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Criterion Collection: King of the Hill | Blu-ray Review

King of the Hill Steven Soderbergh Blu-rayAfter a pair of edgy indies and a Palme d’Or to boot, Steven Soderbergh was given his first opportunity to bed down with the studio system and take advantage of the much deeper pockets that such an opportunity affords, but no one expected that under the watch of Universal the young auteur would make the polished and saccharine King of the Hill his first project. Adapted from A. E. Hotchner’s depression era memoir of the same title in which a preadolescent boy named Aaron is faced with the harsh realities of true poverty, Soderbergh’s first studio effort remains a wholesome oddity within a filmography that seems increasingly chameleonic, but rarely sentimental. After the subversion of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and the experimentalism of the bio-pic Kafka, the chances that his next film would boast the fluffiness of a made for TV afternoon special about how hard it was to grow up in St. Louis during the Great Depression (all you have to omit is occasional mild language and an overly grotesque suicide scene).

Exuding effortless cutesy, a knack for storytelling and a gift for problem solving, Aaron (played by a confident young Jesse Bradford) is the epitome of sympathy. Unable to afford a place of their own, his family has been riding the desperation of needy hotel owners, living in a rented room for which they owe several months back. His mother is sent to a sanitarium to recover from tuberculosis, his beloved younger brother bused to a distant relative to be cared for, while his seemingly irresponsible father abandons the lot of them for work as a salesmen on the road, the boy is deserted. Left with no food and no cash, Aaron seems to talk himself into wealthy friends’ parties (one of which is a pre-teen Katherine Heigl in her second film appearance) and garner the support of friendly neighbors like Adrien Brody in one of his earliest screen roles and one of Soderbergh’s most favorite collaborators, Spalding Gray (in a grimly prophetic turn), all with an inconsequential air that seems to hint that despite the all suffering endured, little Aaron will no doubt see his happy ending come true.

With over decade and a half between them, the tone feels oddly comparable to Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, with its pair of young protagonists enduring the pains of the Holocaust in a glossy melodramatic style that paints it’s period with picturesque poignancy, but little genuine gravity. Soderbergh was highly praised upon the film’s release for the subtleties of Bradford’s strong performance and authenticity of the setting, but even the filmmaker himself admits that the film severely suffers from a lack of grit. Technically sound and sadly sugary in it’s handling of the truly devastating realities of the Depression, King of the Hill is not a bad film per se, just one that lacks a sense of consequence and a lasting impression.

Disc Review:

Despite the film being lower rung Soderbergh, it’s always interesting to reexamine the roots of a great filmmaker. In keeping with this mission, Criterion have provided a wealth of insight into the film in addition to presenting it in pristine HD, but not only that, this package is actually an unadvertised double feature, slyly packaging his self depreciated follow-up feature The Underneath all within a thick gatefold digipack adorned by beautiful illustrated renderings of scenes from the film.

Interview with director Steven Soderbergh
An eloquent speaker on cinema, the filmmaker looks back, contextualizing the making of the film and critically analyzing his own choices with it. The interview was recorded late last year and is cut along with clips from the film. 19 min

Interview with author A. E. Hotchner
Now in his 90s, with exuberance and vivacity, the author speaks about how he came to write the story, how he was on set for much of the film’s production and how he helped legitimize the marble shooting scene. 21 min

Against Tyranny
The most fascinating of the extras included, this is a trippy new video essay by :: kogonada on Soderbergh’s ultra subtle narrative style. 10 min

Deleted Scenes
Raw, unmastered footage, these scenes were last minute cuts from the film in an attempt to keep it as close to 100 minutes as possible. 9 min

The Underneath (1995)
Admittedly, Soderbergh himself was consciously over making this film before he even really got started, and thus, it’s a gloriously stylized but sloppily undercooked thriller starring Peter Gallagher and William Fichtner. Yet, I kind of enjoyed it a bit more than King of the Hill. So sue me. 99 min

Interview with director Steven Soderbergh on ‘The Underneath’
Guilt of neglect when it comes to this film, Soderbergh admits his mind was already deep in thought about making Schizopolis during this film’s production. Within he gives his take on the film’s fate and what he still likes about it in spite of its many faults. 22 min

Theatrical Trailers
Included are trailers for both films, one sappy, one tense, both in 4:3, non-HD. 4 min

With a beautifully written critical essay by critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh on the film, and an excerpt from Hotchner’s memoir on which the film is based, this is a substantial extra with credits and transfer notes also included, as is usual from Criterion.

Final Thoughts:

Soderbergh himself considers these films to be full of necessary mistakes, experiences that have allowed him to learn and grow to be a much better filmmaker in retrospect. With that in mind, enjoy the films for what they are – glossy learning experiences with fine performances, beautiful camera work and even a pair of early scores by Drive and Springbreakers composer Cliff Martinez. Auteur theorists and wholesome families with a fleeting interest in history will surely be enthused.

Film:          ★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

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