Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mona Lisa Smile

So, having had a cat now for over a year (my first!), I have become initiated into the many many quirks of cats (the feline love of chasing lights on the floor; their particular interest in the sounds of jingle bells and crinkly plastic; their ability to stand behind one in the perfect place for getting stepped on) as well as cat ownership: choosing toys, treating scratches, and buying food and litter (not to mention the cleaning of said litter!). I have also dabbled in cat clothing, though obviously, it never lasts longer than the necessary photo-op.

Cats are both graceful and ridiculously clumsy, elegant and rather silly, loving and stand-offish. And although they can be annoying and at times even aggressive, I think most cat lovers believe in the dignity of the animal. And while cats sometimes seem like they are smiling, I don't think they ever really do. They are, by and large, above smiles.

This fact is lost on the designers of cat litter, however, who seem to enjoy making cats smile. Take exhibit A:
Creepy right?
Not sure why litter should be made out of wheat in the first place--that seems kind of odd--but I guess they think it's more natural. If that is the case, then why is this cat smiling unnaturally?

Obviously Fresh Step caters to vampire cats who sparkle in the sunlight.
Not sure why it's smiling though. Just killed a helpless mouse named Bella?
Exhibit B (above) also features a (drawn) cat smiling. Cats don't smile! These litter companies seem to think that a smiling cat equals a smiling owner. The truth is, all litter stinks, and it never makes me smile.
Less smiling; still creepy.
These cats aren't quite smiling--oh wait, that little one is. Kind of a Mona Lisa smile, huh? Alluring and mysterious....just what I want in cat litter. Well and I can't help getting the feeling that more is going on between these two cats than just cuddles. Their expressions are just too knowing. What is Away trying to tell us about cat relationships!?

No smile? Think again! That tabby is definitely smiling. Little grey has got the Mona Lisa thing going on.
Even Arm & Hammer seems to think it's necessary to suggest a hint of smile on the cover of their Super Scoop.
Finally--cats with dignity!
Thank goodness--a litter with real cats on the cover! Cats that prove my maxim that cats don't smile. It's undignified. On the other hand, these cats do seem to have tangible expressions on their little furry faces--defiance, in the one on the left; earnestness and determination tinged, perhaps, with fear in the one on the right. In fact....this montage reminds me a little of something else....
Those generic brand cat litter cats are totally channeling Luke and Leia!
Of course, I'd prefer a Mona Lisa cat smile, or even a big Swheat Scoop grin, to this:
Where's the dignity, I ask you? Where!?
And yes....I was totally taking pictures of cat litter at the grocery store for this post. Hope you enjoyed! And remember, always keep your eyes out for the bizarre...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12 Nights of Christmas Movies

So, although I went through a rabidly anti-Christmas phase during my sad, single, post-college days—you know, those first couple years when you realize that in the real world, no one is compelled to have meals with you, much less cook for you; paying your own rent, bills & utilities totally sucks; and that your parents were right about everything….especially the bit about brushing and flossing, since paying for your own fillings sucks even more than paying for your own gas, electricity, car repairs put together –anyway, since then, I’ve managed to put Christmas back into my heart (no thanks to the mystery Good Housekeeping subscription some good elf out there ordered for me…).

I love a lot of things about Christmas—the lights on houses (even the ones that look like the Christmas fairy vomited colored filaments all over the house); the cookies (baking them….eating them…baking more….you didn’t think I was done, did you?); putting up and trimming the tree (see picture); even some of the music (though I draw the line at Thanksgiving. No Xmas songs before Thanksgiving, thankyouverymuch)!

Of course I love getting together with family and friends and feasting together (i.e. drinking together) during the holidays, too. But one of the best parts of Christmas is surely the Christmas movies!

Now don’t get me wrong, not all Christmas movies are created equal. For this reason, I have put together my list of The Best Christmas Movies Ever. Now, you may note some glaring omissions that would surely show up on other people’s lists, most notably  It’s A Wonderful Life. This is because I hate It’s a Wonderful Life. I hate Jimmy Stewart. I hate the plot. I hate how it makes me bawl like a baby at the end, because it’s really a crappy movie that doesn’t deserve my emotional investment. OK, that was harsh. I realize, for many of you it’s a standby of the holidays. But do we really have to believe that if it weren’t for good old Jimmy, the town would turn into one big brothel and the girl would turn into a dusty, spinster librarian (as if that were such a bad fate anyway!  Instead she gets to warm Jimmy’s sheets every night and slave in the house with those annoying kids? Gee, what a bargain).
Donna Reed as the spinster (i.e. sad & lonely) librarian.

But this post is not about crapping on other people’s faves. Don’t yuck on someone else’s yum, as one of my co-workers likes to say. Let’s focus on the positive here, people! If you haven’t watched these, give them a spin this year. They will put even the biggest Grinch in the Christmas mood.

12. While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Bill Pullman: He's so dreamy!
I love this movie, despite being oh-so-90s, maybe even because it’s so 90s. Sandra Bullock is a singleton in Chicago who gets a family for Christmas when she saves a handsome lawyer who is knocked on the rail tracks of the El. Everyone assumes she is his fiancĂ©e (of course!) due to a misunderstanding, which is quite convenient as she has been in love with him at a distance for ages. Things spiral out of control as the misunderstandings pile up and Lucy (Bullock’s character) falls in love with the lawyer’s brother (played by the oh-so-dreamy Bill Pullman, lol). It’s funny, festive, very very silly, and includes a Christmas tree breaking through a window: “‘Nature of claim: Christmas tree through window.’ How am I gonna put that on my insurance claim?”

11. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Ok, so you might say this is not a holiday movie. I say it is: it starts at Christmas and ends at Christmas, so isn’t that all that really matters? Drinking, smoking, flirting & shagging—along with a lot of swearing in between. Nothing like good old fashioned English holiday cheer! Best of all, when you feel you’ve really had a quite a bit too many cookies, eggnog and helpings of turkey, just remember what Daniel Cleaver says about his vision of the ideal woman: “I like a woman with an arse you can park a bike in and balance a pint of beer on.

10. Love, Actually (2003)
This movie should be on everyone’s list. We’ve already established, who doesn’t want a British holiday? I mean, they are so cute with saying “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and I bet a handful of them even know who St. Stephen was, and why we have a Christmas song about him…In any case, despite some quite sad moments, especially in Laura Linney’s story line (WTF man!? Why????! Too sad! I object!), it’s quite a funny movie. I mean, just getting to watch Hugh Grant dancing like a maniac should be worth it….

Laura Linney's character almost gets it on with Mr.
Hunk, only ruin the moment & miss out on love, actually! Boo!
9. Elf (2003)
Elf stars Will Ferrell as a human brought up by Christmas elves, who learns one year that he is not, in fact, an elf by birth. He goes out in search of his biological father, who turns out to be a total Scrooge. He ruins children’s books—how worse can he be!? While I cringe during some scenes (like those where Buddy the elf puts maple syrup all over spaghetti, covers it in fudge & marshmallows, and then begins to cram it all in his mouth), for the most part, it’s pretty cute. And Zoe Deschanel is in it. With a shower scene! Great perk...

8. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
A classic! Need I say more? Ok, I will. Even though it’s overtly religious and Charlie Brown has got to be the biggest dork in the world, I still get a little choked up when he decides to choose the sad little tree-branch of a tree from the Christmas tree lot. And the music, of course. What says Christmas more clearly?

7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Another classic. The animation, the rhymes….Could a single Who down in Whoville resist? I think not!

6. Home Alone (1990)
The cast alone is great: Catherine O’Hara, Joe Pesci, John Candy…all hilarious. Macaulay Culkin when he was still cute instead of just weird-looking. It’s the literalization of every kid’s fantasy/nightmare: getting to be home alone, utterly unsupervised, able to eat all the ice cream you fancy and trash your older brother’s sacred bedroom. And who can forget that fake gangster flick gag?: “I’m gonna give you till the count of 10 to get your ugly, yellow, no-good keister off my property, before I pump your guts fulla lead! 1….2….10!”

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Another family classic that I include at #5 mostly because of the claymation. It’s really neat! You kind of wish they still did stuff like that on network TV for the holidays. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that this film pretty f-ed up. Santa and Mrs. Claus call each other “Papa” and “Mama” (seems somehow incestuous); the reindeer are super mean to Rudolph, even his Dad  and Santa make it clear that he is a pestilence on their existence due to his unnatural nose; the outcast elf, Hermey, is run out of Christmastown merely for wanting to be a dentist; and the whole movie is saturated with 60s era misogyny (Donner, for example, tells his wife and Clarice that they should stay home and not go looking for Rudolph with him—“That’s men’s work.”). All the same, it’s quite adorable and everyone ends up accepting Rudolph and Hermey after all…

4. Scrooged (1988)/ A Christmas Carol
In the updated version of the Dickens classic, set in the 80s in New York, Bill Murray is an exec at a TV network who gets “Scrooged”—he is visited by four ghosts who warn him to make amends. He only sees the bottom line but by the end of the film, like the Dickensian Scrooge, mends his ways and invites the spirit of Christmas into his heart. Bill Murray is hilarious, of course, especially when we see exactly how his character has decided to promote the network’s Christmas special—by threatening apocalypse if you don’t watch it! (This is meant to show us just how degenerate he is before he decides to make amends.) The film also has an amazing cameo-ish part by screen legend Robert Mitchum, who, as the rather eccentric network owner, demands more cat-centered television…

3. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Yuppies! They don't understand Christmas at all.
One of my family’s all-time favorite Christmas movies….! The film documents one family’s preparations for the holidays, from driving to a forest to get their Christmas tree only to realize they didn’t bring a saw, to covering the entire house with enough lights to drain the whole city’s power grid, to decorating a tree that turns out to have a squirrel in it, to carving a turkey that looks perfect on the outside, but is nothing but smoke and tendon inside…On top of that, one of my favorite elements of the film is the yuppie 80s couple who live next door (the woman is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus!) who sneer at the Griswold family through their chic sunglasses and silver jogging suits: “Why is the carpet all wet, Todd?” “I don’t know, Margo!

2. A Christmas Story (1983)
“Fra-gi-le….Must be Italian!” “I think it says ‘fragile.'” Ah yes, who is not yet acquainted with A Christmas Story? The leg lamp; the Red Rider BB gun; “You’ll shoot your eye out!”; the tongue stuck to the pole in the school yard…classic moments in Christmas cinema! Filmed in the 80s, set in the 40s, funny, touching, and always self-aware, it’s probably the #1 family Christmas movie…

1. Bad Santa (2003)
And here we have my #1 Christmas movie! Definitely not a “family film,” and that’s probably what makes it such an amazing Christmas movie. What other Christmas film has the line, “Fuck me, Santa! Fuck me, Santa!”….and gets away with it? The film stars Billy Bob Thornton as a self-loathing alcoholic sex-addict who has a knack for cracking safes. He and his partner in crime, little person Marcus (Tony Cox, who is hilarious!), team up each Christmas as Santa and his Elf in malls across America to make some cool cash on Christmas Eve, once everyone’s gone home. This particular year, they have to contend with anxious mall managerBob Chipeska (John Ritter!) and his avaricious mall security manager Mac (Bernie Mac!). Need I say more? In the words of Willie (B.B.T): “I'm an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus.” ….and aren’t we all?

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Santa Claus is the reason...

So several seasons ago, some nut in a grocery store approached me* and, peering into my cart for evidence**, shouted, “Do you know the reason for the season?”  I answered, without thinking twice, “Santa Claus?”  He then proceeded to give me a lecture on Jesus and his little friends, whoever they are (Sleepy?  Dopey? Billy—the Long Haired Mule Boy?), and told me that even his 3-year-old granddaughter knew better.  “She doesn’t even believe in Santa Claus,” he told me.
*I don’t know what it is that makes these people come directly to me like bees to flowers, but they do, everywhere, every time, in every country.
** I don’t remember what I was buying, but something must have set him off for him to ask that question.  Maybe I was buying something sexy like catfood or Christ-flavored nutballs.
For those of us who celebrate Christmas, I can’t think of anything sadder than not believing in Santa Claus. I know most people think of this as a religious versus secular argument, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.  Plenty of religious people like Santa too.
Recently Rick Perry (another nut who would no doubt chastise me for buying skim instead of whole milk should he peer in my cart) ranted about how we gays and other non-Christians (because of course there’s no such thing as a gay religious person) were threatening Christmas.  These are the same people who put the sneering “Keep Christ in Christmas” magnets on their cars and yell at us for wishing them Happy Holidays. Now I’ll be the first to admit that as an atheist, it’s probably a bit strange for me to celebrate Christmas at all, but I certainly don’t give a flying shxx how anayone else celebrates it.  Except, of course, that I don’t think Santa is a threat to Christmas, religious or not.

My earliest memory of Santa is my fourth Christmas.  We had recently moved to a new town, the bustling metropolis of Loveland, Colorado.  Having previously lived in apartments, this was my first Christmas in a house, and our house had a chimney and fireplace for easier Santa access.  I was, like many kids of my age, trembling with anticipation for Christmas morning. My brother and sister were in school already and I was excited for them to be home all day soon. This meant my mom and I were at home decorating and watching daytime Christmas specials until they were off for two weeks. One of these shows, I remember vividly, was the gorgeous and silent animated film The Snowman, which I love.  We had snow that year, which isn’t always the case in the Front Range of Colorado in late December, believe it or not, so when Christmas Eve finally came, the mood was set.
Christmas morning I woke earlier than anyone and snuck down the hall to our olive-colored carpeted living room, peering in anxiously.  As I snuck in, trying carefully to walk quietly, I suddenly spotted a huge red sack on the ground by the tree.  We had put cookies (for Santa) and celery (for the reindeer) in the kitchen, so I was terrified that Santa had left his bag of presents in the living room while he collected his token offering in the other room.  As I fled in terror, I collided with my older brother coming the other way, and, voiceless in horror, was unable to stop him from pushing me into the living room with him.  Seeing the red sack, he said, “Awesome!  I  got a beanbag!” and jumped on it. Relief was nearly overwhelming, and I remember fighting back tears for a few minutes.

That’s not a fake belief people.  For years, I would believe in the magic and generosity of Santa. Having older siblings usually means that you don’t believe in Santa for very long, but, whether my parents threatened them or bribed them or whether they were just being nice, neither one told me the “truth.”  I believed in Santa late into elementary school, and, in the naive early 80s, this wasn’t unusual.  Maybe we’re in a more cynical era, or maybe this nut jobs are the ones who are threatening Santa, who knows.  All I know is my kids will believe as long as I can possibly help it.
I think Santa is a perfectly satisfactory way to teach children “right” and “wrong”, “naughty” and “nice,” as well as allowing them to believe, if for a few years, in magic reindeer, elves, fairies and free generosity. I can’t really understand how a man who gives generously and freely (well, save perhaps for the cookies) threatens Christmas.  Okay, so he keeps humanoid slaves—the elves—(or human, depending on your country of origin), but maybe, like the Oompa Loompas, the elves don’t need anything but candy. Maybe they’re happy being elves….hmmm, okay, so the elves are problematic, but jeez, isn’t everything?

To my non-Christian and non-religious readers, I apologize if the preceding seems to generalize all children as needing Santa to learn the kind of things that he can teach; this is not the case at all and I would be the first to admit that he is simply another tool in the Christian or secularized or former Christian parent household toolbox.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Theorizing the Adorable: Some Film Reviews

SO, I’m not sure if it’s the fact that there appear to be consistently more and more cartoons released every year and great quantities always ensure lower quality, or I am simply more skeptical of them, or if studios simply can’t afford to hire writers who can put together a family movie that appeals to both children and adults, but I don’t seem to be quite up on the cartoon wave lately.

The last cartoon I paid money to see in a theater was Toy Story 3. And it was totally worth it. Those Toy Story people know what they’re doing; they really do. But do I even need to see a mess like Kung Fu Panda or Mars Needs Moms to know they suck? Probably not.

Lately, however, I have been on something of a cartoon kick. In keeping with my promise to write about films, I have put together some mini-reviews of the most recent cartoons I’ve watched. Each review is, of course, themed, since, as we all know, ideology is at its most coherent in children’s entertainment. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld (*&^%!ing B Movie)...

Puss in Boots (Dreamworks)
Theme: Postcolonial Studies
Not bothering to disguise its blatantly reductionist view of Mexicans, this film delights with colonized cuteness. Its hero, a sexist cat named Puss, engages in various adventures in order to clear his name of a crime he is framed for by an evil, effeminate egg (a triple redundancy, of course).  The films’ human villains, played by the excellent voice talents of Billie Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, are fat, ugly hicks from the American South. Thus the film perpetuates not only nostalgia-ridden images of a recent yet un-colonized Mexican past that never existed, but it also portrays women (aka eggs) and American Southerners in a derogatory light, privileging the ideal feline race. Despite these rankling issues, cuteness, whether colonized or not, does have its delights.
Grade: B+

Colonized by cuteness.

Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Dreamworks)
Theme: Marxist Theory
Primarily done through stop-motion animation, this film naturally seeks to overturn the ideologies of mainstream CGI animation. It is a searing study of traditional British class struggles. Wallace makes money by taking care of his fellow citizens’ garden pests as they prepare for the town vegetable contest, which is run by the landed aristocracy, epitomized by Lady Tottington and her trigger-happy suitor, Victor Quartermaine. Although Quartermaine is obviously coded negatively, Lady T.’s character functions to dissociate aristocracy from power even while re-inscribing power within her domain. Though what many British might call “off her head,” the character of Lady T., with her obsession of saving rabbits instead of hunting them, ironically declares the power of life still in the hands of the owners of production rather than the hands of the proletariat, as epitomized by Wallace. His latent anger at being left out of the means of production means he is relegated to the service industry (as exterminator), and that his anger eventually manifests as the ravaging power of the were-rabbit that devours the bloated vegetables of bourgeois contentment. The film’s irresistible appeal functions as a warning that we ourselves may be complicit in the powers that occupy us.
Grade: A
Wallace's exclusion from the means of production through his relegation to the service industry.

Gnomeo & Juliet (Disney)
Theme: Radical feminism
A modern-day, garden-gnome themed revision of the Shakespearean classic, Gnomeo and Juliet, while distractingly adorable, is unable to break from its misogynistic roots. Juliet, a “Red,” sneaks into a neighboring greenhouse in disguise, where she meets Gnomeo, a “Blue,” who is also in disguise. Like the Bard’s originals, they fall instantly in love without knowing their true colors. In the hot house of desire, they tussle over a flower, an overt reference for Gnomeo’s patriarchal privilege and his ability to snatch Juliet’s “flower” at will. The cartoon Juliet is constantly associated with flowers, and even her ninja disguise only serves to accentuate her feminine curves, dissociating her from the realm of the mind and intellect and firmly rooting her in her body--a motif that is literalized at the end of the film, when her father glues her feet to the garden castle that she usually adorns voluntarily. Classic songs by Elton John suggest a possible undercurrent of campy rebellion that is sidelined by a final emphasis on happy endings that reinforces the hetero-marriage plot of canonical fiction.
Grade: A-

Gnomeo and Julie struggling over Juliet's flower.