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Steven Soderbergh
Jesse Bradford, Katherine Heigl, Adrien Brody
Writing Credits:
Steven Soderbergh, AE Hotchner

For his first Hollywood studio production, Steven Soderbergh (whose independent debut, sex, lies, and videotape, had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival a few years earlier) crafted this small jewel of a growing-up story. Set in St. Louis during the Depression, King of the Hill follows the daily struggles of a resourceful and imaginative adolescent (Bring It On's Jesse Bradford) who, after his tubercular mother is sent to a sanatorium, must survive on his own in a run-down hotel during his salesman father's long business trips.

Box Office:
$8 million
Opening Weekend
$46,476 on 5 Screens
Domestic Gross


Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 103 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 2/18/2014

• Interview with Director Steven Soderbergh
• Interview with Author AE Hotchner
• “Against Tyranny” Visual Essay
• Deleted Scenes
The Underneath Feature Film
• Interview with Director Steven Soderbergh About The Underneath
• Trailers
• DVD Version
• Booklet


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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King of the Hill: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1993)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 4, 2014)

After Steven Soderbergh gained attention with 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, he remained “independent” for one more movie: 1991’s Kafka. Soderbergh finally delivered a project for a Hollywood studio via 1993’s King of the Hill.

Not that most of us noticed. Like others, I heard a lot about sex in 1989 and I went to see it, but Soderbergh’s subsequent flicks slipped under the radar. While created as a “Hollywood production” – and released by Universal - it appears that Hill received next to no distribution. This meant it earned next to no money; according to IMDB, the flick made a meager $1.3 million in the US.

Given the reputation Soderbergh developed since 1993, I became curious to give Hill a look. Set in St. Louis circa 1933, we meet Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), an imaginative and gifted eighth grader who finds himself without active parental guidance. His father (Jeroen Krabbe) spends tons of time away as a traveling salesman, while his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) takes ill and needs to reside in a sanitarium. To save money, his parents send Aaron’s younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) to live with relatives.

This essentially leaves Aaron to fend for himself. We follow his efforts to keep going without much support and see his various adventures along the way.

Given how many stylistic variations Soderbergh embraced across his career, I find it tough to narrow down how a “Soderbergh movie” should look/feel. He’s not someone with a clear filmmaking bent ala Hitchcock or Spielberg; others may disagree, but I think it can be rather tough to identify Soderbergh’s work unless you know he made the film in question.

That said, when the notion of a “Soderbergh movie” comes to mind, it doesn’t resemble Hill. Nostalgic and sentimental, it seems like a step outside of the director’s usual take.

This doesn’t make it bad, but I think Hill feels like a director not sure of where he wants to go with the material. In later years, Soderbergh would embrace eclecticism as a badge of honor, I think, but in this case, Hill comes across like a self-conscious attempt to be varied for its own sake. The movie seems like something Soderbergh did more to attempt “mainstream filmmaking” than like a flick he genuinely felt eager to create.

Of course, I could be totally wrong; perhaps Soderbergh bonded with the material and was delighted to film it. I just don’t quite get that impression and can’t help but wonder if Soderbergh might’ve gone down a very different cinematic path if Hill had turned into a hit.

It’s also probably not totally fair for me to regard Hill as truly sentimental and nostalgic, but it does tend to lean that way. The movie features some dark moments, but it leavens these with comedy and a tone that doesn’t fit the subject. Even with the potentially dour material, the film comes across as oddly bouncy and sprightly much of the time.

Two factors contribute to this impression. For one, Hill always looks absolutely lovely. Even its darkest elements come bathed in a warm amber glow that gives the project a warm ‘n’ fuzzy sheen. This sabotages the impact of the material; when everything looks so nice, it becomes tough to connect to the drama involved.

In addition, Cliff Martinez’s score adds a sparkly, perky feel to the proceedings. As with the cinematography, even when the film encompasses unpleasant subject matter, the music just keeps on tinkling away in its happy, peppy manner.

While I don’t think Hill needs to be grim and unrelenting, a less sunny attitude would serve the material better. As it stands, the movie often feels like a Jean Shepherd tale told by Terrence Malick. Although the narrative itself lacks the warm whimsy of something such as A Christmas Story, its approach leans closer to Shepherd than one might expect, and the visuals give it a Malick Wannabe vibe.

This becomes a shame because the basic tale offers a lot of potential, especially since it comes from author AE Hotchner’s real-life experiences. What could’ve been an unusual Depression tale turns into something surprisingly syrupy and unbelievable.

21 years after its release, Hill merits attention mainly due to all the participants who would go on to greater glory in subsequent years. In addition to Soderbergh and Bradford, the film features Adrien Brody, Katherine Heigl, and Lauryn Hill. It’s interesting to see these folks – and already-known adults like Karen Allen, Elizabeth McGovern and Spalding Gray – in the film.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a lot to appreciate in the end result. To be sure, I don’t think King of the Hill flops, but its perplexing sentimentality robs it of much power. The movie delivers light entertainment that doesn’t fulfill its goals.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B-/ Bonus A-

King of the Hill appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Viewers will feel delighted with this excellent image.

Sharpness was strong. Due to the film’s style, a few shots looked a smidgen soft, but that just went with the flick’s dreamy feel. Overall clarity was positive, as the majority of the movie was accurate and concise. No issues with shimmering or jaggies popped up, and edge haloes were minimal. Source flaws failed to appear in this clean transfer.

The amber-influenced palette of Hill came across well here. The movie gave the colors a subdued but natural look that seemed lovely throughout the flick. Indeed, the hues became a highlight of the transfer. Blacks were deep and firm, and shadows demonstrated nice clarity and visibility. Virtually no concerns arose during this presentation.

Hill came with a decent DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, though the character-based movie didn’t boast much to make it sonically memorable. A few scenes opened up matters to a moderate degree, such as one with Aaron behind the wheel of a runaway car.

However, most of the material remained environmental. Still, most of the flick provided good spread to the material and opened up things to a moderate degree. Music also spread around the spectrum in a useful manner.

Audio quality was positive. Effects were clear and accurate, with good range. Speech was natural and concise, while music appeared smooth and vivid. This was a workable soundtrack for a movie without much sonic ambition.

When we head to the set’s extras, we begin with an interview from director Steven Soderbergh. In this 19-minute, 25-second piece, Soderbergh discusses his opinions of the film as well as working at a studio, story/characters/themes, adapting the book, cast and performances, the choice of aspect ratio and other visual choices, editing and running time, and the movie’s reception. It’s too bad Soderbergh didn’t record a full commentary for Hill, but he covers a ton of useful topics in this tight, informative piece.

We also locate an interview with author AE Hotchner. During the 21-minute, 10-second program, the writer chats about his book, aspects of his life and their reflection in the film. Even at 93, Hotchner remains sharp as a tack, and he gives us a nice examination of the material that led to the movie.

A “visual essay” called Against Tyranny runs 10 minutes, 39 seconds and comes with thoughts from filmmaker “::kogonada”. This examines the editing and non-linear structure of some parts of Hill. It’s an interesting glimpse at the filmmaking techniques.

Six Deleted Scenes occupy a total of eight minutes, 47 seconds. These mix truly excised material as well as some alternate takes. They're in rough shape and show awkward framing – hello, Mr. Boom Mic! – but they’re worth a look if you like the movie. I can’t say you’ll find anything memorable, though.

Up next we find The Underneath, Soderbergh’s 1995 feature film. It lasts one hour, 39 minutes, and 11 seconds as it introduces us to Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher), a ne’er-do-well recovering gambling addict who returns home to Texas for his mother’s (Anjanette Comer) wedding to Ed Dutton (Paul Dooley). The film explores Michael’s relationships – especially with former girlfriend Rachel (Alison Elliott) – and developments that arise along the way.

Underneath whole-heartedly embraces the non-linear storytelling discussed in the visual essay, as it leaps about from one date to another with abandon. That gives it an interesting feel, but the story itself doesn’t live up to the ambition. Underneath delivers a sporadically interesting but generally unsatisfying modern film noir.

Underneath does clearly presage Soderbergh’s future stylistic choices much more clearly than King of the Hill, though. It uses all sorts of tinted images and alternate storytelling devices across its 100 minutes. None of these make it especially compelling, but they ensure it “feels like Soderbergh” more than this disc’s main attraction.

We also see an interview with Soderbergh specifically about The Underneath. He chats for 22 minutes, 33 seconds as he discusses some aspects of the production as well as his attitude toward the movie. Soderbergh’s reflections on his status circa 1995 and how he now feels about it become the strongest aspects of this good featurette, as it’s fascinating to hear a director speak so critically of his own work.

The set ends with two trailers. We get ads for both King of the Hill and The Underneath.

Two other discs provide a DVD copy of Hill. This set includes the same extras as the Blu-ray.

We finish with a 40-page booklet. It includes an essay from film writer Peter Tonguette, a 1993 interview with Soderbergh, and an excerpt from the source text. It becomes a solid addition to the package.

1993’s King of the Hill finds director Steven Soderbergh in a transitional time. While the movie remains watchable, it lacks consistency and doesn’t hint of the strong films Soderbergh would later create. The Blu-ray boasts excellent visuals and supplemental materials – mainly due to the inclusion of an entire “bonus movie” – as well as good audio. Soderbergh fans will want to give the flick a look but they shouldn’t expect much from it.

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