Hot from the Oven

In the news, a pornographer is suing Oprah Winfrey over use of the title "O," for which he claims to own the copyright. While Oprah defends the title of her ladies' magazine, yet another O is making headlines. O—the movie—has nothing to do with pornography or Oprah; it is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, and it's directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who starred as Delmar in … you guessed it … O Brother, Where Art Thou?

While the movie portrays an outbreak of violence at a high school, the film is not, as some might claim, capitalizing on the Columbine event, or any other outbreak of school violence. In fact, it was a year after the film was completed, when Miramax finally decided to release it to theatres, that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris suddenly opened fire on Columbine High School. Miramax had to change their plans out of consideration for the families and friends affected by the tragedy. Now that it has arrived in theatres, will it encourage or glamorize violence? Critics don't seem to think so, and some argue that this update of Shakespeare's classic tale of jealousy and its consequences just might serve to discourage violence.

O stars Mekhi Phifer as the tormented Odin, Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor) in the Iago-ish role of Hugo, and the impressive Julia Stiles (Save the Last Dance, State and Main, and last year's modernized Hamlet) as "Desi." As Hugo watches his father, the football coach, favor Odin, the school's champion athlete, and as he watches Odin win the heart of the dean's daughter Desi, his jealousy leads him to deceive Odin, leading to murder and chaos.

The U.S. Catholic Conference's critic found it all a bit too much: "Director Tim Blake Nelson's brutal modernization of Shakespeare's classic story … is involving, but the inescapable presentation of remorseless teen killings leaves the senses numb." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott found the progression of Phifer's Odin from "sweet, generous [and] good-natured" to "a cold jealous killer" to be "simply too great a leap and Phifer is unable to make it convincing." He adds, "Julia Stiles needed to flesh out her character a bit more. While she's serviceable in the role, too many unanswered questions are left in her wake." Elliott concludes with limited kudos: "Points should be given for the clever way the filmmakers incorporate the various plot elements of Othello, updating them for their modern version. Still, when all is said and done, O can only be called a valiant effort but one that ultimately comes up short."

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John Adair, Preview's family-oriented critic, testifies that the play's "emotional core survives in this retelling. The audience glimpses the disastrous and destructive results caused by a consuming jealousy to all those involved. However, the effects are not glamorized as several difficult-to-watch scenes depict people motivated by their jealousy." While depictions of jealousy impressed Adair, portrayals of other inappropriate behavior among high-schoolers troubled him, including a sexual encounter that turns to rape, as well as some 'explicit locker room conversations' and drug use."

Other critics had similar moral objections to seeing high school kids behaving inappropriately. The Dove Foundation's Phil Boatwright argues: "The movie has many strengths that are unfortunately overtaken by its shortcomings. Thankfully, O is not a contemporary group of actors butchering the bard's original dialogue. Somewhere amongst the overwhelmingly smutty dialogue and in-your-face sexuality is a well-acted, well-directed story of love and friendships gone awry."

"Despite being a faithful and interesting treatment of Shakespeare filled with decent performances, one has to wonder what good will come from it, and whether it should have stayed on the shelf," muses Bob Smithouser at Focus on the Family.

Ted Baehr's Movieguide review faults "the school setting," then argues that the film dilute[s] the dramatic power of Odin's precipitous fall from grace" since Odin and Desi are only dating and not married in the film. Then, the reviewer faults "the introduction of substance abuse, foul language and tasteless sexual immorality," which the critic claims "dilutes the moral, Christian beauty in Shakespeare's classic play." (I wonder, is this critic aware of how many double-entendres, derogatory language, and crass put-downs are littered throughout Shakespeare's original texts?)

At the onFilm discussion list, Peter T. Chattaway (Books and Culture, Christianity Today) says, "I appreciated the way they moved Othello into a modern high-school setting, though I wasn't entirely convinced that the film's characters, developed as they were on the film's own terms, would have gone the 'big step' of creating such an elaborate, violent plot in the end. Still, due to recent events, the violence doesn't seem so far-fetched any more." From there, he reflects on the source play itself. "When things go sour, it's very tempting to blame Iago for poisoning [Othello's and Desdemona's] relationship … but the fact is, no matter how much Iago deceives or manipulates Othello, Othello—like all of us—is responsible for his own actions, and that potential for violence against the one he loves was there within him all along. … Interestingly, [O] fleshes out the Iago character's motivations a little more, showing how he responds to his father's neglect, but again, even if his father's neglect explains Hugo's actions, it does not and cannot excuse his actions. Hugo acts of his own free will, too."

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The current trend of retelling Shakespeare in a modern context is bringing to young moviegoers an exciting and appealing entry into one of literature's most moral and compelling bodies of work. And it is one of art's greatest benefits that it can help us explore relevant cultural issues, such as how rejection can lead to hate and, ultimately, to violence, even in young people.

"I was portraying some of the feelings of high school students everywhere," Nelson told the Chicago Sun-Times. "These feelings of jealousy are as old as time. These are the same feelings that motivated that Elizabethan play and they motivate my movie … and they will motivate the version of Othello they do 100 years from now with holograms, probably.''

Roger Ebert observes, "We have a peculiar inability in our country to understand the contexts of things; when it comes to art, we interpret troublesome works in the most literal and simple-minded way. In the aftermath of Columbine, Washington legislators called on Hollywood to police itself, and rumbled about possible national censorship. Miramax caved in by suppressing this film. To suggest that O was part of the solution and not part of the problem would have required a sophistication that our public officials either lack, or are afraid to reveal, for fear of offending the bottom-feeders among their constituents." He calls O "a good film for most of the way, and then a powerful film at the end. Those who think this film will inspire events like Columbine should ask themselves how often audiences want to be like the despised villain."

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A horror flick debuted at the top of the box office this week, surprising critics who thought that the recent invasion of Scream-inspired teen-slasher flicks had worn out its welcome. Jeepers Creepers follows a brother and sister on their way home from college, where along the road they discover an abandoned church that is now home to a seemingly invincible and horrifying creature.

The U.S. Catholic Conference is more troubled than scared by the movie: "The gaping holes in writer-director Victor Salva's muddled plot are scarier than this preposterous monster movie, which abruptly stops without wrapping up its many loose strands."

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Phil Boatwright at The Dove Foundation writes, "The film is terrifying, often causing startled audience members to shout out for the dim-witted heroes to run for their lives—the audience participation being the best part of this spooky, but clichéd horror flick." But he is not impressed by the thinking behind the scaring. "The script's terror … stems from its satanic being, with little theology to back up the premise that this creature is allowed to feed every 23 [years for 23 days]. If there is a meaning to the number 23, it most likely comes from occult ritual rather than biblical scripture. Nor does the script contain a good vs. evil theme. Although one character is spared when she begins praying the Lord's Prayer, little else in the picture could be construed as evidence that God defeats the evil one. Indeed, the Almighty is never referred to, except as a profanity." He adds that films like this may seem like escapist entertainment, but viewers should instead proceed with caution. "You may jump. You may laugh. But chances are good this film won't nourish you."

Mainstream critics were busy comparing the movie's momentum to an aggravating automotive experience. Andrew O'Hehir at says the film "gets off to a great start and then simply shuts down, like an awesome vintage car on an ambitious road trip." And Mike Clark at USA Today agrees: "Jeepers Creepers is no big-screen keeper, but it does survive its 40-minute test drive before turning into a lemon."

Still Cooking
American Pie 2, almost entirely condemned by critics in the religious media, is still showing a strong presence; it was knocked to #2 in the top ten by Jeepers Creepers after three weeks at #1. Why is this bawdy, toilet-humor comedy scoring so well and appealing to so many?

This week at The Film Forum, rather than taking a stance of mere moral outrage, Rich Kennedy asks: "What possible value is there to the believer in the experience of such a romp depicting sex obsessed Lotharios?" And then, considering the film's outrageous story of teens getting into trouble with sex, he answers himself: "There is never anything to be gained by avoidance of an issue. Believers have stood athwart the sexual revolution and said, 'avert your eyes, don't do that … ' with indifferent result for an awfully long time. AP2 deftly skews the great divide between the sexes at every age and shows in blunt detail how adrift one can be under the influence of Values-Of-The-Month. So why sit through this again? Straw-man depictions of valueless behavior have an artificiality easily refuted by experience. But here is a clever, funny depiction that drives home the point just fine. Humor and farce work best on these matters as no less than Moliere, Shaw, and Wilde have shown in the past. No way am I saying that writer Adam Herz (this is supposed to be about his youth) and director James B. Rogers are anywhere near their league. I am saying that this approach has pedigree and there is some wisdom here amongst the trash."

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Meanwhile, Woody's Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion threw fuel on the fire of those who can't take Allen seriously as a romantic lead. At Christian Spotlight on the Movies, Douglas Downs loses patience with Allen's insistence on casting himself opposite younger women. "Woody should have cast someone else in the role of investigator C.W. Briggs. Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps? Perhaps he is more of a legend in his own mind then in reality. New plots are in order, Mr. Allen … ones without you as the heartthrob cast with women half your age." He also found the film to be flat: "I did smile a few times at some of the lame attempts at comedy (maybe I could be hypnotized to smile more)."

But The Film Forum's Jeff Diaz had a grand time: "I just love going to these things for just the witty banter and grasp of comic timing that is so lost these days in supposed comedy films today. Have we forgotten the craft of wit? Of turning jokes on the head of a pin? Of timing even? Thankfully not everyone has. Everyone could go and see this and have a wonderful time if they are willing to turn their brains on a little and relax."

Personally, I find Woody's onscreen romantic gravity to be part of the fun of his movies. How many romantic leads has Hollywood offered us that were clearly not the sort of men women would really pursue? The persona that Woody has developed for himself in his movies is a manic cartoon, a caricature on par with one of the Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin. He's a clown, and I doubt Allen would ever argue that he's meant to be realistic. But through his adventures and errors, he stumbles onto larger things that are indeed worth thinking about.

And besides, Hollywood has always mismatched couples. I'm not excusing it—it certainly reflect an unhealthy emphasis the importance of a woman's youthful appearance—but Woody Allen is hardly to be singled-out for having onscreen romances with younger women. If you blow the whistle on him, then you should definitely also blow the whistle on movies that ask us to take such generation gaps seriously. You'll end up locking up Humphrey Bogart, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and on and on …

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As Christians and caretakers continue to protest Bubble Boy's comic portrayal of a boy insulated against the world around him, Peter Chattaway offers some argument with the films accusers. At the onFilm discussion list, he writes, "While I can see why people who suffer from immune deficiency might not appreciate a comedy about someone with that illness, the key thing for me would be whether the movie encourages us to laugh at or with the character. The ad for this film, which focused on Jimmy, the boy in the plastic bubble, getting tossed around by buses and trucks and planes and female mud wrestlers, seemed to make him an object of our humor, but the film itself encouraged us to identify with the character, so I'd say I was laughing with, not at, him."

Addressing the film's mockery of Christianity, Chattaway asks, "Was the caricatured portrayal of Christians offensive? I guess so, but I think it's safe to say we have all known parents who wanted to keep their children safe at home, cloistered in the Christian ghetto, removed from the perceived 'evils' of the world around us, and, like it or not, that aspect of the Christian culture deserves satirizing. (Is it okay when Christian humorists at The Door and mock our foibles, but not when presumably secular filmmakers do so? Does the source of the humor really matter?) Perhaps we might complain there are no clearly positive Christian stereotypes in the film to balance the negative stereotypes—but I can't say this bothered me, since we get plenty of positive Christian stereotypes in other films anyway, and since pretty much every character in this film was a stereotype of one sort or another anyway."

He concludes: "I am reluctant to say that Bubble Boy was a good film, but I can't say it was as bad as the reviews made it out to be."

Next week: The Fall film calendar. Is anything worthwhile coming to a theatre near you?

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Rush Hour 2, The Others, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Rat Race, The Princess Diaries, and Captain Corelli's Mandolin.