Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Chronicle - Theatrical Review


Release Date: February 3, 2012

What happens when you take the over crowded super hero genre and combine it with one of the most uninteresting movie formats in existence? You might get something like Chronicle which as it turns out is something quite extraordinary.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Krikorian 12 Monrovia
Time: 10:55 am February 4, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D LTX
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 23 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Loves: Realistic takes on the super hero genre
Likes: All the characters in a found footage movie for once
Neutral: The somewhat standard fare storyline, noticeable poor visual effects
Hates: The found footage genre
Tired: Of the found footage genre

Chronicle is a movie that given it's two principal hooks should not have worked at all. While we are still in the middle (or possible tail end) of the golden age of super hero movies, one cannot deny that the current over saturation of the market is starting to become a little stale. Sure that is mostly a case by case scenario but regardless, unless your super hero movie is either wrapping up a trilogy or features a beloved character it takes more than just another origin story to make it work. Then you have the found footage format which I have bitched about countless times before for drawing way too much attention away from the underlining story when we should be focused on the film at hand and not so much with how it was filmed. So with Chronicle being both yet another super hero origin story (one featuring unknown super heroes at that) and a found footage movie the odds were greatly stacked against it. Low and behold the power of great filmmaking for Chronicle has beaten the odds by taking two negatives and forging them into a spectacular positive.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is your stereotypical teenage outcast. He has no friends other than his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who isn't exactly what you would consider a close friend let alone a good one. His father (Michael Kelly) is your average alcoholic bastard who likes to take all his built up rage over his career ending injury as a firefighter and the fatal illness of Andrew's mother out on Andrew by being the crap out of him whenever he gets the chance. Andrew's solution to his growing indifference to the world is by purchasing a video camera which he uses to document his life both at home and at school. His life changes forever though one night when he, Matt and the local high school cool kid Stephen (Michael B. Jordan) discover a mysterious object out in the woods that gives each them some surprising new abilities that allow them to manipulate objects with their mind. The three of them quickly become close friends as they begin to discover together what it is that happened to them which leads them each down their own unique paths.

It always starts out as fun and games.

The found footage format of Chronicle is both a blessing and a curse. It allows it to do something completely different and unique by giving us this very intimate look into the lives of these three kids from a perspective not usually associated with the super hero genre. This is probably the formats greatest strength in that it provides a very real atmosphere to the proceedings. Try as they might, most super hero films involving people with super powers always ends up feeling other worldly no matter how much the filmmakers try to ground it in reality. There are realistic super hero films out there for sure, Batman being the most prominent with the world for that particular hero being extremely credible but he IS a hero without super powers. What I am talking about here is a film that features super hero characters that have real super powers who are grounded in a very real world setting.

I feel that Chronicle's main contribution to the super hero genre is that is uses this very tired format of seeing the film through the lens of an ever present camera to lift the filter of what is essentially a very generic super hero origin story and give us a much more raw introspective look into the repercussions of what happens when a physically normal (but mentally unstable) kid gains supernatural powers.  The one thing that almost all comic book fans will agree on is that it is the flaws of the hero and not the powers they have that make them interesting. Their constant struggle to overcome those flaws is what creates the dramatic tension, all the fun super powers or gadgets they use to thwart evil or right a wrong is just the icing on the cake. The use of the documentary style camera is a way for us to peer into the soul of the hero like never before.

Andrew, Matt and Steve ponder over their new found abilities.

The villain is an essential piece to any super hero puzzle but once again that villain is more impactful if they have either a direct link to the hero or embody what the hero fears in some way. Just having some random thug running around causing chaos may be fun to watch but unless our hero has some sort of personal investment in stopping them then it often times will end up feeling very hollow. These are by no means a strict guideline that all super hero movies must abide by but more the formula I look for and usually what separates a good super hero movie from a fantastic one. Chronicle uses this formula to great effect. It even throws in a couple unexpected twists and turns along the way to help shake things up a bit. As a matter of fact I would go so far as to say that anyone would be hard pressed to even consider the eventual evil doer of the film as a villain or at least a typical one which was one of the many aspects I loved.

Since I am fairly unfamiliar with the world of comics outside the realm of movies and video games I am unsure how common a structure this is and by that I am talking about having three friends who gain super powers and seeing them experiment and discover their newfound abilities together. Usually it is just one person who is effected and we see them try and learn the ins and outs of their power on their own, having it be three people opens it up for all kinds of different possibilites which the film takes full advantage of. I really liked the dynamics of the kids as well, they all have very distinct lives and backgrounds. As we watch them learn how to hone their powers we also get to see them bond with one another over this miraculous thing that has happened to them and the friendship that is forged out of it felt very real and only added to the heartache later in the film when things start to take a turn for the worse.

Steve is a quick learner it seems.

One of my major issues with the found footage format for a very long time now has been the complete and utter lack of characters that I could care about. I won't got into detail about my personal beef with these types of films, if you are interested in my extended thoughts on the subject I would direct you to my review for TrollHunter where I made my thoughts quite clear on the subject. The reason I don't feel the need to beat that dead horse yet again is because Chronicle gets it right! At no point during the film did I want to reach out and strangle someone for being either idiotic or just a complete asshole. The simple fact that this is a found footage style film where I actually started to care about these three kids is remarkable but what was even more startling to me was how the director Josh Trank used the found footage style and yet somehow found a way around the limitations of the format.

As expected with the chosen style for the film we see everything through the lens of a camera but not a typical movie camera. Normally that camera would be in the possession of the main character or a person following the main character. While that still holds true for Chronicle, it deviates from that formula in a number of interesting ways. First of all is the singular camera angle afforded by the format which usually is from someone holding the camera off screen (in this case Andrew) and gives us a very limited perspective on what is happening at any given moment. In Chronicle we get all sorts of different camera angles, wide shots of everyone in the same shot, multiple angles of the same scene and even quite a few shots with no one even operating the camera. This is all accomplished with some clever use of the powers Andrew manifests and using different sources when given the chance such as using a news feed that is reporting on an incident our characters are involved in. Hell, they even did away with those annoying displays we see all the time. There are no time or day indicators, no camera battery life warning images, it is always a clean image even when using an old fashioned camera.

Andrew starts to tap into his darker tendencies.

All these varied techniques Trank used leads me to believe that he wasn't or didn't ever plan on making this a found footage film. He most certainly wanted the look and feel of those style of films but he didn't want to be trapped by it, meaning he most likely had the same outlook on those types of films as I do. Essentially what he did here is make a film that appears to be in the same category as Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch but by finding work arounds for all the problems associated with the format he made something that I think all those other films strived for but could never attain. Which is having a sense of authenticity while still retaining a film like quality. With the grand achievement of finally making something work that has failed so many times before it is such a shame that the films successes are almost completely derailed by some very shoddy special effects work.

When you strip away the found footage veneer it all boils down to your everyday super hero movie and in true super hero fashion we get a lot of special effects laden scenes with the kids experimenting with their powers and eventually applying them to some grander and far more dangerous situations. The problem here is that most of those scenes which are comprised of some of the best and most awe inspiring moments are hindered by the extremely low budget allotted to the film. I am not an effects whore, I prefer to have a solid narrative over flashy effects any day of the week but that still doesn't excuse this or any movie for having a distinct lack of credible effects. The lackluster effects also stand in stark contradiction to the realism it was shooting for. I believed in this world 100%, nothing ever felt false or distracting. Well, nothing distracted me until we started seeing some of the more elaborate action set pieces that litter the last half of the film which are made up of mostly sub par digital effects. None of the effects are horrible but they certainly don't blend well with the realistic look of the film either. About the only saving grace to any of the effects work are the rare practical effects sequences such as when Stephen moves a parked car from one spot to another and when the kids first learn to levitate themselves above ground.

The finale may be hurt by poor effects but that doesn't make it any less spectacular.

I honestly do not hold any of that against the film though. While it is sad they couldn't have scraped together a few extra bucks to polish up some of the more pivotal scenes I still found myself in the moment more often than not. It takes a lot to stand out in the over crowded super hero genre anymore, you either have to be a named and popular super hero or have a big named actor in the role. Chronicle has none of that. It has a very unique take on the super hero genre and despite not being derived from an existing work or having any big name actors attached to it I think it offers up the same thrills one would expect from a film featuring people with super powers and does the genre justice by paying its characters (and us the audience) with the respect and dramatic gravity they deserve. I underestimated the quality of Chronicle when I first saw that trailer. I drew conclusions based on my past experiences with the style of film it was selling itself as and those conclusions were misguided. I made a mistake and I hope you don't make the same one. Chronicle is not a perfect film nor does it break any new ground but it hits all the right notes to make it one of the best films released so far this year. I suggest you...




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