O (2001)
Trimark Home Video
Cast: Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Martin Sheen
Extras: Commentary Track, Trailer, Interviews, Deleted Scenes, Scene Analysis, Bonus Film

Today, more than ever, the media loves to scrutinize the media. And now, as it has been throughout history, this kind of coverage can, at times, thrive on sensationalism. So, whenever a product is labeled as "controversial" or "scandalous", it must be taken with a grain of salt. Such is the case with the film "O". This modern-day re-telling of Shakespeare’s classic "Othello", was removed from the release schedule following the shooting at Columbine High School, for fear that the film would be seen as glorifying teen violence. Now, "O" has made its way to DVD, courtesy of Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment, so that viewers may finally see the movie and judge it themselves.

"O" takes place at the Palmetto Grove Prep School in Charleston, South Carolina (attentive viewers can verify on the "on location" shooting by spotting the Piggly Wiggly mascot at the 1:02:15 mark!) Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the star of Palmetto Grove’s basketball team, which is destined to win the state title. The team’s coach, Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) constantly praises Odin, and treats him as if he were his own son. Duke’s son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) is on the team as well, and envies the attention that Odin gets from both his father and the fans. Hugo’s jealously leads him to devise a wicked plan to take the spotlight off of Odin.

Odin has been dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the headmaster’s daughter. Hugo slowly begins to convince Odin that Desi is seeing another basketball player, Michael (Andrew Keegan), behind his back. With the assistance of the spineless Roger (Elden Henson), Hugo creates elaborate schemes so that it will appear as if Desi and Michael are sneaking around behind Odin’s back. As planned, this creates a great deal of turmoil for Odin, and his performance on the basketball court begins to suffer. However, Hugo’s obsession begins to get the best of him, and before this little game is over, his envy of Odin will have destroyed many lives.

As is to be expected in these cases, the "controversial" elements of "O" take a back-seat to the story and drama. While some may be offended by the inter-racial romance or the on-screen violence, both are handled with skill and taste. (The only part of the film that I found offensive was the Duke pennant in Desi’s room.) A fact that the media reports failed to emphasize is that "O" focuses primarily on Hugo and his obsession. And while Josh Hartnett has never been that impressive before, he does a very good job here, considering that his character must carry the film. Mekhi Phifer is also good as Odin, here showing emotionally depths which have been lacking in some of his previous roles. Even veteran actor Sheen shines here, portraying the father who doesn’t realize that he’s turned his back on his own son. The only true weak points in the film are the female performances. Despite the fact that she isn’t in the film that much, Julia Stiles seems to suck the life out of "O" whenever she is on screen. (Perpetuating the question of why she is considered a star.) And Rain Phoenix, who portrays Desi’s roommate, does an incredible job of just standing around.

All of the hype aside, "O" is a smart and powerful film, and is a competent adaptation of Shakespeare’s work. Actually, the high school setting helps to emphasize the insanity of Hugo’s jealousy, as the film accurately portrays the lack of foresight which is common amongst teens. Even those familiar with the play will find the story new and refreshing, and the final act holds a great deal of suspense. Director Tim Blake Nelson (best known for playing Delmar in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") displays a great deal of talent here, as he balances the exciting basketball scenes, with the emotionally charged moments. The only flaw in the story is the fact that it is never fully explained why Hugo has such control over Roger. However, the engaging story helps to overcome such trivial errors. "O" is a film which should be judged on its own merits and the final result is a film which is intriguing, sad, and worth seeing.

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment slam dunks "O" onto DVD with a 2-disc Deluxe Edition. The film has been <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1 and is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs, although this information is not listed on the DVD packaging. (A full-frame version is also included on Disc One.) The transfer here is very good (one of the best yet from Lion’s Gate), as the image is very sharp and clear, showing few flaws. There is some visible grain in the daytime shots, but there are no defects from the source print. The colors are fine, as the transfer shows off realistic fleshtones and pleasing greens and reds. There is no distortion to the image, although it does go slightly soft at times. Overall, this is a fine transfer.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> audio track shines as well. It delivers clear and audible dialogue and there is no hissing on the track. The surround sound is very subtle, yet very effective. It comes into play mostly during the basketball games, as the crowd noise surrounds the viewer. There is also a nice usage of musical cues from the rear. "O" features a hip-hop soundtrack, which creates a ground-shaking bass response from the subwoofer. The track is well-balanced, but be warned, the opening of the film features a soft-spoken speech, which then cuts to a loud game scene, so have that remote ready!

The only special feature on Disc One is an <$commentary,audio commentary> by director Tim Blake Nelson. Here, he gives a detailed account of the making of "O" and does address the controversy over the film. Nelson’s talk is engaging and informative, although there are some silent patches. It would have been nice if some of the cast could have joined him (notably Hartnett and Phifer), but this is still a solid <$commentary,commentary track>.

Disc Two offers the remainder of the special features. First, we have four deleted scenes, which can be viewed with or without commentary from Nelson. Next, we have brief (1-2 minutes) interviews with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, and Tim Blake Nelson, as they discuss the film. (These were clearly pulled from press junket footage.) Following this is a segment where Nelson and director of photography Russell Lee Fine offer commentary for three of the basketball scenes. In their analysis, they discuss the strategy to shooting these scenes and the work which that entailed. The trailer for "O" is offered here, presented in a full-frame format, as well as six bonus trailers. Finally, we have what should have been the best extra. In a creative move, Lion’s Gate has included a full-length feature film of "Othello" on Disc Two, so that viewers may compare the original story with the updated version. Unfortunately, this is a 1922 silent version of "Othello" and it is very hard to watch. Despite the fact that the box describes this version as "restored", the print is in terrible shape and the movie is just plain boring. Still, this was a nice touch.

"O" should stand for "overcome", as this film is able to leap beyond the controversy which surrounded it and prove itself to simply be a good movie. The story is creative and the film offers some very solid performances. The DVD brings us a great transfer, which features excellent video and sound, as well as some nice extras. Be sure to file "O" under "C", for check it out.