To do a plot recap, which you should all know anyway since it’s fucking Shakespeare, Odin (Mikhi Phifer) is the star basketball player for his high school team. When he is named MVP of the team by Coach Duke (Martin Sheen), he chooses Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) to share the award with him rather then Hugo (Josh Hartnett), which sends Hugo in to a rage against Odin and leads to his planning the downfall of Odin and his girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles) and everyone else around them.
A large portion of what sets this movie apart from all the other Shakespeare adaptations that have been for teens lately is that it is not taking one of the Bard’s lightweight comedies, but one of this greatest tragedies in Othello and it treats the source material exactly as it should be. Of course, the reason this film was pushed back was because of the fact that teenagers are killed in the end, and mostly by gunfire. As I said with a person after the movie was over and we were discussing it, the only people who will be offended by these scenes are the same ones who will never truly understand what it is that causes these situations in real life. I can only hope that they will realize what this movie is partly attempting to say about the way teenagers can feel isolated and as if they have no way to turn anymore when they are left without any friends.
As for the technical elements of the film, Tim Blake Nelson has shown me with this film that not only is he a great actor, but he is also a tremendous director. There are moments in the film where it is just simple small quiet interludes that he inserts that make emotional statements in ways that no spoken word could ever come close to. His staging of the basketball scenes for the film are stunning in how well they keep the action moving while also allowing some beauty of the poetry of the motion of the players extremely obvious. Overall, the film is beautiful to look at and perfectly shot in every instance.
The writing of the film, by Brad Kaaya with his first script, is splendid with a few exceptions. For the most part, his characters and their motivations are very well scripted out, except with Hugo. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago refuses to discuss all that he does at the end of the play, which makes him all the more mysterious and perfectly written as a character. Hugo explains a little too much for my taste in the end why he did everything that he did, though he never does so to the rest of the characters in the film. I guess I just wanted the original ending a little too much, but I am happy with what Kaaya did with his own situation of writing a film that had to work for modern movie audiences.
The acting of the film was note perfect for all of the roles. Phifer did the slow erosion of a tragic hero exactly right in all of his scenes as the film progressed. Stiles handled the vulnerability and strength that Desi has to have at the same time just as any great Shakespearean actress would have. Martin Sheen was, well, Martin Sheen. He’s just a great actor. Josh Hartnett actually surprised me with how deceptively evil he was throughout the film, just as any great Iago would have to be. I refuse to see Pearl Harbor until video, but if he acts half as good in that film as he does in this one, then it will probably be a very solid performance. All of the other small supporting actors nail their parts just as they should based on the personalities that Shakespeare gave the characters and that Kaaya carried over to the film.
After the feature, there was a scheduled Q&A with Tim Blake Nelson about the film. Brad Kaaya was also in attendance at the premiere and Nelson invited him up to stage for the Q&A as well. The first question was what the entire story was about what had happened with Miramax and the releasing of the film, which I covered in the introduction to this review. I got the second question of the session, which was if either Kaaya or Nelson would be willing to make another movie for Miramax after all that they had been put through with this film (it should be noted that the Dimension logo was still in front of the print of the film which was screened at the premiere). Nelson and Kaaya hemmed and hawed a bit in response, with Nelson eventually telling me that if he knew me better, he’d quickly give me an answer to that question, but based on the situation we were in, he couldn’t really answer it. Kaaya said that he was working on another film for Miramax, so I don’t think he’s holding much of a grudge against the company. A few more questions came around mostly about the story and the process of writing the film, with a particularly interesting question being which scene was the hardest for Nelson to shoot. He said that he had thought the basketball scenes would be the hardest, but what he wound up doing was using a technique very similar to Terrence Malick’s from The Thin Red Line with the battle scenes in that movie to shoot the basketball scenes, which made them very easy to shoot. I got the final question of the evening, in which I asked him about how he selected the music for the film (which was all excellent and well selected). He stated that going in to the film, he knew nothing about rap music, so during post-production he listened to about a thousand rap songs, and then the soundtrack label came onboard and almost all of the songs he had picked went out the window. He also said that the score of the film, written by Jeff Danna, was done with all Elizabethan ear instruments, which gave it a very rustic feel which was very fitting for the film. Finally, to bridge the gap between the rap music and the original score, he used the “Ave Maria” from the 19th century opera Othello, which fit perfectly at the film’s climax.
After the Q&A, I went up and shook Nelson’s hand, and thanked him for making a great film. He is a great speaker, and the Q&A was very good as was the film. I’m glad that Lion’s Gate is finally allowing this film to be released and I hope that people give it a chance rather than just ripping it because it happens to have rap music and trys to tell a Shakespearean story. I highly recommend that people seek it out and give it that chance.