Steven Soderbergh’s third feature-length film King of the Hill (1993) is now available as a deluxe Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection. What’s pleasantly surprising about this release is that the Blu-ray set contains a second feature film—Soderbergh’s fourth—The Underneath (1995) as a bonus. It’s a bit of a puzzling double-feature as the two films are only connected by their common director, but their relationship becomes clear in the brutally honest interviews with Soderbergh contained in the special features. King of the Hill is an enjoyable, emotional, coming of age story that showcases Soderbergh’s talent as a storyteller. The Underneath, on the other hand, shows Soderbergh at (or at least near) his weakest.
King of the Hill is based on the memoir of author A.E. Hotchner, known in this film as Aaron. Set during The Great Depression when the author was a pre-teen, this film focuses on a particularly difficult period of time when Aaron was forced to fend for himself while his mother was ill and his father searched for work out of state. Despite Aaron’s (Jesse Bradford) dire circumstances he maintains a cheery outlook on life. Instead of infusing the film with dark and dreary images that would have symbolized the downtrodden depression era, the St. Louis streets are a lush and full of life.
What is most interesting about this film is that Aaron goes through familiar teenager rites of passage despite his unfortunate circumstances. He has his first kiss, deals with feeling like at outcast at school, and begins to establish his independence from his parents. Like most children he accepts the world that surrounds him without question. He sees his neighbors forced out of their homes or abused by law enforcement, but he still holds on to a constant optimism that things will work out. Soderbergh does a great job of capturing that youthful outlook that the world is an open door where anything can happen if one just puts their mind to it. Several future stars are seen here in supporting roles, including Adrien Brody as Aaron’s older friend Lester, Katherine Heigl as Aaron’s first crush, and Lauryn Hill as an unexpectedly thoughtful elevator operator.
By contrast, Soderbergh’s follow-up film The Underneath fails to capture anything of the human spirit. It’s not an entirely unwatchable film, but by the end it feels inconsequential as a character study or even as simple entertainment. The story is a fairly typical heist-gone-wrong caper with Peter Gallagher as career criminal Michael Chambers. Chambers returns home for a family wedding and we soon find out that pretty much everyone in his life has a bone to pick with him. Despite some slight intent to lead the straight life, he soon finds himself embroiled in an armored car heist.
It’s all fairly straightforward as far the elements of the story go, but Soderbergh does attempt to inject style into the film with a fractured narrative and some unusual visual choices. Unfortunately the story falls apart as it moves toward its predictable ending. Soderbergh indicates in an included interview that he lost interest in the film almost as soon as it went into production. That loss of interest shows in the film (which is a remake of the 1949 film noir, Criss Cross).
It’s surprising to see such a candid admission from a director, especially one as respected as Soderbergh. I’d say it was refreshing, which it is, but it’s also such a selfish admission that it’s hard not to feel a little annoyed. A lot of people put their time and energy into the production of this film (including striking cinematography by Elliot Davis) so it seems a shame to have wasted the talent and effort involved. For his part, I think Peter Gallagher and the rest of the cast (including Alison Elliott as Chambers’ ex and Elisabeth Shue as new romantic interest Susan) did a good job with what they had to work with.
Still, including The Underneath with this package is a cool, unexpected bonus in an already good package. It is an enlightening look at the world of filmmaking if you take it back to that level. Soderbergh is likely not the first director to lose heart in a project that costs millions of dollars, so I applaud his willingness to admit it. And when it comes down to it, The Underneath was far from being one of the worst films I’ve seen (for worse Soderbergh, see Full Frontal), so it’s worth a watch for any fan of his.
King of the Hill looks virtually brand new on Blu-ray with a new 2K digital transfer supervised by Steven Soderbergh. According to the notes in the booklet, the transfer was creating using a four-perforation Super 35mm interpositive. Framed in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the results are vibrantly colorful. There is a golden-tinged look to the film that gives it a warm, nostalgic feel. The image is consistently very sharp. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is mostly laid-back, but dialogue is always clear, even when it’s quiet. When the sound design springs to life (such as during Aaron’s late-film distorted-memory sequence), the surround speakers are well-used for subtle effects.
The Underneath gets a very strong, 1080p transfer that makes the most of the film’s striking color scheme (some of the scenes feature a bold green tint). The only downside is the lack of lossless audio. The one audio option is Dolby Digital 5.1, but it’s not even worth complaining about considering The Underneath is offered as a bonus feature.
Though The Underneath (and its accompanying interview) is easily the main bonus, King of the Hill is equipped with an impressive spread of extras. There’s a 20-minute interview with Soderbergh, who looks back on King with mixed feelings (he seems to feel the beautiful visuals were at odds with the depressing subject matter). A.E. Hotchner, whose memoir was the basis for the film, also gets a 20-minute interview. At 93, Hotchner is incredibly lucid in his memories and honest in his appraisal of the film adaptation. “Against Tyranny” is a highly enlightening video essay that deconstructs some of the non-linear techniques Soderbergh worked into Hill. There’s also a series of six deleted scenes (in somewhat rough, standard definition).
Even though Soderbergh clearly isn’t entirely satisfied with King of the Hill and practically disowns The Underneath, The Criterion Collection has put together a rich, rewarding release.Powered by Sidelines