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Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The (Criterion) (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Image"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (CCBB) is a curious case indeed.  The film received so much praise during its release that I lost count.  I remember seeing trailers and interviews of the movie practically a year before its release.  It was surely hyped.  But for me, it didn't live up to the hype.  Don't get me wrong.  It was good, just not as good as I had envisioned.

I have always loved David Fincher's works.  "Se7vn," "The Game," "Panic Room" among several others are all suspenseful and masterfully put together.  CCBB however doesn't live up to the potential created by those films just listed.  I knew it was going to have to be a long film and didn't mind because I figured every moment would be worth it.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  There were too many drawn out moments that I could have done without.

There are two things about this film that throw me.  First, there are so many cryptic messages and symbolic items that it is really difficult to keep track of them all, let alone tie them all together.  You could rack your brain forever with the mysteries in this film.  I love symbolism in films, but CCBB took it a bit too far.  Second, I find a flaw in the concept.  If Benjamin was born old and dies as an infant, but he remains youthful while looking old, then why does his demeanor turn into a child when he dies as an infant?  His health and mentality were normal it was just that his body grew in reverse.  I suppose it would have been just too weird to have a toddler speaking with life experiences.  But that part of the concept did bother me.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born under the oddest of circumstances.  He was born prematurely old.  When his mother dies in childbirth, his father drops him off at the doorstep of an old folks home in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Benjamin is taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a caretaker at the home.  Benjamin grows up viewed and treated like an old person at the home.  However, as time goes on he moves from his wheelchair to walking with crutches to limping to walking.  It is viewed as a miracle, but when he begins to look noticeably younger, the people surrounding him take notice.  It is then that he decides to leave home.  While he looks about 70, he is really only 17.

Before Benjamin leaves New Orleans he meets Daisy, the woman that he is destined to be with.  Only problem is that she is just a girl and he is viewed as an old man.  Really though, that are about the same age.

Benjamin sets off on a tugboat, working his way across the world.  All the time he keeps writing to Daisy, who has now grown up and gone on to become one of the world's best ballet dancers.  During his time as a sailor, Benjamin meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), with whom he begins an affair.  She is the first person that really kissed him and more, with the exception of the brothel that he visited when he was younger, I mean older. One day Elizabeth disappears, leaving only a cold note.  Benjamin agrees to join the war after Pearl Harbor was bombed.  One fateful night his tugboat is attacked by a Japanese submarine.  Nearly the entire crew is wiped out.  With the captain and his friends dead, Benjamin decides to return home to New Orleans.  His mother is grateful to have him back.  It isn't long after he returns that a grown up Daisy also comes back for a visit.  While Benjamin still appears old, Daisy knows that inside he is a young man.  She offers herself to Benjamin, but he declines, as he doesn't feel the time is right.

Daisy, scorned, moves back to New York and continues her dancing career.  Benjamin tries to visit her in New York but is only turned away.  Of course, Benjamin was only there to really tell her that he had met his real father and that he had passed away.  One day Benjamin receives a telegram that informs him that Daisy has been in an accident in Paris.  He flies all the way there to make sure she is alright.  However, once again Daisy kicks him.

Once again, Benjamin is back home in Louisiana when Daisy shows up.  The time is now right for the both of them and they finally get together.  They leave happily for quite some time.  They buy a house and have fun.  Then, Daisy becomes pregnant.  Benjamin begins to realize that he cannot remain there with Daisy and his child.  His daughter needs a real father than can grow old with her and not grow younger.  Eventually Daisy would be raising two kids.

In the middle of the night Benjamin leaves.  He takes off to parts of the world unknown.  Daisy remains, raising her daughter.  She eventually marries.  But when her husband dies, she receives a telephone call from the old folks home in New Orleans.  A kid is there that has no memory, but a book that has her name and address in it.  Benjamin Button has grown so young that he only looks about 12 years old.  Daisy, old herself now, moves into the old folks home with Benjamin.  He eventually dies in her arms as a newborn infant.

The entire story is retold from the pages of Benjamin's diary, as read to Daisy on her deathbed by her one and only daughter, Benjamin's daughter.  As if the symbolism here wasn't enough, the present time of the story takes place during Hurricane Katrina.

CCBB was selected to be part of the 2008 Criterion Collection.  Criterion is dedicated to preserving works that they deem cinematically important pieces in the best quality.  This Blu-ray comes to use with an MPEG-4 AVC encode and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  The letter on the inside of the package explains the process in which the film was shot, edited and mastered.  The entirety of the film, with a few exceptions, was shot digitally using some of the best digital film cameras.  Only the best performed color and image correction to ensure the best quality is retained.  That may have been, but this isn't really a film that has enough visual aesthetics to really claim full use of the Blu-ray format.  The black levels are perfect, but the shadow delineation is not appropriate for home viewing.  The image needs an absorbent amount of lumens to really differentiate the shades of black.  This is bothersome because so many textures and details are lost in the dark sequences.  A lot of the film is in this dark mode.  The contrast also seems to be boasted just ever so slightly.  Some of the white appear blown out.  Having been shot on digital, there is no film grain and the source is impeccably clean.  During daylight sequences the details and textures are clear and stellar.  Colors are what they are.  The entirety of the film deals in yellows and blues.  However, I know the colors are there because of the few sunset/sunrise sequences.  The colors there are simply exquisite.  When viewed under the optimal room lighting conditions and with a high-end home theater projector, this Blu-ray transfer is outstanding, so I know the quality is there.  But for typically home viewers, they will be left a little disappointed.

For the first time I can remember, Paramount has released a Blu-ray with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track.  This goes against their typical Dolby TrueHD tracks.  This is most likely due to the Criterion collaboration.  Once again, the audio is stellar but not for typical home theater listeners.  The most annoying aspect the dialogue, which is unfortunate as it is the most important part of the audio track.  You will rarely understand a word said by Daisy on her deathbed.  However, this is not so much the transfer but the recorded dialogue.  Still, work could have been done to improve the intelligibility.  The track contains some good dynamics, especially when Hurricane Katrina hits in the middle of a quite dialogue scene.  Envelopment is very nice.  The music is not just bled into the rear channels.  There is discreet 5.1 music scoring going on here.  Ambience is also noticeable in the surround channels.  Front to rear panning is not present very much as the sound design doesn't call for it, but it is there.  The LFE is not prominent throughout, nor should it be, but it does kick in when necessary.  This is an excellent overall audio track, home listeners will really need to crank up their systems to understand the dialogue.

CCBB comes in a 2-disc Blu-ray package.  The first disc contains the film and an audio commentary track by director David Fincher.  With such a long movie, it may be hard for most of you to listen to this track all the way through.  However, I strongly recommend the commentary as Fincher explains so much of the details that we simply overlook as casual viewers.  The first disc also contains a Timeline feature that allows you to select a scene based on film and commentary themes.

The second Blu-ray disc is where the bulk of the special features are.  And, I must say they are quite exquisite.  "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a documentary that runs longer than the movie, coming in just shy of three hours.  You can play the documentary in pieces, "Birth," "First Trimester," "Second Trimester" and "Third Trimester."  This is helpful considering the length of the documentary.  This documentary has Fincher expanding on many of the themes of the film and has mostly new information not found in his commentary.  The "First Trimester" contains the "Development and Pre-Production" featurette that looks at the history of the making this film, which is surprisingly a long time coming.  Following this segment there are three sections; "Tech Scouts" – about the locations, and a Storyboard section and Art Direction section.

The next part of the documentary is the "Second Trimester."  This segment features "Production – part 1" and "Production – Part 2."  These segments have cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and discussions of the production value of the film.  The segment is rounded out with a piece on Costume Design and a section of Costume Stills.

The "Third Trimester" is next and it takes a look at the post-production aspects of the film.  "Visual Effects: Performance Capture" is the first segment and it examines some of the film's basic CGI effects.  "Visual Effects: Benjamin" is an awesome featurette that examines how the aging process of Benjamin was accomplished.  "Visual Effects: Youthenization" expands on the previous concept.  Next is "Visual Effects: The Chelsea" takes a look at simulated harbor life.  "Visual Effects: The Simulated World" expands on the previous concept when it comes to historical locations.  Lastly, there are two segments on sound design, my favorite part.  "Sound Design" examines the editing of the dialogue and sound effects, although I didn't get my answer as to the problem with the dialogue clarity.  Finally, "Desplat's Instrumentarium" delves into the film scoring process.

The final segment is "Birth."  There isn't much in this section.  There is a segment on the film's New Orleans premiere day, a couple theatrical trailers and a photo gallery.

This is quite the bonus package.  It is terrific having all the featurettes intertwined instead of two-minute featurettes spread across the disc.

CCBB is a great film by any standard.  The concept is highly original and is pure genius.  However, the story lags and lacks in parts.  This probably a movie you can watch more than once, maybe twice.  The audio and video are reference theater quality, but not really reference home viewer and listener quality.  But, if you have the high-end gear you will simply love the look and sound of this film.  Despite its faults I have no hesitating in recommending this film and Blu-ray package.

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