The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made the #2 slot on my list of top ten films of 2008, but when my review copy arrived I couldn’t help but feel a little concerned it may not live up to what I remembered. I have already given the film an A and written two commentaries about it. My stance is there for everyone to read in digital black-and-white, but was it all just a matter of seeing it at the right time? This is hardly a film that fits into any one genre and is a tricky one to fall in love with, which is evident from the mixed feelings audiences came out of the theater with. Fortunately for me, my concern was much ado about nothing as my memories are just as intact as they were after walking out of the theater last December.
I absolutely love this film and the Criterion Blu-ray presentation in conjunction with Paramount Home Entertainment is gorgeous. The DTS audio track is rarely utilized due to the quiet nature of most of the film, but it comes in handy when called upon for a thunderous boom or gunfire from a World War II submarine, which will leave your speakers shaking. I received the DVD review copy prior to the Blu-ray, but held off on watching it as I wanted to experience it at its very best, and I couldn’t recommend any other way to do it if you have the means.
Benjamin Button doesn’t fit into the modern convention of cinema. It isn’t centered on explosions and car chases, it doesn’t center on the problem-resolution style of storytelling and while it has an overwhelming amount of visual effects the filmmakers hope you don’t notice any of them and merely fall deep into the story. This is a film about love, life and most prominently death and thanks to the work of the Oscar-winning visual effects team Benjamin Button embraces all of these things leaving the visual effects as something of an afterthought for those that dwell on such matters.
So often people tend to think acting depends on how many words are spoken or how much emotion is conjured up and visualized through extremes. Emotional pain must be shown with tears and physical distress in order for audiences to believe any kind of real acting has taken place. With Benjamin Button so much of the work is done in a glance or a single word. Phrases are uttered and silence follows allowing the viewer to figure out what it all means and how it relates to the story or even our own lives.
On several occasions I was reminded of a recent feature on Criterion’s release of Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro and how Truffaut was able to get so much out of Catherine Deneuve in one specific scene just by telling her which direction to look, and all without saying a word. The scene was shot as an aside, without any context and only Truffaut’s direction. The director knew exactly what look was needed to achieve the necessary effect, and throughout much of Benjamin Button I was reminded of this technique and again while watching the visual effects features on disc two. Fincher took a similar approach with Pitt when they were capturing the facial expressions for Benjamin, but this is just the tip of the effects iceberg as the supplemental material included with this set can sometimes be a bit too revealing.
Disc one contains the film as well as a feature audio commentary with director David Fincher. Fincher’s commentary is a good listen, but may come off as relatively dry to some. I personally found it to be quite informative as he delves into all aspects of the making of the film, with the more interesting bits revolving around story details. Of course I couldn’t help but laugh when he points out a $20,000 effect shot in which we merely see Benjamin’s face as part of a sea of faces. He also dips into story elements such as noting the Gateau storyline (the clockmaker at the beginning of the film) was something almost everyone encouraged him to get rid of since it didn’t directly involve Benjamin. Personally I am glad they left it in, considering this is a film centered on Ben Button, but isn’t necessarily about him.
Disc two is where I feel a little too much of the magic behind the film is revealed. “The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button” is the name of the 2 hour and 55 minute making-of documentary on the second disc. It is broken up into four parts (First, Second and Third Trimester and Birth), all four of which can also be viewed separately. You can choose to watch all four with the “Play All” feature, but once you drill down into each one you will notice all but the “Third Trimester” include additional features not part of the “Play All” function, which actually renders it pretty much useless.
For what it’s worth, the entire documentary is superb. It is well produced and feels altogether special. It makes the purchase worthwhile for those of you looking to really dig into how this film was made from location scouting to visual effects work. However, I couldn’t help but feel it drains a lot of the magic out of the film and is counter-productive when discussing the film’s visual effects.
While Benjamin Button isn’t a Transformers style film with robots destroying one another and the cities that act as their battleground, this is an effects-driven film and as I said above, the filmmakers’ hopes were that the audience would not even notice the effects work and simply pay attention to the story. However, after more than an hour of features talking about how they took Brad Pitt’s head and made him look like a four-foot-tall octogenarian, how they then made him look 20 years younger and how they put Cate Blanchett’s face onto a ballerina suddenly everything that was meant to be invisible is far more prominent.
I had a similar response to the effects work on Fincher’s Zodiac following a fantastic effects feature on the HD DVD. I noted in my review how the effects work was amazing, but after seeing how it was done and where exactly it was used in the film, it now stood out when I was watching. Curiosity causes us to want to know “How did they do that?” but I think sometimes the “how” is better left a mystery.
Beyond the lengthy making of documentary — which also includes some storyboard, art direction, costume and production still galleries — you get two trailers and an included booklet containing a three-page essay by Kent Jones.
Benjamin Button is about as simple as a film can get when you look at it on the surface level. It’s a film about life and the experiences all of us have dealt with at one time or another — first kisses, first sexual experiences, first loves, etc. The magic is in the capturing of each moment in time, the intimacy involved and the way each character felt and then passing that emotion on to the audience and creating a resonance that lasts throughout the feature. I know I felt it and I hope you will too as this is a film I will never tire of watching.
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