Saturday, February 25, 2012

Humour soothes grief, but only understanding can cure it

The Descendants
My rating:




I have only ever watched one Alexander Payne film, that being Sideways. (When Election first came out I was eager to watch it, but could never find it on DVD; I somehow never got inclined enough to catch About Schmidt; and I've barely even heard a thing about Citizen Ruth.) Mainly I liked it because I saw a lot of myself in the Paul Giamatti character, whereas the Thomas Hayden Church character reminded me just as much of a close friend of mine. Personal issues aside, that's pretty much what I remember most about it, but I think I might want to hunt down the DVD and watch it again soon.

Because after his latest film, Payne might just have become one of my most eagerly anticipated filmmakers.

Matt King's (George Clooney) life is thrown into upheaval after his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is rendered comatose in a boating accident. He now has to reconnect with his daughters - 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) who is showing signs of inappropriate behaviour, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has a history of rebelliousness and substance abuse - as well as his drifting-apart marriage. In addition, Matt is also the sole trustee of several thousand acres of pristine Hawaiian land, and he is in the midst of negotiating its sale whilst gathering the consent of his extended network of cousins, including Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). When the doctor tells him that Elizabeth will never recover, he has to break the news to all their friends as well as his in-laws, in particular Elizabeth's doting father (Robert Forster). But when Alex reveals that his wife had been cheating on him, Matt is goaded into seeking out Elizabeth's lover - a man named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), who it turns out also has a wife (Judy Greer) - with his daughters and Alex's dimwitted friend Sid (Nick Krause) tagging along. What good it would do to confront the man though, Matt has no idea.

The Descendants reminds me a lot of 50/50. Both are films that deal with death and tragedy and leaven them with comedy. But though I liked that Jonathan Levine-directed Joseph Gordon-Levitt-starrer plenty, my main criticism of it is that its balance of comedy and drama seemed a little skewed to the former, and didn't right itself till the latter half. Payne, working off a screenplay he co-wrote based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, avoids this neatly. It maintains a consistent tone throughout - and that tone is a quirky, bemused contemplation of how tragedy leads to the kind of ignominy that also lends itself to comedy. The death of a wife, mother, daughter and friend is dealt with in all its heartbreaking sadness, yet the humour of the film never undermines it - nor does it ever descend into tear-jerking melodrama. The film's tightrope walk between funny and tragic is a thing to behold.

There are several instances where the tragedy of the story is undercut almost immediately afterwards by humour. The scene where Matt first tells Alex about her mother's impending death, for one; she submerges herself in the swimming pool and screams her anguish underwater, then berates her dad for telling such news to her while she's swimming. Or when Matt does the same to his father-in-law; right after a father learns of the death of his adult daughter, Sid says something hilariously insensitive that earns him a facepunch. The character of Sid provides much of the comic relief, with his goofy grin and his stoner-casual attitude towards the family's tragedy - but there's a later scene that reveals exactly why Alex is friends with him and why she wants him around during this time. There's also a liberal amount of profanity in the dialogue (none of which is censored, yay!), and one of the funniest running gags is Matt's complete inability to control his daughters' - both his daughters - vulgar language.

But I fear I'm talking too much of the film's surface. It's a richly emotionally resonant film, one that's not making it easy for me to talk about all its themes and depths. Its main throughline would be how Matt comes to terms with what Elizabeth meant to him, in all her good and bad; the first time he visits her after he learns of her infidelity, he launches into an angry and vicious tirade, seeking answers she can no longer give. But almost immediately after, when Alex does the same - for her own reasons to be angry at her mother - Matt chastises her to be more respectful. For all that he is an absentee father and neglectful husband, he is still a good, responsible man; at first he balks at the prospect of informing their large network of friends about his wife's inevitable death, but he goes through it with a minimum of fuss, despite the immense emotional toll it takes on him. And he speaks glowingly of their initial courtship when Scottie innocently asks him how they met. It isn't till he confronts Brian Speer that he finds the answers he seeks - why she did what she did, and who she truly was.

I admit that I still have trouble thinking of George Clooney as a serious dramatic actor, despite his current penchant for roles in movies like Michael Clayton, Up in the Air and The Ides of March; I still tend to think of him as the action hero of The Peacemaker and Batman and Robin and the icon of suaveness in Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven. Maybe I should revise my thinking. During the scene where Alex first tells him about Elizabeth's affair, Clooney plays it with a coiled and intimidating fury that seems distinctly un-Matt-King-like - and right after, he undercuts this in just the right way with a remarkable bit of physical acting. (The way he runs.) The performances are terrific, even from supporting actors like Robert Forster, Amara Miller, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer, but the one other standout is Shailene Woodley, whose most prominent previous credit is a teen TV series. Some may think it a copout that her difficult relationship with her father is repaired so easily, but me, I loved seeing her join forces with Matt in getting back at Brian with an almost malicious glee. (It also helps that she is frequently bikini-clad and looks drop-dead gorgeous in them.)

And there's also its depiction of Hawaii, a part of the US that is rarely seen in movies and very different from the glitzy and glamourous Los Angeles that most Hollywood movies are filmed in. Early on, a voiceover by Matt skewers the common perception of the islands as paradise by saying "Paradise can go f**k itself." And indeed, we see plenty of the dull suburban streets and office parks of Honolulu (the state capital), and there's plenty of local colour in how all the locals - even the rich folk - dress in aloha shirts and bermuda shorts all the time. On the other hand, the seaside land owned by Matt's family, descended from genuine Hawaiian royalty (did you know Hawaii had a royal family?) is stunningly beautiful. And part of the film's unique setting is in Matt's background of having a fabulously wealthy inheritance, which he steadfastly refuses to flaunt or squander - unlike some of his cousins. One of the threads in the complex tangle of Matt and Elizabeth's relationship is that she resents him for not spending more of his money on her, against his principle of frugality - and how he may now regret it.

Now that I come to think about it, The Descendants has a great deal in common with the 2008 Japanese film Departures. Both deal with the messy business of mortality; how death strikes without warning and rarely, if ever, offers its next of kin the closure that humans need; and how we go about finding that closure when it seems the only person who can offer it is gone forever. It is a universal truth that our lives are finite, but death is such an alien thing, so outside of human comprehension - and thus a film like this, that aims to shed light on it with wit and warmth and insight, is a rare treasure. If all you expect from movies is empty spectacle and frivolous laughs, I urge you to catch this one - a film that is real and true and human. As I've said before, watching a really good human drama will make you a better person.

NEXT REVIEW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Expectations: *snort of derision*

Monday, February 20, 2012

Jangan panggil dia penyu!

Cinta Kura-Kura
My rating:




Ampun dan maaf diminta dari pembaca-pembaca TMBF sekalian. Dah lama saya tak mengulas filem Melayu, dan saya sudah terlepas peluang bagi filem-filem seperti Suatu Malam Kubur Berasap, Papa I Love You, Sesuatu Yang Tertinggal, Keramat, Bujang Telajak, Sumpahan Kum Kum, Azura dan Hantu Dalam Botol Kicap. Tiada alasan yang boleh saya beri, melainkan baru-baru ini saya selalu malas nak tengok filem dan tulis rebiu. Tapi saudara Nizam Zakaria telah mengundang saya ke Gala Premiere filem arahannya yang pertama, Cinta Kura-Kura, dan hutang budi ini perlu dibayar dengan sebuah rebiu. Kini pasti anda tertanya, apakah undangan ini telah menjejas integriti dan keobjektifan TMBF? Apakah beliau teruja sangat dapat menghadiri event glemer serta bergosok bahu dengan selebriti-selebriti fofular, sehingga pasti rebiu ini memuji filemnya setinggi awan?

Hakikatnya, saya rasa filem ini best. Ko percaya ke tak, ap tu you lah. (Lagipun, malam tu Tiz Zaqyah tak endah aku pun.)

Nani (Tiz Zaqyah) tinggal bersama abangnya Amin (Bob Yusof) dan memelihara seekor kura-kura bernama Nico (Zizan Razak). Adam (Aeril Zafrel) pula ahli kumpulan muzik dan tinggal bersama ibunya Mak Uda (Norhayati Taib). Kedua-dua hidup berjiranan, dan mula jatuh hati antara satu sama lain apabila Amin menyertai band Adam sebagai penyanyi utama. Tetapi oleh kerana Adam tak reti beza antara penyu dengan kura-kura, Nico tidak menyukainya dan ingin menghancurkan hubungan cinta antara Adam dengan pemiliknya Nani. Oh baidewei, Nico serta semua kura-kura lain dalam filem ini boleh bercakap dan berjalan atas dua kaki dengan pantas. Di samping itu, seorang pemilik kedai haiwan peliharaan bernama Fazli (Fizz Fairuz) juga ingin mengorat Nani, dan Nico juga berkawan dengan dua ekor kura-kura di kedainya bernama Atok (Shy8) dan Mira (Fara Fauzana). Tetapi Fazli mengerjakan perniagaan haram, membekal haiwan terlindung kepada Mr. Lim (Chew Kin Wah) yang menghidangkan haiwan-haiwan tersebut di restorannya. Dan antara hidangannya ialah daging kura-kura...

Saya agak bahawa kebanyakan filem Melayu disasarkan khususnya kepada penonton lelaki. Ini kerana filem-filem yang paling berjaya di pasaran - KL Gangster, Hantu Bonceng dan Kongsi, antara yang lain - menjual unsur-unsur aksi dan rempit yang memang diminati golongan laki-laki Melayu muda. Tapi baru-baru ini muncul pula filem Ombak Rindu, sebuah kisah cinta melodrama yang juga amat berjaya, dan saya pasti kejayaannya terhasil dari penonton-penonton wanita. Ini suatu petanda yang baik, menunjukkan industri filem tempatan sihat dan mampu menampung berbagai segmen penonton. Diharap ini akan membuatkan Cinta Kura-Kura juga berjaya, kerana ia sebuah filem yang jelas menyasarkan penonton anak gadis muda urban.

Bukti ini kerana pertama, ia cerita komedi cinta. Dan kedua, "bintang" filem ini bukanlah Aeril Zafrel atau Tiz Zaqyah, tetapi sebuah kura-kura kartun CGI yang bernama Nico dan diberi suara oleh Zizan Razak. Nico adalah suatu ciptaan yang amat menggelikan hati, jelas dibuktikan dari gelak ketawa gadis-gadis remaja yang duduk sebelah saya di panggung setiap kali kura-kura ini beraksi. Dan walaupun dia memang comel sepertimana watak CGI dalam filem live-action pasti comel, bukan kecomelan saja yang dia ada. (Rujuk filem-filem seperti The Smurfs atau Alvin and the Chipmunks, yang tidak patut ditonton sesiapa yang berumur 12 tahun ke atas.) Nico ada personaliti yang diberi oleh Nizam yang juga menulis skrip disamping mengarah, dan skripnya juga memberi dialog-dialog yang lucu kepada Nico serta watak-watak lain. Saya boleh kata filem ini adalah komedi yang benar-benar kelakar.

Ini sesuatu yang jarang dilihat, kerana kebanyakan filem komedi Melayu yang pernah saya tonton adalah bodoh, bukan kelakar. Tapi filem ini berjaya mencuit hati saya. Dialognya sedap didengar, dan lawaknya timbul secara bersahaja dari watak-wataknya - contohnya adegan-adegan Mak Uda meleter Adam, atau ahli-ahli kumpulan muzik Adam. (Satu daripadanya dimainkan oleh Harun Salim Bachik yang tak pernah tak kelakar.) Nico suka membaca buku cerita "Arnab dengan Kura-kura" milik Nani dan memperli watak arnab itu. Ada juga sebuah running gag dimana kereta Fazli sering memainkan lagu dangdut. Saya juga tertawa dengan kemunculan seekor gajah semasa babak penamat (tak boleh saya nak jelaskan lebih sebab spoiler). Sentuhan-sentuhan kecil inilah yang meyakinkan saya bahawa Nizam adalah seorang pencerita yang bijak dan berimaginasi.

Kelemahan yang boleh saya nyatakan ialah pada kisah cintanya. Perasaan cinta antara Nani dengan Adam tidak begitu terasa; babak paling romantis ialah sebuah perbualan telefon dimana Tiz dan Aeril tidak berinteraksi secara bersemuka. Juga saya rasa Aerillah pelakon yang paling lemah dalam filem ini. Yang lain semua, termasuk Norhayati Taib, Fizz Fairuz, Chew Kin Wah serta pelakon suara bagi watak kura-kura, semuanya memberi persembahan yang over the top sedikit, tapi lakonan Aeril agak kaku dan kurang sesuai dengan nada komedi cerita ini. Nasib baiklah ada Tiz yang sungguh menawan hati dalam filem ini. Walaupun beliau paling terkenal dengan peranannya sebagai seorang MILF wanita berumur dalam drama TV dan filem Nur Kasih, namun di sini dia cukup meyakinkan sebagai anak gadis berusia awal 20-an yang masih berperangai keremajaan.

Kalau difikirkan lama-lama, ada juga beberapa lubang plot yang tidak masuk akal - misalnya, kenapa Nico seorang (seekor?) saja kura-kura yang boleh berjalan atas dua kaki? Mengapa kura-kura tak berani nak dedahkan kebolehan mereka bercakap walaupun nyawa diri diancam? Tambahan pula, watak Amin abang Nani seolah-olah menghilang waktu separuh terakhir, kerana dia sudah tiada kaitan dengan ceritanya. Namun saya sedia merekomenkan filem ini kepada siapa-siapa - khususnya jika anda perempuan yang ingin menonton sesuatu yang kiut, samada Aeril, Tiz ataupun kura-kura CGI yang bersuara macam Zizan Razak. Saya ingin melihat lagi filem dari Nizam, dan anda juga patut inginkannya. Jadi sila ke pawagam menonton Cinta Kura-Kura pada 1 haribulan Mac nanti. Kalau filemnya best, saya takkan segan nak mengiklankannya.

NEXT REVIEW: The Descendants
Expectations: hope to not watch it while I'm feeling sleepy

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Nice try, but the results went a little haywire

Haywire
My rating:




Now here's an odd little duck of a movie. Martial arts action film starring a former Mixed Martial Arts champion in her film debut - sounds like some B-grade production going straight to DVD, with perhaps a supporting role by Don "The Dragon" Wilson to lend some "star power". But this one's directed by an Oscar-winning director, and features a Who's Who of A-list actors. I may have been too hasty in pronouncing Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker who's uninterested in genre; he certainly seems committed to doing different things, and Haywire is definitely a pretty big departure from anything he's done before. I was already looking forward to it from the moment I first heard of it, more so after this fascinating interview where he talks about his gritty, realistic style of shooting fight scenes - and especially so after this glowing review from AV Club.

Which is why I had to watch this movie twice, just to figure out why I couldn't quite like it.

A woman (Gina Carano) meets a man (Channing Tatum) at a rural New Mexico diner - and without warning, their conversation turns into a brutal, bare-knuckle fight. She beats him and flees the scene in the car of a good Samaritan named Scott (Michael Angarano), to whom she tells her story; her name is Mallory Kane, the man she just beat up is Aaron, and they are both covert operatives for a private military contractor run by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). After working with Aaron on a rescue job in Barcelona, she then takes an assignment from Kenneth - who is also her ex-lover - in Dublin, where she is partnered with Paul (Michael Fassbender). When Paul frames her for a murder and tries to kill her, she knows she's been betrayed, but not why or by who else besides Kenneth. Whilst evading capture and trying to reach her father (Bill Paxton), the only person she can trust, she must piece together the details of both the Barcelona and Dublin jobs, which involved a government official named Coblenz (Michael Douglas) as well as a shady information broker named Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).

Yes, I watched this twice, and I can say it improved on the second viewing. But the first left me cold and perplexed, and my rating is forced to reflect this. It could've been because the digital sound system in my cinema - MBO Kepong Village Mall - was off, and so the sound wasn't loud enough, which for this film in particular would've significantly spoiled it (about which more later). Maybe the fact that the sound at Cineleisure Damansara was much better (although it kept going on the fritz; seriously, it's getting near impossible to get a pristine technical moviegoing experience nowadays) helped a lot.

Because I had two big issues with the movie, the first being Gina Carano's acting. There isn't much of it. Although Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs do their best not to tax her already limited abilities, her monotonous flatness still grated on me. I kept thinking how much better if, say, Angelina Jolie - to name one of the very few credible action heroines - were playing Mallory Kane; at least she'd have been able to convey some humanity to the character, something the audience could root for and sympathise with. Carano's performance only proves how even a simple role such as a taciturn, lone-wolf action hero requires actual acting; without it, we don't feel a thing for the character and subsequently the movie. Still, she looks great, and I can admit that she was terrific during the fight scenes.

Which brings us to my second issue, that being the direction. I've said before that I like action movies that attempt to deliver the goods with style and freshness, but the way Soderbergh went about it ended up muting the thrills rather than emphasising them. Now, don't get me wrong; anyone who goes to watch this is doing so for the fight scenes, and they're pretty damn good. They're brutal and bloody and bone-jarring, and look for all the world like fights between people who are trained to kill, not fight. And Soderbergh has the great idea to drop all background music during each fight, so that we hear every deafening crunch and smack and grunt. (Which needs to be deafeningly loud; it wasn't at MBO Kepong.)

But other action scenes, like an early foot chase in Barcelona and another later chase through the rooftops of Dublin, go on too long and are too dull. The way Soderbergh films them is to always keep a wide angle, always cognizant of geography and where exactly everything is - an admirable tenet, but in execution ends up lacking in suspense and genuine thrills. Like his last movie, he's clearly aiming for strict realism rather than typical action-movie over-the-topness, which means Haywire simply isn't interested in dishing up many of the genre conventions we've come to expect. The dialogue is purely functional and completely lacking in witty or quotable lines. Exposition is conveyed sparsely, and in a dialogue-free manner whenever possible. And the climactic fight scene - which, in most action movies, would pit the heroine against her toughest and most intimidating opponent - has Carano versus Ewan McGregor at his most squirrelly.

But okay, like I said, it improved on its second viewing. Carano's woodenness didn't bother me so much, and I could appreciate the subtleties of its story that I missed the first time round. I liked how it dealt with Mallory's weakness for good-looking men whom she works with; it explained how she let her guard down with Paul, it illuminated her relationship with Aaron, and it probably even set the whole plot in motion with Kenneth. It practically makes her a female James Bond in how she seduces and casually discards her lovers, which makes for interesting subtext. Another thing Bondian about the movie is the jazzy musical score (when it isn't silent during the fight scenes), which recalls swingin' '60s spy flicks; Soderbergh is clearly aware of his influences. I could even appreciate Dobbs' screenplay not wanting to hit all the clich├ęd beats of a martial arts action flick, to have things play out more unexpectedly.

Still, this is a movie I really really wanted to like, and it would've been nice if I didn't need two viewings before I could do so. It's a movie that sounded so much better on paper - a gritty, realistic martial arts action film starring a bona fide MMA champion for authenticity in the fight scenes, made by a visionary award-winning director and supported by a cast of great actors - than it turned out on film. I'd be extremely leery of recommending it to anyone; during each of my viewings, there were people leaving the cinema before the movie was over. I think most Malaysians who watched this found it infuriating and disappointing. But if your tastes are a bit more discerning, you might want to check it out. Just be wary that this Steven Soderbergh action movie has a lot more Steven Soderbergh than it has action.

NEXT REVIEW: Cinta Kura-Kura
Expectations: lamaaaa tak tengok filem Melayu

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Using their powers for goofing around

Chronicle
My rating:




I have a recurring dream of being able to fly. (I also have another recurring dream of having to take my SPM all over again, even though I am an adult with a job and a salary so why would I need the goddamn SPM cert anymore goddammit, but let's not go there.) To soar through the clouds and swoop between and around skyscrapers with a simple effort of will has always been my single most appealing fantasy, and there's one exhilarating scene in Chronicle that fulfills that fantasy for me handily. That scene alone would've been enough for me to enjoy, and recommend, this movie.

Fortunately, it has more to offer than pure fantasy fulfilment.

Three highschool seniors - shy loner Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), and popular school president candidate Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) - discover a mysterious hole in the ground and an otherworldly glowing object inside - and as a result, they gain superhuman powers. Thrilled by their discovery, they hone their newfound abilities through juvenile pranks and general goofing around. But Andrew's unhappy family life, with an abusive father (Michael Kelly) and sick mother, cause him to become more and more alienated and angry with the world; even more so when Matt starts spending more time with his long-time highschool crush Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). Eventually, Andrew's obsession with his superpowers will take a dangerous turn.

Chronicle is a mix-and-match of geek-friendly properties; its premise of superpowers takes inspiration from any number of comicbook superheroes, and its angst-filled teenagers recalls the seminal anime film Akira. The results are pretty entertaining, albeit not entirely original - the climax especially is a little too similar in execution to Akira. Yet director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis deserve credit for combining all this with the found-footage format (more so considering this is Trank's directorial debut). Their film pays uncommon attention to its characterization, grounding it in likable and sympathetic characters, and the found-footage nature gives it an immediacy and realism that offsets the outlandish story.

It's also a lot of fun watching Matt, Steve and Andrew playing with their telekinetic powers, pulling juvenile pranks on strangers. And yet their behaviour is only slightly dickish; what the story makes clear is that all three are basically good kids, and that their eventual conflict is a tragedy in the classical Shakespearean sense. The two more popular and self-assured of the trio do their best to be friends with Andrew, who in turn tries hard to fit in - it's a combination of Matt's and Steve's occasional self-absorption, Andrew's fragile emotional state, and plain bad luck, that leads to disaster. None of this would've been quite so effective if the early scenes hadn't established all three characters so well - albeit, I was somewhat disappointed when one of them gets written out of the film at the halfway mark, since he was the most fun.

If you, like me, are perennially worried about found-footage-movie-induced motion sickness, you'll be glad to know that this one employs a clever conceit that avoids the problem. Andrew is the one obsessed with videoing everything everywhere he goes, and when he develops telekinesis, he uses it to levitate his camera so that it follows him constantly, thus allowing for smooth tracking shots. Yet the film's POV isn't limited solely to Andrew's camera; occasionally there's a second cameraperson in Casey (whose rationale is that she's into video-blogging), and at times it switches to security cameras, TV news, and even some random person's handphone camera. But towards the explosive, action-packed climax - where everyone is too, shall we say, preoccupied to do any filming - the movie's attempts to keep a camera, any camera, on the action start to feel contrived.

I also think I would've enjoyed the movie more if it weren't for Alex Russell. He's the weakest of the ensemble trio - Michael B. Jordan is funny and likable, Dane DeHaan effectively portrays Andrew's angst and anger, but Russell is kinda flat. His Matt isn't very interesting, either as performed or as written; his character has a penchant for reading and quoting famous philosophers that doesn't have any bearing on the story. (You'd think it would've taught him more about what to do with superpowers.) Casey is another wasted character, seemingly there for the sole reason of providing another camera POV. But Trank, Landis and DeHaan do great with the character of Andrew; there's a chilling moment when he uses his powers on a spider, and another in which his father visits him at the hospital that's simply heartbreaking.

Still, this strikes me as a film full of potential not fully realised. I was all ready to write a post about how human creativity is derivative by nature. There is no one on earth who felt compelled to create something out of nothing who wasn't influenced by the creations of others, and all great artists acknowledge this. (In fact, I'd argue that the very purpose of art is to self-perpetuate; when we say a work of art is "inspiring", it means it made you want to make art of your own. But this isn't that post I wanted to write.) There's no reason why a marriage of Akira, comicbook superhero and the found-footage format couldn't have resulted in something truly original. Chronicle tries hard and gets a lot right, but towards the end I got the nagging feeling that I'd seen all this before. Still, I was expecting something awesome and got something merely good, and there ain't a thing wrong with that.

NEXT REVIEW: Haywire
Expectations: ooh, looks good

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What's the Frequency, Ah Beng?

Ah Beng The Movie: Three Wishes
My rating:




I enjoyed the last two Astro-produced Chinese-language local movies released during the past two Chinese New Years, but I was doubtful about this one. For one thing, it's not directed by Chiu Keng Guan who did the other two; the second of which was weaker than the first, but at least I have an idea what to expect from a Chiu film. For another... well, just look at that poster. Or its trailer, for that matter. That is a deeply uncool-looking poster, and that is a trailer that says nothing about what the movie is about. It would appear that this movie is trading largely on the appeal of the Ah Beng character - who not only appeared two years ago in Woohoo! but also stars in an eponymous Astro Wah Lai Toi TV series - as well as the channel's entire stable of TV personalities. I liked watching them in Woohoo! and Great Day, but if all they're gonna do here is goof around for 90 minutes, their fans may enjoy that but I doubt I'm gonna.

Fortunately, there's more to the movie than that. But there certainly could've been more more.

In 1975, Ah Loong's (Gan Jiang Han) only New Year's Eve wish is to finally find a job so he can support his wife (Wan Wai Fun) and infant son. Because of his kindness and generosity, the God of Prosperity grants him three wishes - and his first is to see his son as an adult. He is thus transported to New Year's Eve 2012, where his son Ah Beng (Jack Lim) is now a lowly and oft-put-upon security guard - and his wife is now a doddering old woman who doesn't even recognise him, due to his untimely death while Ah Beng was still a baby. But although their means are humble, Ah Beng lives happily with his friends Rain (Royce Tan) and Bobby (Bernard Hiew), and their next-door neighbours, cousins "Vege" Lian (Gan Mei Yan) and "Salted Fish" Lian (Chen Keat Yoke). However, their happiness is threatened when "Salted Fish" Lian contracts a life-threatening disease that will cost a fortune in medical fees.

It was with pleasure that I thought to myself, not long after the movie started, that this appears to be the Malaysian Chinese version of Back to the Future. But only after I came out of the theatre that I realised this is a lot more similar to Frequency, a 2000 Jim-Caviezel-Dennis-Quaid-starring sci-fi drama that really deserves more attention than it got. Rather than a teenager who travels to the past and meets his parents when they were his age, it has a father who gets to meet his son as an adult in the future. In fact, another notable similarity - the father being a chain-smoker in both movies - leads me to believe that Jack Lim, who is credited as producer and for original story and co-screenwriter, has definitely watched Frequency before. Ripoff? Naah. The similarities end there, and the premise still possesses rich veins of drama and pathos yet to be mined.

After all, instead of an action-thriller-drama with a serial killer villain, Ah Beng The Movie: Three Wishes is a broad comedy-drama in the same vein as, well, pretty much every other popular local Chinese film since Woohoo! They love this kind of stuff, and this one pulls it off pretty well; a fair bit better than Great Day, certainly. The jokes are broad and silly, and toward the latter half they give way to melodrama that's even broader and calculated to milk the tearducts. But it works; not because of well-developed characters, or even particularly great acting - the most you can say about the cast is that they're likable - but through the simplicity and familiarity of their stories. The life-threatening illness one is more simple and familiar, but it works because it's Chen Keat Yoke reprising (more or less) her Ah Lian character.

And the time-travel one works because there's just no red-blooded Chinese who could be unmoved by a father willing to sacrifice everything for his son. (Certainly not during the CNY period.) It works well enough that I wish Lim, his co-screenwriter Kenneth Wong, and director Silver had put more thought into it. Both Frequency and Back to the Future were tightly-plotted films, and by that I mean they both paid as much attention to character arcs and emotions as they did to plot mechanics. Here, Ah Beng and Ah Loong are content to just mosey along in modern-day KL, stopping along the way to enter a talent competition (facetiously named Malaysia's Got Challenge - at least I hope it was facetious) to raise money for "Salted Fish" Lian's medical bills, until the climax forces them to make use of the God of Prosperity's other two wishes.

Which means what actually happens most of its running time are aimless gags and comic setpieces featuring a grab bag of cameos by Astro celebrities. I don't recognise any of them (although the audience at my viewing seemed to), so I wasn't as tickled by them as the movie expected me to be. I wish these Astro "hor sui pin"s wouldn't rely on them so much; I wish they'd focus more on honest-to-goodness storytelling, as well as on the characters that are actually relevant to the plot and the actors that are capable of more than just a funny cameo. The aforementioned Chen, who gave the strongest performance in Woohoo!, is pretty much relegated to the background here, and for much of the movie I even thought it took place in some alternate continuity from the earlier film in which her character is not Ah Beng's love interest. (When did she become his neighbour's cousin anyway?)

And to be honest, this kind of thing worries me. Ah Beng The Movie is a good movie, but it is not notably better than Woohoo!, and Great Day was not as good as those two. Two years after audiences had their appetites whetted for local Chinese-language films and it's starting to look like they're spinning their wheels, trading on the familiar formula of Astro celebrity cameos - little different from I Love Hong Kong 2012, the other big CNY movie of the year. I haven't seen that one, nor any of the other Hong Kong "hor sui pin"s of the last several years, but I have my money on Ah Beng The Movie being better than any of them, if only because of the unique local flavour. But c'mon guys, you can do a lot better. Based purely on my observations at the ticket counter, it appears I Love Hong Kong 2012 is the box-office winner of the holiday season - but there's no reason why Lim, Silver, Chiu and the rest of the Astro production team can't beat the Hongkies if they really try.

NEXT REVIEW: Chronicle
Expectations: ooh, looks interesting