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DVD Reviews

HTF HD-DVD Review: Zodiac



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#1 of 43 PatWahlquist

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Posted January 03 2008 - 12:00 PM


Zodiac (HD-DVD)

Studio: Paramount Home Video
Rated: R (For strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images)
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Video Codec: MPEG4-AVC
Audio: Dolby Digital Plus English 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; English SDH+
Time: 162 minutes
Disc Format: 2 SS/DL HD-DVD’s
Case Style: Keep case
Theatrical Release Date: 2007
HD-DVD Release Date: January 8, 2008


In December, 1968 in a sleepy little northern California town, a couple is killed in their vehicle. The case is never closed. Seven months later, a similar murder takes place in another small California town, but this time, the killer calls to gloat about his deed. One of the victims survives multiple gunshot wounds. Approximately two months later, a couple is relaxing on the shores of a small lake when a man dressed in black approaches them and with gun drawn, he demands their money and car keys. He ties them up and stabs the couple, but the male victim lives. The killer leaves a “note” scrawled in marker on the sided of the door to the couple’s Karmann Ghia, citing these previous murders, and signing his name “Zodiac”.

The press soon gets a hold of there new hot topic. Within months, “Zodiac” makes it to San Francisco, claiming more and more bodies. “Zodiac” likes to taunt the media and police alike by sending cryptograms to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. These letters and codes explain who he is and why he kills. Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) begin to work on the story. Avery covers the news aspect with it, courting celebrity itself, while Graysmith becomes more interested in solving the mystery of who “Zodiac” is really. The criminal case is assigned to Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Inspector Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who must now navigate the largest media circus imaginable to catch the killer. The killings continue, the tensions rise in the community and the participant’s lives, each of these men may find themselves unwitting victims of the deadly and anonymous killer.

I’m purposely keeping the summary of the picture brief since it is a story that deserves your attention and exploration. The case itself is infamous for many reasons: the ferociousness of the killer, the media coverage, the mistakes of witnesses and police alike and more. Director David Fincher tones down the flash of his previous pictures (Fight Club and Seven, for example) and he concentrates on pure storytelling and characterization. The story is subtly broken up into three character pieces for different aspects and times in the picture. It begins with Avery and the early part of the killing spree, Toschi during the investigation, and finally, the obsessive Graysmith, who continues to track the killer when everyone else has given up. Over the course of the picture, we stay in these characters viewpoints (for the most part) and we learn with them and see what a price this cost the men who weren’t even direct victims. Based on Graysmith’s book, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt comes off as almost documentary in parts, and Fincher uses exacting recreations of real life scenes to make a stunning impact to its audience. The picture has wound up on numerous “best of 2007” lists, and it was in my top three favorite pictures of the year.


Video:
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 Toshiba HD-XA2 HD-DVD 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.

Zodiac is encoded in the MPEG4-AVC codec at 1080p with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The picture is suitably sharp with very good detail and rendering. I spent time trying to read many of the background lines in the sets of the SF Chronicle, and they were easy to make out. The color palate is slightly de-saturated, giving most of the colors a bit of a dirty yellow or brown tint to them. This mostly occurs in the night scenes but occasionally it creeps into the daylight. Flesh tones are accurately rendered except when at the will of the aforementioned filtering.

The picture begins with the “Zodiac”’s second killing in a very dark scene from the town to “lover’s lane”. During these dark scenes, what appears to be film grain becomes blatantly obvious, and there appears to have been increased video noise as well. Fincher shot the picture mostly digital with a few instances of film. This scene may have been shot digitally and the process was having a heck of a time with the darkness of the image. This is in the first ten minutes or so of the picture and I was concerned on how the rest of the picture would look. These dark scenes come off more as a pasty black where the shadows just collapse on each other leaving a huge, blobby mess on the screen. I even noticed a couple of strange…artifacts during this opening scene that I simply cannot explain, but they at the very least should not be there. This artifact looks like a bit of digital paint that was never completed or fixed (check out the shots with Mageau coming out of the house leaning in the car to talk to Darlene). As I was watching one of the bonus features that showed the making of this scene, the behind the scenes video footage looked better than what was in the film itself. Fortunately, the lighter scenes come across much better. There was no film dirt or debris, and I noticed no edge enhancement. While I’m not slamming the entire video presentation, these dark scenes look very bad compared to an overall nice transfer.


Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was attained by the HDMI connection of the Toshiba XA2 to the Denon 3808CI.

I watched the picture with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track engaged. Paramount again drops the ball by refusing to give us a lossless track. However, the DD+ track is adequate for this film as it contains very little action outside of the front channels. This is not a picture that relies heavily on effects to convey the story, so I was not expecting too much. Audio elements in the high’s and mids are very well represented: voices and other foley effects are accurate and natural sounding. Music cues sound rich and balanced. The fronts maintain a good tight sound field with very nice panning effects. Surround effects are used sporadically and they contribute to a good soundstage. Bass effects are not overbearing and they don’t engage too often anyhow.


Bonus Material:
All of the bonus material is presented in high definition (MPEG4-AVC) unless otherwise noted.

Commentary by Director David Fincher: Fincher does his usual good job on this track, sticking more to the technical aspects of constructing the film than anything else. He does comment on story points, but not in much depth and then it usually comes back to the shoot.

Commentary by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt and James Ellroy: Gyllenhaal and Downey are one separate part, an Fischer, Vanderbilt and Ellroy (“The Demon Dog of Crime Fiction” and author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia novels) are the rest. Gyllenhaal and Downey goof around quite a bit, while the others get more serious talking about the specifics of the picture at hand. If you’ve never heard Ellroy before, you’re in for a treat. This part of this track is the better of the two since the participants delve into details of the case and story.

The rest of the “speshul features” are on Disc Two and they are broken into two parts.

The Facts: this section contains two documentaries by David Prior. The first is This is Zodiac Speaking (102 minutes) and it features numerous interviews with the victims of “Zodiac”’s attack, Michael Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, as well as interviews with police officers, detectives, dispatch operators and others. The second part, Prime Suspect: His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen (42 minutes) deals with the supposition surrounding Allen. Again, police discuss Allen, but we also hear from Allen’s friends and finally, Robert Graysmith himself. Over both of these excellent documentaries, you hear the first hand account by those who worked on the investigation or who were directly involved. To hear Mageau and Hartnell describe their respective attacks, coupled with crime scene photos, adds a chilling realism to Fincher’s already accurate depictions. One of the most interesting things in both pieces is how un-credible some of the witnesses and cops sound. As Fincher pointed out in the feature, mistakes were made by the police, but to hear it first hand makes it aggravating. I also questioned one of the victims and one of Allen’s friend’s in their roles in the whole case. This is great stuff that serves as a very worthy companion piece to the picture and it goes to show how much realism was infused into Fincher and Vanderbilt’s picture. The actors in the commentary and others have noted there are real tapes of Allen and could have been a morbid curiosity here. I will warn you in advance, the crime scene photo’s can be pretty grisly.


The Film: this section is divided into four sections:

Zodiac Deciphered (54 minutes): this is further divided down into seven chapters covering the individual main settings and some of the overall picture. It starts out with how Vanderbilt and Producer Bradley J. Fischer obtained the rights to the story and, to their surprise, secured Fincher as well. The next parts go into the filmmaking process itself, going into such detail as reproducing the actual clothing worn by the victims, background items and the inclusion of as many real details as possible. Fincher’s reputation as a perfectionist is shown in a couple clips here. We also get the first sighting of the real life David Toschi, but unfortunately, no deeper interview as with some of the others. David Prior again helms this one.

The Visual Effects of Zodiac (15 minutes): the VFX guys explain how they did all their shots. As I was watching the picture, I was struck by how few digital effects Fincher had appeared to use. Turns out there were more than I thought and it goes to show how well they can be used.

Pre-visualization: three different sequences with the pre-viz shots next to the final shots.

Theatrical Trailer


Conclusions:
Zodiac is an incredibly realistic portrayal of the real case files. Once you watch the feature and then delve into the bonus features, you begin to appreciate how hard the film makers worked to make this picture accurate and respectful. Paramount does a good job on the discs themselves, but there is some inconsistency in parts of the video. The audio, while not a lossless track, still delivers an appropriate experience. This, coupled with some excellent extras, make this the first great disc of 2008.
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 43 Patrick Sun

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Posted January 03 2008 - 01:11 PM

Definitely looking forward to this HD DVD release, sounds like it got a lot right with this release, and am glad the extras are also in HD.

For those who haven't seen this film, it's one of the fastest 162 minutes you'll ever spend in your comfy chair watching this film, it's that engrossing and well-paced. Fincher is so much more at ease with this film, and it shows in the final product.

Thanks for the review!
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#3 of 43 TravisR

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Posted January 03 2008 - 02:47 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by PatWahlquist
Commentary by... and James Ellroy:

If you’ve never heard Ellroy before, you’re in for a treat.
I love that guy. I'm going to guess that he repeatedly says something crazy, uses the f-word a fair amount and mentions his mother.

Nice review. Can't wait to pick up the disc.

#4 of 43 JonZ

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Posted January 04 2008 - 12:29 AM

Thanks.

Picking this one up.

#5 of 43 Chuck Mayer

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Posted January 04 2008 - 02:26 AM

I believe this is the DC (at 162 minutes). Can anyone confirm?

One of the very best films of last year (or the decade). Can't wait to see it again, in lovely HD!
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#6 of 43 PatWahlquist

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Posted January 04 2008 - 03:14 AM

Yep, it's the DC. There's about five extra minutes in it, some scene extensions and a black screen set to period music for the passage of years.
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.

#7 of 43 JayDerek

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Posted January 04 2008 - 03:54 AM

this DC doesn't delete the Transamerica passage of time scene does it??
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#8 of 43 Ron Reda

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Posted January 04 2008 - 07:30 AM

Looking forward to this one. Passed on the previous version of it in anticipation of the DC. For some reason, the fact that he was never caught intrigues me so much.
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#9 of 43 PatWahlquist

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Posted January 04 2008 - 09:41 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by JayDerek
this DC doesn't delete the Transamerica passage of time scene does it??

The Transamerica building being built is still in there.
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.

#10 of 43 Bill Crosthwait

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Posted January 06 2008 - 04:34 AM

Great review.

I am picking this one up as well.
Bill



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#11 of 43 Averry

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Posted January 06 2008 - 10:23 AM

I was gonna buy this right away.


Now I'm definately gonna wait.


Heck who knows, in 2 months we could get it for $5, i donno.
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#12 of 43 Paul Arnette

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Posted January 06 2008 - 03:36 PM

I was planning on picking this up too, but not any more. The trouble is, I would really like to rent this now from Netflix, but it appears that it isn't available.
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#13 of 43 PaulDA

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Posted January 07 2008 - 03:39 AM

I'll be picking this up. I enjoyed the rental and look forward to all the extras.
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#14 of 43 Yumbo

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Posted January 07 2008 - 06:55 AM

Way better than 1st DVD edition for PQ - no artifacts.
Good sound as well.

#15 of 43 Steve Schaffer

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Posted January 07 2008 - 08:58 AM

I rented the bare-bones SD release and will definitely purchase the HD DVD tomorrow. My player still works fine and I want to enjoy this excellent film in the best form available.
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#16 of 43 JonZ

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Posted January 08 2008 - 12:53 PM

The PQ is beautiful on this disc. Really really great.

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#17 of 43 Jrf2

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Posted January 08 2008 - 02:15 PM

Thanks, I'm getting the disc later in the week.

#18 of 43 Ron Reda

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Posted January 08 2008 - 02:31 PM

For accuracy's sake, perhaps the title should be modified to include "Director's Cut"?
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#19 of 43 TravisR

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Posted January 08 2008 - 02:38 PM

Technically, you're right but there's no HD DVD of the theatrical cut so you can't get mixed up.

#20 of 43 Kyle_D

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Posted January 08 2008 - 04:18 PM

I went back and forth when deciding to buy this in the wake of recent format war developments, but I caved and picked it up this morning. I'm glad I did.

The PQ is phenomenal, better than the film print I saw, and the extras are some of the most interesting and best produced I've ever seen. I particularly loved the Errol Morris style of the interviews. It's been awhile since I've felt drawn in by special features, but along with the Blade Runner set, this reminds me of the early days of DVD. No promotional filler, just great content all around.

Maybe in a few years, I'll pick up the inevitable Blu-ray port in a sale for longevity's sake, but for now this set is aces. Posted Image





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