Release Date: February 19, 2002
Run Time: approximately 94 minutes
Ten-second Rundown: Othello re-set on a prep school basketball team.
Deluxe Version

  • Commentary with Director Tim Blake Nelson
  • Cast and Crew Interviews
  • Deleted Scenes with Commentary
  • Shot-by-shot Analysis of Basketball Scenes
  • Newly restored "classic film" version of Othello

    Choice Scene: Hugo takes his confidante Roger aside and, in grand Shakespearean tradition, lays out everything he's going to do.

    Tech Specs: Anamorphic Widescreen (Aspect Ratio 1.85:1) and Full-frame, English 5.1 Surround, English and Spanish Subtitles.

    You hear this hype a lot, but "O" really was one of the most controversial films of 2001, and would have been in 2000 had original backers Miramax had the courage to release it. Unfortunately for this excellent film, just as it was going through the editing process, two teenagers opened fire on Columbine High School, and the studio grew increasingly skittish.

    While "O" does discuss the problems of teen-age rage, classism, and ends with a lot of gunplay, it does so with logic and a growing sense of dread and outrage. But of course, the concept of being able to actually confront and deal with these issues through art is a difficult one for American audiences to accept, and Miramax dumped the film. Thankfully for the film, the somewhat smaller distributor Lion's Gate Films picked up "O" and released it last September, more than a year after its initial release date.

    If you missed it, now you have the chance, as Lion's Gate releases it on DVD today.

    Director Tim Blake Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya have skillfully updated Shakespeare's Othello for the high school set. Though it may sound like a stupid idea, it works.

    Basketball star Odin "O" James (Mekhi Phifer) has been brought in to Palmetto Grove Preparatory to lead their Hawks to victory. As should be expected, he quickly becomes a star, eclipsing Hugo (Josh Hartnett), son of the coach (Martin Sheen). In an other-wise all-white school, O has found his niche, and even begun a relationship with Desi (Julia Stiles), who happens to be the dean's daughter. Out of such stuff does tragedy get made.

    The film neatly follows Shakespeare's plot, as Hugo weaves his plan to get anonymous revenge on O, all the while buddying up to him. Many scenes in Kaaya's script even retain a sense of the poetry of the original, though with a lot more cursing. (There are scenes where Hartnett, in his best role ever, even maintains Shakespeare's rhythms in performance.)

    Don't fear, however, that this is a literature class. As a film, "O" is vital, gripping, and wonder of wonders, actually has something to say about modern high school life. It may be ugly, but it feels true.

    For those reasons, the DVD release will be worth your while. Of course, you can't just release a controversial film on its own; there have to be extras, and kudos go to Lion's Gate for trying.

    Tim Blake Nelson's commentary can be considered "the plot for dummies," and may make a good case from laying off this standard feature. As an artist, he has created a great work, and it needs to be allowed to speak for itself. As a commentator, he ends up spelling everything out, oversimplifying and ruining some of the power of his film.

    Where the commentary does get interesting is on the second disc, over the deleted scenes and the isolated basketball scenes. Nelson and his Director of Photography, Russell Lee Fine, did a great job capturing the vibe of high school basketball, and having them discuss the methods used separate from the film is a nice touch. Although I have never actually seen a crowd swarm onto the court after the game-winning shot the rest of the basketball scenes make the cliché forgivable.

    Seeing and hearing the leads discuss the film and its controversial elements is a mixed bag. No one doubts their intelligence. Stiles, in particular, seems to have read the original play a few times. But Hartnett looks awkward and uncomfortable, and Phifer just doesn't have a lot to say. It's good to see Nelson on camera, so we can wipe away images of him as the yokel in O, Brother Where Art Thou?.

    For comparison, Lion's Gate has included a restored version of Othello, which would make this a great teaching tool for high school AP English. They play coy on the cover copy, neglecting to mention which restored film it is. That of Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, or Paul Robeson? Nope. It's a German silent film starring Emil Jannings as The Moor of Venice. For film geeks, it's kind of cool, but boy, has it not worn well.

    Ignore the second disc if you must. Get the package, bask in the controversy, and maybe nod your head that human nature hasn't changed much in the past 500 years.

    Buy it here for $18.74.

    Derek McCaw


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