Friday, March 30, 2007

Giving Shutterfly A Chance

I love digital photography. I have always thought and continue to think that buying, shooting with, and developing film, and then purchasing, creating, and storing photo albums is a huge waste of time, money, and space. In fact, I manually scanned about two thousand of my family's photo albums. And to this day, I don't think anyone in my family has opened up an actual album, but they love flipping through pictures on their computers. Apart from the ease of access, I personally like fact that I can manipulate my pictures without affecting the originals. And backing them up, publishing them, or sending them to friends is a breeze.

When I first bought a digital camera in 1996, I figured I would keep everything on my computer until digital printing became dirt cheap. Well, the price for digital prints has come down significantly thanks to places like Shutterfly,,, and the like. But you know what? It still doesn't make me want to have a physical album of all of my pictures. I suppose I prefer the 1's and 0's.

However, what these sites really enable me to do is manipulate my pictures and make large-format prints for my walls. Two days ago I decided to order one matte 20" x 30" print of a picture I took of the Wharf at Santa Cruz, CA. I received my print in the mail today and I admit I am VERY impressed with the print's quality. I am most impressed because I took the picture using my Sony point-and-shoot digital camera, not my newer Canon dSLR. I can't imagine what a print using a better lens will look like.

What I am really hoping for is a service that allows me to upload my pictures and have them printed on a large-format, light resistant transparency, sort of like a movie poster you'd see inside the movie theater in a light box. I would love to have my own print on a transparency and place that on a window. Albeit a poor-man's stained glass window--it would still look great.

On a side note, the lawyer in me wonders how businesses like Shutterfly deal with copyright infringement liability. Someone could easily copy a picture from the web and upload that to Shutterfly, and Shutterfly wouldn't know the difference.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

2 Listworthy Films -- and 2 Mediocre Ones

300 (2007): A movie that admittedly piqued great interest. I believed "300" had great potential especially because it is a movie adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name (a graphic novel is a high-echelon comic book, sort of like J. O'Barr's "The Crow"). I am generally in favor of Hollywood (or anyone else) making films from materials that aren't normally made into film. The movie was visually stunning -- for awhile. But after I accepted that the movie had a unique cinematographic style, I got the distinct impression that there wasn't much substantive material behind the muscle and mirrors.

The movie is a vague, bland, and partial retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where the Greek city-states tried to repel an invasion by the Persians led by King Xerxes. Now most people know that the Greeks devised a plan to funnel the Persians into a narrow mountain pass so that the Persian army's vast size was neutralized. What was disappointing was that the Spartan plan was spelled out in the first few minutes of the film, while the rest of the movie seemed to offer very little else about the motivations of any of the characters.

Given that the movie chronicles the 300 Spartan soldiers who fought in this battle, I don't know if I'm surprised that the hundreds of soldiers from other Greek city-states were given very little attention. What I was surprised about, however, was how the Persian army was characterized as an army of slaves, though perhaps it might be important to mention that slaves fought on both sides. Given this information and the really one-dimensional characters, I felt like I was being manipulated into believing that one side stood for "freedom" while the other was pure evil. This made the tirades about freedom and whatnot seem all the more contrived.

What is most telling about this film is that if you look closely on several camera shots, especially closeups of King Leonidas, you'll see that the picture quality is quite poor and grainy. It looks as if the effects people digitally zoomed in on the shot to make the shot as close as possible, which significantly degrades picture quality similar to the way your digital camera looks grainy using digital (versus optical) zoom. What a letdown to see a mediocre film that lacks depth, subtlety and celebrates the relatively poor state of "gladiator"-genre films.

SherryBaby (2006): I only remember Maggie Gyllenhaal from "Donnie Darko," so seeing her in "SherryBaby" was a real treat for me. She plays an ex-con who is paroled and in the process of putting her life back together. This film, and Gyllenhaal's performance, are emotionally devastating as we see her good intentions continually crumble in moments of anger, despair, and weakness. Gyllenhaal plays Sherry Swanson, a heroin addict and a thief who has been in jail for a few years. We learn that she has a young daughter, Alexis, who, in Sherry's absence, was reared by her brother and his wife. Both of them treat Alexis like their own child and are--and rightly so--skeptical of Sherry's ability to be a parent. This conflict comes to the surface when Alexis doesn't call Sherry "mom," but "Sherry" instead.

The director Laurie Collyer deserves a lot of praise for her patience in allowing each of her characters to develop a personality and let that personality inform their actions. For example, we get a glimpse of what kind of childhood Sherry had when her father tries to console Sherry and, in the process, gropes her. Nothing is said and Sherry just wipes her eyes and leaves the room. A lesser film director would run with this storyline and change the movie's focus, giving us "the answer" of why Sherry is the way she is. But Collyer exercises restraint and gives us just a glimpse, which is all we really need.

What I love most about this film is the fact that the viewers feel the urgency of Sherry's journey. Every single day brings for Sherry temptation and fear. And although Sherry has moments where she endures, the director brings this film to another level because she acknowledges that Sherry can't do this on her own. Sherry makes a very difficult decision at the end of the film that I won't give away, but it is a truly satisfying ending because it is an ending that doesn't seem tacked on or contrived just to gain audience appeal. Instead, the ending is a clear extension of the story and the decisions Sherry makes are informed by what she experiences during her time out of prison.

Blood Diamond (2006): Director Edward Zwick has had some remarkable films like "Courage Under Fire" (1996) and "Legends of the Fall" (1994). He has taken some risks in films like "The Siege" (1998), which I thought was generally underrated. But where his other films have succeeded in their ability to shed light on complex relationships, Blood Diamond pales in comparison. It is a half-baked work. Bland and uninformative, and drained of its real power to persuade, it is a true Hollywood work.

Leonardo DiCaprio does a pretty decent job as Danny Archer, a self-proclaimed soldier of fortune who is in Africa to make some money at anyone's expense and also--of course--to ultimately learn a lesson about the value of human life. I could do without a lot of his pretty lame one-liners, but his accent didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, with his performance in "The Departed" (2006), DiCaprio is showing us that he's in top form.

Djimon Hounsou's character, although designed to evoke our empathy, is powerfully played. But the writing misfires and many of Hounsou's emotional outbursts seemed out of place given the exact moment in the film. This movie does't showcase just how good of an actor he is. If you want to see a masterful performance, see "In America" (2002). Jennifer Connelly, who I thought was brilliant in "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), was the biggest disappointment in the film. She seemed like she was just along for the ride; her character offered very little to the story and seemed like standard plot filler.

Although the film has a straightforward plot and showed some promise by putting together three main characters with different motivating forces--money, family, and journalism--the film really wanted to be an action movie and never got off the ground in terms of telling a story. By far the biggest flaw in the movie is that it gives absolutely no description of the CONTEXT of diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone. All we know is that there are "rebels" and there are government forces, both of which commit atrocities. But only one side is depicted as brainwashing children and "teaching" them lessons about taking a gun and shooting people.

And, well, that's exactly what these children do. We see rebels emerge from pickup trucks carrying automatic weapons and opening fire on defenseless civilians for apparently no reason at all. But that's the problem; there is absolutely no reason or motivating force given for any of their acts. A responsible film maker would realize this glaring oversight. I'm sure that the rebels have some reason they are fighting.

And I'm am NOT satisfied with an explanation that the killing is "senseless" and, therefore, no adequate reason can be given for why innocent people are being slaughtered. Please. There are plenty of reasons why people are driven to do things, and giving us some insight as to why this happens is not the same thing as endorsing that activity. In this film, the effect of not explaining WHY the two sides are fighting makes it seem like part of the scenery--that is--this American director just assumes that this is a fact of life in this African country. I wonder if the director was afraid that by explaining the conflict in any way, he'd be seen as sympathizing with the rebels. I suppose that's what makes this movie a true product of Hollywood--lacking in analysis and drained of its persuasive force. This movie could and should have been better.

Hotel Rwanda (2004): This has been on my list of movies to watch for three years now and I've never really gotten around to it. Director Terry George previously wrote "The Boxer" (1997) a film that takes place on another continent, but chronicles another country marred by a seemingly intractable conflict.

Don Cheadle plays a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina. Early on, the film hits us over the head for a few minutes about how a-political Rusesabagina is. He's interested in pleasing his customers and making money. And he even tells one of his clients that he's not interested in politics. This seemed very out of place because the sentiment was so obvious anyway. Did the director really think that the audience wouldn't realize that he wasn't interested in the conflict between the two tribes? If they had not hit me over the head with this, perhaps Rusesabagina's realization--and transformation--would have been a bit more poignant.

But that is a pretty small criticism for an otherwise well-crafted film that builds momentum steadily. What made a strong impact on me was that I could identify with the characters and felt trapped by the same conflict; the characters were genuinely reacting to violence at the gates of the hotel. As usual Nick Nolte offers a great performance, but that's a given. His rather confused performance is an accurate reflection of the rather confused role U.N. peacekeepers play in this conflict.

The director's use of the "hotel" as a plot vehicle was remarkably well-executed. The hotel wasn't just a symbol or a setting, it was a critical part of the story and played many different roles in the lives of these refugees. It was not only a symbol of class division, it also functioned as an oasis where both communities lived together. Rusesabagina realizes that the demoralized guests and the workers need something to lift their spirits, and the hotel fits in beautifully here. Rusesabagina tells his staff that they need to keep working to maintain the standards of the hotel and issues bills to his guests.

Having seen this movie just days before "Blood Diamond," I can't help but make comparisons; simply put, this film is far better. I will say, however, that I wish there was more development within this film about the reason the Hutus and the Tutsi's continue to fight with one another. What exactly are they fighting over? Is it a cultural clash? A political clash? One over religion or resources? All of the above? I think this is part of the same criticism I had in "Blood Diamond," but here we at least get an idea that the reasons for the fighting are secondary because the primary focus is on citizens of both tribes caught in the crossfire.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The NY Times Doesn't Think I'm Funny!

John Tierney had a piece in the NY Times a week back about laughter called: "What's So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing." It's an interesting (and infuriating) read showcasing a study at Florida State University about this joke:

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven.

One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”

And the other muffin replies:

“Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

What pissed me off was Mr. Tierney's immediate response to the joke, which was dismissive: "Did that alleged joke make you laugh? I would guess (and hope) not. But under different circumstances, you would be chuckling softly, maybe giggling, possibly guffawing. I know that’s hard to believe, but trust me."

What the hell? That joke is HILARIOUS. Is Mr. Tierney that sure of himself that he doesn't think anybody could reasonably appreciate the joke and think that it is -- gasp -- funny? Has he ever heard of a non sequitur? That joke could kill for anyone who knows how to deliver a dry punchline with good timing. In fact, it's remarkably close to one of my favorite jokes of all time (it involves farm animals, though).

Social psychologists at Florida State University told this joke to undergraduate women and discovered that women in a lower position of power (subordinate employee) were much more likely to laugh at the muffin joke than were women in a control group. But if you go through their methodology, it turns out that this is not the result of the women consciously trying to gain favor with the boss. Tyler F. Stillman, who is working with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall on this study, said “Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy. When I tell the muffin joke to my undergraduate classes, they laugh out loud.”

Apparently the NY Times doesn't think I'm funny and doesn't appreciate non-sequitors or the black arts of the deceptive punchline. Mr. Tierney and the researchers are both mistaken if they think that the only reason someone would ever laugh at the muffin joke is if there was something unconsciously forcing them to do so. And contrary to popular belief, I am not a subordinate undergradate woman -- though I have a joke about them too (coincidentally, also involving farm animals).

Friday, March 16, 2007

It Was The Blurst of Times

Along with my good friend Alison, I am a Senior Annual Review Editor for the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. We're getting ready to publish an issue that contains 24 student Notes. These Notes are written by students at Boalt Hall as part of a seminar offered last semester. These Notes cover the year in intellectual property law.

Not coincidentally, I can't seem to get this episode of The Simpson's out of my head:

Mr. Burns: This is a thousand monkeys working at a thousand typewriters. Soon they'll have written the greatest novel known to man. Lets see. 'It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times!' You stupid monkey!

Remember Oak Tag?

Ah, oak tag, the artistic medium of choice for students K-8. I remember my mom got an entire box of 100 freaking sheets of this stuff for 11 bucks when I was in elementary school. More than 15 years later, there are still some blank sheets of it in my closet at home.

Oak tag, ladies and gentlemen, is terrible. Glossy one one side, matte on the other, and neither side particularly receptive to markers, pencils, or paints. If you rolled it up once, it would forever retain that shape and never unroll. It creased and tore very easily and any moisture ruined anything you were working on. Using an eraser would make the tiniest pencil mark into a graphite cloud.

For some reason, I think it'd be hilarious if a lawyer walked into court with a chart drawn on oak tag. I'd die of laughter if a lawyer brought it into the courtroom and struggled to keep it unrolled it in front of the jury.

Do people still use this stuff?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Philosphy of the "Morning Mix"

Call it one of my quirks, but for some reason I get a kick out of waking up to the same songs every morning. In the Fall of 2001, I purchased an alarm clock with a CD player and burned one CD. At the time, my hope was to see if I could wake up to that same CD for at least two semesters. I didn't really put an amazing amount of thought in picking and choosing the songs, I just dragged a bunch of tracks onto a CD. I chose the following songs:

  1. Gary Jules - Mad World
  2. Prefuse 73 - Back in Time
  3. Broken Social Scene - Anthems for a 17 Year Old Girl
  4. Broken Social Scene - Almost Crimes
  5. Broken Social Scene - Stars and Sons
  6. The White Strips - Death Letter
  7. (mystery non-vocal track I can't remember but might be Badly Drawn Boy)
  8. Beck - The Golden Age
  9. Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals - The Three of Us
  10. Carlos Santana - Treat
  11. Coldplay - The Scientist
  12. Gavin Friday and Mauric Seezer - The Boxer (Finale)

Well, it's 2007 and I've still got the same CD in my alarm clock. It has actually been the source of increasing wonder (and ridicule) in my house. What raises eybrows is the first song by Gary Jules, which my friends insist is one of the most depressing songs they have ever heard. They can't imagine how I wake up to it each morning, especially when it is one of the final tracks in the movie "Donnie Darko."

    I wonder if its my choice to habitually start my morning with a depressing song that worries my friends or if its the fact that I've woken up to the same tracks for such a long period of time--or both. Am I crazy? What is it about this CD, generically titled the "Morning Mix," that is so appealing to me?

    The "Morning Mix" is pure spontaneous expression suspended in time. And there is a profound joy that comes with being able to revisit that moment. I'm going to try to explain that and I warn you that this will get a bit dense.

    Though it happens a little less frequently now, I used to not be able to sleep one or two days out of the week because I frequently had bouts of an insomnia-like condition. And after I'd have been up all night living the second life, I'd hear my alarm clock go off. I knew of course that for everyone else in the world, tomorrow had arrived. But for me, yesterday was never quite finished.

    Figuratively and literally, I live using both the solar and lunar calendars, though neither seems to be very effective in 'keeping' time for me. Time, unfortunately, bends and dissolves around me. So what better (or more ironic) a device to celebrate this detachment from time than an alarm clock?

    The alarm clock--and the songs captured on CD--allows me to revisit a familiar space each morning and recreate that moment of 'being' in two days at once. The alarm clock is a decidedly final object, one that tells you an awful lot about your reality. The alarm clock is my gateway to ontology.

    Personally, I think the idea of a "Morning Mix" is refreshing considering we live in a culture where we're bombarded with new media. Put it this way, I have approximately 70,000 individual songs on my computer. If I wanted to listen to a different track every morning, I could sustain that for just under 192 years. Thus, I find a serenity in purposefully bounding my reality.

    I'm not sure if its time to retire the original "Morning Mix." I may try to keep the original going until 2010, and then make a new mix for the following decade. Do you think I'm crazy? Does any of this make sense? Any suggestions on tracks?

    Monday, March 12, 2007

    Black Snake Moan (2007)

    Black Snake Moan (2007): I’m a little bit surprised that Craig Brewer’s movie has been so divisive among critics. Some would say this is a glorified “B” movie, but I’m not so sure. I think critics should be the most willing to take the leap of faith, a leap this movie requires you to make. That the plot is relatively unrealistic might be distracting, but once you accept it, “Black Snake Moan” becomes a vehicle to a unique cinematic experience. It's a meditation on temptation and redemption.

    This movie, from all angles, is gutsy. It offers nothing but pure pulpy goodness. Lazarus (that’s right, as in Lazarus) is a farmer in the deep South who’s just been dumped by his wife. He comes across Rae, half-naked and beaten, in the middle of the street. He soon discovers she suffers from a “sickness” and Lazarus puts it upon himself to cure her by—yes—chaining her to a radiator.

    Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Lazarus, is firing on all cylinders here and delivers a memorable performance. He crafts a character here that isn’t the ‘bad-ass motherfucker’ he usually plays (or that we’ve all internalized through The Chappelle Show), but instead embraces the flaws in his own character. He’s not trying to save Rae, Rae is also an indication that he too is in need of saving. I actually liked his performance here more here than in “Pulp Fiction” (1994), which is saying a lot, and almost as much as his performance in “Jackie Brown” (1997).

    I really only clearly remembered Christina Ricci from “The Ice Storm” (1997), which was a very good movie, and I barely remembered her performance in “Monster” (2003), so going into the movie I really didn’t have a clear idea about her talent level. Here, Ricci took a huge risk and it completely pays off. Sure she’s parading around in her underwear for half the film (I’m not quite sure why Lazarus didn’t give her a pair of shorts or a towel to cover up for the first few days of her captivity. Perhaps it dilutes the “cinematic effect” of panties), but she manages to create a character that is being "saved" but doesn't fall into the standard trope of the hopelessly vulnerable woman.

    Here, the symbolism is in your face. The plot, like Christina Ricci, is stripped down to bare essentials. The plot devices are unapologetically exposed (chains, cued lightning, mysterious illnesses, a preacher-man, overt biblical references, moments of temptation, and a rusty blues guitarist with a southern drawl). What I love about this barebones story is that it forces the actors to really texture their characters and give them life. There are plenty of actors who could have bombed in these roles, Ricci’s in particular, so it is even more enjoyable to see the director pick the right people for the job.

    This movie has an amazing soundtrack, featuring wonderful blues and blues rock tracks. One of the feature tracks is by "The Black Keys," who fit the mood of this movie perfectly. Samuel L. Jackson sings too, and he does a fantastic job.

    Having seen this film, I am now very curious to see Elia Kazan’s film “Baby Doll” (1956), which is based on a Tennessee William’s play. I haven’t heard of it before, but I hear it was quite controversial (and still is). Time Magazine called it "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited . . ." Can’t wait to see it.

    Sunday, March 11, 2007

    Who The Hell Keeps Moving My Area Rug?

    Every three days I move my area rug near the center of an open area near my closet doors and, inexplicably, every three days it ends up shoved under the closet door:

    This thing moves like a foot and a half! I have a sneaking suspicion that someone is moving it on purpose and screwing with me. I've narrowed it down to two suspects.

    Saturday, March 10, 2007

    Finally, A Carpet Cleaning Company That's Not Full of Addicts

    So I came across one of the more bizarre commercials I have seen in awhile, so I just had to share. We're immediately introduced to "Joette" --

    Apparently Joette seems to have a problem. It seems she's hired carpet and upholstery cleaners in the past and they have turned out to be less than what she expected. Were they unqualified? Lazy? Slow? Chronically late? No, not exactly. They were addicts: "We use Stanley Steemer because they make sure that more than just our carpet and upholstery are clean, they make sure their employees are too."

    Can someone explain to me what the hell is going on here??

    Monday, March 05, 2007

    The State Bar of California Leaps into the 21st Century

    I'm sure they're quite proud of this, but the CA Bar has altered the procedures for those taking the BAR Exam on a laptop in July 2007: "Examination answers will not be copied to floppy disks. Floppy disk drives are not required for this examination."

    Notwithstanding the fact that floppy disks haven't been available on mainstream notebooks for the last four or five years, and that floppy disk technology itself has been dead for at least seven or eight years, it seems that the CA Bar has discovered something called "The Internet" and that it allows people to send documents to other people!

    Unfortunately, the exam will be administered using software from ExamSoft, which sucks and often causes more anxiety than the test itself. Good luck to Mac users.

    Now, if we can only get the State Bar of California to let go of it's mimeograph machine . . .

    Friday, March 02, 2007

    Spam Blog?!?

    So as usual I'm having difficulty sleeping, so I thought I'd fire up Blogger and jot down a few drafts for some posts. But instead I got the warning above. Apparently my blog has been marked as a "spam blog."

    I found some mildly amusing information under Blogger's help screens, which explains that a spam blog "can be recognized by their irrelevant, repetitive, or nonsensical text" and that a spam blog can "cause various problems, beyond simply wasting a few seconds of your time when you happen to come across one." Damn. They're 2 for 2.

    What's not amusing is that my blog has been locked for three days. I had to make a formal request to have my blog activated and all it says is that "someone" will contact me. So I'm out of business indefinitely and I have no idea why my blog would be considered a spam blog. The true irony is that I can't post THIS message because I have to wait for someone at Blogger to "review" my blog.

    UPDATE: the blog was "approved" by Blogger on Friday, March 2, 2007, two days after it was disabled.