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MOVIE REVIEW: As a whole, 'Chronicle' is original

Chronicle

(PG-13)

4 out of 4 Stars

Although it's been around since the early '80s, the "found-footage" sub-genre didn't become vogue until 1999 when used to superb effect in "The Blair Witch Project."

Never heard the term? It's the label affixed to films -- almost always horror/thrillers -- that include camcorder footage that is usually captured by one of the main characters. It's made to look rough and amateurish on purpose in order to lend it greater immediacy and authenticity.

All too often -- as with the "Paranormal Activity" franchise -- it comes off as calculating and disingenuous, but when used sparingly and strategically as it is here and in "Cloverfield," the result is throttling.

What separates "Chronicle" from the rest of the pack, at least from a technical standpoint, is that the found-footage is only one of a half-dozen different film stocks painstakingly cobbled together by first-time feature director Josh Trank ("The Kill Point" TV series).

Opening flat and cold without credits or a backing score, we find out quickly why Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is such a skittish recluse. His new camera sits on a tripod facing his mirrored bedroom door where his father (drunk at 7:30 a.m.) is ready to burst in and beat him -- again. Andrew tells him he has a camera and will be filming everything. He might as well have said he had a gun. The father retreats, if only temporarily.

On the way to school with his cousin and only friend Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew decides he's going to chronicle all he sees, however mundane and uneventful. Much of what is captured on that first day is mundane, but also lets us know Andrew is the target of bullies and is determined to use the camera to both become more social and maybe a little creative.

At a rave party, Matt and the uber-popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan) coerce Andrew to follow them to the middle of a field and into an ominous-looking crater. Without much subtlety but with considerable humor, screenwriter Max Landis tosses in his first of many cultural and literary references; in this case "Alice in Wonderland."

While in the hole, the boys come across an object emitting a white neon glow and odd-sounding frequencies, yet they're not scared or threatened. They're teenagers and thus, bulletproof. When they emerge, they discover each has the power of telekinesis (the ability to move objects with just their thoughts).

At first, the trio plays with their new powers as if they were toddlers on Christmas day. They play with Lego bricks, skip rocks across a lake and harmlessly mess with shoppers in a toy store. Next there is a talent contest at school with a "magic" show that defies logic and physics while opening their collective minds to the endless possibilities.

And then it gets dark. Way dark.

By themselves, the plot, the characters, the scenarios, the dialogue and the twists aren't all that original, but as a whole they are.

Trank and Landis have concocted an eclectic mix that extends far beyond the threadworn "teen horror" motif and -- much like last week's "The Grey" -- infuse a subtle yet unmistakable air of morality and spirituality into the story. It's not religious or preachy in the least and the only higher power here is the one the three leads possess.

"Chronicle" is the type of movie that will generate scads of post-screening coffee shop, tavern and water cooler debate and will include people that usually avoid any film that remotely looks like horror. Most of them will come to the conclusion that the success or failure of this particular movie doesn't depend on the story as much as it does the storytellers and their crafty methods. (Fox)