In 1993, Steven Soderbergh chose to make for his third film an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's depression-era memoir 'King of the Hill.' Some found it an odd choice for a filmmaker who had earned tremendous amounts of praise and an intrigued fanbase with his 1989 Palme d'Or-winning debut feature, 'sex, lies, and videotape.' Twenty-one years ago, however, Soderbergh wasn't known for being the versatile, genre-hopping filmmaker he is today; and as such, his first three films (his second was the Lem Dobbs-penned 'Kafka,' starring Jeremy Irons as the titular Franz) may have seemed at the time to have little in the way of thematic connection. In discussing 'King of the Hill,' though, it becomes clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Soderbergh himself has made mention that the uniting theme of his first three films is the notion of isolation, and people at odds with their environment, so in essence, A.E. Hotchner's memoir would be an extension of that theme.
Perhaps what's most striking about 'King of the Hill' is the tenderness with which Soderbergh crafts this tale revolving around Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), a 12-year-old boy living with his cheerful younger brother Sullivan (Cameraon Boyd), sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn) and ineffectual salesman father (Jeoren Krabbé) in a single room on the third floor of the Empire Hotel in downtown St. Louis during the summer of 1933. As it turns out, the Kurlanders – a substitute for the Hotchners – are just one of many families in a similar predicament. The Great Depression has perpetuated for several years now and shows little sign of abating, and as such, the Empire Hotel's third floor is littered with individuals and families biding their time until Ben (Joe Chrest), a matchstick-chewing bellhop with black teeth and a box full of padlocks pays them a visit for failure to pay rent.
Soderbergh, working for the second time from a script he wrote, structures this world and its penurious circumstances like a web, where everyone fighting to survive and keep a roof over their heads is precariously balanced on the same shimmering strands of hope from which are spun great fictions that help everyone get through the day. The film begins with Aaron giving a vibrant speech to his more affluent classmates about his fictitious relationship with Charles Lindbergh – one that has the famed aviator calling Aaron late at night for advice on what food to bring on his long flight. Aaron's classmates are enthralled, his teacher, Miss Mathey (Karen Allen) is delighted by his creativity and zeal, and Aaron is caught somewhere in between being a simple liar and a skilled raconteur. Aaron spins an elaborate and implausible tale, but his circumstances are so dire, even he is just despairing enough to try and live it for a short while.
Early on, the Kurlander's send young Sullivan away to live with his uncle, in order to save one dollar a week in expenses. Aaron is desperate to find any way to bring his little brother back and soon enters into a series of sure-to-fail business ventures (one of which involves selling canaries to a pet store), while his father sullenly tries to sell glass candlesticks, earnestly waiting to hear back about a job with the WPA. But the (temporary) loss of Sullivan is just the first blow Aaron must endure. Soon, his mother is committed to a sanitarium for consumption, briefly leaving him and his father to make the once-cramped hotel room into something resembling a home. Not long after, though, even Mr. Kurlander is gone, having secured a sales position with a watch company. And for the first time, Aaron is left to truly fend for himself.
Through Aaron's loneliness and isolation, Soderbergh offers up the Empire Hotel and its denizens – which includes a young Adrian Brody as Lester, Aaron's surrogate older brother, the mysterious Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) and his scantily clad companion Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern), and Ella McShane (Amber Benson), the cat-loving girl from down the hall who suffers from seizures – as proxies for his absent family. Each one is distinctive and precisely drawn, as if they sprang from Aaron's imagination; another fiction to help endure the long days dodging the mad bellhop, subsisting on crusty dinner rolls, and eventually dining on images of food cut from a magazine. Soon, however, one by one, even Aaron's surrogate family is taken from him, leaving him at the mercy of a world otherwise too engaged with it's own problems to properly deal with his.
It all adds up to an utterly hopeless situation, and yet through Soderbergh's direction and lively adaptation of Hotchner's original text, there emerges a film brimming with optimism and courage without descending into mawkishness. Rich with texture and a pervasive yet elegant use of warm, practically sweltering colors to convey the suffocating atmosphere of both the Great Depression and a pre-air conditioned St. Louis in summer, 'King of the Hill' is a visually sumptuous film that flirts with the idea of sentimentality, but steers well clear with a series of tougher-than-expected scenes intimating after all the disappointment, loneliness, and hunger, there is now an irreparable schism between Aaron and his parents that goes well beyond their physical separation. It is the rare coming of age film that matures as it progresses and finds a cherished independence amidst its protagonist's discovery of the same.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'King of the Hill' comes from Criterion as a three disc set; a single 50GB Blu-ray disc, and two DVDs. The discs are housed on a plastic tray inside a cardboard outer sleeve marked with the number 698 on the spine. In addition to the three discs, this edition comes with a larger-than-usual 40-page booklet that includes an essay on the film by critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh, and an except from Hotchner's 1972 memoir.
'King of the Hill' has been restored with a new 2K digital film transfer that was supervised by Steven Soderbergh. The effect is one of the most luscious looking restorations in recent memory; one that is comparable in its visual tenor to Terence Davies' similarly striking 'The Long Day Closes.' The film's relatively young age certainly plays some part in the success of this transfer, but that shouldn't take anything away from the fine, clearly painstaking effort that went into ensuring the singular vision of the movie was brought to life.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer delivers a bright, richly colored image that picks up and enhances all the subtle elements of the film's art design and showcases them brilliantly. Aside from a few instances where the focus is perhaps deliberately soft, the image enjoys a solid amount of fine detail that not only renders faces with great clarity, it also helps bring the world of 1933 St. Louis to life. Textures are abundant and regularly fill the frame with tiny bits of detail that enhance the environment and generate a believable sense of time and place. Contrast levels are quite high, full-bodied blacks are evident in many scenes and are completely free of crush or banding of any kind. Of course, the highlight of the movie is its tremendous use of color, and the way the warm yellows and balmy burgundies generate an atmosphere as well as an emotional response. Here the viewer is allowed to fully appreciate the effect of the film's color palette perhaps for the first time – or at least since it was in theaters 21 years ago.
Overall, this is a great-looking image that narrowly misses being perfect with just a few inconsistencies here and there.
'King of the Hill' has been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that was supervised by sound editor and rerecording mixer Larry Blake. The result is a wonderfully rich listening experience that perfectly balances the elements of the film in such a way they don't simply all sound great on their own, or even together, but the separate elements sound as though they exist to enhance the sound of everything else around them. That sort of listening experience is perfect for this film, as it relies as much on the sensation of sound as it does the visual component to usher in a sense of place.
Dialogue is crisp and clean throughout the film. Characters are all easily heard above the din of the busy world outside the Empire Hotel, and even through the embrace of Cliff Martinez's music. Most of the dialogue comes from the center channel, though there are a few instances where the rear channels or front speakers will come into play to help with some imaging – which is also strong throughout. The front speakers generally handle the score, the sound effects, and a great deal of the ambient atmospheric elements that play such a big part in the mix. Rear channels are constantly going and help generate a strong immersive experience for the listener that is filled with tiny details all around. LFE comes into play occasionally, but it is expectedly subtle and used to add depth to certain scenes.
All in all, this is a tremendous mix that brings the film to life in a way it likely hasn't been before.
This is the complete version of Soderbergh's somewhat poorly received fourth film 'The Underneath,' starring Peter Gallagher as Michael Chambers, a recovering gambling addict who has returned to his hometown of Austin, Texas after overwhelming debts forced him to leave his family and love interest, Rachel (Alison Elliott) behind several years prior. The film follows Michael as he attempts to rekindle a relationship with Rachel, even though she's now with Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner) a two-bit criminal who owns a club and is seemingly involved in various shady dealings around town. Getting back on his feet, Michael's soon-to-be stepfather (Paul Dooley) gets him a job with the armored car service he works for that's run by the fantastic Joe Don Baker in a small, but memorable role.
Soderbergh is on the money with his assessment of the film: it does come off as being "sleepy" most of the time, and though the performances are all done quite well, the script from Soderbergh and Daniel Fuchs, which adapts Don Tracy's novel 'Criss Cross,' struggles to create a genuine sense of tension, or to develop the characters – despite copious amounts of backstory – in such a way they actually become engaging, to one another or the audience. There are even two subplots featuring Michael's jealous cop brother David (Adam Trese), and another with Elizabeth Shue that fail to go anywhere interesting, and the latter only serves to further the plot in rather banal fashion.
Still, the film can be fun to watch, as it is plain to see how the structure and the visual aesthetic of it played into Soderbergh's style with future films like the stupendous 'Out of Sight' and the equally thrilling 'The Limey' in 1999. 'The Underneath' wasn't going to a film Criterion would likely want to offer on its own, so pairing it with 'King of the Hill' gives an underseen film a whole new audience, while serving to demonstrate the growth of a major filmmaker at an early point in his career.
The film is presented with a very nice 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that handles the sound quite well.
Owning this Criterion edition of 'King of the Hill' is a no-brainer for any Soderbergh fan, as it marks a turning point in his career where he began to play around with things like art design and to express himself in an aesthetically adventurous manner that also generated a believable and endearing sense of time and place. This is a delightful film that truly captures the essence of A.E. Hotchner's memoir, without being slavishly beholden to it. Soderbergh's film uses the source material to generate an entertaining interpretation of the text, while also making great use of a fantastic cast that includes a young and talented Jesse Bradford. The film is certainly the highlight of the set, but with excellent picture and sound, as well as a host of incredible extras – including another Soderbergh feature, 'The Underneath,' this offering comes highly recommended for anyone.