People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, June 12, 2009
  DVD Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button divided audiences when it was released last Christmas. And by “divided audiences” I mean that as shorthand for “most people didn’t seem to like it very much.” It was too long and boring, the story went, and nothing really happened. Personally I was intrigued, not so much due to the premise – it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages in reverse – but because it was directed by David Fincher, one of my favourite directors (Se7en and Fight Club were the first two DVDs I bought when I got my first DVD player). Given that I think Fincher’s previous film, the criminally underseen thriller Zodiac, is an unappreciated masterpiece, I wondered if Benjamin Button had been similarly overlooked or misunderstood.

The truth is, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is . . . pretty good, but not great. It’s nowhere near as brilliant as Zodiac, but contrary to the prevailing public opinion, I was never bored (and for the love of god, it’s the same length as the Sex and the City movie; perspective, people!) But I can see how it’s not a particularly “marketable” movie. Handsome Movie Idol Brad Pitt spends the first hour and a half of the movie in various stages of CGI-assisted old-age makeup, and Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth do tell Benjamin’s story at a fairly leisurely pace. Roth also wrote the script for Forrest Gump, which I mention only because that movie and Benjamin Button are similar in structure – both films follow a man through pretty much the entirety of his life, though Benjamin doesn’t walk through a series of big historical moments the way Gump did. He instead experiences events like World War II and the first space shuttle launch and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan peripherally; they’re used primarily to place Benjamin’s story in time.

The performances range from solid to fantastic. In addition to Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles, the movie is also filled with great actors like Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris in smaller parts, giving the assortment of characters Benjamin encounters lives of their own. Even if they’re only in a handful of scenes, their presence resonates not just with Benjamin but with the viewer.

I know it’s easy to rag on Brad Pitt’s abilities as because he’s so handsome, but I’ve always thought he was a good actor (especially in his other collaborations with Fincher), and he’s pretty excellent here. He really makes Benjamin, particularly in the early parts of the movie when he’s a kid (who looks like a little old man), a quiet, humble little southern gentleman, and he becomes more and more charming as he gets “older.” And the fact that he manages to act through motion-capture technology (in which his CGI face was inserted onto the body of other actors) is pretty astounding. Cate Blanchett is, for my money, the best actress working today, and she’s great as Daisy, the love of Benjamin’s life, convincing as both a brash, twenty-something spitfire and a wiser, middle-aged woman.

Taraji P. Henson definitely deserved her Oscar nomination for playing Queenie, the caretaker at a New Orleans old folks home who takes Benjamin in as a baby and raises him as her own. The Benjamin-Queenie relationship was the real emotional centre of the movie for me, and I found it more interesting and moving than the more traditional plot of Benjamin and Daisy spending the two-thirds of the movie not quite connecting (in true love-story fashion).

The most impressive aspect of Benjamin Button is clearly the effects work. Fincher is a former special effects guy (he got his start at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic; I seem to recall reading that his first job was on The Empire Strikes Back), and there isn’t a director working today with a better understanding of how special effects can help tell a story on film. CGI in Fincher’s films is usually invisible, used purely to serve the story, rather than to “wow” audiences (except maybe for Panic Room, which feels more like a string of admittedly cool filmmaking tricks than a movie). The effects in Benjamin Button are some of the most impressive I’ve seen, if only because I stopped noticing them fairly early on. Even more amazing was finding out how much of the early Benjamin stuff is done with CGI – his face is basically all motion-capture effects for the early chunk of the movie (think Beowulf or Polar Express), and it’s more or less seamless, though I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few scenes where the signature blurring left by digital touch-ups weren’t visible. Still, on the whole this is some pretty amazing stuff.

All the digital wizardry, of course, means nothing if the movie itself doesn’t hold up. And while I did enjoy Benjamin Button more than I expected to, it’s not a capital-G Great Movie from that standpoint (which is only made worse by its positioning as an Oscar-baiting prestige film). It’s ultimately an incredible technical achievement that’s also a pretty good movie. Initially I really disliked the modern-day sequences showing Cate Blanchett’s character dying in a New Orleans hospital bed alongside her daughter as Hurricane Katrina approaches the city, because I was so interested in Benjamin’s story that I resented being pulled out of it for what I first took to be pointless interstitial sequences. By the end though, Fincher and Roth tie it all together fairly nicely (though the Katrina aspect doesn’t really add anything to the story other than to ground it in modern-day reality). Still, it was a distracting storytelling detail that almost certainly could have been handled better.

Like all David Fincher movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an amazing technical achievement. It’s a remarkably ambitious movie that’s largely successful. It’s not perfect – as much as I liked it, I can’t really argue with those who thought it was too long or “boring”; different strokes and all that – but, with the exception of the early scenes in the modern-day hospital, I was fully engaged by the movie, and I was fascinated by the story Fincher and company told.



The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes to DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which movie geeks know is the cream of the crop in terms of special edition DVDs, and this one’s no exception. The two-disc Benjamin Button DVD is packed with stuff, including an excellent commentary track from Fincher. I found the track surprisingly compelling (I paused it when I left the room, and actually paid attention the entire time, which I don’t always do on commentaries). He’s an amazingly smart guy who comes across as quite affable and funny in his commentaries, and listening to him talk about movies is a pleasure. He gets into technical details but without it being dry. I feel like I understand more about the craft of filmmaking when I listen to his tracks, which is about the highest compliment I can pay to a commentary.

Disc 2 consists of an exhaustive making-of documentary that can be viewed either in parts (divided into pre-production, production, post-production, release, etc.) or as one big feature-length doc that covers every aspect of production in amazing detail, including extended discussions of different cameras and lighting techniques. A lot of it is for serious cinephiles only; by the end it proved itself to be a little overlong (a LOT of time is spent on things like composing the score and editing the sound). I found it to be a little dry in parts, and I’m usually a pretty serious geek for this stuff. But the wealth of extras really hammers home the staggering amount of craftsmanship that went into making this movie, most of which was invisible to me when I was actually watching it. Overall this is about as in-depth a DVD as I’ve reviewed for this blog. If you dig the film, this DVD is about as good as it gets.

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