Saturday, February 4, 2012

An Original Film...What a Novelty These Days -- Reflections on "Chronicle" (2012)

Peter Parker's Evil Twin...
Some people think I have high expectations, and that I’m hard to please. Many say that when it comes to movies, I’m too harsh, too cynical, and too unwilling to just sit back and enjoy the show. My response to that is simple:

All I ask for is a little originality.

That seems like a lot to ask for, but I don’t think it is. I’ve been fortunate to see lots of movies over the years, and I tire of having the same plot lines, same production values, same everything shoved in my face with the expectation from movie studios that I must like it merely because their buzz machine says I have to. It bothers me that last year, nine of the top ten highest grossing films of the year were all sequels; this is symbolic of the death of originality, implying that the safe bet is the only bet worth making at the movie theater. Hollywood is aware that people are struggling financially out there right now and with limited dollars to dispose of, most people are looking for sure fire entertainment. After all, who wants to drop $12.50 on a turd, right? It’s much safer to give that money to The Hangover brand, or the Twilight brand – even if they suck, they’re a known quantity, like McDonald’s and Marlboros.

So far, 2012 has started with a little kick, though, as if the tide is beginning to change. I was incredibly impressed and satisfied with The Grey, and apparently Haywire has done well both commercially and critically. Out this week is the old school haunted house thriller The Woman in Black, which is also getting solid reviews and should do well in the box office on the shoulders of Harry Potter. Usually, January/February is where Hollywood’s flops are buried in the midst of the Oscar season, but this year has been an exception.

And this brings me to the film I am reviewing, Chronicle. All I ask for is a little originality, and with this movie, director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John Landis) give us originality in spades, throwing an unique spin on both the superhero and found footage genres. Both of these genres have seemingly hit their tipping points, but Trank and Landis have put together a little gem of a film that breathes life into both and manages to resonate with viewers as well.

Three high schoolers, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) make a strange discovery in the woods one night after a rave party and soon find themselves with telekinetic powers. It’s a very traditional superhero premise involving an alien source, but for the first half of the film it is used as a starting point for a character study. Andrew is a withdrawn, angry young man with a dying mother, and a drunk, abusive father. He’s picked on at school, and finally finds solace in videotaping the goings-on in his life, as if doing so makes everything feel like it actually matters. One critic said Andrew is like Peter Parker if Uncle Ben had been an asshole, and that’s about as good an analogy as anyone could make. Matt is more level-headed, but philosophical and trying to deny the fact that popularity is important to him; he is Andrew’s cousin, and their relationship is hot and cold. Unlike the others, Steve exudes confidence, runs for class President, and serves as the glue that holds the group together.

At first, the powers are fun and games for the boys. They play, and test themselves. Eventually they pull some practical jokes that are as funny as they are immature. These are teenagers. But the power they have grows stronger, especially in Andrew, who seems to need it more than the others, and begins to enjoy using it in darker ways.

That’s as much as I’ll spoil, although if you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, you’ll get as much. What makes this movie so fantastic is that it is willing to go down dark avenues, allowing the characters to dictate the action, rather than pulling plot strings to get us to a big climatic showdown. We still get that moment – as is expected from superhero films – but even it does not happen the way we expect. Chronicle earns its grandiose moments in a way many superhero films do not.

Besides the attention to details and characterization, perhaps the film’s most impressive feat is the way in which it incorporates the found footage, shaky-cam aesthetic. Usually, in shaky-cam films, one of the main characters is always outside the action because they are required to hold the camera. This sometimes makes for a stilted narrative, and often – as was the case in Cloverfield – creates some unbelievably illogical moments. Josh Trank effectively turns the camera into a fourth main character in Chronicle, and as Andrew’s powers increase, he begins to use them to move the camera around so he can be in the shot. During sequences such as when the boys discover the joys of flying, this trick turns a cliché scene into something exhilarating. In addition, the camera’s usage also serves as a commentary on the characters. As Andrew becomes more disturbed, he films himself more often, finding a narcissistic streak lacking in the film’s opening scenes. Other camera’s perspectives, from video cameras to iPhones and security cams, are also employed, not always to perfect effect, but definitely more often than not.

There is little to criticize about Chronicle. One of the major subplots gets dropped in the third act, but it’s not critical to the film’s endgame. The characterization of Andrew’s dad sometimes feels a little cartoonish, too, but this is a superhero film – cartoonishness is in its DNA. Any of its faults are immediately erased by what it gets right, and it gets so much right.

So, I might be a bit harsh on films from time to time. My expectations aren’t that high, though. All I ask for is a little originality. Thankfully, Chronicle is an original.

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