Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ah, to be young and have superpowers

Chronicle goes a long way toward reinvigorating a genre.

Prior to a late-evening screening of Chronicle -- the uncustomary hour of 9 p.m. -- I checked for a rating on Rotten Tomatoes. No point heading for the multiplex at such an odd hour for a movie that promised to do nothing more than add to my already extensive file of big-screen disappointment.

But there was hope. Early reviews of Chronicle gave the movie a surprising 100 percent rating, meaning those who’d already been to screenings were blown away by another in the apparently endless series of “found-footage” movies that jump-started their way toward unwarranted popularity with The Blair Witch Project.

For the first half of Chronicle, I thought that those earlier reviewers had nailed it.

Chronicle tells the story of three high-school kids who descend into a mysterious cave, are radiated by a mysterious object and, as a result, find themselves in the possession of superpowers. The three kids develop their powers slowly, discovering them as they go along. They also react to their newfound abilities in believable ways; i.e., they play around, turn into pranksters and generally enjoy their enhanced abilities, which seem to derive from exercising enormous amounts of concentrated will. Our three protagonists are learning what they can do at the same pace as we are, and when the boys discover they can fly, the screen floods with giddy, airborne glee.

So who are these kids?

Matt (Alex Russell) is a decent young man with enough philosophical pretensions or maybe Wikipedia-acquired knowledge to quote Schopenhauer. Matt’s cousin Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is an outcast with a drunken, physically abusive father and a terminally ill mother. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is a popular black kid who’s running for class president.

It’s refreshing that our heroes don’t become secret crime fighters or superheroes. No matter what happens, they continue to act like young people, although Matt becomes the first to realize that super powers bring super responsibilities. He seems to sense that the discouragement of a hard moral lesson looms.

Roughly midway through, director Josh Trank -- working from a script by Max Landis (son of director John Landis) -- switches tones. Andrew goes from scorned nerd to high-school heartthrob, but can’t stop overcompensating for years of torment at the hands of bullying classmates. Increasingly, he uses his powers in destructive ways that begin to divide the three buddies.

Now before I continue, a word about the movie’s principal technique. Andrew is running around with a video camera. He’s filming everything in the dizzying, hand-held style associated with this kind of movie. At a mid-picture rave, another camera-wielding character turns up. Monica (Ashley Hinshaw) is a video blogger whose testy relationship with Matt slowly deepens. This two-camera approach provides welcome expansion of the movie's visual vocabulary.

You can look Trank’s “found-footage” approach in two ways. We, of course, do live in a moment when even the most banal activities are likely to be recorded. And it’s hardly far-fetched to think that a kid such as Andrew, who has trouble relating to others, would put a camera between himself and his environment.

On the other hand, I’m tired of these hand-held exercises in faux amateurishness, and I wondered if I would have enjoyed Chronicle any less had it been shot without the found-footage gimmick.

As Andrew spirals further and further out of control, the Seattle-based story turns into another orgy of destruction.

I wish that the movie’s second half had been as imaginative as its first, but the story has to go somewhere as Matt realizes that he must do something to reign in Andrew's vengeful fury.

Still, Chronicle and its young cast deliver much more than you’d expect. For the most part, it's a smart, creative look at normal kids dealing with an abnormal situation. Don’t look for Chronicle to make a Blair Witch-like cultural splash, but as superpower movies go, it’s full of reinvigorating life.

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