Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Story Telling

Ah, the found footage genre. Remember when I said last fall that with its journey into space in Apollo 18, the found footage style of film making might truly be well on its way out the door? Well, I of course forgot to account for just how cheap the damned things are. You see, when a film is inexpensive to produce, all you need is a strong first week to recoup all your expenses and start banking the profit. Look at major box office bombs from just last year. Ryan Reynolds starred in Green Lantern, the only superhero film from last year to fail to break out, thanks especially to it's $200 million budget. Conan the Barbarian was more frugal at $90 million, but still failed to engage any more than a minuscule audience of diehard Cimmerians. And Disney animated film Mars Needs Moms has become one of the biggest box office bombs in Hollywood history, with a budget of $150 million practically going to waste. Meanwhile, Apollo 18 made $25 million, more than five times what it cost to make. Mega-hit sequel Paranormal Activity 3 racked up over $200 million in worldwide ticket sales. It cost $5 million to make. Insanely profitable even with modest success, the trend that began in earnest in 1999's Blair Witch Project is one of the most profitable excursions in Hollywood, with no sign of slowing down in the near future. The newest to the game, Chronicle, tackles a hitherto unexplored topic of these types of films, that of super powers. What would real people do if they found themselves in control of telekinetic abilities? That's what I decided to head to the theater to discover.

I'm still not sure what schools can possibly afford bleachers like this
Three high school seniors discover what appears to be an alien artifact while wandering out in the woods after a rave. After being exposed to the artifact's strange power, they discover that they can move objects with their minds. The more they practice, the stronger the feats they can perform, and soon they are performing amazing feats in secret. Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and aspiring Class President Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are having the greatest time of their lives, and at first it's all just fun and games. But when Andrew, an outcast with an abusive home life, begins to go to the dark side and use his powers for revenge, his friends decide they have to do something before their secret gets completely out of control.

Yup, he's trying to "Force Choke" the audience...
What impressed me most about Chronicle was how real the characters and character interactions were. Beginning to end, it is an honest portrayal of what normal teenagers would do given extraordinary powers and abilities; they'd screw around. Whether playing pranks, practical jokes, or just shooting the breeze, these kids never once consider using their powers for good, because that's not the first thing that comes to the minds of any red-blooded teenager. For that purpose, the principle trio do a great job of playing normal teenagers who just want to play around with their new found strengths. Dane DeHaan does an amazing job in the film's lead role, a troubled teen with home issues and who didn't really have any friends before the incident. At first he seems so amazed in the turn that his life has taken, but when it all comes crashing down, DeHaan becomes a terrifying force with which to be reckoned. Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan play far more normal teens, though Russell's character is undergoing some self-reflection as to his social status and crushes on fellow student and aspiring filmmaker Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). While DeHaan and Russell are complete unknowns, you might actually recognize Jordan from his previous works. Chronicle is Jordan's second film of 2012 (he had a second-tier role in Red Tails), and he has enjoyed an extensive television career, including starring turns on The Wire ("Where's Wallace?"), All My Children, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood. Together, these three combine to form the soul of the film, and their contributions of amazing acting make Chronicle as fun as it is.

The list of suspects for this can't be TOO long
Unfortunately, these strong acting performances aren't enough to keep the film completely afloat. It's obvious not a whole lot of thought was put into the story of Chronicle, which is patchy at best. Worst is the fact that there's really nothing new when it comes to the type of story director Josh Trank wanted to tell; as nice as it was to see a meta-human tale told in this format, Trank brings absolutely nothing to the table that can't be found in any random issue of X-Men or its spin-offs. As I already mentioned, the story was patchy; long stretches of time pass without any frame of time. This is due to Andrew's camera catching the entire thing only when he decides to turn on the camera. It's strange that when early on he says he's videotaping "everything" that we only see the parts relevant to the main story. Anyway, it makes the "found footage" style seem more like a crutch than an actual selling point for the making of Chronicle.

He's just excited to be in a #1 American movie... no big deal
Speaking of the found footage emphasis, it's questionable just why the filmmakers went that route in the first place. This was certainly not a tale that needed the style to work; the typical film approach would have come out just fine. Early on it does make sense, because the story revolves around the three boys and one of them always has the camera. Later on however, the camera comes out of play, and having Hinshaw's character also be a camera nut feels like a forced move to break free of the restrictions of the genre, once again making you wonder why they decided to handicap themselves in the first place. This is especially apparent in the final act, which sees an amazing battle in downtown Seattle, but has to use security cameras and strangers personal cameras to properly capture everything. The special effects in this case are also suspect; the final battle looks fantastic, but almost everything before LOOKS cheap and unimpressive, even with the grainy film quality to obscure it.

Yeah, no way will HE become evil...
As the film ends, you can't help but feel that a great opportunity was missed in making Chronicle. Yes, it was unique for the found footage genre as a whole and a huge improvement over Apollo 18 in quality. But I can't help but feel things could have gone differently, as the filmmakers obviously felt they had made a mistake in making a film in that vein, and the regression in story quality as the film progressed was a clear indication of that. Still, it is the #3 film of 2012, and is worth a look, whether you see it in the theater or when it eventually is released on DVD.

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