Category Archives: Movies

My First Film: Indiegogo Crowdfunding PGSS Campaign

I love movies. I try not to think about the thousands of hours I’ve wasted repeatedly watching “Fight Club,” “Being John Malkovich,” and some of my other favorites. When we went skiing in Utah one year and stumbled upon Sundance, I was amazed by how bad some of those movies were- amazed and inspired- like, “Wow, I could definitely make a movie that gets into Sundance because these suck!”

This week I began to see how hard filmmaking can be because I’ve finally made my first “movie,” an Indiegogo campaign video for PGSS. It is 54 seconds long and took me at least 20 hours to make. I just finished it a minute ago and I’ll be so sad if no one watches it. I’m a perfectionist about certain things- I think 80% of the movie has not changed since hour 5 while 10% of the movie has changed 1,000 times. Obviously I wasn’t a perfectionist about a lot of stuff like sound editing- I think I’m not super into sounds. During the creation of this film, I learned to use and hate iMovie with its infuriating bugs and basic features that simply don’t work (come on, Apple- how hard is it to figure out a file system? This is basic stuff), although it was really easy to learn.

It’s not “Exit through the Gift Shop,” but “Save PGSS” is my first video so I’ll probably watch it repeatedly until I make my next movie. The footage came from past years of students filmed during their summers at PGSS, and also from Ray He, Dan HL, and mitri. Thank you guys so much for making videos of how PGSS has changed your lives! I wouldn’t be surprised if this film launches you all into well-deserved movie-stardom.

So yeah, watch my movie debut and go to Please tweet and share this video because the algorithm that selects videos onto Indiegogo’s front page cares about tweets, etc. If you tweet and share this video, I will get my cat to do a flip for you!

Cool fact: if you show this video to someone and they aren’t moved to tears and immediately inspired to tweet it, Facebook it, and donate to PGSS, you should stab them in the chest where you will find a mess of mangled metal wires instead of a beating human heart.

Batman vs. Charles Dickens

Quora posted my answer to the Huffington Post! The version below has a longer ending than the Huffington/Quora because I feel more free to ramble on my own site (perhaps you’re surprised to discover I show restraint when writing on other sites, or at all. Here’s a way for you to contrast the difference between me writing haphazardly and even more haphazardly). This answer is rife with spoilers of Dickens, Dark Knight, and the meaning of life, so if you don’t want to be initiated into the mysteries of the universe, resist the urge to read on:

What Do You Think of Christopher Nolan Using A Tale of Two Cities for Inspiration for the Script to The Dark Knight Rises?

I didn’t notice Nolan was using A Tale of Two Cities until the Act 5 (or 7?…) burial scene where Gordon quotes directly from it, “‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done,” at which point the incongruous stuff such as the scenes of blue collar people tearing fur coats off trophy wives suddenly had an explanation. Those scenes otherwise make zero sense to me: how are the middle class citizens of Gotham suddenly villains staging executions and mock trials?

Anyway, after realizing Nolan was drawing from Dickens, upon closer examination the parallels are pretty tight, right down to the twist ending of A Tale of Two Cities where Madame Defarge turns out to be the daughter of that murdered family paralleling Nolan’s reveal of that billionaire lady turning out to be the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul. I guess even though Nolan tries to beat you over the head with it, you can’t be heavy handed enough these days, especially with old stuff like Dickens.

Aside from the big reveal in both works turning out to be that the orphaned girl grows up to be the mastermind killer seeking to avenge her family through mass murder, other parallels include:
1. Secret backstory: Batman, billionaire woman, Catwoman vs. Dickens’ Darnay, the DeFarges, the prisoner doctor dad.
2. Secret societies: Legion of shadows and conspiracy among the commoners such as the cement truck people vs. Dickens’ Jacques peasants conspiracy that began the French revolution.
3. “Recalled to life” and inventing a new name from prison: the child, Bane, and Batman escaping from the prison and Catwoman wanting a new identity vs Dickens’ doctor and Darnay each separately escaping the Bastille.
4. Twin or mirror identities in which one dies for the other: Batman and Wayne faking deaths vs Darnay and that drunk guy switching places in the final scene.
5. Faithful, bachelor servant: Alfred vs. Lorry.
6. Incompetent, oblivious leaders or the leaders being lecherous scumbags: that rich guy Catwoman seduces and uses as her cover or the mayor at his football game vs. the monsigniere.
7. Using the rich’s own weapons against them: using Wayne’s armory against Gotham vs imprisoning the rich in the Bastille.
8. The courtroom mock trial scene.
9. Hero returning to save the commoners who cry out for his help: Batman becomes Batman again and somehow goes from the Asiatic prison to Gotham because he can’t stand the sufferings of his citizens on TV. Similarly, Darnay returns to Paris because his old servant writes him pleading for help against injustice.
10. Misunderstood nobleman hero: Wayne and Darnay, both donate their entire fortunes to the poor before the works even begin (Wayne turns out to have invested everything in his nuclear energy project and Darnay forsakes his entire estate and changes his name, hoping the commoners will appreciate taking over his lands).
11. Baleful, brutish servant who executes mastermind mistress’s bidding: Bane and Madame Defarge’s husband.

Both Nolan and Dickens are firmly in the top 1%. Like Nolan, Dickens was a wildly successful celebrity writer in his times, widely acknowledged as a genius. However, Dickens was born into poverty, so while A Tale of Two Cities is strongly critical of the chaos and popular uprising, he was passionately empathetic with the poor and also condemned their abuse and the decadence of the rich. The donation of Wayne Manor to orphan boys would probably be something Dickens would admire.

The chaos and violence against the rich is something criticized in both Dickens and The Dark Knight Rises- even Catwoman repents and decides that maybe it wasn’t what she wanted after all. A Tale of Two Cities struck me as being about karma and breaking the cycle of evil: Madame Defarge allows vengeance to consume her life so that she’s indifferent between good and evil. As long as you allow this to happen, you’re doomed no matter what your original victimization was because despite coming from a family victimized by the rich, Defarge is clearly the villain in Dickens’ book who ends up pitilessly killing many innocent people. In contrast to Madame Defarge, Darnay tries to break the cycle of careless decadence by forsaking his lands and title. After assuming a new name and occupation, he achieves happiness and love. Darnay’s twin/mirror, the drunk dude whose name I forget, also breaks his cycle of wastrel drunkenness by taking Darnay’s place at the guillotine, finally redeeming himself and gaining a tragic yet noble sort of dignity and heroism.

Like A Tale of Two Cities, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of ideas about rebirth. The billionaire lady is stuck in the past and loses all likeability- I don’t understand her obsession with her weird quest to redeem her dad to the point that she commits a mass murder-suicide. Alfred is continuously bugging Wayne to finally break out from the past which he ends up successfully doing, which I guess is supposed to be a positive ending. Catwoman is also all about breaking from her past and also finally succeeds, which is supposed to be a victorious note in the movie.

Thematically Nolan and Dickens are both saying that even if stuff sucked a lot in the past (like Mom dying in prison and everyone getting the plague and having to climb out of the pit you were born in with a weird, deformed, masked dude as your only friend), you have to somehow get over it! Life is unfair and it sucks! But there can be heroes (ranging from vigilante billionaires/ French noblemen to petty thieves/ drunken lawyers ) who are self sacrificing enough to try to rescue the community from the injustice they’ve been suffering under for ages. And instead of chaotically turning against said heroes and vilifying them for sticking their necks out, the community should be noble and self sacrificing in turn, the way those policemen finally got out of their homes and senselessly/ admirably rushed into a mob of criminals shooting machine guns… And unlike how Madame Defarge convinced the French Revolutionaries to guillotine Darnay anyway despite first acquitting him- don’t do that.

Even if you got dumped by Maggie Gyllenhaal, or had your family murdered by rich men, or had your family and childhood crush murdered by criminal men, or were forced into a life of crime, or the woman you love will never love you back even though you explicitly told her you LOVED her (she can’t love you bc you’re Batman/ an alcoholic/ not as cool as some blue-eyed, blond politician), or you were wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille or some horrible pit for 17 years, if you don’t get over it, change, and move on with life, you’ll become a joyless jerk who even the aged family servant finds unbearable and escapes from. Despite initially seeming cool, principled, and focused while you’re menacingly and impassively knitting the names of your enemies into shrouds, eventually everyone will decide you’re actually a relentless psycho that they’re scared to hang out with, chalking up the regrettable night they spent with you to meaningless rainy, dark, mansion sex and living happily ever after with the ex-thief turned do-gooder.

Sure, you killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of wealth. But after everything your enemies are happy and you end up dead! (Spoiler: Madame Defarge gets shot by a maid. (Other spoiler: Gotham is actually Pittsburgh by the sea! Wow! Go Steelers!)) So even if you have a really good reason and suffered a lot unjustly due to people who don’t deserve the love or money they’re swimming in, don’t turn evil. Instead, be awesome and help others because there are always impoverished orphans who are way worse off. Orphans like Oliver Twist or Josh Gordan-Levitt remind you life is not all about you, and your suffering, and your revengenda. And if you do become really powerful one day, don’t act like those jerks who hurt you. Even though they suck and annoyingly always seem to avoid punishment, just let it go, work on using science or getting rich so you can solve the energy crisis (hopefully in a less obviously WMD way to the extent that Morgan Freeman put a timer on the thing), and enjoy life by falling in love, vacationing in Florence, becoming the celebrity author of David Copperfield whose works inspire blockbusters by celebrity writer-directors like Nolan, etc.

It’s a positive message saying everyone should have some compassion and that any individual can be a hero as long as there’s love. I think the message came out more naturally in A Tale of Two Cities than in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s there in both.

Having It All: Magic Mike’s Life Lessons Better Than Brave’s

The sense of entitlement towards “having it all” is perpetuated by modern princess movies. What happened to all the gruesome, German fairy tales when failed seduction meant mermaids disintegrating into sea foam, when beauties sleeping too soundly meant getting raped? Bring back those wholesome tales- that’s what kids should be seeing and that’s what I read about in my Red Fairy Books, not stuff like Brave.

Pixar’s Brave disappointed me by implying you should have it all- shoot arrows, run a kingdom, do princess stuff- Merida shouldn’t have to choose! This is a dangerous message to send to anybody, male or female, because it’s false. Merida has no idea what she wants to do but according to Disney fantasy she can have everything once she figures it out- the mom inexplicably decides to break tradition and delay marriage until… whenever? Does Merida want to marry someone ever? Does she want to shoot arrows all day? Does she want to have a hand in running the kingdom? What is her goal? She’s a foolish child who inexplicably avoids negative consequences of her bad decisions. This is a fantasy and not a lesson I want my kids to learn. You have to choose what you want, you have to use precise word choice when discussing contracts- especially with magical beings- and then you have to bust your butt to achieve your goal.

Don’t get me wrong- I love old Disney princess movies. They have nice love stories and there’s cute animals singing and dancing about youthful yearning, or the origins of their murderous desires. Sadly Brave did not have any of these components. Although I enjoyed the visual beauty, they did not have one singing animal despite various extremely natural moments to throw that in. A magical bear doesn’t break into song even once? Come on.

Despite Pixar’s cliched perspective, the wait for a movie that sets the right tone is over. Hollywood appears to have been making leaps and bounds in terms of sexism, deciding even cutoff shorts are too much clothing for werewolves to suffer and must fly off. Now in Magic Mike we have Matthew McWhatever developing the same allergy to clothing endured by those same Native American werewolf tribes. Regardless of whether objectifying men counts as a win for feminism, I’m all for it (I was so inspired by Channing Tatum’s performance in Magic Mike that I followed him on twitter (he’s seriously probably one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen, makes it look natural and easy)).

Mike’s stripper wisdom is that everyone, even a hot guy, has to choose. If your goal is to make weird furniture but you spend your life having sex and doing drugs, then odds are 10 years will pass and you will be a lonely, aging stripper instead of a successful entrepreneur. When considering resource allocation, I tend to imagine vector arithmetic. If you invest your resources in a direction orthogonal to the direction of your ultimate goal, 5 or 10 years can pass and you won’t have anything to show for it. You want the divergence between the trajectory of your goal and the trajectory of your resource investments to be small.

I feel lucky my parents fought so hard so that I could think about the problems of philosophy instead of war (figuratively). My parents were not home very often. Mom took English classes during the day and worked at night. Dad labored in a lab deep underground with no end in sight. If your parents were immigrants you know no one has time to babysit you. It’s probably more like you babysitting your kid brother or something while they’re at work (luckily I was an only child and only had to be responsible for myself). For years my mom was never home and I was proud of her for it, but there are always costs. It wasn’t until we moved to Mt. Lebanon that I had some inkling that there existed kids whose parents did nothing but chauffeur them everywhere and endured the daily tribulations of middle school with them. If you want to haul your family from the depths of poverty you have to work a lot and sometimes you don’t bond as much with your ungrateful kids. Everyone has to choose.

Once, I was talking with my dad about love. I probably said something like how my vision of love involved trust and loyalty- I don’t remember what idea I had, probably based on princess movies instead of horrific Grimm fairy tales. I do remember my dad told me he thought love was about sacrifice. His perspective surprised me and I chalked it up to yet another example of the idiocy of my pathetic parents. Years later, I’m starting to see what he’s talking about.