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DVD Pick: 'King of California'

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King of California DVD Cover Art

King of California DVD Cover Art

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A few years back, the reviewer was a student in two university extension courses that were taught by Mike Cahill, the writer-director of King of California.

Michael Douglas Is Brilliant in a Nonformulaic Seriocomedy

"Doubloons from the King of Spain, lost more than 300 years ago, and they're buried under a Costco?" asks Charlie (Michael Douglas) in King of California (2007). And the film's narrative is driven by his obsession with proving that the answer to this question is yes.

But Charlie is a wild-haired dreamer who has just spent two years in a mental institution, and it looks to his practical-minded teenage daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) like she's going to have to endure yet another round of his manic behavior. As she puts it, "It was time to get back on that ol' bipolar pony and ride."

In King of California, first-time filmmaker Mike Cahill has created a tender father-daughter story that is both poignant and darkly humorous. However, the movie is highly original, and you may find you need to watch the thought-provoking ending more than once.

Michael Douglas gives a superb performance, arguably the best of his career. Evan Rachel Wood has a challenging role, which she plays well overall, but sometimes her acting seems mannered. The film stays tightly focused on the two lead actors, and unfortunately scenes involving memorable supporting characters are lacking.

One of the great strengths of King of California is its attention to theme: in a soul-deadening world, you have to do whatever makes you feel alive.

The Film Excels in Capturing a Sense of Place

King of California takes place in the vast suburban sprawl that makes up so much of the Golden State these days. Charlie and Miranda live in a dilapidated Victorian house that seven years ago was in the middle of an orange grove. But now a huge tract called Orange Grove Estates, which is still under construction, surrounds the old dwelling. Not far away are a golf course, sod farm, Petco, Costco, McDonald's, Chuck E. Cheese and a host of other chain consumer outlets. As Charlie stands outside the local Applebee's, he says, "You know why people like to eat in this place? Fear of the unknown. Nothing in there surprises them."

But traditionally, California has been a magnet for adventurers, and according to Charlie, Father Juan Florismartes Torres lead an expedition into the area in the 17th century, ran into trouble and was forced to abandon a treasure of gold doubloons. And according to the movie, the Golden State still attracts people who are willing to take risks: Miranda sees Chinese men emerging from the Pacific Ocean carrying plastic bags containing their clothes, and one of them yells to her, "Beautiful place. This is California, huh?"

Near the film's end, Miranda observes that California wasn't named for any person; instead, a writer in 16th-century Spain simply pulled the name out of his imagination.

Audio Commentary

The King of California DVD provides a feature-length audio commentary track with writer-director Mike Cahill, who is joined by the cinematographer, the production designer and the first assistant director. The movie itself is on the whimsical side, but the commentary focuses on filmmaking practicalities.

For the exterior shots of Charlie's house, they put up a façade in a housing development under construction in southeastern Ventura County. Cahill says his script originally called for the treasure to be buried under a Wal-Mart, but the world's largest retailer wouldn't let them shoot in one of their stores, so the filmmakers went with Costco instead. He says they shot for eight days inside the Santa Clarita Costco and that the entire shoot was accomplished in 32 days, although it involved 50 locations.

Cahill says he insisted on having actual corporate names everywhere in the movie to better reflect real life. He felt that using fictional names for products and companies would take viewers out of the story. Most of the corporations were cooperative, but Caterpillar wouldn't permit its name to appear on the backhoe that Charlie operates in the film.

The music on the King of California soundtrack is idiosyncratic, and Cahill says it's what he listened to while he worked on the screenplay. Some of his choices are questionable, but he put a particularly evocative song over the final scene: Billy Bragg's "California Stars," which has lyrics by Woody Guthrie.

Additional DVD Extras

The DVD supplies a 10-minute making-of featurette that gives you an opportunity to hear from producers Michael London and Alexander Payne. Writer-director Mike Cahill talks about the film, acknowledging that his character Charlie has some things in common with Don Quixote. Cahill also claims that Costco was happy to have them shoot inside the store and kept a register open, even when the store was closed, so the cast and crew could make purchases.

In addition, the DVD contains five minutes of outtakes, where something goes wrong during a take, typically resulting in the actors bursting into laughter.

DVD Details

Below I have listed the details for the DVD containing King of California.

Release Date: January 29, 2008
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Some Strong Language, Mature Thematic Elements and Brief Drug References
Widescreen (16x9), Color
English 5.1 Dolby Surround
English Captions for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired
Spanish Subtitles
Audio Commentary by Writer-Director and 3 Key Crew Members
Making-Of Featurette (10 min.)
Outtakes (5 min.)
Theatrical Trailer

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