Media: The ‘Underpaid’ and the Unemployed

Last Friday, the already dangerously-thin hometown paper, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, announced that they were laying off 23 employees.
According to the Riverfront Times, that makes 234 people laid off from the Post-Dispatch since just 2008, and noted that the announcement in the paper itself was unbylined:
Is it unbylined because no one wanted to write it, or because there was no one left to write it, edit it and produce an image to accompany it?
One of the more piquant observations, though, came from Jim Romanesko:
The downsizing comes just days after [Post-Dispatch owner Lee Enterprises] CEO Mary Junck was awarded $655,000 in company stock because, according to Lee’s executive compensation committee, she is underpaid.

New in Theaters: ‘Trishna’

It’s a shame that Michael Winterbottom thought to set his modernized Tess of the d’Urbervilles in India instead of in England, or another Western nation. This isn’t because he doesn’t know how to use South Asia as a setting (he does) or because today’s India doesn’t provide a highly relevant analogy for many of the class issues in Thomas Hardy’s novel (it does). But by shifting Hardy’s story from England 1891 to a developing nation, it lets viewers off the hook…

Trishna is playing now in limited release, and while it definitely has its faults is still an undeniably gorgeous and effective romantic melodrama of the kind that don’t seem to get made that much anymore. My review is PopMatters.

Trailer Park: ‘Cloud Atlas’

It’s something that would have been hard to conceive of just 5-10 years ago. But the filmmaking landscape is now so fractured that apparently even quixotic projects like this are able to line up millions of dollars in funding and movie stars galore.

The hard-to-categorize adaptation of David Mitchell’s mind- and time-twister of a novel Cloud Atlas — which stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Keith David, Jim Broadbent, is directed by Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame and written by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) — has been winding its way toward the big screen for a while. Now with an October release date set, the first trailer has been released. This could either be one of those epic disasters of overreach or the kind of thing that leaves people just shattered.

Great, terrible, or mediocre in its final execution, what can be seen in the trailer just takes your breath away:

Coming Attractions: A Third ‘Hobbit’ Film?

Deadline reported yesterday that Peter Jackson is considering making The Hobbit into a trilogy. Jackson is considering taking the Appendices that were published at the back of The Return of the King (which he calls essentially notes for a planned rewrite of The Hobbit which would have incorporated a lot of material that Tolkien came up when writing his later trilogy) and using that as a basis for the third film.

For Lord of the Rings film junkies, this might be good news; more the better. And the studio would certainly be delighted. For those of us who are fans of the mythos as a whole and didn’t necessarily think that Return of the King was enriched by its fourth ending, it could be a potential sign of trouble: empowered auteur on the loose! Jackson’s artistry as a whole has been terrific, but it does begin to wear on one after a while in a way that Tolkien’s dense style never quite does. The films are never quite able to hit those light, cheery notes as well as the books can, focusing over-much on the battles and melodrama.

Maybe instead of a third Hobbit film, they should be talking about doing something with The Silmarillion? Yes, it’s more mythology than fiction, but plenty of story to go around. And let’s be honest, it would be incredible to see what Jackson could come with for the sacking of Gondolin and the tragedy of Beren and Luthien.

DVD Tuesday: ‘Footnote’

Joseph Cedar’s high-toned Israeli comedy about an embarrassing scandal in the world of Talmudic scholarship is overflowing with coolly-delivered mockery, but tempers it by delving deeper into the tense father-son relationship at the center of the scandal. Shot in sky-bright blues and backed with a richly emotive score, this is a rich banquet of a film, even if the final course leaves you wanting…

The Oscar-nominated Footnote is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. My full review is at AMC Movie Guide.

New in Theaters: ‘Unforgivable’

A writer of historical potboiler novels, Francis (André Dussollier), arrives in Venice determined to do research for his next book. As Unforgivable (Impardonnables) begins, we see that although he is well advanced in years, Francis is a fierce competitor for just about anything, and so has no nervousness about making overtures to his much younger real estate agent. Judith (Carole Bouquet), an ex-model who seems initially to be well past foolish fancies, turns out to be susceptible to his charms. In short order, Francis is set up in a characterful old villa on the picturesque island of Sant’Erasmo, just across the water from Venice, with Judith as his helpful and chic wife…

Andre Techine’s Unforgivable is an unlikely and curiously engaging thriller that’s in limited release now. My full review is at PopMatters.

New in Theaters: ‘Collaborator’

The rage of a disillusioned America gets a cool and ironic probing in Martin Donovan’s Collaborator. A chamber piece about a playwright on the skids who is taken hostage by a troubled neighbor, the film alludes only indirectly to the reasons for both men’s anger and dissatisfaction. Donovan’s spare script provides an airy and open-ended structure, but the film, his first as a director, makes its own definite contribution to the national dialogue, the one where everybody is always shouting past each other, unable to hear what anyone else is saying…

Collaborator is playing in limited release, check it out. My full review is at PopMatters.

Reader’s Corner: New Edition of ‘Stardust’

Even though he hits the Times bestseller list on a regular basis these days with novels like American Gods and The Graveyard Book, back in the 1990s Neil Gaiman was not on the mainstream reading public’s radar. He was still mostly known on the fanboy circuit as the guy who created the stunning, magical graphic novel series Sandman (which, reports now have it, he’ll be returning to in 2013).

Then in 1998, Gaiman published Stardust, a beautiful fable about love, other worlds, and — most importantly, and like all good fairy tales — the dangers of magic. It also came with these gorgeous, early 20th century-style illustrations by Charles Vess that aren’t available in every edition. Fortunately, this fall you will be able to buy a nifty gift edition with new artwork and a gorgeous new cover that was designed to Gaiman’s specifications:

I wanted it to look and feel like something from 90 years ago, like the books I treasured as a kid that I found in the school library (the ones I’d buy for a penny in the school library sales, and loved ever after).

Gaiman (aka “British Fonzie” when he had his cameo on The Simpsons) has done plenty of great and magical writing since then, but decades from now this novel (you can read an excerpt here) — and the collected volumes of Sandman — might well end up being the works that endure.

Athletic Pursuits: NFL Fans Staying Home

On a list of priorities for the nation, the future viability of its pro football ranks no higher than the success or failure of any comparably-sized business. Of course, the importance of the sport and the continuing placement of certain of its franchises in particular areas has an emotional hold on people that goes well beyond the strictly financial (jobs/tax revenue that could be lost if a team were to move away or just fold).

Given how high pro football rates in the American psyche as a barometer of national awesomeness (right up there with the military and our ability to keep producing great apps), then, it’s something of a surprise that the NFL has been facing a problem over the past few years: declining ticket sales. Chalk it up to the recession or just the ever-increasing verisimilitude available via digital broadcast, but fewer and fewer people are coughing up money to actually see a game live. But instead of saying it’s for the reasons listed above or maybe that there’s just too many teams, Gilded Age-style ticket prices, and too many other sports to follow, some people are drawing a different conclusion.

Take this quote from Scott Rosner, a sports-business professor at the Wharton Sports Business Initiative:

Across all sports, leagues and teams need to do a much better job of entertaining people who go to the game.

This may be naivete speaking, but isn’t the game supposed to be the entertainment? (That and the $12 Bud Lights, of course.) If people don’t want to see a game, no manner of clowning half-time shows or Jumbotron inanity will bring them to the field. At least, one would hope not.

New in Theaters: ‘China Heavyweight’

Although the martial art that Westerners most associate China with is kung fu or one of its many variations, one of the most popular physical-contact sports in the country right now is Western-style boxing. Outlawed by Chariman Mao in 1959 as being too Western and too violent (a boxer died at a match in 1953), the sport was made legal again three decades later, and has been gaining ascendancy ever since. When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the nation took home a gold medal. Although a film about the popularity of this sport in the home of kung fu would seem destined to highlight the obvious cultural dissonances, director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) does the right thing by focusing on the young and hopeful athletes for whom this tradition isn’t foreign at all…

China Heavyweight is playing now in limited release. You can read the full review at Film Journal International.

From the Vaults: Will Eisner’s Rifle Manual

In 1968, the United States Army decided to try and different tack for its largely conscripted force: instead of relying solely on telephone book-thick manuals and the barking of staff sergeants, the Army would pass on policies and training by utilizing a then still-disreputable art form: the comics.

At the same time, Will Eisner, one of the cornerstones of the American comics industry (also credited, incidentally, with essentially creating the graphic novel: 1978’s autobiographical  A Contract with God), was doing a lot of industrial work. One of the assignments he took on was the creation of one of these comic training manuals, which had the less than illustrious title of: “US Army Preventive Maintenance Manual for the M161A Rifle.”

While the subject might have been prosaic, the treatment was certainly not. As  you can see, Eisner doesn’t just slap images into a traditional A-B-C kind of manual, he breaks up the narrative into a visual and dynamic flow, spiked with jaunty dialogue rippled with colloquial language. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

You can see it displayed in full by Retronaut.

Media: Decline and Fall of the ‘Times-Picayune’

For all the ink spilled (sorry, bits uploaded) about the demoting of Ann Curry over at the Today show and whether or not David Gregory was in or out at Meet the Press, the most dramatic story in American media right now is still happening in New Orleans. The city’s daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, has a 175-year history. It was just about the only institution that managed to function during and just after Katrina. Even after the kind of budget cuts that small-minded owners in smaller media markets are so enamored of (“More With Less“), they were still putting out the kind of very strong investigative pieces that civic government needs to watchdog it.

Then came the news that the Times-Picayune owners were cutting back to three days a week. So, more layoffs. But no worries, the owners said, because our “enhanced” website is going to keep operating. One soon-to-be-laid-off reporter had an opinion on how that’s going to work and laid it out in a letter to the management:

I take a lot of pride in my work, even after I’ve been fired and told my experience, skills, and talents are of no use after Sept. 30. I know that I am good at what I do. But compared to other news outlets, our website is a joke. We break news – but no one would know because of the worst news website known to man and the priority setting – whoever is doing it, is totally ####. Embarrassing, compared to TV. And yet we are focused on digital now? Enhanced? Who is buying this crap?

Sad as this is, it does appear irreversible for the time being. For right now, New Orleans will be the only major American city without a daily print newspaper. It will not be the last. That means going forward, stories like this one will most likely not be uncovered. And the guilty will run free.

New in Theaters: Oliver Stone’s ‘Savages’ is a Middling Mess

Oliver Stone’s Savages sets up some fascinating possibilities, few of which it fulfills. Set mostly in an idyllic swath of California beach paradise, the film follows the fortunes of a tightly run and immensely profitable pot operation that gets in the way of a rapidly expanding Baja cartel, which initiates a predictable fight over turf and reputation. Savages might have been a story of innocence lost, the corrosiveness of drug money, the endlessly looping violence of wars abroad and wars at home. Instead, what we got is a lurid revenge melodrama in which killers indulge in bloody excess and everybody does the best they can with some of the year’s worst dialogue…

Savages opened in theaters yesterday. You can read my full review at PopMatters.

Reading Spaces: The Wal-Mart Library

It’s a common problem: Wal-Mart comes to town, builds a ginormous hypermart just outside of town, local businesses shut down, and then eventually Wal-Mart closes as well, leaving a giant crumbling edifice surrounded by a weedy parking lot. Charles Fishman wrote a great and judicious book about it a few years ago called The Wal-Mart Effect (my Chicago Reader piece on that here).

When the Wal-Mart in McAllen, Texas closed down, though, the town came up with an ingenious solution. Take the empty space — the size of almost 2 1/2 football fields — and turn it into the nation’s largest one-story library. It’s been open since December 2011 and as you can see in this Los Angeles Times story, is a wondrous reading space and one of those increasingly rare things in America: a true community center.