Altman in a minor key

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One of the assorted minor characters who weaves in and out of the main plot of Kansas City (15) is a nice, eager-looking black kid of about 14 (Albert J Burnes), who carries a sax with him wherever he goes. He spends a lot of time up in the balcony of a local jazz haunt called the Hey Hey Club, thrilling to the musical duels being waged by the likes of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins - the year is 1934 - obviously red-hot to jump down onto the stage and show the older guys a thing or two. Just about any other director would have him do precisely that, but Robert Altman sends him off on a charitable mission instead, and so he saunters away from the narrative and off into history. Unless you've been watching and listening with care, you'll need the credits to discover the kid's name: Charlie Parker.

Altman has never been one to keep too close an eye on the rule book, and the swiftness with which young Bird flutters through the director's 31st feature violates at least two conventional dramatic laws: the one which says that a gun (or sax) introduced in the first act must be fired (or blown) by the third, and the one which says that, in period films, cameos by real-life figures have to be milked for all the irony, or piquancy, they're worth. Kansas City is so riddled with historical shrapnel, from the fixed elections of Tom Pendergast to the Lindbergh case, that it could profitably be assigned to classes in American Studies, and yet it seldom luxuriates in knowing hindsight. In 1934, Charlie Parker hasn't yet grown to greatness, so he appears as just some guileless teenage boy, not a musical giant in embryo.

But if Kansas City walks a more eccentric line than most Hollywood products, it's also a lot more straightforward than most Altman movies. For once, Altman really does introduce a gun in the first act, and has it fired in the third. The pistol in question belongs to Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a pallid, fast-talking proletarian waif who is kidnapping a big cheese with the apt name of Mrs Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) so as to blackmail her husband Henry (Michael Murphy), an adviser to FDR. Blondie's worthless husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), a minor gangster, is in serious trouble with Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), a major gangster, and Blondie thinks that only a buddy of the President, aka "Old Bandy Legs", can get him out. The whole action of Kansas City takes place over a single night and day, during which time kidnapper and kidnappee run around town, bicker and start to bond, much as they would in a cretinous hostage film by Michael Cimino (see Sunchaser, below), but with altogether different consequences.

Advance word of mouth on Kansas City tended towards the grudging - unfairly, since it's one of the most satisfying compromises Altman has effected between the discipline of plain old-fashioned storytelling and (his forte) the luxurious bagginess of digression - much the same tension, as Altman has pointed out, that exists between melody and improvisation in the jazz he loved best in his boyhood, and which Kansas City commemorates. (There's no Altman surrogate here, but it's still as near as he's come to autobiography: he was born in the city in 1925.) Dense enough in its own right, the film's texture is thickened by its reprisals of themes from Altman's wonderful Seventies films, especially Thieves Like Us and Nashville.

If it's a slighter piece than Nashville - his other film about a city, an election, and an American musical form - it's largely because he doesn't attempt to integrate his musicians into the narrative proper, nor to insinuate the relationship between their music, their fantasies and the fantasies of their audience and times. (The canvas is a lot narrower, too.) In fact, the musicians, who performed their sets live for the camera, don't have speaking parts: Altman simply cuts between his kidnap story and mood-matching numbers from the Hey Hey Club as an all-night jam heats up, explodes and fizzles down into a dragged-out, late-afternoon reflectiveness. In one respect, though, Kansas City has the edge: even to the ears of a jazz ignoramus, the riffs sound more exciting and dreamy than anything in Nashville - except, maybe, "Dues" and "My Idaho Home".

Oddly, though jazz makes the movie live, none of its main characters lives for jazz. Blondie, who veers between sulkiness and reckless abandon as though she were still an adolescent, adores only her Johnny and the talking pictures, and speaks in brittle wisecracks and near-sharp expressions she's learnt from the screen; her particular heroine is Jean Harlow, and towards the end of the film she uses a bowl of peroxide to make herself into the "spittin' image" of the star. Carolyn is a patrician junkie who lives in a laudanum haze; her husband seems to crave only power and respectability; and Seldom Seen, a plump and preening dandy with a voice of gurgling menace unrecog- nisable as Belafonte's, takes his pleasure in money, racist jokes and revenge of retina- assaulting violence. (You may want to close your eyes as well as block your ears when he tells the one about the nigger, the kike and the cracker.)

If each strand of the main yarn offers its own pleasures, Jennifer Jason Leigh's character is the oddest. Her face a white mask with coal-black splodges for eyes, so that she looks more like a prototype goth than a flapper, she plays Blondie with a weird and compelling relish, accentuating her masochism and love of naughtiness - when she taunts Mrs Stilton about her (probably undernourished) sex life, she snarls "Ya do do it, doncha?" and smirks like a thing on day release from Hades. Kansas City shines in countless small touches like this, and the cumulative effect of such incidental inventions is to make you almost indifferent to the outcome of the story. If Altman is the-director-as-jazz- soloist, he's stronger on improvisation than on melody. But for anyone happy with the fact that nothing which takes place is as interesting as the place itself, and that the glorious sounds of the Hey Hey Club keep upstaging everything, the film is more than simply enjoyable. It allows you to feel at least some of Altman's bliss in the music of his youth.

Mr Reliable (15) is a pleasant surprise which appears less surprising when you recall that its director, Nadia Tass, made one of the most affable comedies to come from Australia in the last decade (The Big Steal) and stars the similarly affable Colin Friels. Loosely based on a real-life incident which happened near Sydney in 1968, it's a farce about one Wally Mellish (Friels), a talentless crim with good intentions who somehow blunders himself, his girlfriend (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her baby into a siege. The consequence is like a less cynical hybrid of Dog Day Afternoon (oh yes: there's a pivotal scene in which a sniper guns down Wally's charismatic pooch) and Ace in the Hole: the police and radical journalists surrounding Chez Valley are soon joined by crowds of tourists and dealers in barbecued foodstuffs. You will probably giggle a fair bit even without the help of liquid imports from Australia.

Apart from photographing a lot of its early scenes out on the street in pointless and disconcerting long shots, Michael Corrente hasn't brought any perceptible directorial invention to bear on the filming of David Mamet's early play American Buffalo (15) - it's the one about the two losers who plot to steal a valuable coin collection, and, being losers, don't - just as Dustin Hoffman doesn't seem to have found any new wrinkles in his actor's kit for the part of Teach, the unemployed loser. (The two other roles are played by Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson.) On stage, some 20 years ago, it seemed the fresh minting of brilliance; two decades have tarnished it.

Hard though it may be to credit, there is a yet greater miracle in the modern world than the astounding fact that Michael Cimino was ever allowed to direct a film at all after Heaven's Gate - and that is that he has been allowed to make a film of such sublime idiocy as Sunchaser (15). Woody Harrelson is a big-shot oncologist, John Seda is a murderous teenage oik with terminal cancer who kidnaps him. They set off on a mystical quest for a sacred Navajo lake and, mirabile dictu, bond with each other something fierce. Anne Bancroft puts in the most shaming performance of her career as a New Age twerp with a recreational vehicle; her rants about the evils of Western medicine cast a sympathetic light on invasive surgery, especially of the larynx. There is not nearly enough violence in this film. All three of them should have died bloody and lingering deaths, preferably in slow- motion, preferably in the first reel. Pretty scenery, mind.

As there is in Gabbeh (no cert), by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a sort of mythical ramble about marriage and colour and goats, set among the nomadic, carpet-making tribes of south-east Iran. It's bearable, even mildly touching as travelogue; as would-be visionary film-making, it's enough to drive you pleading for mercy back into the arms of the Great Satan. Toto, something tells me we're not in Kansas - or Missouri - any more.