Almost midweek movie news

Some fairly big news to report tonight.

* It might be a bit meta for a lead, but I can’t help my happiness that Roger Ebert has been named person of the year by the Webby Awards people. I’ve been a big fan of his writing for a very long time and always thought he was the best straight-up writer of any of the major critics, but recently he has really emerged as an inspirational figure. He’s also been one of the most generous supporters of film writing on the web in a million different ways. It’s not really bragging when I mention that he’s thrown some small nods my way as well as some occasionally very funny e-mail responses over the years. He’s done the same for countless others.

And, if that wasn’t cool enough, the great cinephile social networking and blog site, the Auteurs also won an award. Well, done, folks.

* In actual movie news, remember that item last week when I said that Matthew Vaughn, most recently of “Kick-Ass,” was not going to be directing the next X-Men movie? If not, you can just keep right on forgetting because, it turns out, he is directing the film they’ll call “X-Men: First Class” — a prequel. I’m a big fan of Vaughn, though not so much of the X-Men films so far, so I find this intriguing. Some of you may remember, Vaughn departed from “X-Men 3” and the film that was, as per Cinema Blend, Matthew Vaughn, and I, almost definitely the worse for it.

* More really good news from my point of view, one of my favorite actors currently working, Chewitel Ejiofor, has been cast as definitely my favorite Afro-pop musician — okay, the only African musician I can think of that I’ve ever actually bought an album or CD by. Ejiofor will be starring in a biopic of the legendary maestro Fela Anikulapo Kuti in a film to be directed by Steve McQueen of “Hunger.” This film is not related, except by topic, to the musical “Fela!” which just got eleven Tony nominations. The cool part is not only that the Ejiofor, a first-generation Brit born of Nigerian parents, is the actor to play the part, he’s also apparently learning to play piano and saxophone (Kuti’s instruments, I believe) and had, we’re told,  become quite good.

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Hunger

After his short but memorable role as undercover operative Lt. Archie Hicox in the WWII epic, “Inglourious Basterds,” Michael Fassbender shot to the top of my actors to watch list. Quentin Tarantino’s film may have put him on the map, but even before its release, Fassbender was earning strong reviews for his performance in artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s directorial debut, “Hunger.” As Bobby Sands, the real-life IRA member who went on a hunger strike in protest of the British government’s refusal to recognize him and his fellow Maze inmates as political prisoners, Fassbender completely immerses himself in the role with Christian Bale-like dedication. It’s a pity he doesn’t actually show up until the second act, because it only makes those first 30 minutes seem that much less significant. While a lot of that time is spent setting the mood within the prison (from the poor living environment to the brutality handed down by the guards), “Hunger” doesn’t really get going until Fassbender makes his grand entrance – and even then not a whole lot really happens. In fact, with the exception of a 16-minute, single-shot conversation between Sands and an Irish priest (Liam Cunningham), the movie is pretty forgettable due to an overall lack of character development. It’s still worth checking out for Fassbender’s committed performance, but it’s not quite the modern masterpiece that Criterion would have you believe.

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A scary Tuesday night at the movies

*  The rep of PG-rated horror these days couldn’t be much worse. So, I have no problem believing CHUDster Devin Faraci that a publicist sent out a blast e-mail crowing about the R-rating given to “The Wolf Man” for “‘bloody horror, violence and gore.”

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I’m excited enough about what appears to be a nicely movie-movie stylized general approach to the movie from director Joe Johnston, of the underrated “The Rocketeer” among other movies, to still be looking forward to seeing this, I think. Moreover, I am a fan of the fairly sanguinary (and, to me, truly freaking scary in more or less the best way possible) “An American Werewolf in London,” but I’m still a bit nonplussed. I realize I’m a bit of wuss about too much gore, certainly compared to the typical horror fan.

Nevertheless, I can’t help finding the attitude of AICN’s Quint a little Stephen Colbertesque in its equation of blood and gore to “nards” (Colbert would just come right out and call it “balls”). I also think making a tough, scary film really doesn’t have that much to do with how much colored corn syrup you throw around. But then who listens to a guy who likes musicals?

* The most disconcerting news about “The Wolf Man” is not the above, but the news last month about the decision to apparently drop a mostly completed score by Danny Elfman. Yesterday, Jon Burlingame of Variety wrote an even more disconcerting piece arguing that film composers are being devalued. Here’s the article ending quote from respected composer James Horner (not my personal favorite, as it happens, though he’s certainly worked on plenty of good movies and I’m perhaps not giving him enough credit):

“No one just says, ‘What do you think of my picture? I want you to write what’s in your heart.’ I haven’t heard that in years. That simple concept does not exist anymore.”

Michael Stuhlberg in Apparently, though, it does for some composers, when they’re working with really good directors. Michael Stuhlberg’s interview with Anne Thompson a while back indicates the Carter Burwell’s music may have changed the tone of Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” considerably and that he was given considerable latitude. Real filmmakers apparently still realize that musical choices — when and how to use it, or not use it —  are absolutely crucial.

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RIP Karl Malden (updated)

Like all character actors, Karl Malden never got quite the same level of attention as costars like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Steve McQueen, Anthony Perkins, Montgomery Clift, Michael Caine, and George C. Scott. Even the seventies TV series he starred in, “The Streets of San Francisco” found him being overshadowed in the eyes of the teenybopper set by his young punk of a male ingenue costar, Michael Douglas. That was largely because Malden was the kind of performer who understood that acting is a team sport. His best scenes were like great duets with near perfect communication between him and his scene partners. The exception were American Express travelers’ checks; those, he wiped off the screen.

Karl Malden died today at age 97, having been more or less fully retired since appearing in a 2000 episode of “The West Wing.” While he was never precisely an A-lister, he was a go-to actor for secondary leads, president of the Motion Picture Academy, and as far as I can tell a universally respected figure among actors and everyone else associated with the movie industry. He was also married to the same woman for seventy years, a rare enough Holllywood achievement to merit it’s own special Oscar. Not a bad life.

Below the fold is a video tribute I found that, from the misspellings, I gather may come from Serbia. (Malden, whose real name was Mladen Sekulovich, was the son of a Serbian father and a Czechoslovak mother.) The image quality could be better and some of the clips are a little too brief, but it does give you an excellent overview of his truly diverse film career, which included work with some of the greatest Hollywood directors including Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer, and Alfred Hitchcock. It also includes some interesting moments from two oddball spy films, “Murderer’s Row,” which I haven’t seen, and the underrated “Billion Dollar Brain,” which included some pretty amazing scenes between Malden and Michael Caine as his old spy buddy, Harry Palmer, as well as Françoise Dorléac as his treacherous spy girlfriend (though he’s pretty tricky himself).

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