Star Search: R.I.P. Robert W. Butler, Long Live New Star Movie King Jon Niccum

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.

Read more here:
Read more here: 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.

Read more here:
Read more here:
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18 Responses to Star Search: R.I.P. Robert W. Butler, Long Live New Star Movie King Jon Niccum

  1. PB says:

    RIP? Really?
    Is that the proper terminology to use in this case? I thought you were actually reporting that Mr.Butler had passed. Thankfully, it was just an inappropriate heading on your part.

    First off, in regards to Robert Butler, not entirely true that he was some sort of movie snob. While admittedly, he didn’t seem to care for some of the more frivolous stuff, I thought for the most part, his reviews were pretty concise and in no way were above manistream consumption. Nothing wrong with knowing the history of films and working that knowledge into reviews of current films, many of us appreciated the movie analogies/references and used them as a guide as opposed to a simple yay or nay concept that I can get from any rube walking out of the theatre. As a bit of a buff myself, I thought his reviews were well-written, accurate and a good barometer of a film’s worthiness. I missed him alot at first when he was replaced by a mix of out of town and fill-in Star reviewers.

    Having said that, I’m glad the Star has seemingly settled in on Mr.Niccum as I think he’s doing a fine job and it helps me as a reader of movie reviews when I can develop a certain level of expectation from the reviewer over a larger sample size of reviews. It’s important to learn over time the general likes/dislikes/movie knowledge of the reviewer in order to accurately judge their opinions because let’s face it, in the end, no matter their styles, it all boils down to their opinions.

    And ftr, hipness is way overrated.

  2. PB says:

    And BTW
    “That wasn’t 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.”

    This is just a straight up LIE. He didn’t cherry pick his reviews. Butler reviewed EVERY new release movie to the KC area, whether it was the new Rambo movie or the latest foreign film playing the Tivoli. Fact is, most folks that even care to read movie reviews tend to be film buffs of sorts, that’s why crap like the Saw films don’t even offer their movies up for review as they’re review-proof, fans of movies of that ilk are going to go regardless. Art and independent films which depend on a discerning crowd’s desire to spend their $, often don’t fit into neat little, easy to digest formula reviews, they need to be reviewed in greater detail and Butler excelled at that. Not sure if he stiffed you on a bar tab once or if you’re just too dense to appreciate any film w/o a double-digit body count, but your animosity towards Mr.Butler seems to come more from a personal place as your attempts to discredit him come across as not only disingenuous but just plain petty.

  3. smartman says:

    Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango
    Nothing like a younger, hipper movie reviewer to bolster the sagging fortunes at the Star. With at least a dozen or more credible sources for reviews on the net this is a BRILLIANT move. Restart my subscription! Hell, make it two!

  4. jon says:

    Shame on Hearnia
    You keep going out of your way to knock down Bob Butler’s who’s still one of the best critics in the area. If you want to point fingers to a bad one then go for quote whore Shawn Edwards over at Channel 4 who’s so full of himself it’s scary. Niccum is OK but gets left wing artsy more times than not,
    Some of the best critics in the area include Shawn’s partner Russ Simmons, Loey Lockerby, Eric Melin, Marie Asner and Jack Possiger. Give Butler a break for god’s sake.

  5. Damnit says:

    I thought you were reporting he died.
    Not cool or clever.

  6. Hearne says:

    Let me get this straight….
    I wrote that Butler got laid off and included a link to where you can now reads his reviews and you think he died?

    Of course he reviewed Rambo (that’s dating yourself a bit), he also reviewed Brave this week. But what Butler specialized in and loaded up the Star entertainment section with were lengthy reviews of obscure art films. Films that for the most part are nowhere to be found in the Star since his – forgive me in advance – passing.

    What Niccum gives readers is front page reviews of the biggest movies out each week that far and away most moviegoers are interested in. And while I don’t want to sell him short on appreciating art house product, if you notice, that’s not what the Star is paying him to review.

    For me, and apparently the new Star entertainment editors, that’s a welcome breath of fresh air. And if you follow my link, you can get all the Bob Butler you can stand at

    It may not be cause to restart your Star subscription, but I suggest you check them out online for free and see what you think. After, of course, you’re done devouring Jack’s efforts here, which I might add seldom stray into the world of obscure art films. And he’s certainly no snob (with the possible exception of his obsession about texting).

  7. Damnit says:

    My reaction to your headline
    “R.I.P. Robert W. Butler, Long Live New Star Movie King Jon Niccum”

    R.I.P. = someone died.

  8. balbonis moleskine says:

    Yeah, Hearne pulled a Gawker to get the click-thrus.

    I thought he died, until I read the first paragraph. Gawker and Drudge style hyperlink teases/exaggerations/lies get kinda old kinda fast.

    As for Butler, I get the feeling he never really cared for movies as much as a movie reviewer should. He didn’t like anything really edgy. He didn’t like anything too stupid or slapstick. His best reviewed movies were movies that toed the liberal, moralistic, preachy line but didn’t really challenge the viewer farther than to feel empathy or pass judgment. Movies with mixed messages or ones that made the audience uncomfortable were poorly reviewed. If it challenged you too much or too little, it was destined for **/5

  9. tiad says:

    Where to start on this one?
    Let’s see: I fell asleep during Transformers, also. That movie – and its ilk – are only meant for the ADHD crowd. (But, yeah, it’s Butler’s job to stay awake during his movie reviews.)

    When Butler was at the Star, 2.5 stars meant a movie was at least decent enough to spend money on. Nowadays, I have to see 3 stars in the Star before I consider seeing the movie. So, the Star has basically dumbed down its reviews and reviewers – which basically fits in with the rest of Jr.’s conspiracy theories about the Star.

    And shame on you, Jr., for RIP’ing Butler.

  10. chuck says:

    Any critic who actually falls asleep during
    a “Transformer” movie, in front of his peers, by definition, can’t be all bad.

    Qinton Tarantino, has a new movie out —

    “Django”. Check out the dialogue at 2 minutes into the trailer.

    I am thinkin that somewhere, someplace, in a shit can in an LA dive, there is a bar napkin that has “Da Jango” crossed out. This level of entertainment, this movie, another Weinstein Company disgrace, which incomprehensibly continues to realize profits, is a revisionist historical cultural cairn which signifies the ever decreasing standard for American entertainment in teh narrative of a self destructive “We Shall Overcome paroxysm.

    I hope Harvey fuckin Weinstein and Quinton Tarantino get cancer in their fuckin eyes.

    How ya like that fuckin review?

    Anyone sleeping?

    Oh yeah, everybody.

  11. mouse says:

    If it’s a movie that the majority of people actually want to see, then why are they going to bother reading a review? They’ve already been convinced it’s good by the multi-million dollar marketing budget. Having a critic tell you it’s a bad movie won’t change attendance one bit.

    Meanwhile earnest little movies that can’t afford to plop a commercial into every television program or partner with Burger King often only have a reviewer’s words to promote their film to the public. If Butler focused on art films it’s because those films needed his praise the most, and more often than not, they’re much better movies.

    Perhaps you should follow Niccum’s lead and stop pining for Jardine’s and start talking about how awesome music at the Sprint Center is. Mainstream is all that matters.

  12. PB says:

    mouse said it best
    The art/indy movies rely on those kinds of Buler-like reviews so they can be seen by the very same people who seek out those reviews because they want to see smarter films with more substance. And for the umpteenth time, when Butler was the Star’s main reviewer, he reviewed all the mainstream movies as well so again, your assertions about him are false. Stick to subjects in your wheelhouse, Hearne, like Jardine’s or KC gossip.

  13. paulwilsonkc says:

    Chuck, you may be bat-shit crazy, but thanks for…
    giving me what is usually my best laugh of the day when I read your comments! It makes me happy!

  14. RickM says:

    Butler’s no music fogey
    “You’re more likely to run into Niccum at a Flaming Lips show than a Lyric Opera performance of Madama Butterfly.”

    Someone should point out that Butler was spotted at the *only* performance of Richard AND Linda Thompson at the original Parody Hall in the very early 80s as well as John Cale’s last (only) show at the Grand Emporium in the mid-90s. Spotted, that is, by me and if that ‘dates’ me then so be it.

  15. PB says:

    Now Who’s Hip?
    Or in reality, transcending that lameass term and actually recognizes great artists that fly under the hipster radar. Richard and Linda and John Cale? I’d say, trumps the hell out of the overrated and overly hipster Flaming Lips anyday.

  16. Hearne says:

    Hey, he may have hit a Led Zeppelin concert in the 70s, too
    That’s a long time ago. And while I’ve seen some of those bands as well, years ago, they were basically oldies shows by the mid 90s playing the Grand Emporium. Hardly cutting edge.

    The point being is when you’re in your mid 60s it’s usually a whole different ballgame than when you’re in your 20s and 30s or even early 40s.

    What do you think the odds are Bob was at the Panic at the Disco show at Beaumont Club? Missed him at that one. Didn’t see him at Keane a handful of years back either but I did run into Jon there.

    Look, there’s nothing wrong with growing old, dialing things back and appreciating the heck out of indy movies while passing up Lincoln as a vampire hunter and Tom Cruise as a rock star.

    He is what he is.

    Of course Butler reviewed mainstream hit movies in the Star, he had to.

    He doesn’t have to on his blog, so he skipped Lincoln, Rock of Ages and most of the big movies that have been front page features in the Star. That’s no accident and it supports my point that Bob was largely going through the motions on the hit movies while pouring his heart about films a very small percentage of moviegoers are interested in.

    My “assertions” about Bob weren’t that he never reviewed mainstream hit movies, but that he was either mailing it in and/or largely looking down on them while celebrating the indy movie cause. Try reading a little closer, PB.

    I’d say I was dead on; check his blog.

    And again, more power to Bob for his personal taste and choices. The Star however is in a far better place today with Niccum.

  17. PB says:

    I’m Sorry
    But I just don’t agree that he was mailing it in with some of his reviews at The Star. I thought he was always fair and honest with his assessments. His blog on the other hand, well that might be a different story as that serves as his personal forum, he no longer has to answer to anyone or anything except his own muse.

    As for seeing “cutting edge” concerts, what does that have to do with reviewing movies? Seeing crap bands like Panic At The Disco! (do they have the exclamation now or not, can’t remember?) and Keane, doesn’t prove your hip, just proves you’re an old guy trying desperately to fit in with a younger crowd that’s moving further and further away from you in age. And the Zep analogy is lame, Zep is dead and gone while Richard Thompson continues to put out stellar, critically-applauded albums on a regular basis, his guitar playing/singing is still amazing and his shows certainly blow away anything that PATD! or Keane can ever deliver. Keane? Really? You’re trying too hard. And news alert, the Flaming Lips have been around since the early 80s, if you’re going to bag on other “oldies” acts, might as well include them too. Hamster balls and laser gloves certainly don’t make them cutting edge either.

  18. RickM says:

    PB, I’m with you 90%
    But oldsters like me who want to see younger groups such as Real Estate, Pains of Being Pure At Heart and Hospitality don’t go to “fit in with a younger crowd.” [Actually, most people in their twenties are pretty lame, these days.] No, we go because we want to hear what’s new and noted, cutting-edge or otherwise.

    BTW, I didn’t see Jon at any of those shows (nor Hearne, for that matter).

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