In 2012, after the found footage superhero movie Chronicle became a surprise smash, director Josh Trank was at the top of Hollywood’s hot new director list. Within three years, he was a pariah. The production behind 2015’s Fantastic Four was so troubled and fraught with reshoots, creative clashes, and secret edits that Trank was labeled as a malcontent who couldn’t be trusted with the big tentpoles. He was unceremoniously dumped by Star Wars and seemed to become the latest casualty of an industry that eats its own promising wunderkinds. I’d highly advise people read a very illuminating in-depth article from Polygon on Trank’s troubles and triumphs, including his insights on where Fantastic Four went awry. Trank spent years honing his next script, an Al Capone biopic of his late years, and waiting for star Tom Hardy to be available. Some critics have called Trank’s comeback movie a self-indulgent, surreal, campy mess, and indeed while I was watching I had visions of Mommie Dearest. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, at least for me. I cannot call Capone an unqualified success but I appreciated the bizarre lengths Trank goes to make a biopic that mocks and tears away the mystique of its macho idol.
Capone (Hardy), or “Fonze” as he’s referred to primarily, has been released from his prison sentence for tax evasion and living the rest of his days on his Florida estate. He’s suffering dementia from the effects of neurosyphilis, a condition he contracted as a teenager. His wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), tries her best to keep him from harming himself or others. The F.B.I. is still listening, still watching, and newspaper reporters are still hiding along the bushes. Capone struggles to keep his mind from being completely lost but will lose, dying at age 47.
First off, I think Trank’s initial creative approach is a genius way to explore a biographical film, running through the major points of a subject’s life in a hallucinatory, non-linear fashion that mixes fantasy and reality. From that standpoint alone, Capone is never boring because it can quite literally go anywhere as Capone retreats further and further into his fraying mind. That’s such a visually stimulating way of telling a story while also presenting a chaotic impression of a character’s perception, locking us into an empathetic experience with an unreliable guidepost. I think that alone makes Capone worthwhile, as does Hardy’s go-for-broke performance (more on that later). It’s a weird fever dream of a movie, constantly shifting between past and present, fantasy and reality, and I think this perspective adds much to the film’s appeal and ambition. One second the man is sitting down with FBI agents and the next he’s wandering a ballroom to go onstage with Louis Armstrong for a New Year’s Eve duet. It gets pretty crazy and that’s good.
I was wondering if Trank would glorify his title subject. I only had to wait for the first twenty minutes where Al Capone literally craps himself twice for my answer. This is not Capone at the height of his fearsome power where he ruled the Chicago ganglands; this is a decrepit, doddering middle-aged man, equally helpless and reckless, unable or unwilling to even control his bowels. He is rotten from the inside out, a vile human being whose own filth is leaking out to smother him. Gangster cinema has often glamorized the mafia and criminals as unorthodox folk heroes, like in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the more recent Public Enemies in 2009. So, with all of that said, I enjoyed that Trank took a legendary figure of the criminal underworld and totally undercut his machismo power. He strips away the romantic notions of the man’s life. This isn’t the man on the pulpy radio dramas, this is a guy who craps the bed. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman got plenty of acclaim for spending its final half-hour showing where a lifetime of crime leads its elderly protagonist, a sad, lonely life without any lasting personal benefit. Trank takes that much-heralded final half-hour and turns it into an entire 100-minute movie. I wish more movies would do this to deserving subjects.
The biggest draw of the film is Hardy (Venom, The Revenant) who never met a film role he couldn’t grumble, mumble, growl, or unleash a funny voice for. To say he is committed does not to do the man justice. He is not only chewing scenery; he is rapidly inhaling it. He is playing to the cheap seats with this role, bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head with thousand-yard stares of confusion and paranoia. He’s barely intelligible at times, and that’s before he has a stroke that further impairs his ability to communicate. He can also be hard to recognize under layers of pock-faced makeup. The acting-with-a-capital-A style is so enthralling but perhaps not for the exact intended reasons. It’s fascinating to watch a highly respected, Academy Award-nominated actor just indulge every over-the-top impulse and tic, where each small decision feels like generating the question, “Really, you went with that choice?” The batty performance brought to mind Faye Dunaway’s breathtaking performance in 1981’s so-bad-it’s-good Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford (she thought she was going to in awards for that performance!). It’s a level of camp with no earthly reservation, and it’s rare to see from such a famous actor, and I was spellbound. If you enjoyed Mommie Dearest for its unintentional camp hilarity, then Capone might be just for you.
While at turns confounding and fascinating, Capone falls short when it comes to examining the inner life of its title character. I assumed with the conceit of losing touch with reality that Capone would be experiencing some reckoning over his past misdeeds, and this happens to a very mild, opaque degree. There are some supporting characters that turn out to be, surprise, ghosts that Capone had killed in his past. But they stop there, failing to provide an opportunity for Capone to feel remorse and they don’t even push him on being guilty. You would think a man with a sizeable list of dead people he’s responsible for would be haunted by more ghosts from the past, forcing him to reconcile his idea of himself with his tortured deeds. Capone is also seeing images of a young boy that is meant to represent his poor youthful upbringing, but he doesn’t interact with this past representation other than look uncomfortable in his presence. The movie desperately needed more introspection with this man examining his sins and legacy and validations. A bad man coming to terms with the end and what it means has great dramatic potential. A bad man who bumbles around his luxurious home, sees some ghosts, and continues bumbling has less so. That’s where Trank’s screenplay really falters because it doesn’t push harder. Capone is too caught up in upending the image of Al Capone rather than digging deeper into the man himself and his inherent end-of-life drama.
The supporting characters also do little to offer alternative sides to better know Capone. His long-suffering wife is nicely played by Cardellini (Green Book), brought to tears watching her strong man waste away, calling her an angel one minute and forgetting her face the next, but we don’t learn more about the central figure through her. He started poor. Got power. Now he’s incompetent (and incontinent). That’s it. There’s room for more here than a man physically and mentally falling apart. What about the other people in his life? What about plans for succession from those who spent their lives in his service? There’s even a storyline of a lovechild trying to get in contact with him and the movie miraculously does nothing with this abandoned son to add further dimension and insight.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t laughing throughout Capone, though I think Trank is intending some degree of mockery with his biopic that plumbs the depths of the strange and grotesque. There’s a guy who gets stabbed in the neck maybe 50 literal times. There’s Capone shooting alligators, convinced they’re conspiring to munch on his testicles. There’s Capone applauding and singing along to The Wizard of Oz and arguing for the sake of the Cowardly Lion. There’s an ongoing subplot about different supporting characters trying to somehow sift the location of Capone’s hidden millions from his broken mind like a treasure hunt. There’s an entire sequence where Capone, with carrot-as-cigar in mouth, marches around firing a golden tommy gun while his saggy adult diaper droops around his waistline. In short, there’s more than enough material here to enjoy on a strictly ridiculous, pulpy, heightened to the point of breaking campy variety. Hardy is fully unrestrained, for better and worse, but he’s always watchable, as I would say of the film itself. Even if it feels ultimately superficial and underdeveloped, Trank’s Capone is a mess of bad taste about a bad man going through some bad times and it just might be the good kind of bad.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Few movies have had such a prominent stink of negativity attached to them as Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, a movie that is already being considered amongst the worst superhero movies of all time. Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was given the freedom to go darker, emphasize more science fiction, and select a cast of respected actors rather than bankable names. Then came rumors of aloof and secluded behavior on set from Trank. Then came rumors that Fox and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) effectively shuttered Trank from his own movie, reshooting 40-minutes of a 90-minute film to salvage the wayward production (get ready for plenty of stuff in trailers not to be in the finished film). Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is easily more interesting than anything that happens in this movie.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a science genius recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Reed invented a makeshift teleporting device as a young child with the help of his friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). At Dr. Storm’s lab, Reed works with Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a morose computer programmer, Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell). The group transports to another dimension but is attacked by a strange green energy cloud. Victor is left behind. The surviving foursome exhibits unique abilities. Reed can stretch his body. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can fly and set his body on fire. Poor Ben is a hulking rock monster. Reed promises to find a way to reverse what happened to them, but the re-emergence of Dr. Doom puts the fate of the entire world at risk.
It should be of little surprise that Fantastic Four feels like two different movies awkwardly and inarticulately smashed together. For the first hour, the movie follows the path of our heroes and their contraction of their powers. Rather than the gee-whiz fun of getting superpowers, the characters view themselves as freaks, their bodies turned against them, and their colleagues deeply afraid of them. It’s a far moodier antidote to the vicarious thrills of gaining special abilities. There are some effective sequences that channel David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scanners, and it’s these brief moments where you feel Trank’s vision connect the most. Doom walking down a hallway and making heads explode, in a PG-13 way, is horrifying and cool. The problem for Trank, and the movie as a whole, is that this first hour still isn’t a very good movie. It takes far too long for these characters to get blasted by green space goo and become supers. The setup is so protracted and needless. Did we need to see how these characters came together? Did we need to see their childhoods? It’s not essential to see the team come together when we can already start from that point. In a sense, it reminded me of how needless I felt Pixar’s Monsters University was; did we need to see how these colleagues became friends? Despite this action-free opening half, the screenplay could have fleshed out the four main characters to justify the added time, but it’s hard for the movie to justify much.
These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. Reed is smart. Sue is smart too but also standoffish (and adopted). Johnny likes fast cars. Ben is tough and loyal. Victor is a pessimist who called dibs on flirting with Sue. That is really about it, folks. Ben disappears for most of the film, called in to make the trans-dimensional jump because Reed feels like Ben deserves to be there since he helped create an early prototype with Reed. Actually, let’s talk about that scene. It’s a high school science fair yet the only other displays we see are clearly for much younger children, and yet Dr. Storm is visiting an all-ages school science fair to groom talent? That seems weird. Why does Dr. Storm not make the same offer to Ben, who helped Reed design and build his early teleporting machine? Regardless, Reed leaves his childhood pal behind with Ben’s abusive family. That’s because he’s a good friend. Then, once the horrible transformations occur and Ben gets the worst of it, Reed runs out on him again. Sure it’s in the pursuit of finding a cure, but who’s to say he couldn’t do that in the already constructed government super science lab? Sue doesn’t even go on the first trans-dimensional voyage; it’s just a boy’s club. Sue spends more time in this movie staring at computer screens and looking intently than any action. It’s probably for the best, though, because the scenes of her flying around in a bubble made me think of Glinda the Good Witch. I’m not a Kate Mara fan. I’ve found the majority of her performances to be stilted, but even I can admit she’s given nothing to do here but move her eyes from the left to the right and inform Miles Teller about Portishead, a band that’s only 20-plus years old. It’s sad but the most interesting part of Johnny is that a black actor, a point that caused certain more irritable fans to foam at the mouth at the adaptation, is playing him. If these super heroes aren’t going to be super until halfway through the movie, they better be interesting characters. They are not even close.
It’s with the return of Dr. Doom that the Fantastic Four makes its inept transition into the second movie, the one reshot by the producers and the studio. In an implausibly fast amount of time we’re given our villain of the movie and he sets off to open a black hole to destroy Earth because… we’re self-destructive? So humanity is self-destructive so Doom is going to destroy humanity? I would also like to know exactly how Doom survived for over a year in the alternate dimension when it clearly looks like there is nothing of substance for miles, unless green goop is edible. Did he just lose the need to go to the bathroom? Doom’s powers are rather nebulous, which makes it even less interesting when the Fantastic Four decides to, get this, work together to beat the bad guy. For a movie that hasn’t had one action sequence until its final act, now our characters must band together to stop Doom and his giant flashing blue light black hole thingy. The special effects are pretty undistinguished and hard to read at times. I’d also like to remark how hideously this other dimension looks. It’s all rocky crags and dark clouds; it’s like a less successful timeshare for the residents of Mordor. It doesn’t quite look like the paradise that Doom describes it as (the brochure lied to us!). This jumbled conclusion feels so ham-fisted and rushed, a villain and a typical world-destroying fate that must be thwarted at the last minute. Things just sort of happen rather than storylines finding payoffs, and then it’s all sort of over and the resolution echoes the very end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with the credits cutting off the vocal iteration of the title heroes. It’s so transparently different in tone, sloppy in development and execution, and so quickly introduced and resolved, that the whole conclusion comes across as forcibly laughable.
At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop, especially now that Trank and executives are engaging in a P.R. blame game. Fox was hoping for a rekindled franchise. Now they may be hoping to work out a deal for Marvel to buy back the rights to the characters. I would have been interested to see the full vision of what Trank was going for, especially since the one scene that feels most adamant is the best sequence in an admittedly mediocre superhero film. At least the movie would feel cohesive. It probably wouldn’t be good but at least it would be committed to trying something different. Instead, the movie tries to be different from the superhero blockbusters populating the landscape and then, at the last minute, tries to follow their lead and become one of them, becoming its own misshapen and poorly developed blob. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I’ve learned a valuable lesson when it comes to genre movies – do not trust the marketing department of 20th Century Fox. Every promotional clip, trailer, TV spot, even the notion that people were flying around in cities as an attempt at viral marketing, it all coalesced into making me turn up my nose at Chronicle. It just looked like a bad movie. Then the critical reception was rather glowing and I took a chance, pleasantly surprised by the skill and execution of the flick. What made this thought-process notable was that it was almost an exact repeat of what I went through with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Every piece of promotion stoked my disinterest into outright loathing, and then after the positive press I saw the movie, begrudgingly, and was floored. I guess when it comes to future 20th Century Fox genre releases, I’ll try and figure out my reaction and then turn that upside down. If a movie looks like utter crap, then under this new value system it must be good. I’m sure my new cinematic equation will prove me wrong as soon as the latest Eddie Murphy family vehicle terrorizes theaters (“This fall, Eddie Murphy is… The Governor. And his political opponent? His wife! Also played by Eddie Murphy”). In short, the marketing department at 20th Century Fox sucks but Chronicle does not.
Chronicle is the chronicle (heh) of three high-school friends who contract telekinetic powers. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a social outcast, determined to videotape his life as a means of escape from his ailing mother, his violent, alcoholic father (Michael Kelly), and the torment of school bullies. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), is trying to read up on philosophy to impress Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a blogger/amateur documentary filmmaker. He’s more than some dumb jock. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the popular athlete planning to run for political office one day. The three guys discover what looks to be an alien craft underground. After coming into physical contact, the guys discover they suddenly have the ability to control objects with their minds. They test out their new powers in small ways at first, stopping speeding balls, assembling Legos. Matt insists they establish some system of rules to ensure they use their new powers for good. Andrew chafes at the idea of holding back, especially since he is by far the most powerful member of the group and eager to settle a few scores.
Just as the found footage motif is starting to get old along comes a movie that makes creative and clever use of the narrative structure. Documenting one’s life, including the endless trivialities, has become normal habit for a younger generation accustomed to Twitter-style instantaneous information dissemination. Given that Andrew is abused and harassed, it makes sense for his character to use his camera as a means of security physical and emotional: the promise of being recorded should at least keep some of the bullying and physical abuse at bay, and it also provides a barrier for him and the real world, letting him stand outside himself. As John Malkovich said in Shadow of the Vampire, “If it isn’t in the frame, then it doesn’t exist.” This is one of the few found footage films where I didn’t feel constrained by the limitations of its concept. I suppose it helps when your main characters have super powers and can fly into the sky for a game of pigskin. The climactic battle is plenty thrilling but also subtly ingenuitous, as we cut back from various camera footage to piece together our super smackdown; we jump from security cameras, police dashboard cams, helicopter cameras, to even personal video cameras of people doing what people do… document the strange and unusual (I’m just curious who assembled the footage, though I have my theories).
The key to Chronicle’s success is that it’s a well-written, character-based piece that just so happens to morph into a superhero cautionary tale. Andrew has a pretty hard life and it’s easy to see why this insecure, neurotic, and angry young man takes his new-found gifts as a cosmic opportunity for retribution. In a way, Chronicle is like an all-male version of Carrie for the digital age; incidentally, Andrew was set to perform in a school talent show and I was cringing, saying to myself, “Oh no, here comes the Carrie moment.” He’s a tragic figure and you feel for the kid, which gives him a little more leeway when he starts to veer to the dark side. Until the very end, you can follow Andrew’s motivation for every action, so when he dresses up in his father’s firefighter outfit to shake down the neighborhood bullies, you can justify it to yourself, saying, “Well, he’s desperate and needs to pay for him mother’s super expensive medication. Oh, and those guys had it coming. Jerk.” The power of empathy is a mighty one, and writer Max Landis (son of director John Landis) takes a measured amount of time to connect everything back to the character. The best compliment I can give Landis is that nothing feels out of place. The characters behave in a relatively believable manner, the action intensifies at a natural incline, and the characters manage to have some brainy, existential debates about power and responsibility in between typical teenage pranks/antics (it’s only natural that teen boys would somehow use telekinesis to improve their sex life). Sure these characters aren’t terribly deep and the multitude of Andrew’s misery heaped upon misery almost seems ridiculous. In another universe, perhaps Andrew uses his powers to lash out at his tormentors at school, though that approach would questionably glamorize school shootings. However, by the time the big action hits, we’re emotionally invested in the characters and have watched Andrew’s long fuse finally blow.
The special effects are even more impressive given the low budget and the found footage gimmick. The camera makes some nifty telekinetic moves, floating around and giving the film a bigger space to play within. The flying effects are pretty convincing, especially when one of our guys ends up tumbling back to Earth in one tense sequence. Whether it’s floating Pringles or cars crushed inside out, the effects are smooth and well integrated, and any noticeable lack of polish just fits in with the fuzzy nature of our video recording as lone record of the events. There’s a notable solution for sub-par special effects in movies: blame the nature of the movie (Uwe Boll, that suggestion is free of charge).
But the best special effect is young actor DeHaan (HBO’s first-rate show, In Treatment). Looking eerily like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the guy manages to channel pent-up rage, frustration, and helplessness in a way that doesn’t feel histrionic or twerpy. His character is the point of view for our tale given that it is Andrew’s camera after all; we’re mostly locked into his perspective. Good thing that the character is interesting enough and so well played by DeHaan that I didn’t feel stuck with a loser. He reacts like most teenagers would react when bullied and harassed, trying to be aloof and ambivalent but only able to hide the pain and resentment for so long. When Andrew does start to give in to the allure of his powers, DeHaan seems practically seduced by his sense of superiority. There’s a dangerous look in his eyes that turns on that cues the audience for trouble to come. Russell is an amiable actor even if his character is bland and somewhat inconsistent as a foil to Andrew. Jordan (TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a charming guy who finds the right balance of exuberance and sarcasm with his character. Together, the threesome of guys has a winning chemistry and character dynamic. When they’re getting along and the good times are rolling, you feel part of the gang.
Being a super hero has become a dominant male fantasy as of late in the movies, so it’s invigorating to see a movie that puts a fresh spin on what seems ad infinitum. Chronicle is something of a small wonder, bringing new life to the found footage concept, making smart use of its narrative confines rather than chained by its limitations. The story is just as involving from a character standpoint as much as its sci-fi genre elements and superhero wish fulfillment. Landis and debut director Josh Trank are talents that I have no doubt Hollywood will snatch up. They’ve given the super hero genre a necessary human element, too often lost in the splashes of action and merchandising. Along with its engaging character-work, Chronicle also happens to be a clever action movie with some soaring thrills. Ignore the shoddy marketing and take a chance on Chronicle.
Nate’s Grade: B+