‘Bokeh’

Bokeh: noun. The blurred quality or effect seen in the out-of-focus portion of a photograph taken with a narrow depth of field. That’s the definition of the obscure word from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, and it’s an apt, if opaque, title for a film about a photographer and his girlfriend who experience a world-altering event on vacation in Iceland.

You could say it’s an apocalypse, but there’s no natural disaster, no violence, no plague. There’s actually no event at all, but everyone disappears overnight, leaving Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary) very much alone, together. The sun rises and sets, the escalators in the mall run, the espresso machines work, but every person is gone without a trace. What was a romantic dream vacation exploring the hot springs and rugged landscape of Iceland, camera in hand, is suddenly the end of the world.

Written and directed by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan, “Bokeh” turns the notion of the apocalypse into a philosophical exploration of the meaning of life. This end of the world isn’t an end of the world, truly — it’s just the mysterious lack of humans from an otherwise normal environment.

While the couple copes with an indulgent spree through the local shops and bars while waiting for any sign or news, the apocalypse is what happens to them mentally and emotionally. Soon it’s an existential nightmare, as the film begs the questions: What is the reality of being alone? With all of that landscape, what is one to do without any people in it?

For Riley and Jenai, the event reveals a moral chasm between the previously inseparable pair; one that widens slowly, imperceptibly, but widens nonetheless. Where he sees opportunity and adventure, she sees a prison. “We could still live a good life,” he says, and she can only respond, “I don’t even know what that is anymore.” The pair are yin and yang: Riley lives in his body, Jenai in her mind. He lives in the present, she yearns to know the future and mourns for her past.

They wander around deserted, picturesque Icelandic villages, explore the rocky coast, glaciers, cliffs and meadows; loot grocery stores and move into a neat Scandinavian home. Their circumstances are bleak and yet undeniably beautiful. With dreamy cinematography by Joe Lindsay, and a mournful, swooning score by Keegan DeWitt, the film has a lyrical quality, which mirrors the unreality they’re feeling in this stark situation.

Jenai is tortured by questions that might never be answered. She feels abandoned by God, and questions her own spirituality and belief systems. Considering the way a glacier slowly wipes the globe clean, she muses, “maybe God got impatient.” She wonders if it was her God or another that has landed them in this predicament. The ethereal Monroe anchors the film, and her quiet performance is transfixing. Her deeply felt spiritual torment not only resonates, but eclipses the rather superficial desires of Riley.

What sets “Bokeh” apart among the “low-key apocalypse” cinematic subgenre is not what happens, but what doesn’t happen. They start to break down not because anything’s happening, but because nothing’s happening. It’s the unknowing that is their undoing. The result is a subtle but ultimately profound humanist message: it’s human fallibility that ends the world as we know it, but is it ever a world without humans in it?

(No Rating, 3 out of 4 stars, 1 hr., 32 min.)

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

'Power Rangers'

Back in the ‘90s, you probably knew them as “Mighty Morphin,” and these days they take the prefix “Saban’s,” but we all know them best as simply the “Power Rangers.” Executive producer Haim Saban discovered the “Super Sentai” series on Japanese television in the '80s, and brought the concept of teens in colorful costumes fighting monsters to American audiences in the form of the somewhat silly, but much beloved, “Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers” series. Now, of course, we have the big screen reboot, for better or for worse.

Joseph Kahn’s “Power/Rangers” short film that popped up online in 2015 showed just what a truly dark Power Rangers project could look like, but this version of the “Power Rangers” is about as dark as a CW series: just enough to be taken (somewhat) seriously, but with enough of a sense of humor about itself to have some fun, too.

The team of screenwriters has brought a sense of levity, as well as realism to the high school dramas, and the film is more about a bunch of oddball teens than it is about colorfully suited karate-chopping superheroes. The first half is “The Breakfast Club” with way more extreme daredevil behavior, as this posse of misfits discover each other and stumble into their startling new powers, by way of five colorful coins they happen to blast out of a mountainside.

The explosives enthusiast is Billy (R.J. Cyler, who steals the whole movie) a neuro-diverse nerd who befriends disgraced football captain Jason (Dacre Montgomery) in detention. Also on the mountain that day are rebellious former cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott), heavy metal yogi Trini (Becky G.) and adrenaline-addled delinquent Zack (Ludi Lin). Soon they’re being groomed by a 65-million-year-old alien, Zordon (Bryan Cranston, no really), and a sassy robot, Alpha (Bill Hader), to take on Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), who plans to use Goldar the gold monster to steal the Earth’s life crystal.

If the Rangers are on the CW, Banks is in a universe of her own, stalking about the small town of Angel Grove in hobo dominatrix gear, dramatically stage whispering, “GOLD,” “CRYSTALS” and “KRISPY KREME” to no one in particular. It’s a committed performance that inspires chuckles, but hopefully it’s supposed to.

The actual power ranger-ing in the movie is blessedly short, focusing more on character and team building. It’s a good thing, because director Dean Israelite and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd have a chaotic approach to shooting action. The entire film is dark and murky and the action sequences have no sense of geography. It seems a trend these days to keep the pace blisteringly fast in order to never let the film drag, but the cutting between scenes could give one whiplash.

We are denied a good morphin’ sequence though, which was the best, most memorable part of the series. All we get is slow-motion strolling when they could have been wildly peacocking on a cliff’s edge.

“Power Rangers” maintains the essence of its origins in that it’s rather pleasantly bonkers. It errs on the side of goofy than gritty, and that’s to its favor. Trying to take this too seriously would be a mistake. Ultimately, it’s not much more than an itch on that nostalgic sweet spot that Hollywood is more than happy to scratch these days.

(PG-13, 2.5 out of 4 stars, 2 hr., 4 min.)

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘Wilson’

Daniel Clowes is one of the great graphic novelists and jaundiced wits of our time, creator of fantastically bitter characters whose litanies of complaint and twisted avenues of philosophical inquiry would be tragic, or merely pathetic, if they weren’t also really funny. Clowes is like Anton Chekhov’s wiseacre American cousin. And, near-miraculously, director Terry Zwigoff’s film versions of Clowes’ graphic novels “Ghost World” (2001, featuring Thora Birch and a prestardom Scarlett Johansson) and “Art School Confidential” (2006) stayed true to the tone, rhythm and sneaky pathos of the Clowes books.

Now comes “Wilson.” The director is Craig Johnson, whose previous film was “The Skeleton Twins” (2014). Here he works from Clowes’ screenplay, based on his 2010 book.

Does it work as a movie, up and away from the pages of the graphic novel? Not quite. Even those who get a few laughs out of the title character’s multidirectionally insulting repartee, delivered with relish by Woody Harrelson in the title role, may wonder what’s so special about the source material.

The graphic novel’s felicities were many, beginning with Clowes’ ever-shifting illustration styles (he drew the one-page vignettes in a nutty variety of comic book aesthetics). “Wilson” worked in just enough narrative to keep those vignettes rolling. The death of Wilson’s father leaves the central figure with only his dog, Pepper, for company. He reconnects with his ex-wife, Pippi, who put their newborn daughter up for adoption many years earlier. This leads to an ill-considered kidnapping plot, involving Wilson, Pippi and their surly goth daughter, Claire; a prison sentence; Wilson’s re-entry into society and his relationship with his former dogsitter; and his eventual realization that there’s more to life than kamikaze social interactions and grudge matches.

The book was the best kind of vinegar. The movie settles for bland, indistinct flavors. (“Wilson” was more or less shrugged off at its Sundance Film Festival premiere this year.) Director Johnson wants to put the movie in a better mood, lest he commit commercial suicide. Harrelson gets stuck in bug-eyed neutral early on, and stays there. In the role of Pippi, Laura Dern’s aghast reactions to Wilson’s uncouth mutterings are often the funniest thing in a given scene. Isabella Amara does well by the mall-dwelling, loner teenager whom Wilson and Pippi scoop up for a family road trip. Among the major players, though, the perpetually fabulous Judy Greer — as Wilson’s dogsitter — has the most natural affinity for Clowes’ deadpan sensibility.

“Wilson” benefits from a crack cinematographer (Frederick Elmes), here avoiding any overt stylization or fussiness with the images, and I like composer Jon Brion’s blithely sardonic “danger” themes. The chief obstacle is directorial miscasting. Aside from a quick, one-shot sight gag involving Wilson and a bunch of balloons, on a trip to a zoo, Johnson overemphasizes the comedy and strains for the sentimental connection. Character motivations, or lack thereof, trip up the action in a way they did not in the graphic novel. (Dern’s character seems like a complete idiot for going along with Wilson’s Clark Griswold act.) A nervier, more divisive filmmaker such as Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Philip”) might’ve nailed the essence of Clowes’ stubborn misanthrope. Warming up this material, as Johnson tries to do, doesn’t make it warmer; it just makes it seem warmed-over.

(R, 2 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 34 min.)

Michael Phillips, Tribune News Service

 

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