Made in 1999 and originally to be distributed by Miramax, a Buena Vista (read: Disney) subsidiary, "O" made its way to movie theatres in the fall of 2001. Why? The Columbine school shootings occurred right around the time that "O" was first scheduled for release, and "O" features shootings that take place at a school. Thus, Miramax, under pressure from its "family-friendly" parent company, delayed and delayed and delayed the film's release until Lions Gate saved it from limbo.
Of course, as soon as one understands why there are school shootings in "O"--it's an adaptation of William Shakespeare's version of "Othello"--then, one sees how idiotic and downright fascistic the Mouse House can be. Basically, "O" is "Othello" in an American prep school during the 1990s. People shoot others for more meaningful reasons than just because they were bored with life. So, Disney refuses to release "O" but it continues to sponsor violent garbage like "Pearl Harbor" (which mutilates history, pride in military valor, and an audience's quality of life)?
Excepting the superficial controversy concerning "O" and high school shootings, does the film really merit any furor? Not really. After seeing the movie, I was struck by how uncontroversial the movie is. The film tells a solid story, and the filmmaking craft itself, if not the narrative adaptation, is conventional enough. Indeed, the "negative" aura of releasing "O" was mostly self-created by Disney and Company.
In "O," Mekhi Phifer plays Odin James, a black student recruited to play basketball at a prestigious private high school in the American South. Although he is the only black person attending the prep school, he finds himself much loved by all. The basketball coach (Martin Sheen) declares that he loves O as if O were his own son. Indeed, no one bats an eye with regards to his dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the dean's daughter. Even the dean looks the other way, for O's basketball prowess lends prestige to the school.
Well, when you have so much love, you'll also generate so much hate. The coach's son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), once used to be the team's star player. (Shakespeare's Iago became screenwriter Brad Kaaya's Hugo in the adaptation.) Before O's arrival, Hugo could play any position on the basketball team. He was the go-to guy. Now, he's not even the team's second-favorite player--O gives "props" to someone else for his camaraderie. Of course, being loved less than another fellow by his father doesn't help Hugo feel any better about O.
Hugo begins to plant the seeds of doubt and jealousy in O's mind, feeding O lies about Desi's fidelity (or lack thereof). Yes, there's the misplaced handkerchief, and yes, there's intrigue involving conflicted loyalties. The script actually adheres closely to Shakespeare's "Othello", and familiarity with the source text will help you enjoy "O" more than if you were to approach it dead cold.
However, not all is well with this take on "Othello". First of all, many theatre buffs have a hard time deciding if Othello or Iago is the main character of the story. The ambivalence about who is the lead character is one of the reasons why "Othello" is such a great play. This movie does little to add to that tension. In "O", Odin seems to be entirely in the hands of the brilliantly crafty and emotionally complex Hugo. In fact, Hugo, played so well by Hartnett, threatens to subsume O entirely. This is not Mekhi Phifer's fault. Rather, I blame the director (Tim Blake Nelson) and the writer for tipping the scales almost entirely in Hugo's dramatic favor.
I found the editing to be on the clumsy side, and the dialogue has a few clunkers as well. Sometimes, the movie draws unintentional laughs because of too-earnest moments, not-earnest-enough moments, or moments where the tone is all wrong. For example, during a sex scene between O and Desi, O imagines that Desi is sleeping with someone else, and the sequence has been acted and shot with both restraint and over-the-top emotion that you don't quite know what to get out of it.
I also thought that the filmmakers' use of hip-hop and rap music bordered on overkill. People today often think that music should be wall-to-wall and in-your-face, but a drama such as this one should be as quiet as possible in order to heighten the sense of tragedy and dread. For example, the use of a subdued operatic aria for the opening and closing scenes of the film convey Hugo's pathos and monstrosity better than any loud bombast could even aspire to do. Still, I admired the ambitions of the people who made the movie, and basketball recruiting is an apt way of updating the wars of Shakespeare's plays.
By the way, Julia Stiles should be declared the Official Shakespeare Standard-Bearer of her generation as Kenneth Branagh is of his. After starring in "10 Things I Hate About You" ("The Taming of the Shrew"), "Hamlet" in corporate NYC 2000, and "O", Miss Stiles probably has as good of a grasp on the Bard as anyone else working in the cinema industry. She could probably helm the next Shakespeare adaptation that floats through Hollywood.
The Signature Series edition of "O" is actually the third time that the film has graced the DVD format. There was the original 2-Disc Special Edition that had both widescreen and Pan&Scan transfers as well as a host of extras. There was a single-disc release that dropped the second disc of the 2-Disc SE. Now, the Signature Series DVD drops the Pan&Scan transfer and restores most of the extras that were lost when Lions Gate issued the first single-disc version.
The Signature Series DVD offers a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The video quality is very good. Even though there are many scenes that take place in dark areas or with little lighting, everything looks clear and discernible, not murky or hard-to-see. Colors are very strong and naturally reproduced. There are some really minor blemishes on the source print itself (tiny specks of black), but one hardly notices them.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio track is very effective for the most part. Since the film is song-heavy, the front three speakers provide a wide musical soundstage. There are a few panning and directionality effects (again mostly from the front three speakers). I wish that the rear speakers did more than just whoosh or reveal the presence of cheering crowds at basketball games, but this is really a small-drama, not an action picture.
Optional English and Spanish subtitles as well as English closed captions support the audio.
The most important extra that neither the first single-disc nor the new Signature Series versions offers is a restored version of an "Othello" film adaptation from 1922. This silent film was included in the 2-Disc Special Edition. Sometimes, it takes studios several takes to get a DVD right. However, Lions Gate got it right the first time around.
Of the extras that made it to the third round, the most important one is the audio commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson. Mr. Nelson believes very much in the effect and the importance of his work (he even wrote an article for "The New York Times" about "O" when the film was finally released). At any rate, the director compliments everyone involved in the production. However, as he's not a habitual director, most of his comments sound like what an actor would say--mostly narration. The remaining extras include brief video interviews with members of the cast and crew (Julia Stiles, Mekhi Pfifer, Josh Hartnett, and Tim Blake Nelson), a couple of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Tim Blake Nelson (worth a look but thankfully not re-inserted into the film for a "director's cut"), and analyses of key basketball scenes. Basically, the director talks about the cinematography and editing that went into the creation of basketball games as the story progresses.
Finally, there's a selection of trailers for other Lions Gate properties.
Chapter listings appear on the back cover art work of the keepcase (per Lions Gate's usual practice).
Lions Gate chose "O" to be one of the first entries in its line of Signature Series DVDs. However, the company already released a special edition of the film that included a rare look at a silent film adaptation of "Othello". The 2-Disc Special Edition also included a Pan&Scan transfer for those of you who demand to see mutilated versions of movies. The Signature Series DVD of "O" is a good purchase, but if you can find the 2-Disc Special Edition, then buy that copy of the movie instead of either single-disc issue.