THE EYE ON FILM
KANSAS CITY

Director: Robert Altman. Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte (15)

After the embarrassing Pret a Porter, Altman returns with an accomplished and inventive work which ranks among his finest. The picture draws numerous plot-strands together to create a minimalistic but emotionally rich portrait of life in 1930s America.

The characters are junkies and desperadoes, but there's sympathy here for each of them. The efforts of Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to rescue her husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), from the clutches of gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte) drives the movie's first half. Blondie is banking on a trade: she kidnapped Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), hoping that the woman's husband, a presidential advisor, can pull the right strings to free Johnny.

This main plot is flanked by an array of beautifully sketched minor characters: Carolyn's husband, Henry, who is, in his own way, as down-trodden and neglected as his drug-addicted wife: Blondie's straight-thinking sister, Babe, and her bullish husband; and best of all, Nettie Bolt, who witnessed the early stages of the abduction and could have helped the investigation - if only people were bothered enough to enquire of a lowly black maid.

Kansas City is dressed up in a spiffy jazz soundtrack and peppered with delicious scenes set in a jazz hang-out called the Hey Hey Club (though we never meet the musicians through dialogue, the time that Altman affords their playing demonstrates that he has faith in other non-verbal methods of characterisation). But despite the jubilant music, and some deft comic playing by Miranda Richardson, the tone of Altman's film is every bit as tragic as it was in Thieves Like Us or McCabe and Mrs Miller. Blondie harbours a raging obsession with Jean Harlow, but such flights of fancy bring her crashing to the ground. Jennifer Jason Leigh is called upon to do some remarkable things, like appearing cruel and heartless at a moment of blistering emotional revelation (a wrenching trick which she pulls off beautifully).

There are moments here that you could call Altmanesque: the inquisitive camera, the way he handles shifts in tone like a dextrous juggler. And some things that we haven't seen in his work for over a decade: courage, wit, humanity. Subtler than Short Cuts, and warmer than The Player, Kansas City is a more mature and startling work than either.

AMERICAN BUFFALO

Director: Michael Corrente. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, Sean Nelson (15)

Bringing David Mamet to the screen is not as simple as it might appear. You need an audacious director like James Foley, who took Glengarry Glen Ross and dared to make it darker and nastier. Michael Corrente takes the less successful but possibly braver approach, and pares American Buffalo to the bone.

If the picture never really sparks into life, you can't blame the cast. Dennis Franz gives a touching portrait of bruised middle-aged failure as a junk-shop proprietor who, together with his teenage accomplice, Bobby (Sean Nelson), is planning to steal a local coin collection.

But their snug plan is disturbed by Teach (Dustin Hoffman) a grubby little weasel every bit as empty and leathery as his own wallet. Teach may be crooked, but he's a bully, too, and he manages to convince Donny to let him in on the heist. So begins a clash of loyalties so loud that you could hear it three blocks away. The picture is sometimes chilling, constantly riveting, but lacking the nerve of great cinema.

MR RELIABLE

Director: Nadia Tass. Starring: Colin Friels, Jacqueline McKenzie (15)

Wally Mellish (Colin Friels) is a cabby and professional cheeky chap in Sixties Australia, who by an absurd sequence of events, ends up being suspected of holding his girlfriend and her baby hostage in his house.

He isn't, of course. But the police don't see things that way, and once this amiable ex-con starts taking advantage of his new-found role as media hero, the situation escalates out of control. One part Crocodile Dundee, one part Dog Day Afternoon, this jolly comedy stretches your patience to extremes. There are some nice character sketches, but once the film starts searching for sympathy for Wally's wounded dog, shot by a sniper, you'll feel that someone somewhere is taking you for a mug.

SUNCHASER

Director: Michael Cimino. Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jon Seda, Anne Bankcroft (15)

Mystical mumbo-jumbo with Harrelson as a harrassed doctor who learns to take it easy after spending some time on the open road with noble, cancer-stricken thug, Jon Seda. Even more cloying than The Eighth Day, it marks a steep shift down in gears for the once-dazzling Cimino.

GABBEH

Director: Mohsen Makhmalbas (NC)

A visually beautiful but emotionally vacuous slice of Iranian folklore revolving around the weavers of the Gabbeh, a carpet which tells the story of its creators travels. Think of it as the Iranian answer to How to Make an American Quilt.

THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS

Director: Tim Pope. Starring: Vincent Perez, Iggy Pop (18)

Last week it was The Island of Dr Moreau which critics weren't allowed to see. Now it's this sequel to the successful horror film The Crow. Vincent Perez takes over the late Brandon Lee's role as the avenging angel who rises from the dead to wreak havoc on LA.

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