Steven Soderbergh Looks Back at King of the Hill

WRITER’S NOTE: The following article is about a screening which took place back in 2011.

In the midst of promoting “Contagion” in Los Angeles, California, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh dropped by the Silent Movie Theater where Cinefamily was screening one of his earlier and most underrated features, “King of the Hill.” Not to be confused with the Fox animated series, the film follows 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) who is forced to fend for himself in Depression era America after his parents leave him alone at the Empire Hotel in St. Louis. Aaron is forced to grow up a lot faster than any kid should ever have to, and he desperately searches for ways to avoid eviction from the family’s apartment. Soderbergh thanked the sold-out crowd for coming to the theater, and he started off by saying, “Why aren’t you guys going to see ‘Contagion’? This film is never going into profit!”

“King of the Hill” was Soderbergh’s third film after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” and “Kafka,” and it was released back in 1993. Based on the memoir of the same name by A.E. Hotchner, it was given to him as a gift by a friend. At the time he was looking for something different than “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” and he found Hotchner’s story to be just what he needed. He did, however, describe it as a “tricky adaptation” since he only had a budget of $8 million and 48 days to shoot the film, and it was a period piece. On the upside, though, he said Universal Pictures, which released the movie through its Gramercy Pictures division, was “hands off” during the production.

Watching it again, Soderbergh described it as the one movie of his he might change aesthetically. He felt the prettiness of the picture would help counteract the harsher parts of the story, but now finds the film to be “almost too pretty.” Most of the conversation he had in pre-production involved the overall palette color which he and cinematographer Elliot Davis wanted to remain within a certain range. Were he to film it today, Soderbergh said he would go out of his way to make it “less commercial.”

Soderbergh recalled doing three preview screenings of his movie, none of which went well. When finished with the project, he admitted feeling somewhat dissatisfied as the movie’s ending did not seem entirely satisfactory to him. Whatever problems he had, they did not stop him from trying to adapt Hotchner’s follow up memoir “Looking for Miracles” which focused on the writer’s relationship with his brother. Sadly, Soderbergh’s hopes were quickly dashed when “King of the Hill” did not find an audience upon its release.

Regardless of his feelings, the audience was in agreement that “King of the Hill” is a great film, and it truly is one of Soderbergh’s best works. The director also found a big fan in Sid Sheinberg, the famous entertainment executive, who, soon after seeing it, introduced him to Lew Wasserman. It also made Soderbergh how that he didn’t enjoy writing as much as he thought, but he did continue writing screenplays for his films “The Underneath,” “Schizopolis,” and his remake of “Solaris.” This was one of five films he did after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” which he openly admitted “did no business,” but perhaps they will eventually.

“King of the Hill” is not currently available on DVD (not in America anyway) or Blu-ray, nor is it available to stream on Netflix. Soderbergh remarked this is because “cult flicks are not marketable right now” and that “no one buys DVD’s anymore.” But with this director being so highly regarded in Hollywood, hopefully this third film of his will get the digital release it deserves so fans can discover it for the great movie it is.

UPDATE: “King of the Hill” has since been released by the Criterion Collection in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. It features a new restored 2K digital film transfer, interviews with Soderbergh and Hotchner, movie trailers, and Soderbergh’s fourth film “The Underneath.” To find out more about this release, click here.

‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Take Me to the River’ Dives Right Into the Deep End

Take Me to the River poster

I came into “Take Me to the River” with little knowledge as to what the movie was about, and perhaps this is the best way to approach it. At first it looks to be a tale of a gay teenager dealing with his conservative relatives who have yet to understand how human nature really works, but then it takes a sharp left turn to reveal it is really about deep dark family secrets which are revealed in a wordless way, and the psychological impact it ends up having on its audience is far more profound than we could have ever seen coming.

We are introduced to Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who is going with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) and dad Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder is intent on revealing his sexuality to everyone there, but his parents encourage him not to. Shortly after he arrives, he is treated with suspicion from others as his red shorts look like a pair of swimming trunks and his glasses resemble something which came out of the 1980’s. His cousins, however, are crushing on him as he makes them special drawings, and they find him wonderfully rebellious. But then things go awry during a moment between him and 9-year-old Molly when she comes out of a barn with a bloodstain on her dress. Ryder is immediately suspected of abuse by his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), but he makes clear he didn’t do anything to her.

Now revealing more about “Take Me to the River” from there is a bit tricky because it is better not to know too much about the movie beforehand. For a time, I thought I knew where the movie was going to go, but then it becomes more like a thriller. This is especially the case when Ryder is invited to a supper with Keith and his family where Keith looks to make amends with him, but his laser-like stare indicates he has something quite devious planned for his nephew, and we are just as in the dark as Ryder is.

This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Matt Soebel who also wrote its screenplay, and he does an excellent job of putting us right in Ryder’s shoes. Like Ryder, we have little idea of what’s going on and it leaves us with an inescapable feeling of dread.  And like “The China Syndrome,” it doesn’t have, or even need, a music score to underscore the tension which continually builds up. We don’t really hear any music until the very end, and when that final song comes on, I felt like breathing a sigh of relief as the tension finally lifted.

This is also a motion picture which derives its power from what is not said more than what is. Soebel is not interested in spelling everything out to us as our imaginations are capable of generating things far more frightening, and when the story comes to hint at a deep dark family secret, we cannot help but be unsettled at what that secret could be.

But as much as “Take Me to the River” sounds like a thriller, it is also a coming of age story as Ryder comes to better understand the people around him and develops a stronger compassion than he ever had before. The fact he is gay eventually becomes a tiny issue as their bigger things to undercover which has left his family members with very nasty emotional scars. This is saying a lot because many coming of age movies don’t come constructed like this, and it makes this one all the more unique.

I was very impressed with Miller who left a strong impression on audiences in “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” We never catch him portraying a typical teenager, let alone a gay teenager, but instead a regular kid who is caught up in a situation he can’t stay one step ahead of. I also liked Hamilton’s performance as Keith because it shows him to be quite the poker player. But the most impressive performance in “Take Me to the River” comes from Robin Weigert as Cindy. At first, she makes Cindy an overprotective mother, but her actions come to reveal someone who has suffered a serious trauma she can never fully make peace with. Weigert, just with a look, shows us how deep her emotional scars go, and it’s always impressive to see any actor pull this off without having to spell it out for the audience.

There’s always something to be said for a movie which catches you by surprise, and “Take Me to the River” is certainly one. I went into it not knowing much about it, and it took me on a ride unlike few others I have been on in recent years. In a time where movies are bound by formulaic standards and studio executives who are hell bent on starting the next big franchise, it’s nice to know there are still filmmakers out there making movies which go against the grain. Not everything can be the same, and in the end, everyone needs some variety as they can get easily bored.

If you love movies which break the mold, then “Take Me to the River” is one you need to check out. When it comes to humanity, there’s always something more to a person than meets the eye. While you might think individuals can be easily divided into groups of people you feel you can easily identify, this movie comes around to remind you this it is not as easy as you think. Family secrets are never easy to unveil, and this movie serves as a reminder as to why. I look forward to what Sobel has in store for us next.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Jonas Carpignano about ‘A Ciambra’

A Ciambra” was Italy’s official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards, and it was made in the heart of the country’s Romani community. A gritty coming of age story, it follows Pio Amato, a 14-year-old boy who is eager to grow up real fast. Pio spends his days smoking and drinking as well as following his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) around town while learning the skills needed for survival in their hometown. While tensions between the different factions, the Italians, the African immigrants and his fellow Romani, remain high, Pio is able to slide through each in a way few others can. When Cosimo is arrested one night, Pio is quick to convince everyone he is more than ready to fill his older brother’s shoes and take care of things. But as the movie goes on, he wonders if he is truly ready to become a man.

“A Ciambra” was written and directed by Jonas Carpignano whose previous film, “Mediterranea” won various awards including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Directing. What he has succeeded in doing here is giving us a motion picture which makes you feel like you are hanging out with these characters instead of just watching them from a distance. Carpignano combines biographical elements with documentary style filmmaking to give us something we experience more than anything else. There are not many movies like this one these days, and I will take them wherever I can get them.

Carpignano spent his childhood between Rome and New York City, and he currently lives in Italy where he continues his filmmaking endeavors. He was in Los Angeles to talk about “A Ciambra,” and it was a pleasure taking with him about how he went about making the film with non-professional actors. In addition, he spoke of what it was like to work alongside Martin Scorsese who is the film’s executive producer and of the most valuable piece of advice the “Goodfellas” director gave him.

“A Ciambra” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater on February 2, 2018. Be sure to check out the interview above as well as the movie’s trailer below.

A Ciambra poster

Marielle Heller and Bel Powley Discuss ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

Marielle Heller Bel Powley

The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, in a star-making performance) as she goes on a journey for love and acceptance, and as the movie begins she has already started to experience her sexual awakening. She becomes embroiled in an affair with Monroe Rutherford (Alexander Skarsgard) who also happens to be her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend. What results is an honest version of what it’s like to be a teenage girl, and the movie isn’t so much about sex as it is about finding your own self-worth which is very important for young people making their way through this crazy world we all inhabit.

This movie marks the directorial debut of actress and writer Marielle Heller, and I got to talk with her and Bel Powley while they were at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. One of the things I remarked about it was how beautiful the movie looked and of how it really transported the audience back to the 70’s. Granted, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” does take place in San Francisco, California which, after all these years, hasn’t changed much since the 70’s, but director of photography Brandon Trost still did terrific work in bringing us back to a time period which is gone but not forgotten.

the-diary-of-a-teenage-girl

Marielle Heller: I love telling people that the same person who shot this movie also shot movies like “The Interview” and “Neighbors” because they couldn’t be more different in terms of content. But he is a real artist and I think he just did the most incredible job. He was so dedicated to making this film look and feel exactly how we envisioned it which was in some ways like an old Polaroid picture, but not with a hipster grossness on it. We wanted it to be really authentic to the story and to the characters.

Those who know Heller best know that she has been in love with Gloeckner’s graphic novel ever since her sister gave her a copy of it 8 years ago. She spent a long time trying to get the rights to adapt the book into a stage play, and she performed the role of Minnie Goetze herself in an acclaimed off-Broadway production. From there, Heller went on to develop “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” into a screenplay at the Sundance Labs, and the film eventually debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Having spent so many years with Gloeckner’s graphic novel, I asked Heller how her view of it has evolved from when she first read the book to when she began turning it into a movie.

Marielle Heller: The film version of the book had to take on its own new life and really shift and change because the narrative structure of a film has to have a different build than a novel can. You read a book and you put it down and you pick it up and you put it down and it can have a really episodic feel, and a movie has to have a really specific kind of emotional build. I had such reverence for Phoebe’s book. I loved it more than anything I had ever read before, which is sort of a problematic place to start an adaption from. It was too much love, too much reverence, and at some point I had to sort of give myself permission to destroy parts of what I loved too and let go of it and let the reverence go away. Things changed, storylines changed, so that was a big process and luckily Phoebe really understood that because she’s such an artist herself.

Heller also remarked about a conversation she had with Gloeckner during the making of the film:

Marielle Heller: She was like, “You have to do what you have to do for this process. I took my real diaries and I wanted to make them into a piece of art. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to change them and let them become something new and let them become a book, and so I put them through this big grinder and it came out the other side hopefully with some truth intact. But it was something new, and then you took it and you put it through another kind of meat grinder and out the other end came this other project and it’s something new and hopefully that kernel of truth is still the same.” So it’s been a long process and in some ways I internalized the whole book. I got to know it inside and out and then stopped looking at it and wouldn’t let myself look at it and let the movie just grow into something totally new.

Watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reminded me of my favorite movies which dealt with adolescence and being a teenager like “Pump up the Volume,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I love movies which take adolescence seriously as so many others treat it like life won’t get any better than when you’re young. I asked Heller and Powley what their favorite teen movies which they felt treated being a teenager honestly were, and their answer pointed out how those movies are missing a particular point of view.

Marielle Heller: I think there are a lot of movies that deal with adolescence in an honest way for boys. I hadn’t really come across ones that really dealt with girls in an honest way which is why I think we wanted to make this movie. I know I really related to movies like “Stand by Me” or “Harold and Maude;” movies that felt like they were, like you said, really respecting the characters and giving adolescents a voice in it. And John Hughes’ movies too like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” Movies like that really did give voice to the teenager in a real way. And I guess actually that John Hughes did make movies about girls. “Sixteen Candles” was about being a girl, but we’re a long time from “Sixteen Candles.” We’re due for another one.

Bel Powley: I was a teenager six years ago (laughs), and I don’t think I related to anything. I found it really hard, and I think it honestly made me feel like really isolated and really alone. I think young female characters are presented in such flat, two dimensional ways especially when it came to sex. Like if you did have sex then you were this high school slut, or if you didn’t then you’re either frigid or you’re like this virgin waiting for your Prince Charming. I remember being so excited when “Juno” was coming out, and then it came out and it was like, well no one speaks like that. And also, she’s made to be kind of asexual. It was just so confusing to me, and I honestly didn’t relate to anything until “Girls” (the HBO series), and that was when I was like 19.

Hearing Heller and Powley say that makes you realize how important “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in today’s cinematic landscape. For once we have a movie that deals with the life of a teenage girl honestly, and that makes it all the more important for audiences to seek it out in the midst of another overcrowded summer movie season. It is truly one of the best adolescent movies made in recent memory, and it deserves your attention far more than many others in this genre.

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Jessika Van about ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

Jessika Van returns to the silver screen in “Seoul Searching,” a comedy by Benson Lee which follows a group of Korean teens from all over the world who are sent to a cultural heritage school in Seoul during the summer of 1986. Van plays Grace Park, a pastor’s daughter from Cherry Hill, New Jersey who worships Madonna the way her father worships God. Grace doesn’t even need to point that Madonna is her favorite singer as she dresses exactly like the Material Girl and even performs an acapella version of “Like a Virgin.” She also excels at teasing all the young boys who lust after her constantly, but she soon meets her match when an especially rebellious teenager catches her eye.

Van started her career in music where she was a classically-trained pianist and singer, and she won various awards and even performed for the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson. She made her breakthrough as an actress playing Becca, Queen of the Asian Mafia, on MTV’s critically acclaimed comedy “Awkward,” and she trained in weapons and martial arts for her role in the first-person shooter game “Battlefield 4.” Videos of her work can be found on her YouTube page.

I spoke with Van while she was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” She talked about the research she did into the 1980’s and Madonna to prepare for her role, what she learned about Korea while filming there, and of how she managed to peel back Grace’s emotional armor to reveal the person hiding underneath. She also spoke of how “Seoul Searching” is much more than just an Asian American film as it touches on issues that are universal to everybody and anybody.

Check out the interview below and be sure to visit the movie’s website (www.seoulsearchingthemovie.com) for more information.

Exclusive Interview with Justin Chon about ‘Seoul Searching’

Seoul Searching poster

In Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching,” Justin Chon plays Sid Park, a rebellious teenager and a punk rocker whose truancy and defiance of adult authority knows no bounds. Sid is one of many teenagers forced to spend the summer of 1986 in Seoul at a camp for “gyopo” or foreign born teenagers where they can learn more about their homeland, Korea. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t want to be there and he tries numerous ways to get kicked out, but eventually his tough guy persona is broken through by a teacher who sees that Sid yearns for the acceptance of his father. What results is the most important summer Sid will ever have in his young life.

Chon is one of the most prolific Asian-American actors working in movies today, and he is best known for playing Eric Yorkie in the “Twilight” series. His career started in 2005 when he appeared in such television shows as “Jack & Bobby” and “Taki & Luci,” and he became known to audiences worldwide when he played Peter Wu in the Disney Channel film “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.” Chon also starred as Sonny, an immigrant who becomes a notorious gangster, in “Revenge of the Green Dragons” which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. In addition, he has also directed several digital shorts that are featured on his YouTube page.

I spoke with Chon recently while he was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” While he was a student at USC, he spent time abroad in South Korea and explained how he was able to draw on that experience for his role. He also talked about the 80’s song he wished the movie’s director, Benson Lee, had included on its soundtrack, and he makes it clear why “Seoul Searching” deserves to be seen as more than just an Asian-American movie.

Check out the interview below, and please visit “Seoul Searching’s” website to find out where the movie is playing near you.