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KING OF THE HILL
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody, Jesse Bradford
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 103 Minutes
Release Date: February 25, 2014

When Aaron here works for his meal the way I did, he can have some.”

That wouldn’t be feasible.”

With you, nothing is.”

Film ***

Steven Soderbergh has grown into one of the most consistently original filmmakers of all time. Even though he burst onto the scene magnificently with 1989‘s sex, lies and videotape, it wasn’t until his fantastic 1998 film Out of Sight, that I began to take notice and appreciate Soderbergh’s unique filmmaking and narrative approach. He had a stint of films in the early 90s that went nearly unnoticed, one of those being 1993‘s King of the Hill.

For someone like me who immediately associates Soderbergh with out of order narrative, King of the Hill (his first major studio release) is something of a surprise in that it is told completely straightforward. This is a most rare case, as in even some of his more well know/mainstream features like Ocean’s Eleven or the recent Haywire and Side Effects, Soderbergh will apply spontaneous flashbacks as part of his unique storytelling procedure. The only other instance I can think of where he applied a straightforward structure was Traffic, which happened to a film with three interconnected storylines.

Based on a 1972 memoir by A.E. Hotchner, the film is a depression era story set in 1933, St. Louis. The focus of the story is young Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), a very bright student who also happens to be a tremendously gifted deceiver. He actually doesn’t live in the district of his school, but rather a downtown hotel where he is usually living by himself. His ailing mother (Lisa Eichhorn) has resorted to a TB sanitarium, while his salesman father (Jeroen Krabbe) takes up a job traveling the world selling watches in order to keep the bill collectors at bay while fellow hotel guests are being tossed out as a result of hard economic times.

His unexpected achievements at school, which actually serves as an escape from his harsh family life, inspire Aaron to tell lies about his life away from the classroom. He fabricates a story about his parents, understandably, and even catches the attention of a pretty and rich classmate (an extremely young Katherine Heigl). But when he’s away from school, Aaron’s main priority is survival, which is a rough act to pull off on the streets but he manages to do so quite effortlessly.

Though it’s a straightforward film, Soderbergh has nonetheless given King of the Hill a remarkable look and feel, especially with the help of Elliot Davis’ brightly effective cinematography and the memorable music score from Cliff Martinez. And young Jesse Bradford, who went on the appear in such films as Romeo + Juliet, Bring it On and Flags of Our Fathers, makes quite a remarkable impression as Aaron.

As it turns out, there is a second Soderbergh film included in this Blu-ray package. To the best of my knowledge is a first for any Criterion release, or Blu-ray release for that matter. And though is offered as one of the extras, I feel the need to bring it up because I happen to like it even more than King of the Hill.

The film in question is Soderbergh’s 1995 follow up called The Underneath, a modern day film noir starring Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliot, William Fichtner and Elisabeth Shue. This film was even less successful than King of the Hill, and Soderbergh himself has labeled it as a failure on his part. But as a work of pure atmosphere and style, The Underneath is purely memorable, and incorporates Soderbergh’s trademark out-of-order storytelling technique and use of different color schemes to identify past, present and flashbacks within the past.

Those filmmaking strategies, which would later surface in films such as Out of Sight and Traffic, are put to superbly effective use in this thriller about recovering gambling addict (Gallagher) who returns to his hometown to put things right with those he let down. But his deep love and affection for his ex-wife (Elliot) lead to him getting involved in a robbery scheme with her new lover (Fichtner), a small time hood. I might be in the minority on this one, but there you go!

Video ****

By this point, a critique of the video quality on a Criterion release should just be summed up in the following two words: It’s Criterion. All kidding aside, they have crafted yet another astounding Blu-ray presentation. And given the filmmaker involved and the crew he was graced with, it was only inevitable that Blu-ray could enhance the look of this presentation even further. The bright color tones in the film are expressed even more effectively, and that lends very much to the overall image detail here.

Audio ***

Though this is mainly a dialogue driven piece, the DTS HD mix does provide a strong enough listen. The best ingredient here is the music score, which will remain with you after you see it. Dialogue delivery is throughly strong and terrifically clear!

Features ***1/2

This Criterion package, a Three Disc release containing one Blu-ray and two DVDs, is yet another strong effort from Criterion. Among the supplements, we are provided with new interviews with Steven Soderbergh and author A.E. Hotchner. There’s also “Against Tyranny”, a visual essay by filmmaker Kogonada that takes a look at Soderbergh's unique narrative approach. Next up, as mentioned, is The Underneath, Soderbergh's follow up feature that also includes an interview with the director, in which he doesn’t hold anything back about how he truly feels about it. Rounding out everything are Trailers for both films, as well as a booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh, and an excerpt from Hotchner's 1972 Memoir.

Summary:

While I don’t consider it the strongest work he’s ever put out, King of the Hill is nevertheless an exuberantly made period piece from the one of a kind Steven Soderbergh. Though made during an early point in his career when it’s safe to assume he was still trying to find his definitive filmmaking style (which is unlimited, of course), it is worth checking out for anyone curious to get acquainted with the early works in Soderbergh’s canon.

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