THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Brad Pitt,
Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas,
Director: David Fincher
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Features: See Review
Length: 165 Minutes
Release Date: May 5, 2009
“Good night, Daisy.”
“Good night, Benjamin.”
How many films can honestly be considered as a revelation on so many levels? It’s a very rare quality for a single film to have, but only a director like David Fincher could manage to make such a monumental opus. Garnering 13 well deserved Oscar nominations, and winning 3 of them, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is quite simply unlike any film I’ve ever seen.
How many ways is the film a revelation? To be honest, I’m not sure if I have enough review space to go into every aspect. What’s important to note is that the film serves as a revelation in epic storytelling, visual effects and, most of all, Fincher as a true master filmmaker.
For starters, Fincher was exercising a bold case of filmmaking by essentially taking a 60-something page short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and expanding out to nearly three hours. In doing so, he has basically used the short story as a template for a cinematic interpretation that can serve as its very own entity. For a film project that’s been in the making for 20 plus years, all I can say is that it couldn’t have ended up in better hands.
The film opens with an elderly woman on her death bed at a hospital in 2005, New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina is nearing, and the dying woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is being read to by her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond, to simply pass the time. The book she’s reading happens to be the personal diary of the man Daisy fell in love with long ago, a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt).
The story then flashes back to New Orleans at the end of the civil war. A baby is born with what many would find to be a hideous appearance. Though he is the size of a normal infant, the boy appears to have what can only be described as a reversed aging process.
The baby’s father (Jason Flemyng), obviously unable to deal with his son’s slightly freakish look, abandons him despite leaving him in the care of a most motherly individual. After stumbling across the baby that same night, a caring woman named Queenie (the fantastic Taraji P. Henson, who should’ve won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) takes it upon herself to raise the baby whom she sees as one of God’s children.
She gives him the name Benjamin. And since Queenie happens to live and work in a retirement home, it makes quite a fitting place for Benjamin to be raised. After spending his first several years confined to a wheel chair, Benjamin is taken to an evangelical healer and is miraculously healed and able to walk, which actually results in a darkly funny illustration of the belief that the lord giveth and the lord taketh away.
As the years progress, we see Benjamin meet some unique people in life as he decreases in age. He first meets young Daisy at the age of 13. He tells her not to be frightened by his looks, and that he’s much younger than he appears. She becomes his first friend, and will eventually become his first true love.
The film eventually follows Benjamin on numerous adventures as he journeys through life. He does manage to experience quite a bit in his world travels. He is working on board a tugboat that manages to wind up right in the middle of enemy gunfire during World War II, and while residing briefly in Russia he engages in his first love affair with a married English woman named Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton).
But Daisy is never far from his thoughts. Before leaving home, he made a promise to write her from every place he travels to, which he certainly fulfills. He even manages to include details of his first love affair in one of the letters.
At this point, Daisy has grown into her late teens and entered ballet school with dreams of becoming a classically trained dancer. She and Benjamin cross paths when he returns home from the war, now appearing to be in his 50s while she is in her early 20s. The romantic sparks don’t exactly ignite at this point, mostly because Daisy’s promiscuous behavior doesn’t sit right with Benjamin, but several years as well as a few tragic circumstances result in the beginning of their romance.
I mentioned the film is a revelation in epic storytelling, which I firmly believe. Despite being a critically acclaimed film, some called it out for being all too similar to Forrest Gump in terms of its story arc, while others even went as far as to call it typical “oscar bait”. While both this film and Gump were both penned by screenwriter Eric Roth, the comparison is more than unfair as far as I’m concerned. While I still treasure Zemeckis’ film, Button is simply a more original and superior piece of work.
With so many astonishing things qualities to discuss, the main attraction here is the breakthrough visual effects work here. In the creation of the character of Benjamin Button, a mind blowing combination of effects make up was mixed in with a state of the art motion capture technique, which was used in the animation process of both Beowulf and The Polar Express. For the scenes where Benjamin is in his beginning years, Brad Pitt’s face was placed on the body of the actor performing all the physical parts.
Knowing that ahead of time won’t prevent you from reacting with awe at the breathtaking results, because Pitt’s face and the body movement are so in sync with one another to the point that you’d swear not a single hint of visual effects were used. Additional effects work was also used in making both Pitt and Cate Blanchett appear younger in several scenes. It all perfectly illustrates that if the film had not won the Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Makeup, it would’ve been the purest form of a cinematic crime.
Like all the great movies I’ve come across in my lifetime, I simply can’t enough amazing things about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As a longtime admirer of David Fincher, it’s nothing short of exhilarating to see him branch off and do something completely different from his usual dark fare, because it illustrates that he can pretty much do no wrong as a true filmmaker. His distinctive vision, as well as the wonderful performances from Pitt and Blanchett (who has never looked more gorgeous on screen) and the innovative visual effects work are just a few of the countless reasons any film lover should experience what I think is not just a beautiful movie, but a beautiful work of art.
As far as Blu-ray presentations go, I think we have our current candidate for best presentation of the year, if not of all time! Criterion and Paramount definitely wanted to ensure the best possible transfer for a film that’s very dependent on its visuals…and man, they most certainly outdid themselves in every which way imaginable. The 1080p does wonders for this film since it, just like Fincher’s Zodiac, was shot in the Viper FilmStream HD process. As a result, so much incredible detail resides in every frame. With a film like this, the end result is similar to seeing a beautiful painting come to life! Colors are quite magnificent to gaze upon, and the lush visuals look twice as astonishing. It’s a presentation that will leave you awestruck.
The DTS HD mix is definitely a grand match for the beautiful picture quality. Fincher’s films always incorporate a fully detailed level of sound, and that is once again the case here. The epic scope of the film brings with it a dynamic delivery of just about every possible sound effect. Alexandre Desplat’s mesmerizing score to the film will linger with you long after watching the film. Various set pieces provide magnificent moments of surround, in particular a ballet concert performance and a sequence involving a loud and furious gun battle. Definitely an amazing treat for the ears as it is for the eyes!
David Fincher and Criterion. Those words alone should indicate what one is in for as far as extras go. Fincher loves giving his films the Special Edition treatment. Combine that notion with Criterion’s brilliance and you just know that it’s going to add up to something special. It’s been a long while since Criterion lend its name to a big mainstream production (on a first time release, no less) but rest assured that they couldn’t have picked a better title for such an occasion. In addition to delivering the single best presentation I’ve seen so far this year, this two disc Blu-ray release from Criterion and Paramount also includes what is, at this point in 2009, easily the best lineup of extras. On Disc One, we get the feature film and a commentary with David Fincher that is as intriguing and informative as one would expect from the man.
On Disc Two, we have one of the most remarkable behind the scenes documentaries to ever surface on any Blu-ray/DVD release. It’s a four part documentary titled “The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button”, which altogether has a running time of (are you ready for this?) 2 hours and 55 minutes, which is actually ten minutes longer than the actual film.
The first chapter , titled “First Trimester”, looks at the development and pre-production stages of the film, as well as Tech Scouting and both the Storyboard and Art Direction Gallery.
“Second Trimester”, the second part of the documentary, covers the production shoot of the film, covered in two parts, as well as a look at the costume design and costume gallery.
Next up, “Third Trimester” takes an in-depth look at the visual effects work. We get a glimpse of Brad Pitt in the sound studio recording his facial expressions and dialogue for the scenes where his face will be inserted via Performance Capture. There are also glimpses into the effects work on the character of Benjamin, as well as Youthenization (or “digital face lifts”), the process of making the actors look younger than they are. The effects work used in the evolution of Benjamin is covered in “The Chelsea” (his scenes on the tugboat). Next up, “The Simulated World” reveals how green screen work was incorporated to make various settings look authentic for the time period. Lastly in this section, there are segments covering both sound design and Alexandre Desplat’s film score.
The last chapter of the documentary, appropriately titled “Birth”, covers the New Orleans Benefit premiere of the film, as well as various production stills.
Rounding out the extras are two excellent Theatrical Trailers and a Stills Gallery featuring portraits from Storyboards, Art Direction, Costumes and Production.
For me, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be a film to treasure time and time again. It’s a beautiful and poetic epic film that deals with the joy of life and the pain of death, all through the eyes of a man born under unusual circumstances. Furthermore, Criterion has made a Blu-ray release for the history books!