Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day

Terror 5


This is NOT Gene Simmons.

(2016) Horror Anthology (Artsploitation)  Lu Grasso, Augusto Alvarez, Airas Alban, Emilio Guzzo, Rocio Lopez, Agustin Rittano, Clarisa Hernández, Juan Barberini, Cecilia Cartasegna, Julián Larquier Tellarini, Marcos Woinsky, Marcela Luznik, Jorge Prado, Rafael Ferro, Gastón Cocchiarale, Walter Cornás, Nai Awada, Giselle Motta.  Directed by Sebastian Rotstein and Federico Rotstein

 

Horror anthologies generally tend to be uneven in terms of quality. Even when the segments are all directed by the same person, tonal shifts can sometimes work against the film, particularly when the directors are trying to work from a variety of styles.

This Argentinian anthology is set in an unnamed Argentine city in which a lurid trial is taking place. Some months earlier, a building collapsed, killing 15 people. The mayor (Ferro) has been charged with corruption, money laundering and essentially depraved indifference along with two of his cronies. He is the very picture of power; arrogant, indifferent to the suffering of others and manipulative.

Most of the participants are awaiting the verdict, either watching on TV or listening on the radio. The first story involves Sonia (Grasso), a student who is helping her boyfriend Juan (Alvarez) prepare for an important test. However, rather than studying with him, she takes him to the school after dark where they participate in a student revenge group that tortures the teachers that mistreated them.

In the second story, a couple – Gaby (Cartasegna) and Hernan (Tellarini) – adjourn to a hotel for a night of passionate sex. However, the attraction between the couple is purely between the sheets and once the sex is over the arguing begins. What they don’t realize is that they’re being watched by an auteur who plans to make them part of his latest work.

The third story involves a group of friends gathered to party torment one of their own number, whom they address as “Cherry” in regards to his virginity. As the abuse grows, he begins to grow more resentful until the point that he reveals his true nature.

The fourth story concerns two men (Rittano, Barberini) who await in separate cars for their girlfriends – having decided to swap partners for the night. As you can guess from the tone of the movie, it doesn’t go according to plan at all.

The final story is the one closest to the linking story. A busload of relatives of the dead from the apartment collapse have gone to the cemetery to mourn their loved ones. As the injustice of their situation grows, the dead are moved to rise and wreak havoc on the town. The bus driver (Prado) manages to keep out of sight of the vengeful dead but he has an agenda of his own.

The anthology is set up in kind of a weird manner; after the set-up of the linking story, the first story is told in its entirety but the other four are told concurrently, weaving in and out of each. It’s a bit disconcerting and leaves the audience wondering “Did I miss something?” I can sort of understand why they chose to do it that way – the first story is completely different in tone from the other four and it really isn’t connected to either the overall story or to any of the other four. It’s almost as if the directors had an additional short film lying around and decided to insert it.

That said, this is actually a terrific film. The psycho-sexual aspects recall Pier Paolo Pasolini, while the gore recalls the work of Dario Argento. There is an undercurrent of rage here; oppression by authority figures permeates all of the stories. People are either pushed to violence, or are subsumed by the violence of their oppressors. It is rare that a horror film is as politically astute as this one is.

The performances are as you can imagine across the scale; some are outstanding (Cartasegna) while others are merely adequate. The stories also vary in quality; the first story definitely feels out of place while the two men in cars just never generates any suspense or terror until the very final shot of the vignette. The other three are gripping and visceral both from a sexual and violence aspect. It also must be said that the living dead when they show up with their blue glowing eyes are really cool. The overall look of the film is bathed in green, red and blue – primary colors rendered like lurid neon.

The film is in Spanish and subtitled so that may give some American horror fans pause. If you’re willing to put up with reading the titles, you are likely to find this a worthy investment of time. If you like your horror with a healthy dose of kinky sex, you’re definitely going to need to look this one up.

REASONS TO SEE: The zombies with the glowing eyes are tres cool.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is pretentious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, nudity, violence, gore, profanity and drug use – better to ask what’s not in there!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a Best Argentinian Film at the Mar de Plata Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Tag

Monsters University


Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Nathan Fillion, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger, Frank Oz, Lori Alan. Directed by Dan Scanlon

College is a nifty place. While we’re there, we’re kind of in a neither-nor phase of life – our responsibilities are few but we get to hang out, goof off and drink beer at fairly unreasonable rates. Of course, we’re supposedly learning things as well but college often teaches us more about life than about the vocation we’re about to embark on.

Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has dreamed of being a scarer ever since he was a little eyeball. Now he’s a teenage eyeball with one eye on his future and one eye on his dreams which can be complicated when you only have one eye. Oh, in case you didn’t see Monsters Inc. which is the movie this is a prequel to, scarers are monsters who enter dimensional doorways into the rooms of children in the human world. Said monsters scare the little vermin into screaming and those screams are used to power the monster world. I say little vermin for a reason; to monsters, human children are toxic and to be avoided at all costs.

His roommate is James P. Sullivan (Goodman), an eight-feet tall furry blue Bigfoot who comes from a long line of scarers and as a legacy at Monsters University expects to sail through – he shows up at class without book, pen or paper. He is immediately snatched by the high and mighty ROR fraternity whose preppy devil of a leader, Johnny Worthington (Fillion) sees a kindred spirit in Sully.

Overseeing all of this is Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), a kind of cross between a dragon, a centipede, a scorpion and the demon of Bald Mountain with a patrician British accent. She herself is an ex-record breaking scarer and started a Greek games kind of competition to discover the best scarer on campus.

Mike and Sully take to each other like Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj, only more civilized. A rivalry forms between Mike, who is brilliant and hardworking but has no natural scariness, and Sully who has all the tools he needs but none of the drive or the work ethic. When their shenanigans get them expelled from the Scarer Program at MU, they realize that the only way back into the program is to win the Scare Games and in order to do that, they’ll have to join a frat. The only one that will have them are the misfits of Oozma Kappa, led by Squishy (Sohn) mainly because the frat house is his mom’s house; new student Don (Murray), an old school car salesman who after being laid off returns to college to get a better education and better life prospects, Art (Day) who looks a little bit like an I-Beam with legs and finally Terry (Foley) and Terri (Hayes), a two headed monster one of whom is a dance major and the other one isn’t. Leading these misfits to the title is going to involve making a team out of them but how can they when both Mike and Sully are way too involved in their own selves to create a team out of individuals?

First, this isn’t as good as Monsters Inc. although it really doesn’t need to be – in my opinion that is one of the best movies to come out of Pixar ever and it really never got the respect it deserves. This isn’t on that level but the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. This is a solidly entertaining effort with plenty of great visual gags and as is usually the case with Pixar movies, enough detail that the movie can be watched a whole lot of times without getting tired – while discovering something new each time you watch it.

Part of the secret to the first film’s success (and this one’s as well) is the chemistry between Crystal and Goodman. They make an excellent yin and yang and banter like they’ve been doing it forever which they kind of have. Both are naturally funny guys with Crystal the manic Borscht belt guy and Goodman the easygoing jock who throws off an occasional killer one-liner when you least expect it.

I have to say I’m not sure it was a good idea to do a prequel; I think that seeing the monster world after the events of Monsters Inc. would have made a far more interesting movie than this one was; the hoary old cliché of best friends starting off as worst enemies (and vice versa in the case of Randall Boggs, the chameleon-like creature voiced by Buscemi) – is there anyone in your life that you started out hating but then wound up as best buddies? Do you know anybody who has a friendship like that?

As their impressive weekend box office figures showed, a lot of families were just waiting on this film to come out and it’s likely to have a pretty strong two week run before Despicable Me opens up over the Independence Day holiday weekend. There has been a dearth of family films this year and it’s about time there was something moms and dads could go see with their kids to get out of the summer heat. Do be aware however that some of the littler kids in the screening at Downtown Disney that we attended had some problems with a couple of the scarier aspects of the monsters (Sully’s roar for example) and while most of the monsters are of the cute ‘n’ cuddly variety, if your child is extremely sensitive you might want to take that into account before going. After all, you can always get the Blu-Ray and let your progeny see the movie after they’re a little older. In any case, I think this is pretty much ideal summertime family entertainment so get your little rug rats dressed up and load up the station wag…err, minivan…and head out to the multiplex if you haven’t already. And maybe again if you already have.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Pixar – even their worst films are better than most animated features.

REASONS TO STAY: May disappoint those looking for something as good as Monsters Inc.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pizza Planet truck can be found parked outside the ROR frat house during the party (it has appeared in every Pixar film since Toy Story). Also, the Professor Knights’ scarer 101 course takes place in room A113, a reference to the room at CalArts where animation is taught and another item that appears in every Pixar film

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews, the critics definitely liked it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Accepted

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Sixth Sense