Wednesday, March 7, 2012


 4 / 5 

The big-budget directors and studio heads behind the Batman, Spider-Man and occasional Superman movies must be having some sleepless nights, because seemingly out of nowhere comes Chronicle, a film whose budget that would barely cover craft services on one of their productions and no big-name stars, and it's possibly the best superhero movie since Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

What Chronicle gets so right is what is sorely lacking in superhero films of the past two decades: a giddy, zippy sense of fun.  Movies like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight labor under a dark and brooding melancholy that even cast a pall over the last Superman movie; they're the cinematic equivalent of goth girls -- needing to prove they are cool by alternating between anguished and impassive.

So, here's Chronicle, which spends a good chunk of its time reveling in the loopy fun that three teenagers have when they discover they are imbued with super powers.  This isn't a quick montage of Peter Parker learning to be Spider-Man -- it's the heart of Chronicle, and benefits from the movie's sense of style.

This is a "found-footage" movie, an odd sub-genre that more or less wore out its welcome about a week after The Blair Witch Project opened, but saw a resurgence with the endless Paranormal Activity movies.  Here, it's less distracting, though arguably an odd choice, as the movie might have benefitted even more from a less subjective camera.  The prodigiously talented filmmakers -- director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis -- also go to amusing lengths to keep the "caught-on-video" concept going during the times no character could possibly be holding a video camera.

That's not a minor point, because the found-footage approach is a rather serious limitation in a movie that otherwise feels boundless.

That rather significant flaw has a counterpoint, though -- four, actually: the three lead actors and superior visual-effects work.  The actors are Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan, names no one would know but should, because they are remarkably compelling, equally capable of the jovial, light-hearted first half and the grand, action-packed second.  DeHaan, in particular, has a challenge, because he's both the central character and, ultimately, the villain of the piece.

Bowing, perhaps, to the popularity of being "dark," Chronicle focuses on DeHaan as the social outcast whose powers bring him instant fame, at least of the high-school sort.  He also has a notably difficult home life that feels vivid and real: an alcoholic, out-of-work stepfather and a dying mother.  Russell is his cousin and only friend, and Jordan plays the most popular boy at school.  The three of them bond when, ducking out of a raucous party, they discover a buried alien crystal that imbues them with powers.

They don't realize what's happened.  At first, it's a lark, then it's a secret they share, then ... well, to say more would destroy the immense enjoyment of the film's story.  It's by no means original -- it's a superhero origin story, after all, and there are only so many ways one can become a superhero.  But it's freshly told, with a bounce and skip to its step that defies the dreary, rainy gray of Seattle, where the film takes place.  (It was shot, interestingly, in Vancouver and in Cape Town, South Africa.)

Adding to the pure rush of fun that comes with Chronicle are the film's remarkable visual effects, which are simultaneously showy and yet blended seamlessly with the action.  Superman famously promised "you will believe a man can fly," but Chronicle gives us three of them, plus at least three key scenes that take place right there in the clouds, as Andrew, Matt and Steve zoom through the clouds.  There aren't many movies that would risk playing out critical dramatic scenes with characters hovering in mid-air -- Chronicle both risks it and pulls it off.

Though I wasn't quite sold by the last-minute story twists Chronicle takes (plus, I missed the kind of identity a solid musical score could have given it), I was marvelously entertained throughout.  Without an ounce of self-importance, Chronicle comes blessedly free of the expectations foisted upon the gargantuan, $200-million "reboots" of major superhero characters.  From its approach to its characters, Chronicle is wholly original, in every sense of the word.

Viewed March 7, 2012 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

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