despite an unoriginal concept the storytelling is more gripping than one would expect. The nearly unknown cast pull off excellent performances.

I think this film would have benefited from a theatrical release at art house theaters. Due to COVID-19 it’s streaming exclusively on Amazon instead and their clumsy marketing department didn’t do this one any favors.

Best moment: For a low budget flick I was really wowed by the cinematography, particularly the moment where the camera goes through a basketball game at a gym, exits out the back window, and then continues down the street.

Rating: 7/10

 

The Lighthouse

In the late 19th century a young man named Winslow (Robert Pattinson) accepts a job at a decrepit lighthouse and has to put up with poor working conditions — especially the longtime lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), a demanding and potentially insane man who speaks like a Moby Dick character. 

Winslow quickly begins going mad himself while trapped in the remote location, a process that accelerates when the two start drinking together and a massive storm arrives. In a twist of fate this makes the movie perfectly suited for sheltering in place.

I don’t want to give away much else as this psychological thriller is best watched fresh. 

My only issue with this movie is there’s a lengthy stretch before the end where it becomes repetitive. I do realize it’s an intentional choice to serve the story’s mood, though it’s edited in such a way that makes it feel more dull than I think was intended. There’s a nearly perfect ~90 minute movie in here somewhere.

Best moment: Willem Dafoe’s unhinged monologues are all absolutely golden.

Rating: 6/10

 

Cat Video Fest 2020

People have been filming their pets for as long as home video has been around. The yearly Cat Video Fest is devoted to new and classic cat videos. As expected there’s a lot of things being knocked off shelves, harassment of dogs, and generally odd feline thinking.

This “film festival” raises money for cat rescue organizations, including Give Me Shelter in San Francisco. 

Rating: I’m not sure how to rate this one as it’s not a typical film at all. I’ll just say if you like watching cat videos on YouTube or TikTok, it’s for you. That said, humorous content is best watched with an audience — and this was the last movie I was able to see in theaters so far this year.

 

Color Out of Space

In an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Nathan Gardener (Nic Cage) moved his family to an old house in the middle of a forest to run a small alpaca farm. A wise but eccentric old hippie (Tommy Chong) squats in a nearby shack.

A meteorite crashes just outside the house, and after it gets repeatedly hit by lightning everything goes bonkers.  The town’s hydrologist warns them not to drink the water from their well though it’s far too late — unusual plants grow, insects and animals mutate, everyone slowly goes crazy, and even reality itself collapses into psychedelic madness.

The film comes across as more uneven than unsettling, careening between 1980’s throwback sci-fi horror to outlandish comedy. Which isn’t to say a film has to be one thing, it just tends to work better if it has a central foundation other than “weird.” What does work very well in the film’s favor is the vibrant cinematography, especially for a story that seems unfilmable. “It’s just a color, but it burns.”

Best moment: There are many “Nic Cage dialed up to 11” moments in this film it’s a challenge to pick just one, but I’ll have to go with Nathan (Cage) shouting at his older son to “get the alpacas back in the barn by ten” as he’s preparing to take his wife to the hospital.

Rating: 8/10