Friday, August 01, 2014

King of the Hill

Based on the memoir of A.E. Hotchner, King of the Hill is the story of a young boy who is forced to fend for himself during the Great Depression where he lives in a hotel. Written for the screen, edited, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film explores a young boy trying to deal with his own situation while his family is away due to circumstances beyond their control. Starring Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Lauryn Hill, Cameron Boyd, and Adrien Brody. King of the Hill is a remarkably rich film from Steven Soderbergh.

Set in 1933 St. Louis during the Great Depression, the film explores the life of a 14-year old boy who is forced to fend for himself when his father finds a job as a traveling salesman while his tuberculosis-ridden mother is sent to a sanatorium and his little brother is sent to live with his uncle. In turn, Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) would do whatever it takes to survive as he deals with a nosy bellboy named Ben (Joseph Chrest), a bullying police officer named Burns (John McConnell), and all of the trials and tribulations in his surroundings as he lives in a hotel that is becoming a seedier place to live in. Still, Aaron is able to survive his way while attending school where he’s about to graduate from the eighth grade as he would also lie his way in order to get out of situations though of his lies would catch up with him. Even as he is trying to cover his poor background from his classmates through the lies he would create.

Steven Soderbergh’s screenplay definitely plays into the world of a boy coming of age during the Great Depression as he would scrape whatever he could find to survive as he also collects cigar brand stickers in the hopes that they gain value and he can sell them. At the same time, he tries to help his younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) get through things in life as well as tell him that some things can’t be taught such as marbles. The character of Aaron is a unique boy who is quite intelligent for his age despite being small yet he possesses a lot of determination and street-smart to get buy. Though there’s things he does that makes him flawed as he would steal food and lie at times, it’s only because he needs to survive as only a few such as his neighbor Lester (Adrien Brody) and his teacher Miss Mathey (Karen Allen) seem to understand. Especially as the latter can see through his lies and know why but would protect him so that he wouldn’t be ashamed.

Lester is among the many unique characters that Aaron would encounter for much of his life as other oddities include his neighbors like the eccentric Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) and the shy Ella McShane (Amber Benson). All of which would play into Aaron’s growth as a boy where the hotel he lives in is an important character in the film. There’s also his father (Jeroen Krabbe) who is just as unique but also flawed as a man who means well in what he wants to do but he’s created so many debts as it would play into a lot of mistrust by the some of the adults that Aaron encounters. The film’s third act would intensify the drama as Aaron not only sees the harsh realities of his situation but also in his environment as the people he knows are starting to disappear because of these circumstances. All of which would test Aaron in his struggle to survive as the forces around him are becoming more determined to get rid of him.

Soderbergh’s direction definitely has a unique visual style in the way he frames his actors in a scene or how would create a scene to play into the situation that Aaron faces. While some of it is quite light-hearted early on in the way Aaron lives his life with his family despite their troubling situation. Soderbergh knows how to capture the sense of joy and enthusiasm that kids go through such as this sequence where Aaron shows his mastery in playing marbles. Some of the compositions definitely have Soderbergh use expressionistic images such as a few slanted camera angles as well as a shot of Aaron in an elevator where its operator (Lauryn Hill) is in the foreground while Aaron is in the background. It is Soderbergh wanting to create something that is a part of Aaron’s world where it feels familiar only for these things to start disappearing in the third act.

Also serving as the film’s editor, Soderbergh would create some compositions in the close-ups and such to play into the world of 1933 St. Louis where it’s set in a very hot summer as he goes into great detail to display that sense of heat. Even in some of the film’s more posh settings, the heat definitely adds to the tone of the film where it comes into play during a graduation party where many of Aaron’s lies starts to catch up with him. Through his own unique approach in the editing with its jump-cuts and some stylish montages, Soderbergh plays into the weight that Aaron had to carry throughout the film as he tries to come to terms with the reality and everything he had to face. Overall, Soderbergh crafts a very engaging and enthralling film about a boy coming of age during the Great Depression.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis does brilliant work with the film‘s rich cinematography with its naturalistic yet colorful look of the locations in St. Louis as well in some of the film‘s interiors to play up its heat as well as the growing sense of despair that would loom on Aaron. Production designer Gary Frutkoff, with set decorator Claire Jenora Brown and art director Bill Rea, does excellent work with the look of the hotel room that Aaron and his family live in as well as some of the locations to play into the sense of decay due to the Depression. Costume designer Susan Lyall does terrific work with the costumes as it plays to the look of the film as well as some of its raggedness to play into that troubling period during the Depression.

Sound editor Larry Blake does superb work with the film‘s sound from the way some of the things sound outside of Aaron‘s hotel room as well as some of the things that goes on during the locations. The film’s music by Cliff Martinez is fantastic as it is this very low-key yet somber electronic-based score that is quite unusual for a period film yet it is also effective as it features additional contributions from Michael Glenn Williams for the graduation scene while music supervisor Jeffrey Kimball brings in a soundtrack full of songs from that era.

The casting by Deborah Aquila is amazing as it features some notable small roles from Lauryn Hill as the elevator operator, Chris Samples as Aaron’s rich classmate Billy Thompson, Peggy Freisen as Billy’s mother, Kristin Griffith as Ella’s mother, Katherine Heigl as Aaron’s crush of sorts in Christina, John Durbin as a painter who was one of Aaron’s neighbors, Ron Vawter as the sympathetic hotel manager, and Elizabeth McGovern as a prostitute named Lydia that Mr. Mungo invited to stay with him. Joseph Chrest is terrific as the slimy bellboy Ben while John McConnell is superb as the bullish patrolman Burns. Amber Benson is wonderful as the shy and socially-awkward neighbor Ella who has a crush of sorts for Aaron while Cameron Boyd is pretty good as Aaron’s younger brother Sullivan. Adrien Brody is excellent as the street-smart neighbor Lester who would help Aaron in some of his situations as well as be the guy that would watch him graduate.

Karen Allen is great as Aaron’s teacher Miss Mathey as a sympathetic teacher who learns about Aaron’s situation as she would hide the truth from everyone so he wouldn’t deal with his shame. Spalding Grey is fantastic as the eccentric Mr. Mungo as a neighbor who is fascinated by Aaron’s cigar brand collections while willing to help him in his plight. Lisa Eichhorn is brilliant as Aaron’s ailing mother who is dealing with her illness as she’s sent to a sanatorium while Jeroen Krabbe is incredible as Aaron’s father who is trying to get a job as he is unaware into the dangerous situations he would put his son in. Finally, there’s Jesse Bradford in a remarkable performance as Aaron Kurlander as Bradford brings a sense of wit and charm to the role as someone who is intelligent in all levels while he tries to come to terms with the severity of his situation once he is forced to fend for himself.

The dual-disc Region A Blu-Ray/Region 1 2-disc DVD from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound as it is remastered under the supervision of director Steven Soderbergh and his longtime sound editor/mixer Larry Blake. The extras on the Blu-Ray and on the first disc of the DVD features a 19-minute, twenty-five second interview with Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh talks about making the film and his relationship with Gramercy at that time in his career where he also discussed some of things that he wanted to do at the time when he made the film. While he admits to being relieved for the fact that it was well-received, Soderbergh admits that if he had made the film years later. He would’ve gone for a much more grittier approach visually while he also talked about the film’s poor reception at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and some of the mistakes he felt he made in the editing as he later believed helped him in becoming a better filmmaker.

The 21-minute interview with author A.E. Hotchner has him reflecting on the book he wrote which was inspired by his own experiences during the Great Depression. Hotchner talks about some of the things that really happened that got changed for the film as well as some tidbits about his own family. Hotchner also reveals about the experiences that went on during the Depression and how chaotic it was where families would have to constantly move which Hotchner believed really effected his younger brother. Hotchner does talk a little bit about the film where the one scene he was really involved in was in how Aaron would shoot marbles as he would teach Jesse Bradford for an hour in how to shoot marbles more realistically which would prove to be effective. The 10-minute, thirty-nine second video essay entitled Against Tyranny explores Soderbergh’s defiance towards the idea of conventional narrative and how he would refine that with not just the hallucination sequence in the film but also in how it would later shape the work he would do later on. It’s an interesting video essay that explores Soderbergh’s own methods as an editor but also what he wanted to do as a filmmaker.

Six deleted scene ranging a total of nine-minutes which features two alternate scenes of Aaron and Sullivan walking home from school as well as a scene where Billy Thompson asks Aaron about the canaries. One major deleted scene involves Lester giving Aaron a shaving razor where Aaron would learn to shave while his parents return from the dentist with a big surprise in a brief moment of happiness. Two other deleted scenes involve Aaron trying to find Lester in a seedy nightclub where he would later see Lydia with a gentleman entering the club on his way out. The first disc of the DVD also includes the film’s original trailer which was presented as this inspiring family film which isn’t really the case at all.

One major extra on the supplements section of the Blu-Ray and in the second disc of the DVD is Soderbergh’s 1995 film The Underneath that is presented in a remastered form. The film also includes the film’s theatrical trailer and a 22-minute and 33-second interview with the director about the film. Soderbergh talks about the making of the film and why he considers the film his weakest as he said the reason he thinks the film is a failure is because of him. Largely because Soderbergh’s personal life was in disarray as well as where he was at creatively. While Soderbergh reveals there’s some scenes in the film that he liked as well as Elliot Davis’ cinematography and the film’s score. There’s things about it that he felt were quite bad and he was relieved that Universal didn’t know how troubled he was because of Waterworld. Soderbegh does feel that if it wasn’t for this film, he would probably be stuck somewhere as it is an interesting interview from the director.

The DVD/Blu-ray set also includes a booklet that features a lot of text relating to the film. The first is an essay entitled Alone Again by film critic Peter Tonguette that explores the film’s themes and how it would relate to Soderbergh’s other films in terms of the protagonists that had been endured the same struggles that Aaron did in this film. Tonguette also talks about the film’s coming-of-age approach and how Aaron would stand out from many of the characters who were in his situation as Tonguette suggests that some of Aaron’s struggles are similar to the situations in Robert Bresson’s 1967 film Mouchette. The second piece of text is a 1993 interview with Steven Soderbergh for the French film magazine Positif where Soderbergh talks about the film and much of its themes. Especially in his approach to telling the story and what he wanted to do as it’s a very engaging interview with the filmmaker. The third and final text in the booklet is an excerpt of A.E. Hotchner’s memoir that he published back in 1972. The excerpt plays into what Hotchner was going through in that time as well as the danger of being evicted as it plays into the dire situations that he would deal with for much of his life in that story.

King of the Hill is a spectacular film from Steven Soderbergh. Featuring a tremendous performance from Jesse Bradford as well as a great supporting cast, the film is definitely one of Soderbergh’s finest films. Especially as it’s an engaging coming-of-age story set during the Great Depression that isn’t overly sentimental yet has this element that allows the audience to be captivated by the story of a young boy in that period. In the end, King of the Hill is a sensational film from Steven Soderbergh.

Steven Soderbergh Films: sex, lies, & videotape - Kafka - The Underneath - Gray's Anatomy - Schizopolis - Out of Sight - The Limey - Erin Brockovich - Traffic - Ocean's Eleven - Full Frontal - Solaris - Eros-The Equilibrium - Ocean's Twelve - Bubble - The Good German - Ocean's Thirteen - Che - The Girlfriend Experience - The Informant! - And Everything is Going Fine - Contagion - Haywire - Magic Mike - Side Effects - Behind the Candelabra - Logan Lucky - (Unsane) - (High Flying Bird)

The Auteurs #39: Steven Soderbergh: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2

© thevoid99 2014


Dan Heaton said...

It's so interesting to watch King of the Hill as someone who lives in St. Louis and grew up here. It looks much different in Soderbergh's recreation of the 1930s, but it still feels familiar. I really liked the way that it didn't fall into a particular genre, but that also hurt its commercial prospects. Still, it's an underseen film.

thevoid99 said...

I really wish more people saw this film as I think it's something for kids to see. Even as it refuses to play by the rules as I wished I had seen it around that time in the wake of very bad family films.