Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Chronicle" (2012)

Starring Dane Dehaan, Michael B. Jordan, and Alex Russell
Written by Max Landis and Josh Trank
Directed by Josh Trank
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, drinking and drug use
Running Time: 83 Minutes

I'm not really a huge fan of the 'found-footage' genre of films.  Though I've generally liked the ones I've seen, they often fall prey to a fatal flaw: no one ever puts down the damn camera.  No matter how terrible things are getting, someone manages to hang on to that camera and we generally just see a bunch of blurs and a lot of shouting.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is a loser.  Picked on at school, not overly bright or talented, he mumbles his way through a high school full of bullies and girls who ignore or look down on him.  When he buys a video camera with the goal of documenting his worthless life, especially the abuse of his alcoholic father Richard (Michael Kelly), people begin to regard him as that creepy kid with the camera.  His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who picks him up and drives him to school every day.

One night, Matt convinces Andrew to come with him to a party out at an abandoned farm.  Matt and Andrew hook up with Steve (Michael B. Jordan), star athlete and candidate for class president.  Turns out Steve is a bit of a pothead, and so is Matt.  The three of them discover a hole in the ground, with some kind of strange glowing... thing... in it.  After touching it, in the days that follow the boys discover that they've gained the ability to move and control objects with their minds.

At first, it's all fun and games.  They use their newfound powers to play pranks, fool around with baseballs, blow up girls' skirts, and eventually even to fly.  But slowly, Matt and Steve begin to see the cracks in Andrew.  Andrew's behavior begins to frighten them as he uses his powers to do things like pull the legs off of spiders, and even to run other cars off the road.

As Andrew begins to feel that his friends are abandoning him, his behavior grows worse.  Matt realizes that Andrew is out of control.  But there's only one problem: Andrew is the strongest of the three, and it may not be possible to stop him.

"Chronicle" is a fascinating, if simple, character study of a superhero movie.  The clever twist here is that the main character is actually the villain, and this is his story.  While there's a subplot about Matt being 'the good one', it gets far less attention than watching Andrew take a dark turn.  The camcorder device plays less and less of a role as the film goes on, too, which is both a strength and a weakness, and I'll explain that in a moment.

What's most fascinating about "Chronicle" is the slow burn that turns an abused child into a dangerous monster over the course of the film.  At first, it's things that seem like an accident.  Andrew even seems to grow as Matt and Steve become more fond of him; he becomes more confident, more personable.  But the connections are tenuous - Andrew's abusive father continues to call him an idiot and a shithead, and his other classmates are only friendly toward him as long as he's impressive.  Andrew and Steve's 'magic' act at the senior class talent show is a hit, but Andrew's inexperience with women soon enough makes him an object of humiliation once again.  Meanwhile, Matt is spending more and more time with his crush, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), and Andrew begins to feel like he used to - alone and angry.

Everything in "Chronicle" is stacked up against Andrew, making the ultimate confrontation inevitable. While Matt is a fan of certain philosophers, and often quotes them, Andrew begins to be drawn in by notions of predators in the wild, and believes himself to be the "apex predator" of humanity.  "A lion doesn't feel guilty when it kills a gazelle," he says. "You don't feel guilty squashing a bug."  These, of course, are dangerous feelings for someone with such power.  Matt talks about things that are right and wrong, the philosophy of a civilized mind, while Andrew falls prey to baser instincts.  Philosophies of strength and power are enticing to the downtrodden, and once Andrew begins to explore those ideas, we know he's never coming back.

So on the strength of its script and much of the filmmaking, "Chronicle" is very nearly an excellent film. What keeps it at just a good one rather than a great one is that the 'found footage' device both works with and against it at times.  For much of its runtime, "Chronicle" works within the bounds of its construction, only switching viewpoints whenever someone else with a camera is around (usually Casey).  But it also cheats this idea.  As Andrew becomes more skilled with his powers, he begins to manipulate the camera with his mind instead of holding it in his hand, which means we get a lot of traditionally framed film shots.  At times, we almost forget the fact that we're supposed to be watching Andrew's camcorder until something happens and the camera falls or Andrew grabs it when he's flying away.

Ultimately, this cheat almost breaks down at the film's climax.  At first, since Andrew no longer has his camera, we're following Casey's point of view.  But once the fight leaves her behind, we follow most of it via news and police copter footage, police cruiser dashboard cameras and bystander cellphones.  But it's all intercut in a very fast pace, shifting points of view very quickly, and a times the camera shots lack any kind of on-screen graphics to tell us exactly what camera we're looking at.  So like before, we get some very traditional film shots that don't look like they're caught on the scene, and the action begins to feel more like a regular movie than the found-footage device.

While switching between police cameras and surveillance footage is quite thrilling, interspersing those regular looking shots becomes sort of disorienting and ultimately feels like the director isn't confident enough in his construction of the film.  Despite all this, though, it's actually a fun, energetic climax with a lot of great special effects and action as the fight begins to demolish parts of Seattle and the police seem ill-equipped to fight back.

So while it has some problems with its construction, "Chronicle" is a fine take on the superhero tale.  The characters are well drawn, and the cast is solid.  The film is loaded with cool special effects to bolster its tale of teens with superpowers, and how one of them takes a turn for the worst.  With only a little reservation, I definitely recommend this one.