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This film is so deceptively constructed that it took me a few
viewings to completely get it. Not the most inviting recommendation for a film, but even at first look, there is much
to enjoy. The music is superb, the performances outlandish and
entertaining, and the take on politics and race relations truly
incisive. For example, kidnapping really was a political tool in
1930's Kansas City; Blondie's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) real crime
is kidnapping a politician's wife for personal reasons. Though
his contempt for romanticism is truly bitter, this remains one
of Altman's best films.
I happen to like this film... apparently quite a bit more than most
people. I even still have a copy of it on VHS somewhere. First and
foremost is the music. Absolutely INCREDIBLE old time jazz. The best
scene to me is clearly the 'battle' between the sax players at the
club. The music in the club throughout the movie and the background
score during the non-club scenes is about as good as it gets. And I'm
not really a huge jazz guy though I have always liked the Miles Davis -
John Coltrane type stuff. This is my favorite non - Angelo Badalamente
(sp?)film score. Seriously, see this flick just for the music alone.
And, see it for Miranda Richardson who is AWESOME in this movie. I think she really steals the show in this one. J. Jason Leigh is solid and plays the part of a not too bright, not very successful midwest girl decently. Also, Harry Belafonte is great as Seldom Seen and he just looks and sounds the part so well. Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney and the woman who plays J. Jason Leigh's sister are all quite good in supporting roles, and Michael Murphy is perfect for the part of the slightly confused, yet somewhat powerful husband to the kidnapped Richardson character.
The clothes, cars, and look of the film is nicely done (cmon it IS an Altman picture!!!) and really does make you feel as if you are in Missouri circa 1935-1940. Add to that a slightly twisted ending and you have a really good and def. underrated film that I really want to see again... on DVD this time to REALLY crank up the music scenes. I give Kansas City 7.5/10
Bottom line, whether you love or hate "Kansas City" will depend on your
reaction to Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance. Leigh's character
Blondie anchors the story as a desperate wife trying to save her
husband from the gangsters he tried to rob. Leigh looks great in this
role, she is fit and trim which makes her face cuter and her character
more fragile looking. The contrast between her almost angelic
appearance and her tough persona is intentional because the toughness
is an affectation, qualities she has adopted because she loves her
husband and they are a turn-on for him.
Her's is the key performance of the film, the twist is her emulation of Kansas City native Jean Harlow ("The Public Enemy" and "Girl from Missoui"). Watch Harlow in "Red Headed Woman" and you will see the incredible physical resemblance between the two actresses. Personally I found it both touching and humorous; her character worthy of the brave heroine hall of fame. But it is almost a caricature and some viewer will be put off by this tiny woman talking so tough.
As in "Nashville", there are great songs (but jazz rather than country) throughout the film. It is important to realize that "Blondie's" behavior is intended to mirror the "cutting contests" between the jazz musicians on-stage at the club. Just as the musicians borrow from one another and weave each others stuff into what they are improvising, "Blondie" borrows from the movies and weaves Harlow's tough girl phrases and expressions into her conversation.
Leigh and Miranda Richardson spend most of the film in each other's company. Although Richardson's character is doped up on laudanum (tincture of opium) most of the time, you get the idea that she is taking in a lot more of the situation than she is letting on. There is almost a "Thelma and Louise" quality to their relationship, in part because Leigh doing Harlow ends up sounding a lot like Geena Davis doing Geena Davis. The two women are polar opposites in the way they react to the desperation in their lives; one has lost all restraint, the other has lost everything but restraint.
Richardson's character is unexpectedly touching. An emotional bond is subtly forged between the two women as the film proceeds, with Richarson gradually becoming totally protective of her kidnapper. The ending is shocking but you understand the motivation, then looking back you pick up on the various foreshadowing devices that Altman placed throughout the film. He goes out with a bass duet of Duke Ellington's "Solitude" performed by Ron Carter and Christian McBride.
Like many films with downbeat endings, "Kansas City" is destined to be more appreciated 25 years after its release.
Kansas City is absolutely stunning! Jazz is played practically throughout the entire movie, and one scene in particular could have gone on forever as far as I'm concerned. You'll know which scene I mean when you see it! A real get up and jump 10 minutes or so. Jennifer Jason Leigh was at her best. It was a complex role and her development of the character was incredible. Belefonte was chilling! Altman really picked up a sense of the time and place. This is a must see for jazz fans.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"You know what I didn't do today? I didn't vote." Carolyn Stilton
I absolutely hated "Kansas City" upon first viewing. Its pace seemed strange, its flashbacks seemed oddly placed, its camera seemed to dwell on unimportant details and none of its characters seemed to exist to propel any clearly defined story forward. In other words, though I'd seen virtually every other Robert Altman film, "Kansas City" still left me in a state of bewilderment.
But as is often the case with Altman, "Kansas City" began to make sense - in so far as Altman desires to make sense; his films seem to embrace a certain chaos - upon second viewing. Filled with loving shots of jazz musicians, the film is itself a jazzy tone poem, Altman coming at the audience from odd angles, asking us to pick up on his shifting rhythms of plot and character, themes of race, politics, violence and money.
Consider the subtle juxtapositions Altman weaves into the film...
A poor white man (Johnny O'Hara) paints his face black and robs a wealthy black man. Seeking assistance, the black man visits a powerful black crime boss called Seldom Seen. Seldom agrees to help, kidnaps Johnny and kills him.
In contrast, Johnny's wife (Blondie O'Hara) kidnaps a wealthy white woman (Carolyn Stilton) while she applies a white beauty mask. Carolyn is married to Henry Stilton, a powerful politician. Blondie wants Henry to negotiate with the crime lord so that she may get her husband back. Blondie is eventually killed by Carolyn Stilton.
While this drama is unfolding, other characters enter the mix. A young Charlie Parker, years away from musical fame, finds a pregnant black girl. He takes her to a maternity ward. Meanwhile, we learn that Blondie had her baby aborted because Johnny didn't want kids.
Similarly, a poor black cab driver (who helped Johnny stage his robbery) is taken to a back alleyway and killed by Seldom and his gang. In contrast, Henry Stilton's goons kill a white man in broad daylight because he was hampering their efforts to falsify local election ballots.
And so on and on it goes, Altman juxtaposing his jazz notes, "Kansas City" less a linear narrative than a series of contrasting sequences or oppositional musical riffs, some obvious, some subtle, but all revolving around class, race and gender. Blackface paint is mirrored to white beauty cream, black crime lords are mirrored to corrupt white politicians, political thugs are mirrored to violent gangsters, abortions are mirrored to pregnancies, loving marriages are mirrored to loveless couples, poverty is mirrored to power, underground gambling joints and brothels are mirrored to above ground poll booths and ballot stations.
Blondie O'Hara, the young kidnapper, is herself contrasted with Carolyn Stilton, the woman she kidnaps. Blondie loves her husband and would do anything for him. Mrs Stilton, in contrast, is constantly doped up on opium and has long given up on her marriage. Furthermore, Blondie is constantly emulating Kansas City native Jean Harlow, an actress whom she idolises. This notion of "narrative emulation" is itself intended to mirror the "cutting contests" between the jazz musicians sprinkled throughout the film. Just as the musicians borrow from one another and weave each other's material into what they are improvising, Blondie borrows from the movies and weaves Harlow's tough girl phrases and expressions into her conversation.
But Blondie's toughness is all a facade, a suit of armour used to compensate for her petite size and coarse environment. While Blondie gives up her child and is constantly subservient to her husband, it is Carolyn Stilton who possesses true strength. Despite her permanently doped up state, Carolyn constantly gives the impression that she knows more than she's letting on, always absorbing information and assessing her surroundings. Her final line, "I didn't vote", itself lets us know that she has long cut herself off from a venal world which she refuses to legitimize.
And so with "Kansas City" - a film which ends with a crime lord counting money in the dark corners of a jazz club - Altman has abstracted the politics of power and persuasion, threat and privilege. Everything in the film hinges on social power, Altman drawing a clean line between those violent people who wield power and all those pathetic dreamers who try to grab it but never succeed in doing so for more than a fleeting moment.
The political corruption of the city's democratic machine (the country was built on voting fraud and rigged elections; practises common even today), and the expanding influence of Hollywood (and the power of film to seduce and destroy people such as Blondie), is as important to Altman as the racial segregation that produces Kansas City's two worlds: the white world, dominated by the Stilton's, and the inverted black world of Seldom Seen, a vampiric world of music which seems to only come to life long after the surface world has gone to sleep.
The film is also unique in the way it offers jazz music an unprecedented role within the diegetic world. This music is constantly "seeping into" he story, providing a kind of tapestry for the characters to perform against. The result is that the jazz music seems to become intertwined with the very social climate that influences it. Altman himself has said that it was his intention that jazz be the structure of the entire film. Whilst a typical song lasts 3 minutes, a jazz tune lasts as much as 17, the effect being that many of the film's scenes are elongated and purposefully stretched out. "Seldom Seen is like a brass instrument," Altman says, "when it's his turn to solo, he does long monologues and riffs. But the discussions of the two women are like reed instruments, saxophones having duets."
8/10 - Best appreciated as a kind of cinematic jazz, the plot lethargically frustrating as it intrigues.
The movie was obviously a musical satire of the political and social conditions in Americain that era (and to some degree today. Even if Altman did experience it first hand, he it he obviously did research and wrote as well as directed a movie that was right on the money. I found everyone's performance to be excellent and if you could not understand some of Belafontes lines it didn't detract from his role, nor did the performances of the rest of the cast as the movie was meant to make you think............as well as be entertained. As for a story line..........unless you know nothing of the past........it was right in your face.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a desperate woman who tries to rescue her boyfriend (Dermot Mulrooney) from the hands of local black mobsters led by Harry Belafonte, who have made him a prisoner after he robbed one of them. She kidnaps the laudnum addicted wife (Miranda Richardson) of a Roosevelt political adviser (Michael Murphy) in an effort to somehow get enough leverage to achieve her goal. The Kansas City of the Depression setting looks pretty real and wide open, not only for crime but also political fraud. Robert Altman made a great character for Steve Buscemi as a brutal political operative who's assigned to get out the vote by any and all means possible, including the use of baseball bats, but he failed to give him enough space. Nonetheless, he's just another part of this mosaic of the period, and does well enough with the meager scenes he has. Jennifer Jason Leigh is at the film's center while social, political, and economic forces swirl around her. She affects a Jean Harlow persona throughout the film, and in one scene is actually in a theater watching a Jean Harlow film. The tough girl act conceals her real life existence as yet another victim of the Great Depression of the 1930's. By the end of the film she appears on screen with her hair dyed platinum blond and in an all white evening gown, actually becoming the famous actress who died so young. While the film meanders around, going into and out of crooked politics, race, teen pregnancy, drugs, etc...and in and out of the Hey-Hey Club with the ongoing birth of blues and bebop, the ending that punctuates the kernel of a plot is quite an exclamation point and is well worth the wait.
The music is superb. The movie is so-so. The period sets are perfect
and its just like being back in KC during the infamous Pendergast era.
Altman made this movie as a paean to his hometown and the music that
came out of it. One cannot divorce the music from the movie. Either you
are a jazz fan or you're not. If you're not, you won't like this movie.
Its that simple. If you are, you are really in for a treat. The film
features all of the "new" stars in jazz from the mid-90's (James Carter
and Craig Handy on saxes, Mark Whitfield on guitar, Geri Allen and
Cyrus Chestnut on piano....the list goes on and on. They all play the
legends of jazz that came out of Kansas City-people like Count Basie,
Joe Williams, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. A veritable treat for
the in-the-know jazz fan but probably a bore for anyone else. Altman
stays on the music longer than most directors would because this is a
film about the music as much as it is about the plot.
And here's the real irony. Movie buffs will say they wished Altman wouldn't have devoted so much time to the music and jazz buffs will say they wished Altman would have done away with the ridiculous, annoying plot and grating performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh and focused entirely on the music. How to please everyone? The end result is uneven but there's enough here to keep all parties interested.
If any actor should be singled out, it should be Harry Belafonte. His turn as the underworld kingpin, Seldom Seen, is fantastic. He speaks in a low, gruff rasp but his dialogue is truly worth the effort to understand. When he goes off on the Marcus Garvey speech, its worth the price of admission. Of course, it helps to know who Marcus Garvey was. Jazz fans (and reggae fans, too) will get it. After all, this is a movie for them/us.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
These comments about the movie and a question. I enjoyed the movie, the music , and the "feel" of the film. It seemed very authentic: the sets, the lighting, costumes and the extras in the background. Also the social atmosphere that was presented in the film of class, race and economics was very effective. I was mesmerized watching as the film progressed. However, I am at a lost as to what it was about when it got to the end. Can anyone please explain the ending? I saw the movie twice and must have missed something. Why did the politician's wife kill the crook's wife? How did her husband know that this would happen and was outside the house waiting for his wife, who wordlessly gets in the car with him. Thanks.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I am an unabashed admirer of the personal in film. I suppose cinematic
personality can be expressed in a variety of ways, but I value it most
when its from a filmmaker, and it affects the cinematic vocabulary. I
like Altman. Yes, I like certain films of his: these stand on their own
outside of the long term dialog I've had with him.
But I like the dialog as well, that long languid experience of punctuated experiments in his worlds and then mine.
What he does, where his core experiments are rooted is in the rhythm of how he puts his films together. Its unlike anything else that could be considered competently relevant in film. His interest is in the notion of discovered pace.
To understand why this is so weird, and sometimes so unsettling, you have to understand that there are very strict conventions in the business about what viewers will accept in terms of the pace, arc and rhythm of a film. Editors and filmmakers learn these conventions either through understanding the theory, through intuition or experience, depending on their approach. Its very, very narrow, what these allow.
Regular readers of my comment know I believe that TeeVee is one of the worst evils we face. It is because it forces this vocabulary to be ever more narrow, constriction the visual imagination of a whole planet.
Altman is a sort of Moses in this environment, trying every escape he can imagine. He tries to let actors surprise the camaraman and editor. He tries strange overlaps in scenes. He tries all sorts of parallel narratives. He particularly likes to juggle several layers of the narrative at once with contradictory, even warring cadences.
Here what he does is work with three rhythms. The first is the obvious one, jazz, and particularly the style originating in Kansas City.
The style can be directly attributable to the type of political corruption that dominated the town, extreme even when compared to Chicago and St Louis. The corruption is based on a sort of lie that pretends to be the truth but is bent. You can see it here in the voting. In Chicago at this time there would be no pretense: dead people's ballots would simply appear in the ballot box without the show of hiring bodies to cast them. Blacks would simply be ignored at best without the church performing nominal help (and then lynching). (This church-influenced near-truth politics still dominates the town, even famously to the court system. You do not want a trial in Kansas City.)
So we have the jazz playing, and influencing the action while political power and "helping" a 14 year old pregnant black girl are suspended. Its a particular trading of phrases that if you listen you can see reflected in the structure: particularly the twisted flash-forwards of the narrative arrangement.
Then you have the characters of the two women, each with their own world-rhythms. The character played by Jason Leigh is typical of what she can do personality-wise. Here it actually matters because of the way she pushes the future with the way she shapes words with an aggressive mouth. There's much to say here in the story about how this is folded into a similar character-induced pacing devised by Jean Harlow, who Leigh's character emulates. Harlow was in fact from Kansas City and her style was self-consciously KC jazz- influenced.
The other character is played by Miranda Richardson, who (unlike her sister) had at the time a reputation for stiff English types. Here she plays something like that, one of those third generation frontier types with corn aristocracy, now turned vapid from drugs. Its a pretty layered performance, every big as complex as Leigh's. She also has a sort of nonlinear time based on rewriting and scrambling.
Its an amazing construction, a thrilling experiment. By design, it lacks the sort of pace you come to expect. That's the point. Anyone who complains that it doesn't do well pacewise, just doesn't get it and if they were in the movie, would be disemboweled and then shot by a bullet through your girlfriend.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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