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King of the Hill (Blu-ray Review)

10 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 BD/DVD combo
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic elements.
Stars Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Jrabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen.

Thinking back to that spectacular Kubrick twofer of The Killing and a barely advertised Killer’s Kiss, Criterion occasionally offers an entire “stealth” feature as part of its bonus extras, and here it supplements one of Steven Soderbergh’s top-drawer achievements with a chronological follow-up (The Underneath) that he himself doesn’t like but which does have a coterie of at least halfway admirers, myself included. Quite a package here.

Hill, which has nothing to do with the Mike Judge universe, has never been on DVD before despite having made a slew of 10-best lists from 1993 (I once read that the figure was 200, though that would seem kind of high even for, you know, L’Atalante or something). Whatever the tally, it’s one of the best movies ever made about Depression life, especially those made after the Warner Bros. 1930s. Based on the adolescence look-back memoir of writer A.E. Hotchner (a most engaging interview subject on another of the extras), it chronicles a St. Louis life of frequent misery in warm and accessible terms — one in which mom is ill in a sanitarium and dad is a door-to-door salesman of a product that no one would ever buy: decorative candles that don’t light. Going hungry is, at times, a daily reality, and even a sweet kid brother is sent off to live with relatives.

Jesse Bradford carries the picture as the young Hotchner, and (though I didn’t keep track of this) might be in every scene. In one of two great Soderbergh interviews that accompany this release, the writer-director notes that Bradford was one of those exceptional lads who excelled in everything (sports and music), and the viewer can almost feel it. In addition, the movie has a nice array of bargain supporting players: Jereon Krabbe and Lisa Eichhorn as the parents; Karen Allen as a teacher who deigns Bradford’s “Aaron” as her pet; a pre-Pianist Adrien Brody as a friendly ne’er-do-well and partner in crime who acts as a big brother; Spalding Gray as an eccentric but kindly apartment neighbor; and Elizabeth McGovern (a cosmos away from “Downton Abbey”) as a prostitute or something pretty close. Even the wealthy junior high babe who takes a shine to Aaron turns out to be a very young Katherine Heigl in her second screen appearance.

The budget here was $8 million — more than I would have guessed it to be in ’93 dollars, which isn’t to imply that this looks like any thrift-shop endeavor. On the contrary, Soderbergh says he now regards the film as looking too pretty and would opt today for a rougher palate — a legitimate point but, in keeping with Hill’s upbeat tone, this is one gorgeous sight and one of the best-looking films the director has ever done (as is the also-in-2.35 The Underneath). This is the kind of movie that family-oriented windbags always say they want Hollywood to make — but then fail to support, even when the critics praise it to the skies. Maybe it should have been promoted as the story of the guy who later became Paul Newman’s partner in the salad dressing business so it could have hit yahoo moviegoers where they lived.

Soderbergh calls The Underneath “d.o.a.” and thinks it’s smothered in its formalism. Again, I see his point, but if you’re going to attempt a remake of Robert Siodmak’s well regarded but still probably underrated Criss Cross from 1949, this strikes me as the way to go. Peter Gallagher has the role Burt Lancaster once had back in that brief early period when Burt would occasionally play a chump. A crime meller about unhealthy family dynamics and (eventually) an armored truck heist, this version ventures into territory decidedly after the original version’s time: cable-abetted sports betting and those early satellite dishes that took up half the backyard to the chagrin of your neighbor’s property values.

Allison Elliott smolders as the kind of woman trouble follows around yet is irresistible nonetheless, though Elisabeth Shue seems mighty fetching for someone you hit it off with after meeting on a bus and then ignore after parting ways in the same town. For my money in terms of Soderbergh’s eccentric but occasionally brilliant career, The Underneath is much preferable to the smug “Ocean’s” heist pics (little boys dressing up in grown-up Rat Pack clothes) and that series of audience-repellant indies that sandwiched them before getting himself back on track with The Informant.

Still, anyone who can do Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich and Traffic in succession will always be in a fairly exclusive club, and Side Effects plus Behind the Candelabra last year showed a lot of flexed muscle.

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