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‘Billboard’ lampoons radio-station stunt

Published November 07. 2018 11:08AM

For better or worse, over the decades, Lehigh Valley events have made the regional, national and international news, including perhaps the most bizarre of all, “The Billboard Sitters,” a radio station promotion devised in 1982 by WSAN-AM radio, when three contestants competed to win a mobile home by staying the longest on the catwalk of a billboard in the vicinity of Route 22 and MacArthur Road, Whitehall.

Lehigh Valley filmmaker Zeke Zelker puts the fictional spin on the real-life contest with “Billboard,” a comedy for which the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” seems apt.

In “Billboard,” Casey (John Robinson) has inherited a fictional Allentown radio station, WTYT 960, from his father. The station, which is in debt and sustained by its loyal staff, including Jezebel (Heather Matarazzo), Henry (Ali Wills), Ronny (Leo Fitzpatrick), and J.C. (Lawrence Kochoa), who support the concept and with, WTYT, the reality of independent radio stations.

WTYT is getting clobbered in the ratings by a financially successful station run by Rick (Eric Roberts), owned by the fictional Free Channel radio conglomerate.

Casey decides to hold a billboard-sitting contest. The person who lives the longest on the billboard is to receive a mobile home and $96,000. Among the contestants is Josh (a memorable Michael Fegley).

Zelker (writer-director-producer, “InSearchOf,” 2009; “It’s a Wiley World!” 2003; “Affairs,” 1997) directs “Billboard” with one hand over his mouth guffawing and the other poking the audience in the ribs, with a judicious amount of “wink, wink” just outside the frame of vision.

“Billboard” updates the setting of the real-life story to the world of cellphones, tablet computers, social media and hashtags. Zelker’s cockamamie comedy begs the question: In a media-saturated world, “When is too much too much?”

In the hands of WTYT owner Casey, as well as those of rival radio-station owner Rick, the answer is an unequivocal “never.”

In his screenplay, Zelker doesn’t let anybody off the hook. Casey, a seeming “good guy” and innocent, is no less ruthless than Rick, the corporate power-broker.

In this, Zelker puts an interesting spin on the billboard-sitters radio-promotion contest. Everyone involved in the gambit is complicit in the media frenzy, pushback and near-tragic results. Analogous to this, in a way, are the “Billboard” moviegoers. It’s a very clever stratagem.

The cinematography by director of photography Matthew M. Blum (sound, editing credits, “InSearchOf,” “It’s a Wiley World!”) balances the many exterior and interior scenes with panache.

Roberts (Oscar nominee, supporting actor, “Runaway Train,” 1985; “Star 80,” 1983; “King of the Gypsies,” 1978) is great as a rascally radio executive with a heart of ratings. Roberts makes ruthlessness seem like fun.

Robinson (“Transformers,” 2007; “Lords of Dogtown,” 2005; “Elephant,” 2003) plays the role of WTYT radio station owner Casey with a Shaggy (from TV’s animated cartoon series, “Scooby-Doo”) slacker vibe. Casey seems clueless as to how to run a radio station and Robinson captures this aspect thoroughly.

Wills (“Boston2Philly,” 2016; “Luv Don’t Live Here,” 2015) is impressive as Casey’s assistant. Wills parlays a full range of emotions as we follow her character from supportive to frustrated.

Matarazzo (“The Princess Diaries,” 2001; “Welcome to the Dollhouse” 1995) plays a WTYT radio station staffer with an endearing pugnacity.

Fitzpatrick (“Bully,” 201; “Kids,” 1995) plays another WTYT staffer with an ornery intensity.

“Billboard” includes numerous Lehigh Valley area residents in supporting roles, including Ashley Russo, Valerie Bittner, Syd Stauffer, Doug Kemmerer, Troy Brokenshire, Keith Moser and Elaine Zelker, as well as many Lehigh Valley residents as extras.

“Billboard” is an ambitious film that revisits an era and asks us to take a second look. This is one “Billboard” you can’t miss.

“Billboard,” No MPAA Rating; Genre: Drama, Comedy; Run Time: 1 hr., 29 mins.; Distributed by iDreamMachine

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Billboard” was filmed on location in Allentown, Pa. U.S.A.

Box Office, Nov. 2: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biography drama about Freddie Mercury and the rock band Queen rocked the weekend box office, opening with $50 million, handily defeating “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” opening at No. 2 with $20 million; “Nobody’s Fool,” opening at No. 3 with $14 million, and scaring “Halloween” from its two-week perch at No. 1 down four places to No. 5 with $11 million, $150.4 million, three weeks, as “A Star Is Born” dropped two places to No. 4 with $11.1 million and $165.6 million, five weeks.

6. “Venom” dropped three places, $7.8 million, $198.6 million, five weeks. 7. “Smallfoot” stepped up one place, $3.8 million, $77.4 million, six weeks. 8. “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” shivered down four places, $3.7 million, $43.8 million, four weeks. 9. “Hunter Killer” moved down four places, $3.5 million, $12.9 million, two weeks. opening. 10. “The Hate U Give” slipped down four places, $3.4 million, $23.4 million, five weeks. 14. “Mid90s” reeled down four places, $1.3 million, $5.8 million, three weeks.

Unreel, Nov. 9:

“The Grinch,” PG: Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier direct the voice talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury and Kenan Thompson in the animated comedy. It’s a retelling of the Dr. Seuss tale about the grumpy Grinch who plots to ruin Christmas in the village of Whoville.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” R: Fede Alvarez directs Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Lakeith Stanfield and Stephen Merchant in the crime thriller. Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist are back, caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials. David Lagercrantz wrote the book of the same title based on characters in the “Millennium” series created by Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004. The film is a follow-up to David Fincher’s 2011 film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but is billed as a reboot of the film series.

“The Front Runner,” R: Jason Reitman directs Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, and Mark O’Brien in the biography drama. United States Senator Gary Hart’s presidential bid is sunk in 1988 by an alleged extramarital love affair.

Three popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

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