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O

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Andrew Keegan, John Heard, Martin Sheen
Director:  Tim Blake Nelson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Lions Gate
Features:  See Review
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  February 19, 2002

“You have to understand that what we have is beautiful.”

“No.  She deceived me.  What makes you think she won't do the same thing to you?”

Film ***1/2

O may forever be known as the film that almost didn't make it out because of the Columbine tragedy.  The irony is, this movie could NOT have been made even ten years ago.  Nobody would have believed it.

Today, of course, it's horrifically believable.  Kids at young ages develop complexes, nurse grudges, and sometimes commit horrible deeds.  Lives that aren't lost are forever ruined.  Shakespeare probably never could have seen his famed play Othello as being relevant to the lives of students.  Yet O does not glamorize its material or try to make it too smart for its own good.  The voice of this picture is the voice of tragedy, and if one could argue that Shakespeare's characters should have known better, what can you say about a group of kids, struggling to find their place, dealing with hormonal and chemical changes in their bodies, surrounded by a never ending onslaught of drugs, booze, and unrelenting peer pressure…and perhaps most notably, where gun laws are only as effective as far as people are willing to enforce them?  

“Someday everyone will pay attention to me.”  That line, spoken by Hugo (Hartnett), is not so much a cry for understanding as it is a cold, dark warning.  Like the Iago character on which he's based, he is a perfect sociopath.  Unlike Iago, however, we see some of what makes him that way.

He plays high school basketball where his father is the coach (Sheen), and from the start, we see school sports being taken way out of context as it often is.  Winning is all, not education or becoming better young men and women.  On this team, Odin James (Phifer) is the star.  He's the only black kid at this prep school, and was a highly recruited young athlete.  The coach has no qualms about promoting Odin's star, even at the expense of his own son's feelings.

O, as he is known, is in love with the dean's daughter, Desi (Stiles).  She loves him back, making them the only interracial couple in the school.  The dean (Heard) seems less than pleased, but mainly keeps his mouth shut…probably unable to deny what O means to the school.  O, therefore, seems to have everything going for him…a beautiful, loving girlfriend, amazing athletic talent, and friends.

But one friend is jealous, and that's Hugo.  Seeming at first to be no better a schemer than Prince John in Much Ado About Nothing, Hugo begins to chart the plan that will unravel many lives before it's all over.  With careful words and a misplaced prop or two, Hugo begins to convince O that Desi has been seeing his teammate Mike (Keegan) behind his back.  All of this plays with the surety of the original play…added for more relevant measure are aspects like racism.  I've always hated the ‘n' word, but I don't think I've ever felt as stung by it as when it is used at a most crucial time late in the story.

We watch with an omniscient eye and a helplessness as well.  As much as we don't want to see events take their course, we can't stop them.  No matter how much we like O or Desi, their intertwined fate has been sealed.

This is a remarkable cast…Mekhi Phifer is electrifying as O, bringing to his character more sympathy than I think I've ever felt for the original Othello.  In a way, he becomes helpless, too, dragging his feet towards a destiny he can no longer control, but controls him instead.  His weakness is his inability to trust, and it grows rapidly into an Achilles' heel that will be his downfall.

Julia Stiles turns in another terrific performance as Desi.  She's more than just an innocent wallflower and a means to the end, which is how I sometimes viewed Desdamona.  She is the story's other great tragic figure.

And Josh Hartnett, who's star has been rising ever since The Virgin Suicides, adds more depth and complexity to Hugo than has ever been seen in Iago.  When his father tells O in front of the whole school “I love you like my own son”, you can see the pain in his eyes.  What he does is unforgivable, but to shut our eyes and pretend that Hugos don't exist or are merely flukes is to lie to ourselves.

It's the kind of movie where one has to ask:  was it really necessary to shelve it for two years?  Even after the horrible events of Columbine, O should have been perceived as what it was:  an intelligent, thoughtful look at school violence as a very real problem, and not some Massacre at Central High going for sleazy and bloody entertainment value.

This picture moved me to tears, and got me thinking over and over again, “If only…if only…”  And if we can learn to ask that question ahead of time, who knows?  Maybe that will be the first step in assuring these kinds of events stay on the movie screen and out of our schools and our lives.

EXTRA NOTE:  This film has one of the best in-jokes I've heard in a while…when a teacher asks Hugo to name one of Shakespeare's plays, he replies, “I thought he only wrote movies.”

Video **1/2

Instead of using dual layer technology for a quality widescreen presentation, Lions Gate opted to make both it and a full frame version available on the same disc.  This was a mistake…despite anamorphic enhancement, there are some noticeable compression artifacts here and there.  The darker the image, the more you can see grain and/or bits of flickering on them.  The overall imagery is a tad soft, without the benefit of sharply rendered lines and detail.  Coloring is generally very good (notice the school's colors are red, white and blue?), but I can't help but feel if disc space hadn't been wasted to accommodate a full frame transfer, we'd be looking at a much higher quality presentation.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is a good mix, with most of the subwoofer action and dynamic range coming from the rap music soundtrack.  A few crowd scenes (i.e., the games) bring both front and rear stages open for some nice ambient effects, but without a lot of front to back crossover.  Dialogue renders well, and the overall audio is clean and crisply presented.

Features ****

This double disc set boasts a nice extras package…Disc One features a commentary track from director Tim Blake Nelson.  It's a good and detailed listen, as he describes everything from working with the actors to the release difficulties, to the adaptation of Shakespeare's play and more.  Disc Two contains some very short interview clips with Nelson, Phifer, Stiles and Hartnett, plus four deleted scenes (given the quality of the dialogue in some of them, it's easy to see why they were cut) with optional Nelson commentary, a theatrical trailer plus several bonus ones, an analysis of the three main basketball scenes with commentary, and finally, a restored full length presentation of the silent 1922 version of Othello, starring Oscar winner Emil Jannings in the title role.

Summary:

When a Shakespearean tragedy becomes re-staged in a modern high school and earns a whole new relevance, it indicates a serious problem.  But movies like O are not part of that problem, and in fact, could be a step in the right direction towards a solution.  This is a powerful, tragic, and intelligent adaptation of a classic play that sheds new light on a sad situation and makes us look more closely at it.  It's a film that deserves to be seen, and I therefore congratulate Lions Gate for having the fortitude that other studios lacked in bringing this picture to the public.