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[With Film Editor Drew McWeeny fighting off a massive viral bug, Dan Fienberg and I are stepping in to review this weeks' major releases.]
It's been 12 years since Bryan Singer's "X-Men" effectively re-launched the superhero film genre and movie fans found themselves in a golden age of comic book movies. In that time the genre has been stretched to the pseudo-realism of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" series to Zack Snyder's very serious "Watchmen" adaptation to Brad Bird's stylish "The Incredibles" to the bloody consequences of Matthew Vaughn's "Kick-Ass." Considering the popularity of "found footage" films over the same period its somewhat surprising it took this long for the two genres to meet. That changes Friday with the new 20th Century Fox release "Chronicle."
The directorial debut of Josh Trank, "Chronicle" was written by Max Landis (yep, the son of director John Landis) and based on a story by Trank and Landis. The duo have fashioned a tale that on the surface would seem very familiar to comic book readers: three three high school seniors are exposed to strange rocks that give them super powers (in this case telekinesis). It's how Trank and Landis frame the story in the found footage p.o.v. that makes "Chronicle" so intriguing and entertaining.
Before the trio ever find themselves exploring a strange tunnel (near an underground rave mind you) in the middle of nowhere that will change their lives forever, Trank and Landis set up the characters beginning with "outsider" Andrew. Played by Dane DeHaan (best known for his arc as Jesse on HBO's "In Treatment"), Andrew is a lonely single child trying to navigate the despair of his mother's terminal illness and the abuse of his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly trying very hard to avoid cliches). Andrew is the initial source of the "footage" when he decides to video tape his life in order to document his painful surroundings. We soon are introduced to Andrew's more popular and good natured cousin Matt (newcomer Alex Russell) who is trying to help his relative enjoy the social aspects of their education. Matt convinces Andrew to come to what can only be described as a Hollywood version of a Seattle rave (one of the least believable scenes in the film) which, of course, Andrew has to document with his video camera. That's the intro for the last of our trio, future class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan of "Red Tails," "Parenthood") who really isn't that distinguishable from Matt in terms of personality. The three teenagers succumb to the strange sounds of a mysterious tunnel only to discover the aforementioned rocks. Strange things begin to happen and cue the camera fritz to black.
Smartly, Trank and Landis jump forward three weeks to the next time Andrew is recording. This time the three are all better friends having bonded over their bizarre and life-changing experience. The audience soon discovers the trio all have the power to move things with their minds, even if it's just a baseball at the moment. As the story progresses, it continues from Andrew's camera only diverging a few times to the perspective of a romantic interest for Matt (Ashley Hinshaw) who conveniently records her own life for her personal blog (another forced narrative device that neither works nor is necessary). Over time we soon discover that the more the guys exercise their power, the strong they become and the more than can do. If they push themselves too hard? The only side effect appears to be a bloody nose. The trio eventually teach themselves how to fly, create force fields and crush cars. Matt has rules, of course. You can't use the powers on other human beings and you must keep it a secret. Andrew doesn't seem to understand this, but goes along. The guys friendship peaks when they begin to plan a trip flying around the world. That's the audience's cue to realize the good times won't last much longer.
As expected, Andrew's conflict with his father escalates and the two have a physical confrontation where the son taps into his powers to protect himself. This sets off a chain of events that leads to "Chronicle's big payoff, a massive battle between Andrew and good guy Matt in the streets and skies of Seattle.
At this point, most of the footage is being provided by news helicopters, security cameras in buildings or even bystanders who can't help but record the first glimpse of super-powered beings. The cuts become so frenetic that Trank is even able to cheat and cut in regular footage without the audience having time to think where it came from. But it's shots of Matt saving a falling woman from the woman's perspective or Matt and Andrew knocking each other across city blocks that is the most impressive (it will also be a lot for Snyder's "Man of Steel" to live up to). At times, the sequence is pops so well you want to rewind it and watch it all over again. Of course, that will have to wait until the film hits DVD or digital download.
Granted, "Chronicle" has some major narrative faults that keep the film from being something truly special. The most glaring is Andrew's continued recording of everything makes it a bit too convenient at times to tell the story. That's a given in most found footage films, but here it's forced at key moments and suspends your disbelief. Additionally, while Landis has inventive ideas such as a catch football game at 10,000 feet he often burdens his actors with too much exposition and awkward dialogue you wouldn't expect from an adult let alone a teenager. That being said, Trank shows he has a strong eye by making most of it come together in the effectively staged finale.
"Chronicle" gets a big boost from a cast that didn't phone in their performances. DeHaan (who looks remarkably like a young Leonardo DiCaprio at times) is superb in showing Andrew's arc from troubled teen to a living weapon of mass destruction. Russell has enough onscreen charm to give Matt more depth than is on the page and, as mentioned previously, Kelly conveys just enough gravitas to make Andrew's parental abuse convincing.
The real stars, however, is the talented Trank and the slew of CG houses that worked on the film to create as realistic effects as possible. There are certainly some moments when the effects look like effects, but when they don't? It's enough to make a grizzled movie cynic smile.
"Chronicle" opens nationwide Friday.
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