Better Luck Tomorrow
Length: 99 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1, Anamorphic
Audio: DD 5.1
Better Luck Tomorrow is an extraordinary film. I never thought I’d say that about a film associated with MTV. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just not of the MTV Generation. But this film deserves to be noticed.
Ben Manibag is a high school senior. He’s also an overachiever. A perfectionist. He’s destined to graduate at the top of his class and move on to bigger things - the Ivy Leagues. Bored with the ease of high school, Ben and some of his upper-middle class friends start selling cheat sheets at school. Then they get into cons out of school... and doing and dealing drugs. All the while, these kids promote a smart and squeaky clean image. Their parents (largely absent from the film) know their kids grades, but they don’t know their kids. At this point, the film is somewhat reminiscent of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off... right down to the quirky first-person narrative.
But things change. The gift for the con leads down a much darker path, and the film goes from a slightly dark Bueller to a more palatable Bully. What makes the film interesting is that it can take such a dark turn while not being exploitative and while keeping the characters likable and engaging. It’s also compelling to watch the characters slowly sinking to murkier depths, while the film's comedic surface gloss remains.
Now, we shouldn’t be surprised by the tailspin into crime... after all, the film opens with the unusual reveal of a body buried in Ben’s friend Virgil’s back yard. Still, we are surprised at the depths these characters reach, because we buy into the clean-cut image on the surface... even though we know better.
To say much more about this film would give too much away. It’s an expertly crafted, original and relevant story, skillfully directed, and well acted - largely by a cast of unknowns. Parry Shen turns in a wonderfully understated and truly believable performance as Ben. Watch out for him... I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of him.
Better Luck Tomorrow was made on a shoestring budget. You would never suspect that while watching the film. Every dollar shows on screen... and then some. Production values are very high, and rival that of films with a budget dozens of times higher. Kudos to Justin Lin (director), Patrice Lucien Cochet (cinematographer), and Yoo Jung Han (art director) for the skill and resourcefulness to pull this off. Originally to be shot on DV, director Lin was able to secure donated Kodak 5277 film-stock, and donations for processing and equipment, to ensure the film had the look that he wanted.
Better Luck Tomorrow is presented in anamorphically enhanced widescreen. The picture has excellent contrast with deep, solid blacks and bright whites. Colors are well saturated. There is no sign of edge enhancement or compression artifacts. Occasional (but rare) dust is present, but not at all to the point of being an issue. Very fine grain is ever-present, as on the original elements - the quality of which is amazing to me given the budget of this film. One might have expected heavier grain in the darker scenes due to budget lighting and film stock. This is an excellent transfer of a pristine budget print.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Dialog is very well represented in its full frequency range, and is always intelligible above music and effects. Ambient effects are frequently and appropriately heard in the surround channels... crowd scenes, outdoor ambience, sea-surf and music all emanate cleanly from the rear channels, without calling attention to that fact. LFE is primarily active in the music. Since this is not an action film, heavy use of LFE and surrounds is not expected. Here, it’s just the right mix - appropriate for this film.
Commentary track by Justin Lin (director, co-writer, co-producer), and co-writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez.
The crew gives a very laid-back commentary. It almost feels as if they’re kicking back in your living room with you. They don’t get deeply into the mechanics of moviemaking, but it’s very entertaining to hear the stories of how they made this film on such a low budget. For instance, there were scenes in a store... Not being able to build a set, or rent the real store overnight, they were given 20 minutes before closing to shoot two scenes! Similar anecdotes abound in this commentary. Since they could only afford to build one or two sets, much of the film was shot in public spaces, or in the homes and yards of the crew’s friends and family. Interesting stuff, here.
This is a surprisingly wonderful film, and is well represented in this Paramount release. It’s priced a bit higher than your average mass-market blockbuster DVD, but it’s worth every penny. At the very least, rent it... then you’ll probably want to buy it anyway.
This film is a comedy, a thriller, and a coming-of-age film rolled into one. It’s a film that tries to be all things, and succeeds brilliantly.