The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Released: December 25, 2008
|by Dan Goldwasser
on May 6th, 2009
Adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a project that was bounced around Hollywood for years, until David Fincher finally made it happen. With a screenplay by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, the film - told as flashbacks from a diary and a woman on her deathbed - follows Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who was born old and lived his life in reverse, growing younger as he aged. Born in 1918, Benjamin's mother dies in childbirth, and his father - repulsed by the old-looking baby - abandons him at a nursing home where he is taken and cared for by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who is unable to have her own children. As Benjamin grows up around the elderly residents of the nursing home, he meets the young Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett), who though close in age to Benjamin, looks to be February to his November. The film takes us through Benjamin's life, as he goes out into the world, encounters love, loss, and war, and ultimately returns home where he realizes he is falling in love with Daisy, but she chooses to pursue her own path as a dancer. Benjamin soon reconnects and reconciles with his father who abandoned him, and eventually he and Daisy's paths start to converge.
There's a lot more to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which runs a hearty 165-minutes long and has a laid back, casual pace to the storytelling. Fincher effectively captures the mood of New Orleans over the various time periods, and Claudio Miranda's cinematography is immeasurably enhanced by Alexandre Desplat's delicate score. The acting is fine, but the story's major beats are all-to-similar to that of Forrest Gump, that when you realize how similar some segments are, it's a bit off-putting. Some might also be turned off from the long running time and chronological unfolding of the story (there's not much of a 'plot', really, since it just chronicles Benjamin's unusual life), but the film has a sentimentality to it that still effectively pulls at one's heartstrings. It's also a tour de force of groundbreaking visual effects, and the best way to experience the film and admire the craft is on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.
The Criterion Collection has previously released Fincher's Seven and The Game, and DVD producer David Prior brings the same level of care to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that fans have come to expect from Fincher's home video releases. Shot digitally, the Blu-ray contains a direct-to-digital transfer which looks absolutely stellar in HD, aided in no small way by the rather high bitrate on the disc. The image is as subtle and nuanced as can be, with Miranda's naturalistic lighting effectively reproduced. Soft shadows allow the mood to come through the screen, and textures are clearly replicated.
Similarly, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English track is a showcase of immersive sound, but in an atmospheric way - not an action-heavy way. Closing your eyes, you can truly feel each location, as the sound designers did an excellent job at capturing the subtle nuances of New Orleans and the various locales seen in the film. Alexandre Desplat's tender and moving score is gorgeously reproduced as well, and dialogue (which seems to be in hushed tones half the time) is easy to hear and understand. Overall, an amazing presentation.
For extras, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is delivered on two discs. The first disc contains the film, with an optional commentary track by director David Fincher. I've enjoyed Fincher's other commentaries, which have been detailed but accessible, and this one is no different. He discusses many aspects of the filmmaking process in a casual, easygoing manner that is both candid and fresh. There is a bit of duplication between the commentary track and the documentary on the second disc, but both are worth experiencing in full.
The second disc starts out with a gargantuan documentary piece: The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button. Broken up into various stages, each segment is available in one sitting through a "Play All" function (HD, 175-minutes), or separately. In "First Trimester" (Pre-Production), we have "Preface" (HD, 3-min) and "Development and Pre-Production" (HD, 29-minutes). It's a candid look at the way the film came about, from all the different attempts to make it, through to Fincher coming on board and developing the film - including some visual effects tests. "Second Trimester" (Production) gives us "Production: Part 1" (HD, 26-minutes) and "Production: Part 2" (HD, 29-minutes), where we look at the film shoot. Interviews with pretty much everyone are showcased here.
"Third Trimester" (Post-Production) is the biggest area, with a focus on visual effects, sound design and music. "VFX: Performance Capture" (HD, 8-minutes) looks at the motion capture technologies used to bring the digital Benjamin performances to life. "VFX: Benjamin" (HD, 17-min) looks at the groundbreaking work that Digital Domain did to bring a digitally aged Brad Pitt to life. "VFX: Youthenization" (HD, 6.5-min) looks at the digital techniques to make Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt younger than they actually are. "VFX: The Chelsea" (HD, 9-min) looks at the way the filmmakers brought the sequences where Benjamin was out at sea to the screen - without ever leaving a soundstage. "VFX: The Simulated World" (HD, 13-min) is a great look at the work that Matte World Digital did to bring all the various period settings to life in the film. "Sound Design" (HD, 16-min) looks at the rather detailed work done on the audio for the film, to create a detailed world within the film. "Desplat's Instrumentarium" (HD, 15-minutes) is a great look at composer Alexandre Desplat's Oscar-nominated film score for the film, including some great behind-the-scenes footage from the scoring sessions. (Look for a cameo or two!) With music taking such an important role in the storytelling process, it's nice that Fincher not only talks about the music during the commentary, but that it got a nice featurette on the documentary as well.
Finally, "Birth" looks at the release of the film in the "Premiere" (HD, 4.5-min). Unfortunately, it's evident that all of the documentary interviews were conducted prior to the film's general release, so there is no real hindsight. It's a shame that such a great documentary is lacking this one key component, but overall this 3-hour documentary is an excellent look at the making of a challenging film, and well worth looking at. There are two featurettes not included in the "Play All" function: "Tech Scouts" (HD, 12-min) looks at the rather interesting challenges facing location scouts to find that "perfect" location for the right shot. "Costume Design" (HD, 7.5-min) looks at the rather impressive work of costume designer Jacqueline West.
There are also a few photo and art galleries on the disc: "Storyboard Gallery", "Art Direction Gallery", "Costume Gallery" and "Production Stills", which are nice to look at for a bit of a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the aspects of the production. Two theatrical trailers (HD, 4.5-min) round out the disc.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might not be considered a masterpiece of filmmaking, but it's a very enjoyable movie that chronicles a man's unusual life, as seen through the mind of David Fincher. With a jaw-droppingly stunning visual and audio presentation as well as a solid array of extras (mainly in documentary form), fans of the film must absolutely make the effort to pick it up on Blu-ray disc.
|by Dan Goldwasser
on November 27th, 2008
David Fincher's first PG-13 film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is based on a short story by noted author F. Scott Fitzgerald. A rather interesting biographically-laid out story told through flashback, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about the life and times of a Mr. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) - who was "born under unusual circumstances". Dying from cancer in 2005, the very elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) has her daughter Caroline read to her from Benjamin's diary. Born on the day the "Great War" ended- and subsequently abandoned by his wealthy father (his mother died during childbirth), Benjamin was raised at a nursing home by the loving care-worker Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). No one expected Benjamin to live, as he was a newborn with all of the physical ailments and characteristics of an 80-year old man, and yet as the years began to pass, Benjamin in fact began to look more youthful. Mistaken for an older man when he was really just a child, Benjamin learns a lot about life from the octogenarian residents of the nursing home as well as the people who visit the home. When he meets Daisy, a young girl whose grandmother is residing at the home, Benjamin is immediately smitten. But given the circumstances of his appearances, the impression of an improper relationship keeps them from being together. When he was 17 years old (and looked in his 60s), Benjamin leaves home to travel the world working on a tugboat steamer. His explorations take him to Russia, where he has a relationship with the wife of a British diplomat (Tilda Swinton), but his heart always belongs to Daisy - and over the years, their paths cross, and the story focuses on their ultimate intertwined destinies.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a slow-paced film that takes its time to get to the points. The ultimate message of the movie is one about living life to the fullest, and taking risks if the path that you're currently on doesn't lead to where you want to go. I found the sub-plot about Benjamin's father's ultimate redemption and the father-son relationship between him and Benjamin to be most satisfying, with some excellent and touching moments. The movie covers a number of eras, from the 1930s, to World War II, to Post-War America, to the free-loving 1960s, and even a bit of the 1980s. All of these periods are realistically portrayed, through the wonderful production and sound design.
Visual effects and make-up impressively accentuate the performances by Pitt and Blanchett, who play almost all of the various age ranges necessary (except the pre-pubescent roles), and there is certainly a Forrest Gump sensibility to the way the narration furthers the story, covering the bulk of Benjamin's life and legacy through the reading of his diary (supplemented with side information by Daisy). Shot by Claudio Miranda, the film has a golden hue to it, with natural light keeping things dim yet visible during the night sequences. The music by Alexandre Desplat is delicate and emotional, staying in the background yet providing effective heart-tugs when appropriate. It is likely to be a major contender come Oscar-time.
At 167-minutes the film runs a little on the long side, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is certainly worth your time, and a highly enjoyable journey through a man's life.
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