(This review was written following the theatrical release. Scroll down for Blu Ray specific review.)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) said “It takes a long time to be young” a theory beautifully tested in David Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button was born on just any day in 1860, while screenwriter Eric Roth time warps forward to the final day of World War I, a historically auspicious day to be born.
Though this 21st century telling of the tale diverges from Fitzgerald’s, who is buried with his wife Zelda less than a mile from the local cinema, I believe he would have approved in how his Jazz Age fable was adapted for this modern audience.
Both writers present the concept, and challenge, of being born old and learning to accept – not fear, life. That as wisdom is gathered, and life experienced, one really, truly lives.
In fact, one can just imagine F. Scott and Zelda, in a parlor filled with the days pontificators of wit and wisdom questioning just how life would be different, had we only known then, what we know now. What If we could experience life with wisdom earned at an age where we could take advantage of that knowledge.
How would we live? How would we love?
It is a question for the ages. The answer lies within an unattainable quest.
Screenwriter Eric Roth has taken the concept of “born old,” walking his characters Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) through a life lived backwards, and treated it with deft care. He does not ignore details or everyday requirements, such as money. Instead he weaves the everyday mundane into the story, answering questions a less deft writer would have left unsettled.
At no time did the film reach for the obvious nor try to veil this character’s life in trite, apologetic terms. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) accepts his life, seemingly understanding the significance of his reverse path juxtaposed against all those that he loves, allowing us to do the same.
The audience is able to allow that with his golden age beginnings also comes the peace that comes with accepting ones mortality. Benjamin Button was born ready to die.
And able to live.
As we watch Benjamin Button reverse –age we witness as Daisy (Cate Blanchett) ages to physically meet him. In one scene, at the ballet bar, Benjamin states he is 49 and she is 43. For a brief moment they have landed together upon a timeline destined to tear them apart. If one thinks, and does the math, when Benjamin’s physical age reaches 46, he and Daisy will be working toward that one brief day in their lives that their paths run parallel.
And then, from that point, Benjamin will continue to travel his path, as Daisy does hers. A bit of cinematic brilliance held in a brief moment of film.
Both Pitt and Blanchett handle their roles with amazing grace and insight coming together for one of the silver screen’s greatest love affairs. We watch a sharing of life that is nothing short of magical. Mesmerizing in it acceptance of the here and now of their worlds. Blanchett is simply gorgeous invoking the glamour of the 1940’s era screen star with the optimism and verve of a 1960s performance artist.
Benjamin and Daisy share times that are filled with bursts of great joy and great sorrow. Leaving those watching wanting to live, for just one day, as they lived. With great undefined acceptance and grace.
Through wars, love, loss, joy, growth, birth and death, Benjamin Buttons travels a path diverse from all others. The wisdom of his “adopted” spiritually devout and faith driven mother Queenie (Faune A. Chambers) teaches him to accept his life with grace.
And that makes us able to accept Benjamin’s life and the choices he makes.
Choices that are seldom made for his benefit.
The cast is a true ensemble of actors that work together while Fincher allows each to step forward to center screen, illuminating how the people we meet, the actions they take, the chance circumstance of life can change who we are, how we live and how we love.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Victor Hammer who manages to capture New Orleans as it ages over a period of time that spans just short of a century. We watch Benjamin’s transformation from an old man born in a time of great tumult to a life that expires as Hurricane Katrina does her best to pummel the town he called home.
Director Fincher manages to keep the pace of the film moving so that even at over three hours in length the post-Christmas audience was absolutely silent as they absorbed this incredible film.
(This review originally posted following a theatrical film viewing.)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount Home Entertainment, on Blu-Ray)
(Warning: Many Plot Spoilers to follow)
Seeing the film in December and absolutely loving every second of it, there was a bit of unwarranted trepidation about watching it on the smaller 50-inch flat-screen.
Would it be as crisp? Would the colors be as brilliant as remembered? Would the opaque areas, the shadows that seemed to surround Benjamin Button’s life be as deep, and as wide?
Would Daisy’s (Cate Blanchet) skin be as luminous? Would Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt’s) eyes be so blue/green/hazel?
The answer is, gratefully yes. But making this a Blu Ray absolutely must have addition to your film library is The Criterion Collection available on the second disc of the Blu Ray.
Watching films for the last 40 or so years, I have learned many things about the film and filmmaking. I am fascinated by how computer imaging and graphic arts have created new tricks for the trade.
From The Criterion Collection extras, which could easily stand along as a disc worthy of purchasing, I learned the technical “hows” that went into the filming the Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
But I also learned the emotional hows that allowed this film, which has truly set an Academy Award worthy standard for all films that follow, to be made.
We learn of the professional respect that can be found when talented people gather to make something substantial. We learn of the fealty that actors had for each other. For example, the actors, including Lance E. Nichols, in the film that all herald from New Orleans.
They were a part of something incredible and they created a working and personal bond.
There is also the incredible bond between the lead actors, including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and director David Fincher.
For those who are fans of Brad Pitt and/or Cate Blanchett, their interview segments are personal, behind the scenes and everything an “extra” presentation should offer.
The Goods: In addition to screenwriter Eric Roth’s incredible adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short-story idea found in his Tales of the Jazz Age book, this film offers viewers an incredible cinematic and sound experience that ports to the home theater quite beautifully.
Employing a 1080pAVC-encoded high definition transfer, preserving the original films 2.40:1 nothing was lost from the big screen to the 50” flat screen.
The films look mimics the seriousness of the story with a subdued palette often filled with grays, browns, and blacks. From the well oiled woods in Queenie’s home to the grays of the Katrina fueled skies outside of Daisy’s hospital room, nothing was lost.
Claudio Miranda’s (cinematographer) brilliance remains intact particularly noticeable in scenes like the faith healer’s tent, lit only by low wattage, bare incandescent bulbs.
Director David Fincher takes the viewer from a wide outside view, where there is plenty of nighttime dark surrounding the rich amber hues of the interior lit tent to the inside.
The scenes bulbs are the only lights used in this shot, we learn in the releases abundant extras, and they keep their yellow-warm glow, taking the tent’s canvas walls from bare and rough to a creamy, warm hue.
As did the look, the sound of the film remains crisp.
Alexandre Desplat’s masterful score comes through beautifully on the DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack that allows for a rainbow of sounds that truly enhance this period piece. The features include an informative and interesting interview with Desplat about the score.
Ambient sounds, from the quiet of life of the Nolan House for the Aging broken by quiet chatters and creaking chairs to the sounds of icy snow crunching underfoot during an after midnight walk when all is as still as death itself, become an unaccredited character to this film.
Most remarkable to me was not the sound of the rapid-fire bullets but the quiet of the night, the band playing somewhere in the distance, as Daisy dances her dance of seduction for Benjamin.
The soft drawls of the New Orleans accents, the violent rain against the windows, as Daisy lies dying.
The Bads: Do not exist. The film is impeccable. While I have heard the complaints that it is too long, too laborious, too much like Forest Gump (which I cannot even imagine where or how anyone came up with that!) I do not agree. I found The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be wholly satisfying on ALL levels of filmmaking.
The Mandatory Extras: The Blu Ray bonus features for this film are nothing short of robust. Disc two features a documentary that is actually lengthier than the film and fully as interesting.
This feature is broken into four paragraphs – the First, Second and Third Trimester and The Birth – an interesting allegory to the films theme of death.
Being introduced to director David Fincher in the Preface of the First Trimester, we better understand where he was able to find the deft touch to bring this particular story – a story whose underlying theme is the courageous acceptance of death – to the screen without leaving the viewer with a feeling of hopelessness.
Instead many are the viewer that walks away from this film determined to live their lives to the fullest.
It took over twenty-years for this film to be made as screenwriters, directors (including Stephen Spielberg) and producers all struggled to make a film that required the one thing only time would bring – the technical ability to reverse age an actor without leaving the audience feeling that it was either deceived or taken advantage of.
We learn about the production of the film in Second Trimester, Production: Part 1 and Part 2. The enormity of the production, taking filming from on location in a post-Katrina New Orleans to Canada where the Russian Winter Palace Hotel, complete with winter’s snow created during warm summer days, and nights.
Director Fincher’s ability to see every detail of every location, of every prop, over shot becomes obvious. He requires a preciseness of his actors and the environment that I did not realize really existed.
Actors speak of Fincher’s determination to capture the best sequence by shooting, and reshooting, scenes over and over again.
What makes this feature particularly stand out is that the actors in the film – Pitt, Blanchet, Julie Ormand, who plays Caroline, Daisy and Brad’s daughter and the films herald, as she reads Benjamin’s diary, as her mother lays dying, discovering the truth about her father, appear in the extras to speak about the process and what the film, and what working with the crew and director Fincher meant to them.
So often, watching the film extras I am disappointed that the actors could not offer their reflection of a film’s process or what it meant to them. So this was particularly satisfying to me.
Other cast members that appear are Taraji P. Henson, Mahershalalhashbaz, Jason Flemying and Njudna Oti.
The Third Trimester of these special features focus on the movie’s special effects and music.
Visual Effects: Performance Capture features how computer-based effects techniques were used to bring the film to life.
Visual Effects: Benjamin is nothing short of fascinating as it shows the extremely complex process that was used to marry the look of Brad Pitt as “Benjamin Button” over eighty some years of life to the performance of four different actors.
In this feature, we meet the actors who provided life to Benjamin Button as a young child, a time when he physically looks the oldest. The actors’ chosen had to have the skills to get the physical movements correct, and it is impressive to see how they all adopted and adapted the way that Benjamin moved, his physical characteristics, creating one seamless performance by four different actors.
It really is quite amazing.
First is Peter Donald Badalamenti II, who provided the physical body, to which Brad Pitt’s face was digitally morphed, for the period of 1928-31, a time from about five until eight. Robert Towers, Benjamin from 1932 – 34, and Tom Everett, Benjamin from 1935-37, at which age Brad Pitt picks up the role body and soul.
There is more including how effects were used to bring the tugboat the Chelsea to life and more. There is just always more.
Lastly Birth is comprised of two segments offering footage of the film’s New Orleans premiere, including additional cast and crew reflections and the film’s theatrical trailers.
There is more to watch, to enjoy, and to learn from. Included are featurettes on the films storyboard and wardrobe. Watch the film over and enjoy director David Fincher’s Audio commentary, still galleries and things yet to be discovered I am sure.
The disc also features optional French and Spanish dubbed soundtracks and English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Watching these features are truly a lesson in modern cinematics that I would not be surprised to learn is used in film classes around the world to teach aspiring filmmakers “how to.”