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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » ''O'' Signature Series
''O'' Signature Series
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // February 18, 2003
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted April 16, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The movie

I love Shakespeare, and I'm
always interested in film adaptations of his plays. It's amazing to think of
the variety of ways in which his work has been brought to the screen. Versions
that stick closely to the original text can still vary enormously, as we see in
Branagh's historically accurate Henry V and the modernistic, almost
surreal Titus. Other films opt to keep the story and characters from the
play while switching to modern dialogue in a modern (or relatively modern)
setting, as we see in King of Texas, an adaptation of King Lear
in the Old West. "O" falls into the latter camp, as it takes
Shakespeare's tragedy Othello and moves it to a modern high school

Othello in high school?
That sounds radical; does it work? Yes.

It's a daring venture, but
director Tim Blake Nelson's vision pays off beautifully. Othello, the daring
warrior who is set apart by his dark Moorish skin, becomes Odin James, or
simply "O" (Mekhi Phifer), who is the basketball star of his
exclusive preparatory school... as well as the only black student. Desdemona
becomes Desi (Julia Stiles), O's girlfriend, and Iago becomes Hugo (Josh
Hartnett), O's secretly jealous friend. Without going into unnecessary detail,
I'll just point out that the other key roles in Othello are likewise
shifted onto roommates, girlfriends, and a few key adults (notably the coach,
played by Martin Sheen). The characters are drawn and acted well, and the story
always feels like it's developing naturally. That's even more impressive when
you consider that "O" is actually highly faithful to the plot
as well as the characters of Othello, despite the high school setting and the
completely modern dialogue; while there is obviously material left out, all the
essential characters, scenes, and plot twists are there.

One testament to how well the
setting works is that it's possible to watch the film and be drawn into its
story while completely forgetting that it's a retelling of Othello; the
play's themes of unbalanced emotion, obsession, need, and jealousy dovetail
perfectly onto the situation as presented in "O." Of course,
we have to thank Shakespeare for that as well, with his gift for seeing into
the inner core of human emotions and telling stories that feel true even today.

Like the original Othello,
"O" is about more than just jealousy: it's a story about a man
who is uneasy with his own success because he knows instinctively that he
teeters on a fine line between being adored and being reviled. The Moor's
situation translates perfectly into modern-day racial relations as we see them
in "O": as the only black student in the school, O remains
aware at some level that despite his popularity, he is an outsider in a
traditionally white world. In Othello, we may be able to tell ourselves that we
would be more tolerant, more open-minded than the Venetians who resent a Moor
marrying one of their own, but in "O" the situation is cast in
terms that may carry more of a punch. The Dean resents O's relationship with
his daughter Desi; would he feel that way if O were white? Even the positive
relationships are gradually poisoned by suspicion: would the coach be as
protective of O, so affectionate, if he weren't the star player whose skill can
carry the team to victory (and the coach to a college position)?

One way that the film diverges
slightly from the original play is its interpretation of Othello's main
failing. While jealousy is still a crucial failing in the character of O, the
film emphasizes O's insecurities as the driving force behind his downfall. At the
beginning, we see him as a man on top of the world, with everything under
control; as the film develops, we see beneath the surface confidence to a
character who feels out of place, uncertain of his relationships, and fearful
above all of being "played": manipulated, taken advantage of. It's a
delicious irony that it's O's resentment of the very idea of being
"played" by his closest friends that allows Hugo to play him for his
own ends.

The beauty of the setting
that's been chosen for "O" is that it doesn't take any
extraordinary effort for Hugo (Iago) to start a chain of destruction. The
actions and reactions of the various characters are completely believable, and
each one sets events a little further in motion toward the inevitable, tragic
end. As viewers, we know that things could be different, and we know that the
truth of the matter could be found by any of the characters who really chose to
set aside their preconceptions. But the characters are such that they are
unable to deviate from the path that their passions and their insecurities have
marked out for them; we feel for them, but we also see all too clearly how true
the situation is to human nature.

When I first heard of Othello
redone in a high school setting, I vaguely thought of the film as a kind of
teen movie. But the film is nothing of the sort, showing us that just because a
film has a largely teenaged cast, it's not automatically aimed at teen
audiences (though that seems to be the case with too many Hollywood movies). In
fact, "O" will probably have most resonance with adult
viewers, who can appreciate both the tragic waste of the lives destroyed here,
and the strength of the passions that drive the characters to what they do. In
one of the interviews on the DVD, director Tim Nelson comments that he wanted "O"
to be a film that crossed generational boundaries, and it does achieve that
goal quite well.



"O" is
presented in an attractive widescreen anamorphic transfer, at its original
aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image is clean and clear, free of noise and with
minimal edge enhancement. Colors are well handled, looking bright and vibrant
but always natural, and contrast in both light and dark scenes looks as it
should. The print is in excellent condition, with no flaws showing up in the

The earlier 2-disc release of "O"
forced the widescreen image to share disc space with a pan and scan version of
the film, whereas the Signature Series release thankfully drops the chopped
version to give full space to the transfer with the original aspect ratio. I
don't have the other version at hand to compare, but it's reasonably likely
that the additional space and resulting lower compression may have improved the
transfer; certainly it looks outstanding here.


The soundtrack for
is in Dolby 5.1 only, and is very clear and clean, with no
distortion at all even when the volume is quite high. However, the volume
levels are actually the weak point of the soundtrack, as there is an excessive
variation in volume across different scenes, from extremely quiet whispered
conversations to full-blast music at a basketball game. If you have the volume
set to hear the characters adequately in the former scene, the latter scene is
literally uncomfortable to sit through, which in practice means a lot of
fiddling with the volume controls on the remote.

There's actually not much use
made of the surround channels in this 5.1 track, although a number of scenes
really call out for it. The sound is mostly focused in the front, and there's
not much that the 5.1 sound does in terms of surround effects that couldn't
have been done with a 2.0 track. Overall, the soundtrack is reasonably good but
could have been better.


A number of good special
features are included here, starting with a feature-length audio commentary
from director Tim Blake Nelson. Nelson also provides optional commentary for
the four deleted scenes (which have a total running time of about nine
minutes). Short interviews with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, and
Tim Blake Nelson add up to about six minutes; though brief, these interviews
are fairly content-rich (there's no promotional-style "I play a character
who..." fluff).

Another interesting feature is
a basketball scenes analysis, in which Nelson and director of photography
Russell Lee Fine provide commentary on the three main basketball sequences,
discussing how the shots were filmed, the effects they were going for, and so
on. Considering that the basketball scenes look great in the film, this is a
nice extra. The running time here is about eight minutes in total.

Lastly, six trailers for other
films are included. Menus are attractive and, more importantly, very easy to
navigate through.

Compared to the earlier 2-disc
release, the Signature Series release has all the same special features except
the restored classic film Othello, which is available only on the 2-disc

Final thoughts

This translation of Othello
into a modern setting works beautifully to bring out some of the most
interesting themes of the play, with the essential conflicts between, and
within, the characters playing out in a natural and compelling manner. With its
completely modern dialogue but its highly faithful rendition of plot and
characters, "O" strikes a pleasing balance between old and new,
and should draw in viewers who appreciate good drama as well as those who are
fond of Shakespeare. The DVD offers an outstanding widescreen anamorphic
transfer and a nice set of extras; those who already own the 2-disc version
will have no reason to upgrade, but anyone who hasn't bought this DVD will find
it a very worthwhile purchase.

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