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In Kansas City during the Depression a young man robs a gambler and is held hostage by a mysterious night club owner. In response the mans wife kidnaps a socialite whom she tries to trade for her husband.Running Time: 115 min.Format: DVD MOVIE Genre:�DRAMA UPC:�794043769924
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I understand why people regard Robert Altman as a genius, and one of the greatest American filmmakers of all-time, but I just can't bring myself to like most of his movies. The exception to this rule would probably be "Brewster McCloud" which is one of my favorites. The overlapping dialogue, the disjointed pacing, the loose, improvisational feel of the narrative (which I've heard is many times tightly scripted, despite its seemingly offhand nature)- none of it really works for me. I certainly can't fault Altman for taking this approach, especially with a film that makes jazz music such a cornerstone of its overall appeal.
That said, here's what's undeniably good about the movie: Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is pitch-perfect. As in "The Hudsucker Proxy" (a rare misfire for the Coen brothers), she has this sort of "Girl Friday" tough talking character vernacular down to a science. She is sexy and tough in equal doses. Harry Belafonte is also wonderful as a coke-addled crime boss who holds court in a smokey jazz bar that seems as if it was lifted directly from the Harlem Renaissance and planted squarely on Kansas soil. I should also add as a postscript that the period details also feel spot-on, the mis-en-scene very much reminiscent of "Miller's Crossing" in its attention to detail.
The film is related to his earlier 70's master work Thieves Like Us. They take place at roughly the same time, but Thieves dazzled by immersing the viewer in the slow rhythms of a rain-drenched Mississippi summer, whereas in Kansas City the spirit of the city itself seems to be embodied in its legendary jazz scene from that era. A critique of popular culture in shaping the lives of people is explored in both these films also: the bank robbers in Thieves want to live up to antihero legends as presented on radio programs just as Blondie in Kansas City models her speech patterns and tough gal exterior on the Jean Harlow melodramas she has assiduously memorized through repeat viewings. She boasts of having seen "Hold Your Man" (and we're treated to a clip of that film) six times and takes great offense when the
woman she's kidnapped gives her assessment of Harlow as cheap, brassy, and low class.
The performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Miranda Richardson are exceptionally good. I had just seen Leigh in her performance in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle right before Kansas City, and you'd hardly tell it was the same actress, so thoroughly does Leigh immerse herself in the role of Blondie. Miranda Richardson pairs up with her nicely as the kidnapped wife of a politico who is quite prepared to deal with the indignities of a kidnapping as long as shes got her trusty laudanum vial by her side. The two demonstrate acutely observed black comedy in their scenes together, and a touching bond begins to develop between the two so that the final scene, shocking upon first viewing, makes perfect sense in context of these characters. Also, as ruthless gangster Seldom Seen, Harry Belafonte's performance garnered the most attention upon the film's initial release. Belafonte's transformation into this brutal but pragmatic gangster has its own peculiar grace and is also darkly humorous, as in his joke about a genie he tells when his bullyboys are murdering one of his employees who has double-crossed him. He airs his political views ( some insightful, some ludicrous) and he seems particularly opinionated on the subject of Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement of that era. I was also impressed with A.C. Tony Smith as Sheepshan Red and was surprised he hasn't done more acting work as he fills out this flamboyant gambler beautifully and with great comic presence in what is essentially a small role, but Smith makes it memorable.
The hullabaloo of the plot is mirrored in the film's thrilling recreation of a "Battle of Jazz" that is taking place at Seldom Seen's Hey-Hey Club throughout the duration of the narrative's timeframe. The jazz world brimmed with excitement when word began to spread of Altman's intention to get the best jazz greats of the 90s to stage more or less a musical battle that could have taken place in the era of Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Coleman Hawkins. The results are awe-inspiring (and Im not even much of a fan of jazz), and the soundtrack and its sister album "Kansas City After Dark" became modern jazz classics that became probably better known than the actual film, more or less buried by its releasing company. It is hoped any future Blu Ray releases of Kansas City will include the doc "Robert Altman's Jazz '34" containing the full filmed footage of the musicians performing in the Hey Hey Club. It is hoped Criterion will recognize and honor this film and its euphoric musical performances for being latter-day classics.
To an Altman fanatic like myself, the rediscovery of this film has been like finding a buried treasure, a gift from Altman from beyond the grave. Future generations,I am willing to predict, will probably place it among the director's highest achievements. This was the last film Altman made before his health deteriorated to such an extent he had to get a heart transplant. Preexisting conditions notwithstanding, I like to think poetically that Altman invested so much of his energy and artistry on this picture that he almost died making it.
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