Chronicle

Chronicle ★★★★

2-Minute Review:

I totally get why director Josh Trank got picked to head up a huge superhero movie (Fant4stic or however you spell it) right after this. Trank's directing is the most impressive part of the film, a movie that I was all ready to resent for being a cash-in on two over-exploited sub-genres: the superhero film and the found-footage movie. But somehow it makes good on both premises and manages to be more than the sum of its parts.

I want to give credit to the script by Max Landis, which gets all of the pieces in place and never goes astray. On the other hand, about 1/3 of the way through the film, you pretty much know exactly where everything and everyone is going, which holds this back from being a five star movie. Still, it's got enjoyable actors, it looks great, and it's a much more unique-feeling superhero film than almost all the films produced by Marvel or DC since. This essentially approaches the genre as if it's the buildup to a school shooting, and despite knowing where this was going, the tragedy of Columbine echoed strongly enough for me that I was totally on board for the tragic story to come...

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For the Real Cinephiles:

You know what one of my pet peeves about comic book movies is? Well, it's the same as for comics in general: stop being so lazy! These superheroes, at their best, have the potential to be our modern Greek myths. Stories of gods and goddesses that are too big and too crazy, but ultimately reflect a deep truth about our own flawed human nature. Zeus is almost the Homer Simpson of gods...driven by his id, endlessly petty, and yet he often comes around in the end tomake it right. He's not God, he's Man, wrote larger than life. And we do the same thing with our superheroes... when we're trying hard. When we don't, we just copy what has been done before, but slap a new coat of paint on it and pretend it's different.

In comics, that often amounts to endless variations on a character, whether they make sense or not. I know everyone is all up on the jock of Into The Spider-Verse, but the problem is that it's not just about getting spider-powers, it's about Peter Parker's unique personal story. It's really disappointing when people forget that there's great human drama there that has nothing to do with getting powers. And the same goes for Batman. And for Superman. And Captain America, and so on. Their stories are about loss and hardship and sacrifice, they're identifiable situations for many of us, and that's why their origins continue to resonate generation after generation. And every time someone just makes a new Bat sidekick, a new Spidey, a new Thor or Iron Man, and pretends it has value and originality because this one is younger or a different gender or religion or race or sexuality... they're selling short both the original character and the new clone.

Who you are as a person informs what your story is going to be. And what we have here in Chronicle is great, because it's a reflection of that. We have three guys with three different upbringings and life circumstances, and that makes a big difference in how they all handle the exact same superhero origin story. Sexuality or race or other aspects shouldn't be treated as color palettes to be swapped like a character generator in a videogame. It's a cheap cash-in on an audience hungry for representation, for their stories to be told. And just saying "here's a Hispanic guy!" or "this one's a lady!" and not having that fundamentally affect how they go about being a hero: that's NOT representation.

While there's definitely an opportunity to dive into that more in this film (by having a girl be one of the three for instance, or someone older, or more religious...the possibilities are heady), that would probably get in the way of what this is, which is an exploration of teen masculinity. It's the whole superhero wish fulfillment concept stripped down to its core. Comics' core audience has always been fairly nerdy white males, and it's only the last 20 years or so that that has expanded in any kind of meaningful way. This film goes back to that core, to that empowerment fantasy of Peter Parker being able to stand up to bullies, of Steve Rogers no longer being a 98 lb. weakling, of Shazam instantly becoming a strapping adult.

The film isn't too charitable to these teens that get powers though, assuming they will immediately use them for wanton mischief and not bother to ask questions about how or why or worry about long term effects. Nothing they do is ever so unbelievable as to take me out of the film, though. It's just a fairly cynical (though perhaps truthful) view of teenagers. Similarly, the concept of the constant filming never really strains credibility, as our main character develops an almost compulsive need to film everything, and his power allows him to do it without hardly thinking about it.

Trank's use of multiple camera sources and the reasoning for the switches was convincing the whole film, and I loved the different looks of the footage. It wasn't always the most cinematic, but there was a good balance between drama and realism. Landis' script also provides a good balance of making sure to have a reason the important scenes are being filmed, but also to leave a few gaps. I hate found-footage films where the camera constantly just HAPPENS to be on and in the right direction when every key event occurs. Here, there are times where no one films for days, where conversations are skipped or there's no camera close enough for us to hear what's said. All of this really picks up at the end, turning what could be a rather typical anime ending into something that feels constantly shifting, which makes you lean in and strain to hear, to see each detail. I think it takes what we've come to expect from Marvel and DC movies (a big ending slugfest) and turns it into something a little fresher than most and with real emotional stakes.

I think Trank also manages to get some great performances out of these actors, particularly DeHaan and Jordan. I've never really liked either one of them much, feeling in their other movies that they're overacting and trying to amplify their own screen presences too much. They're just SO much of what they are. But here, they rather disappear into their roles, with much subtler performances that seem like real teenagers. In fact, most of the teenage life (as cliche'd as it is) was totally believable to me, all experiences I've had. Well, except the superpowers. But it's one of those rare teen movies that (mostly) doesn't feel like it's an exaggerated Hollywood version. The parties are too cool and the music is too good, but other than that, I was on board.

This may not have reinvented the wheel but for a guy like me who was an MCU booster from the ground up and hasn't even bothered seeing the past few MCU movies: this was a much-needed shot in the arm. I'd love to see Trank get a second chance at a big superhero film, BUT it needs to be from a good script. Looking at his other work, his strength is clearly not writing. But give this guy an X-movie and stick with one of the classic comic stories: you could have something very cool and different. Lord knows, Marvel's going to need it.

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