Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shakes on a plane

I took two iTune rentals with me when my wife and I flew to Port Douglas in north Queensland this past weekend to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with friends who had flown over from Maryland. That experience would probably deserve its own post if this weren't, you know, a movie blog.

Since it is, I'll tell you the movie-relevant aspects of the trip.

One movie I took was Cymbeline, a modern-day adaptation of one of Shakespeare's lesser, later plays. The other was The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which is my first step in trying to catch myself up in that franchise.

I considered watching Tokyo Drift first, in order to symbolically "rev me up" for the big weekend. But I decided I might be more exhausted on the way home (despite three days without my kids, and theoretically as much sleep as I wanted), so I saved the movie that required less concentration for the flight home. (As it turned out, I couldn't watch it anyway, as we had a partial power outage in the cottage where we were staying, meaning that my fully charged laptop had lost most of its battery life by the time we had to leave for the airport, and I never gained another opportunity to charge it.)

I was right to recognize that I would need to concentrate more on a movie which, while set in the modern day, still uses Shakespearean language. What I failed to properly anticipate, however, was that being on a plane, where it can be harder to hear things on your headphones, might not be an ideal environment for watching a Shakespeare adaptation at all -- especially one I was not previously familiar with.

There's some precedent that indicated possible success. On my way over to Australia when I moved here, I watched Joss Whedon's lovely adaptation, also a modern-day adaptation, of Much Ado About Nothing. And in that case it was in the middle of the night, when I was pausing to sleep for short bits. I ended up loving that one, but that was at least my second time, and possibly my third time, experiencing the play. I'd seen Kenneth Branagh's adaptation (which I didn't like so much), and I think I may have also read it back in school.

Cymbeline, on the other hand, was entirely new to me. As soon as I started I thought "Shit, I could very easily get lost in this and never recover." Which would be a darn shame, because this was from Michael Almereyda, the same director who mounted a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, also starring Ethan Hawke, which ended up being my favorite movie of 2000. (At the time -- it has since been eclipsed by Almost Famous and possibly others). So my anticipation for this one was pretty high.

And then I realized the best way to watch Shakespeare on a plane -- I'd simply turn on the subtitles.

It turned out to be a great choice. Not only did I easily follow the action, but it allowed me to appreciate language that is probably best encountered on a page to be fully appreciated anyway. (Tell that to the crowds who visited the Globe Theater in the late 16th century/early 17 century.)

As for Cymbeline itself, it's a pretty odd duck as a play. It's like a greatest hits of his most highly regarded plays, coming off as a hybrid of Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and even Twelfth Night. The oddest thing about it, though, is that it's not actually a tragedy, even though three of those four plays are tragedies. Despite containing several character deaths and being about a pair of warring armies (represented here as a drug-dealing biker gang and the cops who are trying to stop them), the play has an ending that would be most at home in one of Shakespeare's comedies. An odd duck indeed.

But Almereyda's adaptation of that odd duck was pretty engaging, and contained some strong performances from a pretty established cast. Who doesn't want to see Ed Harris as the leader ("king") of a biker gang? The film also gets typically good work from Hawke and a surprisingly nuanced performance by Dakota Johnson, erstwhile of Fifty Shades of Grey. (Actually, it's not a surprise to me as I liked her in that otherwise forgettable movie and was a huge fan of hers from the short-lived sitcom Ben & Kate.)

It's no Hamlet, but here's hoping it helps give Almereyda a chance to direct another modern-day Shakespeare adaptation sometime before 2030.

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