Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Life of a King

Appealing performances stand out in this expressive urban drama.

Jan 16, 2014

-By Justin Lowe


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1392758-Life_Of_A_King_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Cynics may sniff at Life of a King’s rather middlebrow aspirations, but Jake Goldberger’s feel-good feature is very much the type of inspirational filmmaking that average moviegoers often critique the industry for not producing more frequently. Based on the true story of how ex-con Eugene Brown turned his prison experience studying chess into an informal head-start program for inner-city youth, the charismatic film could see a niche theatrical release targeting core audiences help build avid word of mouth for VOD or cable.

After 18 years in prison for armed robbery, Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) becomes a free man, returning to the Washington, D.C.-area neighborhood where he came up as a gang member. Determined to avoid the long reach of his former protégé Perry (Richard T. Jones), now a gangland boss, Brown steers clear of the streets and gets a job as a janitor at a local high school, where his can-do demeanor convinces the principal (Lisa Gay Hamilton) to assign him as a detention monitor for a class of rowdy troublemakers, unaware that her new hire has lied about his criminal conviction on his job application.

Drawing on one of the few viable skills he developed in the joint, Brown tries to convince the kids that playing chess will help keep them out of trouble and provide some useful life lessons as well. But most of them aren’t interested, particularly tough guy Clifton (Carlton Byrd), his sidekick Tahime (Malcolm Mays) and their childhood friend Peanut (Kevin Hendricks).

Standing up to the young thugs earns Brown some points and reluctant cooperation among the students, but almost as soon as he’s taught them the basics of chess and the game’s real-life analogies, his boss fires him for misrepresenting his prison record. Practically broke but undaunted, Brown gets help renting a rundown, foreclosed home, converting it into the “Big Chair Chess Club” and tempting back his former charges with the offer of respite from street hassles and the potential for a better future.

But poverty, crime and family conflicts create warring loyalties for the students. Potential chess prodigy Tahime can’t seem to break free from Clifton’s sketchy schemes and his drug-addicted mother’s constant harassment. If Brown is going to reach even one of these kids, he’s going to have to do it by convincing them that learning chess can help them deal with the entire convergence of issues holding them back—despite the fact that he’s a flawed role model himself.

Goldberger’s second feature adheres closely to biopic stylistic and narrative conventions, with co-writers Dan Wetzel and David Scott mining a rich vein of sentiment to counterbalance the unfortunate realities facing many of the fairly recognizable stock characters. As an adaptation of Brown’s life story, the film follows a predetermined arc, even if the filmmakers’ interpretation of events may render plot developments too frequently predictable. 

Gooding is in full-on drama mode for the role and although a few lighthearted moments would give the character more dimensionality, he easily projects the gravitas required by the part. The capable ensemble supporting cast, particularly the young actors playing his estranged son and daughter, as well as the high-school students, provides just enough conflict to make his small victories appear hard-won indeed.

While probably not a game-changer on an entertainment level, Life of a King effectively demonstrates that finding a path out of poverty may sometimes present unexpected choices well worth pursuing, often despite their unfamiliarity.

The Hollywood Reporter


Film Review: Life of a King

Appealing performances stand out in this expressive urban drama.

Jan 16, 2014

-By Justin Lowe


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1392758-Life_Of_A_King_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Cynics may sniff at Life of a King’s rather middlebrow aspirations, but Jake Goldberger’s feel-good feature is very much the type of inspirational filmmaking that average moviegoers often critique the industry for not producing more frequently. Based on the true story of how ex-con Eugene Brown turned his prison experience studying chess into an informal head-start program for inner-city youth, the charismatic film could see a niche theatrical release targeting core audiences help build avid word of mouth for VOD or cable.

After 18 years in prison for armed robbery, Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) becomes a free man, returning to the Washington, D.C.-area neighborhood where he came up as a gang member. Determined to avoid the long reach of his former protégé Perry (Richard T. Jones), now a gangland boss, Brown steers clear of the streets and gets a job as a janitor at a local high school, where his can-do demeanor convinces the principal (Lisa Gay Hamilton) to assign him as a detention monitor for a class of rowdy troublemakers, unaware that her new hire has lied about his criminal conviction on his job application.

Drawing on one of the few viable skills he developed in the joint, Brown tries to convince the kids that playing chess will help keep them out of trouble and provide some useful life lessons as well. But most of them aren’t interested, particularly tough guy Clifton (Carlton Byrd), his sidekick Tahime (Malcolm Mays) and their childhood friend Peanut (Kevin Hendricks).

Standing up to the young thugs earns Brown some points and reluctant cooperation among the students, but almost as soon as he’s taught them the basics of chess and the game’s real-life analogies, his boss fires him for misrepresenting his prison record. Practically broke but undaunted, Brown gets help renting a rundown, foreclosed home, converting it into the “Big Chair Chess Club” and tempting back his former charges with the offer of respite from street hassles and the potential for a better future.

But poverty, crime and family conflicts create warring loyalties for the students. Potential chess prodigy Tahime can’t seem to break free from Clifton’s sketchy schemes and his drug-addicted mother’s constant harassment. If Brown is going to reach even one of these kids, he’s going to have to do it by convincing them that learning chess can help them deal with the entire convergence of issues holding them back—despite the fact that he’s a flawed role model himself.

Goldberger’s second feature adheres closely to biopic stylistic and narrative conventions, with co-writers Dan Wetzel and David Scott mining a rich vein of sentiment to counterbalance the unfortunate realities facing many of the fairly recognizable stock characters. As an adaptation of Brown’s life story, the film follows a predetermined arc, even if the filmmakers’ interpretation of events may render plot developments too frequently predictable. 

Gooding is in full-on drama mode for the role and although a few lighthearted moments would give the character more dimensionality, he easily projects the gravitas required by the part. The capable ensemble supporting cast, particularly the young actors playing his estranged son and daughter, as well as the high-school students, provides just enough conflict to make his small victories appear hard-won indeed.

While probably not a game-changer on an entertainment level, Life of a King effectively demonstrates that finding a path out of poverty may sometimes present unexpected choices well worth pursuing, often despite their unfamiliarity.

The Hollywood Reporter
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Small Time
Film Review: Small Time

You might not buy a used car from the guys in Small Time, but you will enjoy the movie about their exploits, even their exploitations (of others). More »

Fading Gigolo
Film Review: Fading Gigolo

Some top screen talent gets lost in the silliness surrounding the amorous adventures of an unlikely gigolo and his even more unlikely pimp, with writer/director/actor John Turturro the shtupper “ho” co-starring with Woody Allen as the mercenary shtup-enabler. Yarmulkes off to Turturro’s brave but deeply ill-conceived comedic foray into Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community and other alien territory. More »

A Promise
Film Review: A Promise

Handsomely filmed but wan period romance. More »

Final Member
Film Review: The Final Member

Breezy documentary about the aging owner of a small Icelandic museum dedicated to penises and his quest for one last, coveted exhibit is a charmer, thanks to the warmth and sly sense of humor the protagonist brings to his unusual hobby. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Transcendence
Film Review: Transcendence

Johnny Depp is an idealistic researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into an artificial intelligence in this slick techno-thriller with delusions of seriousness from Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer. More »

Draft Day
Film Review: Draft Day

Pro football manager faces crises on the most important day of his career in a well-tooled vehicle for Kevin Costner. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here