What we've got here is (a) failure to communicate.
'O,' which is a modernization of William Shakespeare's 'Othello' (see also: '10 Things I Hate About You,' 'Coriolanus,' 'Romeo + Juliet,' and numerous others not yet on Blu-ray), is hard to swallow. Not because it attempts to adapt The Bard's work and general themes for modern times, but because of how horribly tangled the plot becomes due to an utter lack of communication, where a ten second conversation would make the entire convoluted mess resolve itself. The characters in the film have access to email and cell phones, and while the world wasn't quite as plugged in as it is today, 'O' is definitely hurt by when it was made, as ten years earlier this would not have been as noticeable a contrivance.
A shame, that, as 'O' is actually a somewhat capable adaptation. Set in an exclusive American prep school in the late '90s, basketball coach Duke (Martin Sheen paralleling the Duke of Venice) is well on the way to another state championship, and possibly a collegiate coaching job. His current team is one of his best, with his son Hugo (Josh Hartnett, Iago) playing third fiddle to Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and Odin James (Mekhi Phifer, Othello), with Odin being seen as one of the hottest incoming collegiate talents in the country. Their run to the state finals will be marred by jealousy, deceit, and far worse acts.
James' girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles, Desdemona) has caught the eye of the richest kid in school, Roger Rodriguez (Elden Henson), who is also Hugo's dormmate. In a scheme to break up the pair, Roger calls in fake rape charges to Desi's father, the dean of the school (John Heard, Brabantio), while Hugo's girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix, Emilia) unknowingly creates a catastrophic rift at her beau's request. Suddenly, basketball is the furthest thing from Odin's mind, and the talented youth disintegrates under the pressure caused by Hugo's manipulations.
I have no problem in admitting 'O' was one of the first DVDs I ever bought, due to my interest in the adaptation, and a bonus disc including a film version of 'Othello.' It's probably still buried away deep in storage, that relic I can't part with. It's not that the film is full of finesse and subtletly; if anything, this may well be the most blunt reiteration of Shakespeare I've ever seen. I can't even begin to say how embarrassed I get when the cliches get rolling, from the pumped up hip-hop music during basketball games, to the excessive use of racist terms to try to force viewers into sentiments for and against characters. Hell, I'm even more embarrassed for Sheen, as I've never seen the man overact in anything the way he is over-the-top in his crucial role.
The complex machination schemed up by Roger and Hugo is a thing of beauty, but it's hardly the most efficient emotional warfare. The intricacies of the plot would unravel the moment Michael mentions to Odin that Hugo suggested he hang with Desi more, when Hugo is secretly planting seeds of doubt in O's mind that Desi has cuckolded him. Heck, they'd unravel the moment Emily mentions she took a family heirloom Odin gave to Desi, which ends up in Michael's hands. Heck, the fact that a teenage high school student is able to con a pawn shop owner out of a handgun is just insanely stupid. It's the way the somewhat ridiculous stretches are made to seem realistic and plausible that requires far too much suspension of belief, whereas in olden times, such a story would have much more genuineness.
Aside from plot issues, where translation doesn't always work, 'O' also suffers from cliche and some subpar acting. While the film's faults weren't the reason it was shelved for years (see also: Columbine), it's hard to watch this flick without noticing numerous filmmaking flaws, moments that draw you out of the flick. Impacts, and even the big climax with the handgun, feature frozen shots and cutaways where the action or pivotal shots are not shown. Whether this is a ratings censorship issue (keep in mind the film is rated "R") or an intentional move, it's hard to not notice some failures. Additionally, it's hard to like the characters. We're supposed to dislike Hugo, as he's a scheming, envious little cheating scoundrel, but Odin's descent, which is quite rapid, shows us he wasn't a solid character to begin with. Roger is a pile of selfish crap, while Emily is one dimensional. Desi? Considering the way she scolds Michael for assaulting Roger in one scene, while hugging up to him just moments after, shows she's hardly a decent person. The lone adult presence in the film (seeing as dean Bramble is a two to three scene character), that of coach Duke, is not enough order to counter the chaos, and his tough love approach only adds to the tension the kids are dealing with.
'O' has been met with controversy, due to the school violence themes in an era where such an act became a media sensation and due to the use of the initials OJ for the main character, and since the film wears its themes on its sleeve rather than buried deep within the scenes and characters, it deserves the lumps it takes. If anything, 'O' serves as primer for younger audiences to connect to the works of Shakespeare in a very modern-audience-friendly format, and as somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It's the kind of film that seems so much better between viewings, until a viewing reminds one of all its shortcomings.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment brings 'O' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked BD25 disc. This flick is a Miramax title, though it was distributed on DVD by Lionsgate, alongside early pressings of Kevin Smith's 'Dogma,' which had a similar fate. There are no packaging or menu gimmicks of note. While most stores will be selling this title in mid-July of 2012, Best Buy stores nation-wide have released the title a month early in an exclusive window, alongside other Echo Bridge-Miramax titles.
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment. Some day, those four words may be enough to qualify as sufficient coverage for video quality on a Blu-ray review, but there are still some people who don't quite believe how impossibly pathetic some of the releases from this company have been. I'm not trying to pick a fight or bully the distributor (since they'd just take their Facebook page offline again...), but in all seriousness, when I write a pile of notes for a review, and there is only one short sentence in the entire mix that counts as even a half-way compliment, something just isn't right.
Presented in 1080i (and that is not a typo), this disc has a hefty pile of failure spread somewhat evenly through the brief runtime. Artifacting, on my Blu-ray? It's sadly hard to miss, even if it isn't ridiculously overblown, with suits and sweatshirts showing the issue far more obviously than any other texture or moment in the flick. Edges have some minor boosting to them, reds are fuzzy, whites are the opposite of clean and healthy (with a nice tinge to them, to boot), random softness can kill a scene, and picture depth is near non-existent, though that can partially be blamed on a number of hard focused shots. Textures are regularly unconvincing, sometimes giving the look of cardboard instead of flesh. Dirt is never massive in size, but it's consistent in appearance, alongside some hairs and scratches and minor noise, to boot, sprinkled throughout this entire disc. I suppose I could compliment the solid facial features in close-up shots, but you know what? Even they could have been better. Strike thirty seven, Echo Bridge.
The audio on 'O' is presented with two lossless options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (default) and 2.0. Mind you, the 5.1 is borderline archaic already, but it does open up the room a tiny, eensy weensy lil' bit. After the cold open, when we jump right into a basketball game, the bass goes absolutely nutso, and that's the strongest contribution the subwoofer will bring to this film, as from then on it never equals said power. Rears get some crowd ambience, not that it's impressive or even convincing, but the crowd noise coming from the fronts can be extremely flat, so it's really a lose-lose. Said crowds and activity can disappear for no reason in the rear channels, while music too finds itself cowering in the front channels. Dialogue isn't warm, but it's all easily comprehendible. Slam dunks have a minor bass presence, but it seems somewhat muted. Passable, considering the less-than-mega-budget origins of the film, but still, this one could have sounded better, I'm sure of it.
'O' is an interesting modern take on Shakespeare, that much is certain. Whether or not it's a film worth a damn is another. The film suffers from not taking the time period it is adapted into to heart, and while the late '90s to early '00s weren't as Facebook heavy with everyone spending their time talking about themselves, to think that kids wouldn't say something, anything in such rapidly escalating circumstances is a joke, taking away the whole "believability" of the story. This Echo Bridge disc is barely passable, considering they regularly butcher discs to the point of making them entirely worthless, but it's a far cry from the decent Miramax discs put out by Lionsgate. This is a film that deserves to be seen once. Whether or not it deserves to be twice is another story, and whether Echo Bridge should profit on trash can (sorry, bargain bin) discs is debatable.