Reviews

Better Luck Tomorrow (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

'There are so many things that typify growing up in Southern California in the late '70s and early '80s. Miniature golf.'"


Better Luck Tomorrow

Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Parry Shen, Karin Anna Cheung, Jason J. Tobin, John Cho, Laura Esposito, Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Crystal Keith, Jerry Mathers, Ariadne Shaffer, Aaron Takahashi
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MTV Films
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-09-30

"There are so many things that typify growing up in Southern California in the late '70s and early '80s. Miniature golf. I don't know how that became the cultural hub of childhood. Growing up, that was like the place to be." Recalling their own growing up for the commentary track on Paramount's DVD of Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez, and Ernesto Foronda all bring crucial bits to form the impressive whole.

And, as they reveal in their fragments of memories -- of childhood traumas and production crises -- the film is focused on growing up, in typical and popular ways, but more profoundly, it's concerned with how growing up is misrepresented and misremembered, how all kids have to go through it on their own. The commentary by this crew (all listing their multiple jobs on this "credit card movie," from editor and director to caterer and security guard) reveals that as they were looking to reflect a common and simultaneously specific experience, they also wanted to get at what it means to "grow up."

The first scene in the movie actually shows one of the last moments in its chronology. Ben (Parry Shen) and Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) are sunning themselves in an Orange County backyard, pondering early admissions ("Ivy Leagues love it, gets 'em all wet"). The conversation is unexceptional, the shot looks down on them from overhead, their faces are shiny with sweat. And then, a phone rings. "Not mine," Virg says. Not Ben's either.

The boys look at each other, startled, as the camera takes other views -- first through tree branches, on an angle, and then, ground level, as they're on their elbows and knees, squirming along the lawn until they find the spot from which the muffled sound emanates. They dig. They find it, buried with a hand, worms all over it. "You never forget the sight of a dead body," says Ben in voiceover. "But then again, I was experiencing a lot of things for the first time. I guess it's just part of growing up."

As this sets up the movie's interest, the scene also undermines it. The threeway commentary repeatedly reveals such thematic contradictions and, perhaps especially, the difficulties of shooting a tiny-budget film that looks like MTV would make or, in this case, want it (MTV picked up distribution after the film's splashy premiere at Sundance). "There's pros and cons to not having any money when you're making a film," Lin says, "We had five weeks to rehearse, and it was just great because we were able to play and it wasn't about memorizing the lines, it was about understanding the history, the relationships between the characters. It gets to a certain point, with each actor, where it just clicks over, and there's this understanding, and it becomes a perfect collaboration at that point."

The actors, camera crew, and designers apparently come to "that point" again and again in BLT. Lin, Marquez, and Foronda's technical discussion is consistently terrific -- they explain lens choices, rack focuses, dealing with weather, the ways that a camera move was conceived and executed, tricks for making big party scenes with only six extras (they had extras changing costumes as they literally ran from one end of a set to another, to make the party look well-populated.

Again and again, the camera careens, time-lapses, and flicks over surfaces as well as fences dividing suburban properties. Ben is the film's center, and his journey is riveting as well as horrifying. He begins in uniform, working the counter at a fast food joint, Employee of the Month, the wall plaque says, every month. A white lady twists her necklace, fretful over what to eat; Ben knows the calories and fat grams in each item. So helpful, so polite. So nice. The lady smiles. "It's not as hard as it looks," he says in voiceover. All you have to do is read the manual. What's important is that it goes on his application, under "extracurricular activities."

Ben works hard at getting to the next step, out of Orange County, Princeton maybe. He practices his free throws for the basketball team, keeps careful notes on his progress, volunteers down at the hospital (where he translates Spanish between doctors and patients), and, in order to get a perfect score on his next SATs, he learns vocabulary words: "They say if you repeat something enough times, it becomes part of you."

"Punctilious," reads the screen under Ben as he lies in bed, reciting. "Marked by or concerned about precise exact accordance with the details of codes or conventions." And Ben is just that, obsessed with doing it everything right, following procedure and keeping his head down; it's the best way he's figured to survive high school. He's a good kid, a "model minority" kid. He lusts just a little after a cheerleader named Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), but she's already taken, claimed by the rich, slightly older, and infinitely more cynical Steve (John Cho). When Ben sees that Steve's also "boning some white chick," he's almost driven to tell Stephanie, but no. Ben's too honorable, too shy, and too enamored of her to break the news. "Girls like her," he sighs while the film freezes her face against a block of lockers, "Make you realize that life's not fair."

To even things up, perhaps, or because he's bored, or because it's so easy, Ben cheats: "It started with a pack of baseball cards and then it snowballed. I guess it just felt good to do things that I couldn't put on my college application." As long as these activities are confined to scamming computer warehouses on returns of credit card purchases or even selling cheat sheets to their average-student classmates, Ben and his friends coast. "It's easy as fuck," says Virgil's cousin, Daric (Roger Fan). Their straight As are their "passport to freedom" -- as long as they keep up appearances, the kids can stay out at "study group" until 4am. "The money was really good," Ben admits. "But I don't that's what attracted me the most."

They have good reasons to want to stick it to the system. While Ben thinks (or needs to think) he's on the basketball team because he wants to play, he admits to Daric that he spends most games on the bench. Daric sighs. Ben's a token: "It's obvious that the only reason you're on the team is for cosmetic reasons." It's true, adults are also scamming, to meet requirements, to make their lives easier or more exciting. The film underlines adult hypocrisy and lack of attention by never showing a parent (and the only adult with lines is a science teacher, played by Jerry Mathers). This isn't to say that Ben and his friends exactly miss any "supervision" that might be offered by adults, but that the film acknowledges, in its visual economy as well as its plotting, the way they understand their lives, their restrictions, obligations, and desires.

Ben takes his accumulating responsibilities seriously -- hamburgers and homework, stealing and scamming. He observes the toll it's taking as he's snorting coke, trying to stay awake. "It's literally a fulltime job to make people believe you're who you're meant to be." That Ben is trying to figure out those expectations, how to resist or conform to them, is BLT's broadest, most conventional "statement." But in its details, its plot structured around an academic decathlon, its concentrated colors and fisheye lenses, the film is invigorating and vivid, anything but conventional.

The style goes to show the kids' sense of pressure and opportunity. Ben's not the only one who notices how hard it is to find himself, any self. In one brief, bracing scene, Steve practices batting (Mr. All American Sports), the camera zooming in and out, then zip-circling him as he observes, "It's a never ending cycle. When you got everything you want, what's left? You can't settle for being happy, that's a fucking trap. You gotta take life into your own hands, do whatever it takes to break the cycle. That's what it is, breaking the cycle." That is what it is, but, as BLT reveals, the cycle is designed to resist breaking: even when you think you're out, you're in; if you're Ben, overachieving and banging on the side, you're caught coming or going.

The kids' escalating violence -- they beat down one adversary at a party, take up guns at another point, beat someone to death with a bat at another -- generated controversy, and as Lin, Foronda, and Marquez point out, the scene affected everyone on the set, bringing some to tears. Though Lin says that the last scene's violence has been trimmed since Sundance, he's happy with the way it's turned out. BLT insists that such horrific acting out is another form of performance, one way the kids use to counter expectations that they'll be polite and undesiring, desexualized or feminized "Asian males." But the subversion of these stereotypes is as frightening as any imposition of stereotype -- it's more, and not enough.

Most compellingly, the film offers insights into intra-community class and gender dynamics; Ben and Steve's competition for Stephanie layers such tensions. Still, and as much as they consider her as a prize to be won, Stephanie, an adopted child with her own background and identity questions, has been making decisions all along. That she hasn't made right ones, even for herself, makes her like the guys, but also not -- she has a sense of what's at stake, before Ben does. "You know how you make decisions that lead to other decisions?" she asks him. "And then you realize you don't remember why you made those decisions in the first place?" He nods, breathless. Stephanie, as she must, keeps breathing.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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