"I was born under unusual circumstances..." – Benjamin Button
Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments. That's the tagline for the Academy Award-nominated film 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' and those words of wisdom make perfect sense. The strange tale about an odd man born in his twilight years who actually gets younger as time passes by at first seems like a rather simple and gimmicky premise, hardly enough to sustain a 160-minute runtime, but as the unique story is told magic happens. We immediately lose ourselves within the fantastical atmosphere of the film, feel gripping emotions for the characters, and even learn a very powerful message. No matter how our lives unfold, the short time we have on this earth is precious -- so we should all make the most of it without allowing a single moment go to waste.
Just as Hurricane Katrina rolls into New Orleans during the summer of 2005, an elderly woman known as Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies on her hospital deathbed in the company of her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). After Daisy shares a haunting yarn about a blind clockmaker and his broken heart, she then directs Caroline to a box filled with postcards, photographs, and a diary. Upon Daisy's request, Caroline begins reading aloud from the journal -- chronicling the amazing life story of one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt).
The narrative then travels all the way back to the day World War I ended, the very eve the wife of tycoon Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) dies while giving birth to their son. To make matters worse, Thomas sees the baby has been born with a bizarre set of chronic and terminal ailments so he abandons the dying newborn on the doorstep of a convalescence home. There an African-American caregiver called Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) finds the bundle and decides to make him comfortable in his final stages of life. Except the decrepit enigma survives, and stranger still is the fact that as each year goes by, Benjamin's body seems to be turning back the clock.
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is a monumental film, receiving a whopping thirteen Oscar nominations at the 81st Annual Academy Awards earlier this year. While I'm sure a few of them may be disputable, no one can deny that so far the film is the crowning achievement in director David Fincher's career. Marking his first Academy nomination, his vision captivates with an aura of elegance and grace that galvanizes the mind. The sets are spectacularly gorgeous, the make-up work is top-notch, and the special effects are so well-integrated it's hard to distinguish the CGI creations from reality. There are scenes where homes and even entire cities have been inserted into the image brilliantly, and except for a couple of cases out on the ocean where the waves looked slightly off to my eyes, most would go unnoticed unless you've tuned into the bonus features. The film won statuettes for these three categories (art direction, make-up, and visual effects) too -- and there's no argument from me.
Then there's Brad Pitt, who proves once again that he's more than just a pretty face -- becoming a character who is quirky, eccentric, and ultimately likable. While Benjamin Button is a quiet fellow, his presence is the loudest in the film and it doesn't take us long to forget he's a work of fiction. Likewise, Cate Blanchett is excellent as Daisy, charismatic and charming, plus I don't think there is any film where she looks more beautiful than she does here. Both of the characters are extremely compelling and their chemistry is arresting.
The screenplay by Eric Roth ('Forrest Gump,' 'The Insider,' and 'Munich') is also very strong. Loosely adapted from a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald, Roth weaves a tale of fantasy forged with elements of mystery, romance, and action -- and does so in a way that's incredibly intriguing and powerfully poetic. The only thing that I thought didn't fit snugly was the accident involving Daisy. From a story perspective it worked just fine, but logically it didn't really mesh with the rest of the narrative. Benjamin's journal contained details he couldn't possibly know, so I thought this could have been hammered out a bit better.
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is an imaginative and emotional journey which displays the complexities of a simple yet unusual life. Some will find the story uplifting and peaceful, while others will walk away feeling saddened and melancholy. The outstanding performances, stunning visuals, masterful direction, and slick writing all fuse together to form a brilliant film, one that is nearly picture-perfect.
Similar to Fincher's 'Zodiac,' much of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' was shot in 1080p high-definition -- using Thompson Viper FilmStream and Sony F23 digital cameras with color correction provided by Jan Yarbrough on FilmLight's Baselight systems. In short, the point of all this techno-babble is that the pristine digital-to-digital transfer delivers a stunning reference-quality Blu-ray disc.
Right from the moment the Paramount and Warner Brothers logos are smothered by hundreds of buttons, the sharpness and level of detail is simply breathtaking. Textures of facial features and clothing are crisp and the image has exceptionally strong depth for a pleasing three-dimensional picture. The color palette varies throughout the movie -- sometimes feeling quite cold with icy blues, steely greys, and clinical whites in the hospital, while other times (such as Benjamin's early years) the image has a sepia tone using various warm shades of yellows, golds, and browns. Black levels are rock solid too -- dark and inky with fantastic shadow detailing.
Only a handful of flashback segments were captured on 35mm film, and those have all been weathered intentionally with a treatment of dirt, scratches, specks, judder, discoloration and other imperfections in order to make these scenes distinguishable from the rest of the story. That being said, I can't fault these purposely aged clips as that's how they were meant to look.
I also didn't notice any banding, artifacting, or any other eyesores. The only thing that I did catch was a very, very mild bout of noise in a couple of the scenes when Julia Ormond was on screen (maybe she's a ghost?), but honestly this was so minuscule it doesn't make a dent in the gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.40:1 aspect ratio) presentation.
It's also worth noting that the U.S. version of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is region-locked and therefore will only function properly in Region A PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
The original theatrical sound mix for 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' was optimized by sound engineer Ren Klyce and although the packaging is a little ambiguous on the Blu-ray disc's exact audio specifications, it does in fact include a wonderful lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track.
Alexandre Desplat's haunting and atmospheric score fills the room flawlessly, making excellent use of the rear channels. The center speaker delivers crisp and clear dialogue -- even when factoring in some of the strong southern accents and deathbed mumblings. There are periodic subtle surround effects in quieter scenes, but the track really comes alive during the World War I flashbacks and the sequences at sea on The Chelsea. As one would expect, the bass is most effective during these cases and really makes its presence known. Much like the deep, bellowing horn of the tugboat, this track will knock your socks off.
Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in French and Spanish, as well as optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The Criterion Collection again impresses, by spreading many hours of bonus materials across two discs here on the Blu-ray and its DVD counterpart. It should also be noted that while there also is a non-Criterion standard-definition DVD release from Paramount, it comes without any supplemental material whatsoever.
The first disc on the Blu-ray contains the feature film and a single supplement -- an audio commentary recorded in 2009 by Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher. It's a very detailed track with Fincher discussing filming trials and tribulations, camera tricks and shooting secrets, and much more. It's tough to get through in one sitting since the film is so long, but it's still a solid commentary with a wealth of information.
All of the other supplements are enclosed on a second BD-50 Blu-ray disc, with the centerpiece being a feature called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button divided into four sections: First, Second, and Third Trimesters, as well as Birth. All four sections can be played together as a singular entity, but it's best to view them individually as they have a few inclusions unavailable in the "play all" option.
First Trimester: Beginnings
Naturally, the first section focuses on the developmental history and the pre-production stages of the project, with a few still galleries thrown in for good measure.
Second Trimester: Production
The next area centers on the production process including a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes as well as a glimpse into the costume design.
Third Trimester: Visual Effects
My personal favorite area digs deep into the award–winning visual effects and makeup. This section concludes with featurettes on the sound mixing and music.
Besides the mammoth multi-part featurette mentioned above, the release also contains a few more odds and ends worth mentioning:
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is a curious film indeed. It tells a very intriguing and unique story about the life experiences of a peculiar individual, and the three Oscars it won are certainly most well-deserved. However, a few minor hiccups in the screenplay are enough to bring it down a peg off the masterpiece pedestal for me. Anyhow, the Criterion Collection rolls out the red carpet for this Blu-ray release with reference-quality video as well as audio, and although the meaty supplements may be a reviewer's nightmare, they're definitely bound to be any fan's dream -- which easily makes the whole package one of the first must-own titles of 2009.