It’s easy to be critical of the Kansas City Star…
Look how often I partake of the sport. And not because, like hundreds of others, I was laid off in the ongoing financial bloodbath newspapers are enduring in an era where mostly just oldsters continue to read print publications.
Nope, I have a long track record of criticizing the Star, dating from my years spent building and running the Pitch and including years at the paper. It wasn’t always an easy feat, but on dozens if not hundreds – of occasions I followed up on under or misreported Star stories with columns attempting to set the record staright or tell the story behind the story.
I’ve also passed along some attaboys to the newspaper and this is one of those times.
So allow me to say that a year after Robert W. Butler was laid off, his freelance replacement Jon Niccum is kicking butt and doing a splendid job of reviewing movies for the entertainment section.
The former Pitch and Lawrence Journal World editor has raised the Star’s movie reviewing bar to new heights.
No longer are readers saddled with lengthy, boring treatises on art house product and with mainstream movies relegated to snobby, psuedo-intellectual, put down write ups.
Far from it.
As the Star‘s lead reviewer, Niccum can be counted on to cover movies the vast majority of the public actually want to go see. And if, in Niccum’s opinion, the movie’s worthwhile, he lets readers know why and how. He gives it to them straight with well written reasoning that doesn’t make it appear he’s just to "artsy" to get it or care.
That wasn’t always the case with Butler.
The very choice of films Butler mostly reviewed made it was clear his love of the art was centered around movies that play venues like the Glenwood Arts, Tivoli, Rio and Ranchmart – I mean, Leawood.
Which was a great service to those tiny theaters and helped keep them alive and kicking.
However the audience for most of those art films is tiny to the point of being all but insignificant to most readers of the Star. And since Butler wore his movie reviewing heart on his sleeve, it was hard not to be skeptical of his many reviews dissing mainstream movies. He even fell asleep during a screening of Transformers during some of the movie’s most intense battle scenes.
Nobody can accuse Niccum – who is younger and hipper – of writing off blockbusters like Rock of Ages and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter simply because he fell asleep or is too stodgy. You’re more likely to run into Niccum at a Flaming Lips show than a Lyric Opera performance of Madama Butterfly.
Butler at a cutting edge rock show? Too gauche.
Niccum’s come a long way from his training wheels days at the Pitch in the 1990s.
I remember in 1998 when Butler snagged an interview with the singer Jewel who was in town for a role in director Ang Lee‘s locally filmed Ride with the Devil. Niccum was furious that he was denied a Pitch interview with her.
"Doesn’t she know she’ll never get coverage in this town again in the Pitch?" he said angrily. Or words to that effect.
Yeah, journalism can go to your head.
Niccum’s mellowed since then. And after effectively taking a bullet at the local alt weekly two years later, having an unsuccessful run at the Journal World and having to resign as the head of the KC Film Critics Circle because he didn’t have a legitimate medium for his reviews, he’s a seasoned journalist.
So forget all that, Niccum is back and he’s bad – as in good – really good. And moviegoers and Star readers are the better for it.
Take the Nic Man’s Abe Lincoln, Vamp Hunter review today…
"Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” delivered an engrossing, literate revision of history. The film adaptation is as faithful as a $70 million summer blockbuster can afford to be. But its hyper-stylized action scenes rob the narrative of its power," it begins.
"Viewers expecting a parody will be startled. Grahame-Smith -who also penned the screenplay -presents a deadly serious environment, depicting a Civil War-era South where blacks are considered a commodity to be consumed and discarded by vampiric plantation owners. And these aren’t the pretty-boy, frat-party vamps of nowadays, but more like a cloistered gang of hostile survivalists constantly maneuvering to outlast the opposition."
Now the bad news.
"It’s all a bit much, especially by the time Lincoln and cohorts Josh (Jimmi Simpson) and Will (Anthony Mackie) defend a speeding, burning train against a vampire onslaught," Niccum writes. "Most filmmakers would render this ‘Road Warrior’-style finale with a little wink and nudge, but Bekmambetov chooses to stare down the material. It straddles his Civil War tale between Chancellorsville and Cartoon Land.
"Could a more grounded approach to the action visuals improve the picture? At least it would be a respectable choice, and one that might elevate “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to something better than an amusing CGI movie that’s a slave to its era. In this case, the era is not 1865; it’s the summer of 2012."
Two and a half out of four stars, Niccum gives it.
Pixar’s Brave doesn’t fare any better, garnering ony 2 stars.
Here’s the deal; 2 1/2 stars renders a movie good enough to go see if you have a mind to. Yet it keeps your expectations grounded. That’s perfect for me, because I like going in with low or reasonable expectations in the hopes of being pleasantly surprised.
The big losers in the Star‘s switch to mainstream reviews and a less stodgy critic: the aforementioned local art houses.
However there’s no need to jam those reviews down the throats of the general public when devotees of that genre have more than enough alternative places to read about movies like The Intouchables (Rio), 2012 Gayfest (Tivoli) and Where Do We Go Now? (Glenwood Red Bridge & Tivoli).
Starting with Butler’s Cinema Scene where you won’t find reviews of "Rock of Ages" or "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" but will find writeups of the aforementioned art house movies.