The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Synopsis

“I was born under unusual circumstances . . .” Thus begins The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Academy Award–winning film starring Brad Pitt as a man who is born in his eighties and ages backward, and Cate Blanchett as the woman he is destined to love forever. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a monumental journey—as unusual as it is epic—that follows Benjamin’s remarkable adventure of romance and redemption from the end of World War I through the twenty-first century. Directed by David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a powerful testament to life and death, love and loss.

Picture 8/10

Paramount and Criterion present The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two disc set. The image has of course been enhanced for widescreen televisions.

The film was shot digitally and I assume that the digital source was used for this DVD. This obviously means there are no marks, scratches or any other source material flaws since the movie never touched film. There are some “old timey” (as Fincher calls them) aging effects applied at times, but this was purposely done.

Colours look spectacular, despite the fact a majority of the film is rather dark, filled with dirty browns and grays. When brighter colours are shown they are quite bright, fairly vibrant with one scene showing Benjamin and Daisy sitting in striking blue water being one of the stand out moments.

There are some minor problems with the digital transfer. The film is almost three hours and thankfully Paramount devoted the entire first disc to the film, moving all supplements (other than the commentary of course) to the second disc. But because of the length and limited space there are some compression artifacts that are noticeable at varying degrees throughout the film, ranging from some noise to mild edge-enhancement. Some sequences also look a little softer than I would have expected, lacking detail. I’m sure the Blu-ray will improve on these problems.

It’s not up to some of Criterion’s recent transfers of late, but I think the film’s length does limit it. I’m actually looking forward to seeing how the Blu-ray release will come off. As it stands, despite its problems, the image is still quite good.

(There is also a single-disc edition of the film coming out, missing all of the features and without the Criterion branding. I haven’t seen this release but assume it will contain the same transfer.)

Audio 8/10

The DVD presents a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (the Blu-ray will present a DTS-HD track.) The film is fairly somber, though still has a fairly active, distinct track. Sound quality is perfect, not a surprise for a newer film. The surrounds get some use with music and sound effects sneaking back there. They really only become active during a couple of the more action oriented sequences such as the tug boat vs. U-boat scene. Movement between the speakers is natural, dynamic range is strong, and volume is excellent. It’s now a track aiming to show off, but it’s strong and serves the film perfectly.

Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish tracks are also available.

Extras 10/10

This two-disc edition of the film, being released under the Criterion branding, is pretty much what you would expect from a release for a David Fincher film. Like the two-disc release for his previous film, Zodiac (which was one of my favourite DVDs from 2008 I might add) the supplements on here are incredibly extensive and at times exhausting, covering every aspect of the film. In total the supplements come in at around 6 and a half hours.

(I should note this DVD is actually a Paramount release and has some quirks common for bigger studio releases. Unlike other Criterion titles the second disc opens with the Criterion and Paramount logos, a copyright warning, and a disclaimer about how comments made in the features do not reflect the opinions Paramount Home Entertainment. All of this is not skippable so you have to wait to get through them to get to the menu. Surprisingly the first disc actually goes right to the menu and doesn’t feature any of this.)

The supplements are quite strong on this release and actually prove (for me at least) more interesting than the film. I must also admit that they actually made me appreciate the film a little more.

Disc one only presents one feature, which is an audio commentary by director David Fincher. I like Fincher’s commentary tracks and this one is another excellent recording. It is heavy into the technical details of the film, which is usually what Fincher talks about since he’s very visual, but he also touches on some of the film’s themes and does defend it from some of the criticisms thrown at it. There’s a lot of talk about the special effects in the film, the hard task it was to age and then “de-age” (I guess you could say) the performers using computer effects, and he even points out places where effects were used and not at all obvious. He also talks a lot about how tight money was, despite the film’s rather large budget. The death of his father seems to have been a huge influence over him in the making of this film, and he mentions it every once in a while, which leads him into the film’s themes of death. There’s mention of deleted sequences, including another “lightening story” scene, but they aren’t found on this DVD (probably the only item this DVD is missing) and he talks about working with the two studios, Paramount and Warner Bros. An interesting aspect of the track, early on, is he mentions there was a real desire by the big wigs to cut what is actually my favourite part out of the film, the opening clock sequence with Elias Koteas, but Fincher managed to keep it in. By the sounds of it there was a lot that was cut and trimmed, but the sequences mentioned aren’t found anywhere. Overall it’s an excellent track, and I have to say it did actually make me appreciate the film a little more, caused me to think about it a bit more and I’ll more than likely revisit the film again sometime in the future.

The remaining supplements are found on the second dual-layer disc.

The big feature is a 2 hour and 55 minute documentary on the making of the film called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, probably one of the most comprehensive documentaries I’ve ever seen on the making of a newer film. This feature covers just about everything about the film, down to every little detail. More amazing is the fact it’s even longer than the film.

You have a few options to watch the feature. When you select it from the main menu you are taken to a sub menu that gives you the option to “Play All”, which plays the entire documentary. It’s also broken out into 4 sections (which I’ll cover further on in the review.)

The documentary covers pre-production, production, and then post-production (and also quickly covers the film’s premiere.) It begins with how the project first came into being, way back in 1986. Since then it’s moved from studio to studio (Universal to Paramount and then as a co-production between Paramount and Warner Bros.) and from director to director (it began with Frank Oz attached and then went to Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) and from actor to actor (believe it or not, Martin Short was first attached, then Tom Cruise.) Finally, after Spike Jonze walked away, it went to Fincher. It’s long history had to do with the technical limitations at the time. After some starts and stops after getting to Fincher, some script revisions (with Eric Roth completely redoing the original script by Robin Swicord), and issues with his two stars Pitt and Blanchett (Fincher shamelessly admits he was glad the two ended up dropping out of The Fountain, though offers apologies to Aronofsky) the film finally went into production, almost 20 years after it first started going around town.

The production section covers the actual shooting, offering plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, and also offers some footage without finished effects shots. The attention to detail in this doc is quite good. For example, one sequence early in the film presents a quick WWI battle sequence that really only lasts a few seconds. The documentary spends at least 5-minutes covering how the sequence was done, even getting down to the nitty-gritty of how the explosions were done (old school pyrotechnics.) The documentary also features interviews with members of the cast including (but not limited to) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, and Jared Harris, who jokes about how his friends would ask him what it was like working with Pitt, despite the fact he did most of his acting with Pitt’s body double (Pitt’s head digitally inserted into those scenes later.) It covers location shooting in New Orleans and then Montreal, which apparently presented a less friendly work environment (and the Montreal people are described as “wonderful people who were happy to see us go.”) There’s also extensive amount of detail about the sets and their construction, and like Zodiac, there are plenty of sequences that use CGI that are not obvious at all and I was sort of surprised when the documentary points these scenes out.

the post-production section (the longest section of the documentary) heavily covers the film’s special effects. It begins with the film’s editing process, showing how Fincher would approve of the editing (using software that reminds me of bug tracking software I’ve used.) It then gets into how the aging effects were done, starting with motion capture on Pitt (and it looks like most of Pitt’s performance was actually done in a warehouse while attached to a rather uncomfortable looking device) and then goes through the rather surprising number of steps it took to insert an aging Pitt into the film. It then covers the effects that were done to make their actors look younger, which is nothing new in Hollywood apparently (one effects member comments that they do this for plenty of movies but aren’t allowed to talk about it, this being one of the few cases where they can.) I actually found this aspect interesting as they talk about the techniques and formulas used to make someone look younger (with the aid of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon of course.) There’s plenty of step-by-step sequences, before-and-after comparisons, and plenty of shots of actors being trapped in something as their heads and/or faces are scanned. The whole documentary is actually quite fascinating but this section is of course the most intriguing and the one most will jump right to.

The post-production section also covers the sound effects in the film, including Pitt’s change in voice, which was mostly him, but there were some modifications through computers. And then there is a long bit with composer Alexandre Desplat, who talks about writing the score for the film, and includes footage of him editing/writing, and then recording the score with an orchestra. The documentary then ends with its premiere in New Orleans.

Like previous Fincher releases, this is an extensive, fascinating, detail-oriented (and extremely technical) making-of, and alone is worth the extra bit of money when compared to the price of Paramount’s single-disc edition of the film. I found it completely fascinating, and much more honest and revealing than other documentaries of this nature. It’s long, but well worth it.

This documentary pretty much makes up for the supplements on this release, though there’s some other things hidden in here.

As I mentioned before the documentary is also broken out into four sections from its sub menu and then each item contains its own sub menu. These sections contain segments from the complete documentary and then also contain material not found in the documentary. I’ll go through each one.

First Trimester presents two sections from the documentary, Preface, running about 4-minutes, and Development and Pre-production, running 28-minutes. This section also includes 12-minutes worth of footage under Tech Scouts, covering some of the location scouts. It shows some discussion on how some scenes will play out and how the camera will move, and even shows locations that were ultimately not used (as noted.)

Two galleries are also found here, including a storyboard gallery and an art direction gallery. The storyboard gallery is an extensive collection of hand drawn and computer rendered boards, and I’ll be honest and state I didn’t get through it all. At first I thought the entire collection of boards were included here, though after what I think was 50-60 frames this obviously wasn’t the case. The opening sequence looks to be extensively covered, as are a lot of the moments on the tug boat. The art direction gallery is also a long one, presenting various photos of the sets and locations in the film.

The next section, Second Trimester again has two parts from the complete documentary, including Production: Part 1, running 26-minutes, and Production: Part 2, running 29-minutes. Not included in the documentary is Costume Design, which is a 7-and-a-half minute interview with Jacqueline West, who talks about her influences for the costumes, which were a mix of handmade and found pieces. There’s also sketches and photos mixed in.

You’ll also find a Costume Gallery, which is actually a very short collection of photos showcasing the film’s costumes. Unfortunately no sketches are included, which I at least would have liked.

Third Trimester doesn’t present anything exclusive and only presents sections that are shown in the complete documentary, including Visual Effects: Performance Capture (8-minutes), Visual Effects: Benjamin (17-minutes), Visual Effects: Youthenization (6-minutes), Visual Effects: The Chelsea (9-minutes), Visual Effects: The Simulated World (13-minutes), Sound Design (16-minutes), and Desplat’s Instrumentarium (15 minutes), which is the interview with the composer.

Birth presents the Premiere, a 4-minute bit also found in the documentary. You’ll also find a gallery of Production Stills, a good sized collection of photos from the set, which includes some of the effects work, sculptures and renderings, sets (in front of blue screens), stand-in actors for Pitt, group shots of various crew members, lots of shots of Fincher, and more blue screens.

Outside of the documentary section of the release, on the main menu, you’ll find Theatrical Trailers which takes you to two of them, and a Stills Gallery, which contains the same galleries found elsewhere (storyboard gallery, art direction gallery, costume gallery, and production stills gallery.)

And of course it wouldn’t be a Criterion Collection release if it didn’t contain some sort of insert. Criterion has been going ballistic with booklets lately, but this release only contains a small insert with a short three page essay by Kent Jones, which offers praise for the film and Fincher, and is actually a pretty good read.

And that’s it. Technically speaking Criterion had very little to do with putting this release together, the special edition being handled by David Prior who has produced all of Fincher’s prior DVD releases (as I understand it.) Since the film is so new there’s very little in the way of analysis of the film, something most Criterion releases offer. Still, it’s a very thorough, complete package, almost up there with the 2-disc Zodiac release. Admirers and fans of the film will most assuredly be happy with this.

Closing

It is actually a very nice DVD release and I give it a high recommendation to those who are looking to own the film. The transfer has a couple of problems but they are minimal and won’t hurt your viewing (but I’m sure the Blu-ray will look stunning.) But what makes this release even more attractive is the extensive making-of documentary, The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, which covers the exhaustive decades long process of making the film. I haven’t seen the single-disc release (being released the same day as this one) but I feel I can safely say this is the one to pick up. A very nice, comprehensive package.

NOTE ON THIS RELEASE: There seems to be some confusion about this release and I've inserted a note here to clear up some questions. Paramount Home Entertainment handled just about every aspect of this release, including printing, manufacturing, and distribution. In essence this is a Paramount DVD with Criterion Collection branding, Criterion having very little, if anything, to do with this release. The packaging was handled completely by Paramount, which is why the keep case is a different style from what Criterion uses.

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Directed by: David Fincher
Year: 2008
Time: 167 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 476
Licensor: Paramount Home Entertainment
Release Date: May 05 2009
MSRP: $34.98
 
DVD
2 Discs | DVD-9
2.40:1 ratio
 (Anamorphic)
English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
French 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Region 1
 
 Audio commentary featuring Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher   Never-before-seen footage revealing the innovative techniques behind the Academy Award–winning visual effects and makeup   Step-by-step examination of the motion-capture process aging Brad Pitt   In-depth exploration of David Fincher’s creative process on the set   Interview with acclaimed composer Alexandre Desplat about the score   Featurettes on the film’s storyboards, costumes, and Academy Award–winning art direction   Stills galleries, including costume design and candid behind-the-scenes production photos   Insert featuring an essay by film critic Kent Jones