Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Criterion Collection, The (US - BD)
Gabe's curious as to why Criterion picked this film, and not Inseminoid...
I yammered on in pretty boring detail about my affection for and theories on director David Fincher in my review of Zodiac, but for those of those that don’t want to re-read my doldrums I’ll sum it up really quick. So far Fincher’s filmography follows a similar pattern to the Star Trek films, i.e. the best ones are the even numbered ones when read in release order. Fincher’s never made anything nearly as awful as The Final Frontier, but there’s a definite pattern to his work. His best films (2. Seven, 4. Fight Club, and 6. Zodiac) are exercises in perfection and originality, while his (relatively) weaker films (1. Alien 3, 3. The Game, and 5. Panic Room) are fascinating technical studies with less involving scripts. His latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button represents film number seven, an odd number, and it doesn’t quite buck the trend.
Benjamin Button is an unmistakable technical masterpiece. If we’re judging things purely on special effects production, cinematography, production design, and overall prettiness, then Fincher and co. have crafted another flawless jewel. The digital effects magic is so subtle and impeccably achieved that it’s quite easy to forget about them all together, which leaves the audience open to enjoy the handsome set decoration, lighting, and storybook inspired colour pallet. After a while the speed at which the story is unravelled, not to mention the basic theme, necessitates repetition in the visuals. This becomes an excuse to move beyond the visuals to fully absorb the acting. Unfortunately the acting, while enormously capable and, well, handsome, is kind of low-key, which leaves us with the plot. And the plot has some issues.
Everything starts very well, setting a precedence that won’t be retouched upon, and which naturally follows Fincher’s other work. The first story Blanchett tells on her deathbed is that of Gateau the blind clockmaker, who makes a clock that runs backwards in hopes of resurrecting the children lost during the First World War. The story has little bearing on Benjamin Button’s life, but it features fairytale logic, a thematic barring, and is shot in major contrast to the rest of the film (modern and major story sequences). The scene introduces an original storytelling style to the film, but then disappears, and does not return save the brief scenes recalling lightning strikes, and Tilda Swinton recalling her failed swim across the English Channel.
The first hour plugs along with a sweet touch. Benjamin’s ‘childhood’ is a complete filmic original. Here Benjamin’s growth is most visually clear, and the digital wizardry is at its most impressive. The retirement home sequences feature their own narrative arc, and actually stand alone pretty well (which would make more sense if Benjamin Button were based on a more episodic novel). These scenes also force the audience to identify with elderly people during a time before television, when they spent their waning days doing simple things, and experiencing their deaths together. Benjamin’s ‘parents’ and ‘teachers’ are fragile, but far from pathetic, setting them apart from most mainstream movie elders, and yet these scenes don’t wallow in sentiment and sap—they earn their warmth through subtlety.
When Benjamin leaves home the story loses me. Strong performances from Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris don’t overcome tired life lessons of love lost, the futility of war, and the sadness of death, which overtake the production. Without ever realizing who screenwriter Eric Roth was I immediately started recalling Forest Gump—another handsome and technically incredible film that loves its characters, while ironing flat the real intricacies of period storytelling. Now I know the comparisons between Gump and Benjamin Button were the biggest point of contention for most critics, but at the time I was simply reacting.
The second and third acts are an uphill trudge, though seven feet of snow, with only hits of the kind of genius we should expect from David Fincher, especially the kind of David Fincher willing to hang onto this particular story for more than a decade. There’s a shell shocking war scene, an intricate spooling of incidental events that leads to tragedy, and some truly disheartening scenes of Benjamin’s death/unbirth, but otherwise the mundanity of the story takes precedence, which was apparently Fincher’s over-arching goal for the film. The love story is stiff, and the characters involved more likeable without each other, so the sentiment is lost in rolling tides of vague annoyance. And when we get to the natural end of the uninteresting love story Benjamin leaves again, and has a bunch of adventures I’d much rather see on film. But we’re merely teased, and left with only some genuinely sad last moments to hang onto.
As a slight aside, I adore the matter of fact fashion in which the majority of the characters treat Benjamin’s affliction. Even when it matters to a character (like Benjamin’s father), it only matters to help Benjamin move on in his rather listless life. This is in keeping with the major rule of a single inescapable suspension of disbelief being the limit for most successful science fiction (because Benjamin Button is at its basis a science fiction tale), and informs the fairytale aspects that Fincher loses pretty early into the film.
My biggest problems with the film are the almost embarrassingly wrongheaded present day (2005) sequences. These scenes are unneeded, awkward, heavy handed, plodding, poorly directed, overacted, and stop the already meandering plotline dead. The storytelling aspect of the story isn’t a problem, and I’m fine with Pitt’s narration, but the old fashion, over-used flashback structure is tragically dumb. The second or third cutback marks a point where the Forest Gump comparisons become overbearing, and unappealing. Setting this part of the narrative during the events of Hurricane Katrina is an equal annoyance. I hate to assume that Fincher and Roth were just including the event because it’s an important social time marker, but there’s no tragedy in the event, no release of narrative tension, not even a comparison to events of Button’s life, so we’re left without many more options. If it was meant as some kind of subtle reminder Fincher might need to readjust his subtly knobs. Why not at least include the events of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 as some kind of comparison? Subtracting this weakness would’ve shortened the runtime by a gracious twenty or so minutes, would’ve focused the narrative, and would’ve shown more faith in the audience’s modern narrative sensibilities.
There’s nothing negative I can say about this beautiful Blu-ray transfer. It’s a match for all my favourite transfers. The whole film has a kind of illustrated look, tinted in gold, and decorated as if by hand by everyone’s great grandmother. Different time periods and locations outside the nursing home utilize more natural colour schemes, but there’s still a consistent, and beautiful pallet (save the snowy scenes taking place in outer Russia). Some of the night-time scenes are almost monochromatic in nature. The unifying element is the perfectly deep, crisp, and noiseless blacks. I still don’t like the modern bookends, but it’s hard to miss the major contrast in pallets and lighting. The film has a fair share of incredibly dark sequences (in true David Fincher fashion), and when I saw the film on the big screen it was sometimes almost impossible to tell what was going on (the Mall of America theatre isn’t the best in the Twin Cities). On this Blu-ray the jet black figures are perfectly defined with pin lights and edge lights that were easy to miss on a slightly sullied print.
Even under the scrutinous eye of 1080p high definition the complex special effects stand up ninety percent of the time. The young Benjamin Button is more or less spot-on. The only major inconsistencies appear when Button reaches middle-age, and when Blanchett’s face is grafted onto a ballet dancer’s body. Sometimes things look a little too smooth, and there are a few trips to the uncanny valley.
Benjamin Button fits snugly in the obsessive compulsive David Fincher repertoire, featuring an immersive soundscape, though one more subtle than those that adorn his other features (save Zodiac). The sound design is active, yet the activity is never unmotivated, and rarely showy. Big moments include the brief war scene, outdoor scenes in both Louisiana and New York City, oceanic scenes, and some crowded hallways. For the most part things are low-key and realistic, but the production is never dull or empty, and the aural representation always moves quite clearly through the channels. Dialogue is pretty consistent, though sometimes things are a bit too high in gain, such as whispered dialogue that threatens to disappear into the production. The nearly perfect sound production is marred by the silly decision to dub little Daisy’s voice.
Alexandre Desplat’s score consistently threatens to devolve into self satisfied melodrama, but the composer holds onto just the right aspects of his usual kid’s and period film work. The score isn’t massive in the rear channels, but its stereo elements are lively, and the mix is brimming with many varying musical elements (string, brass, music box elements).
There is a distinct lack of double dipping in David Fincher’s backlog, but the DVD releases of his films were all up to the then current greatness standards, usually pushing things at least a hair over the edge of normalcy. Last year’s Zodiac special edition release (which found its way onto Blu-ray this year) was a huge standout, so expectations for this Benjamin Button release were high. At least they were for me. The film was so technically amazing that it didn’t take a leap of faith to assume that the making-of process would be fascinating. The fact that the Criterion Collection picked the film up was simply a verification of quality (if not a slightly confusing choice considering my opinion of the finer points of the actual film).
Things begin with yet another fantastic David Fincher commentary track. Fincher offers a lot of defence against my less than supportive responses to the film, including mention of things that were cut from the original script. The bookends were intended to be much longer, and the more unfocused and maudlin story aspects were apparently mostly nipped in the bud before production. Largely the track is focused on technical bits, and the difficulties of making all the special effects look so subtle, but it’s far from a heartless commentary.
This takes us to disc two, which starts under the ‘Curious Birth of Benjamin Button’ menu, which itself is split into four parts—First Trimester, Second Trimester, Third Trimester and Birth. The ‘play all’ option plays all the video information in a sort of long documentary form. The documentary features some of the most artistically shot behind the scenes footage I’ve ever seen, and the interviews are shot head on against a black back-drop, very similar to the interview segments on the Zodiac extras.
The early pre-production story behind the film is the most interesting part of the doc, including mention of directors approached for the project over the decades (it took about twenty years to get the thing made), which includes Frank Oz, Spike Jonez, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. The ‘First Trimester’ (32:00) section also features interesting information concerning the ways the producers managed to keep the cost down (which included re-writing the script to take place in New Orleans), and some early digital tests. There’s also a lot of talk about Hurricane Katrina, none of which I found a satisfying reasoning for half-heartedly including the disaster in the film.
‘Second Trimester’ (55:00) concerns the filming period, and holds all the artistic location footage you can shake a period appropriate, perfectly re-created, and softly lit stick at. The actual footage is hit and miss concerning actual entertainment (there are some exceedingly technical bits), but the interview footage is consistently interesting, including an introduction to some of the supporting actors. Footage of the pre-Pitt stand-ins in unaltered scenes, and the time lapse make-up collections are also pluses.
‘Third Trimester’ (80:00) covers the lengthy post-production process, which includes the arduous tasks of editing (especially pre-effects assembly) and crafting the visual effects. Pitt’s motion capture performance is particularly amusing, until one stops to think about how utterly boring the process must have been for everyone—then it’s hilarious. Strangely, the digital artists all act as if Gollum never happened, but their interviews are still relatively engaging, and the digital processes relatively interesting despite dozens of other such DVD extras. Get ready for a lot of before and after images. The sound design and music is also covered in this section.
‘Birth’ (04:20 with credits) is a wrap-up with the interviewees, and a collection of footage from the New Orleans premier. Under each subheading are a few more extras that aren’t included when you hit ‘play all’. Under ‘First Trimester’ are a collection of video tech scouts (12:30), a storyboard gallery, and an art direction gallery. Under ‘Second Trimester’ is a featurette on costume design (07:30), and a costume gallery. Under ‘Birth’ is a production still gallery. The disc also features all of these galleries under a stills menu, and two trailers.
To reiterate— The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a technical masterpiece, but painfully flawed in the narrative departments. Still, it begs at least a single viewing from any and all that consider themselves film fans, even if just for its incredible visual achievements. I personally can’t see myself ever watching it again, so I can’t really recommend the purchase based on the film alone, but the Criterion special edition Blu-ray features a flawless 1080p transfer, a subtle and solid DTS-HD track, and hours of in-depth extras, extras I may be more likely to re-watch than the film itself.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 5th May 2007
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button Documentary, Galleries, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Elias Koteas, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Phyllis Somerville
Length: 165 minutes
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