I hate when a gimmick gets in the way of a perfectly good movie. In the case of Chronicle, it's the "found footage" gag. While it's kind of neat, the somewhat imaginative ways in which the story of Chronicle gets around a few limitations of the gimmick -- telekinetic kids don't need an extra cameraman -- the found footage conceit kind of crumbles when you wonder how the "filmmakers" obtained hospital security camera footage (or, for that matter, video from a police cruiser's dash cam) which would have been surely seized by the feds due to the supernatural events they reveal.
But don't think about it too hard and Chronicle winds up being a neat twist on the superhero origin story, one that has more going for it than its January release date would indicate.
Bring It Home.
Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan, bearing a striking similarity to a young DiCaprio) isn't having much fun in high school. Girls ignore him while his more alpha classmates take typical joy in bullying him. His best -- and only -- friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell). Meanwhile, his mother (Bo Petersen) is dying, presumably of lung cancer, and his father (Michael Kelly) is an ex-firefighter on disability who's taken to drinking whilst verbally and physically abusing his son. Andrew scrapes together the dough to buy an old camera to document his sad existence.
Matt, trying to get Andrew laid -- an endeavor not helped by his decision to video tape everything -- takes Andrew to a party where he inadvertently meets Matt's buddy, Steve (Michael B. Jordan). Steve has found a mysterious hole in the ground in the woods near the party. Steve and Matt convince a reticent Andrew to bring his camera and investigate.
Exploring the hole they find a tunnel, and a strange, Kryptonian meteorite, which imbues them with amazing powers after they recklessly touch its glowing, interstellar crystals.
At least I guess it's interstellar. But that's one of the good things about Chronicle. It's knowing enough to not explain its whys too deeply, and well-drawn enough for that not to matter.
Director Josh Trank's feature debut exhibits a fresh matter-of-factness in presentation and a scope that belies the films under the radar nature -- and generic first act. As a character study we get the classic Campellian light and dark origins of Matt and Andrew, the script (by Max Landis, son of the legendary John) somewhat cleverly and subtly weaving in the questions of morality pondered by what amount to newborn gods -- along with more than a few hat tips to Superman. The meteorite, looking just enough like Kal-El's escape pod to count, gives them their powers in a flash of red light; the duality between Matt and Andrew mirroring two sides of the same whole (think Bizarro Supes) or, most obviously, that the main characters possess the power of flight. They are nice thematic nods that ground the movie with a sense of heritage, without subverting belief in the world Trank and Landis have crafted.
On a technical level Chronicle starts small and ends up big. You know just from the Seattle setting that the Space Needle is going to figure into the end somewhere. Chronicle looks good -- sometimes too good. While the penultimate final battle feels bigger than one would expect, the execution is somewhat hamstrung by the found footage thing and some less than awesome (though, for the most part, totally serviceable) FX.
More to the former point, the good ideas the film has -- like having Andrew use his powers to go hands-free with the camera -- are sometimes subverted by the need to go big and cinematic within the found footage ideal. It's a tightrope, really. Its slavish adherence to the gimmick is subverted by shots that look impossibly well composed. The disbelief breaking use of alternate video sources is another misstep. Sometimes it works (loved the shot form inside the car as it slides off the top of the Space Needle) but more often the conceit feels cumbersome. I could buy into a found footage movie shot by three people and edited together by one of them. But it would have to look shittier than this. It just made me wish that Chronicle had dropped the gimmick entirely.
But such as it is, it's a really good flick, surprisingly entertaining and well-paced, imaginative and boasting two good performances (with some nicely rendered dramatic moments) from DeHaan and Russell. But if Chronicle had been conceived as a straight up, traditionally shot superhero film with some of the bigger ideas it already has going for it, it might have been great.
The Woman in Black
It's ironic -- due to the casting of Daniel Radcliffe -- that The Woman in Black seems like it would play better to an older audience. It's a deliberately-paced ghost story that often feels like an ode to the Universal films of the '30s and '40s while many of Radcliffe's biggest fans are just used to seeing him as Harry Potter, battling CG dragons and griffons and Ralph Fiennes' vagina nostrils. Here Radcliffe plays a youthful, widowed, single father who constantly seems on the verge of bitching about something.
That the film is produced, in part, by the resurrected Hammer Film Studio -- sequalizer of Universal's most famous properties, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dracula -- makes all the more sense. It's misty English locale, set in the Edwardian past, is the kind of place straight out of an old Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing flick -- derelict graveyards with tombstones like ruined teeth; a moldering, malevolent mansion located on a hill jutting from a near alien bog, askew, fog-shrouded crucifixes piercing the viscous ground. And some inbred Brits with their creepy kids.
It's here we find Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) a young lawyer, whose wife's death -- giving birth to their son -- still haunts him; so much so that four years later it's still getting him in trouble at work. "We don't run a charity here," intones his boss (a priceless Roger Allam) in typically Dickensian fashion. He dispatches Arthur to a remote northern village to put in order the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow (Alisa Khazanova) at her mansion, Eel Marsh. Forced to disembark immediately, or be fired, Kipps leaves his son and nanny behind with the promise to join him on the coming weekend.
But Kipps finds his welcome in the village less than warm. With the exception of providentially befriending a kindly local, SamDaily (Ciarán Hinds, fresh off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) who aids Kipps, the local citizenry does everything they can to run Kipps out of town and prevent him from going to Eel Marsh. Bent on completing his job, Kipps is forced to circumvent the local's stonewalling and puzzle over the weirdly frequent suicide rate of their children.
Unfortunately, the mystery Kipps stumbles upon doesn't just make it hard to do his job (every time he buckles down with a stack of papers and a snifter of brandy, some weird shit happens) but also represents a threat to the only thing he still loves.
James Watkins, in his sophomore feature directorial effort, imbues The Woman in Black with an adeptly eerie tone. Working from a script by Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class) based on the novel by Susan Hill, the film is fairly drenched in overcast, foggy atmosphere and gothic design that utilizes some creepy topography and architecture to invoke a fully realized, if scaled down world. Its slightly annoying reliance of jump scares (more so because one of them got me) is somewhat offset by the way Watkins utilizes the corners of his nicely composed frames to sneak in the occasionally surprising jolt.
It is a bit quaint. But unlike The Artist, The Woman in Black isn't trying to batter the audience with its overly self-aware slavishness to archaic, if wonderfully rendered film techniques. Instead, The Woman in Black relies on its period tone, and oddly comforting reverence to its influences and gothic icons -- the same that have driven Tim Burton at his visual best -- to generate slow building tension that hits its mark more genuinely than that critically lauded, silent film comedy. It's not that The Woman in Black is that great, but it satisfyingly defines its world less superficially than The Artist. Nobody will remember either film a year from now, but only one is nominated for too many Oscars.
Radcliffe is fine, though his road to escape Potter will be a long one. His performance is a bit one-note (to be fair, he does have to walk down a lot of halls with a candle and react to creepy dolls, animatronic monkeys and dust). But the real standout here is Ciarán Hinds. His hound dog face and warm, compelling charisma were a welcome relief to the dour weirdness of most every other character in the film. Goldman's script is decent and while it's not breaking any new ground in the genre, it's unabashed reverence for its forebears in gothic horror make The Woman in Black a surprisingly solid film in director Watkins' hands.
Like I said, this movie will go over better for those with longer attention spans -- not that the film is epic -- and an appreciation for a decent ghost story, adeptly told. Goldman's screenplay is mostly satisfying, though the ending, while working for me in a Twilight Zone sort of way, is decidedly fucking emo. She must have been listening to Death Cab.
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