October 8, 2012

Movie Review – Chronicle

Filed under: Movie Review — Rodney Twelftree @ 12:01 am
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- Summary -

Director :  Josh Trank
Year Of Release :  2011
Principal Cast :  Dane DeHaan, Michael B Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, Bo Peterson.
Approx Running Time :  83 Minutes
Synopsis:  After encountering some kind of alien substance buried under the ground, three young student begin to manifest strange new powers. Initially using them in secret, it isn’t long before they begin to grow bolder in their experimenting with their enhanced abilities – and when one of them starts to use his powers to seek revenge on his persecutors, things take a dangerous turn for the worse.
What we think :  I’m generally a fan of “found footage” films as long as they’re done well, and I’m happy to report that Chronicle is done well. It gets around the rather restrictive cliche of having the characters holding the “camera” in a unique and inventive way, and I actually found the character arcs generally believable…. for the most part. The film goes all gangbusters in the end, as the boys’ powers manifest fully, but Chronicle delivers a smartly paced, euphoric and generally top-notch film about what it might really be like to have superpowers.

**********************

That f*cking Blair Witch has a lot to answer for, right? Ever since the infamous debut of the Blair Witch (or not) in her own film, the “Found footage” genre has become manifest in the most mainstream of ways. Filmmakers have rushed to capitalize on a cheap-ish method of making a film in the hope that they too will strike the same crystallizing pay-dirt encountered by that low-budget 1999 shocker. Eventually, however, even these kind of “found footage” films have swung by the mega-budgets of folks like JJ Abrams (Cloverfield) and now 20th Century Fox, with Chronicle. Films designed to look cheap and shot on handycam, but in reality cleverly crafted “blockbusters” of the highest order. Chronicle starts out fairly benign, with a loser kid at high school getting his hands on a video camera, before becoming imbued with mysterious telekinetic powers and, along with his friends, ending up going down a dark and dangerous path. By the time the final act kicks in, the special effects have begun, and the rocket-ride never stops. Cannily, the filmmakers managed to squeeze every cent of their $15 million budget onto the screen, albeit some of the shots look a little wonky by comparison with others, but on the whole, Chronicle is one damn fine film for what you get.

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What dudes do when they’re no online surfing for porn.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is a lonely kid going through high school, with a drunken abusive father and a dying mother. In order to try and make sense of his life, Andrew gets himself a video camera to document all that happens. He is invited by his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) to a rave party out in the woods somewhere, where he is beaten by the boyfriend of a girl he was filming. He is befriended by the schools star quarterback, Steve (Michael B Jordan, a most unfortunately coincidental name if ever there was one) and together with Matt, the trio goes off to explore a mysterious hole in the ground in the woods nearby. The three boys drop into the hole to find an enormous blue-glowing stone has been buried there, however before they can leave they experience a surge in power and they wake up somewhere else. Soon after, the three boys begin to manifest strange powers, like telekinesis, able to move things with their minds. Initially quite weak (the use of too much power causes a blood nose), after a while the boys learn to control their powers in different ways and become stronger. While Matt and Steve decide to keep their power secret and use it for pranks and the like, Andrew’s isolationism sparks within him a dark anger, a need for vengeance against those who have persecuted him throughout his life – his father, the school bullies, everyone who has ever put him down. Although his friends do not see it coming, by the time Andrew’s anger has reached breaking point, it’s too late. He is too strong, to powerful, and hell bent on taking down those who would do him ill.

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Busted shooting what….? Gay porn?

Anyone who has ever been a teenager will no doubt find something to relate to in this film. The central trio are easily identifiable – the jock, the stand-up guy, and the desperate loner – and make for a compelling character-driven piece about acceptance and the use of sudden power. Yes, I said “character driven”, but it’s true. The film is more than just flashy visual effects (although it has them too); in his debut film, director Josh Trank makes sure we get to know these characters before the crap hits the fan, giving us a reason to feel for them when it does. And it does, big time. Dane Dehaan holds the film together as the central character around which the others revolve; it’s he who films the acquisition of power, it’s he who documents the gradual improvement in their skills at using that power, and it’s his character’s anger and resentment towards his father and others which drive the antagonism in the story. DeHaan looks a little like a mass murderer here – not to draw too brutal a parallel, but he looks like the student who’d walk through a school killing fellow students without batting an eyelid. A weepy, weedy kid with low self esteem and a desire to right perceived wrongs. DeHaan doesn’t appear on camera as much as I’d have liked, due to him being the primary cameraman for the opening act of the film, but when he needs to fire up later on, the young actor delivers the goods. Co-stars Jordan and Russell do solid jobs in roles primarily there to counterpoint DeHaan’s, although Russell gets to stretch his chops in a limited character arc when he must talk Andrew down from going berserk. Michael Kelly does an equally solid job as Andrew’s abusive, drunken, nasty piece-of-work father.

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I dare you to throw something off…

The script, on reflection, isn’t as good as it could have been: the characters feel natural and their dialogue seems equally so, although as characters they offer very little nuance to their stereotypes, and while the film does hang on building them up as decent people for the first half, that careful development is thrust aside for the action packed finale. Dialogue aside, Chronicle does one thing particularly well which I was not expecting. it creates the exuberance of what it must be like to be able to fly. Like Superman. Through the sky, the clouds, the freedom that act brings must be a giddying sensation, and in one truly exhilarating sequence, our heroes throw a football to each other several miles up in the sky, laughing with glee. It’s a moment to savor, it really is: there’s genuine feeling behind these characters learning they can fly, and the cast do a top job bringing that to life. It’s when the film tries to take us into teen-speak party mode that I felt it stumbled a little. Half-baked characters, like Matt’s ex girlfriend, are never fully fleshed out, and it’s a shame, because the emotional resonance of what’s happening to these guys needs grounding by somebody who’s not going through it. While it’s okay to have your three leads all leaping tall buildings in a single bound, you need a Lois Lane to remind us of what it’s like to be merely mortal. And Chronicle doesn’t quite do that.

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…and so I grabbed his balls like this….

Aside from that nit-pick, the film barely puts a foot wrong in sheer entertainment. A slow-burn revenge film this isn’t, as Andrew eventually lets out his inner anger towards his father and the school bullies, and the film steps up a notch with some wonderfully epic – if almost too shaky-cam – battle sequences ripped straight out of The Matrix or The Avengers. I don’t want to spoil too much, but two of our central characters do to downtown Seattle what that giant creature thing did to New York in Cloverfield… only without the intentional 9/11 references. The film builds from slow beginnings to a terrific climax, a climax you almost know has to happen but are still shocked when it does, although the ultimate payoff in resolution left me a little cold. What I really liked about the film is that the motivations of Andrew to do what he does never feel forced: this is a boy pushed to breaking point and beyond, of feeling outcast and an outsider even in his own skin, and I could relate to how he felt throughout the film. I think we’ve all felt like that from time to time. Admittedly, not all of us have a father trying to slowly kill us to tip us over, but you get the idea.

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How you don’t want your stag night to end…

Trank directs the film like most Found Footage films before him: the camera is our viewpoint and we only see what he wants us to. Unlike a majority of the genre’s entries, Chronicle has surprisingly little of the horrendous “shaky cam” we’ve had to endure, since Andrew is able to use his telekinetic powers to hold the camera away from himself, releasing it to a smooth, film-like effect that is both a relief and very clever. Andrews ability to control where the camera is allows said camera to move into areas previous “found footage” cameras simply can’t: into the air, low to the ground or circling devastation, the Chronicle camera captures all the action with minimal fuss and maximum impact. It’s a testament to Trank’s direction that he keeps the restraint on effects right up until the final sequence, where Seattle learns not to piss off a very angry teen with incredible telekinetic powers. The final act felt a lot like The Matrix Revolutions‘ battle between Neo and Smith for the last time, all green and slimy-colored textures and lighting, and although the movie retains the inherent “handycam” visual style the epic nature of what transpires is heightened by not resorting to a more film-like quality.

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Stop, stop, it’s not what it looks like!

There’s good “found footage” films, and then there’s truly great ones. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of truly extraordinary ones I’ve seen, but that list would include Chronicle in a heartbeat. It’s tense and exciting, delivering both shocks and laughs in equal amounts, and has one of the best mano-e-mano superpower fights to round it out at the very end; Chronicle delivers a fast-paced story with good (bot not great) characters and a sense of realism most films seem to miss these days. If you’re into this kind of thing, then this is going to rock your world.

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What others are saying about Chronicle:

Dan The Man loved it: “However, what really got me with this flick was that for every happy and fun moment in this flick, there was a darker moment just waiting to happen. The whole film has this real fun vibe to it the whole time, but you know that some crazy ish will happen soon and when it does, it works even more and shows you the negative consequences that can come out of a gift such as this.”

Ruth at Flixchatter loved it: “What I like about Chronicle is that the superhero theme ultimately speaks more about our humanity and moral conscience at the core.”

Jess over at The Velvet Cafe loved it too: “Once in a while I stumble upon a movie that fills me with so much love and amazement over the infinite possibilities of the film medium that the thought crosses my mind: “I want to do this too!” This was what happened when I watched the recent science fiction movie Chronicle.

Stevee over at Cinematic Paradox loved it: “This is a movie that is for young people, made by young people, and doesn’t fall into the hard-to-get-right world of the zeitgeist.”

Will at Silver Emulsions hated it… “Overall, Chronicle is much too slow and boring to be fun, and I’m shocked at how well received this one was. Really? I guess I’m more out of touch with modern film sensibilities than I thought.”

And a bit of a mixed bag from 3Guys1Movie: “This was actually an interesting movie. It was a super hero movie for the art house crowd. If John Hughes did a super hero movie, this is what it would have been like.”

Seen Chronicle? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Let us know what you thought down in the comments section below!

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Rodney is the Editor-In-Chief of Fernby Films, and has been appreciating films seriously since 1993. Rodney’s first foray into online reviews was for a now-defunct online Australian DVD store, before starting up fernbyfilms.com when that enterprise fell through, in 2007. Rodney lives in the South Australian city of Adelaide, with his wife and two young children, whom he loves very much.

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18 Comments »

  1. I only saw this for the first time last night and ultimately really enjoyed it. At first I thought it was a bit cliched and conventional but the film brilliantly gets darker and darker. The end is terrific and the special effects are extraordinary.
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      Dan — October 8, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  2. Yeah man, I enjoyed this one lots!!! Great review as ever brother
    My recent post Grimmfest Special: Sinister, American Mary, Comedown and Cockneys Vs. Zombies

      Custard — October 8, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  3. Glad you enjoyed this one, Dan. yeah, you're right about it starting off a little slow, and you kinds get the feeling you know where it's going to go – but then it doesn't and you end up being blown away. Def in my top 10 of 2011, fer sure. Thanks for dropping by!

      Rodney — October 8, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

  4. Glad you and I see eye-to-eye on this one, my friend!! :D

      Rodney — October 8, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

  5. Good review Rod. This one took me by surprise with it's character-development and sense of real fun with the found-footage aspect. It does get a little bit forced at the end, but still provides a nice, original take on a genre that seems like it should have died a long, long time ago.
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      cmrok93 — October 11, 2012 @ 8:37 am

  6. Thanks my friend, it's nice to see a "found footage" film that isn't just a bunch of people running screaming through some "unique" environment. To be honest, I think there's a limit to what the genre can do, but it's good to see folks brave enough to take risks and try something new.

    Have you seen Trollhunter yet? I was wondering what you thought of that one…..

      Rodney — October 11, 2012 @ 9:23 am

  7. Have not seen this yet, although I mean to. The original ads had me turned off the film completely.
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      Fitz — October 13, 2012 @ 4:46 am

  8. You should give it a shot, Fitz. It's worth a look!

      Rodney — October 13, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

  9. Thanks for the shout out Rodney and nice write up. I think you liked this more than I did as did two of the guys. DeHann's character Andrew made me want to stuff him in his locker at school. ;-)

      sanclementejedi — October 14, 2012 @ 4:18 am

  10. I think his "annoying" personality reflected the status he held in life – no doubt he's already been stuffed in a locker anyway….

      Rodney — October 14, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

  11. Yeah…..i don't know…… i really liked this movie except for the sucky parts. Like the beginning and the middle and the end.
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      Al K Hall — October 18, 2012 @ 8:27 am

  12. Really? I would have thought you'd find this film awesome like I did…. Man, I had you all wrong!

      Rodney — October 18, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

  13. I was surprised how much I liked Chronicle. While I was only expecting shaky camera action, the characters created a more substantial film than I had hoped for. Great review, Rodney!

      alysonkrier — October 22, 2012 @ 12:15 am

  14. I admit, I was surprised by just how surprised I was with this film in general – I was starting to feel the drain of found footage film just a little wearying, and considered that this could be just another headache-inducing blur-fest. Thankfully, that wasn't the case, and like you, I found the character development more than supplanted any fears I had about the visual style. Thanks for dropping in!!

      Rodney — October 22, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  15. I think I'm reasonably tuned into the Blair Witch reference at the start of the review as I was one of the ones who went to the midnite premiere of the film back in December '99 with the goal of not having the end ruined for me by some blogger with too much time on his hands …

    However, a possible contender for the grand daddy of the found footage genre award (sans too much self conscious queasycam) is Cannibal Holocaust – I read somewhere that there were a few nutters out there, also with too much time on their hands, who went to great lengths analysing the film's soundtrack to determine if it was in fact a docu rather than mockumentary. Why? I think they were interested in trying to get the thing banned … either that or getting the film makers thrown in jail.

    Fortunately, Chronicle isn't so polemical. It does, though, kinda die in the arse somehere in the third act, which is a pity as the first two thirds are pretty good ….

      mark — October 28, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  16. Hmmm, Cannibal Holocaust – a film I have no intention of ever watching…

    Glad you liked our review, Mark!

      Rodney — October 29, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  17. Hey – I just saw this completely last night. I thought it was pretty well done, and a very well developed plot. Some of the characters were a little over the top – the drunken abusive stepdad, the girl at the party with the pink or red hair who comes on a little bizzarly, but yes the whole thing came together well. Some of the final scenes were a littl;e out of the "found" footage realm – I think they took a bit of license there, but overall, I agree completely with you – this was a pretty good if not great movie and I am happy I saw it.

      Joe — February 27, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

  18. Hi Joe, thanks for popping in to visit!!! Glad you liked what we wrote – and that you agree with it!! I thought Trank did well with the finale of the film, transferring the footage from the "found footage medium" to a "news broadcast" immediacy, which only served to ramp up the tension towards the end. As I said in my review, I thought it was terrific.

      Rodney — February 27, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

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