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King of California

First Look Pictures // PG-13 // January 29, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 25, 2008 | E-mail the Author
"This place has everything!" shouts Charlie (Michael Douglas), in awe that the Costco down the road carries everything from pallets of toy horses to crates of Three Muskateers to barrel drums of off-brand mayonnaise. Still, what really has Charlie skulking around the local Costco isn't what's on the shelves so much as buried deep beneath them. Charlie has spent the past couple of years devouring the journals of a 17th century Spanish conquistador and digging through reams of dusty old letters online. After breaking his secret code and accounting for how profoundly the Southern Californian landscape has transformed over the past few centuries and change, Charlie believes he's pinpointed precisely where a cache of Spanish gold was buried, and...yup, it's smack dab somewhere between Housewares and Lingerie.

Sure, that sounds insane, but so does Charlie, who's fresh off a two year stint in a mental ward. In the meantime, his 16 year old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has barely been ekeing out a life for herself. Miranda's duped her estranged family and the authorities into not realizing she's living on her own, covering the mortgage on a crumbling house by dropping out of school and working double-shifts at McDonald's. That quiet but comfortable isolation is upended once Charlie rolls back into town. Lugging around stacks of dog-eared books and bleeding-edge electronics, Charlie drags Miranda with him as he scours the overdeveloped stretches of land around his old house. What was once a barren wasteland in the middle of nowhere is now teeming with Applebee's, mini-malls, and posh golf resorts, and following a trail of doubloons and centuries-old landmarks, Charlie's dead certain that a treasure in Spanish gold is just a few short feet under a pallet of kids' toys at the local Costco. He's not going to let a slab of concrete and any pesky alarms get in the way of grabbing the brass ring, so he marks an X with a Sharpie and schemes to get digging.

Sure, if I were really cynical and embittered, I'd make some quip about how King of California warms over the kinda familiar prematurely-mature kid and nutjob parent indie-drama by tossing it into the microwave with Wonder Boys and a two-for-a-buck burrito, and it is true that the critical reaction was pretty mixed. Me, though...? I dug it, pun kinda-sorta intended. While King of California doesn't exactly blaze brave new ground, I get the impression that it's exactly the movie that first-time writer/director Mike Cahill set out to make, and I was sucked in by its clever writing, sharp wit, and a strong pair of leads with a convincing tug or two on the heartstrings.

The hook is the suburban search for Spanish treasure, naturally, and King of California handles it perfectly. This isn't National Treasure 3, weighed down by some hypercomplicated plot and oodles of shocking relevations along the way; Charlie is pretty much just following a trail and seeing where it takes him. Cahill is much more interested in his characters than whatever it is they're hoping to find, using that search as a springboard to dive into their heads. Charlie's nuts -- that's never in question -- but is he insane for searching for an ancient Spanish treasure in sunny California, or does being off his rocker free him to follow a dream that would normally be shrugged off in this bland, prefabricated stretch of the 'burbs? Cahill constantly pokes at how unimaginative and interchangable entire cities are these days, all riddled with the same people in the same jobs who wolf down the same meals at the same restaurants with the same menus before going to the same stores and tossing the same things into identical shopping carts. The suburbs don't have any personality, but Charlie's got bucketfuls to spare, bug-eyed and raving through a long, ragged beard. Heck, even darting around a Costco with surveyor's tools and sixty-someodd feet of measuring tape barely gets a second glance. Everyone's too intensely focused on their humdrum lives to bother to look up at the world around them.

Miranda accepts that her father's long since lost it, but Charlie feels so intensely attached to this treasure hunt that it's not just the ravings of some wide-eyed lunatic. Heck, it's not even about the money. This is Charlie's reason to keep going, and Miranda's charmed into tagging along, never holding out much hope for a pot of gold at the end of that suburban, maniacal rainbow. There's no point in arguing since Charlie can calmly and rationally explain away any inconsistency along the way, and even if they don't manage to scrounge together any gold doubloons, waving a metal detector off the interstate or renting a backhoe is hell of a lot more interesting than another shift slapping together Filets-o-Fish. Both of the lead roles have these characters straddling a particularly delicate line, and Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood pull it off perfectly. Wood puts up a veneer of strength that's on the verge of being shattered once again by Miranda's impulsive, self-absorbed father, conveying at a glance the weariness and hesitant optimism in her eyes. Charlie is easily Douglas' best performance since that double punch of Traffic and Wonder Boys seven or eight years ago, drawing a character who's believably nuts and can occasionally hold it together long enough to appreciate what really matters to him.

Cahill directs with such an assured hand that I never would've guessed that this was his first time stepping behind the camera. He and cinematographer Jim Whitaker have a keen eye, managing to make even McDonald's arches look artful, and King of California is beautifully shot without resorting to overly flashy camera movements or a heavy-handed visual style. Cahill's background is in writing, and the way Charlie's partner in crime Pepper (Willis Burks II) is introduced -- with a narrated non-sequitur about pancakes and busboys at Denny's -- is the clever sort of bit I'd expect more from a novel than a feature film. I've always liked that approach since that says so much more about a character than a name, rank, and serial number. Even with one sequence animated with the woodcut linework ripped out of some four hundred year old tome, King of California reins in the quirkiness to avoid seeming precious, and there's a sincerity and bittersweetness that's more convincing here than a lot of other movies I've seen with a similar smirking indie sensibility. King of California doesn't go for big laughs or sweeping, weepy moments, landing on something squarely in the middle that's still sharp and effective. King of California's mix of a ridiculous, completely out-of-left-field heist and its offbeat, extremely well-acted father/daughter pairing is an appreciated change of pace, and it's a movie well worth discovering in these otherwise lean, early months early of the year. Recommended.

Video: This Blu-ray release of King of California looks like it shares the same VC-1 encode as the HD DVD, but the movie isn't any worse off for it, coming across as pretty terrific in high definition. The 1.85:1 image is crisp and consistently well-defined, bolstered by robust black levels and a warm, sunbaked palette. Fine object detail is often striking, from something as ordinary as the texture of a sheet of notebook paper to the coarse hairs in Michael Douglas' scraggy beard. As expected for a movie fresh out of theaters, no speckling or other signs of wear were spotted throughout, and the image as a whole is exceptionally clean. The only flaw I noticed was a bit of aliasing that creeps in a couple of times around some intertitles and on a staircase. I was really impressed with how well King of California turned out on Blu-ray, and there's no doubt in my mind that it's a substantial step up over the standard definition DVD release.

Audio: King of California seems to be one of just a handful of Blu-ray discs these days without any lossless or uncompressed soundtracks, but for a movie like this, I doubt beefier audio would really have made all that much of a difference. The disc offers up three different audio options: a Dolby Digital 5.1 track (mislabeled as Dolby Digital Plus; 640Kbps), another in DTS 5.1 (768Kbps), and a plain-jane stereo track. The surrounds are reserved for ambiance so light that I actually double-checked at one point to make sure I hadn't accidentally clicked on the 2.0 soundtrack. The film's dialogue and sound effects come through perfectly fine, but it's not all that much of a step up over a regular DVD. By far the highlight of the mix is the eclectic, bouncy score by David Robbins, making use of everything from operatic vocals to what sounded to my tin ear like a singing saw. The music maintains a really nice presence in the soundtrack, backed by the sort of reasonably substantial low-end you'd hope for when your lead is plucking away at an upright bass. The sound design's kind of timid, and the lack of the meatier technical specs expected out of a next-gen format is kind of a drag, but King of California's audio is still alright for what it is.

There aren't any dubs on this disc, although subtitles have been provided in English (SDH) and French.

Extras: For King of California's audio commentary, writer/director Mike Cahill piles into the recording booth with director of photography Jim Whitaker, production designer Dan Bishop, and first assistant director Richard L. Fox. As many commentaries as I trudge through week in and week out, this is one of the best I've heard in months. Its emphasis is really on how a lowish budget and kinda ambitious movie like this is put together, touching on things I'm not used to hearing in a commentary track: the logistics of shooting in a working Costco, tracking down a builder who'd let them put together a facade of a run-down house on his property that hopefully wouldn't tumble down in the wind, and clearing the scores of different products and stores spotted throughout the film. There are just enough intensely technical notes to keep a movie geek like me grinning throughout, down to the models of filters used to snag a specific look for certain shots and a run through the nested pair of water tanks assembled for one sequence late in the film, although the discussion doesn't really get bogged down in that sort of thing. One of my favorite topics was how much King of California transformed over time, from an almost unrecognizable first draft with a completely different set of characters to the impact snipping out a line or two of dialogue could have to how much better some scenes turned out after scaling them back for budgetary reasons. There's a heckuva lot of color too, including a quick chat about McDonald's fake restaurant that they lend out to movie and TV shoots, Cahill nicking a shot from one of Hitchcock's best, and a real-life former musician who started digging for treasure in his backyard as production was underway. Pretty much essential listening for anyone buying or renting this disc.

"The Making of King of California" doesn't really veer away from the standard issue behind-the-scenes featurette formula, hopping back and forth between lightweight interviews with the cast and crew, short snippets from the movie, and a quick glimpse of the set during filming. Like most of these making-of pieces, the whole thing has a heavily promotional bent to it, aimed more squarely at people who haven't seen King of California than those who've shelled out twentysomething bucks for this Blu-ray disc and have already given it a spin. The five minute outtake reel tears through the usual fits of uncontrollable laughter, botched lines, missed cues, and goofing around. I'm not so much a fan of outtake reels, but this one's pretty good. Both the outtakes and making-of featurette are served up in standard definition.

The disc's extras are rounded out by a slew of trailers, and all but a couple of 'em are presented in high definition. The high-def theatrical trailers include plugs for The Contract, 10 Items or Less, Journey to the End of the Night, The Proposition, Relative Strangers, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and The Amateurs, along with a clip for King of California itself. Trailers for Smiley Face, Paris, je t'aime, and Day Zero are offered in standard definition only.

Conclusion: King of California snuck in under my radar, and I'm glad it did. This quirky, breezy indie comedy packs a pretty effective emotional wallop, and freshman filmmaker Mike Cahill directs with such confidence that it never comes across as precious or cloying as so many of movies that've tread similar ground have. It's also the best performance Michael Douglas has turned out in ages. The audio may be nothing all that noteworthy on this Blu-ray disc, but the movie looks great in high-def, and it's backed by a really strong audio commentary. Recommended.

The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.
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