Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2012


The boys who could fly

A failed experiment in "found footage" though it may be, 'Chronicle' still manages to stylishly revitalize a once-dying subgenre

20th Century Fox
Director: Josh Trank
Screenplay: Max Landis
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw and Bo Petersen
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 24 minutes
Opened February 3, 2012
(out of four)

Chronicle proves a movie can succeed even when its entire stylistic conceit does not. I dare you to tell me this movie works better in its "found footage" format than it would have as a traditional narrative. I double-dog dare you.

It's a losing argument. To defend it, you'd have to explain to me A) why the characters (one in particular) insist on carrying a camera along with them at all times; B) why that technique is more cinematically interesting or important to this story; and C) why, if the first-person point-of-view is such a key piece of this movie's fabric, the filmmakers keep having to cheat to justify their stylistic choice. (One character, sans camera, has to go meet up with a lady friend at her house . . . and bah, she has a camera, too! And she just happens to have it recording when he comes to the door!)

Our awareness of the presence of the camera, in scene after scene, actually undermines the effectiveness of those scenes. We keep asking ourselves, "Wait, why did anyone bring a camera along for this part?! That doesn't make any sense!"

The thing is, there's genuine inspiration in the film itself - it injects some originality and youthful energy into a couple of tired genres. Which makes its uninspired filmmaking style so disappointing. In fact, I'd argue there are significantly inferior films have used the style with a lot more purpose than this one does.

Filmmaking choices have to be justified - there has to be an idea behind it, a reason for shooting or conceptualizing a film in a certain way. Otherwise it's just arbitrary and meaningless. In this case, the "idea" seems to be, "Found-footage movies are popular these days; let's do that." And so it went.

Aw, but you see what's happening here? All this talk about the first-person camerawork is distracting us from the fact that Chronicle is actually a good movie - almost in spite of itself. As an entry in a genre that just last year I argued was oversaturated, this one bristles with the kind of life and creativity that most of last year's brand name-bolstered superhero flicks lacked. (Really, was there anything more dull in 2011 than Thor's climactic battle with that giant piece of tin?)

The Heroes-ish premise involves three teenage guys who come in direct contact with a supernatural element of unknown origin and begin to develop superpowers. It's an easy enough idea to begin with, but what director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis (son of John) do with it is interesting.

At the start, the three of them - the tormented, bullied Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the ultra-popular jock/budding politician Steve (Michael B. Jordan, who memorably played Wallace in season 1 of The Wire) - take their newfound power as little more than a lark. They have fun with it; they play around with it like they would a new phone, or a new car; they keep it a secret because it's more fun that way. At one point, Matt casually says he doesn't even know if he really wants to do anything with it - almost anticipating that he's going to get bored with his ability to move objects with his mind and just forget about it.

This is such a great way to approach the material because the superpower thing is seen and used basically as an extension of the adolescent fantasy of invincibility. To put it mildly, Andrew, Matt and Steve do not take any of this too seriously. At least not at first. But then they begin to notice they're getting stronger. They can do more. They go from moving small objects in a toy store, to moving 4,000-pound automobiles. And then they realize they can fly, too.

Rules are put in place. Rules are broken. There's an accident, then another. A philosophical divide sets in. Andrew's troubled home life begins to get the best of him. And so on.

This all makes for some really strong storytelling, including a couple of fantastic sequences as the boys discover and experience the ecstasy and danger their new abilities bring with them. One of the best scenes in the film is a fabulous aerial setpiece just as the boys have learned how to fly. In fact, this is one of the few moments that had me second-guessing my criticisms about the first-person style. (But only momentarily. Because guess what? Point-of-view shots existed long before the found-footage style was ever invented. The lesson: The moments in Chronicle where the technique works would work regardless of that technique, and could be executed in virtually the same exact way.)

Another thing I appreciated was the way the film's principle character, Andrew, we know from the beginning is destined to be the villainous one of the three. He is the most volatile character and thus the most interesting, and Chronicle follows his journey, physical and pseudo-philosophical, from its wondrous beginnings to its bitter end.

I may have my reservations about the subjective first-person style and its almost inherent lack of purpose, but Trank makes it work one way or another. Hopefully, with this one, he's gotten one experiment out of his system. He clearly has talent, and I'm interested to see how he progresses in the coming years. But if I don't see some dollies, cranes and steadicams in his next movie, I'm gonna be pissed.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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