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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection DVD Review

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) movie poster The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2008 / Running Time: 166 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: David Fincher / Writers: Eric Roth (screenplay, screen story), Robin Swicord (screen story), F. Scott Fitzgerald (short story)

Cast: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy Fuller), Taraji P. Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond (Caroline), Jason Flemyng (Thomas Button), Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (Tizzy Weathers), Jared Harris (Captain Mike Clark), Elias Koteas (Monsieur Gateau), Phyllis Somerville (Grandma Fuller), Tilda Swinton (Elizabeth Abbott), Elle Fanning (Daisy - Age 7), Madisen Beaty (Daisy - Age 10), Rampai Mohadi (Ngunda Oti), Edith Ivey (Mrs. Maple), Ted Manson (Mr. Daws), Lance Nichols (Preacher), Richmond Arquette (John Grimm), Josh Stewart (Pleasant Curtis), Patrick Thomas O'Brien (Dr. Rose), Fiona Hale (Mrs. Hollister), Spencer Daniels (Benjamin - Age 12)

Buy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from Amazon.com: 2-Disc Criterion Collection DVD 1-Disc DVD Blu-ray


Everyone thinks about aging at some point, so it was only a matter of time before someone imagined what it would be like to age in reverse. One such someone was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in 1922 wrote a short story considering a life lived from a geriatric birth to a twilight infancy. That concept and the novella's title are about all that made it into The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the much-decorated David Fincher-directed drama that stands and succeeds largely on its own ideas.

As the title suggests, Curious Case tells the tale of Benjamin Button, a unique individual whose physical aging process works backwards as his mental growth proceeds normally. The film opens in a New Orleans hospital on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's 2005 arrival. There, a dying old woman (a heavily made-up Cate Blanchett) is being visited by her adult daughter (Julia Ormond). With her time on Earth winding down, Daisy has Caroline read to her from Button's handwritten autobiography. We proceed to hear this unusual life story (for the most part in Button's voice), only occasionally cutting back to the stormy near-present day.

In 1918 New Orleans, nursing home employee Queenie (Oscar-nominated Taraji P. Henson) announces the arrival of a wrinkled foundling she names Benjamin. A young boy mentally but an old man physically, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) looks at his curious fingers.

Button (played by Brad Pitt, with help from varying amounts of visual effects and stand-ins) is born in 1918, a wrinkled baby who enters New Orleans during the celebrations of World War I's end. His mother dies in childbirth and his father (Jason Flemyng) is so disgusted that he swiftly abandons the newborn on the steps of a nursing home. There, worker Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) doesn't hesitate to embrace the unsightly foundling as her own,
after a doctor explains his days may be numbered. Given the name Benjamin, the child soon fits in at his environment, his geriatric appearance hiding his youthful curiosity. He makes friends with a number of his elderly housemates, a storytelling pygmy (Rampai Mohadi), and a friendly redheaded girl six years his junior (Elle Fanning).

While the others around him die off, Benjamin comes of age and begins his long youthening process by unshrinking and growing new (white) hair. Looking like a sexagenarian but actually hitting his teens, Benjamin discovers independence and starts accruing life experience. He finds work on a tugboat under the coarse but sympathetic Captain Mike Clark (Jared Harris). The employment takes Benjamin around the world and eventually finds him working for the US Navy in World War II. There is an affair with a married British woman (Tilda Swinton) in a Russian harbor hotel. And Benjamin's biological father resurfaces to claim a minor place in his son's life.

Moving past these episodes, the film unsurprisingly settles on a romance for its core. It pairs Benjamin (growing younger and looking more like the Brad Pitt we know) with Daisy (Blanchett, looking only a touch younger than we know her), the normally-aging girl who has long held a place in his heart. While Benjamin uses his peak energy on global duty and adventure, Daisy pursues a promising career as a ballet dancer in New York City. It is no spoiler to share that "meeting in the middle" seems to be a distinct but complicated possibility for the couple that keeps being drawn together while their ages move from converging to diverging.

While normally an old man hanging around an unrelated preteen girl would be creepy, Benjamin and Daisy's (Madisen Beaty) Sunday morning tugboat ride plays here as sweet. Meeting in the middle, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) look at themselves in a mirror at her dance studio.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is absolutely an epic film and not necessarily one you'd expect to be helmed by David Fincher. After several years of directing music videos, Fincher graduated to major motion pictures. The films he's best known for are edgy, substantive dramas, from his breakthrough sophomore effort Seven to 2007's Zodiac. Here, we find a softer, more melodramatic tone, a leisurely pace, and themes which pertain not just to the featured characters and story but all viewers. Curious Case is the director's first PG-13-rated film and it also handily became the highest-grossing work of his career.

From that description, it may sound like Fincher has sold out, stepping off his visionary trail to take a paved shortcut to industry awards. That would be an oversimplification and not a particularly accurate one. It can't be denied that this film is Oscar-friendly. If it didn't open in theaters on Christmas Day, it would have had to open some other time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve (surprisingly, a May debut was once scheduled). The Academy has often been revealed to have a short memory. And you can't have a film attributed to an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, spanning no fewer than six past decades at length, and employing every state-of-the-art make-up and visual effect in the book without wanting to be recognized at year-end award shows.

On that level, the movie delivered, most notably in thirteen Academy Award nominations covering both technical and high-interest categories. More importantly, the kudos didn't come at a cost. This is an ambitious, evocative, and satisfying drama, one that's sure to speak to any living person watching it. Using a grand canvas, Fincher is unable to make things too unpredictable, personal, or cutting edge. None of that is needed, though, for the overall viewing experience proves to be a haunting, moving, and powerful one even as pieces of the whole may not strike or compel as strongly as intended.

Rendering the majority of the film flashback, Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads Benjamin's memoir to her dying mother Daisy (Cate Blanchett). A distinguished-looking but young Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) enjoys caviar and vodka with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the married British woman with whom he has an affair in 1940s Russia.

The 166-minute running time is as a slight obstacle. It stands to reason that if Fincher was able to get 157 captivating minutes out of the two intimate worlds of Zodiac (162 in the director's cut), he would have no trouble mining just a few more from a film that largely aims to give us a century-long history of the American people. And yet, Curious Case is a bit slow and flabby, particularly in its middle sections. The dark nighttime World War II combat scene could have been extracted in full with perhaps just one minor consequence; it seems to exist merely to acknowledge arguably the biggest historical event in the timeline. Gladly, the film overcomes the few fits of sluggishness with an arresting end that stands as the film's strongest act.

The film has been and will be called out for resembling Big Fish and Forrest Gump; the latter was also written by Eric Roth. If there is a problem with that, I don't see it. Those are fine models to aspire to and it's not as if the unique, fantastic concept of Benjamin Button lacks originality or limits creativity.

Although more fit for mainstream consumption that the director's past efforts, the film still manages to put Fincher's flair and technical prowess to fairly good use. Some may label a couple of sequences excessive or indulgent. Perhaps the two most ripe for such citations -- a prologue involving Elias Koteas as a blind clockmaker and an elaborate demonstration of how behind most tragedies lie so many tiny evitable occurrences -- nevertheless impress as two of the sharpest, most fascinating chapters of the piece. There's even room for a bit of humor from an old man eager to share the specifics of the seven times he was struck by lightning (re-enacted in utterly convincing Silent Era recreations).

For all the credit that Fincher earns as director, this is a film which excels on the talents of hundreds and hundreds of people. The production design team did a remarkable job at building distinct places in time. The settings that the screenplay chooses and the frames show us are limited but every selection has meaning and overtones, while tactfully developing the epic feel. The make-up and visual effects are extraordinary. That the film can make Brad Pitt believably look anywhere from his mid-eighties to his late teens is a true accomplishment. But I never see latex and computer effects here, only a flesh and blood character whose story is being told. I'm pleased that these three aforementioned technical areas were deservedly honored with Oscars (the movie's only wins).

David Fincher gets the chance to make some real old movies with the worn-looking clips recreating six of the seven lightning strikes that Mr. Daws is eager to discuss. Reaching his physical peak in the 1960s, Benjamin cuts a Steve McQueen-type appearance on this sunny boat ride.

We also cannot overlook the aspect most likely to be cited by the average moviegoer -- the acting. In the tour de force title role, Pitt delivers the performance of a career. While you can't underestimate the drastic transformation Sean Penn underwent for Milk, it seems to me that there's more craft in building a character from scratch than duplicating a historical persona. Pitt hits it out of the park in every phase of Button's life, from inquisitive old kid to oats-sewing young adult (mentally in his 50s).

In the second lead, Blanchett does well enough to have deserved more than the few nominations she received.
Playing the deathbed scenes looking more decrepit than 81 and other scenes questionable enough to merit mental calculations, Blanchett has some factors working against her. It also may not help that as a young adult, her character is brashly immature and seemingly unworthy of Benjamin's interest. Her fine performance still ends up being crucial to the movie's success.

Beyond those two names, there are few famous ones in the cast. But a number of the supporting actors make the most of their parts, particularly Julia Ormond, Jared Harris, and Rampai Mohadi.

With art and commerce aligning, thanks in no small part to 3-time Fincher actor Pitt's star power, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button became one of the Christmas season's big movies, grossing over $127 million in North America. Even so, it needed foreign tickets (which earned over $200 M) to recoup the $150 million budget.

In what is a first for the studio, Paramount has enlisted highly-regarded independent label The Criterion Collection to handle the premium two-disc special edition of Benjamin Button. Right off the bat, that move establishes the film as belonging to an elite class of cinema, its spine number "476" linking it to the works of Kurosawa, Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman, and Wes Anderson. Benjamin Button simultaneously arrives in a barebones standard single-disc DVD (which isn't given Criterion branding) and a two-disc Blu-ray (which is).

Buy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: 2-Disc Criterion Collection DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Video Extras Captioned and Subtitled
Release Date: May 5, 2009
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $34.98
Clear Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in 1-Disc DVD and on Blu-ray Disc

VIDEO and AUDIO

Like all other Fincher movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button appears in a wide widescreen aspect ratio (2.40:1). Highly stylized and atmospherically-colored, the film looks terrific here except in places where it's meant not to, such as the aged train station clock backstory and lightning strike shots. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack also delights, with a sensible use of atmosphere and direction heard throughout.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Disc 1's only bonus feature is an audio commentary by David Fincher recorded earlier this year. Solo tracks are tough to pull off, but thankfully Fincher is as comfortable speaking over his film as he is speaking through it. Unlike commentaries that lead your mind to wander or body to multi-task, the tone and content of Fincher's revelations hold you engaged throughout. He drops the occasional f-bomb and confesses he's not a fan of people who scout out errors. For the most part, he's open, articulate, and informative. Among the many subjects addressed in his full, steady stream are casting, working with elderly extras, visual tricks and effects, actors, scenes he's dissatisfied with, locations, and the secret of Aaron Spelling's success.

If you enjoy the film, this is a worthwhile listen and would have to rank among the best I've heard attached to one of last year's films. (It's not, however, as memorable as Robert Downey Jr.'s in-character session on Tropic Thunder or Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's musical accompaniment to Step Brothers.)

Disc 2 places nearly all its material under the title "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button." While there is a "Play All" option listed to yield one giant piece (2:55:08), it is really a "Play Most" that excludes photo-based features and certain featurettes. For those wanting to watch everything and in easy-to-digest under-30-minute doses, the supplements are divided into four sections.

Married producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy were involved with this project for close to 20 years. They discuss the long, storied path to filming in "Development and Pre-production." David Fincher and his crew visit the New Orleans locations they intend to shoot in "Tech Scouts." The short, early, aged sequence featuring Elias Koteas' blind clockmaker makes up a considerable part of the Storyboard gallery.

First Trimester

In the "Preface" (3:59), David Fincher explains how the different strong emotions he felt at his daughter's birth and his father's death drew him to the film. "Development and Pre-production" (28:04) shares with us the long, rich history of the project, recalling how it was nearly made in the early 1990s by Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. The personnel changes, reservations, and setbacks are detailed. Then, we learn about the progression to move forward once the story and film had been relocated from Baltimore to New Orleans, which is suddenly rendered challenging by Hurricane Katrina.

"Tech Scouts" (12:20) shows raw footage of the production visiting the planned filming locations and mapping out shots and angles. This fly-on-the-wall approach is always an interesting alternative to tidy, glossy promotional pieces.

The section wraps up with two self-navigated galleries. The Storyboard gallery holds about 218 stills, with a majority of its rough sketches illustrating the film's clockmaker, sea and war scenes. The Art direction gallery supplies another 47 images, these being a mix of color and black & white photos that capture the lighting and moods of settings and sequences.

As the production documentary shows us, the elderly Benjamin Button is clearly not played by Brad Pitt on set, but a short man in a blue cap. British actor Jason Flemyng shares how he applied for the part of Thomas Button and eventually became aware he got it in one of the Production documentaries. A photo, a sketch, and a frame from the film illustrate how young/old Benjamin Button's clothing was developed in "Costume Design."

Second Trimester

The bulk of this section comes in the documentary "Production", which is divided into a Part 1 (26:11) and Part 2 (29:00) but is designed to play through without a pause. Natural and appropriate for a film of this size, this most general making-of tackles no shortage of topics. Among them: the long shoot of relatively short working days, casting, researching period facts, the challenges of filming in post-Katrina New Orleans, the challenges of having Canada depict European locales, Fincher's eye for detail and high tolerance for many takes, working with extras, working with Benjamin stand-ins, and Fincher's working with his stars. Avoiding self-congratulation, this well-produced piece is comprehensive, informative, and fun to watch.

The aptly-titled featurette "Costume Design" (7:30) lets Oscar nominee Jacqueline West open up about the clothing seen in the film. Speaking over wardrobe sketches, photos and clips, West comments on her influences, the significance of certain articles, and the demands of this project. A Costume gallery provides 24 color photos that clearly display attire worn by extras and Daisy.

Per "Performance Capture", Brad Pitt tries to synch up his facial movements and expressions with those of the actor in the wheelchair. Brad Pitt has evidence of his age removed with a digital "Youthenization" process by Lola Visual Effects. "The Simulated World" shows how this aerial view of Paris is rendered historic one colorful section at a time. Thanks, technology!

Third Trimester

We move to the post-production stage with five Visual effects featurettes that document the different techniques used on the film while it was being edited together. "Performance Capture" (7:41) has Brad Pitt acting out the parts on which his head will replace smaller actors'.
"Benjamin" (16:52) covers more of the animation processes involved to turn Pitt into an older man. "Youthenization" (6:21) illustrates the "digital face lifts" used to de-age Pitt and Blanchett at opposite ends of the film. "The Chelsea" (8:47) deals with the tugboat years and all that went into putting a soundstage ship on turbulent waters. "The Simulated World" (12:50) addresses the digital relandscaping and animation subtly used throughout the film to recreate and populate period settings. It's a process that was used less extensively on Fincher's prior film Zodiac.

Primarily through comments by Ren Klyce, "Sound Design" (16:04) reveals the efforts and challenges to accurately capture the sounds of nature, old people, and old times. It also covers dialogue looping and finding/refining the voices for elderly Benjamin and youthful Daisy.

"Desplat's Intrumentarium" (14:51) turns our attention to the music of French composer Alexandre Desplat. We see him at work, listen to his thoughts, and get to hear pieces of the Oscar-nominated score that mostly escape notice in the final film. It's a bit dull.

David Fincher directs his two big stars at a diner whose window view is of blue screen, as seen in the Production documentary. Criterion puts its mark on the Disc 1 main menu, which displays convincingly old-timey scenery. Nearly all of Disc 2's bonus material -- including an Easter egg -- can be accessed from this Curious Birth menu.

Birth

"Premiere" (4:21) gathers some final thoughts from cast and crew alongside a bit of footage from the New Orleans premiere and credits for everything before. A Production stills gallery serves up 122 photos of cast and crew at work on the sets.

The four aforementioned stills galleries are also given a section of their own.

Finally, we get two Benjamin Button trailers.
PowerDVD Ultra 9
The first (1:50) says little over its tasteful montage, the second (2:40) spells out more (but not too much) with many dialogue excerpts.

A 2-minute Easter Egg uncovered on Disc 2's "Curious Birth" menu discusses the animatronic baby used on set and the computer animation used to improve realism.

In signature Criterion fashion, we are spared things like trailers, Blu-ray promos, anti-tobacco ads, and FBI warnings on Disc 1, which loads the menus immediately. Those versatile menus are for the most part static, though the main menu screen plays a nearly 3-minute loop of mostly black & white clips/imagery and ambient noises from the film's various period settings. Disc 2 takes a similar approach, only its loop contains production audio and stills.

In packaging, Criterion chooses sleekness over a more noticeable gimmick. The minimally-embossed cardboard slipcover repeats the half-face artwork of the keepcase below. That keepcase is clear, but the reverse side of the cover shows nothing too extraordinary. Covering up one of the discs is a six-page booklet that serves up an interesting photo, film and supplement credits, and -- best of all -- Kent Jones' terrific 3-page essay on the film and Fincher's repertoire.

Some of Fincher's familiar green tinting turns up on the night that Benjamin (Brad Pitt) learns of his true parentage. On his audio commentary, David Fincher professes a distaste for using the color red, but he can't resist giving Daisy (Cate Blanchett) a dress to match her vibrant hair in this 1940s dinner scene.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't perfect, but it isn't too far from it. As an exploration of aging, life and death, a portrait of America over the years, and the story of a fantastically challenged romance, the film excels and intrigues.

The two-disc DVD definitely lives up to (and surpasses) Criterion Collection expectations. The extensive making-of material does justice to this ambitious, technically innovative production. The bonus features may be too dense for someone craving a quick how-they-did-it, but the design makes it easy to sample topical breakdowns or opt for the satisfactory 1-hour production documentary. All that's really missed here are deleted scenes, which we can probably assume weren't deemed DVD-worthy. The Criterion version presently sells for about $7 more than the standard disc, so if you honestly have no interest whatsoever in the film's making, you can save with the barebones edition. But as far as Criterion DVDs go, this one is quite affordable. And it earns a strong recommendation on the basis of the film and extras.

More on the DVD / Buy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from Amazon.com:
2-Disc Criterion Collection DVD / 1-Disc DVD / Blu-ray / Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Featuring the Cast of Benjamin Button:
Brad Pitt: Ocean's Thirteen | Cate Blanchett: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Hot Fuzz
Tilda Swinton: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe | Julia Ormond: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

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Reviewed May 7, 2009.



Text copyright 2009 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2008 Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Kennedy/Marshall Productions,
and 2009 Paramount Home Entertainment/The Criterion Collection. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.