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I always have a good time listening to Robert Altman's audio commentaries. He was an open hearted conversationalist when it came to discussing his films, so listening to him while his movie plays on feels like more of a hangout than a lecture. His commentary on Kansas City is especially delightful. Since he grew up in the real Kansas City, he had a personal connection to this film, which comes through as he regales the audience with memories and cultural norms of the time period, a lot of which made it into the movie. As engaging as his commentary is, Altman's nostalgia for his hometown might have kept Kansas City from ending up as one of his best "slice of Americana" ensemble dramas, like Nashville and Short Cuts, resulting in a halfway satisfying mid-tier Altman that should work as a decent addition for completionists, but isn't very memorable within his overall filmography.
As much as it might feel like his performance and character based approach led to loose narratives, Altman was actually fairly draconian when it came to cutting out material that didn't move the story or the characters along, leading to some pitch-perfect and lean pacing. He knew that just because a movie isn't plot-driven or high-concept, it didn't mean it got to waste the audience's time. In the case of Kansas City, though, I think he let his nostalgia-tinted approach result in an unevenly constructed and kind of muddled narrative. Don't get me wrong, the performances are still top-notch, as expected from Altman's direction, and the film's sepia-noir look is hypnotic, but the editing doesn't necessarily stick the landing he might have been going for.
This should have been one of Altman's ensemble dramas, covering various characters within a specific setting, where there isn't a clear protagonist. Or, a tightly wound thriller that focuses on a desperate working class woman named Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnapping a senator's opium-addicted wife named Carolyn (Miranda Richardson) so she can convince a mobster named Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) to release her husband (Dermot Mulroney) in 1930's Kansas City. In the final film, we get both, and neither. The main kidnapping plot, mostly exploring the common ground a poor love struck woman and a cynical one-percenter might find during a long night as fates pulled them together, ending with an appropriately morbid conclusion, isn't intimate enough to keep its proposed tension.
It keeps being interrupted by live footage of a jazz battle and a bunch of undercooked sub-plots, like an election being rigged by gangsters who bus in desperate people from out of state to vote. This could have worked if Altman provided equal footing to all the pieces he's playing with, but the kidnapping plot is clearly meant to be the story's focus, yet its total runtime wouldn't be that much longer than an episode of Gun, Altman's own anthology series from the same period. This keeps us from fully committing to the evolving arc between these two women, which leaves us with an emotional disconnect at the end.
If the other sub-plots were given equal weight, at least we could have seen how the kidnapping connected to the big picture about exploring Kansas City during this era when gangsters and shady politicians used the city's middle-of-the-country setting to facilitate business between the coasts. Altman brought in a bunch of jazz legends to participate in a jazz battle in the style of the times, and filmed the whole thing. The performances are electric, and it's certainly novel to occasionally watch the film's score actually being played live, but they take up too much of the film's runtime, enough to make us forget that we're meant to watch a fictional feature and not a concert film.
The aforementioned gorgeous noir photography is captured with great depth and clarity by Arrow's new 1080p transfer. The colors are appropriately dour, the black levels are stark, and the transfer captures Altman's throwback to his ‘70s style incredibly well.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track does a solid job of capturing the ambient sounds of the location and the period it depicts. Of course it's the jazz performance scenes where the track's dynamic range really kicks in, providing a smooth and clear live experience that fully utilizes the surround channels.
Commentary by Altman: The aforementioned commentary is highly recommended. It's actually more winning than the film itself.
On Kansas City: An appreciation of the film by critic Geoff Andrew. His points about the way the film captured the era are fine, but I wish he'd delved into some of its narrative issues.
Luc Largier: This French critic created a wonderful visual essay about the film for the French DVD release. It's essential for those who want a deep dive into the sociopolitical context of the era and location that the film depicts.
Electronic Press Kit: A series of quick EPK material, ranging from behind-the-scenes footage, to interviews with the cast and crew. Each video clip doesn't last longer than three minutes.
We also get Trailers, TV Spots, and an Image Gallery.
Kansas City is certainly a mixed bag. It looks great, the performances are top-tier Altman, yet the whole thing never really gels together in the end. That being said, it certainly has enough good qualities for at least one sit-through, especially if you like Altman's work. Also, Arrow's splendid presentation and extras make it an easy rental recommendation.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com