Friday, December 30, 2011

Can We Recall Toys on Aesthetic Grounds?

Build-a-Bear is recalling 30,000 of its "Colorful Heart" teddy bears, apparently because they're so horrid-looking it makes kids want to gouge their eyes out.

Actually, it's the bear's eyes that fall out. Either way, take heart — it can't hurt you anymore!

 From the Huffington Post:
The eyes could loosen and fall out, posing a choking hazard to children, according to an announcement made by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A press release states that the 16-inch high, heart-patterned bear was made available through Build-A-Bear Workshop's website and stores from about April to December of this year.
And yet, this remains commercially available.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BuboBlog Reviews 'Young Adult'

"Young Adult," the new film that reunites director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, is easily the most cringe-inducing experience I've had this year — and that's meant as a compliment.

In chronicling the misadventures of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a troubled writer of young-adult novels, the movie teems with awkward moments and misinterpreted signals. Much of the dialogue will make you squirm in your seat, laughing and wincing at the same time. The film also manages to be touching and surprising, and it holds up as a worthy successor to "Juno" (Reitman and Cody's last project).

"Young Adult" depicts Mavis' return to her hometown of Mercury, Minn., after finding success as a writer in the big city (well, Minneapolis). She styles herself as a best-selling author, though she's actually a ghost writer of a book series that is being discontinued. Mavis lives in a soulless high-rise and spends her days watching reality shows while nursing hangovers and chugging Diet Coke straight from a two-liter bottle.

While finishing the final book in the "Waverly Prep" line of teen-romance novels, she decides she can only restore her own happiness if she reunites with her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Incidentally, Buddy is married and has a newborn baby.

Mavis isn't deterred by that. In fact, she sees it as her duty to free him from the prison of being a small-town family man. Along the way, she forges a friendship with another former classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), who she never gave the time of day during high school. Then she wreaks havoc with all of their lives, including her own.

The script displays a level of maturity that Cody didn't have with "Juno." While I enjoyed that film, the first 20 minutes were so overloaded with cutesy dialogue that it was difficult to get a sense of the characters. Cody was trying too hard to impress. Here, there's hardly any dialogue in the first 20 minutes. It quietly shows us Mavis' bleak existence — no commentary is needed. The text of the work-in-progress "Waverly Prep" novel is used as voice over, providing subtext to the actions on screen. It's the perfect way to use voice over: not for basic exposition, but to add layers to the narrative.

Theron is pitch-perfect as Mavis, and she's unafraid to cast her looks in an unflattering light (well, about as unflattering as you can make someone who looks like Charlize Theron). She keeps the character sympathetic, even when she's wounding the people around her, and finds the laughs without the film devolving into farce.

Reitman gives a nuanced look at small-town life and doesn't condescend. Sure, Mercury is filled with generic strip malls (featuring Kentacohuts) and a Macy's that was somehow lifted out of 1983. But it also has charming quirks: an all-mom rock band called Nipple Confusion and people who distill their own bourbon. Families are close-knit and happy, even without big-city glamor.

The film takes some unexpected turns in the final act, and it's hard to say whether Mavis has truly learned her lesson. She has a curious conversation with Matt's sister, who idolizes her, and the experience either destroys any progress toward self-awareness or helps her overcome her neuroses (I'm not quite sure which).

Oddly enough, it reminded me of Laura Linney's Lady Macbeth-style monologue at the end of "Mystic River," where she quells Sean Pean's conscience in favor of protecting the family. I didn't think that speech quite fit "Mystic River," and I'm not sure the analogous scene fits in "Young Adult."

Still, the film manages to keep the journey satisfying, even if you're never sure if Mavis is heading in the right direction.

BuboBlog Rating: 3.5 asterisks (out of 4)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bumps, Humps and Missed Opportunities

I snapped this photo in Santa Cruz, thinking it was a clever play on "baby bumps" — the early indication that a woman is pregnant (in this case, with a lovechild?).

'Love Bump Ahead'

It turns out "love bumps" can also mean herpes, so I'm not sure what to make of this now. (Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what "lovely lady lumps" means.)

In Berkeley, the city distinguishes between regular old "speed bumps" and the less-aggressive kind used to slow traffic on neighborhood streets — "speed humps."

The picture above was taken in South Berkeley near San Pablo Park, and I was flabbergasted to find the sign in pristine condition (especially given how the neighborhood treats stop signs).

Talk about an opportunity for riffing by graffiti artists! What's going on, guys? Even a "that's what she said" would suffice — though it might be hard to fit on the sign.

(In Sacramento, they refer to these things as "undulations"; perhaps to remove any temptation to be clever at all.)

I had a similar reaction when we lived near Ritch Street in Mission Bay.

It would take so little effort to turn the sign into "Bitch Street," and think of the joy that would bring to innumerable passers-by (especially those with the maturity level of, say, me). And yet, to my knowledge, no one ever did.

Maybe even street vandals would prefer not to go after the low-hanging fruit.

Monday, December 26, 2011

How Do You Stage Santa's B&E?

This was the first year that we pushed the Santa mythology on Elliot (he was barely 2 at Christmastime last year, so everything went over his head).

He seemed to accept that a portly elf would be coming down the chimney and filling our stockings with gifts (hello, terrifying). But then Elliot asked why we hadn't left open the fireplace grate. So we did that.

After Elliot went to bed, we tried to arrange the scene to make it seem convincing that Santa had been there. We left a note, a half-eaten cookie and an empty glass with milk residue.

Was that enough? Should I overturn some furniture to make it seem like a real breaking-and-entering? Maybe leave ash and sooty fingerprints everywhere?

In the end, Elliot seemed to buy it without too much embellishing.

When someone's giving you presents, you don't ask too many questions.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

BuboBlog Reviews 'Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol'

(I promised to review more Oscar contenders in the waning days of 2011. Well, this isn't one of them. But it is the No. 1 movie at the box office — you'll have to take what you can get.)

You may be wondering why we needed a fourth installment of "Mission: Impossible." The current film series is 15 years old, and the original TV show debuted 45 years ago. Moreover, Tom Cruise's antics in recent years have made him a less bankable star.

So how do you freshen up this franchise? By bringing in a director who has never done a live-action film before. Brad Bird, the man behind Pixar's "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles," takes the helm this time and largely succeeds. He proves he can make real people (not just computer animation) come to life on screen.

You get the sense that every shot of the movie was meticulously arranged, just as Pixar animators laboriously render one of their films. But the new "Mission: Impossible" also is surprisingly uncartoonish. When Cruise repeatedly slams into cars and other large machinery, it feels like it really hurts — even if there's never a mark on him afterwards.

That's not to say the film isn't ludicrous, but it's a good ludicrous, in keeping with the tradition of the series. This movie jumps from one set piece to the next, pushing the intensity as far as it will go. It's not good enough for Cruise to swing into the window of a skyscraper 130 floors up. He has to run out of rope, then rely on the wind, then miss the window, then get pulled in after barely grasping someone's arm.

What I like is there's clarity to the action. It's always easy to follow who is punching whom and where people are in relation to one another. This may not sound like a big deal, but after more than a decade of Michael Bay and Guy Ritchie, we've come to accept unintelligible action sequences. Even Christopher Nolan, one of my favorites, has trouble orchestrating a cogent fight scene.

The script was tightly constructed by a pair of ex-"Alias" writers (J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot produced the film, along with Cruise himself). It's a run-of-the-mill premise involving a villain trying to get launch codes so he can start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. ("Ghost Protocol" refers to the U.S. government having to disavow knowledge of the Impossible Missions team, which I kind of thought they already did.) In any case, all that doesn't matter much. The series has always been more about the missions and figuring out how the agents will complete their immediate tasks.

The action takes us to Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai in search of the launch codes, and the agents get to use some pretty cool technology (everything from magnetic hover suits to holographic room dividers). I also was excited to see San Francisco get a cameo — specifically, the Transamerica Pyramid. But I always wonder why these jobs require them to do so much globetrotting. Couldn't an entire mission take place in suburban Toronto for once?

Side Note: I propose that we eliminate car-accident deaths by training all Americans to become "Mission: Impossible" agents. No one ever dies in a car crash in these movies. Like, ever.

The cast was solid, with Simon Pegg providing comic relief and Jeremy Renner (from "The Hurt Locker") playing the team's mysterious newcomer. It also was good to see Josh Holloway (Sawyer from "Lost") make an appearance, even if they kill him off almost immediately. (I guess "Lost" killed him off as well, but then, they killed everyone off.)

A couple plot points didn't make a lot of sense, including the part where the villain disguises himself as one of his henchman (to what end?). Also, could the Impossible Missions Force please stop referring to themselves as the IMF? It's confusing because we already have a well-known entity known as the IMF. It's called...the IMF.

Another quibble: The final scene was a bit hokey and fell flat. (During a discussion about teamwork, I almost expected the characters to break into the "Wonder Pets" theme: "What's going to work? Teamwork!")  Until that point, "Ghost Protocol" rarely lets up. It even manages to make a sequence in a parking garage into a thrill ride. I could point out the implausibility of an Indian garage filled with left-side-driver cars. But if that's going to bother you, this may not be your kind of movie.

BuboBlog Rating: 3.5 asterisks (out of 4)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Santa Claus Negotiating 101: What Not to Do

There was a man dressed as Santa Claus at Christmas Tree Lane, which gave Elliot his first real-life encounter with St. Nick.

We plopped him down on Santa's knee, but clearly Elliot didn't understand the protocol. He spent the whole time telling Santa about toys he already had ("I have a panda"). Maybe he just wanted an opportunity to flaunt his stuffed-animal wealth in front of others, but it was very sweet.

I think the experience speaks to Elliot's complete lack of expectations. Even after all the holiday buildup (including the Advent calendar), Elliot probably wouldn't notice if we decided not to hold Christmas at all. There certainly isn't a specific gift that he's requested. I thought this might be the case for all 3-year-olds, but Elliot's friends aren't like that.

On the way home, Elliot remembered more stuff that Santa didn't need to get him. (He regretted not telling him that he already has an antelope.)

Elliot also asked if we could bring our copy of "The Night Before Christmas" to Santa because he'd probably like to read it. "I think he's heard that one," I said.

If this is a phase, I hope it lasts forever.

A Trip to Alameda's Christmas Tree Lane

If you're an East Bay resident with kids, it's pretty hard to avoid going to Alameda's Christmas Tree Lane at some point or another. It's like trying to avoid seeing "Avatar" or that video where the cat puts the baby to sleep.

We went for the first time this week, and the kids loved it. (Well, Elliot loved it. Alice just sat in her stroller and gurgled contentedly.)

Christmas Tree Lane is a block of Thompson Avenue where every house is decorated — many to an insane degree. I've heard it's part of their neighborhood association that you have to go bananas at Christmastime. (I assume they let people do Hanukkah decorations too, though I didn't see much evidence of that.)

A lot of the displays involved animatronics, and one even had lights that were synchronized with the soundtrack to "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

One of Elliot's favorites was a Santa that would hide inside a tree and then pop out to ambush onlookers. I called him Viet Cong Santa.

I preferred the Tintin display. It's still hard to believe we've reached a point where Tintin is this mainstream in America.

The Grinch, Peanuts characters and the Muppets also were featured prominently. Elliot didn't recognize any of them.

However, he was thrilled when he saw this one. "APPLE!"

It's amazing that a company logo can elicit so much excitement from a 3-year-old.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gifts for the Children of Your Arch Enemies

Courtesy of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog: five perfect gifts for the children on your list — assuming they aren't actually your children and you can flee the home immediately afterwards.

1. The Pump Action Marshmallow Blaster

Apparently there was demand for a higher-powered way to shoot marshmallows at other people. (This is the biggest of four Hammacher Schlemmer marshmallow firearms — a lineup that includes a "Marshmallow Wrist Cannon" — so we appear to be locked in a marshmallow arms race.)

As with a nuclear assault, the aftereffects of a marshmallow attack can be just as devastating. Use of this weapon virtually guarantees that you'll be finding sticky, gelatinous substances under your couch for years.

2. Children's Night Vision

You know that creepy teenage boy on your street who never makes eye contact? You definitely need to get him this.

I like how the catalog tries to assure us that it will be used to view, say, a cat.


3. Children's DJ Station

It's loud and makes your kid look like a complete tool — where do I order?

Based on the photo, the product would seem to ensure the child has the kind of social life that later requires night-vision glasses. (Way to get a customer for life, Hammacher Schlemmer.)

4. Water Squirting Remote Controlled Car

"Oh hey, cool car. Wait, what? Why is it shooting me with water? WHY DOES THIS EXIST???" —everyone who has ever encountered this toy.

5. Foam Dart Rotary Cannon

This gift is great if your son really likes guns but isn't yet COMPLETELY PSYCHOTIC.

I haven't seen that insane a facial expression since the finale of "Bloodsport."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Saab (Sob) Story Comes to an End

I feel like my blog has become an exercise in nostalgia lately. I apologize for that, though here's one more installment. Saab filed for liquidation yesterday, ending a nearly 70-year run of producing quirky cars that elicited equal parts love and frustration.

I had a Saab 9-3 for years (pictured here) and mostly enjoyed its curiosities: You had to put it in reverse to take the keys out of the ignition, which for some reason was located between the front seats. I bought the car used and was motivated by the fact that Saabs lost their resale value faster than any other vehicle in their class. That's good if you buy one secondhand; not so great if you're getting it new.

The car felt solid and safe, but little things would often break and it was expensive to maintain. I can understand why it remained a niche product — though if you drive through parts of Marin (say, Point Reyes Station), you might think they were the dominant brand in America.

Kelly couldn't drive the Saab because she never mastered a stick shift. And it would have been a terrible car to learn on, since it was easy to stall (especially while navigating the hills of San Francisco). When we had kids, that sealed the deal: We had to sell it and buy a car she could actually drive.

I always wondered if I'd own another Saab someday. Now it appears that I won't.

Ah, well. One more bygone thing to tell the kids about. My Saab tales will at least be more exciting than my stories about shopping at Mervyns.

'Foul Weather May Postpone Christmas'

A final note about an oddity in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer": The program starts with a montage of newspaper headlines describing a mammoth snow storm.

The papers are dated December 1964 (the time the show originally aired). And yet, when Burl Ives appears as the snowman narrator, he refers to a big snow storm "a couple of years ago." This is the kind on inconsistency that we'd never notice in the pre-HD days — there's no way you'd be able to make out the date on any of the newspapers.

I also found it funny that the final paper in the montage is the San Francisco Chronicle.

It seems pretty unlikely that snow would cancel Christmas in the Bay Area. But then again, there was snow here in 1962 — "a couple of years" before the TV special originally aired. Maybe this freak California snowstorm inspired the writers.

I Googled some of the other headlines on the page ("Moon Shot Is Right on Target," "An Open Door In Space") to see if they were taken from a real edition. But without checking library archives, it's hard to tell.

Interestingly, the Lodi News-Sentinel used a similar "Moon Shot" headline a few months after the special first aired.

That layout looks like it's from 100 years ago. I guess even in 1965 newspapers hadn't yet learned the value of white space.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What I'd Forgotten About 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'

Elliot's old enough now to start watching some of the classic Christmas specials, providing me with the opportunity to revisit them. The other night we saw "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the stop-motion-animation special that first aired in 1964. During my youth, it was required viewing every Christmas.

Elliot loved it. But the kid also will watch a locomotive decoupling for 15 minutes, so that's not saying much.

I was surprised by how much I'd forgotten about the special, which I hadn't seen in at least 20 years. And it was interesting to watch it in near-perfect definition. Despite the fact that we were viewing a free clip on YouTube, the video quality was vastly better than anything I'd experienced in the 1970s or '80s — when we were hampered by static, ghosting and a dim CRT picture.

Here's what most surprised me in viewing it again:

1. Rudolph is born and learns to talk the same day. I realize reindeer have fast maturation periods, but this seems unlikely.

2. Santa is a complete dick. When he initially discovers Rudolph's condition, he reacts with open disgust. Then Santa tells Rudolph he won't have a chance to make the reindeer team if the problem doesn't clear up. Later, when the elves try desperately to please the old man with a song ("We Are Santa Elves"), Santa tells them it needs work and marches out, slamming the door. I'm surprised he didn't throttle the imperial elf commander with a telekinesis chokehold.

3. What's with the odd subplot where Santa is skinny and then Mrs. Claus has to fatten him up every year so he can satisfy the children's expectations? (Maybe this is why he's so pissed.) Who is he, Bobby De Niro? This can't be healthy.

4. Hermey the elf opens a dental practice with no medical training whatsoever.

5. They remove the Abominable Snow Monster's teeth to avoid being eaten. Then they give him a job at the North Pole putting ornaments on trees. Great, but what about the years of agony as he subsides on a liquid diet?

6. The dialogue on the Island of Misfit Toys is pretty bleak. Doll for Sue: "I haven't got any dreams left to dream. We'll never get off this island. Never." I'm pretty sure that line was lifted directly from Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

7. Doll for Sue's dim outlook was perhaps warranted. At the end of the story, Santa doesn't deliver the misfit toys himself; he just gives them umbrellas and drops them out of the sleigh from a high altitude. Again, this Santa could give a shit.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Trees Made Out of Random Crap: Part Two

Funny coincidence: On the day I posted my item about the Emeryville shopping-cart tree, the New York Times ran a story about lobster-trap trees in New England (thanks for the tip, BuboBlog Philadelphia correspondent Guy).

Photo courtesy of the New York Times
From the New York Times:
Gloucester (Mass.) is believed to have started the tradition of the large lobster trap tree when it built its first one in 2001. Janice Lufkin Shea, who was a Gloucester shopkeeper at the time, was frustrated that Main Street had no holiday display. She saw a tiny lobster trap tree in someone’s yard and thought a bigger version would be perfect for downtown. 
Legend has it that when people in Rockland, Me., learned of it, they decided they had to have one, too. 
“Well, we’re the lobstering capital of Maine — we should have a trap tree,” said Lorain Francis, the executive director of Rockland Main Street Inc., which has organized the tree construction since the town first built one in 2003. Each year, the town holds a ceremony at which Santa Claus lights the tree with help from the winner of the annual Maine Lobster Festival Sea Goddess pageant.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

This tradition seems pretty benign, though I've discussed before how Maine's use of the red lobster as its symbol (rather than a healthy brown one) is an odd celebration of death:
Everywhere you go, all you see is red lobsters. Red lobsters on signs, red lobsters on T-shirts, red lobsters on license plates. 
That's great and all, but lobsters only turn red after you cook them. So if you're giving your kid a red-lobster stuffed animal, you're saying, "Go play with this dead thing."

Christmas is about death and rebirth. I suppose the lobsters die so that they can be reborn as a delicious thing in my belly.

Works for me.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Shopping Cart Tree: Is It Subversive or Super Unsubversive?

At the center of Emeryville's Bay Street shopping center is an unusual Christmas tree. It's made of shopping carts.

If this artwork was in the SFMOMA, it would be lauded as a searing indictment of our consumer culture.

Instead, it's in a shopping mall, so what message are we meant to deduce? Christmas is about buying stuff? Maybe it's refreshingly honest for a retail complex to promote this view.

The artist, Anthony Schmitt, gives a more nuanced explanation on his website:
“The shopping cart tree symbolizes both generosity and abundance, as well as acknowledging those less fortunate where their whole world may be housed in a cart. We see shopping carts everyday and take them for granted. Individually the beauty of an everyday object may become invisible, but in quantity you can’t miss it.”

I should note that the piece is not called a "Christmas" tree — it's just a generic holiday tree. So even though it seems to promote capitalism, it may still run afoul of Fox News' "War on Christmas" coverage.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Times Change, Smiles Stay the Same

Whether they're living through Watergate or climate change, babies will always find something to be happy about.

Me (1974)

Alice (2011)

Annoying, isn't it?

Jehovah's Witnesses Ask for Me by Name

Since we've moved to Berkeley, a lot more people come to our door trying to talk to us. Often they're selling newspapers, vacuums or cuts of meat, but occasionally they want to talk about religion.

Apparently I've developed a reputation with the local Jehovah's Witness community because they now come to our door and ask for me.

Last time, when Kelly said I was busy, they left a personalized note on the pamphlet: "Hi Nick, sorry I missed you. Hope the kids feel better soon. I'll check back in a few weeks."

I'm pretty sure they have me in their database as: "Friendly fellow. Seems impressionable. Watch out for his wife."

But seriously, are natural disasters punishment from God?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Early Use of 'Snail Mail'

"Frog and Toad Are Friends," a favorite in our household, contains an early reference to "snail mail" (sort of). Frog gives a letter to a snail, who takes four days to deliver it a short distance. The book was published in 1970, so the term "snail mail" didn't exist — at least, not the way we know it today.

The story depicts the pleasure of receiving a letter from a friend (or rather, anticipating a letter — since they spend most of the time waiting for the snail to arrive).

When I was a kid, I would fill out cards in magazines asking for more information from the advertisers — just so I could get letters. I also had a cherished book called "SWAK" that showed how to get free stuff through the mail (the process often entailed sending someone a SASE). Needless to say, the book appears to be out of print.

Now that we're approaching end of days for the U.S. Postal Service, I imagine today's kids will never know what SWAK and SASE even stand for.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Disturbing Scene

I walked into Elliot's room yesterday to find this arrangement of toys.

I'm not sure what happened here, but I feel like Blue Dog knows more than he's letting on.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Tree Shopping: Then and Now

What's it like to go Christmas tree shopping in 2011? For us, it started by piling the family into the car and then realizing we didn't know where the nearest tree lot was. So Kelly summoned Siri on her new iPhone to find out.

Unfortunately, Siri didn't understand the question — even after Kelly repeated it several times.

After we sat in the car for several minutes, one of our neighbors came over to help. She's lived in Berkeley longer than us and recommended several Christmas tree lots. Then she said, "Look at you, getting Christmas tree advice from a Jew." This made me wonder what religion Siri is.

We ended up at a tree lot in Emeryville that had a bouncy slide...

...a petting zoo...

...and, yes, a few Christmas trees (though not so many to warrant the excessive sideshow, I'd say).

When I was young child, we lived in rural New England. My family and I would trudge out into the snow with a saw and cut down the tree ourselves. As our mittens thawed by a wood-burning stove, we celebrated with a cup of hot chocolate.

I'm not sure anyone took photographs, so this lithograph will have to do.

My children will not experience that. But they did get to zoom down an inflatable slide beneath palm trees while enjoying the California sunshine. This has to be some form of progress.

We debated what tree to get for a while, but at least no one was carrying a saw (that would usually escalate the arguments during my youth).

After sealing the deal, we took the tree home and decorated it.

I'd say it looks just as good as the ones from the old days.

And on the plus side: No one threatened to hack up another family member.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Could Roomba Develop a Pacifier, Please?

Elliot never got into pacifiers, but Alice loves them. It's part of what makes our two children complete opposites (the only thing they seem to share is they both think Elliot is awesome).

When you have a pacifier-loving baby, you realize there's a frequent ritual. She'll misplace it in the middle of the night and start crying. That forces the parent to get up and feel around the crib to try and find it.

Trust me: If it's dark and I don't have my glasses on, there's little chance I'm going to find anything. They sell clips that at least keep the pacifier near the baby's head, but that doesn't quite do the trick.

There has to be a better way. Can we please have a Roomba pacifier — something that can automatically return itself to baby's mouth? I'm thinking of something like the spiders in "Minority Report"...but maybe less terrifying.

Can we make this happen?

UPDATE: It's not really related, but it's impossible to discuss robots without mentioning DJ Roomba.