[box cover]

Kansas City

Early in the commentary for Kansas City (1996), Robert Altman opines that this is one of the best films he's ever made. Obviously, he's been watching the wrong Robert Altman movies. Though he's misfired worse in his career, Kansas City remains one of the filmmaker's bitterest disappointments, if only for the promise it seemed to hold as it went into production; pitched as a period Nashville, it boasted another of the director's typically impressive ensemble casts, as well as a collection of the hippest young cats in jazz today (including Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield, Christian McBride, and David Murray). But it arrived D.O.A., and a decade has not improved its fortunes. Its biggest shortcoming is in its split focus: there's about one-third of a great movie here; i.e. the portion dealing with gangland capo "Seldom" Seen, played with fierce conviction by Harry Belafonte. Unfortunately, Altman's up to his interlocking narrative tricks again, all set against a momentous occasion (in this case, it's Election Day), and the technique is looking shopworn. Most problematic is the "A" story, which features Jennifer Jason Leigh as Blondie O'Hara, a brunette Harlow devotee forced into kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the wife of a local political operative with the ear of President Roosevelt. Her poorly thought out plan is to hold Carolyn as a bargaining chip in order to leverage the freedom of her petty thief husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), who's being held by Seldom's crew after knocking over a big-time visiting gambler by the name of Sheepshan Red (A.C. Smith). Problem is, Johnny made matters much worse for himself by doing the hold-up in blackface, which is good enough to draw a death mark from Marcus Garvey-backer Seldom. The passages dealing with Blondie and Carolyn's relationship are tiresome at best, and excruciating at worst thanks to Leigh's umpteenth run at channeling the spirit of a rough-and-tumble '30s starlet. True, it's her character's fascination, as well, but the act is old hat nonetheless (a shame because Richardson is quite good as the laudanum-addicted socialite). It certainly doesn't help that their segment of the story is underwritten and uneventful when compared to the doings at The Hey Hey Club, which is where Seldom does his dirty work to the nonstop swinging standards wailed out by the all-star band. Having only acted (to date) in ten feature films, Belafonte's performance is one to savor, and it's his best since Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow. His snappish but weakening Seldom could've sustained a film all by himself, and really should've. After all, not only would that have meant more Belafonte, it also would've given the band more screen time. They make the most of what they get — Redman and Craig Handy go off on "Yeah, Man" — but for a film set against such a culturally vital, African-American happening, it's a waste to stick the audience in a room with two flighty white women. New Line presents Kansas City in a decent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that does justice to the music. Extras include a feature-length commentary by Altman that's interesting when he's talking, which just isn't often enough. Also on board is the original theatrical trailer and previews for other New Line titles. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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