[box cover]

O: Special Edition

Lions Gate Home Entertainment

Starring Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett,
and Martin Sheen

Written by Brad Kaaya
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

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Review by Betsy Bozdech                    

"Right now in the United States, because of high school violence ... maybe high school is not only a credible place to tell this story, but the most appropriate one as well."

— Director Tim Blake Nelson

If someone told you that one of O, Brother, Where Art Thou?'s bumbling hicks, a Pearl Harbor pilot, and the chick from Save the Last Dance were behind one of the more controversial movies of the last couple of years, no one would blame you for scoffing. But director Tim Blake Nelson and stars Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles — along with Mekhi Phifer — do good (if not great) work in O, successfully turning one of Shakespeare's most poignant tragedies into a carefully crafted update about the twisted relationship between jealousy and violence.

Nelson and company are quite faithful in their update. Instead of Othello, the Bard's militaristic, suspicious Moor who "loved not wisely but too well," O's titular character is Odin James, the star basketball player — and only African American student — at an elite South Carolina boarding school. On the court, he depends on the athletic Mike Casio (Andrew Keegan) for back-up; off the court, he's in love with Desi (Stiles), the beautiful, generous daughter of the school's dean. Standing just out of the limelight — and hating every minute of it — is Hugo (It-boy du jour Hartnett), a brooding boy who's eaten up by envy. He resents the fact that his father, Duke (Martin Sheen), the school's basketball coach, gives more praise and attention to Odin than he does to his own son; he can't stand that O thanks Mike for his contributions on the court and doesn't have a word for his buddy Hugo. And Hugo's own relationship with the petulant Emily (Rain Phoenix) pales in comparison to O and Desi's devotion.

So it's no surprise — even if you're not familiar with the story of Othello — when Hugo starts planning his revenge. Playing on Odin's insecurities, Hugo makes his "friend" believe that Desi is cheating on him with Mike and that the two of them are playing O for a fool. Following quite closely in the path of Shakespeare's villainous Iago, O's Hugo makes good use of a significant scarf, overheard comments, his friend Roger's (Elden Henson) crush on Desi, and his own talents for manipulation to work Odin into a frenzy of doubt and suspicion that culminates in a night of brutal violence.

*          *          *

The twist in O — one made particularly relevant in light of the high school shootings that have caused such upheaval in the United States over the past few years (the Columbine tragedy led to the finished film being shelved for two years due to concerns over its ripped-from-the-headlines feel) — is that Hugo's actions are presented more as a cry for help than the work of an evil mastermind. Shakespeare's Iago was petty, cruel, and driven by vengeance; Nelson suggests that O's villain is a messed-up, misunderstood kid who just wanted his dad to pay attention to him. Well, maybe it's not quite that black-and-white, but the film definitely takes pains to make sure the viewer understands Hugo's motivations. Whether that's good or bad (or just a realistic reflection of modern society's tendency to find excuses for even the most abhorrent behavior) is hard to say, but it certainly sets Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya apart from the Bard.

O's cast of young actors is strong, overall, particularly Phifer and Stiles — who, with O, Ethan Hawke's Hamlet, and 10 Things I Hate About You under her belt, is rapidly becoming the queen of Shakespeare updates. Stiles' maturity and composure serve her well here; her reactions to Odin's behavior and suspicions aren't those of an hysterical teenager, but the legitimate response of a wronged woman. And as O gets closer and closer to the edge, Phifer plays him with intense emotional honesty — while it's impossible to condone what O does to Desi (particularly during the film's disturbing sex scene), thanks to Phifer's acting, you can understand the demons that drive him to it. Hartnett, meanwhile, is a little too sullen, even for a character like Hugo. And President Bartlett — er, Sheen — goes too far over the top; he seems bent on bringing every high school basketball coach stereotype (including breaking clipboards, screaming at players, and hurling erasers) to life.

The other thing about the movie that's slightly jarring (besides Nelson's John-Woo-gone-crazy use of bird symbolism) is how quickly the drama kicks in. We're barely introduced to the characters before Hugo starts his plotting and scheming — that may be true to Shakespeare's play, but it's a little unsettling for modern movie watchers used to having a first act that's at least 15 minutes long. But overall, O is a convincing, credible interpretation of Shakespeare's treatise on paranoia, fear, jealousy, and passion.

*          *          *

The two-disc deluxe edition DVD from Lions Gate (which picked up the movie's distribution rights after Miramax dropped it) seems to have been produced as thoughtfully as the movie was. Instead of being cluttered with music videos, cookie-cutter featurettes, and DVD-ROM trifles, O's discs offer carefully chosen extras that enhance and expand on the movie. Peek inside the dual-DVD slimline keep-case and you'll find:

Disc One

Disc Two

— Betsy Bozdech

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