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Zodiac (2007) Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 March 2008
ImagePlease see our archived review of the theatrical release of “Zodiac” on ModernHomeTheater.com. That commentary and opinion still stand regarding this HD DVD release.

This is a two-disc set, the first disc containing the feature itself, here a few minutes longer than in theaters—but you’d have to be more of an expert on the film than I am to identify the new material. (You can find it on the IMDb page for “Zodiac.”) In the commentary track that features actors Robert Downey, Jr., Jake Gyllenaal, screenwriter/producer James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and novelist James Ellroy (who has nothing to do with the movie), occasionally someone points out a scene that was cut from the theatrical release, but this isn’t done with any regularity.

Both of the commentary tracks are very worthwhile. Director Fincher is soft-spoken but thorough, clearly very well-informed on filmmaking in general, and fully in touch with his own choices as a director. He’s neither boastful nor overconfident, a fine guide to his film. This is a satisfactory commentary track, not exceptional, but detailed and open.

The other commentary track is lively and amusing, especially on the part of Downey, who’s as dry and witty as his character is in the film. Gyllenhaal is more self-effacing, but bounces lines off Downey with skill. Vanderbilt explains his decisions as screenwriter—he researched the film for a long time, and knows clearly why changes from the real story were made. Nothing, however, seems to have been falsified. It’s curious, though, why James Ellroy was invited to sit in on the commentary session; he’s not an expert on the Zodiac case, nor did he have anything to do with the movie. At times, he seems to be there primarily to promote himself; this is intrusive.
“Zodiac Deciphered,” the documentary on the making of the film, is as thorough as the movie itself, even though director Fincher doesn’t participate. We get Fischer and Vanderbilt as the primary spokespersons for the filmmaking team; they describe the process of researching the film and how they dealt with Robert Graysmith and others involved. Also appearing are costume designer Casey Storm, set decorator Victor J. Solfo and Hope M. Parrish, the property manager. So many of these people seem to be so close to the same age that at times, it feels like a high school class reunion. Graysmith himself also appears, and there’s at least one deleted scene. There’s so much praise of the absent Fincher that it’s almost embarrassing, and leads one to wonder if he’s a tyrant who expects this kind of adulation. However, his own commentary track is so quiet and understated, that possibility seems unlikely.

For whatever reason, on my system, the menu did not include options for the commentary tracks, but the back of the box mentions them; I easily accessed them (still with no onscreen prompt) with the audio button on the remote.

There’s a short featurette on the surprising amount of visual effects the movie required. They’re so well done and so smoothly integrated into the movie that most of the time, it’s nearly impossible to realize there ARE effects. There’s an aerial shot of a cab being tracked through nighttime San Francisco that’s entirely CGI—but it’s undetectable. A “previsualization” show the “moving storyboards” for each of the three murder scenes side by side with the final scenes in the film. This is modestly interesting.

“This Is the Zodiac Speaking” is a very long and, unfortunately, somewhat boring documentary on the Zodiac case—or rather, on the murders known for sure to have been the work of the same person, the man who dubbed himself Zodiac. Many of the police officers and other personnel, plus two of the survivors of Zodiac attacks, are interviewed—always against a featureless white backdrop, always with their heads in exactly the same positions, exactly the same size. Each of the people talks at length, with a piano underscore. This is austere to the point of pomposity—as if this excessively sober presentation is an attempt to show how serious the documentary makers were. Unfortunately, it tends to become dreary.

The most interesting interviews are with Bryan Hartnell, the survivor of Zodiac’s lakeside attack. He’s quick-witted, surprisingly handsome, interesting an authoritative. On the other hand, Mark Mageau, survivor of an earlier attack, seems to have some mental problems (understandably so), slurring his words and tending to be nervously chatty.

A peculiar error common (at least so far) in high-definition presentations occurs here, too. When period newsreel footage is shown, it’s stretched—it hasn’t been properly scanned into anamorphic. So you either have to keep switching between Wide and Normal or resign yourself to watching horizontally-stretched images.

The shorter featurette, “His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen,” is devoted to the man many think mostly likely to have been The Zodiac. This is made in exactly the same minimalist style as the other Zodiac featurette (both were director by David Prior), but the people are much more interesting; what they’re saying was not covered in “Zodiac” in detail, so it’s more fresh. Among these commentators are several people—Ralph Zpinelli, Donald Cheney, Norman Boudreau—who knew Allen. And Robert Graysmith also appears, genial and interesting.

In terms of high definition, “Zodiac” is an excellent movie for this kind of presentation. Virtually all of it was shot with digital cameras in the first place, so there’s a kind of first-generation quality to the footage (which may be an illusion, of course). You can practically feel the damp, foggy air of nighttime San Francisco, you can practically feel the gentle coastal breezes at sunny Lake Berryessa. The scenes in a basement are dank and claustrophobic, made even more so in high definition. This isn’t exactly a hi-def demonstration disc, but it’s a movie that benefits from being seen in that mode, somewhat to a surprising degree.

This is an outstanding purchase for those who, it now seems unfortunately, chose HD DVD over Blu-ray.

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