March 11, 2020

KANSAS CITY and the Old Stomping Ground

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Michael Murphy, Dermot Mulroney, Steve Buscemi, Brooke Smith, Jane Adams. Directed by Robert Altman. (116 min).

Review by Fluffy the Fearless😸

Maybe it’s the way I’m wired, but I personally prefer some of Robert Altman’s less lauded movies to his acknowledged classics. Sure, MASH remains his greatest film, but you’re also looking at the one guy who liked Quintet more than Nashville.

That being said, while Kansas City didn't garner the accolades of his recent “comeback” films - The Player and Short Cuts - it’s less pretentious and more enjoyable than both. I could be wrong, but as the story unfolded, I couldn’t help but feel Altman was more personally invested in this one since the setting is his old stomping ground.

Speaking of which, it’s quite a story, should one choose to pay attention to it. I say that because the characters and music are enough to drive the film, which Altman - with co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt - culls from childhood recollections of his hometown (though by his own admission, somewhat romanticized). During the prohibition era, Kansas City was apparently the midwest hub for gambling, booze and organized crime, a perfect setting for one of Altman’s better ensemble casts to inhabit a variety of unique characters.

Miss Pouty Puss.
The film tells concurring stories, the primary one depicting the kidnapping of Carolyn (Miranda Richardson) by Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the opium-addicted wife of powerful politician Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy). Since the narrative isn’t initially linear, Blondie’s motives are unclear at first. Then we meet her husband, low-level crook Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), who stupidly robs a big-shot gambler that happens to be friends with Seldom Seen (Harry Belefonte), the city’s most powerful – and ruthless – black mobster. Johnny’s caught almost immediately and “Seldom” holds him in the back room of his popular jazz spot, the Hey Hey Club. These stories converge when Blondie threatens to kill Miranda unless Henry uses his own questionable mob connections to spring Johnny.

Guess who's in it for the chicks.
Several other peripheral characters drift in and out of the picture, sometimes to complicate or clarify the plot, but mostly to enhance the film as a whole. Every character, no matter how minor, is uniquely interesting, with potential backstories that would make engaging movies themselves. Offering additional respite are numerous musical set-pieces featuring some stunning performances by real-life modern artists portraying jazz legends of the era. That they are filmed live gives Kansas City are level of authenticity that Coppola’s similarly-themed Cotton Club never quite achieved.

Ultimately, the plot ends up being of secondary importance. With only minor tweaking – and a director with a different agenda – the same story could have just as easily been a crackling thriller or funny farce. Instead, like many Altman’s films, Kansas City is more concerned with the characters he creates to populate a specific place and time. It feels a lot more personal than his other films of the same era, making it one of the late director’s most criminally overlooked efforts.

"GEOFF ANDREW ON KANSAS CITY” - An appreciation by Geoff Andrew, who affectionately discusses some of Altman’s quirks, with obvious emphasis on Kansas City.
"GARE, TRAINS ET DERAILLEMENT” - From 2007, this is a video essay by French critic Luc Lagier. In French with English subtitles.
FEATURETTES - “Robert Altman Goes to the Heart of America”; “Kansas City: The Music”
ELECTRONIC PRESS KIT INTERVIEWS – Short promotional interviews with Robert Altman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belefonte, Joshua Redman. Soundbites in the featurettes are pulled from these interviews.
AUDIO COMMENTARY – By Robert Altman.
SUPPLEMENTAL BOOKLET – Annotated essay, “Dream Boogie: Visions of the Past,” by author Dr. Nicolas Pillai from the Jazz Studies Research Center; Interview excerpt from the book, Altman on Altman; Original production notes; cast, crew and Blu-ray transfer credits.
REVERSIBLE COVER – With new and original artwork (the original is far cooler).


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