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Sunday, February 5, 2023


Nov. 12, 2001 – In recent years, the movies have done a better job than Cliffs Notes in conveying the essential ideas of Shakespeare's plays, transplanting story lines into soap opera settings to be digested in the dark as an alternative to reading the real thing. "O" — despite a title that for lack of context suggests nothingness — gets applause from the critics for its take on "Othello."
The tragedy plays out in the world of basketball mania at an exclusive school. Odin/Othello (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student, the popular star of the team, the boyfriend of the dean's daughter and a kid the coach likes better than his own son. This, alas, does not sit well with the coach's son, Hugo/Iago (Josh Hartnett), whose jealousy drives him to plot Odin's downfall by convincing him that his girlfriend, Desi/Desdemona (Julia Stiles, in her third Shakespeare remake), is cheating on him. As the championship game approaches, the tormented Hugo's devious plan spins out of control.
Phifer wins plaudits for an intense performance with wide-ranging emotions that builds to a crescendo as Odin's paranoia sets in. Hartnett is praised for a superb take on the vile Hugo, who manages to inspire sympathy even as he stabs his friends in the back. Stiles collects kudos for oozing All-American goodness, and Martin Sheen as the coach shows that he's still believable in roles of lesser mortals than the man in the Oval Office.
Director Tim Blake manages to make contemporary issues from violence and drug use to interracial dating relevant to the central themes of Shakespeare's drama without turning preachy in the process.
An intriguing enticement of "O" is that it was filmed in 1998, to be released by Miramax in 1999, but instead was shelved after the Columbine shootings. (That means, among other things, that it was made before Stiles won stardom in "Save the Last Dance" and before Harnett made his mark in "Pearl Harbor.") Finally, Lions Gate took over the distribution this year. Although the film does end with a school shooting, reviewers say it's not likely to traumatize many young people (the obvious target audience, despite that "R" rating) after what we've been through since then.
Oh, yes: For those who agonized over Leonardo and company emoting in rote-remembered Elizabethan English in "Romeo + Juliet," the good news is that this one's in today's tongue.
"O" is rated R. It's playing at Sunny Isle Theaters.

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