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TRANSITIONING THROUGH GHOSTS, GUILT, AND SUPERPOWERS
If it's hard for us run-of-the-mill modern muggles to mature gracefully on a personal and professional level, imagine what it must be like for the little protagonist of the most successful movie franchise of all time: the lad who grew up before our eyes playing Harry Potter, young Daniel Radcliffe.
The Harry Potter series has now concluded. (We hope.) And it became obvious a few years back that the series' young star was interested in having a continuing career in acting. To that end, young Daniel has been willing to put himself out there—literally in the case of Equus—in his theatrical work. And he even tackled the Broadway musical revival with a recent stint in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But what about film? How would he attempt to transition from juvenile wizard to adult leading man?
We now know that this transition begins with a total throwback of a ghost story—dank, moody, and very British—called The Woman in Black. If it is reminiscent of the old mid-twentieth-century horror films that starred actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, it is only appropriate. For the film represents not only a relaunch of Mr. Radcliffe's movie career, but also a reboot (under new owners) of Hammer Films, the studio that put British Gothic Horror on the map.
Based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, which had previously been adapted for the London and New York stage, The Woman in Black tells the tale of a young Edwardian barrister sent to the English countryside to settle the estate of an old woman named Drablow. Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a melancholic young widower, haunted by the death of his wife and overwhelmed by the care of his young son. The Drablow matter is a bit of a last chance for him, as his law firm has lost patience with his depressive state and passivity. So, hoping for a career boost, Kipps hops a train and heads for the gray little village of Crythin Gifford and an isolated estate called Eel Marsh House.
Outside of a genial and well-to-do older man, Mr. Dailey (Ciarán Hinds), whom he meets on the train, Kipps gets an exceedingly cold shoulder from the villagers of Crythin Gifford. In an irrational yet all-too-familiar plot device, the suspicious local denizens clearly do not want young Kipps poking around the old, isolated manor house. Yet not a single one is willing to tell him why.
Soon enough the young barrister figures it out. When he visits the cobweb-strewn house in search of legal papers, he starts hearing mysterious sounds. A few—like a raucous raven defending her nestlings—can be explained. Others, not. The ominous atmosphere of decay escalates to ever-louder thumps and screeches and visions of the monstrous black-clad specter of the title.
In horror/ghost films, people never do the rational thing. And that is true here. If Kipps were smart, he'd quickly scour the musty manse for papers, throw them all in a trunk, and hightail it out of the place and back to London. Instead, he doggedly explores the house and browses through old documents and photos. They explain that many years prior, a young woman had been forced to surrender her son to the Drablows, who kept the boy from his biological mother, but could not protect him from a gruesome drowning in the marshy wetlands that surrounded the estate.
It seems that the distraught and quite dead mother isn't content simply to haunt the Drablow house. Her spirit seems intent on destroying every other child in the village. A sighting of The Woman in Black presages the death of a child, and youngsters die horribly (although not in the gruesomely graphic style of modern Hollywood) throughout the movie; making this PG-13 film, true to the rating, inappropriate for the youngest Harry Potter fans.
Although anachronistic in the extreme, there is something satisfying about this ghostly tale. The production values are strong, the direction by James Watkins (Eden Lake) is serviceable, and the adaptation by Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) wisely jettisons the original story's man-looking-back framing device for a much more claustrophobic three days of action and recollection.
Mr. Hinds, along with Janet McTeer as his grief-addled wife, do a lovely job with their supporting roles. And as for young Daniel? He mopes rather well. And his portrayal of Arthur's growing determination to deal with the haunting he has inadvertently escalated is one of the more believable aspects of this period piece. The role clearly illustrates that even if Mr. Radcliffe has neither the physical stature nor macho good looks to be a stereotypical leading man, he is willing to try new (old) things while he strives to develop into an intriguing character-actor film protagonist. It's just the kind of graceful transition to adulthood that we might expect of the boy who grew up as Harry Potter.
Harry was, of course, a quite British version of a "superhero"—responsible and dignified beyond his tender years. In the U.S., the young superhero genre (at least in its last twenty years) has generally been populated by young folks who struggle much more with both "normal" adolescence and their developing powers. They are alienated—even "mutant"—teen outcasts with very special skill sets.
This particular film formula has been done to death in recent years. The stories have become so weak and repetitive that the only thing filmmakers can think to do is up the ante in the computer-generated effects. The noisy, bloated boredom of it all might leave you thinking that you can't abide another story about a troubled teen with superpowers.
But even today there are young American men, boys who grew up watching Spiderman and Akira and X-Men and the scores of earlier films, who are eager to try their hand at the familiar mythology. Two such twentysomethings are director Josh Trank (heretofore best known for the very short YouTube video, Stabbing at Leia's 22nd Birthday) and Max Landis, both scions of filmmaker fathers. The two developed a story idea of Mr. Trank's, got some modest funding, and went off to Cape Town, South Africa (doubling for Seattle) to make some movie magic.
Their resulting debut film, with the totally forgettable title of Chronicle, feels quite fresh, despite the fact that every member of any possible audience must be all too acquainted with the movie's themes and techniques.
The tale is told through "found footage," a mock-documentary style that has been overly popular since the low-budget mega-success of Blair Witch Project more than ten years ago. Yes, think of films like District 9, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity, and you'll have the idea. I'd like to say that this type of film is on its way out, but it clearly is not. Not only is the mockumentary a film style that easily covers the sins of a very low budget—shaky, grainy photography, no problem!—but such movies are also perfect, relatable fictions for a generation of movie-goers accustomed to recording every meaningless moment of their daily lives and posting it to social media.
Now, cross-germinate found-footage horror with teen angst and nascent superheroism and you have Chronicle; a movie that obviously draws on countless earlier films, and yet somehow seems, if not completely original, at least energetic and quite entertaining.
The central figure of Chronicle is an underfed Seattle teen named Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) who hasn't even graduated from high school but is already beaten down by life. Literally, in his case. At home, his affectionate mother is dying by painful inches. And his father, a former firefighter, out on disability, drinks heavily to ease his troubles, and then uses his son as a punching bag for additional stress relief.
High school, for Andrew, is no refuge from his troubled home. A scruffy, withdrawn nerd, he is the perfect target of bullies, even here. His only friend is his popular slacker cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who likes to quote Jung and Schopenhauer, as well as to party. Matt drags his cousin to a local rave—"What did Jung say about glow sticks?" Matt is queried—and the reluctant Andrew brings along his new appendage, a video camera he just started using to document the brutality and banality of his outsider existence.
But the camera is promptly called into service by soon-to-be-class-president, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a popular African-American youth, so charming and slick that you know he is destined to be a success as a politician. Steve and Matt have stumbled upon a mysterious hole in a nearby field. Strange noises emanate from the hole and they want to take a look and record their discoveries. A very reluctant Andrew descends with them and the three have a close encounter with a mysterious giant crystalline form.
Before long, the three teens realize that their exposure to the mysterious mineral has endowed them with telekinetic skills. Occasional nosebleeds are a small price to pay for their burgeoning powers. At first they are used for meaningless pranks like moving a parked car or blowing up the skirts of girls at school with an unmanned leaf blower. But soon they are exploring more exciting options—including high-speed flight. Steve enjoys the sheer joy of his new powers. Matt wonders whether they should be used for good. But poor troubled Andrew sees telekinesis as a form of personal authority he never dreamed of having. It is through him, and Dane DeHaan's affecting performance in the role, that the story takes a more troubling turn.
Chronicle is designed to appeal to viewers the same age as the three high school leads (and just a few years younger than the filmmakers). And it clearly does. I saw an opening day screening with a mostly young audience, and they applauded at the end of the movie and positively cheered when Andrew finally forcefully resisted his father's blows.
Andrew's scenes of payback are relatively predictable. And certain other clichés are also easy to spot. For example, (SPOILER ALERT) with only one of the trio an African-American, would you care to guess who in the movie is the first to die?
Like a male Carrie finally run amok, Andrew's quest to become an "apex predator" and his spiral toward the dark side will surprise no one. Unfortunately the film comes undone about the same time Andrew comes unglued. With Andrew no longer able to film the action, even telekinetically, the climactic scenes of buses and bodies improbably bursting through the upper floors of high-rises, are caught on police video, news footage, and by a variety of surveillance cameras. The mayhem is overdone, but such scenes are almost de rigueur in a superhero drama, small budget or not.
Although the crashing climax left me cold, I was generally impressed by the youthful enthusiasm of the filmmaking in Chronicle. I suspect that Mr. Trank and Mr. Landis will both see their careers blossom, and their proud papas will understandably kvell. And as for the found-footage movie, we are clearly destined to see many more of them in the future, too. The success of Chronicle will help. But I really think the appeal of the formula is more a matter of sociology than Hollywood unexceptionalism.
At one crescendo moment, Andrew flies up to the observation deck of the Seattle Space Needle and begins to trash the place to the screams of the diners and visitors therein—each of whom is clearly trying to capture the attack with their cameras and smartphones. In the film, Andrew summons their gadgets to surround him like a swarm of flies. And that is a suitable enough metaphor for our overly documented lives and the likely future of media and even moviemaking.
For a more classically cinematic (although equally low-budget) story of a troubled young person coming of age, I would recommend a movie that won the 2011 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, now available on DVD or to stream. The film is Another Earth, directed and edited by Mike Cahill, from a screenplay he wrote with star Brit Marling.
On the night when a bright young girl, Rhoda (Marling), is celebrating her acceptance at MIT, news breaks that another planet, similar to our own, has been discovered orbiting the sun. Drunkenly looking up in the night sky on her drive home, the teen causes a terrible car accident, killing a pregnant woman and her small son and sending the woman's Yale professor husband into a coma. Rhoda is imprisoned for four years for the deaths, during which time scientists conclude that "Earth 2" is actually a mirror image of our own planet.
Upon her release, Rhoda takes a dead-end job as a high school custodian and later goes to the home of the professor, John Burroughs (William Mapother, in an impressive performance) to apologize. Instead, she hides her identity, posing as a free-trial cleaning woman, and their relationship evolves from there.
Although certainly within the realm of science fiction and fantasy, Another Earth is actually a very intimate tale of guilt, loss, forgiveness, and redemption. At times, it tries too hard to be profound and fumbles badly—as in a subplot about a self-mutilating colleague of Rhoda's. And isn't the symbolism of a woman trying to scrub the guilt out of her life just a tad obvious?
Nonetheless, here we have a quiet and sometimes surprising drama, which is something you can rarely say about a modern sf movie.
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