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Although it dog-legs into silly mayhem in the homestretch, for a good portion of its quick 83-minute running time Chronicle is a quite clever boys-gone-wild-on-telekinetic-powers fantasy. Unquestionably endowed with the best special effects ever in a low-budget shaky-cam movie, this better-than-average teen item will hit high school guys right in the sweet spot, to ample commercial returns for Fox in all markets.
More or less employing the boilerplate Marvel premise — that of a young man suddenly possessed of superpowers — but walking the other way with it, director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis fancifully imagine what ordinary kids might do if they found they could levitate stuff, crush heavy objects, do insane magic tricks and fly. At the very least, such talents always provide an advantage over other guys when it comes to impressing girls and putting bullies in their place.
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The fellows in question are handsome loner Andrew (Dane Dehaan), his better-adjusted cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), jock, aspiring class president and all-around cool black guy the two white dudes look up to. With his fancy new video camera, Andrew intends “to film everything from now on” and, while director Trank takes liberties from time to time, a great deal of the action is seen from the p.o.v. of Andrew’s toy.
The trio’s lives are changed when they climb down a mysterious hole in the ground, behold a large glowing crystal and emerge with — powers! Their first trick is throwing a baseball with unerring accuracy and making it stop in mid-air but they shortly move on to pranks; with the wave of a hand, they can move a woman’s grocery cart around, push a car off the road and levitate. The only downside is a bloody nose, which is sometimes inconvenient but a small price to pay.
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Early on, the responsibly minded Matt suggests some rules: They shouldn’t use their powers on living things, in public or when they’re angry. Andrew quickly transgresses on all counts, breaking apart a spider into its many body parts (a sly illusion, no doubt, to Marvel’s franchise), putting on an acrobatic display at the school talent show and delivering payback to an a-hole who’s been tormenting him for years. As for anger, Andrew can’t abide by that rule because he’s angry all the time; for starters, his mother, permanently attached to an oxygen tube, is dying, while dear old dad yells at him and beats him practically every time he walks into the room.
Chronicle‘s high point arrives when the three anointed ones take to the sky, zoom through clouds, tumble around and generally behave the way frisky dolphins do in the water. The effects here, as elsewhere, are seamless, as realistic as any sky diving footage and better than typical superhero flying scenes because they’re not rocketing from place to place but exuberantly goofing around. Handling the visual effects was Simon Hansen, second unit director on District 9, and he and his team have done a terrific job.
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Unfortunately, the script doesn’t take advantage of the ideal opportunity it sets up to explore the multiple possibilities superpowers hold for both good and evil. That the project entertains certain philosophical aspirations is suggested by an early exchange about Schopenhauer, and the three-character focus is perfectly designed to illustrate the positive and negative uses of exceptional powers, with the third character available as a mediator.
Instead, the film nosedives into destructive nonsense in its final stretch, with Andrew behaving in all the worst possible ways despite attempts at friendly intervention. The effects keep things interesting, notably in a vertiginous scene around Seattle’s Space Needle, but the late innings intelligence leak is crippling in terms of the story’s ultimate impact.
DeHaan, known from television’s In Treatment, has an arresting look that falls between handsome and dweeby; he convinces as an outsider. Aussie Russell and Jordan of TV’s Friday Night Lights are both perfectly good. Ashley Hinshaw, as another student with a video camera, could easily play Reese Witherspoon’s younger sister if such an occasion were to arise.
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