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HTF Blu-ray Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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#1 of 25 OFFLINE   PatWahlquist


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Posted May 06 2009 - 02:17 AM

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Blu-Ray)

Studio: Paramount Home Video (in association with Criterion)
Rated: PG-13 (for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking)
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Audio: English DTS-MA 5.1; Spanish, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; English SDH+
Time: 165 minutes
Disc Format: 2 SS/DL BD 50
Case Style: Keep case
Theatrical Release Date: 2008
Blu-ray Release Date: May 5, 2009

What is said to be curious about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button really may not be so as the picture reminds us of life and death, aging and experience, but told through the eyes of a different type of protagonist. On the night of the end of World War I, as celebratory fireworks blast overhead and revelers fill the streets, a “baby” is born to the family of a button maker. But due to some strange twist of fate, or due to the heartbreak of a blind clock maker, the mother dies in childbirth and the child is different than others. His father sees him as a freak and while consumed with grief and shock over his odd looking off-spring, he abandons the child on the steps of the Nolan House, a home for senior citizens. The child is discovered by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who sees him as a child of God and takes him in, explaining he is her sister’s child. The doctor evaluates the baby and says he appears to have all the infirmities of a 90 year old man and he proclaims he will not live long.

But live he does, and as he grows, Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) geriatric infirmities fall away, and he seems to age backward. He grows in strength and stature and he meets the young Daisy (eventually played by Cate Blanchett), the girl who will be the one for him. As Benjamin grows, he does as any seventeen year old would do: he leaves home to explore the world, and his transport is the rickety tug, the Chelsea, and its salty crew. He visits Russia, where he has his first adult relationship, and eventually, he returns home a young man to reunite with Daisy. They have achieved a similar age and they begin a relationship that is doomed, yet they don’t care and they enjoy the time they have. Benjamin ages and moves on in more ways than one, leaving Daisy to determine what course his life and death will take.

This story and movie has kicked around Hollywood for almost twenty years. It has had numerous actors and directors attached to it, but it always was stuck with a convincing portrayal of a man aging backwards. Finally, thanks to advances in CG technology, director David Fincher stepped up to tell this story of death and life. Working from a more recent script from Eric Roth, he and Fincher, unfortunately, emulate the tone, mood and plot points of Roth’s other big time script, Forest Gump. The similarities between the two works, an addled main character, his historical life, a ship captain, a strong female presence, only seeks to hurt The Curious Case of Benjamin Button because once you get past the original hook of a guy aging backwards, his life really isn’t all that interesting. I tried like heck to connect with Benjamin or Daisy, but I really couldn’t. The movie is played with such melancholy tones that it just won’t let you in deep enough to care. Benjamin’s narration is always spoken in soft, southern tones, and while it is meant to be comforting, it only reminds me of a less happy Forrest.

Fincher displays his technical prowess in this film (wait until you get to the bonus material), but he seems emotionally divested, or even above, his audience. He uses the camera as an omniscient voyeur, chronicling Benjamin’s life. Perhaps he believes the tools of the trade can substitute for the lacking script. His last picture, Zodiac, took him to a new level of storytelling ability, but here it seems muted in the wonderment of showing an aged Brad Pitt. When I saw the picture theatrically last year, I never paid too much attention to the story as I was more interested in what Fincher did to pull off the illusion of Benjamin’s aging. The opposite was true on Zodiac, where I was far more into the story that I really didn’t care how he did it. Something may be said of the fact that when I left the theater after seeing Button, my first comment to my wife was, “I can’t wait for the disc to see how he did it.” This time while watching it, I had gotten over the technical “wow” factor and realized I really didn’t miss that much the first time through.

Pitt and Blanchett do a fine job with the material, adding in just enough pathos to keep us interested. Fincher, ever negotiating his image as a director, does seem to be handling his actors better with each picture, and you truly get a sense of that during the period of the adult relationship between Benjamin and Daisy. The most moving scenes are towards the end of the picture as Benjamin enters his final years, physically now a young boy, a toddler and an infant. There is one shot in particular where a roughly two year old looking Benjamin is walking hand in hand with a senior Daisy and she stops to scold the young/old man. The full impact of Benjamin’s condition is finally felt here, and as we look at the eyes of an infant, we feel only the pain of death where life and hope should spring forth.

Is Fincher’s message to us portrayed as an ironic Hollywood ending, showing us a director who is asking his audience to stick with him as he brings his visions to the screen inside the studio system? Or is he using Benjamin as a personal metaphor for himself and his audience, that our visions of how time affects us, impacts us, with all of its experiences, is what truly makes us what we are? He takes all of the themes we are used to in any story- love, pain, life, death- and exposes them to a character out of time with the rest of the world, only to show he feels the same thing. At the end of the picture, those common traits are really just that, common, but Fincher’s vision of them is what makes them special, leaving The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a technical success for Fincher if not a successful movie by itself.

Movie: ***/*****

Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 11-S1 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 1080p. I am using a Sony Playstation 3 Blu-Ray player while a Denon 3808CI does the switching and pass through of the video signal. I am utilizing the HDMI capabilities of each piece of equipment.

The Blu-ray disc is encoded in the MPEG-4 AVC codec at 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The image is tinted slightly for the first part of the movie with a sepia tone to enhance the nostalgic and ageless feeling of the film itself. Colors are overall good and accurate, but again, they are subject to this tint. As Benjamin returns to the states after World War II, the image soars with an incredible rich, lush, real world look, highlighting the blues of the sky and the sunlight drenched surroundings. Black levels are very good, but could be deeper as they often come off as a little flat; still, shadow detail is present. The picture shows some dimensionality. Perhaps the best aspect of the picture is its clarity and excellent sharpness level. When I saw the film theatrically, I noted that it looked very soft, to the point that I almost thought it was out of focus in places. The BD corrects this, what I now believe to be poor projection at the Cineplex, and gives us a sharp image that shows off the extensive detail in the costumes and sets and the actors faces. I did not notice any edge enhancement or DNR. The film was shot in HD on the Viper FilmStream and Sony F23 digital cameras, so grain is not an issue nor was there any dirt or video noise observed. The insert in the package notes, “With the exception of certain sequences that were shot on 35mm film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm, without ever being output to a film element and transferred. Shot on the Viper FilmStream and Sony F23 digital cameras and color corrected by Jan Yarbrough on FilmLight’s Baselight system, this high-definition master was converted directly from the Digital Intermediate color space to SMPTE Rec. 709 24fps 1080p.” It is truly a stunning image and they don’t get much better than this.

Video: *****/*****

The 5.1 DTS-MA soundtrack was attained by the HDMI connection of the PS3 to the Denon 3808CI.

I watched the disc with the DTS-Master Audio 5.1 track engaged. The packaging to the disc is somewhat confusing as it says the audio for the disc is Dolby Digital 5.1, but it is in fact a DTS-MA encode. The track is very enjoyable with a tight soundstage and realistic surround field. I continuously felt like I was in the center of the picture as the surround channels are very active and present throughout. Environmental effects, such as rain or the fireworks at the beginning of the movie, make you want to dash for cover as it seems like they are coming down from directly above you. Panning effects are excellent across the front and into the surrounds. Bass is used subtly and there are only a couple scenes where they really roar to life. Clarity is excellent and the soundtrack exhibits an excellent tonal range. Criterion notes in the insert: “The original theatrical multichannel sound mix was optimized by sound engineer Ren Klyce for home video listening.”

Audio: ****.5/*****

Bonus Material: all of the bonus items are in HD unless otherwise noted. Paramount worked with Criterion for this material and as usual, Criterion and David Prior do a thoroughly exhaustive job documenting the making of the movie. The features, when you watch them all, not only present technical details of the production, but give you a story on how Fincher works as well as how he uses technology to tell his stories. Fincher is portrayed favorably here, as an artist given almost free reign to express his art and practice his craft. He is also seen as a perfectionist with almost every scene having a double digit number of takes. Through interviews with numerous department heads and crew members, we are also shown how all these little parts make a movie. The features on Disc Two can be played together or separately, but not all of them play together. I found it better to watch the pieces individually. You can jump in and out of the features by hitting the menu button. Unfortunately, this takes you back to the main menu and you have to drill back down to what you want.

Disc One:
Commentary by director David Fincher: Fincher has always been kind to his fans with his commentaries and plethora of bonus features. This commentary is just the beginning, as he spends a majority of the time discussing the actors and the characters, while briefly touching on the deeper aspects of the production. All of that is coming up on Disc Two. He also comments on numerous scenes that were cut due to length (but apparently never filmed), changes in plot points due to budget constraints, subtle use of CG where you might not expect it and much more. This track is definitely worth a listen and it serves as an appetizer for what is to come.

A menu option is the Timeline: Criterion gives you an option of bringing up a timeline of the running time of the movie. It denotes the chapter and its title and then what is going on in the commentary (framing devices, casting, etc.) You can hit your green button to bookmark a spot or the blue button to delete it.

Disc Two:
Disc Two contains a majority of the bonus features, starting with The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button. This section divided up into four segments that appeal to the theme of the movie: First Trimester, Second Trimester, Third Trimester and Birth

First Trimester begins with a Preface (3:08) from Fincher as he describes the story as being more about death than life. He’s very thoughtful here and he shares a story about his father and ruminations on life and death. Development and Pre-Production (28:56) kicks off with producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy discussing the very long and tangled road the script and movie took to get made. This project had knocked around Hollywood for almost twenty years with various big name directors and stars attached, but no one could figure out how to actually portray a man aging backward. Fincher, Pitt, Blanchett and others talk about their interactions with the picture leading up to the eventual shoot. Tech Scouts (12:23) continues along the same lines, but dealing more specifically with locations. These two pieces are fascinating for a couple reasons: first, we get to see just how big a movie this was to produce, with a ton of great information on how the setting of the story was changed from Baltimore to New Orleans and how this impacted the story. We also get to see Fincher and his crew scouting locations and him in the early stages of blocking scenes and shots and you literally see the wheels turning in his head. While these types of features usually have the director talking about their process, this one allows you to see him working first hand and it’s interesting to see how technically adept he is. It is also humorous to listen to the crew subtly complain about what a perfectionist he is. This trimester finishes up with a Storyboard Gallery that has animatics and hand drawn story boards and an Art Direction Gallery of production photos of sets, costuming and characters, painted concept art and locations.

The Second Trimester section delves into the production itself. Production Part 1 (26:15) begins with the actual shoot, again, showing us how big of a production this was, which is further complicated by Fincher’s preciseness. There is also video of the stage shoots and interviews with some of the actors and they discuss what it was like working with Fincher. The DP, some of the model makers, producers and location managers also contribute explaining how they dealt with issues native to their areas. Production Part 2 (29:03) spends some time with the Nolan House location, the outdoor gazebo, and the Chelsea set/stage. There is video on the makeup process to age the actors and behind the scenes video of the rubber masks being created and used. The shoot jumped to Montreal and we are told about the difficulties of filming there. Finally, there is footage of Fincher working with the actors to get what he wants out of the scene, and you get an incredible “fly on the wall” experience. Costume Design (7:38) is a fairly average piece with Costume Designer Jacqueline West explaining the aesthetic and execution behind the costumes. The Costume Gallery shows on set and behind the scenes photos.

We finally get to the technical aspects of the movie in the Third Trimester – Visual Effects. Performance Capture (7:43) begins with the cameras being set up to film Pitt’s recording of the footage that will be transformed into Benjamin on screen. For some reason Pitt stands in a leg lift rack while working but there’s no explanation of why. Fincher had the editors assemble a rough cut of the picture with a black blob over the faces of the actors who play the body of Benjamin. He could then envision what he wanted out of Pitt as he directed him during the motion capture process. Again, we get to see the manic detail Fincher wants out of his crew and actor. I would have loved to have had some more examples of the raw footage with the window of Pitt performing to get a better idea of what went into the final picture. Benjamin (16:55) begins with a meeting of the visual effects team and then goes on to have several interviews with them. The main theme that runs through the interviews is that everyone didn’t think they could effectively pull off the character of Benjamin with Pitt’s CG enhanced face. However, they did pull it off and we get to see how. Rick Baker also did some bust work so the CG artists had a tangible reference of Pitt at various ages. Youthenization (6:21) is interesting if for nothing else but to show us a program that has the ability to add or subtract ten years off an actors face. If you don’t truly comprehend the scale of the production, The Chelsea (8:48) will make it quite clear. A 90’ replica of the boat was made on a stage at Sony Pictures, so the scenes on said boat could be filmed and all the elements could be controlled. The Simulated World (12:52) details how the set extensions and other environmental aspects of the shoot were added in digitally. Sound Design (16:06) on the surface sounds kind of boring, but sound designer Ren Klyce makes it interesting with his detail and some humorous on-set stories. Composer Alexandre Desplat and his score is spotlighted in Desplat’s Instrumentarium (14:53).

The last section is Birth: Premier (4:20), which is some footage of the premier of the movie in New Orleans in 2008. Pitt and Fincher introduce the movie to the audience and make some brief comments. Also included here is a section of Production Stills.

Criterion provides us with two Trailers and a broken out section for the Still Galleries where you can highlight them individually from the Trimesters. Included are Storyboards, Art Direction, Costumes and Production Stills.

The package contains a booklet featuring an essay about the movie by Kent Jones.

Bonus Material: *****/*****

While more of a technical success than a narrative one, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button still presents an interesting experience. While the story itself isn’t bad, it’s just reminiscent of other works, and in the course of trying to reach us emotionally, it misses its mark. Fincher, however, show’s he’s a master at his craft, not allowing the script to stop him from producing a stunning technical piece of work. Paramount wisely used Criterion to do the disc, and this disc provides a damn near perfect transfer along with an exciting and engaging audio mix. The bonus materials play out like a movie in themselves giving you a great idea of how Fincher works and how movies are made today.
ISO "Lost" ARG prints from Kevin Tong, Olly Moss, Eric Tan and Methane Studios.  PM me if you want to sell!

All reviews done on a Marantz VP11S1 1080p DLP projector.

Displays professionally calibrated by Gregg Loewen of Lion AV.

#2 of 25 OFFLINE   Todd Erwin

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Posted May 06 2009 - 03:33 AM

There was a great article in last month's "Videography" magazine on the cameras and workflow involved in making this film.

#3 of 25 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted May 06 2009 - 03:49 AM

Thanks for the review! I got my copy at Costco and will be doing a movie night Friday to watch it with family.

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#4 of 25 OFFLINE   Mike<> C

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Posted May 06 2009 - 05:31 AM

Great review, I just still cant decide if I should blind buy this or not. Ive heard it compared to Forrest Gump which I really liked but I just dont know. And from what Ive seen on Criterion pricing this will probably be the best price.

#5 of 25 OFFLINE   Stephen_J_H


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Posted May 06 2009 - 05:58 AM

Pat, is this a special R-rated cut of the film? Imdb shows this as a PG-13 film, with MPAA certificate #44743.
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#6 of 25 OFFLINE   PatWahlquist


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Posted May 06 2009 - 06:17 AM

No, sorry, it's PG-13. I grabbed the R from an inaccurate piece of press material.
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All reviews done on a Marantz VP11S1 1080p DLP projector.

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#7 of 25 OFFLINE   Southpaw


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Posted May 06 2009 - 07:00 AM

IMO, it's worthy of a blind buy. It was the best film I saw last year. And the technical grades this disc is getting from multiple reviewers should be enough to get you off that fence! Posted Image
I read that Costco has it for $22.xx if you live near one (and are a member).

#8 of 25 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted May 06 2009 - 10:55 AM

Is it worth a blind buy? Probably. The problem with this film is that it is tediously long. Had they shortened it up a little bit I think it would have flowed much better. It's a very depressing story, almost seems at times it emulates Forrest Gump (the same writer), but in the end it does come across as a beautifully made film.


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#9 of 25 OFFLINE   ManW_TheUncool



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Posted May 06 2009 - 11:03 AM

I plan to blind buy myself. But if anyone's really concerned, why not just give it a rent first? But part of the way I think about blind buys is this. If I went to see it in the theater, I'd probably be buying 2 tickets at ~$12 each (for wife and myself) and most likely also paying for babysitting. If I'm buying this BD to *own* and enjoy on my own (relatively modest, but still good size) HT, I'd be paying no more than the price of 2 movie tickets. And if I really don't like it enough to keep it, I can always just sell it somewhere or something. And for my $$$, I really rarely feel like I need a much bigger screen (at the theater) to go along w/ the hassles, etc. Of course, that's just the way I look at blind buys... YMMV... _Man_

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#10 of 25 OFFLINE   Ron-P



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Posted May 06 2009 - 04:48 PM

Fantastic film, very well done. The disc's a/v is also excellent. Too bad there wasn't a DC or EE of the film.
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#11 of 25 OFFLINE   TravisR


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Posted May 07 2009 - 05:45 AM

Not to speak for Ficnher but I imagine that the theatrical cut is the director's cut.

#12 of 25 OFFLINE   David Wilkins

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Posted May 07 2009 - 08:24 AM

I love the film, but it does NOT need to be any longer.

#13 of 25 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted May 07 2009 - 08:45 AM

Saw this on SD last night. I thought it was pretty good, but I'm a sucker for melancholy (I wouldn't call it depressing) historical epics. I'm tempted to put the BD on my "pick up sometime" list for the extras.

In terms of length, I think Fincher could probably have shaved off about 15-20 minutes, but not much more than that. There were some sequences that were longer than they had to be, but for the most part it didn't drag. (Of course, I think Kubrick should've cut about 20 minutes from 2001, so take that for what it's worth!)

As for the comparison to Forrest Gump, there are some parallels, but whereas Gump was focused on the character's adventures, with his romantic relationship as a running 'B' story, Button was the opposite -- the romance was the main focus and the other adventures felt secondary.

In a way, the backwards-aging bit felt like a gimmick -- the character could have been a misfit in some other way (e.g., Gump's mental deficiencies) without really changing the story's themes. It was an OK gimmick though, since it wasn't something we've seen a lot before.
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#14 of 25 OFFLINE   David Wilkins

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Posted May 07 2009 - 09:14 AM

Aaron, I agree completely with your assessment. I loved the movie over all, but I think it might play better (and better for a wider audience), if it was, as you said, 15 to 20 minutes shorter. And I don't think it would suffer story-wise from that trimming. Still, it's such a filmmaking tour de force, that I can't help but love the end product. No regrets for my blind buy.

#15 of 25 OFFLINE   Ron-P



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Posted May 07 2009 - 10:45 AM

I'm one who thought it was too short, I thought they could have added much more to the life of Ben and his experience. Just like the Lord of the Ring's EE's; the more, the better. I did not find this film long at all, the 3 hours went by very quickly.
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#16 of 25 OFFLINE   David Coleman

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Posted May 25 2009 - 03:22 PM

Got to watch this today. I think the Gump comparisons are fair. It's that kinda of fairy tale-ish quality. How ironic that the film is co-written by Eric Roth who penned the film FORREST GUMP. I loved the story. It takes a premise and I think properly explores it. I loved the reveal of a man's life who is aging backwards and just what kind of life would that be. I think both Pitt and Blanchett did great with their roles. Yes, the picture quality is perfect!! I've never been a fan of Michael Mann's work on the Thomson Viper but as far as i'm concerned Fincher can use it on every film. Sharpness, fine detail was evident throughout the film. I saw no digital artifacts (save motion artifacts which are part of digital photography). I must say I was really impressed with the night photography. I expected that there would be a lot of digital noise in the night scenes but the DP took care to avoid that. Fantastic job!! While the audio isn't per se a demo disc, it was of excellent quality. It delivered all that was in the soundtrack cleanly and without distortion. Score balance along with dialogue was just excellent and the war scenes were dynamic! I didn't see the extras (Netflix rental) but a very impressive disc based on what i've seen!

#17 of 25 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted May 25 2009 - 04:41 PM

Well this was a blind buy for me. I watched with my wife and 18-year old son and we all had problems with the film. Not with the disc itself--it looked/sounded terrific. But the story had so many plot holes and really didn't seem to have much of a point--yet it took a very long time to not make that point. We felt much of the dialogue was difficult-to-understand...from the narrative laid out by Blanchett's death-door portrayal of Daisy to the thick brogue of the ship's captain. I always find stories which involve time travel to be difficult to understand and open to plot hole issues. This film, which also involved time trickery in the person of the title character, also relied heavily on flashbacks to tell it's tale and some of that just didn't hold up. For a story in which so little really happened to the characters, it would have been very easy to lop off a half-hour or so and possibly improve the experience. It was technically impressive. Pitt was engaging. I don't think I've actually ever seen Blanchett in anything before. She was quite good. David (above) mentions the film's fairy-tale-like quality. I didn't get that. It seemed to be told in a pretty straight-forward manner. I actually commented to my wife that maybe if it had a bit more of a Big Fish quality about it, it might have worked better. As it was, Fincher's approach left me wondering about several of the plot devices used--including the main issue of the character aging backwards. As I keep going back over the film in my head I just keep wondering why so-and-so was included or why such-and-such happened...and I can't come up with many good answers.

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#18 of 25 OFFLINE   RobertR


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Posted May 26 2009 - 02:25 AM

You didn't see Lord of the Rings? I disagree that there was no point to the film. What would it be like to have the experience of an old man while becoming physically young? That whole concept kept me quite engrossed. Things that happen in life don't have to happen for a "reason". They just do.

#19 of 25 OFFLINE   TravisR


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Posted May 26 2009 - 05:03 AM

I loved the movie (especially on a second viewing) but I agree that the old Daisy was very hard to understand. That being said, I think Blanchett gave a very accurate portrayl of someone so sick but that accuracy did make it hard to understand her.

#20 of 25 OFFLINE   Carlo Medina

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Posted May 26 2009 - 05:13 AM

I could be wrong, but I thought Fincher addressed this in either the commentary or a featurette, saying that it was exactly what he wanted. He made this film right after the death of his father, I believe, and so he was committed to making those hospital scenes as gritty and real as he could, and not being able to understand the dying, in some cases, is a very accurate portrayal on Cate's part and was the choice approved (or conceived) by Fincher himself.

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