The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Criterion Collection Blu-ray ReviewMay 04, 2009
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray Disc library has since inception been a resoundingly lopsided selection of "important classic films" which is why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes to us under unusual circumstances. Its inclusion in the Blu-ray Criterion Collection marks the first "important contemporary film" bestowed with the prestigious and rare home video honor.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is derived from the simple idea in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story of the same name that a person born resembling a shriveled up old man ages in reverse until he dies a cute newborn baby. Eric Roth's script expands this concept to explore the impact reverse aging has not only on Benjamin's interpersonal relationships, but those of the young girl destined to become the love of his life.
Benjamin's (Brad Pitt) story is told through his diary as read by Caroline (Julia Ormand) to her mother Daisy (Cate Blanchett in heavy prosthetics) as she gasps for her last breaths of life. Hurricane Katrina's approach unnecessarily whistles in the background as Caroline struggles between dealing with her mother's pain and impending death while understanding the contents of the diary, much of which changes her perceptions about the life Daisy has lived and the woman she is.
The diary unravels in a series of sequential episodic intervals as Caroline's narrative voice softly changes to its author's and Benjamin's birth and subsequent abandoning by his natural father onto the doorstep of a well-to-do family's nursing home. The home's black housekeeper spots Benjamin and against a physician's warning and any semblance of good judgment takes in the misshapen infant given no chance of survival to care for.
Daisy and Benjamin first meet when each is roughly 5 years old even though physically they appear 80 years apart. He hangs out in a wheelchair with old men in their twilight years while she plays relentlessly in the yard. There is a lingering and unsettling aura of perversion as the pair begin to bond, one that Daisy's grandmother is quick to break up when they meet under a table in the late night hours. Naturally it will be many years before Benjamin and Daisy can come together as "adults" which leaves plenty of time for each to grow separately.
Benjamin's first excursions beyond the nursing home's property line are intriguing as no one has a clue this perceived old man is really a juvenile underneath layers of wrinkles and drooping skin. The unintentional "disguise" provides opportunities to expose Benjamin to adult spoils and labor not unlike exaggerated situations Tom Hanks toyed around with in Big. These experiences are the most comedic moments in Benjamin's life and missed as he matures into a physically younger man and wanders out into the world.
Because Benjamin and Daisy are aging in opposite directions there is finite period of time in which the pair will be physically and mentally in sync with one another. This time is the crux of their lives and the moment the film builds to: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett appearing as they do in real life. Only the inevitable heartbreak can follow as the two lovers must confront the realization and ramifications of unstoppably growing apart from this moment on instead of together into old age.
Remove the novelty of Benjamin aging in reverse and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bittersweet, albeit 30 minutes too long, melodic tale with a lifelong straightforward love story at its heart. There is no urge to think or debate with friends when the lovers' journey comes to an end and no need to revisit the tale. It is what it is, a professionally-crafted David Fincher film embellished by the unusual circumstance of a man aging in reverse and the incredible technical wizardry used to bring this unexplainable phenomenon to life.
Fincher gave his "Director Approved" stamp to Criterion's Blu-ray Disc edition of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and for good reason. From the audio/video presentation through the supplemental features there is little to complain about and endless opportunities for praise of the highest order.
The 2.4:1 AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1080p transfer does the film's remarkable period production design and cinematography the utmost justice. Fincher and his team throw everything imaginable to give a transfer fits from snow at night to New York City and its bright yellow cabs at day to sun streaming through a window silhouetting Benjamin against the bright light around him. What's amazing is that aside from one brief moment when Benjamin and Daisy meet under a table lit by candlelight where faint posterization occurs between the bright candle and dark surroundings, this high definition presentation is impeccably natural, always convincing and exactly what is expected from the Criterion Collection.
With picture quality near-perfect it comes as no surprise Criterion's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is all that could be asked for. Dialogue and effects clarity is top notch while surround use is employed when it makes sense with favorable results. Just when you think Benjamin Button is a low-key mix dominated by dialogue and a soft soothing score, a booming crash of thunder will rattle the nerves, house, and anything else within range of its LFE assault.
Criterion and Paramount have bestowed Benjamin Button with an overwhelming selection of bonus features, all of which are presented in high definition with optional French and Spanish subtitles. Clever dynamic menu and submenu screens with a deliberate "aged" film look and background on-set chatter is icing on an already delicious cake.
Audio Commentary - Director David Fincher paces himself evenly with a steady serving of informative and sometimes opinionated perspectives on making Benjamin Button. He opens the door into alternate and cut ideas and like a commentary veteran sidesteps falling into a narration trap. A handful of anecdotes and four-letter words aside, Fincher approaches the commentary wearing professionalism on his sleeve and dryness on his tongue. It is recommended for fans of the film but not someone seeking entertainment.
Timeline - Criterion's "Timeline" feature offers bookmarking functionality found on many Blu-ray Discs before. The Criterion touch of magic comes from the subtle addition of explaining with text where the movie is at and what Fincher is discussing at that time in his commentary. For example, chapter 6 is tagged "Winter Palace Hotel" and "Regrets," respectively.
Almost all of the bonus features are huddled together under the heading "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button" which in turn is broken into four sections: First Trimester, Second Trimester, Third Trimester and Birth. All but Third Trimester include material not available when using the play-all function which essentially negates the desire to use that function.
Preface (3:08) Fincher digs deep in his heart to recollects the feeling and experience of watching his father die which is beautiful and sad at the same time.
Development and Pre-Production (28:56) A historical perspective on how the idea of turning Benjamin Button into a film evolved over the course of 20+ years since when it was first pitched in the 1980s. Many false starts and overloaded filmmaker schedules, including Steven Spielberg, played to the film's favor. By the time Fincher was on board and ready to put the film into motion, technology had caught up with the concept allowing Pitt to play the character's "face" throughout.
Tech Scouts (12:23) An intriguing fly-on-the-wall juxtaposition of matching the script location description to an actual location and then dressing that location for shooting. The script snippets that flash on the screen take this featurette to a new level of intrigue.
Storyboard and Art Direction Galleries - Straightforward art gallery slideshows direly missing the ability to exit once they begin.
Production Parts 1 & 2 (55:18) The meat and bones of making a movie: filming it. You'll learn a lot about how Fincher makes a movie as his cast and crew reminisce about the experience they had creating the film. Toward the end there is an extensive look into the incredible make-up effects used to age numerous cast members. No music, no staged shots for the camera; a relatively raw look as anyone on the set would have experienced. The only uncertainty is why this was cut into two parts since it would play seamlessly as a whole.
Costume Design & Gallery (7:38) A film spanning roughly 90 years calls for a diverse historical collection of costumes that are explored in this combination of featurette and slideshow gallery.
This is the area you'll want to head to first as the incredible aging effects lightly touched upon in the Production documentary are blown open and revealed here. The visual effects are broken down into five areas: Performance Capture, Benjamin, Youthenization, The Chelsea, and The Simulated World.
Visual Effects (52:39) The technology used to put Brad Pitt's face onto someone else is absolutely crazy. The first three featurettes in this series are must-see whether the film left you satisfied or empty.
Sound Design (16:06) A trip inside Skywalker Ranch to sit in on several sound mixing sessions. Sound Designer Ken Klyce shares his approach to putting together an upfront design for the film.
Desplat's Instrumentarium (14:53) A tongue twisting title translates into an extensive journey through scoring the film tracing back to the initial music demos.
Premiere (4:20) Fun to watch Brad Pitt warn the audience to go the bathroom before the movie starts. Most of this short featurette is the cast and crew getting emotional about how much they loved working on the film.
Productions Stills - Another slideshow, only this one with shots snapped while the film was shooting rather than before.
Rounding out the supplemental features are two Theatrical Trailers and direction access to the aforementioned stills galleries.
Criterion could have chosen any number of films as the first contemporary Blu-ray title to be released under their banner, many of which superior to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After having seen and experienced the exemplary film and supplemental features presentation Criterion offers this technically challenging movie to piece together, I can think of no alternative direction more aptly suited to revel in Criterion's magic touch .
- Dan Bradley
Browse all Amazon.com Blu-ray pre-orders
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion)
May 05, 2009
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio