The Telling of the Tale

Georges Polti was a French writer who famously enumerated the 36 plots that make up all literature.  (He actually based it on a list identified by the German writer Goethe, who said it was the work of an Italian, Carlo Gozzi…but that’s another story.)  The point is that as far as plots, they’ve all been done.  The challenge for everyone in the arts, including filmmakers, is to handle the plot in a fresh way.  That’s what the makers of Chronicle have done, and in doing so they’ve created one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is a shy Seattle high school student.  His father (Michael Kelly) is an abusive drunkard living on a disability pension while his mother is bedridden and slowly dying.  Andrew has bought an old video camera that soon becomes his constant companion.  His only other friend is his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), who gives Andrew rides to school.

Matt invites Andrew to a rave party one night.  While there, they meet Casey Letter (Ashley Hinshaw), a video blogger with whom Matt shares a bit of history.  After an encounter with a bully, Andrew leaves the party and sits outside waiting for Matt.  Instead he’s found by Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), a popular jock in the school who’s running for school council.  Steve and Matt have found a cave in a field behind the rave location and want Andrew to document what they find with his camera.  All three go into the cave, where they discover a large star-shaped crystal that’s humming with power.  When they get close to the crystal, the force inside it floods into them.

They find they have the power of telekinesis – moving objects by the power of their minds.  Their first thought is typical for teenaged boys.  They’ll use it to pull pranks on people, such as making a teddy bear fly towards a little girl or move a car to a different parking spot from where the driver left it.  As their powers grow and expand, they’re faced with possible deadly consequences of their actions.  For Andrew, though, his new talent becomes a way to payback the abuse he’s suffered for years.

Chronicle is the brainchild of Josh Trank and Max Landis, two 27-year-old L.A. natives who’d been paying their dues in the film industry.  Trank had co-produced, edited, and acted in the indy film Big Fan (and was an uncredited 2nd unit director), and he’d written, directed and edited a few episodes of the Spike TV series The Kill Zone.  Landis had written, directed and edited several short films, and had appeared as an actor in Blues Brothers 2000 when he was twelve.

Together they came up with the idea for Chronicle.  Landis then wrote the screenplay and Trank directed the movie.  They took the conceit used in The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield of recovered film/video, but they turned the single viewpoint of those films into a panorama.  Rather than just using one camera to tell the story, they acknowledge that we are a video society, so in addition to Andrew’s camera, you have Casey’s video blog and eventually a number of surveillance cameras capturing the story.  Andrew also uses his telekinesis to “hold” his camera while filming, so he’s not trapped behind it.

The script is intelligent and deals with the moral questions that are so often glossed over in this genre.  While Uncle Ben may simply tell Peter Parker that “With great power comes great responsibility,” Chronicle wrestles with that responsibility head on, leading to one of the most thrilling climaxes ever filmed.

Dane DeHaan is perfect in the role of Andrew, capturing both his social awkwardness and inner rage.  After roles on HBO’s In Treatment and True Blood, he’s poised to be a breakout star.  Chronicle will provide him a jumpstart.  Michael B. Jordan has the largest resume of any of the actors, having been on such TV shows as The Wire, Parenthood, and Friday Night Lights (along with 3 years on All My Children).  He brings energy and delight to the role, and for a while there’s a chance he will release Andrew from his destructive world.  Alex Russell has only done a few short roles, but his Matt provides a strong counterbalance and a moral compass to Andrew.  His scenes with Ashley Hinshaw, another relative novice, are wonderful moments of text and subtext.

Much of the film was shot in South Africa, though you’d only know it from reading the credits.  The special effects are exceptionally well done for a fairly low-budget movie.  Fan buzz helped Chronicle debut on top of the box office for its initial week in release.  Hopefully that will continue, and more people will see this exceptional film.

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