Friday, March 9, 2012

When Boy Wizards Go Bad: Thoughts on "Chronicle"

Harry Potter: Good KId or . . . DEMON FROM HELL!?

As the Harry Potter phenomenon was dawning in the late 1990s, I surfed across an online analysis claiming the books were especially appealing to boys because of how “empowered” J.K. Rowling’s tales made them feel.

Oh? I thought, my eyebrows arched and brow crinkled by memories of those horny, violent, and tempestuous years. And is this always a good thing?

The novel I subsequently tried to conjure from my furrowed brow in response never formed properly, but screenwriter Max Landis and director Josh Trank found some ingredients I didn’t and came up with Chronicle, a predictable, but nonetheless suspenseful, entertaining, and extremely well-acted sci-fi thriller fable of those tormenting teenage years, that also jabs an elbow at our media-addicted age.

Steve (Michael B. Jordan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Andrew (Dane DeHaan) are three Seattle high schoolers. (Seattle here played by South Africa!) Of the three, Steve is Mr. Popular; Matt stumbles and stammers about, but shows promise; Andrew, the last and lowest, is most marginal of all: extremely abused, extremely lonely, and, obviously, extremely angry. Morbidly shy and socially inept, he can only corral his volatile passions within the refracting lens of his digital camera. Outside the frame, the world means little.

One night, after being pounded through the floor by a bully and thrown out of a rave, Andrew runs into Steve and Matt who drag him and his camera over to some mysterious woods and down into a colon-contoured cave. At the end of this cave nests an alien blue-green arachnoid crystal that emanates a strange force.

After the boys return to the surface, they find they are slowly developing telekinetic powers, the ability to move objects at will. Impulse control is almost always an issue at that age and while they try their best to keep their growing powers within moral bounds, well, with young Andrew’s world falling apart everywhere he turns, we just know that’s not gonna work out.

The film’s camerawork is especially intriguing. The camera becomes a character and also another object in the film that Andrew can manipulate, as he lifts it into the air to place himself in the frame, making himself a narcissistic god. As director Trank controls what we see, Andrew also controls the world through the lens.

Chronicle is not clever plotwise, but the movie knows itself and its genre well. At the same time, it avoids drying up with post-modern ‘tude. There's a funny nod to the Quidditch game in Harry Potter and even a hat-tip to Stephen King’s Carrie. Otherwise, it admirably sticks with its story, its characters, and their impact on their world.

Stylistically, Chronicle is a “reality” or “found-footage” film, a genre popularized by 1999’sThe Blair Witch Project. The bare-bones technique seems very well-suited for contemporary genre pictures and has been pleasurably exploited in Cloverland, [REC] (and its American remake Quarantine), and Paranormal Activity.

With their “live” footage shot with digital handheld cameras, these movies turn their budgetary and technical limits in virtues. The best of them stir a claustrophobic terror within their anxious frame, helped by the apparent spontaneity of their performers. The good ones at least (and there aren’t many) seem more “real” than more expensive movies.

Also, in the tradition of earlier sci-fi horror films (especially those from the 1950s), they are pleasingly short. Chronicle skips by in 83 minutes. The genre permits—maybe demands--more efficient use of screen time. The use of jump cuts—pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard—refract the antsyness of our shaky times, especially as young folks experience it. These movies have a refreshing on-the-fly energy.

The success of these movies does not depend at all on their screenplays (which seem to have been scrawled on coffee-shop napkins), but on their camerawork, editing, special effects (added later) and—most importantly--the skills of their actors. On this last point, Chronicle scores a hit--all three young actors are excellent. Their rapport, seemingly improvised, feels real and affecting, and even though we can predict every plot point, the expression of feeling between them and their unformed inner lives add greatly to the suspense, which, as Hitchcock used to say, is character.

Text copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

(Re-edited 3/23/12)

Photo from Movie Insider

[Note: I’m off next weekend, but do not despair! I shall return the following week!]

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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