Update one of Shakespeare's comedies and set it in a contemporary high school and you get something as light and forgettable as 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. Do the same to one of the major tragedies and you wind up with something else entirely: Beverly Hills, 90210 with a body count. Case in point: this dark, intelligent treatment of Othello from writer-director Tim Blake Nelson. The "dusky Moor" in this case is no Venetian general, but a thoroughly modern sort of hero. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the star point guard at Charleston, South Carolina's cushy Palmetto Grove Academy. An NBA star in the making and the apple of Coach Duke Goulding's (Martin Sheen) eye, "O" also happens to be Palmetto Grove's sole black student, and is currently dating pretty — and lily white — Desi Brable (Julia Stiles), daughter of Palmetto Grove's dean (John Heard). Smoldering on the sidelines is Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), Odin's treacherous confidant and Coach Goulding's embittered son, who, try as he might, can't seem to win the approval that his father is so quick to lavish on his star player. Fueled by envy and illegal steroid injections, Hugo concocts an elaborate scheme to bring about Odin's downfall by preying upon those eternal human weaknesses: jealousy and a thirst for revenge. Nelson (who, in addition to doing time chained to George Clooney and John Turturro in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, directed 1998's grim but powerful EYE OF GOD) doesn't pull a single punch. Every character fated to die in Othello meets his or her maker by the time the curtain falls on Blake's adaptation, which means the manicured campus of Palmetto Grove is left littered with slain coeds. Originally slated for a fall 1999 release, the film's vivid depiction of high-school violence came at a time when the news was too full of the real thing; a nervous Miramax, the film's original distributor, kept it on the shelf for nearly two years, sparking legal action from the film's producers before the film was eventually sold to the more intrepid Lions Gate. And while the bloody climax undeniably bears an unsettling resemblance to such tragic events, it should be noted that whatever insight this tale holds into the darker passions that drive the human heart to violence remain valid and valuable, regardless of the setting or the age of its players.
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