(US - 2015)
CORIOLANUS, I've never been a big fan of putting Shakespeare in a modern setting while keeping the actual text of the play. It almost always comes off as a gimmick whose novelty wears off by the 15-minute mark. Michael Almereyda's NYC-set HAMLET (2000) is usually cited as the best of its type, but other than Ethan Hawke doing the "To be or not to be..." soliloquy while browsing the aisles of a Blockbuster Video, do you remember anything about it? Almereyda and Hawke are back with a modern take on Cymbeline, a late Shakespeare romance first performed five years before Shakespeare's death. It's one of his least-known works, sporadically dragged out of storage but rarely studied and enjoyed by few other than the most ardent completists. There was a BBC television production of it in 1982, with Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, and Helen Mirren, but CYMBELINE marks the first big-screen take on the play, with Almereyda centering the action on the New York-based Briton Motorcycle Club, led by King Cymbeline (Ed Harris). Cymbeline has a lot on his plate with the Queen (Milla Jovovich), his power-crazed, status-obsessed second wife, who plans on shifting the balance of power in her favor by arranging the marriage of Cloten (Anton Yelchin), her son by her late first husband, to Imogen (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY's Dakota Johnson), Cymbeline's daughter. But Imogen is in love with another, the lower-class skateboarder Posthumus (Penn Badgley). After Posthumus is run out of the city by Cymbeline, he stays with his friend Philario (James Ransone), where he makes the acquaintance of the duplicitous Iachimo (Hawke). After listening to Posthumus talk of his love for the virginal Imogen and how she'll remain true to him until they can be together, Iachimo wagers that he can seduce her. When she rejects his advances, Iachimo hides in her room until she's asleep and falsifies evidence of a conquest that never took place. This sets off a chain reaction of misunderstandings and chaos involving the central players, along with Cymbeline's right-hand man Pisanio (John Leguizamo), banished nobleman Belarius (Delroy Lindo), the ghost of Posthumus' father Sicilius Leonatus (Bill Pullman), the Rome police force, led by the corrupt Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), plus a magical potion that makes its sleeping user appear dead, and Imogen disguising herself as a young man named "Fidele."
Even in its original form, with its scheming Queen, sleeping potion, Imogen disguised as a boy, and the appearance of a patriarchal poltergeist, Cymbeline probably felt like a stale, self-parodying retread from a coasting Bard in its day, and at no point does CYMBELINE work. Despite a detailed opening crawl that tries to explain what's going on, the film is almost impossible to follow and that isn't helped by the lugubrious pacing (this is one of the longest 98-minute movies you'll ever see). The Shakespeare-speech-in-a-modern-setting gets old in record time, especially with Johnson's absolutely dreadful performance as Imogen. She's terrible here, giving Shakespeare a Millennial, vocal-fry spin with a generous helping of can't even that was always sorely lacking in the cinematic takes of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Johnson and Badgley get the most screen time, with top-billed Hawke turning up in a handful of scenes that amount to little more than an extended cameo. Jovovich's role is even smaller and Harris, in an ostensibly nice nod to his early breakthrough in George Romero's 1981 classic KNIGHTRIDERS, never looks or sounds comfortable. The direct-from-Shakespeare dialogue aside, another reason CYMBELINE doesn't work as a Shakespearean biker movie is because it feels like too much of a retread of the TV series SONS OF ANARCHY. During its run on FX, SONS creator Kurt Sutter made no secret of the Shakespearean themes running through the show and its characters, particularly Charlie Hunnam's Hamlet-like Jax and Katey Sagal's very Gertrude-inspired Gemma. So, for Almereyda to take a Shakespeare play, regardless of how obscure it might be, and work in a criminal motorcycle gang has to make you wonder what he was thinking. Had he heard of the show? Does he have basic cable, Hulu, or Netflix? What was Lionsgate thinking when they retitled the film ANARCHY and unveiled a trailer for it before yanking it and changing it back to CYMBELINE? The problem here is that Almereyda updates the setting but that's all he does. Fiennes made CORIOLANUS work by making its themes relevant to today's global political climate. By contrast, Almereyda has nothing to say about anything with CYMBELINE, so we're left with hacky plot bits like Iachimo taking a selfie with a sleeping, scantily-clad Imogen or Cloten getting on his laptop to do a Google search. (R, 98 mins)
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2
(US - 2015)