Quite unexpectedly, the first couple months of 2012 continue to offer some quality choices for discriminating movie-goers.
Apart from the usual Oscar bait, there are several new releases that are providing an unusual but welcome reprieve from the onslaught of idiocy we typically see this time of year: “Haywire,” “The Grey,” “The Woman in Black” (I haven’t seen it, but the reviews are favorable) and now “Chronicle,” a fiercely inventive spin on a couple of the most popular subgenres to emerge in the past decade.
It may seem strange to be so excited about a small handful of innocuous genre pieces, but if you’ve taken a look at the wide release schedule for the next month or so, I’m sure you’ll agree that we should enjoy the good times while they last. On that note, I have no idea what’s coming down the pipeline for review in the coming weeks — whatever strikes my fancy, I suppose. So stay tuned.
Ask anybody and they’ll tell you that the “found footage” subgenre has more or less run its course. Popularized by “The Blair Witch Project” more than 12 years ago, it found a resurgence with 2009’s “Paranormal Activity,” and studio heads haven’t looked back since.
Literally dozens of copy-cats have sprung up since then, and it seems that at any given time you’re likely to see at least two such films playing in wide release — some good, some bad, all of them attempting to ride the coattails of a film that was only successful in the first place due to its own stark originality.
The same could be said of the superhero film, which saw its first resurgence about 12 years back with the first “X-Men” movie and got a shot in the arm with 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” a would-be game-changer that caused Hollywood and audiences alike to reassess the relative merits of the entire genre. There was talk that the film’s success would inspire a similarly epic and serious-minded approach to superhero movies, but alas, it’s almost time for “The Dark Knight Rises” to be released and we have still seen no signs of that happening.
So, are found-footage and superhero flicks both dead in the water? If “Chronicle” is any indication, I should say not. As directed by Josh Trank and written by Max Landis (both of them marking their feature debuts), it is a clever, consistently entertaining mash-up of genre conventions that follows the misadventures of three teenage boys who develop super-human abilities after being exposed to an unexplained alien substance. The film starts off full of silliness and kitsch, as the boys experiment with their newfound powers of telepathy, extraordinary strength and even flight. But the film slowly develops a darker, more dramatic tone as the story progresses and we begin to see the psychological deterioration that comes with unchecked power. Machiavelli it ain’t, but this is definitely a lot more substance than we usually get with superhero movies — or found-footage projects, for that matter.
“Chronicle” is full of engaging set pieces: the boys’ initial experimentations in a suburban backyard, hilarious and uniquely charming in a “Jackass” kind of way; their first attempt at flight, which is among the most exciting and visceral sequences I’ve ever seen in a superhero flick; the high school talent show, in which our heroes enrapture their peers with a “magic act”; and, of course, the climactic battle that comes after the most powerful of the three decides to use his powers to lash out at a cruel and unaccepting society. The film sometimes hiccups when trying to be too heavy-handed with the material, but the scenes that do work vastly outnumber those that stumble, and at 80-something minutes the film is a tight, lean little ditty that will knock your socks off with far more vigor than most.
The cast is tip-top, with Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan (best known as Wallace from the first season of HBO’s “The Wire”) turning in warm performances that succeed in making the viewer sympathetic to their characters without ever seeming to try very hard. The real find here, though, is Dane DeHaan, a young actor previously seen only in brief stints on television shows like “In Treatment” and “True Blood.” Here, as the member of the Super Best Friends who loses his way, he is nothing short of a revelation. Conveying the transition from well-intentioned wall flower to reigning super-villain with a perfect balance of empathy and intensity, he recalls Sissy Spacek’s brilliant work in the similarly themed “Carrie.” You may not know his name now, but my guess is that in five years he’ll be the new DiCaprio. Mark my words.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.