Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: King of the Hill (1993) and The Underneath (1995)

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Having recently announced his retirement from conventional film directing, it’s become almost irresistible to look at the varied oeuvre of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s past twenty-five plus years in the business and discover (there among the seemingly wide range of material) certain overlapping themes, unifying ideas that link one film to the next and offer even the tiniest window into the heart and soul of their enigmatic creator.

Soderbergh has called this tendency to seek out a universal thread a “parlor game” for journalists or critics as documented in a reprinted interview included in the Criterion Collection booklet for the long overdue induction of his often-out-of-print, overlooked third masterpiece King of the Hill on three-disc Blu-ray/DVD dual combo pack (that also features his fourth picture The Underneath).

Nonetheless, for film scholars interested in the subject, the beginning of an emerging area of interest for Soderbergh began to recur onscreen by the time of this ’93 work in the form of its young protagonist.

King centers on a natural born storyteller or youthful fabulist who lies to hide the pain and protect himself as opposed to seduce and deceive the way another charismatic Sodebergh liar did onscreen via James Spader’s breakthrough performance in the director’s semi-autobiographical Palme d’Or winner Sex, Lies and Videotape.

Like the subject of his second film Kafka or his last film Side Effects, manipulators hold cinematic sway over the population on and offscreen but their motives run the gamut and they’re always out-of-step with the rest of the characters.

Confessing that what drew him to A.E. Hotchner’s autobiographical depression era memoir was that he felt himself drawn to a hero “who feels at odds with everyone around him. And again is very interior,” Soderbegh acknowledges that “that’s my feeling in general. And I go toward that kind of material,” which he did for this film and would do countless times in the future from The Limey to Erin Brockovich and The Informant.

Yet there’s something about this film that, like the complex tapestry he wove in Traffic manages to take this basic idea, along with Hotchner’s coming-of-age template that chronicles that time of your life when you learn that your parents aren’t mythical beings but real life flesh and blood people that makes King of the Hill something different altogether.

Impossible to pin down into any specific genre despite its obvious episodic qualities and purported tale about a boy learning how to become a man when one by one due to illness, money and job opportunities he finds he’s left fending for himself during a pivotal summer in 1933 in a St. Louis hotel room, Hill defies expectations from start to finish.

Filling the picture with memorable characters that were brought to life by actors who would go onto become household names from Adrien Brody and Lauryn Hill to Katherine Heigl, Amber Benson and Jesse Bradford in a remarkable turn, Soderbergh walks that fine line between laughter and tears, melancholy and small victories by injecting the film with a surprising amount of warmth, humor and mischief.

While it is tonally similar to My Life as a Dog as well as Hope and Glory, it’s far more successful in my eyes because of the way it always remembers it’s being told through the eyes of a precocious child as opposed to a thirty year old filmmaker at the peak of his powers.

In King the genuine affection that Soderbergh has for all of his characters and the experiences that test his main character from reading a story he wrote in class to a story he tells the teacher to explain why he’s in the hotel shines through every frame.

Gorgeously lensed with strong art direction, Hill employs a rich Edward Hopper infused Americana color palette to convey the warm burgundy and mustard tinged loneliness of those paintings and the time period in which it takes place.

And by avoiding a glossier magazine style sheen straight out of Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell works or even a stark black and white meld of The Grapes of Wrath through the eyes of Shirley Temple, it has a rich sense of nostalgic reminiscence without the same clich├ęd gold filter that typically paints the cinematic past -- ensuring that we’re not so lost in the look of the film that it’s a barrier to the story he’s trying to tell.

From the charismatic presence of Adrien Brody to the devastating heartbreak felt when we were put into the shoes of Amber Benson's epileptic girl down the hall to the exuberance experienced when our hero pulls one over on a shady cop and landlord, it’s a testament to the strength of the movie that I could still vividly recall certain moments from my initial screening of it back in ‘93.

In fact, viewing King today for the first time since I was twelve years old (or roughly the same age as Bradford’s protagonist), I was amazed by how well the work held up. My first Soderbergh film that I’d rented due to a rave review from Siskel and Ebert, King of the Hill affected me so much as a budding film lover that I recommended it to my history teacher who tried (and failed) to get authorization to screen it for our middle school class.

While some scenes and characters (mostly the adults, I realized, as when you’re a child you mostly relate to your own) had completely vanished from my mind, I was amazed by how powerfully some sequences came flooding back to my mind. And this became most apparent during the film's most haunting scene as our creative yet starving young lead meticulously cuts out magazine photos of his dream meal and then devours them at a table before succumbing to stomach pains.

So deeply personal and powerful – rightfully filmed as though we were tiptoeing on something we were never meant to see – I realized upon watching it again as an adult how much of an impression the film had made on my life.

And honestly, moments like this one and others in deeply moving films viewed during my transformative years – nearly feel as though they were part of my own childhood. As such it was an absolute honor not only to revisit the same work again with the clearer understanding of an adult mind but also to take this opportunity to go back and screen it again through my own younger eyes.

And given the fact that the man who made one of so many profound films that impacted my moviegoing life has retired from filmmaking (at least for now), it offers us an even greater excuse to look back at all of these masterpieces that will hopefully continue to live on as they’re inducted in the Criterion Collection.

While I have yet to experience their edition of Traffic, this restoration of King of the Hill is absolutely stellar, arriving with bonus interviews, deleted scenes and more.

And although the clunkily crafted Noir throwback The Underneath which reunites Soderbergh with his Sex leading man Peter Gallagher is notable as his last big studio effort before he cut loose with his palette cleansing, Jackson Pollock painting version of a film in the form of Schizopolis it’s an interesting if only half-successful film.

For serious Soderbergh scholars only (as the man himself didn’t write the oddly plotted, logically challenged heist picture), The Underneath tries to build something new out of far too many superior somethings old from Out of the Past to The Asphalt Jungle but ends up settling for something we’ve seen too many times before.

And while it’s notable in the way that it kicked off the renaissance that inspired Soderbergh to take control of his career and came back in a big way with an unprecedented string of hits including Out of Sight, The Limey and others, it pales in comparison to King.

An underrated gem that’s at last given its Criterion due, unlike The Underneath, King of the Hill shows us that Soderbergh is best when he brings something new to something old in a tale of a fabulist instead of hoping to take a fabulist’s approach and convince us it’s the other way around by dressing up something old like something new.

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