King of the Hill
For his first Hollywood studio production, Steven Soderbergh (whose independent debut, sex, lies, and videotape, had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years earlier) crafted this small jewel of a growing-up story. Set in St. Louis during the Great Depression, King of the Hill follows the daily struggles of a resourceful and imaginative adolescent who, after his younger brother is sent to live with a relative and his tubercular mother to a sanitarium, must survive on his own in a run-down hotel during his salesman father’s long business trips. This evocative period piece, faithfully adapted from the A. E. Hotchner memoir, is among the versatile Soderbergh’s most touching and surprising films.
Previously only available in North America on VHS and LaserDisc, Steven Soderbergh’s 1993 film King of the Hill receives a new dual-format edition from The Criterion Collection. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and given a new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer on a the set’s dual-layer Blu-ray disc. A standard-definition version of the same transfer is delivered in anamorphic widescreen on the first dual-layer DVD.
King of the Hill has a more polished, “pretty” studio look to it than Soderbergh’s earlier and later films, which caught me off guard (this was my first time viewing the film) and the Blu-ray delivers a lovely rendering of it. Soderbergh avoids the use of primary colours, so there is a somewhat dirty look to the film because of it, but colours are rendered beautifully and deliver excellent saturation levels. Black levels are also clean, and details never appear to get crushed out.
The digital transfer delivers a crisp image with superb levels of detail and a nice sense of depth. Film grain is present, though not at all heavy, and I didn’t notice any compression artifacts of any sort. The print is in terrific condition, presenting only a few minor bits of debris.
The DVD’s transfer is a little noisier than I would have expected but overall it’s also fine. Detail is about as decent as one could hope. Black levels aren’t as strong but there’s still no true issues with crushing.
Though the DVD is obviously weaker in comparison to the Blu-ray, the transfer overall is very strong, delivering a clean and bright presentation for the film.
(Accompanying the screen grabs for King of the Hill below are screen grabs for Soderbergh’s The Underneath, which is also included as a special feature. It is covered in the supplement section of this review.)
The 5.1 surround track is presented in DTS-HD MA on the Blu-ray disc, and Dolby Digital on the DVD.
In both cases the soundtracks offer a decent mix. Most dialogue and effects remain in the fronts, with a few instances of activity occurring in the rear speakers. Cliff Martinez’s score is what best utilizes the surrounds, splitting the score nicely between the speakers with nice, subtle bass.
The DTS-HD track is the better one, sounding crisper with some subtle nuances coming through and better range, but both tracks are clean and free of distortion.
Criterion and Soderbergh go an interesting route with the supplements, taking this release as an opportunity to look at a pivotal point in Soderbergh’s career. After the disappointing performance of King of the Hill and his experience with The Underneath (his first two studio pictures) he reexamined his career and decided for a change.
The first supplement is an interview with director Steven Soderbergh. The director talks about how it’s one of the films he is most complimented on (when people recognize him) and mentions it’s the probably one of the films loved more by the audience than himself. He doesn’t hate it, mind you, but regrets a lot of decisions he made on it. He now finds it “too beautiful” and he questions a lot of his stylistic choices, thinking it should have been “grittier.” He’s also disappointed he cut 8-minutes out of the film, since the only reason he cut it down was to keep down to 100-minutes, a misguided attempt to possibly allow more showings a day. The film overall was a learning experience, and one he is glad he had. He says the experience of his first studio film was actually very good. The studio gave him the freedom he desired and they were very supportive. I was actually surprised by this since Soderbergh is so critical of the studio system now, but at the time it sounds as though they bent over backwards to help him make his film. The film proved to be a box office failure, though, and it never found its audience, at least in theaters. And when he took it to Cannes, he learned that there are certain films you can take there and others you can’t: King of the Hill was one you couldn’t because it didn’t have an overt political message and the film received a rather brutal reception. He’s grateful he was able to use his failures as a way to learn, which is a luxury filmmakers today would never have. It’s a very honest and forthcoming interview, well worth viewing. It runs about 19-minutes.
Following this is a 21-minute interview with author A.E. Hotchner. Looking pretty good at 93 years of age, Hotchner talks about writing the book, which had a couple of rough starts. He originally started writing it as an adult looking back but he scrapped it and then wrote it from the first person perspective. He talks about his father, his mother, and his experience of staying in that hotel room by himself. He explains how it was during that time, during and after the depression, and how there was no point in getting angry at the situations that came up, you just had to deal with it. His way of dealing was creating fantasy worlds of sorts, because the “world that was” was just too awful. It’s a rather informative interview, with the writer talking about the people that were the basis for characters in the book and film, and he also talks about what happened to him after the film ends, which sort of ruins the happy ending of the film. There’s also a few moving moments, such as when he talks about his brother, and the canary that played an important part during that time. What’s disappointing about the interview is he rarely mentions the adaptation, only mentioning how he showed Soderbergh how kids would play marbles or the fact his wife had liked the film a lot, but he never expresses his feelings. Despite this absence the interview is a great one.
Against Tyranny is a visual essay by filmmaker ::kogonada about this period in Soderbergh’s career. The “tyranny” in question has to do with general cinema narrative, where it’s expected there is a certain continuity in a scene: cut from one thing to another in a certain order to create a linear narrative. ::kogonada breaks down a couple of scenes, showing the predictable order of cuts, but then examines the hallucination scene in the film, which breaks all of the rules, and instead of creating any sort of continuity Soderbergh is trying to connect emotions and memories. He argues this scene is probably Soderbergh’s big step to the stylistic choices he would make later in his career, starting with Schizopolis. It’s a very heavy-handed essay (I think he makes too big a deal about a slight continuity error that I suspect was more because Soderbergh was missing the shot he needed—though in fairness the filmmaker mentions this feeds into the argument that maybe linear narrative isn’t a good thing) but I actually appreciated some of the observations about the importance the editing in this film played in terms of his career. It runs about 11-minutes.
The disc then includes six deleted scenes running about 9-minutes. Most of these are slightly extended bits but there’s a couple of interesting inclusions, including one where the main character, Aaron, tries to stop another boy from coming to his place to see how poor he is, and there’s a rather long section involving his mother having to go to the dentist. There’s nothing wrong with the scenes, and a couple actually close off threads (McGovern’s character gets a little more closure.) Soderbergh said he cut the scenes to keep the film down to around 100-minutes and that’s all I can figure the reason to be. The scenes are fine and probably would have worked. Unfortunately they’re all presented from a video source and the quality is poor. An interview in the included booklet mentions the original cut was 135-minutes. Unfortunately this material is nowhere to be seen.
We then get the film’s theatrical trailer, running over two-minutes. Using the score from Miller’s Crossing (a great score so I can’t blame them) the trailer plays the film up as an inspirational film and Oscar bait, not completely doing it justice.
But the release doesn’t end there. To further examine Soderbergh’s work at the time Criterion actually includes his follow-up film, The Underneath, in high-definition with a 1080p/24hz transfer. The film is more-or-less a remake of Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross and features Peter Gallagher as a man returning to his home town after running off years before, leaving behind his girlfriend and a large gambling debt. He tries to make amends but quickly gets pulled into the clutches of a local crime boss played by William Fichtner.
Soderbergh hates the film, and while I would agree it’s one of his weaker and least inventive films, it’s not all that bad. It’s a little cold and calculated, but as one of the million crime films to come out during the 90’s it’s still a decent escape with a few enjoyable twists, though there’s a couple that don’t entirely work (like the final one.) It also introduces what would become a trademark for Soderbergh, colour tinting scenes, and the non-linear narrative is rather interesting.
The introduction by Soderbergh that comes with it features the director talking about why he dislikes the film, which is a mix of many things. Creatively he finds the film bankrupt, other than maybe one or two scenes, and his divorce at the time was weighing too much on him. The studio was actually still really good to him and let him do his thing, but he felt he needed them to come in and guide him (apparently they were too busy trying to deal with the PR mess that was Waterworld at the time to care what Soderbergh was doing.) But again Soderbergh doesn’t sound bitter and in fact again seems grateful for the experience. With this and King of the Hill he realized he wasn’t happy with what he was doing and needed to reinvent himself. At 25-minutes it’s another great interview with the director, as he yet again is very forthcoming and honest.
Criterion also includes the trailer for the film.
As to the presentation of The Underneath, it does receive a fairly decent high-def presentation, but the master looks a little dated. Colours look fine, black levels are good, and the print is in excellent condition. But detail levels aren’t all that high and there is a bit of a fuzzy look to it that appears to be more of a compression issue. It also comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and not a lossless one. This may be disappointing but it’s still an effective soundtrack, and Martinez’s score yet again plays out wonderfully throughout the channels, and there is a quick action sequence that is also mixed rather wonderfully. The transfer may disappoint some, but considering that the previous DVD was a subpar non-anamorphic release, this presentation will be a godsend for fans.
Criterion then includes a booklet with some excellent material. First is an nice essay by Peter Tonguette, offering a decent analysis of the film and comparing it to his other work. There’s also a reprinting of an interview with Soderbergh, conducted by Positif’s Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret in 1993, where the director talks about what attracted him to the project. This interview works as a great counterpoint to his current interview, as the director does seem happier with the film. The booklet then closes with an excerpt from Hotchner’s book, recalling a rather tragic outcome to the “King of the Hill” game the kids would play then, also mentioned by Hotchner in his interview on the disc.
Overall I felt we get a well-rounded set of supplements, offering a fascinating look at a turning point in Soderbergh’s career, even going as far as including the film that finally caused Soderbergh to reevaluate what he was doing. Excellent job by Criterion.
Criterion offers up a fantastic new special edition that also works as an examination of a turning point in Soderbergh’s career, featuring honest, forthcoming interviews with the director, and even his follow-up film The Underneath. This release comes with a very high recommendation.