Thursday, February 9, 2012

CHRONICLE Is Comic Books For Real


- Why do a found-footage movie? I think the reason is that the style of filmmaking instantly serves to ground a story in "our" reality. We get the sense that we're not watching some stylized, Hollywood version of the world, but our world. And that stylistic conceit, in theory, makes anything crazy or out of the ordinary that happens that much more striking and shocking - because it's as if it's happening here, to us or people just like us, in the real world. Now, when The Blair Witch Project first came out, the conceit worked wonderfully. And movies like the Paranormal Activity flicks have been highly effective by playing off of the fact that what we're watching is, supposedly, real. But those movies keep things (relatively) low-key. That's part of why they work so well - nothing happens that's *so* insane that it crosses the uncanny valley, where we're taken out of the movies' real-world settings. That said, there's always been this holy-grail sort of idea floating out there, this concept of: "What if you could shoot a crazy-ass sci-fi story, but do it found-footage style? What if you could make the absolutely impossible feel not just possible, but plausible?"

A few years back, Cloverfield had varying degrees of success with this concept. What if a giant monster movie happened, but here, in our world, and the people witnessing it were just normal, everyday shmoes like us? But now, CHRONICLE comes along, and it raises the bar for what is possible with found-footage.Whereas Cloverfield tended to play coy with its sci-fi elements, only showing the monster in small glimpses, Chronicle starts out smaller-scale, but then escalates to crazy levels of sci-fi, superhero action - all the while (mostly) keeping the you-are-there tone set in its early scenes. That alone is pretty damn impressive.

Chronicle starts off low-key. At first, it's really the story of three high-schoolers who come together under unlikely circumstances. Our main character is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a sullen outcast who comes from a broken home, with a sickly mom and a drunk, abusive dad. Andrew's only real friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russsell), and even he has a low tolerance lately for Andrew's anti-social tendencies and increasingly weirdo behavior. You get the impression that Matt was once more of a free spirit, but he's riding a high of high school popularity, and is more and more reluctant to let his cousin get in the way of that. And then there's Steve (Michael. B. Jordan), a popular, well-liked kid who seems to be a future politician in the making. Outgoing, sociable, and charismatic, posters of Steve are plastered all over school thanks to his bid for Class President.

When the movie starts out, Andrew's just bought a new video camera. He wants to use it as a sort of defense tactic against his asshole dad. His plan is to film his dad's drunken outbursts, and use that as a deterrent. Soon enough though, he starts filming everything, and it becomes a sort of obsessive compulsion for him (and works nicely to explain the found-footage conceit of the film). One night, Matt drags Andrew to a party, which turns out to be a full-fledged rave in an abandoned warehouse. Andrew leaves and goes to sulk outside, when Steve runs into him. It turns out that Steve and Matt found something crazy out in the woods by the party, and they want to get it on film. The three teens go to explore, and what they find is a hole in the ground that leads to a giant tunnel. Inside the tunnel, well ... things happen. And from that day on, Andrew, Matt, and Steve will never be the same again.

Chronicle is probably best watched with a minimum of info going in, so I'll stop there. But one thing I will say is that the movie works as well as it does because of the strength of the three main characters. All three leads do a great job of making their characters both naturalistic and well-defined. And all seem like regular teens. Even Andrew, with his emo-ish, slightly depressed demeanor, feels very real and relatable to some extent. And that relatability makes the journey that these characters go on all the more emotionally impactful. It also helps to have a good script from Max Landis (son of the legendary John Landis!), who seems to really relish the opportunity to take these teens and put them into the middle of a real-life comic book origin story.

And I guess that's one of the big knocks against Chronicle. In essence, it's the classic hero/villain comic book story as found-footage. The brilliance is in the mash-up of the two genres, of the mundane with the fantastic. But the broad strokes of the plot itself, well, the movie hits beats that we've seen many, many times before in film, comic books, etc.

The other inherent problem here is that the movie has to cram a ton of character development into a small amount of time. And because the found-footage style gives everything a very linear, very immediate progression - it feels like a lot of key beats are very rushed. It makes you wonder how this story might have played out in more serialized form, and I couldn't help but think of shows like Breaking Bad as a point of comparison. BB is able to slowly but surely morph it's protagonist over the course of many episodes and seasons. In Chronicle, major personality shifts have to happen within the span of an hour - and since it's found footage, you can't really make those transitions feel filled out with flashbacks or time-shifts or montages. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that we're forced to accept some pretty seismic shifts in Andrew's behavior and morality over the course of an hour and a half.

One other area where I went back and forth a bit is around the way in which the movie plays with superhero convention. Part of me likes the restraint the movie shows in never going too comic-booky. And yet, if the whole conceit of the film is real-life people with superpowers, the logical extension of that would be that the endgame is real-life superheroes (and reportedly, that is in fact where the original script ended up). As it is, there are small allusions to classic comic book iconography (masks, costumes/uniforms, arch-enemies, etc.) - and certainly, the action ultimately ramps up to full-on comic book levels of explosiveness. But I also never quite got that final exclamation point of "wow, so *that's* how a real-world superhero/supervillain could happen." I know not everyone will agree, but to me, that kind of reveal could have been the tipping point in making this movie go from very good to *great.*

But to Chronicle's credit, it really does escalate to levels previously unimagined in a found-footage movie. And that gives it an awesome feeling of uniqueness and unpredictability - as you're watching, you just keep thinking "man, how far are they going to *go* with this?" And they do go far indeed. The other thing that makes the movie sizzle is just how dark and intense it is. Again, you keep wondering how far they're going to go, and as the movie keeps getting darker and crazier, it gets *really* intense. It's one thing to see crazy stuff like this happen to Clark Kent or Steve Rogers, but to see these characters - so effectively built up as ordinary teenagers - get put into such larger-than-life situations - it really becomes both exhilerating and unsettling. When the kids fly - whoah! The sensation is crazy because you share in the sensation of ordinary kids doing something impossible and unheard of. And Chronicle really makes the most of that heightened sense of reality - and then of reality breaking down - that comes from the found footage conceit.

The movie is also just a total showpiece for director Josh Trank. The guy got immediately snatched up to helm the next Fantastic Four movie, and you can see why. He absolutely nails it in Chronicle, and his ability to ratchet things up from zero to eleven over the course of the film is uber-impressive. When the action does ramp up, Trank delivers some of the most visceral and intense super-powered action we've seen in a movie to date - this is some huge, epic, Superman-level stuff. But again, the fact that he's able to save the big stuff for key points in the film, and otherwise so seamlessly integrate smaller, more subtle sci-fi moments into a believable, real-world setting - it's a credit to Trank's sense of storytelling and world-building. Do I wish that he had a slightly deeper and more interesting mythology to play around with? Sure. Do I wish that Trank and Landis had found a slightly more organic way to get some of the shots without having to introduce a female blogger character who *also* films everything? Yeah, that was a bit lame. But overall, wow - as a coming out party for Trank - this is one hell of a debut, and Trank has now instantly shot up onto the list of directors where I can't wait to see what they do next.

Chronicle is one of those movies where you just can't help but admire its ambition, and give credit for the fact that it pulls something off we've never seen before. This is the best high-concept, sci-fi found footage movie we've yet seen, and it really expands the possibilities of what can be done in that subgenre. Do I love found-footage as a whole? Not really - I still wonder if Chronicle wouldn't have been as good or better if shot traditionally or in a less-restricted-but-still-realistic docu-style. And from a strictly narrative perspective, Chronicle doesn't do anything too jaw-dropping or textured. But it's still a must-see - a sort of demo for how the same-old stories can be made to feel new and fresh when you just try something different and unique with tone and storytelling-style.

My Grade: B+

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