Three high schoolers stumble onto a sinkhole in the middle of a field. They descend into it and encounter a mysterious, supposedly alien force that imparts each of them with superpowers in director Josh Trank’s debut feature, Chronicle. Employing the by-now familiar, low-budget artifice of “home video” footage (made famous by The Blair Witch Project on through Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series, to name a few), Trank follows the boys’ exhilarating discovery of their telekinetic abilities, beginning with the playing of harmless pranks and culminating in the near-destruction of Seattle.

Chronicle is positioned as a superhero origin story as the teenagers — happy-go-lucky jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan), charming misfit Matt (Alex Garetty) and disturbed loner Andrew (Dane DeHaan) — must contend with whether and how to use their powers. While Steve and Matt are content to limit the use of their abilities for the mere pursuit of fun, Andrew veers off-course and begins a downward spiral into criminality. Andrew’s choice isn’t surprising; as a victim of abuse, a son of an alcoholic father and an ailing mother, it’s only natural that his mind would steer towards revenge and mayhem. That forces the iconoclast Matt into the role of superhero, something he wants nothing to do with, but he’s all that the world has in terms of a defense against Andrew’s armageddon-scale abilities. So, in that sense, we have the creation of the classic Marvel Comics dynamic of the unwilling superhero (in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man mold) against the psychologically damaged arch-villain).

As always in the case of first-person, home video-style movies, the artifice gets in the way of the action. That characters would tote along a camera and have the presence of mind to shoot video while in the midst of wildly traumatic or ecstatic events (whether being chased through the woods by a witch, intruded upon in the middle of the night by a demon, invaded by an alien monster or, in the case of Chronicle, discovering that you have the ability to fly) is simply ridiculous. It’s an artifice that appeals because of its approximation to cable news, YouTube and home videos — things that are as much a part of our lives as the laptop I’m writing on or the tea I’m drinking. The merging of the familiar with the supernatural or the uncanny is what viewers find so irresistible (including me). But when the action ramps up, the artifice reveals itself to be the clumsy gimmick that it is. And it doesn’t fare any better here than it did in the case of its predecessors. While we’re on the subject, Chronicle breaks its own rule by frequently shifting to a smoother, objective visual style when the need arises, thereby wanting the best of both worlds. We only see it, though, as cheating.

That said, Chronicle is an enjoyable spin through the tropes of the superhero origin story. And it takes time to develop its characters richly, Andrew in particular. DeHaan nicely modulates Andrew’s sweet, soft-hearted interior in the movie’s first half with the hardening, monstrous anger that takes over in the second half. And while Russell’s Matt is a somewhat hazier, less sure-footed characterization, we can get behind any character with a dimpled smile who can quote Jung and use the word “hubris” in conversation.

Predictably, Chronicle unravels into forgettable mayhem in its third act as Andrew takes out his pent-up rage on Seattle leading to an Andrew-Matt showdown. Yet the movie’s first half contain enough unique moments to prove that Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have more than spectacle in mind. The scenes in which the boys first try out their powers come off best. Trank maintains a low-key, open-eyed curiosity throughout these scenes and a childlike sense of wonder prevails, most memorably in the “I-can-fly” sequence, which unlocks a primal sort of exhilaration in the viewer to match that of the characters. Moments like these demonstrate perhaps the most effective use of the home video style since “The Blair Witch Project,” anchoring their characters’ (and our) shock and surprise at the supernatural in the background of the familiar.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Josh Trank
Written by: Max Landis
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, Bo Petersen


Finding Nemo

From its dazzling opening scene to its last, “Finding Nemo” is the crown jewel in Pixar’s 8-year association with Disney. Ever since “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar has consistently pushed the boundries of digital animation while managing to tell clever, inventive stories, and “Nemo” is their most sublime balancing act yet. Coral reefs and marine life of every size and stripe burst forth with startling vibrancy, their textures and movements so vivid and lifelike that it seems Pixar has raised the CGI bar to spectacular new heights.

On the storytelling front, writer-director Andrew Stanton breathes fresh life into a familiar genre—the Quest Film—with a brisk and spirited script. What makes Pixar’s productions a cut above the rest—and “Nemo” is several notches above that—is not just that they take their cue from the fears and fascinations of childhood, but that they do so with such a genuine sense of awe and wonder. It’s what nourishes their stories and makes them consistently involving, even for those of us made jaded and cynical by adulthood.

Marlin, a hapless, overprotective clown fish, voiced with neurotic gusto by Albert Brooks, loses his son, Nemo, to a scuba diving dentist, eager to stock up his office fish tank. What follows are Marlin’s anxious, frenetic efforts to track down his son. Along the way, he’s joined by addle-brained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), herself a bit of a lost soul, and, together, they brave various undersea perils in a journey that takes them from their coral home in the Great Barrier Reef to the Sydney waterfront. Meanwhile, having befriended his motley bunch of fish tank inmates, Nemo plucks up his nerve and schemes with them for a way to foil their white-coated overseer and escape back to sea.

Stanton mines the tropes of the episodic adventure yarn and comes up with memorable sequences and characters at every turn. A fish tank has never felt so oppressive till seen through Nemo’s eyes, and it’s certainly never been the setpiece for a daring jailbreak till its hatched by the cunning, resourceful Gill (Willem Dafoe). Likewise, Marlin and Dory’s run-in with a trio of sharks at a Fish-eaters Anonymous meeting, their precipitous jam inside a whale’s mouth, and their encounter with a colony of sea turtles migrating through a winding, twisting oceanic current are among the delights that keep us rooting.

“Finding Nemo” is a flat-out visual marvel and an inspired summertime entertainment. Best of all, it secures Pixar’s place as perhaps the greatest and most ambitious animation studio since it mouse-eared distributor was in its heyday.

Grade: A

Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, David Reynolds
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Geoffrey Rush, Andrew Stanton, Eric Bana

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is the second collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and music video maestro Michel Gondry (their first was 2001’s “Human Nature”). It certainly bears the hallmarks of Kaufman’s self-reflexive fantasias, but, in its merging of narrative form and experimental technique, this is pure Gondry, and a dazzling showcase of his conceptual imagination.

Throughout his career, Gondry has mined the trove of his own dreams and childhood memories. Nothing quite makes sense in Gondry’s world but, in that secret language of dream-logic, in which sound and image mingle like the synaptic phantasmagoria of deep sleep, his cinema can be downright revelatory as you’re experiencing it.

Dream-logic lies at the heart of “Eternal Sunshine,” a romantic comedy that questions what it would be like if we could eliminate our worst, most troubling memories. Joel and Clementine’s relationship was littered with them. So, it’s no surprise that, when they break-up, Clementine (Kate Winslet), a hippy-trippy party girl, decides to erase her memories of shy loner Joel (Jim Carrey), using a memory-erasure process invented by a charlatan-neuroscientist, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). When Joel finds out, he decides to follow suit, if only to spite the impetuous Clementine. Assisted by a pair of feckless technicians, Stan and Patrick (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), Mierzwiak places what looks like a souped-up colander on Joel’s head and, with his subject in deep sleep, sets out to slash-and-burn all traces of his Clementine memories.

But, about halfway through his “erasure,” Joel realizes just how much he loves his memories and decides to go AWOL. What follows is a most unusual chase picture as Joel, with Clementine in hand, flees across the far-flung regions of his mindscape, as Mierzwiak tries desperately to track him down, mercenary-like. As Joel and Clementine encounter figments of his darkest memories, she helps him to make peace with them, and, as they re-live the rosiest days of their courtship, they brace against the inevitable destruction at the hands of the memory-erasers soon to come.

Kaufman’s script also interweaves Mierzwiak’s own woes with Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his lovestruck office assistant. She’d rather be musing over Alexander Pope quotations with the good doctor than getting naked and stoned with her boyfriend, Stan. What’s more, Patrick, privy to Clementine’s past, finds himself smitten with her and, cribbing from Joel’s notes, he clumsily woos her with his schoolboy wiles.

If anything, Gondry could have pared Kaufman’s script to its essence—Joel’s odyssey—and used its taut frame to develop his abundance of visual ideas. Gondry’s kinetic style, along with Kaufman’s crammed script, overwhelms its otherwise pitch-perfect cast. Carrey and Winslet are terrific, but their wonderfully moody scenes together seem needled by the material’s frantic demands, as if Gondry is constantly jabbing at them with his restless, anxious camera. Still, “Eternal Sunshine” is undeniably ambitious filmmaking and a feather in this year’s cap of indie movies. Its message that, try as we might, we’re forever stuck with the very people who drive us crazy can be read as Kaufman-esque in its cynicism, but I’m too won over by Gondry’s sunshine to be anything but delighted by it.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Michel Gondry
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Jane Adams, David Cross, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For its rapturous imagery and mythical sensibilities, director Zack Snyder’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” aspires to something akin to “Avatar” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In fact, the attention to texture and detail that Snyder and his team have invested in depicting everything from the film’s painterly landscapes to every individual feather of its largely avian cast is downright impressive. Rendered in 3D, “Guardians” can often be a breathtaking experience approximating James Cameron’s work in his above-mentioned saga.

Writers John Orloff and Emil Stern adapt Kathryn Lasky’s popular children novels about two warring kingdoms of owls – the noble Guardians and the evil Pure Ones. From the looks of it, Orloff and Stern do their best with an overload of characters, numerous by-plays, back-story and incident, but, finally, the job of condensing the full scope of a novel into a 90-minute fantasy flick asks both too much of the form and of the audience.

“Guardians” follows two plucky young barn owl-brothers, Soren (Jim Sturgees) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), who find themselves on opposite sides in the story’s mythic clash of owls. While testing their fledgling wings, Soren and Kludd are captured by agents of the Pure Ones and whisked off to their nefarious stronghold. Rather than be added to the Pure Ones’ legion of brainwashed soldiers, Soren escapes the clutches of its leader, Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) while Kludd – always jealous of Soren’s flying abilities – vows allegiance to Metal Beak and his queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren).

Soren, meanwhile, teams up with the tiny but intrepid Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the buffoonish but well-meaning pair, Digger (David Wenham) and Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia). Together, they seek out the storied Guardians and warn them of the Pure Ones’ imminent invasion, and of Metal Beak’s vaguely explained ploy that involves bats and unleashing the destructive energies harnessed from a rare metal. Deception in the Guardians’ ranks and an obligatory final act beak-and-talon throw-down round out a script that packs in far too many emotional and expository beats for anyone unfamiliar with the source material, frankly, to care.

A game cast featuring established thespians like Mirren, LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving together with newer talents like Joel Edgerton and Ryan Kwanten all manage to breath dramatic fire and a sincere gravity to the proceedings. That added to the story’s inherent sense of fantasy, and its genuinely felt moments of exhilaration (as when Soren discovers his perceptive gifts) and of danger (as when the “Guardians’” scrappy heroes struggle to fly through a dangerous ocean storm) keep us engaged – for a time, at least.

But one question I kept coming back to was, “Who’s this movie made for?” It’s too violent and scary for very young children. And I wouldn’t expect tweens and teens to be jonsing for a fantasy adventure about owls. For older crowds, the movie doesn’t have rich enough story and character development – though it teases with potential in both – to make the material truly involving. That leaves the fans of Lasky’s books, but they too might be turned off by Snyder’s rushed, fevered telling. “Guardians” may be trying to please all the above equally with the end result that everyone leaves the theater feeling a bit gypped.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: John Orloff, Emil Stern
Cast: Jim Sturgess (voice), Emily Barclay (voice), Abbie Cornish (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Geoffrey Rush (voice), Helen Mirren (voice), Joel Edgerton (voice), Sam Neill (voice), Ryan Kwanten (voice), Anthony LaPaglia (voice), David Wenham (voice)

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The bar has been set so low in mainstream Hollywood movies that it’s not even worth seriously analyzing this stuff. Lucas’ franchise is a cultural event and that, more than the movie, is cause for serious worry. What can you say when a series of movies (beginning with 1999’s Phantom Menace) is this incompetently made? Lucas has a tin ear for dialogue, and he’s so grossly oblivious to issues of dramatic tension and narrative pacing that, while watching Revenge of the Sith, I just sat there benumbed to it all. The kindest thing I can say about Sith is that it’s a couple of notches better than Menace and generally watchable. It’s an orgiastic spectacle of visual effects and painterly CGI alien cityscapes in place of smart, engrossing storytelling. What’s weird is that the most emotionally resonant moments in it don’t really stem from the story itself but from how we causally connect the implications made therein with our memory of the original three Star Wars movies…sigh. Still, if this tripe works for you, so be it. For me, this (along with other recent drivel like Sin City) is another nail in the coffin for the art of storytelling in Hollywood. And, while I’m on it, it points to the degradation of intelligence in culture as a whole, both in America and in its imperial subsidiaries overseas.

Grade: C+

Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee, Keisha Castle-Hughes

Sky High

From start to finish, this one’s pure fun. Sky High has no pretensions to being anything more than what it is: a silly, kitschy send-up of superhero culture grafted onto the teen romance/high school genre. The script is fast and funny, the cast of kids playing the sidekicks, er, I mean “Hero Support” is winning, while Kurt Russell and Dave Foley are at their oddball/deadpan best. The result is a surprisingly clever, spirited and joyful ride. What I admire most about Sky High is that it’s able to maintain a standard of intelligence and a sympathetic engagement with its characters without once resorting to any tiresome irony or cynicism. There hasn’t been a summer entertainment — a live action, non-Pixar one that I can think of off-hand — like this one since 1999’s Galaxy Quest — another sharp, smart sci-fi lark.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Written by: Paul Hernandez, Robert Schooley, Mark McCorkle
Cast: Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kevin Heffernan

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Visually, this one’s just pure joy–a revisionist throwback to ’30s Buck Rogers-style adventure serials. I think Sky Captain tanked at the box office because it may have been too obscure in its source material for younger audiences to relate to — too demanding of the mall rats not used to its old timey cultural references. At heart, this is a classic quest story about the titular aviator-hero who, along with his sidekick, Polly Perkins — your standard go-getter reporter — go on the hunt for a German doomsday scientist who’s been building and deploying giant robots to wreak havoc around the world. The method to this scientist’s madness boils down to a spectacular finale in which his “World of Tomorrow”–a kind of intergalactic Noah’s Ark–takes to space with the aim of destroying the Earth in its wake.

The cast is fun: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins is pitch-perfect in the manner of all these intrepid comic book heroines; Angelina Jolie as Sky Captain’s sultry, eyepatch-wearing “Girl Friday” is delicious. Jude Law is smooth enough as Sky Captain though his aviator is no Indiana Jones. Law’s slick-haired Sky Captain is closer to Stephen Collin’s leather-jacketed, cigar-chomping flyboy from TV’s Tales of the Gold Monkey from the mid-80s.

The script’s character development is weak with Conran’s creations lacking edge and depth. This explains why the film leaves precious little residue in one’s mind when it’s over. But the visuals are phenomenal, rendered with so much love and passion that each frame is a marvel just to behold. Beautifully shot and edited and with production design that I can’t gush enough about–delivering on all levels, going from H.G. Wells to old cliffhanger serials (a la Raiders of the Lost Ark) and King Kong/Mysterious Island territory. It’s a hell of a package–I only wish it had been tied up with stronger character-driven themes and that Law and Paltrow had more combustible chemistry. Yet, this World is wonderful just the same.

Grade: B

Directed by: Kerry Conran
Written by: Kerry Conran
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon