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THE BIG PICTURE

Sparking curiosity

The trailer for 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is everything it should be.

June 24, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Brad PITT is getting younger every day.

It's a tantalizing hook for a film, isn't it? What if your hero was born an old man, only to grow younger every day, from wrinkles to wrinkles, so to speak -- don't they say that all little babies look like Winston Churchill? That's the premise behind David Fincher's upcoming "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which stars Brad Pitt going from geezer-hood to infancy, and falling in love with Cate Blanchett along the way. The film is due in December and has already been touted for Oscarhood. Now that Paramount has put up its first trailer (watch it at www.apple.com/trailers/ paramount/thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbutton), I have no quarrel with any grand predictions.

The trailer promises us a moody, mysterious and bewitchingly bittersweet look at life, lived in an entirely unexpected way. It also offers the tantalizing possibility that Fincher, one of our era's greatest filmmakers, may have found a way (thanks to an Eric Roth script, adapted from a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) to marry his often chilly obsession with serial killers and people in peril to a story with more emotional resonance.

If nothing else, the trailer -- largely devised by Fincher, the ultimate hands-on filmmaker -- reminds us that not every trailer has to play like a greatest-hits reel culled from the (fill in the blank: funniest, scariest or most exciting) scenes in a film, all so hideously pre-tested that no moment with any ambiguity or mystery could possibly survive. In terms of an opening, it's hard to top the trailer's first image:

As we pull in toward the face of a clock, the narrator (Pitt, with a New Orleans accent) says: "My name is Benjamin Button. I was born under unusual circumstances. While everyone else was aging, I was getting younger -- all alone." As he finishes, the clock ticks -- backward.

Propelled by French composer Camille Saint-Saens' melancholy "The Aquarium," Fincher shows us Button's life via a series of arresting images: A man rowing on a lonely lake. Pitt, studying himself in the mirror, wearing spectacles and boxer shorts, his head cocked to one side, as if bewildered by his strangely youthful appearance. A father, holding a little girl in his arms, a balloon slipping out of their hands. The trailer ends with the most bewitching image of all: A young toddler, walking with his lover, now aged, hobbling along with a cane.

Thanks to both the images and the music, the trailer does what a great trailer should -- it leaves us wanting more, having tempted us with a tale that is both magical and steeped in an air of ineffable sorrow. It feels like just the kind of spooky fairy tale that M. Night Shyamalan could've made, if he were ever able to get out of his own head and embrace someone else's vision. But I'm eager to see the Fincher version. In the middle of summer, when you're surrounded by movies with dumb gags and cheap thrills, it's a pleasure to look forward to the work of someone who won't subject us to even an ounce of bathos or sentimentality.

Indie biz needs more discipline

Film Department chief Mark Gill, who has spent most of his adult life in the indie film business -- first during the glory days at Miramax, then at the late, unlamented Warner Independent Pictures -- knows better than anyone how bad things are today in that world. Wall Street money is drying up. Indie films have been tanking at the box office. Studio specialty divisions are getting the ax or fleeing the scene (as Gill described one of the cost-cutting moves, "New Line's staff was cut by 90% and the survivors were sent to hell . . . I mean . . . Burbank.")

So when Gill gave a keynote speech Saturday at the L.A. Film Festival Financing Conference, it was sort of like hearing Al Gore preach about global warming -- who could possibly have a better vantage point (no pun intended!) from which to deliver the really unhappy tidings. For the most part, it was a good, unsentimental, bracingly candid speech. One of my favorite parts was where Gill laid out the grim odds facing indie filmmakers:

"Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year -- generally with budgets under $10 million -- maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That's one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure."

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