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Telluride Watch 2: Fincher’s Button Preview, Prodigal Sons

Telluride Watch 2: Fincher's Button Preview, Prodigal Sons

The first day of the 35th Telluride Film Festival started off hot and dry at the annual patron’s brunch up the mountain. Tributee Jean Simmons sat under a melon-colored hat and blue umbrella, charming eager listeners, still beautiful. She remembered her then-husband, director Richard Brooks, telling Burt Lancaster during the filming of Elmer Gantry, “More teeth!” “Burt worked out on a trapeze every morning,” Simmons said.

The Brits sat at one table, chowing down on eggs and chanterelles: Miramax’s Daniel Battsek, Happy-Go-Lucky director Mike Leigh, and Hunger director Steve McQueen. Like Cannes, IFC’s Jonathan Sehring and Sony’s Michael Barker and Tom Bernard (pictured with Fest co-director Gary Meyer and critics Scott Foundas and Todd McCarthy) seem to be most aggressively tracking possible pick-ups.

Tracy Chapman and sister Aneta were among the patrons who came “for fun, just to see movies, not working,” said Chapman.

At the Sheridan Opera House that night, doc filmmaker Ken Burns, at Telluride for his 19th straight year, welcomed the crowd with: “Can we have a good film fest?”

“Yes, we can,” they crowed.

After an impressive montage of commercials and music videos of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Iggy Pop and others, plus clips of Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room and Zodiac, Todd McCarthy did an in-depth career interview with Fincher. (More of that conversation later.)

Then the crowd watched 20 minutes of artfully edited fragments of the $150 million The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted by Eric Roth from a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Newborn Benjamin Button is named by a young black woman (Taraji P. Henson) in post-World War I New Orleans after his mother dies giving birth and his father, horrified by his wizened appearance, drops him on the doorstep of an old folks home.

Taking full advantage of his ILM background, Fincher takes Button (Brad Pitt) from a tiny baby with the body of an old arthritic man through younger and more robust incarnations as he ages. He serves as a merchant seaman and in one epic sequence, runs into the deadly aftermath of a WWII attack by a submarine on a warship. Button eventually catches up with love interests Cate Blanchett, who tries to seduce him by dancing for him, and Tilda Swinton, who feeds him caviar and vodka. The movie is gorgeously mounted in minute period detail, complete with swooping crane shots and intricate camera moves. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (pictured here at the Sheridan Opera House with Fincher), Button has a burnished sepia polish.

According to Paramount production exec Brad Weston, the movie has been cut by another five minutes down to “a little over two and half hours,” he said. It’s about to be locked. After years of stalled development the movie was greenlit by new Paramount chief Brad Grey after previous management teams had balked at its cost, revived because Grey was looking for a vehicle for Brad Pitt. Fincher, who has given Pitt some of his juiciest roles, had just the thing. The movie could go either way–toward Oscar season glory or inflated noble failure. That’s the risk everyone takes with an all-in bet like this. Certainly there’s never been anything like it.

IndieWire’s Eugene Hernandez, Spout’s Karina Longworth and I jammed into the tiny Back Lot to see Prodigal Sons, which San Francisco critic David Thomson had promoted so enticingly in the program. (Here’s his Guardian write-up.) Faced with the prospect of returning to her 20th high school reunion in Helena, Montana, Kimberly Reed enlisted a cinematographer pal to help her document a complicated set of issues. She had been the popular high school football star Paul, and now she was transexual Kim, with her girlfriend Claire in tow. Clearly, she and her older brother Marc, who was adopted nine months before she was born, never got along. The movie unflinchingly shows the mentally unstable Marc trying not only to cope, after ten years estrangement, with his brother’s sex change into a sister, but the news that his birth mother was the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Oddly, Marc was interviewed for another doc “Searching for Orson,” while this film was being made.

Reed tries to weave her story, her brother’s story, and their dramatic family conflict into a coherent documentary, but in this case a more experienced filmmaker/outsider might have been better suited to shape this mother lode of material. “It was very turbulent to have that camera presence there,” she admitted at the Q & A. “Our family was off and running with the drama we were often engaged in.” UPDATE: Todd McCarthy’s review.

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