King of the Hill (1993)
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So is it any wonder that King of the Hill failed to set the box office alight with popcorn based seat fillers like that, I mean, who wants to see the story of a young boy coming of age under the harshest conditions when you can see Robin Williams vacuuming in drag to the sounds of Aerosmith. Yeah, sounds like a safe bet for all the family. But King of the Hill is such a good movie, that the hard-to-describe plot should be overlooked, and people should just give it a chance, they will be so moved by Aaron's plight, and so drawn in by Soderbergh's direction (coupled with Elliot Davis' composition heavy cinematography) and detailed production design that they will not be able to pull themselves away. Added to that the great acting from the entirety of the eclectic cast, that includes Jeroen Krabbe, Spalding Grey, Elizabeth McGovern, Karen Allen, new comers Jesse Bradford and Cameron Boyd, and (then) unknowns Adrien Brody (who was great as Ritchie in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam) and Roswell star Katherine Heigl. Soderbergh's handling of his young actors is nothing short of genius, their characters and characterization is multi-layered to the extent that we never doubt that their characters are real.
King of the Hill is an unbelievable film that, as I have already said, is (in my opinion) the greatest American film of the nineties and should be seen by everyone who is a fan of not just intelligent cinema, but film lover's in general. And it's about time the film got some kind of proper video and/or DVD release, as it's unavailability is scandalous. 10/10
Steven Soderbergh as a director over the years has been wildly all over the map traversing genres and styles from top-notch cracker-jack indie flicks (the superb "Limey") to vapid star-studded populist entertainment (the "Oceans" series) to entertaining star vehicles (the excellent "Erin Brockovich") to overblown misguided message movies ("Traffic") to Kubrickian quandaries (the unfairly maligned "Solaris"). In 1993, still in his formative early years, he hit all the right notes with his vividly detailed and heartbreaking tale of a young boy (Bradford) abandoned in a sleazy hotel room on the edge of a Hooverville in 1933 St. Louise by his flaky salesman father, consumption riddled mother, and little brother who got shipped off to live with relatives so he wouldn't starve to death. The boy lies, steals, woos girls and wins academic awards at school propelled only by his keen wit and innate will to survive. Soderbergh brilliantly abandons almost all sentimentality (the exchanges between the brothers are heartfelt but raw, between mother and son tragically subdued, and between father and son frightfully cold yet honest) and views not the actions of the characters through the lens of our modern moral codes, but through the lens of the era in which the characters survived.
Special note has to be given to the cinematography, which in lesser period pieces can so easily succumb to stylish excess. The film looks real and puts you right there in the middle of this American quagmire. There's also one amazingly rendered shot of a traffic cop holding up a squealing street urchin by the ear after capturing the boy stealing an apple that is so painstakingly lighted and framed that it serves as the complete flip-side of your classic Norman Rockwell painting from the same era.
Viewing this film recently on cable, I was even more transfixed than the first time over thirteen years ago. There's also delight to be found in seeing Oscar winner Adrien Brody in his first major role as Aaron's "big brother" role model, and Grammy winner Lauryn Hill in a nice bit part as a sympathetic gum-chewing elevator operator.
Although historically little seen, this film has been universally lauded, and as the early masterwork of an Oscar winning director, it's a crime that there has been no DVD release.
Soderbergh had double duty as writer and director. He scripted the novel by A.E. Hotchner and I think it's his best film. As I mentioned it takes place during the Great Depression in St. Louis Missouri. Watching Aaron fight for survival is one of the best charms of the film. It's done realistically. The audience is able to believe his methods. There's a nice mix of drama, dark somber humor and dire situations, but there's also enough humanity and hope in the movie to send an uplifting message. For those who enjoy Andy Dufresne's message of hope and persaverence in the more widely known The Shawshank Redemption, seek out this film. I would argue it's even superior to Frank Darabont's movie. It's one of the great and underrated modern films and ranks with the best using the Great Depression setting. Sadly King of the Hill isn't released yet on DVD and it's not very likely that you'll be able to find it at your local video store. Especially if all you have is the local communist Blockbuster near you. Anyway, King of the Hill should be regarded and known far more highly than what it is. It's a sin for a movie this great to not get its due.
Someone compared this to The Pianist and I see what he means. It reminds me of a movie like Paper Moon, but whereas I disliked the Tatum O'Neal character (stealing from those who could not afford to lose the money), I really like this boy. I also think the pangs of missing family, what it's like to be a child, are more realistically done in this movie than in Paper Moon.
I really can't imagine anyone who wouldn't like this - it's very mainstream, very good - and in contrast to those who say this reminds them of some European movie, I would say it's as American as apple pie.
I highly recommend it. (It also helps that Lisa Eichorn is my favorite living actress - and Karen Allen would be in the top ten).
Aaron tries all kinds of money-making schemes so he can bring his family back home, but it seems like God or Fate or whoever is in charge of KotH's universe insists on bitch-slapping the kid every step of the way. A rich, sympathetic classmate (who doesn't know Aaron's broke because our hero is too proud to admit it) gives Aaron canaries to breed in order to sell them to the pet shop, but when the canaries are born, they're all female, and female canaries don't sing, so all Aaron can get is 50¢ for the lot of them. A pre-PIANIST Adrien Brody, about 19 or 20 during filming, is a raffish presence as Lester, the juvenile delinquent down the hall with a heart of gold and a brotherly attitude towards Aaron. Lester tries to include the kid in jobs such as caddying for rich golfers, but Aaron tees them off by losing the ball in the ball-washing doohickey. Aaron tries to be kind to their neighbor Ella (Amber Benson), a sickly but sweet young girl, but that backfires when she gets so nervous dancing with him that she has an epileptic fit. When Aaron gets a medal during his graduation ceremony (nice bit with Lester there to cheer as Aaron's name is called, what with the Kurlanders being scattered all over the country), even that bit of joy is snatched from him as he overhears jealous classmates whispering that he only got the medal because the school authorities know he's poor and feel sorry for him (yeah, it couldn't possibly be because Aaron gets the best grades and writes imaginative stories and essays that blow those over-privileged brats out of the water).
Over the course of KotH, just about everyone Aaron cares about is either sent away, moves away, dies, or gets arrested. Jeez, if it wasn't one thing, it was another! Interestingly, it seems like every time Aaron has an emotional upheaval, the film becomes more beautiful to look at, thanks to Elliot Davis' golden-hued photography, and yet the film's beauty doesn't cheapen or sentimentalize the painful events our young hero must live through. Aaron and the film's other good guys are kind-hearted, unself-pitying, and earnest enough that I was rooting for them even as I groaned to myself, "Good grief, isn't this poor kid ever gonna catch a break?" Much like the final reel of THE PIANIST, when the resourceful Aaron's plans to reunite his family finally succeed and life becomes good again, it's as much of a relief to us viewers as it is to the Kurlanders. Soderbergh's adaptation of Hotchner's life story often slathers the misery on so thick, I was still afraid something else might go horribly wrong for our beleaguered hero at the last minute. (For instance, as little brother Sullivan jumps up and down on his new bed, I half-expected him to accidentally bounce off the bed and break his neck. Don't worry, he doesn't. :-)). I came away with the feeling that Aaron would never again take the good things in his life for granted. The delicate balance of drama and humor in Soderbergh's fine writing and direction, as well as superb acting from an ensemble that also includes Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Karen Allen, and Lauryn Hill -- yup, that Lauryn Hill (who later appeared with Brody in the 1998 indie drama RESTAURANT) -- makes KotH a little gem well worth seeking out on TV, especially since it's still not on DVD but has been on the HBO and Cinemax lineups lately as of this writing. If you like fact-based stories about young people overcoming obstacles, or if you want to catch folks like Brody, Bradford, or a very young Katherine Heigl in memorable early roles, check out KotH.
Jesse Bradford was terrific as the main character. I had the opportunity in 2004 while working as an extra on Oceans 12 in Chicago to tell the director of "King of the Hill", Steven Soderbergh, what a great film he made (He said "thank you"). How did he ever find such a beautiful story and get the job to direct the film? An overlooked classic! I was glad to see recently that Jesse Bradford has been making a career as an adult actor now, appearing in several recent films, and he will be one of the lead characters in Clint Eastwoods's upcoming production, "Flags of our Fathers", due out in 2006. Also, with Jesse's training in film studies in college, I predict that he will turn to directing movies as he gets more experience, and what better mentor than Clint Eastwood! Be sure to see "king of the Hill", i believe you will love it.
"Stand by Me" led to the TV series "The Wonder Years" (1988) which led to Woody Allen's "Radio Days", "Brighton Beach Memoirs", "Man in the Moon" (1991), "Radio Flyer" (1992), "Jack the Bear" (1993), "This Boys Life" (1993), "Searching For Bobby Fisher" (1993), "King of the Hill", "American Heart", "Now and Then" (1995), "Unsung Heroes" (1995), "The Mighty" (1998), "Simon Birch" (1998) etc.
These films all employed a romantic visual style which recalled the paintings of Norman Rockwell. They featured older and wiser narrators who reminisced about their childhood days, revolved around small groups of young boys, largely took place in the 1960s and early 70s, and oozed a sense of nostalgia.
Essentially, these films were also about the same thing: escape. These kids (or rather their future adult/narrator selves) are all searching for a romanticised version of America. A forgotten - or perhaps nonexistent - age of white picket fences, carefree wandering, pop sodas and family dinners. Behind all this comfortable nostalgia, though, is a palatable sense of menace. Abuse, suicide, murder, the lingering effects of the Vietnam war and drunken fathers, all linger in the background.
This trend started in the 1980s, by artists who were born post WW2 and became young men in the turbulent 60s. By the late 1990s the "unseen enemy" of these films stopped being about war, poverty, absent fathers, abuse and alcoholism, and started to be about disease and genetic disorders. Though fading, the idealised Norman Rockwell version of Americana was still there, but now Generation X seemed to obsess over diseases and genetics. For Generation X, misery seemed to be all about ailments and genetic predisposition, like the kids with Morquio's syndrome in "The Mighty" and "Simon Birch" or AIDS in "The Cure".
"King of the Kill", a little known film by Steven Soderbergh, is however quite different from all the other films in this wave. Directed by a young man, the film is set in St Louis during the Great Depression, and focuses on a young school boy called Aaron who uses his wits to survive the economic hardships of 1930's America.
An imaginative and creative boy, Aaron must survive on his own when his father abandons him, his mother is locked away in a mental hospital and his little brother is sent off to boarding school. Initially Aaron takes to these dilemmas with strong shoulders, but gradually his harsh world begins to suffocate him. He has no food, he's in constant fear of losing his apartment and is mocked by his classmates for being poor. Every misery and mishap imaginable seems to happen to Aaron, but the film, despite being shot in sepia hues, never becomes maudlin or implausible. Soderbergh lets the film unfold like Truffaut, mixing tragedy with a very sensitive, deft touch.
Now at first glance the film seems to be celebrating resilience, creativity and that good ole American Spirit. Indeed, the film begins with Aaron reading a story he wrote about Charles Lindberg and the Spirit Of St Louis, the first man and plane to cross the Atlantic. Aaron, like Charles, is a symbol of heroism, persistence, national pride and creativity, a man/boy who triumphs despite the odds.
But look closer and something darker seems to be going on. Aaron thinks up a genius scheme to sell birds to make money, but his birds are the wrong sex and aren't worth anything. Aaron then schemes to find the perfect clothes for a school function (in which he wins a top prize), but despite succeeding is teased by his classmates. Aaron, starving and hungry for food, then has enough imagination to cut out pictures of food from a book, but when he eats them, gets sick the following day. Likewise, Aaron is promised food at a restaurant, but the manager refuses the deal and callously turns him away.
Now think back to Aaron's scheme to breed birds and sell them for their money. Aaron takes the birds to a pet store and attempts to sell them, at which point the store owner tells him the birds are worthless because of their sex. Aaron agrees and walks away, the camera lingering suspiciously on the store owner for a moment. In an instant we know that this boy is being taken advantage of, and that the store owner stands to gain far more than the boy will.
The end result is that the "Spirit of St Louis" is not celebrated, but shown to be the cause of hardship. For one to triumph, another must suffer. For the poor man in the shop to make money, he must rip off a little kid. For a restaurant owner to stay in business, a poor boy must go hungry. In other words, The Great American Spirit is itself a selfish, debased thing, a grand cycle of victors triumphing over others. This, of course, flies in the face of the doctrines and myths espoused by every free-market fundamentalist, despite being backed up by every post neoclassical economist who charts the thermodynamic properties of debt-issued currency. Currency, by the way, is Soderbergh's unacknowledged obsession ("The Girlfriend Experience", "Side Effects", "Contagion", "Che", "Magic Mike", the "Ocean" movies etc).
8/10 – Worth one viewing. See "Seven Beauties".
The lush visuals of KOTH are nothing short of spectacular. The noir imagery of the hotel, with the depression era setting fit perfectly. the visuals are matched by amazing scores from Cliff Martinez who makes an excellent choice of music, showing depressive tones with a feeling of hope.
Likewise the acting is just flawless. Jesse Bradford should have been Oscar nominated, and Jeroen Krabbé, known for his bad guy parts, turns in a superb performance as Aaron's father. Adrien Brody, who will be known to viewers from Thin Red Line and Summer of Sam, makes a hugely welcome addition as Lester, Aaron's compadré. Lauryn Hill even makes an impressive cameo.
Which brings me to the supporting cast. I have never seen such an amazing ensemble of supports. Each have their own backstory, and you could swear that you knew these people after the film. They do not get as much screentime as Aaron, but the impact they make and the suggestions made of their past and future paint their picture out very fully. I was amazed at how many times I watched the film and picked out something new every time.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is not a Soderbergh film, and while he has gone onto make more critically acclaimed films (Traffic, even Oceans Eleven), this will surely be his best. In fact, it is one of the best films I have ever seen. Sadly, it's the most underrated film ever made. I am quite sad because I know, in the back of my mind, that only a handful of people (in relative terms) will ever see this.
This movie is very hard to get nowadays, (I had to search for two years to find a copy on VHS in the USA nonetheless) and I admit you might not want to do as an exhaustive search for it as I did if you haven't seen the film. But for those who have, King of the Hill is a must-see, and I only hope a Special Edition DVD will be made.
5 out of 5
Summarizing "King Of The Hill" is much less easy than simply enjoying it. Taken from the memoir of A. E. Hotchner, "King Of The Hill" is not so much a single story but a series of vignettes involving Aaron's experiences during the spring and summer of 1933. The pictures are often beautiful, sunlight streaming everywhere without a cloud in the sky, but you always see the sweat on the faces.
As Aaron tells his younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd): "All the important stuff can't be taught. It has to be learned."
For Aaron, this means faking it. A lot. The movie opens with him in a fancy public school where he isn't supposed to be, reading aloud his tale of receiving a phone call from Charles Lindbergh just before the latter's solo flight across the Atlantic. Later, he tells Sullivan how not to get in trouble when filching meals from more advantaged classmates. "I told you a thousand times, you only take food from the fat kids, and you never take a kid's dessert."
All this could be grim material in another director's hands, but Steven Soderbergh applies a delicate touch throughout, aided by the sterling lenswork of Eliot Davis and a beguiling score (by Cliff Martinez and Michael Glenn Williams) mixed with some understated period music.
Everything is understated in "King Of The Hill." There are some rotten characters about, like a bullying cop and a nasty bellhop at the poorly-named Empire Hotel, which is in the process of tossing their many indigent tenants out. But most of the people Aaron meets, even the rich ones, are decent. A well-heeled boy named Billy (Chris Samples) shows Aaron how to make some money breeding canaries, while his teacher (Karen Allen) does what she can to help Aaron despite knowing he lives outside her district.
In the excellent DVD package put out by Criterion, Soderbergh expresses some dissatisfaction with "King Of The Hill," wishing he had made it "grittier." I doubt the film would be such a sleeper for so many had it taken a harder approach. We see Aaron alone in his apartment, in fear of being locked out (his often-absent father owes $172 he can't pay), making due with a meal from pictures of food cut out of a magazine, while outside the streets roar with the din of policemen tearing down a nearby Hooverville. You need the humor and the beauty to cut away from that and give us a window into Aaron's fertile, optimistic mind.
Bradford is brilliant and affecting in the lead role, aided by a colorful supporting cast that includes Spalding Gray as a mysterious, down-on-his-luck man across the hall; Adrien Brody as Aaron's streetwise pal; and Amber Benson as a sickly neighbor named Ella who nurses a crush on Aaron, who tries to be nice but isn't yet interested in such things. Even rap star Lauryn Hill is on hand as an elevator operator, and a pre-teen Katherine Heigl, too, as a well- off classmate whom Aaron tries to impress with stories of his parents being lost on an archaeology expedition.
"They've been lost lots of times," Aaron says, trying to tamp down her responsive anxiety, in a scene that might be more tragic if it wasn't so funny.
There are glimmers of hope in this bleak vision, but even the ending leaves you feeling more unsettled than reassured. There are no easy answers in the world Aaron lives in, just a precious will to endure.
The lack of a central, unifying story makes "King Of The Hill" a challenge to enjoy as thoroughly as one might, and there's sometimes a patness to the way good and bad things happen for Aaron. But overall, "King" is triumphant, and a film that stays with you when it is over.
It is grim and powerful but there's also some very funny moments and a GREAT happy ending that was (more or less) believable. I read and studied the Depression in school and this movie got everything right--especially about the hell people went through. Also it looks fantastic! They got the cars, clothes, houses and everything right on target. This movie also has an incredible cast. Jeroen Krabbe (faking an American accent pretty well), Lisa Eichorn, Spaulding Grey, Karen Allen and Elizabeth McGovern all have small roles but are great in them, but it's Bradford who holds the film together. He was only 14 when he did this and he's GREAT! He anchors the film and is believable every step of the way. Also look for an unknown Katherine Heigl and future Oscar winner Adien Brody in small roles. This was a hard movie to market and the studio didn't even try. It died pretty quickly. I only caught it by accident on cable and was blown away by how good it is. This is an excellent film and easily one of the best film of the 1990s. A definite must see!
When Olympic judges rate a performance, they look for flaws and deduct accordingly.
When beauty contest judges look at a pretty girl, they do not look at what works, they look at what doesn't.
Same with film reviews.
I watched mesmerized. One of the most perfect films I have ever seen. Perfect casting, action, direction, writing, pacing, music.
Possibly one of the most perfect films ever.
And, most astonishing of all, not well known even to film buffs.
Set in St. Louis in 1933, "King of the Hill" is like a light kids version of "The Pianist" (it's even got Adrien Brody!). The film centers around the 12 year-old Aaron Kurlander, and his family -- his mother, father, and younger brother, Sullivan. The Depression is in full force, and Aaron's parents have come to the agreement that the only way to save money and be able to continue raising their two sons is to have young Sullivan shipped off on a Greyhound bus to live with his uncle. Soon thereafter, Aaron's mother is taken out of the picture when she has to go for a stay at a sanitarium. The family lives in a hotel run by a bank, and Aaron's father isn't paying the bills; soon he's out of the picture when he goes off looking for work, leaving Aaron on his own to fend for himself.
He makes friends with a rich nerdy kid at school when he rescues him from some school marble bullies, and comes up with schemes of how to make money, like having canary's mate, since a newborn will fetch three dollars. He spins tall tales in order to get by at school, like telling his teacher that his parents work for the government. His hunky, older pal also living in the hotel, Lester (Adrien Brody) helps him about; in one incident they end up stealing Aaron's father's car, and with Aaron too small to be able to reach the brake pedal, he ends up going on a scary trip around town.
When one girl from school invites him over for supper, he gets caught in his own web of deceit when the school kids, at an after-graduation party where Aaron wins a special prize, hear different stories about what his parents really are. (Government workers, archaeologists, pilots.) At the same party, he's exposed for what (they think) he is: a poor kid and a teacher's pet.
He befriends a gawky girl in his hotel with a crush on him when she invites him over for hot dogs and dancing, but ends up having some sort of fit on the floor. (Epileptic seizure?)
The cop out in the street is just looking to bust some young punk kid, and the hotel bellhop is just waiting for Aaron to slip up, so he can lock him out of his room. (Look fast for Lauryn Hill as the hotel elevator operator!)
The movie looks great, both in the set deco and the juicy, round cinematography. The music is a plus, and nearly all the performances are first-rate. Jesse Bradford, with his big, expressive eyes, is just terrific as Aaron. He's got an ultra-pleasant face to watch, and his acting is totally fresh, without any hint of affectation. (Unlike his father's strange accent.)
"King of the Hill" is a lovely, great-looking period piece. A sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking dramedy without any pretensions to be anything other than a good little gem of a movie. And that it is.
score, especially at that searing moment when Jeroen Krabbe gets into
his car, talks to his son on the street and tells him a story. The
music soars as the boy's eyes widen, realizing his father's not coming
back, because the story being told is far too affectionate not to mean
his dad's about to leave. I remember the shots exactly, and these kind
of moments are why I love film.
Steven, stop making crime thrillers for a little while. Get back to
what you were looking for in this movie. We could use a little more of
none of the splash that charaterizes most of S.S.'s other work; no
kinky plot twists, narrative tricks, or dazzling camera work here.
What this film does offer is a deeply felt portrait of realistic people
in realistic situations, which itself is more than you'll get from most
films these days. Don't expect to be dazzled or swept off your feet
by "King of the Hill;" but don't be surprised if you find yourself
thinking about the poor protagonist and his richly rendered life and
times for days after you see the film.
P.S. Don't miss music star Lauryn Hill as an elevator operator.