Sunday, February 19, 2012

Great Power, No Responsibility - "Chronicle" Review

The found-footage genre has seen its ups and downs over the 13 years since the The Blair Witch Project shocked audiences with is faux-realism.  This filmmaking style has proven itself a worthy addition to the language of film, despite its critics, by allowing audiences a first-person perspective to the story and giving actors a venue to give truly naturalistic performances.

The biggest challenge facing filmmakers who are trying to tell a story in this manner is how to justify why a character in the film would be documenting the events of the film. The Blair Witch Project managed to avoid this by quite cleverly presenting itself as a documentary film, which many audiences at the time believed to be real; a storytelling device that has been replicated by a number of other films in this genre (Paranormal Activity, Troll Hunter).

With Cloverfield the found-footage genre of filmmaking had moved from horror films into action/adventure storytelling and found a way to justify itself by providing an event so monumental, the destruction of New York City, that it would obviously have to be filmed.  The new film Chronicle, by Josh Trank, tells a much more intimate story that combines the found-footage genre with the superhero genre and in the process attempts to widen the scope of the kind of stories that can be told this way.

While Chronicle does manage to take found-footage to new heights (literally), utilizing a mobile camera in ways never seen before, it can feel forced at times.  The film goes out of its way to justify the reasoning for why its characters might be filming scenes, often by having them discuss the presence of the camera.  That's not to say that it is all bad, the camera becomes a character of sorts at distinct times during the film and allows the audience to get a much more intimate if not overly directed view of the characters' thoughts.  Director Josh Trank knows that if art is the window to the soul, than how a character uses his camera and what he chooses to film can say a lot about him.

This is particularly interesting because of the unique story and characters that are involved in the strangely-titled Chronicle.  Written by Max Landis (son of the infamous John Landis), Chronicle is about a lonesome high-school senior named Andrew (Dane DeHaan) who begins to use a video camera to record his life.  Whether or not it is to record the final moments of his dying mother's life or as a weapon against his abusive father is never revealed, but both are good enough reasons for him to act this way.  Andrew's life is further complicated by all the usual cliches that a teenager might face (bullies at school, complicated love life, etc.) with his only friend, albeit reluctantly, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), a fellow senior.

One night at an overly-elaborate high school party (movies always seem to give high-schoolers way too much credit in this department), Andrew is urged by Matt and his friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the class President and BMOC, to investigate a strange hole they've found in the ground.  What they find is never fully explained, it appears to be a meteorite of the Superman kind, but after it seemingly activates the three walk away with telekinetic powers.

This is where Chronicle deviates itself from its contemporaries that attempt to demonstrate the effects that superpowers might have on teenage boys.  Andrew, Matt, and Steve quickly develop a strong bond that is demonstrated through their exploration of their powers.  At first they are moving LEGOs, baseballs, and Pringles in a joyful expression of their creativity and juvenile natures.  All of this is particularly spectacular when translated through the found-footage style as it instantly invokes a YouTube aesthetic that gives the obviously fictional story a strong hyper-realism.  This encourages the audience to find real joy in their pranks as they begin to grow into feats that involve moving cars and scaring people in the local grocery store.  Even the camera gets in on the action; the boys control it with their minds and by doing so turn the film back into a conventionally shot film (begging the question of why the film couldn't have always been a mix of both styles).

Eventually moving cars evolves into moving people and the boys realize that they can utilize the power of their minds to provide them with the ability to fly.  Their attitudes towards their new powers becomes immediately evident in a scene wherein the boys discuss where they want to fly to, be it Vegas or to a monastery to meditate with monks in an attempt to strengthen their minds.  The boys' flight is similar to that of Iron Man but the camera's handheld nature makes the flight all the more potent and vertigo-inducing.  If there is one moment of pure unadulterated spectacle in Chronicle this is it.

Their powers seem unlimited and after an early near-tragedy it is clear that there are rules and responsibilities tied to these powers.  The idea of the responsibility of having great power isn't a new one, most often attributed to Spider-man, but the question that Chronicle asks is what happens when you couple that great power with great anger.  Andrew's positive outset towards his abilities, he is the most powerful of the three, is tentative at best and early on he shows signs that his mind might be cracking.

When the film dives head-first into these concepts it transforms into a horror-infused roller-coaster ride deep into a psychotic teenager's perspective of the world.  The three lead actors are strong enough to handle this dramatic change in tone while still allowing their characters to be relatable in such an exaggerated situation.  Andrew's anger is palpable and is allowed to drip into the story just enough to feel credible without feeling like the filmmakers are pulling any of his strings in an unnatural way.

Chronicle gets a lot of things right and utilizes its filmmaking style enough that it feels worthwhile; although it would be interesting to see what this film would have looked like with a conventional camera.  The performances and story here are strong enough to cover the rough stylistic choices that at times heighten those very same performances or at times diminish a character's potential (Matt has a particularly strange relationship with a female blogger).  After Chronicle, the future looks bright for director Josh Trank who has clearly established that he knows how to tell an exciting and surprising tale in an already exhausted genre.

3 / 4 Reels


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