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(Movie review originally written 9/01)

Introduction
One of the hottest things to do in Hollywood right now is to take a Shakespeare play and update it for modern audiences. After all what else can you do when all the truly original stories have been told but take classic stories and retell them? Shakespeare never really interested me throughout my high school years as I found it hard to understand his plays due to the differences in our present day English and the English of Shakespeare's time. During 9th grade I did work on the crew of A Midsummer's Nights Dream, a play that our theatre department was presenting. By attending hours upon hours of rehearsal I was able to somewhat understand the comedy. If my school Shakespeare experience was anything like the typical one there are many teens and young adults who don't what they are missing out on. Luckily most kids have some sort of Shakespearean experience indirectly via modern teenage films. Some films use Shakespeare as a basis for their story but stray far from the original text while others remain true to the source material. Some of these films I have liked and some I haven't. The one that comes to mind here is Baz Lurhmann's 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. In that film Lurhmann (director of this summer's Moulin Rouge) took the tale of two star crossed loverss and set it in modern times, but kept the original text of the play. I don't know what it was but that film didn't register with me at all. On the other hand teen comedies like "Get Over It" and "10 Things I Hate About You" which only borrowed loosely from their original tales (Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew respectively) entertained me immensely. I guess that means I enjoy a somewhat revised Shakespeare story.

Some birds...
Movie
"O" is the story of Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) a star basketball player at a private school in the southern United States. He's also the only African American student at the institution. He has a smart and lovely girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles) and is well liked by many of his teammates. His main rival is Hugo (Josh Hartnett) another student and basketball player who feels that he isn't getting enough playing time with Odin on the team. Hugo's father is the coach of the basketball team and even loves Odin like his own son. Hugo wants to exact his revenge on Odin badly and enlists the help of the love scorn Roger (Elden Henson) who is interested in gaining Desi's affections. All the while Odin is extremely jealous of the amount of time his teammate and friend Michael (Andrew Keegan) spends with Desi. Odin even believes that she may be cheating on him. Hugo with the help of his imaginative mind manages to manipulate the players with great ease and soon Odin is sure that Michael is doing more then just hanging out with Desi. Desi for the most part is unaware of what is truly going on and is only a pawn in Hugo's game. Tempers flare as things get further and further out of control leading to a powerful conclusion.

"O" was originally shot back in 1999 and was to be distributed by Miramax films around the time of the tragic incident at Columbine, an incident where two students opened fire on their classmates, which resulted in numerous deaths and many life-altering injuries. Due to this incident and sensitive political timing the film's release was delayed. However since the original April 1999 date this film has had several release dates, all of which came and passed without the film seeing the screen. It was becoming clear that Miramax who once was behind the film was again scared of releasing a controversial movie. Miramax, the studio behind "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" as well as the highly controversial film "Priest" was worried about potential backlash from protestors concerned with the violence and sexual content in the film. So in April of 2001 Canadian based distributor Lions Gate Films purchased the rights to "O" much like they did with Kevin Smith's "Dogma", another film that Miramax had issues with releasing. Although it seems like Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the heads of Miramax, were behind both films the problems are due to the corporate structure of the company of which the Disney group is at the top of. Disney has an image to maintain and these films simply didn't fall within the tighter limits they have as a more family based company. I don't blame Miramax for not releasing this film when they originally planned, as it would not have been the correct thing to do. I do however wish they had been able to either release or sell this film off sooner so that the public didn't have to wait to see it. But alas what is done is done and now the film has been released.

"O" features a who's who of young Hollywood talent. When this film was shot none of the principal actors had huge profiles in Hollywood like they do today. In a way the delay in releasing this film could be a good thing as it can now attract a wider audience based on young people's familiarity with the cast. Julia Stiles who broke out in last winters surprise hit "Save the Last Dance" is excellent here as Desi, the smart rich girl who is loyal to a fault but can give off the wrong impression. Julia shows here that even at a young age she was capable of giving a powerful performance. Shades of her role in Save the Last Dance are present, but I felt that her small role in this picture shows a greater range. Mekhi Phifer who was perhaps the biggest name in the cast during initial filming gives a jaw dropping performance that puts anything else this actor has done to shame. Mekhi's range of emotions from his love for Desi at the beginning to his pure hatred in the end is just so amazing that I felt his pain and longing reach deep into me. For such a newcomer to film to be able to portray such a deep and misunderstood character so well proves to me there is some young talent out there and that the world is not overrun by a bunch of Freddie Prinze Jr type actors, who look good but lack any real acting abilities. Josh Harnett who was excellent in Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" shows once again the side of him I like. Josh, like Mekhi gives the viewer a performance that takes them inside his mind enabling them to truly feel for the character, something Josh was unable to do in this summer's action blockbuster "Pearl Harbor". With these two early performances from Hartnett it makes me wonder how good this kid will get. Andrew Keegan who is best known for his guest starring appearances on TV's 7th Heaven gives a good supporting performance here as does ex "Mighty Duck" Elden Henson. With a cast like this made up of some of Hollywood's hottest young talent it makes "O" a pure pleasure and delight to watch and to me it's no surprise that super star casting director Avy Kaufman cast this film. Avy is one of the best casting directors in Hollywood today bar none and truly knows how to cast a film correctly.

Julia Stiles as Desi.
One of the major issues surrounding this film is its violent nature. The film does deal with some adult themes and finds itself with an "R" rating in the US. While I have seen many violent films during my years, as a movie fan there hasn't been a film with violence that has truly affected me the way this film did. Sure this film isn't an action movie and I would classify this film as a drama so it's not overly violent at all. However the way the violence is handled is very real and sent chills down my spine. I've never been overly sensitive to violence in film and aside from a few movies I take most violence in films to be of a comic or unreal nature. That is not the case with this film. The violent events that occur in this film are unsettling and do bring back haunting memories of hearing about school shootings. I was fortunate that nothing ever happened at my school but there is no reason why these types of incidents should ever happen anywhere, period. Kids are supposed to feel safe at school and shouldn't have to worry about their lives every time they enter a school building. We don't live in a perfect world and some kids for whatever reasons feel the need to commit these acts of violence. It's truly a sad state of affairs. Parents and other people may feel the need to protest this film claiming that it glorifies violence in a school setting. I understand why they might feel that way but that's not what the film is doing. In a time where American elected officials are asking Hollywood to police itself this controversial film is made. To view this picture as part of a problem is to be blind to its true objectives.  This film is part of a solution that I only hope can be reached before the lives of more innocent people are taken. This film should be a must see for anyone in their teenage years. Parents should take their children to the film and discuss it with them after words. Parents and kids alike can learn from this film and it really should be seen.

Director Tim Blake Nelson works off a script by MadTV scribe Brad Kaaya based on the play Othello by William Shakespeare. Brad's script remains true to the original while setting the story in a time more relatable to modern audiences. While it doesn't quote the Shakespeare play verbatim some of the original dialogue is used and it works quite well. Sure there are problems with some of the vents being realistic but that can be traced back to original material. Tim and Brad have managed to craft one of the best and most important films aimed at teenagers I have ever seen. As some who is just past his teen years I'm insulted with the quality of films aimed at that age group. There have been some exceptions but for the most part the stories lack any real substance and are really quite insulting to anyone with any smarts at all.

"O" deals with hatred and jealousy in a deep and disturbing way. There is no sugar coating here. There will be times that you will shocked and appalled at how the characters treat each other. It's not easy to sit through but it's important that you do. Perhaps if enough people see this film then we won't have to read about another school shooting. I urge everyone to go see this movie and bring your kids.  "O" is one of the most important films released in the last three years that a teenager could view. I applaud Lions Gate for acquiring and releasing this film some three years after it was originally produced. I only wish it could have been seen sooner. "O" is a magnificent piece of work and one of the year’s finest films.

Video
Trimark as a distributor hasn't really done much to win over fans with their video transfers. In my collection of nearly 300 discs only five of them bare the Trimark logo. Of those five discs only two of them contain widescreen transfers that have been enhanced for 16x9 displays. It appears in recent months that company policy has changed as "O" is framed at 1.85:1 and features anamorphic enhancement. Also included is a 1.33:1 panned and scanned version of the film that will please Joe Six Packs, but since 1.85:1 features the smallest black bars there should be no excuse for selecting that version. To tell you the truth I haven't been very impressed with Trimark's transfers in the past and while "O" is a big step in the right direction it's still not at the level I'd like it to be. In an age where near flawless transfers appear on almost every day and date release Trimark's "O" is reminiscent what was coming out over a year ago. First I'll focus on the good. The print used is pretty clean and considering the limited number of prints made and the short run the film had theatrically it's nice to see that one was kept in pretty good shape for use here. Colours appear natural if slightly muted and are free of problems like bleeding or smearing. Print detail and sharpness are good considering the film's low budget technical origins. On the negative side the film is a bit grainy throughout. This isn't so much of a problem during the film's many night scenes but is very apparent during the brightly lit exteriors. There is also some minor pixelation and shimmering present usually involving the schools brick buildings. Lastly the film transfer appears overly dark compared to what I remember in theatres. It didn't cause any major problems on my review system but the transfer was very dark on my computer monitor. However for all the bad the fact that this transfer nails a number of difficult night exteriors is worth applauding. I'm not sure who to blame for the problems that plague the video on this disc and in the end I think it's more directly related to the low ($5 million) budget and the independent origin of the film. Had this been a big budget studio picture then there are no doubts that the visuals would look that much better. Trimark does an acceptable job with the resources they are given, but I still think more work could have been done to improve upon this transfer. I'll give this transfer the benefit of the doubt as it's closer to an "8" then a "7.5" but I'm not doing so without some minor reservations.

Audio
"O" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack will never rival a major Hollywood production but the mix included here sounds a bit off compared to my memories of the theatrical presentation. Although the disc is labelled as 5.1 there is very little more to this mix then the front three speakers and the occasional thump from the subwoofer. The main aspects are dialogue and music and although the dialogue sounds fine (albeit a bit low in spots) the fidelity of the music is a bit more troubling. Featuring an urban soundtrack consisting of a bunch of rap songs, I would expect more bass presence during the music. Although I'm not a huge fan of rap music I do enjoy the room shaking bass that many rap songs contain. However the rap songs here seem a bit flat compared to my memories of what I heard theatrically. The only time the music really stands out is during the more classically scored scenes where Jeff Danna's moody and dark music fills the room. Surround usage is really limited to the basketball scenes and even then I wasn't particularly impressed. Even after giving consideration to the origins of the production this mix comes up lacking in my mind. It just doesn't pack enough of a punch to meet my expectations.

Odin (Mehki Phifer) and Hugo (Josh Hartnett).
Extras
Trimark is a studio that isn't known for including very many extras on their DVDs. In fact most of their release’s bonus sections consist solely of the feature’s trailer. As I had seen the film theatrically and enjoyed it immensely, and knowing that this would be a Trimark disc upon it's release, I expected it to be fairly bare bones. So I was pleasantly surprised when the press release for "O" indicated that this would be a two disc "Deluxe Edition".

In addition to the feature film, the first disc includes an audio commentary with director Tim Blake Nelson. There are some films I enjoy and want to learn more about the creative process and yet there are others where I'm not so keen to sit through a discussion of the film. "O" is one film I was hoping would have a commentary that would talk about the controversial issues and ideas portrayed on screen. However while the disc does have a commentary the result is less then pleasing. Tim Blake Nelson has shown that he is a very capable director with this film but he is unable to offer more then a simple narration during this track. Throughout the track he consistently praises the same group of people for their excellent work on this feature. The majority of the track is spent narrating the on-screen action and offering very little insight into the actual making of the film. In addition to this he tends to repeat himself a lot as if he ran out of topics to talk about. There are some golden nuggets of information contained within the ninety-five minute track, but the lulls between them are likely to cause some listeners to get frustrated and turn off the track. I managed to stay awake throughout the entire track, but at times I was coming close to falling asleep. This is a big disappointment considering the long list of available topics present in the film that could have been discussed. Tim Blake Nelson barely touches on any of them.

The second disc houses the majority of the film's extras and is lead by the inclusion of the feature length 1922 silent film "Othello", set to a moody musical score. This 1922 film has apparently been restored but still shows a lot of wear and tear including missing frames, jumpy cuts and an excessive amount of grain. There is no doubting that this film isn't always easy to watch due to both the presentation quality and the slow moving nature of the film. It's hard for a person of my generation to imagine that at one time all films were silent and that dialogue was always read, but this was the case during the films of that period. I applaud Lions Gate and Trimark for taking the risks involved with including a second feature length version of "O/Othello" for comparisons purposes. To the best of my knowledge this is only one of a handful of times where a different version of the same story was included on the DVD release. The other and most memorable was Universal's Ultimate Edition release of "Meet Joe Black" which contained the original film "Death Takes A Holiday" on which the main feature was based. Despite the roughness of the quality and the fact that I couldn't make it the entire way through, the inclusion of the 1922 version is welcomed by this reviewer.

Up next we have a collection of 4 deleted scenes, which are available with or without commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson. The scenes entitled "Hugo and Roger", "Cafeteria", "Drug Deal" and "Odin and Desi" are all very good and were worthy of inclusion in the film. Blake Nelson explains the reason for their removal is due to pacing issues but I don't think the combined running times of approximately seven minutes would have harmed the film all that much. The last scene "Odin and Desi" contains some of the best work from Julia Stiles in the film and it's a shame that this powerful scene was left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps some moderate trimming of these scenes could have allowed them to remain in the film. Although the menu contains individual access for only four scenes some of the selections could be considered sequences rather then single scenes.

Interviews with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Harnett and director Tim Blake Nelson make up the interview portion of this disc. The thing is the interviews are very short ranging from the shortest (thirty seconds) to the longest (nintey seconds). Unfortunately since the interviews are so short not much information can be learned about the film's characters or the actor’s thoughts on the subject matter of the film. Although they do manage to get their ideas conveyed the amount of detail they go into is severely limited and simply left me wanting much more. I was especially disappointed with the length of the Julia Stiles clip, as I had a chance to sit in on an interview with her recently and found her to be a very smart and intelligent person. Hopefully she will contribute more in-depth interviews to future projects as she really is an interesting and engaging young actress and I'm not just saying that cause she hung out with my friend and I for over an hour.

Basketball Analysis is a look at the filming of the three key basketball sequences in the film. Director Tim Blake Nelson, joined this time by his cinematographer Russell Lee Fine, discuss the concepts and camera techniques to shoot these sequences. The scenes do have a unique feel to them and include some pretty nice camera techniques including a number of interesting tracking shots. The shots do look unique compared to the usual standardized basketball scenes shown in so many feature films.

Rounding out the second disc we have a collection of trailers for other upcoming Lions Gate releases both theatrical and on video. "The Wash", "Cube 2", "State Property", "Rose Red" are fairly standard trailers. The two most interesting spots are for the upcoming sequel to "American Psycho" with Mila Kunis, who’s been promoting this film recently on the talk show circuit despite it not being set for release until later this year, and "The Rules of Attraction" from "Pulp Fiction" co-scribe Roger Avrary, which uses an interesting piece of music to lure the viewer in.  

Also included on both discs is the theatrical trailer for "O" which features a number of recognizable songs including "I See You Baby" by Groove Armada and "Painted on my Heart" from The Cult.

I have to give bonus points to Lions Gate and Trimark for releasing this film as two-disc "Deluxe Edition" when most studios wouldn't go to the added expense of creating bonus materials. However try as they might to provide interesting supplements this is one case where the list of features looks much better on paper.

Overall
"O" is a film that caused a major amount of controversy and ended up sitting on studio shelves for a number of years due to the political climate in the United States. However, like everything else in politics, the issue of violence in film eventually blew over which led to this film's brief theatrical run this past summer. It's an important film dealing with real issues present in today's society. The translation from the original Shakespeare play is not without some problems but for the most part is very convincing. Trimark and Lion Gate's Entertainment's DVD features video and audio that isn't worth writing home about along with some decent bonus features. So although the technical aspects of the disc didn't entirely meet my expectations I'm willing to look aside to a point because the message the film talks about is important. At the end of the day Trimark's "O" doesn't soar next to the big studio's hawk's but doesn't get shot down either. A high recommendation on the film and a light recommendation on the disc.


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