Release Date(s)1996 (March 3, 2020)
Studio(s)CiBy 2000/Sandcastle 5 Productions/Fine Line Features/MK2 (Arrow Academy)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Considered a minor work amongst Robert Altman’s oeuvre, Kansas City saw release in 1994 to middling reviews, but was praised for its music and its meticulousness. Set in 1934, the film follows a desperate woman named Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose thuggish husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) is nabbed by mobsters after an attempted robbery. Blondie resorts to kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), wife of politician Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), in order to ransom for Johnny’s return. The local gangsters are headed up by Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), the cutthroat owner of the jazz club The Hey-Hey Club, and amidst a local election and a jazz contest, Blondie’s chances of getting Johnny back alive are slim.
Kansas City, for all intents and purposes, is a snapshot of an era. It does what Altman films usually do with genre in that it deconstructs in order to say something personal, but also winds up being an authentic take on the period. Frank with its content, it deals with various facets of racism, politics, and organized crime in a way that feels normal rather than sensational.
The film begins by showing us moments of what’s taking place in the present with what has already happened in the past, and eventually, those moments catch up with each other. It’s a tad jarring but it keeps one’s attention up in order to get up to speed on what all is going and how the story got to where it is. It’s also akin to other Altman works like Nashville and Gosford Park in that there are a number of characters all circling around a central plot thread, which in this case is Johnny’s disappearance and Mrs. Stilton’s kidnapping. Surrounding this is a cacophony of activity in a local pub, violence erupting at a voting station, and blisteringly effective jazz riffs.
While Kansas City has many positive traits, including fine performances from Jennifer Jason Leight and Miranda Richardson, the elements that encircle their plight are more interesting than the plight itself. Scenes involving the kidnapping almost feel like they’re getting in the way of jazz numbers, the woes of voting, political intrigue, and criminal exploits. It’s certainly an undervalued work during a time in between The Player and Gosford Park when Altman wasn’t having as much luck with audiences, yet still managed to make films based on his status alone.
Kansas City comes to Blu-ray from Arrow Academy with an older 2K master. It’s slightly softer than a more modern film scan, but it exhibits a healthy level of fine detail with tight grain. The color palette offers a variety of period hues, including various grays and greens, as well as bursts of red and blue. Blacks are often deep and contrast and brightness levels are mostly satisfactory, though the presentation appears a couple of degrees too dark—particularly toward the beginning. Leftover damage is limited to extremely mild speckling, while everything appears stable and solid overall.
The audio is included in both English 5.1 DTS-HD and English 2.0 LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. Sonically, there’s not much difference between the two tracks other than the extra speaker space. The 5.1 doesn’t make much of an attempt to widen with carefully placed ambience. It’s basically a stereo fold-out, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is underserved in terms of a surround experience. Dialogue reproduction is strong, and the driving jazz numbers are crisp. The few sound effects that are present, including a few instances of gunfire, aren’t all that vigorous, but given that the film is not necessarily about explosive activity, it can be overlooked.
Extras include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Robert Altman
- Geoff Andrew on Kansas City (HD – 25:20)
- Introduction by Luc Lagier (HD – 3:49)
- Gare, Trains et Deraillements Video Essay (SD – 15:56)
- Robert Altman Goes to the Heart of America (SD – 8:44)
- Kansas City: The Music (SD – 9:19)
- Robert Altman Interview (SD – 2:23)
- Jennifer Jason Leigh Interview (SD – 2:49)
- Miranda Richardson Interview (SD – 2:34)
- Harry Belafonte Interview (SD – 3:33)
- Joshua Redman Interview (SD – 2:06)
- Behind-the-Scenes B-Roll (SD – 2:20)
- International Trailer (HD – 2:25)
- US Trailer (HD – 2:27)
- French Trailer (HD – 1:38)
- German Trailer (HD – 1:38)
- US TV Spots (SD – 2 in all – 1:06)
- Image Gallery (HD – 26 in all – 4:20)
The audio commentary with Robert Altman is more of a re-edited interview, covering various aspects of the film’s production, but also discussing the film’s music, performances, and critiques. Geoff Andrew discusses Robert Altman’s career and the pros and cons of the film. Gare, Trains et Deraillements is a French video essay about the film by Luc Lagier. The EPK material, consisting of various interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, offers a glimpse of a hopeful cast and crew speaking positively about their experiences during the making of the film. The image gallery consists of 26 behind-the-scenes photos, on-set stills, posters, home video artwork, and music album artwork. Also included is a 36-page insert booklet featuring cast and crew information, Dream Boogie: Visions of the Past in Robert Altman’s Kansas City by Dr. Nicolas Pillai, the original production notes, Altman on Altman by David Thompson, and transfer information. The artwork is reversible with the original poster on one side and new artwork on the other.
Arrow Academy brings Kansas City to Blu-ray with a fine presentation and a nice amount of extras, carrying over everything from the Koch Media Region B Blu-ray release, but also adding a few new things as well. For Altman completists, it’s an essential purchase.
– Tim Salmons