Thursday, 9 February 2012

No-one was impaled on the Space Needle. I demand my money back.

Movie Review: Chronicle

(2012: dir. Josh Trank)

A savvy cinephile who's aware of the annual rhythm of film releases has a cache of booze on standby to help them through the desolate months of January and February. This is the time of year when everyone's broke and miserable after Christmas, when the yearly round of Oscar bait has come and gone and the prolonged browbeating of effects-driven action flicks lasting from April through to July hasn't yet started. If you're a movie and you're given wide release in February, it's because the studios didn't have enough confidence in you to release you anywhere else, probably because you suck, and this is doubly true if you're a sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster-aspirant. Just look at I Am Number Four, Season of the Witch and The Green Hornet last year alone, or for that matter, the debacle from 2008 that drove all concerned into an alcoholic coma...


Ahem. My point is that when you hear about a spectacle-heavy movie about superpowerved teenagers being released in February, precedent suggests you'd do well to temper your expectations. There are a distressing number of parallels to be drawn between Chronicle and the likes of Jumper, I Am Number Four and other such YA circle-jerks (don't get me started on Dragonball: Evolution. Just... don't). And that just serves to make the fact that Chronicle completely rocks ass all the sweeter.

I don't just mean it rocks ass by February standards. I mean that the directors of upcoming nine-figure budget SFXtravaganzas like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers ought to be sitting a little less comfortably upon their lofty thrones after seeing what first-timer Josh Trank accomplished on only $12 million. What Chronicle lacks in an effects budget it compensates for a hundredfold in smart, taut screenwriting, distinctive, likeable characters and dynamic, inventive set-pieces. If this doesn't end up as one of my favourite films of 2012, then 2012 will have been a hell of a year.

The protagonist of Chronicle is Seattle high-schooler Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a bitter, unpopular, undersexed loner, who I found myself identifying with really easily FOR SOME REASON THAT'S A COMPLETE MYSTERY TO ME. His mum's dying, his dad's a drunken arsehole, and his days generally consist of a smorgasbord of verbal and physical abuse; his only halfway healthy relationship is with his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who gives him free rides to and from school and encourages him to get out and socialise in the evenings. It's at a barn party they're both attending in an attempt to fit in a bit better that the cousins, together with resident jock and Popular Extroverted Guy Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover a perfectly circular hole in the ground with something distinctly alien inside (whether it's a craft or a creature is never really addressed). The hole caves in shortly thereafter, but the three soon find themselves developing telekinetic abilities that seem to be growing steadily stronger.

Chronicle is a lot of things; a found footage picture, a character study, a teen drama and a horror film all wrapped up in a concise 83-minute runtime. What it absolutely isn't, as some critics have asserted, is a superhero movie. Sure, it has a bit of an origin story vibe to it, but there's no spandex, no crime fighting, and no alter-egos. That's an important distinction to make, because it allows Chronicle to do things with the concept of superpowers that superhero movies often can't. For a superhero, all of the awesome things that characters get to do with their powers exists on the other side of a partition from their everyday life, in the realm of battles against evildoers and the heroic pursuit of justice. That's fine and dandy for what it is, but a large part of the vicarious appeal of superpowers is the idea of all the mundane, everyday activities they'd liven up. High school is the perfect venue for this of course: "If I could fly, I'd never have to worry about missing my ride! If I had super-strength, I'd show those bullies a thing or two! If I could read minds, I'd get the answers to tomorrow's test!" There are a myriad little ways your life would (in the ideal case of affairs) be enhanced and made more colourful.

Josh Trank realises this, and exploits the hell out of it for nearly the first two-thirds of the film, the three lads having a laugh as they set about playing pranks, putting on displays that baffle their classmates, and in one set piece moment that's bound to be remembered as the film's high point, teaching themselves to fly. The timbre is similar to the early scenes in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, but expounded upon much more thoroughly when we see the boys' unchecked joy at the boundaries of their experience being lifted, and we're right there with them, marvelling at the possibilities these abilities they've been given offer.

That's not to say, of course, that the film is simply hedonistic power fantasy - as much as it lets the audience indulge in the coolness of having telekinetic powers, it's also quick to remind us that abilities don't automatically reshape our relationships with others, nor do they absolve us of all responsibility, as Andrew learns to his cost. As the movie goes on, it makes a smooth gear change into Carrie territory, Andrew starting to get even more bitter and angry than ever when he starts to come down from his weeks-long endorphin high and realises his life is still the same wreck it was before. The massive full-blown rampage that results where he proceeds to tear up most of downtown Seattle closes the film on a high note; a lot of visual cues are borrowed from Tetsuo's spectacular wholesale destruction of Tokyo in Akira, and with them, much of that movie's emotional pitch when two friends are pitted against one another, a tragic consequence of power being misused by one not ready to wield it.

For all the spectacle and awe that Trank is able to evoke on a measly budget though, even that's not the main reason you should go and see Chronicle. By contrast, what Trank and co. have to offer is something all too rarely seen and all too often has its absence excused by virtue of compensating factors in modern genre movies - good old-fashioned characterisation. The three leads are worlds away from the cookie cutter drama queens that populate teen movies: for all that I joked earlier, Andrew really is an empathetic and relatable lead. Years of friendlessness have left him hopeless for any really meaningful relationships; introverted in the extreme, his idea of a good day is one where he simply isn't noticed, to the point where he's actually mistrustful of anyone who seemingly approaches him with open affection. All he wants and yet doesn't dare dream of is to be wanted; when he seems to be gaining acceptance as a result of his powers, only to have it snatched away again, the rejection is more than he can take. It's a riff on Carrie without a doubt, but all the same, such a convincing and coherent psychological profile, and one so unobtrusively and naturally built up through the film's events and dialogue, that it can't help but be impressive.

Same goes for everyone else. Matt is introduced as a pretentious brainiac with a very high opinion of himself, freely quoting Plato and Descartes on the flimsiest pretext. His aloof demeanour is revealled quite quickly to be an act though, when he stumbles over himself trying to get the attention of a girl who's wise to his bullshit - again though, this is all handled in an understated way, giving us plenty to like about Matt as well, showing him as caring and concerned for his cousin. Steve as well, is a genuinely nice guy, brash but also self-effacing in defiance of the typical jock stereotype. Even Andrew's dad, although his treatment of his son is in large part inexcusable, has his anger shown to be coming from genuine grief at his wife's condition. Nowhere is Chronicle content to settle for easy archetypes, and it draws us in far more strongly for it.

Now, about the elephant in the room. Yes, Chronicle is part of the trend of "found footage" movies, a la Cloverfield, Blair Witch, [Rec] et al. Does the handheld camera bring much to the film's mise-en-scene? Not really, with the possible exception of the flying sequence where it contributes a lot to the feeling of weightlessness. Does the presence of a camera make sense within the context of the narrative? Hardly - the movie just kind of forgets to provide a reason for Andrew to be filming the events of his day-to-day life. As you may have heard, a short way into the movie he begins to levitate the camera telekinetically which provides for steadier shots, but again, there's never really a reason offered for why Andrew would see fit to exert himself in such a way. For that matter, it's not just Andrew's camera we see the action from; as the movie wears on towards its finale and the scope expands, Josh Trank evidently decided that any diegetically present camera would do - CCTV cameras, bystanders' cameraphones, whatever. To this end, there are a lot of contrived situations where additional cameras are introduced into the script so as to provide for more conventional film grammar.

You might be suspecting by now that despite it seemingly being hinted at right there in the title, Chronicle isn't all that committed to the found-footage thing at all. As likely as not, it seems to me, using handheld cameras through which complex or large-scale special effects need only be glimpsed was probably a means of keeping the film within budget. $12 million, after all, is a lot for a found footage picture (the most since Cloverfield) but a pittance for an effects-heavy blockbuster. Yes, it is an aesthetic flaw in the film, but as has already been argued on Escape To The Movies, if the choice was between a Chronicle which arbitrarily crams handheld cameras into its premise and no Chronicle at all, I know which I'll choose.

Because hot damn guys, if I haven't made it abundantly clear just yet, Chronicle rocks ass. It's the sort of movie that practically seems predestined for cult classic status and a springboard for the career of a new director. It's an absolutely successful mash-up of genres that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve even while carving out a niche for itself simply by dint of rock-solid writing and direction, funny, thrilling and moving all in equal measure. Go see it, preferably more than once; if the ending is any indication, a sequel is a real prospect, and an inviting one.

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