Director David Fincher has previously been known for darker, edgier fare such as "Fight Club" and "The Game". However, his latest effort, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", shows that Fincher is capable of pulling together a period drama. The movie opens in present day, with an old woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lying in a hospital bed in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina roaring towards the city. Keeping the old woman company as her time draws to a close is her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond).
In order to keep the woman comfortable and pass the time while the storm approaches, Caroline reads the diary of Benjamin, an unusual man from Daisy's past. The movie then flashes back to 1920's New Orleans, where Benjamin is born with the appearance of an old man. His mother passes away as a result of the birth and his father doesn't want him, so he ends up being watched by a caretaker named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).
As the years progress, Benjamin's age reverses and the years seem to gradually peel from his face (thanks to remarkable make-up effects work.) In the 30's, still as an older man, he meets Daisy (eventually played by Cate Blanchett as an adult), who starts off as a good friend and eventually becomes something more as he gets younger while she continues to grow older. Throughout the years, Benjamin has a series of remarkable adventures, but he and Daisy (who, in present day, shares some of her own memories about the stories within Benjamin's diary) continue to cross paths.
Director Fincher is certainly working with a terrific crew, including cinematographer Claudio Miranda (the upcoming "Tron 2.0"), art director Tom Reta ("The Day After Tomorrow"), costume designer Jacqueline West ("The New World"), production designer Donald Graham Burt (Fincher's "Zodiac") and a terrific team of make-up artists. Certainly no expense seems to have been spared in the production, which is simply gorgeous, with impressive period details and some particularly postcard-perfect moments.
If there is a concern, it's the length of the picture - at 165 minutes, at least a little bit of tightening could have given the film a bit of needed momentum. It's certainly never a dull picture, but there are stretches that start to feel like a bit of a long sit. Additionally, while it's much appreciated that the film never goes into sappy territory (as one can easily imagine it would in other hands), there are times when it goes in the other direction, feeling dry and subdued.
While the picture's length was an issue, I can't fault the performances, which are quite good. Neither Pitt or Blanchett give the finest efforts of their career here, but Pitt does a superb job often acting from under make-up, while Blanchett offers a compelling, soulful performance. The two of them have marvelous chemistry with one another, as well.
"Curious Case of Benjamin Button" could have used some trimming down from 165 minutes, but the picture is otherwise entertaining, offering beautiful visuals and great performances from the leads.
VIDEO: Paramount presents "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Although a few minor/mild flaws were seen at times, this was largely a lovely transfer. The picture has a slightly soft "period" look, but the level of detail in the image is still quite good. A couple of slight instances of edge enhancement were seen, but the picture remained free of pixelation or print flaws. The print flaws - specks, scratches and other minor debris - that are seen during a few flashback scenes are intentionally added. The film's color palette remained somewhat low-key throughout much of the movie, but appeared noticeably warmer and richer in some scenes. Overall, this was a very good presentation of the material.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. As one might expect, this is a largely dialogue-driven sound mix, with the majority of the audio spread nicely across the front soundstage. The rear speakers do come into play on some occasions in order to provide discrete effects or ambience, but most of the audio is forward-oriented. Audio quality was first-rate, with a score that sounded impressively rich and full. Dialogue and effects also boasted good clarity and detail.
EXTRAS: Director David Fincher offers an audio commentary for the feature. Fincher has offered many commentary tracks in the past, all of which have been nothing short of terrific. Presenting his thoughts in an organized, honest and enthusiastic manner, Fincher provides a great deal of insights regarding the production, chatting about working with the actors (and some stories regarding casting), the remarkable make-up and effects work used in many scenes, filming in New Orleans, behind-the-scenes stories and his thoughts on how aspects of many scenes turned out. The director (understandably) takes a few pauses of silence during the 165-minute running time, but manages to talk during the majority of the film. This is a detailed and entertaining commentary track, and one of the best I've heard lately.
The second disc offers "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button", a massive, nearly 3-hour (2 hours/55 min) documentary, which can be played either in parts or as a whole. The documentary starts with an introduction by Fincher and then proceeds to spin the tale of the entire production, starting with a pretty fascinating discussion of the looong history of the development of the project and all of the people who at some point in time had an interest in being a part of the production (Spielberg was a possible director) and then ended up moving on to other projects instead. After Fincher became involved with the project in the early 90's, a whole series of issues became apparent, including how to handle the aging effects.
The documentary moves on to discuss cost issues (mainly, the cost of the aging effects, which gradually became easier and less costly over time) and filming in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. We also learn more about the film's visual style, complex visual effects, constructing major sequences, the score and working with the cast. This is an amazingly in-depth look at the film's complicated production, and is very highly recommended viewing for film enthusiasts. The specific sections do include some material that is not shown when "play all" is selected.
Finally, we get 2 trailers and multiple stills galleries.
Final Thoughts: "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" could have used some trimming down from 165 minutes, but the picture is otherwise entertaining, offering beautiful visuals and great performances from the leads. The DVD presentation boasts very good audio/video quality, as well as a set of terrific supplemental features.
The Film B