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Life of a King Blu-ray Review

Life of a King (2013) movie poster Life of a King

Theatrical Release: January 17, 2014 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jake Goldberger / Writer: Jake Goldberger, Dan Wetzel, David Scott

Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr. (Eugene Brown), Malcolm Mays (Tahime "T" Sanders), Richard T. Jones (Perry Hill), Paula Jai Parker (Gina Sanders), Carlton Byrd (Clifton), LisaGay Hamilton (Ms. Sheila King), Dennis Haysbert (Searcy), Kevin Hendricks (Percy "Peanut" Hall), Pepi Sonuga (Michelle), Jordan Calloway (Marco), Rachae Thomas (Katrina), Alfonso Freeman (Leroy Woodbury), Joe Howard (Jerry Simpson), Blake Cooper Griffin (J. Thomas Gaines), Lyn Alicia Henderson (Ms. Gadbaw), April Gooding (Daniella Norton)

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The front cover of Life of a King makes it look like a street movie. The rear, a prison movie. While it wears both of those labels at times,
this drama is first and foremost, as the second "i" in its title logo suggests, a chess movie. That explains both the title, with no royalty in sight, and the not so tough PG-13 rating the MPAA has assigned this true story intended to inspire.

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Eugene Brown, a Washington, D.C. man released from prison at the film's start after serving seventeen years for the armed robbery of a bank. While the parole board has a weeks-long waiting list, Brown discovers no one wants to hire an ex-con. A friend recommends him for a job at Maud Alton High School, which turns out to be a janitorial position that Brown has to lie on his application to get. While there, Brown is asked to fill in as detention monitor after the teacher in that position is scared off by her troubled inner city students.

Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) teaches troubled inner city youths about chess in "Life of a King."

Not only does Mr. Brown get these tough kids to settle down, he slowly manages to interest them in chess, a game that helped him endure his sentence. Introducing it with metaphors and as a character-building alternative to the kids' street dealings and the ones that landed him in jail, Brown quickly turns detention into chess club over some expected resistance.

Three young men are most prominently targeted by Brown's lessons. One of them is a drug dealer connected to a neighborhood figure from Brown's past. Another is a good sport who gets dragged down into that.
(Predictably, the more obvious of them winds up dead.) The third, Tahime (Malcolm Mays), emerges as a true prodigy. Saddled with a junkie mother and her abusive boyfriend at home, Tahime shrugs off chess at first, but under Brown's mentorship, a thirst to compete forms within and sets up the inevitable big regional championship finale.

That all sounds pretty corny, right? I imagine producers pitched the movie as "Dangerous Minds with chess." And though Michelle Pfeiffer was easy to doubt as a teacher who could get at-risk youths' attention, Jerry Maguire Oscar winner Gooding isn't remotely believable as a former criminal or as someone hardened kids would think twice before standing up to.

Ex-con Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding Jr.) gets promoted from janitor to detention monitor by Maud Alton High School principal Ms. King (LisaGay Hamilton). Tahime (Malcolm Mays) leaves the drug trade to get serious about competitive chess.

Obviously, the film has its heart in the right place. Is there anyone out there who'd rather have our teenagers selling drugs than taking up chess? Those two extremes seem rather distant, though, and the movie doesn't have the brains or agility to make us believe that the products of broken homes and failed systems can easily transition from one to the other. Sure, it is based on reality, a story that a segment of ABC's "Nightline" first called attention to in 2002. But the facts seem warped or fudged to fit a far too familiar mold of motivational drama, which none of the cast is able to elevate to respectability.

After premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival last June, Life of a King received a limited release in 16 theaters last month. Six and a half thousand dollars later, the movie reached DVD and Blu-ray today from Millennium Entertainment.

Life of a King: Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extra Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($24.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Life of a King is presented in 1.78:1, which raises questions on a Millennium Entertainment Blu-ray. I can only assume this is an accurate representation of the film's intended dimensions and not one of the studio's puzzling crop jobs. The picture quality is pretty unremarkable. The film is dark and short on flair in the hands of second-time director Jake Goldberger. Similarly, no huge problems marred the default Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The mix is even. Dialogue is crisp and intelligible. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included for good measure.

The "Life of a King" trailer could be talking about chess or life. The Blu-ray's menu places chess piece graphics over clips from the film.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The only bonus feature is the film's inspirational trailer (2:13, HD), which joins the four that play at disc insertion (for Charlie Countryman, As I Lay Dying, The Iceman, and Parkland) in a Previews section.

The menu moves chess piece graphics over a piano-scored montage of film clips. The Blu-ray does not resume playback or support bookmarks.

No inserts, slipcover or inside artwork accompany the plain blue keepcase.

Spoiler alert: Tahime (Malcolm Mays) and Mr. Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) lift a second place trophy at the end of the climactic chess tournament of "Life of a King."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Life of a King fails to convince you that chess is a realistic vehicle for getting troubled teens off the streets. This true story feels false as it conforms to convention and never generates any sparks. Assuming the aspect ratio is right, Millennium's barebones Blu-ray is fine, but unworthy of any additional thought.

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Reviewed February 11, 2014.



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