Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Blu-ray

by Jim Bray

It's "Forrest Gump" all over again – at least in the overall "meme" of the movie.

This may not be surprising since screenwriter Eric Roth also turned out the script for Robert Zemeckis' great flick in which Tom Hanks played a character with a built in sympathy quotient who travels through life, witnessing and partaking in ordinary and extraordinary events, all while remaining humble and of good cheer and even having positive influences on others around him.

Just like Benjamin.

Not that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Forrest Gump 2 by any means. But there's a "Gumplike" familiarity to the story I couldn't quite get past. It's too bad, because it isn't a bad movie and, being a tech kind of guy, it's a real treat for lovers of movie making technology, special effects, and the like.

Oh, yeah. Pitt and Blanchett are very good, too.

Brad Pitt is the abovementioned Mr. Button, whose hook for the story is that he ages in reverse: he's born old and grows younger progressively as the movie unfolds. Fortunately, being born old doesn't mean you grow so big inside your mother that you explode out of her long before she can even contemplate the task of delivering such a bundle. So the infant old coot Benjamin is still pint sized, and as he grows taller and fuller over the years he also grows younger in appearance – though of course not in experience.

I bought the concept so far. And the story's pretty compelling.

The framing device is to have a daughter (Julia Ormond) reading aloud from Benjamin Button's diary to a woman on her death bed (Cate Blanchett, in an extraordinary performance) who clearly knows more than she's letting on – or able to communicate.  Most of the narration is done by Brad Pitt, though, which is not only appropriate but which also gives the actor more than the comparatively few lines he gets to utter "live". It works, and it probably cut work for the special effects gurus who, according to the supplementary features on the second Blu-ray disc, had their hands full already.

As for the story, think Forrest Gump, but in a smaller and more intimate movie – more a biography than a travelogue, though that isn't really fair to either film.

Benjamin is adopted by Queenie (played most excellently by Taraji P. Henson), who works rather appropriately at an old folks' home. Benjamin nearly fits in there, the people not being all there for the most part and his childish tendencies merely matching those of some people around him.

But he grows older (though apparently younger) and leaves home eventually, traveling the world as a crewmember on a tugboat that gives him and the audience a chance to experience a variety of adventures and digital locations.

Besides the framing device, there's an underlying "Jenny" theme here in the character of Daisy (Blanchett), Benjamin's one and only true love, who keeps coming into and leaving his life during the movie's 165 minutes (which never drag). She, of course, ages normally as Benjamin "youths" – but fortunately this gives them a pretty good window of compatibility around middle age otherwise both of them might go through life loved less.

David Fincher last directed Zodiac, which was an excellent movie and Blu-ray. "Button" isn't quite as on the, well, button as Zodiac so far as being an engrossing movie, but it's still pretty good. And as a Blu-ray it's excellent, thanks perhaps to the fact that this title has been given the "Criterion Collection" treatment.

The Criterion Collection made its name in laser discs, the video snob's format of choice during the 1980's and 90's. I loved them! Criterion Collection discs were the video – and movie – snob's favorites because the folks behind the Collection worked hard to give – and charge for appropriately – the best experience possible, with the best audio and video quality possible and enough extras to make them truly collectors' items. Like the rest of us video snobs, the Criterion Collection migrated to DVD and now to Blu-ray, which finally gives us the audio and video quality we've been wanting all along.

Well, until the next generation of video, anyway.

We received The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in its two disc Criterion incarnation and it's a good one. Spread over the discs are the movie (who'd have thought?!) and an interesting commentary track by the articulate director, as well as a four part documentary "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button" that takes up the bulk of the second disc.

The picture is, naturally, 1080p and it's excellent, with nice depth and deep, deep blacks – and a good thing, too, 'cause it's a very dark (as in not a lot of brightly-lit scenes) movie. The lion's share of the movie was shot digitally – as was Zodiac (and as are many others these days) – and the digital-to-digital gestation of the BD works to showcase it at its sharpest best. Unfortunately, that makes some of the fantastic digital sets and backgrounds look a little too fantastic, but overall saying that the picture is just too good to be real isn't much of a criticism.

The audio is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and it's up to the picture's standards. All five main channels are used to good effect, yet never at the expense of what the characters may be mumbling, and there's plenty of opportunity for the subwoofer to get some exercise. It's quite immersing.

The main extra other than the Fincher commentary is the "Curious Birth" documentary, which is substantial, quite in depth, and offers fascinating insight into just about every aspect of the movie. It's broken up mainly into "first to third trimester" sections dealing with pre production, production and post production. I enjoyed most of it, but was especially fascinated by the tech stuff, which other than my minor angst over the digital locations, was flawless.

They used actors of Benjamin's body's various sizes through the years to do the "body work", while Brad Pitt's head was motion captured, aged appropriately, and superimposed. It's amazing stuff and the perpetrators are interesting and candid in how they did it.

Likewise, they "youthed" characters by smoothing the features and messing with the lighting digitally. And created backgrounds that they say couldn't be found on location any more because such places from such periods exist no longer.

There's a lot more to the documentary, but that was my favorite part. And it's in HD (1080i)!

There's also the more standard fare such as storyboard and other galleries, and trailers.

So while I'm bothered that Forrest Gump's writer seems to have filed off his own serial numbers and come up with a movie that, while different from Gump, is just too reminiscent of his earlier work, I still enjoyed the movie and am very happy with the job Paramount has done with the help of the folks at The Criterion Collection.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,
165 min. 1080p/24 (2.40:1), dts HD Master Audio,
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Jason Flemyng,
Written by Eric Roth, directed by David Fincher

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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