Blu-ray Review: Insightful, Candid Steven Soderbergh on New Criterion Release

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Steven Soderbergh’s film “King of the Hill” is an essential one to understanding his career simply for the way it displayed the range we would come to admire in one of our best filmmakers. Soderbergh is one of the most important directors of the last quarter-century, in no small part due to the incredible range he has displayed throughout his career. His current-century work has been defined by an incredible attention to detail but his 3rd and 4th films, “King of the Hill” and “The Underneath,” which is included on this Blu-ray in its entirety, bear the mark of a man still honing his craft. And he’ll be the first to tell you that. Blu-ray rating: 4.5/5.0
Rating: 4.5/5.0

The introductions on both “King” and “Underneath” are remarkably candid. Soderbergh talks about how many people come up to him at festivals to praise “King” and then basically details what he doesn’t like about it. It’s too pretty; a complaint that’s hard to argue with. “King of the Hill” has always been an unusual film for me in Soderbergh’s filmography. I’m a much bigger fan of “Sex, Lies, & Videotape,” “Traffic,” “Out of Sight,” “The Limey,” and even some of the divisive ones like “Che” and “The Informant!” And yet I feel like I should appreciate “King of the Hill” more for some reason. Soderbergh makes clear why in his interview: It’s an imperfect film—too beautiful, overdone at times, inconsistent—but it’s an essential one in the history of one of my favorite filmmakers. As Soderbergh says, he’s worried that modern filmmakers aren’t given the chance to experiment the way that he was over his first four films. Thank God he came around at the right time. Cinema wouldn’t be the same.

As for the transfer and other special features, it’s incredible that Criterion chose to include “The Underneath” in its HD entirety, a movie that I think Soderbergh is too hard on. It’s another slightly unbalanced film and it’s very interesting to hear how Soderbergh’s divorce impacted the production, but there’s some experimentation here, particularly in tone and color pallette, that I still like. And I’m a sucker for a good heist noir. The transfers on both films are excellent and the special features are strong all around but it’s those interviews, candid as any I’ve heard on a Blu-ray release and informative enough to recast the films in new lights, that really make this a must-own in the Criterion catalog.

King of the Hill was released on Blu-ray on February 25, 2014
King of the Hill was released on Blu-ray on February 25, 2014
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

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 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.

Special Features:
o New Interviews With Soderbergh And Source Memoir Author A.E. Hotchner
o Against Tyranny, A New Visual Essay By Filmmaker Kogonada Exploring Soderbergh’s Unique approach To Narrative
o The Underneath, Soderbergh’s Follow Up Feature To King Of The Hill, With a New Interview With The Director
o Trailers
o Booklet Featuring An Essay By Critic Peter Tonguette, a 1993 Interview With Soderbergh, and an Excerpt From Hotchner’s 1972 Memoir

“King of the Hill” was released on Criterion Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on February 25, 2014. content director Brian Tallerico

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