Kansas City Reviews
But like in most Altman films, we are helpless in resisting its many subversions. How its leading lady, played here by a rollicking Jennifer Jason Leigh, tries desperately to be a cheap version of Jean Harlow but ends up looking like a platinum haired rascal with rotten teeth. How its villain (Harry Belafonte) avoids the camp of the era and goes for mystical, how the damsel in distress (Miranda Richardson) is a wealthy opium addict without much spunk, how the man who should be the hero (Dermot Mulroney) is nothing more than a fragment of a specimen, genuinely lightheaded when he should be scrappy.
If these characters were played by actors of the respective time, without Altman mockery saddling them, we can envision "Kansas City," aside from Harlow as Leigh's central moll, being headlined by George Raft, Myrna Loy, and maybe even Dick Powell. But Altman's twisting of stock characters makes the film feel like something the studio never would have released, being too cynical and self-deprecating to keep audiences of the Great Depression out of their overwhelming misery. It is a fascinating, though very minor, Altman project, an exercise of his talents not necessarily in the mood to show off.
And considering his past films, often making use of massive ensemble casts or simple storylines with a hell of a lot of metaphors behind them to make them feel heavy "Kansas City" is unusually to the point. In the movie, Leigh portrays Blondie O'Hara, a hard-bitten gun moll who kidnaps a millionaire's wife (Miranda Richardson) in hopes to make a trade. Her husband, Johnny (Mulroney), you see, is being held up at crime boss Seldom Seen's (Belafonte) jazz joint, and she believes that her victim's spouse (Michael Murphy) can free him, his financial standing potentially impactful.
But none of these characters are very smart, except for Seldom Seen, whose self-possession is so intimidating you might call him a guru of sin. So begins a night of madcap messiness, Blondie causing most of the trouble with her inability to be a halfway decent kidnapper.
"Kansas City" is Robert Altman's thirty-first film, and refreshing is how he clearly is willing to take as many risks as a young filmmaker would, never settling in a specific mindset only because it doesn't excite him. He could make films like "Short Cuts" for the rest of his career, but to do so would be predictable. This film works as a sort of breather from the epic, not a masterpiece nor a failure - just a confirmation that Altman never would, and never will, be a filmmaker confined to a specific stylistic standpoint.
Talk about a bad movie...
The Story: In 1930's Kansas City, a woman kidnaps a politicians wife in order to save her boyfriend from some mobsters...Not a genuinely original story, though, not an incredibly bad story...It's just the way it's told that makes it bad...The characters often times seem disconnected from the storyline, and the dialogue while appropriate for the time is just goofy, it's got a semi-stylish look to it, but overall nothing breathtaking, and it's just plane boring. Seriously, it's almost two hours and this movie drags like no other. It starts slow and never picks up the pace.
The Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte...Jennifer Jason Leigh is Blondie O'Hara, a tough street smart dame, who only wants her boyfriend back. I love Jennifer Jason Leigh, I just don't love her here. Her performance sounds so forced here, it's unbelievable. Not for one minute did I feel a connection with her (or anyone else for that matter), and not once did I believe she was 1930's woman. She looks the part, she just doesn't play the part. Miranda Richardson is Carolyn Stilton, the politicians wife, used to the good life. Her character gradually gets more drunk as the story progresses, so her bad acting seems to become gradually more forgivable. Her performance doesn't sound quite as forced as Leighs but she's still pretty boring and lifeless. Harry Belafonte is Seldom Seen, the mob boss. A boring character with a lot of drawn out speeches. Once again, not as forced as Leigh but he's just as lifeless as Richardson. There's a few other characters and actors here, but they all play extremely minor parts that only take up time and contribute very very little to the story.
One to Five Scale: 1
Boring characters, forced performances, and a bad story with bad story development. Even if you're a hardcore Jennifer Jason Leigh fan you won't find much value here.
Altman seems to not want to use his usually skilled trademarks. There is seldom use of overlapping dialogue although there is a good sense of closeness between blacks and whites within Kansas City, Altman's authentic detail to the 1930's, and his great use of editing, cutting between the main characters, and the jazz players.
One of the best scenes show two jazz artist going against one another and afterwods respecting each other's craft. Steve Buscemi's character reminds me of one of the characters in "Gangs Of New York" getting all the people to vote. This picture is not Altman's best film but I still enjoyed it thanks to a strong performance from Belefonte, and well, again the period and the music.
I must confess that I haven't seen a lot of Robert Altman films. This includes having missed a lot of the classics, though I have one coming up relatively soon. The funny thing is that I think all the movies of his that I've seen all the way through recently enough to remember have been ensemble pieces except [i]Popeye[/i]. In my brain, this is now one of the defining characteristics of an Altman film. Now, this one revolves around a single plot, as opposed to several plots revolving around a single event. So that's different. Still, this movie, too, is more about the characters than what they're doing. What they're doing is merely why they are now together. There has to be a reason, even if the reason doesn't necessarily have to make sense.
The short version is that Johnny O'Hara (Dermot Mulroney) robbed a guy in a cab, Sheepshan Red (A. C. Tony Smith). Unfortunately for him, Sheepshan was heading off to meet local racketeer Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) for a spot of gambling, and Johnny got all of Sheepshan's money. Johnny thought he'd get away with it, because he was in blackface, but his plan falls apart anyway. In order to save his life, his wife, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), wife of a local political bigwig, Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy). She contacts Stilton, who is out of town, and tells him that Johnny and Carolyn are now tied together--if Seldom kills Johnny, Blondie will kill Carolyn. What's more, Blondie's sister, Babe (Brooke Smith), is married to Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), a low-level political figure who's getting out the vote for the Democrats. Over and over again.
There are, of course, several layers of society which we see here. Nettie Bolt (Jane Adams) of the Junior League is at the same level as the Stiltons, but she also knows Blondie as is at the train station when we first see her so that she can meet Pearl Cummings (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a fourteen-year-old black girl in Kansas City so that she can have her baby. Johnny Flynn connects to John Lazia (Joe Digirolamo), slightly higher up the political chain, who connects to Stilton. Johnny Flynn (one of the things Carolyn says which makes sense is vague surprise that both sisters married someone named Johnny) is rounding up drunks and vagrants to vote Democrat for Lazia, and Lazia is called on to rescue Johnny O'Hara. In theory, Seldom Seen is below Johnny O'Hara on the spectrum, on the grounds of Seldom is black, but in practice, no one really believes that.
Blondie is fixated on Jean Harlow, having based her look and attitude on her. She points out with no little pride that Jean Harlow was from Kansas City, as was Joan Crawford. But she thinks Joan Crawford is cheap. The thing is, whether you believe Jean Harlow was cheap or not, and a lot of people did, she was someone who'd reinvented herself. I mean, for one thing, as a separate person from her mother! But half the cast of this movie either wants to be or is pretending to be someone they're not, as I have to say, there are worse people to pretend to be than Jean Harlow. No, I'm sure she wasn't the smartest woman in Hollywood. At very least, Hedy Lamarr was already in Hollywood by the time this movie is set. But seen from the perspective of the fan magazines, Jean Harlow had everything Blondie could possibly want, whereas Blondie was married to a guy like Johnny O'Hara.
The best part of this movie is the visual style. It's great that Harry Belafonte ad libbed most of his own part and wrote most of the rest. It's fascinating how much attention to detail is in the movie; the Marcus Garvey jokes probably aren't funny to much of a modern audience, though I'm sure a few of them are. The ones that don't rely on actually knowing who Marcus Garvey was. I guess the movie doesn't really rely on your knowing who Jean Harlow was, though there's more depth to the movie if you know that as well. Altman apparently recorded more than another film's worth of the jazz musicians' performances. That would probably have been more worth watching, though I can't say as I would have had much to say about it, either. This is not Altman's finest; I have no intention of watching it a second time. But my, it's a [i]pretty[/i] film.
His movies are not entertainment. I don't even consider them work of art. They are critique. That is why allmost all of them are hardly bearable by average person. Me, for example...
Stylistic qualms aside, Kansas City is a turd, plain and simple. A good looking turd. A well premised turd, but savagely beaten into mind numbing nothingness by a total lack of direction. It seems like everyone involved is haphazardly wandering from scene to scene waiting for important plot points to materialize. The eternally pouty Jennifer Jason Leigh pouts her way through scene after pointless scene while the eternally sexy Miranda Richardson sits in the corner watching.
Hey, look! It's Harry Belafonte talking to some guy throughout the entire movie about THE SAME THING, OVER AND OVER AND OVER.