The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [Blu-Ray]

With the help of the Criterion Collection, David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the best movie of 2008, makes an early claim for the best DVD of 2009.

If there was ever a filmmaker who was a natural match to the format, it is Fincher, an intuitive storyteller with such an exquisite mind for even the most minute detail. There are tens of thousands of tiny details that go into shooting a movie about a man born old and ages backward, and it seems that he remembers every single one of them throughout his director’s commentary. From Seven and Fight Club through Panic Room and Zodiac, it’s astounding how Fincher has been able to continually keep audiences so entertained and engaged in recounting every subtle nuanced moment. It’s also amazing how so many people can see certain things in Fincher’s films, and then hear the man speak and give a completely different idea of what he was thinking.

Being a Criterion DVD, and approved by Fincher, one already knows the sound and picture quality is going to be exceptional. “Benjamin Button” does not disappoint. Having first seen “Button” under the best possible conditions, at the Paramount Theatre on the studio lot, in digital projection on a humungous screen with one of the preeminent sound systems in any theatre in the world, that experience is as best equaled as possible on home video. The movie, presented in a proper 2.39:1 aspect ratio image enhanced for widescreen televisions, finds its blacks unfluctuating and deep, with the rest of the painstakingly designed look of the movie sharp in detail with no noticeable grain, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track perfectly balanced during the biggest action sequences and the most tender of moments.

The bulk of the second disc consists of “The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button,” an extensive making-of documentary that, at three hour and twenty-four minutes, is nearly a half-hour longer than the film it covers. Spanning nearly twenty-five years in the history of the project, from its origins as a Ray Stark production featuring Martin Short directed by Frank Oz, through its time as a potential Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise collaboration and finally to Fincher and Pitt, it’s an epic story that deserves meticulous documentation. The documentary is split into three main sections, called (befitting its title) First Trimester, Second Trimester and Third Trimester, with a coda called Birth. The First Trimester covers the early years of the project, as it bounced from studio to studio, director to director (Spike Jonze and Ron Howard were two more filmmakers that circled the project over the years) and actor to actor, until it finally caught traction with its final team.

Preface (3:59) finds Fincher, who before “Button” almost never appeared on camera, speaking about his father’s death and how this seminal event in his life lead to his finding deeper meaning in the material.

Development and Pre-Production (28:04) finds producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, along with a number of the other principals involved during its various incarnations, taking us through that development. And Tech Scouts (12:23) joins Fincher and his team traveling through New Orleans and other South Louisiana locations to find the buildings and parks required to fit the director’s vision.

The Second Trimester consists of Production: Part One (26:11) and Production: Part Two (29:03), which covers the unique inherent issues that came up shooting a movie in New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or shooting scenes of a Russian winter in Montreal in the middle of May, or shooting a film filled with many prosthetic effects on a digital camera system that accentuates and takes notice of every flaw on an actor’s face. Costume Design (7:38) is pretty much the only section of the documentary that finds one person talking about one section of the film, as designer Jacqueline West speaks about her thought process when it came to getting the clothes prepared, including the much talked-about red dress. While her may not be as fascinating and interesting as Fincher (it should come as little surprise that West easily and giddily admits to designing or buying clothes with as many buttons as possible), her solo section shows how important something as seemingly mundane as clothes can underscore the entire proceeding. I also want to know where West got the grey sweater Benjamin is wearing when he is with Daisy in her dance studio (the one seen in the photo accompanying this review).

The Third Trimester spends a good portion of time on the various requirements to get Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and the other members of the cast older or younger, as the case may be. Visual Effects: Performance Capture (7:42), Visual Effects: Benjamin (16:53) and Visual Effects: Youthenization (6:20) break down the practical make-up and the computer-generated effects that helped make the story more realistic. Visual Effects: The Chelsea (8:47) joins Fincher, Pitt and the crew on a set in Culver City as they try to simulate shooting the scrappy little tugboat as it travels the world, while Visual Effects: The simulated world (12:50) shows the efforts spent making a few locations in Los Angeles, Louisiana and Montreal look like many places around the world. There are also sections concerning the Sound Design (16:04) and Desplat’s instrumentarum (14:52), which finds the acclaimed French composer working on creating the majestic score for the film.

Birth closes the documentary with Premiere (4:21), which includes final thoughts from those involved in the production of the film, alongside footage from the film’s world premiere in The Big Easy.

On the second disc, one can also find more than 200 productions stills and the two trailers for Benjamin Button. Additionally, the DVD’s insert card includes a short essay by author and former Film Society of Lincoln Center programmer Kent Jones.

Nothing against the standard DVD edition of the film, but considering how little the cost difference is between the standard issue and the Criterion DVD, it’s hard to imagine consumers who want this title staying away from the Criterion version expect for some form of reverse snobbery. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a great place for Criterion novices to learn how great the format can be, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Rating: A+