> Volume 3 > Number 35

Volume 3, Number 35

This Week's Reviews:  O, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

This Week's Omissions:  Jeepers Creepers.


(Dir: Tim Blake Nelson, Starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Andrew Keegan, Martin Sheen, Elden Henson, Rain Phoenix, Rachel Shumate, A.J. Johnson, John Heard, Chris Freihofer, and Lisa Benavides)



A glance at the Internet Movie Database's filmography for William Shakespeare shows that the Bard has been adapted 443 times. 443 times! Since Romeo + Juliet in 1996 made it en vogue to adapt Shakespeare and change the setting to modern day youths, audiences have sit through 10 Things I Hate About You (from The Taming of the Shrew), Hamlet, and O (from Othello), all coming to theatres with a modern form to sell the Bard's old stories to new audiences.

Each of those adaptations had something different to offer: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet brought in gaudy visuals to make its point, Gil Junger's 10 Things I Hate About You reproduced Shakespeare's comedy into yet another teen comedy, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet gave it A/V sensibilities and an indie film look, and now Tim Blake Nelson's O brings the pathos of Shakespeare's second best tragedy to a socially pertinent statement.

Miramax chose to shelve O for the last two years because they did not trust audiences to understand its predominant moral. For some unknown reason, they actually thought that kids would see Othello's actions as something respectable, not as a life-affecting and ultimately fatal injection of power. Lions Gate had the common sense to look at this film for what it really is and trust young audiences to not become copycats from watching the film.

I'm happy to see that the film finally comes to light -- the egregious censoring of a well-meaning film by Miramax seems all the more sickening considering the past releases that Miramax has brought to theatres including Pulp Fiction and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Even thought I did not have the greatest of appreciations towards O, I was even more disturbed by the blatant expurgation of audience reliability shown by Miramax.

O recreates the story of Othello at a South Carolina private school where Odin James (Phifer) leads the school's basketball team to regular victories and, at the same time, creates the ire of teammate Hugo Goulding (Hartnett). Odin, the only African American student in the entire school, has become a surrogate son to the team's coach and Hugo's father Duke (Sheen). Hugo is so upset by his father's devotion to Odin over him that he is finally brought to planning an end to Odin's good graces.

Odin is engaged a in relationship with Desi Brable (Stiles), the daughter of the school headmaster. Hugo sees this as a way to get to Odin: if he can convince Odin that the love of his life is not quite as pure as he thinks, then he might just be able to touch on a vulnerability in Odin that he has not yet seen. Since Desi is particularly close to old friend Michael Casio (Keegan), a fellow basketball team player, Hugo notices that Michael and Desi's plutonic relationship is enough to create a shadow of a doubt in Odin's eye. With a few props and a couple accomplices (including his girlfriend Emily [Phoenix] and the constantly ridiculed Roger [Henson]) he can make Odin believe what is not true and bring an end to his time on the top.

Most of the young performers feel slighted by the film's lofty aspirations. Hartnett, then known only for his forgettable turns in Halloween H20 and The Falculty, is the least of the cast. His work feels forged by an undeniable interest in getting the material done with. Iago is quite possibly the finest villain in literature, but you would not get this impression from Hartnett's Hugo, where the actor merely squints for long periods of time to show devilish intent while he rattles out the Brad Kaaya dialogue (unlike most recent revisionist works, O uses modern dialogue instead of the old prose).

Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles are both passable in their roles. Though they do show a great deal more than their costar, the two fail to really create any chemistry or dramatic tension. Instead their scenes just feel like two actors going through the actions of playing a couple when neither of them really want to have anything to do with the other. Sure, they work better than, say, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in Proof of Life, but, of course, that is not very hard to do.

Director Tim Blake Nelson has made a small name for himself over the past year. When he made this film, he had only directed one other film (the well-reviewed Eye of God) and appeared in forgettable roles in mostly forgettable films. But now he is recognizable from O Brother, Where Art Thou? playing Delmar, the dimmest of the film's three idiots. His direction here is a double-edged sword. While I thank him for not taken a by the book filming to the movie, I can only note that the direction he takes does not work. Much like Rod Lurie's camera work on The Contender last year, Nelson goes with some hard shots that look nice but fail to work in the long run. However, he does have one good touch in his bag: the movie makes good use of old Maria Callas recordings.

What marks this film from the original story is the addition of a motive. In the plan setout by Iago, the deviance and intent of a man without real reason for ruining a person's life beyond a sadistic edge created a stunning foil to Othello. The ease that Iago bends Othello to his lies is not as easy to feel in this adaptation, where the stubbornness of the lead character almost feels unearthly. This O, so to speak, does not rely on his own admonitions -- it does not help that Roderigo has been completely reformatted into Roger and lost all the edge that was once there -- and his incomprehensible cartoonish follow-through of the plan Hugo gives him makes for an unsatisfying climax.

Six years ago Oliver Parker delivered what will probably always stand as the ultimate film realization of Othello. That film, which brought in great performances from Laurence Fishburne, Irène Jacob, and Kenneth Branagh, stands as one of the few films from the Bard that does not reek of someone else's ambitions. Shakespeare molded his plays into streamlined works of art that need little else to remain as sharp and important as they have always been. Occasionally the most talented filmmakers take on the works with ambitions that compliment the original's (Almereyda's Hamlet, Richard Loncraine's Richard III, and Julie Taymor's Titus), but usually the final product has lost a great deal of that Shakespearean touch. O is one of those mishaps -- its ambitions are noteworthy, but ultimately fail.


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The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

(Dir: Woody Allen, Starring Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Markinson, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, Mark Rydell, John Schuck, Charlize Theron, Elizabeth Berkley, Judy Gold, and Arthur J. Nascarella)



Woody Allen has three sides: the flat-out comedian, the dramatist with a twist, and the Bergman-inspired misery monger. In each face, there have been good films and bad -- most fans will sing praises of Bananas, Manhattan, and Interiors while rebuking A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Alice, and September -- and yet fans still hold on, certain that the next film, which is almost always annual, will be up to par.

Looking at some of his finest moments, the last two were not at that Allen genius level. The two, Small Time Crooks and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, are likable little distractions but little more. The comic genius that once made us laugh with Sleeper and Love and Death is not making movies anymore. The madcap Allen has lost his touch -- only the dramatist remains mostly untarnished. If he'd just go back to the formula that brought us Husbands and Wives less than a decade ago (with his nine films since then, it seems much longer), fans might not feel that their only choice for great Allen films is to visit a videostore instead of the local theatre.

However, a brief perusal over some other reviews for The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has shown one disarming things: most critics have bad memories of this past decade of Woody Allen films. How is that -- did they see a different slate of films than I did? Sure, none of those 11 films can compare to Manhattan, Annie Hall, or Hannah and Her Sisters, but there are still some wonderful selections, including the aforementioned Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, the underrated Celebrity, and the egregiously underseen Sweet and Lowdown. And Manhattan Murder Mystery, Small Time Crooks, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion are not half-bad. The only real clunker in the collection is the first entry, 1992's painfully unfunny Shadows and Fog.

For The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Woody Allen takes to making his version of a 1940's film -- his work of comedic noir is shot in color, but cinematographer Zhoa Fei uses the camera similarly to Sweet and Lowdown with a filter that creates an image so low-key that it at least seems somewhat noirâtre. His lead character, played by Woody Allen naturally, is a smooth operator, at least in his own mind, working as an insurance claims investigator (does this bring any particular Fred MacMurray character to mind?), where he butts heads with a fast-talking working girl (tapping Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday) and a sultry playgirl (a Veronica Lake incarnation).

Allen's character, C.W. Briggs, feels a touch of insecurity around Betty Ann Fitzgerald, the recently hired efficiency expert for the office. He sees her as a heartless and conniving "broad" working to get him out of the office, she sees him as, well, a "wormy little ferret." But all is changed when the two are put under hypnosis for a sideshow at a local club. The hypnotist, Voltan (Stiers), gives each of them a key word that puts that in a trance -- "Constantinople" for C.W., "Madagascar" for Betty Ann -- and, while under, convinces them that they are lovers.

This is fine when they are part of the show, but they have no earthly idea that Voltan was just readying them for his own personal means -- with these two under his control at the utterance of a single word and the fact that they know the security plans for the homes they insure, he can call them, state their keyword, tell them to go and rob a place and how to give him the loot, and feel secure that they won't remember what happened. Of course, when the priceless jewels of various clients turn up missing, it's C.W.'s job to investigate the claim, not knowing that the culprit is literally right under his nose.

The idea behind The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is nice and undoubtedly works for the most part, but the one-liners that Allen uses throughout the film, those that have made him famous, seem rather unfunny at times. Sure there are some jokes here and there that are Allen at his best, but most fall flat without the slightest giggle. Woody Allen still has a knack for delivering his own material, which means that some of the unfunny jokes seem a little less tedious because of the delivery.

However, this is not the case for the rest of the cast. Besides a standout performance from Charlize Theron as the sultry femme, most of the performers seem dreary and unengaged with the material. The main mistake is in Helen Hunt, who has never really taken me as an incredible performer in the first place. She seems flaccid throughout the film, speaking her often-long insults like they are part of her respiratory system.

The film, though, fares better when the audience just sits back and takes in the scenery. The Curse of the Jade Scoprion is not a beautiful looking film in any way, yet it is still marvelous for the eyes. The terrific low-key period costumes by Suzanne McCabe and sets by Santo Loquasto give the film a needed boost in production. These two, with Zhao Fei and Woody Allen the director (as opposed to Woody Allen the writer and Woody Allen the actor) create a visually impressive film even when the actions in the foreground aren't really that notable. And the score, chosen by the jazz enthusiast Allen, is pitch perfect for the ears.

The key to a long and fruitful tenure as a director -- at least one that can be considered talented -- is to make consistently high quality work. For that reason, even when people refer to the film as a lesser Allen or Scorsese or Spielberg effort, it is not necessarily a pan because the bar is set so high. The Color of Money is a lesser Martin Scorsese work but still a good film -- it's just no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, After Hours, or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but still a worthwhile film compared to everything else out there. That's what The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is to Woody Allen's oeuvre. It's definitely not his best, but a respectable effort nonetheless.

Now, excuse me while I fetch my copy of Zelig.


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Reviews by:
David Perry