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Worth A Look: 27.27%
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Pretty Bad: 27.27%
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3 reviews, 4 user ratings

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King is Alive, The
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by Brian McKay

"Hailst Thou to the King, Baby!"
4 stars

What a pleasant surprise to recieve this Dogme film in its happy little Netflix mailer, after thoroughly enjoying another excellent Dogme film, OPEN HEARTS, just days ago. Yes, I do love the Netflix. In fact, my rule of thumb when checking mail is "If it's not red and big enough to hold a DVD, ignore it"

Chances are most people, outside of the film geek collective that is, haven't heard of the Dogme 95 Manifesto. If asked what they thought The King is Alive were about, they'd probably guess either Elvis or the fourth installment of the Evil Dead franchise (and wouldn't that have kicked ass). Instead, you have a bunch of people stranded out in the desert reciting Shakespeare's King Lear?

However, those with an aversion to Shakespeare need not tremble. The entire film isn't the actual production of Lear, and in fact the play has a rather small part in the tale. The King is Alive is about survival, both physical and mental. Given the option of putting on a play or staring into a sun-baked and sandy oblivion, the Bard doesn't seem like such a bad choice now does it? Overall, it's a fine tale, although there are a few weaknesses and maybe one or two plot contrivances.

A group of American and European tourists find themselves in this predicament after the bus they are traveling on across the African countryside takes a really wrong turn, as the driver mistakenly follows a broken compass and takes the wrong road at night. Oddly enough, he never stops to check a map or question why the highway has turned into a dirt road, or why he hasn't seen any traffic or buildings for hours. Okay, it's a bit of a stretch, but it could happen - especially with an inexperienced driver who's too proud or stupid to admit he's lost.

The bus pulls over at a small settlement, only to find it full of abandoned houses and inhabited by a solitary old man. They discover some fuel to replenish their empty gas tank, only to realize too late that it's kerosene and completeley useless, flooding the engine. And so they find themselves stranded out in the desert, with only some leftover cases of rusty canned carrots for food, and trapped water from morning condensation to drink. One of the tourists, the only one with a level head about him, volunteers to hike to the nearest settlement and return with help - a trip that will take him five days.

At first, most of the tourists don't take it seriously. They behave like . . . well, like tourists. The first night they decide to crack the seal on all that duty free liquor they bought back at the safari gift shop and have a nice little party. But when the booze is long gone and their fellow traveler has not returned after the fifth day, they began to realize just how deep the shit they are in really is.

Soon enough, familiarity begins to breed contempt. Husbands and Wives find themselves getting on each other's nerves, and one of the wives (Janet McTeer) attempts an affair with the Bus Driver (Peter Kubheka) because "White men don't like it when their women sleep with black men". He may have earned a big Karma deficit by getting them lost in the first place, but he gets props for (mostly) rebuffing her advances. Meanwhile, former actor Jack (Miles Anderson) comes up with the idea of putting on the play, and even manages to reconstruct most of it from memory. The two single girls in the tribe, the annoying American slut (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the bitchy intellectual French girl (Romane Bohringer) vie for the part of Cordelia. Others react to the idea of the play with either curious excitement or outright scorn. One of them, a fat pompous Englishman, refuses to participate unless the American girl sleeps with him. Oddly enough, she does. Sexual and racial tensions mount as the characters begin to slip into despair and even madness. Meanwhile, the old man sits by watching, and serving as a silent narrator to the group of people who "speak many words, but not to each other".

The King is Alive is a fine drama and a captivating bit of filmmaking. The lack of artificial lighting and post-production gloss give their desert surroundings a stark and grainy look, adding an edge of realism. The problem is that it's trying to be both a story about survival and a character study, and it's not a hundred percent successful at either. There are too many characters (eleven in total) for them all to be developed or interwoven properly, when half a dozen or fewer would have been more ideal. This was Brion James' last movie, and the poor bastard didn't hardly have anything to do in it! Still, after giving us such priceless performances in films like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, it's nice to see that he went out with a quality film that bears some artistic merit, and not another B-movie debacle like Steel Dawn. And yes, at the end of the closing credits there is a dedication to Brion. Rest in Peace, Brother man.

Still, the performances are generally solid, even if some characters are underdeveloped and the motivations of others are unclear. However, the film also comes up a tad shy on the survival aspects of the tale. While this is mostly intentional in order to focus on character and dramatics, it would have been nice to see a bit more about the day to day work involved in actually surviving out in the desert, even with a handy stash of tinned food nearby (most of which ends up being tainted). And why is it nobody really bothers to hang around the old man? If he's been out there all that time, you'd think he knows a thing or two about surviving. I would have been following him around like flies on shit.

These minor quibbles aside, The King is Alive is an imaginative film that feels ten times more genuine than any ten movies of the Castaway variety (or as I like to call it, "The 90 million dollar Fed-Ex Commercial"). I don't know how they found that abandoned settlement out in the middle of nowhere, but it looks more desolate and haunting than any ghost town built on a Hollywood back lot.

Though the entire concept of the Dogme 95 Manifesto may seem a bit snooty and pretentious, it seems to bring out the best in the performers and the script (because really, what else is there to fall back on?). Sure, I like the big budget popcorn movies fine and well, but it's nice to know there's something out there that can spark a genuine love of film and occassionally cleanse the palate.

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originally posted: 03/05/03 18:23:14
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User Comments

7/18/04 Fernando the best dogma ever 5 stars
4/03/04 Eugene Powerful - Honest 5 stars
8/19/01 kirsten great movie 5 stars
8/06/01 kirsten very good 5 stars
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  11-May-2000 (R)



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