07 February 2012

A VERY NAUGHTY BOY

The pity is that Chronicle is an okay movie. A simple one, and a wildly unoriginal one - the highest praise I can think of is that it's best parts are almost exactly like the best parts of Carrie. But originality ain't always all that and a bag of chips, and a good Carrie knockoff is obviously preferable to a shitty film that is unlike anything else you've ever seen. And if you disagree with me, then go rent The Room.

So anyway, Chronicle is an okay movie, and this sucks because there's a pretty damn good movie inside of it, right there just barely out of sight, like you're trying to watch it through distorted glass and you can make out exactly what the shape of it is, but none of the details. Or, to be blunt about it, fuck you, found-footage subgenre. Fuck you in the ear.

Yeah, I know, the fad has a good handful of years on it yet before it dies out - we've got at least three Paranormal Activities between now and then, anyway - but it has more than exhausted whatever charms it once possessed. It's obvious why they do it: it lets you use obscure actors and stretch the visual effects budget a shit-ton further, and while at $15 million, Chronicle has the highest budget the subgenre has seen since Cloverfield, it still does a satisfactory job of hiding some of the seams behind the lower fidelity of prosumer cameras and generally getting more suspension of disbelief than it might have managed otherwise, although its depiction of people floating in mid-air looks powerfully like people hanging from harnesses that have been digitally erased.

The story follows three high school seniors near Seattle, Washington, though the most important one by far is Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan): his mother is dying of cancer, his father is an abusive drunk, and he's painfully introverted. The combination of these three things causes him to lug a camera around to act as the barrier between himself and everything he experiences, AND ISN'T THAT CONVENIENT. Andrew's cousin, Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), tries in a not entirely gentle way to shake up his antisocial skills, by taking him to a huge rave with all their senior class at a barn out in the middle of nowhere, but this ends about as well as most such attempts to cure shyness through immersion, and Andrew ends up sitting, covered in someone else's beer, beneath a tree outside. This is where he is met by Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the excessively charismatic frontrunner for class president, who has people skills enough not only to know exactly who Andrew is, but also how to cheer him up: Steve and Matt are going to explore a hole in the middle of a nearby field, and it would be great to have a cameraman along to record it all.

The glowing, physics-bending crystalline form they find down there drives the rest of the movie: for uncertain reasons, it gives the three boys telekinetic powers that can be honed and flexed with practice. Andrew is naturally the most gifted at using these skills, and while at first it's just a neat trick to use in private, he's the first to realise how turning into Superman can change the way he interacts with other people, and even the world itself, after they discover that they can fly through the air (an exhilarating scene, in which the first-person camera actually works somewhat to connect us to the feeling of total freedom felt by the characters). Unfortunately, years of ostracism and abusive parenting have left him without the sensitivity that a lot of put-upon movie teens enjoy; he's just angry. Really damn angry. And angry teen boys with the ability to fly, control the weather with their mind, and movie objects of essentially any size, are not good news for anybody.

Here's the deal: Andrew is actually a pretty great character, and DeHaan is outstanding in the role: he doesn't do a single thing that you don't anticipate, true, but he does all the things you do anticipate, and that are required to make the part come alive in the most complete and believable way, and he does them extremely well. It's actually a finer line than you might think: Andrew, the shy techie who's bad with girls and sort of sullen all the time, is much more of a stand-in for the the target audience of what is ultimately a science-fiction film than the popular and hyper-competent Steve, however entirely nice and genuine that character comes across (Matt never really registers all that much as anything but a plot element), so it's important to make him as true-to-life as possible; he needs to be sympathetic enough that those of us who are not awkward 17-year-old boys will still feel invested in his fate; and at the same time, he is the movie's villain, and needs to remain far enough away from the audience that he can be truly threatening, and that we won't have any problem hoping that he is stopped before he goes completely nuts. It's not Macbeth, or anything, but given the state of genre fare for teenagers, I have to credit DeHaan, director Josh Trank, and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) for hitting such a precise sweet spot of sympathy and meanness.

Here's my question, then: is there any real reason for this character and his journey and his allegorical super powers to be shot in first-person mode? No, there absolutely isn't, and it's obvious that Trank and Landis are well aware of this, given that almost the very first thing Andrew does after he begins to finesse his powers is to send the camera floating off to a wide-shot. And the director can find no more plausible way of shooting the climactic face-off than by coming up with a blatantly contrived trick of surrounding the superhuman combatants with floating iPads and such so that he can use those as the camera angles in what promptly becomes a perfectly ordinary series shots, just like a for-real movie.

And that's actually the problem with Chronicle: not that it has a superfluous concept - which it does, anyway - but because the film tries so visibly hard to work around the concept, using all sorts of dubious tricks and hacked-out lines of dialogue about why we brought the camera "here", and using other cameras in order to give us multiple angles, whether it makes sense or not (also, accidentally, there's a party scene that is a fairly standard shot-reverse shot with two people each holding cameras; except the shots don't line up even slightly with where the cameras are pointing. Oops). And it does tortuously gimmicky things to the story development, forcing some scenes to not be depicted that should have been, and causing us to see some scenes that we don't need to, and altogether calling so much attention to itself and not feeling natural in anyway.

It doesn't even pay off! The film isn't actually meant to be found footage: it's just shown from the perspective of cameras, because... well, because that's a tool we have now, I guess, sort of like the first person to make a movie in color where all the sets and all the costumes came in one of three shades of brown. It's distracting and hurts the story and the character logic - and if the camera is such a god-damned important metaphor for Andrew's alienation and disconnection, put a fucking camera in his hands and only show us the footage for emphasis, for God's sake - and yet it was clearly so important to Trank and Landis that they gave their movie a title that calls even more attention to the gimmick than the gimmick already was doing on its own. I won't say that Chronicle was ever going to be a masterpiece of high school genre cinema, or more than a particularly fun way to waste an hour and a half, but it would surely have ended deserving more praise and enthusiasm than my own recommendation of, "wow, what an interesting character! ...BUT-"

6/10

4 comments:

Colin said...

God dammit. I wanted it to be good so badly.

Tim said...

In a fit of bad taste, I want to say, "It is good, so badly". But seriously, it's close enough for a rental night with a six-pack and lowered expectations. Or the fact that in February, there are no good movies in theaters anyway.

Will said...

It pains me to hear that the film isn't great and that there was nothing noteworthy to say about the actor playing Steve, because Michael Jordan was such an impeccable actor on The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood that I wanted his first starring role in a film to be successful. Oh well.

Tim said...

That has a lot more to do with the script than with Jordan's performance. He is handed a routine "charismatic funny black kid" role that ends up clocking in as the fourth most important character in the story, and he gives it exactly as much as it deserves.