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Lions Gate presents
"O" (2001)

"All my life I always wanted to fly. I always wanted to live like a hawk. I know you're not supposed to be jealous of anything, but... to take flight, to soar above everything and everyone, now that's living."
- Hugo (Josh Hartnett)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: February 18, 2002

Stars: Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett
Other Stars: Elden Henson, Andrew Keegan, Rain Phoenix, Anthony "A.J." Johnson, John Heard, Martin Sheen
Director: Tim Blake Nelson

MPAA Rating: R for violence, a scene of sexuality, language, and drug use.
Run Time: 01h:34m:31s
Release Date: February 19, 2002
UPC: 031398791126
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B C+BB- C+

DVD Review

Before September 11, I thought that the massacre at Columbine would be the defining moment of my generation. I was a senior in high school when it happened, and the changes it brought about, from regulations on what you could wear to ridiculously absurd security measures even in my small school of 550 students to further government probes into the effects of media violence on children and teenagers, seemed monumental at the time. For me, anyway, it was the perfect example of focusing on simple solutions rather than the root cause of the problems, and it's hard to say, in this case, even what those problems were. Maybe it was a lack of parental involvement, maybe it was severe teasing. Maybe shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were simply crazy. But I think it is safe to say that Marilyn Manson didn't make them do it. It was this political uproar that caused the 18 month delay of O, a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello set in a posh prep school. Originally, it was to be released by Miramax, but after the government crackdown on studios marketing violent material to teen audiences, one of the Weinsteins reportedly commented that he'd never release the film. Eventually, though, the world moved on and the issues moved to the political back burner as national attention focused first on the election scandal, then on the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy mystery. By then, indie distributor Lion's Gate had acquired the release rights, and the film opened to mixed reviews, but few shocked diatribes about an irresponsible show of violence and an insensitivity to those affected by it. In fact, the delay seems ludicrous once you have seen the final product, as the tragic bloodbath, though it does occur in a school setting is, if anything, a message of anti-violence that would come across crystal clear to even the most thick-headed teenager.The parallels to Othello are many. Here, rather than being made general, Odin "O" James (Phifer) is made captain of the basketball team by his king/coach (Sheen). Josh Hartnett's Hugo (Iago) is filled with jealousy at the special attention O receives from his father, and is further provoked when he chooses a younger classmate, Michael (Keegan) to share the MVP trophy. At this point, anyway, the modernization is successful; the emotion of Shakespeare is eternal, and even with contemporary dialogue and a new setting, the conflicts still ring true.But the script, from Brad Kaaya, takes a misstep once Hugo puts his plan of revenge into action. As in the original, Iago/Hugo is a manipulative schemer who'll stop at nothing to ruin Othello/Odin. Here, he concocts a plan to break him up with his popular girlfriend Desi (Stiles) by planting seeds of doubt in his mind about her faithfulness. Much of the plot revolves around the location of an antique scarf, a gift from Odin to Desi (a device carried over from Shakespeare). But divorced from the elegance of the Bard's poetry, not to mention set against the backdrop of a modern high school, the scarf becomes something of a joke. The emotions of Othello are there, the story fueled by envy and anger, but the events don't feel right. Any English teacher will tell you that Othello's tragic flaw is jealousy. Odin is so easily manipulated by Hugo that his seems to be stupidity.The story remains compelling, even if it doesn't completely work, helped along greatly by the performances from the excellent teen cast. Mekhi Phifer does an superb job in portraying a character that is all the more contradictory in this version of the story. It is easy, at the beginning, to see him as the star of the school, and he almost makes his final breakdown seem credible with a tortured monologue. Josh Hartnett, so bland in Pearl Harbor, gives a nuanced, subtle reading of the Iago character. He's less a devious conspirator that an insecure child, desperate for his father's attention. And Julia Stiles, quickly proving herself an actress to watch, manages to inject a bit of humanity into the sorely underwritten Desi, though her strong work can't overcome many of the structural problems of the final act.At is the final portion of the film, the portion that caused all those delays, where the update breaks down into something of a mess. Up to this point, director Tim Blake Nelson has done a fine job in capturing the tone of a Shakespearean tragedy—the heaviness and dread of impending, inevitable doom. The mood is somber, and the arty bird imagery throughout (pigeons and hawks are always flying around in the school for one reason or another) helps build tension. Nelson does seem too dependant on rap music to set the mood, though. The basketball games become the wars in this version, but even as well shot and edited as they are (and they do carry a great feeling of speed, anger, and energy), the music betrays the material. It’s just too easy. Gangsta rap has become a crutch in teen movies of late, and it's a trend I'd like to see die out. But in their attempts to be as faithful to the story structure as possible in adapting the play, the filmmakers have largely ignored any kind of character development. It is unclear, at any given time, exactly who Odin is. He's totally reactive, barely substantive. And Desi, a character that should be instantly endearing, does nothing to win our love by remaining in a clearly abusive relationship with Odin. In Othello, her plight made sense, but in a modern setting, her willingness to put up with near constant mental cruelty and suspicion is baffling. And once the final, expected tragedy occurs, it seems to do so only because it happened in the original. Hugo's plan goes awry more than Iago's ever did, and the climactic shootouts and murders fly past tragedy into melodrama. Perhaps more time with the characters would have helped, but I suspect not. As much as the emotion carries over, a direct update of the situations isn't possible. Simply too much has changed in the last 500 years. O certainly has its strong points, and I my feelings are somewhat conflicted. I certainly respect that a teen film has attempted something this ambitious, and that a writer saw the potential in the source material to create something that would touch so many hot button issues—violence in schools, teen drug use, rape. But in the end, the most I can say is that, while occasionally successful and always entertaining, the experiment is something of a highly commendable failure.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: The transfer as presented (in both anamorphic and full frame) is generally good, but seems hampered by the source material and the decision to include both formats on the same disc. While the source material doesn't show scratches or lines, there is quite a lot of visible grain. Colors are bright and saturated; though in a few scenes I did notice some overdone red tones that showed some signs of color bleeding. The black level is good but definition is lacking, and as such, shadow detail suffers. Edge enhancement isn't apparent, but I did notice some artifacting and quite a bit of aliasing.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The track for O commits the cardinal sin of an audio mix by overpowering the dialogue with other elements. And while speech is anchored in the center and sounds clear in most scenes, in some quieter scenes dialogue is hard to make out, while in scenes with lots of music, it is often overpowered. The frequent rap music interludes also seem to be overpowering, and much louder than anything else in the film. There is, however, good use of directional effects across the front soundstage and infrequent, but pleasing, surround use. LFE also punches things up through both the score and the soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Wash, Cube 2, Rose Red, American Psycho 2, The Rules of Attraction, State Property
4 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson
Packaging: generic plastic two-disc keepc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Restored version of Othello, 1922
  2. Interviews with the Actors
  3. Analysis of Basketball Scenes
Extras Review: I suppose the big selling point of this special edition is the inclusion of an entire film as a bonus feature, and while I appreciate this, it seems to only be there to take attention away from what is, without it, a rather mediocre extras package.That extra film is the silent 1922 version of Othello, starring legends Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss (The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari). This version runs roughly 85 minutes, has eight chapter stops, and provides an interesting introduction to O's source material, though this, too, is a something of a retelling of Shakespeare's play. I question the inclusion simply because I have difficultly imagining anyone in the target audience of the teen-based feature actually watching a silent film all the way through. Many adult film fans don't have the patience. But it's an interesting oddity nonetheless, if only to marvel at Jannings performance in the racially-charged role, only a scant decade before he became deeply involved in the Nazi party. Check out Mark Zimmer's review of the Kino disc, which appears to contain the same transfer as presented here. As for the extras that actually relate to the feature, disc one houses only a commentary from director Tim Blake Nelson. I hate to dump on the man, but I really don't think he understood what he was supposed to contribute with his comments, because this is quite possibly the worst commentary I have yet reviewed. In 94 minutes, he provides maybe ten of what I'd classify as real, insightful, informative commentary. Throughout the rest of the film, he is either retelling the story (he does this a lot) or pointing out particular locations. What I really wanted to hear was his feelings on the Columbine massacre, and how that related to the film's delay. He only hints at this once or twice, and never fully discusses it. Overall, this is a very dry track and not worth a listen even for fans of the film.The second disc houses the above mentioned Othello and the rest of the extras. The interview gallery is basically worthless PR fluff. We get about a minute each with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, and Nelson, and it seems all four were asked the same questions. None of them provide particularly interesting answers.More worthwhile (finally) are the deleted scenes. Four are presented, running from one to three minutes. Most of the time, deleted scenes are largely extraneous, but I thought three of the four here were actually quite good, including an interesting additional confrontation between Desi and Odin, as well as some more with the Roger character. Nelson provides optional commentary here, and gives a little insight as to why they were cut, but again, mostly just reiterates what they are about. Someone make this guy listen to a Criterion commentary, now.The analysis of the basketball scenes is actually quite good as well. Three scenes from the film are offered with optional commentary from Nelson and director of photography Russell Fine. Nelson stays on task here, and Fine sheds some light on the technical aspects of staging effective, realistic games. Too bad Fine wasn't present for the feature track, because with someone else to talk to, Nelson might have fared better.Finally, rounding out disc two is a trailer gallery featuring clips for O and six other upcoming Lion's Gate releases. Included are urban drug comedy The Wash; unnecessary sequel number one, Cube 2; a spot for Stephen King's recent TV opus Rose Red that runs a laughable 12 seconds; unnecessary sequel number two, American Psycho 2; the compelling trailer for The Rules of Attraction, which features Dawson himself, James Van der Beek, in several explicit gay sex scenes; and something called State Property.While I feel obliged to up the grade simply for the inclusion of an additional feature film, the overall score for this one is a bit low, simply because the rest of the extras are pretty lackluster.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

O is an admirable attempt at a Shakespeare modernization that works on an emotional level, but loses too much credibility in the translation. Still, it's certainly worthwhile—often compelling and very well acted. And even if, in the end, the experiment falls somewhat short of its goals, it's nice to see a teen-targeted film that at least tries to exist as equal parts entertainment and cultural critique.


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