New DVD Spin: 3:10 to Yuma, Zodiac (Director's Cut), Joshua, and Death Sentence

2008 kicks off with a killer week for DVDs. (Pun, you bet, intended.) Topping the stack are two titles that appeared on a healthy number of 2007 "Best of the Year" lists.

3:10 to Yuma (Lionsgate)

James Mangold not only remade the 1957 original, he improved upon it. A surprise of 2007 was this period Western that served its genre tropes straight up. Harsh but unflaggingly entertaining, it isn't "ironic" or "revisionist" and doesn't "deconstruct" a damn thing. It's been a long time since we've had a wave of good Westerns, especially with a cast this strong, so 3:10 to Yuma can play it straight and still provides something fresh and artful, modern and thrilling.

Russell Crowe is utterly spellbinding as the murderous, charming, morally complex Arizona outlaw Ben Wade. Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a transplanted Massachusetts rancher in dire straits. Having lost a foot in the Civil War, the earnestly decent and (it turns out) suppressed Evans needs cash to protect his ravaged property and provide for his wife (Gretchen Mol) and sons. "I'm tired of watching my boys go hungry," he tells her bitterly. "I'm tired of the way that they look at me. I'm tired of the way that you don't." So he signs on to accompany the gradually diminishing number of men transporting Wade to a prison train. It's a trip that has every likelihood of being a suicide mission.

As the journey carries the two men through Apache territory's nowhere desert towns and wilderness, an uneasy bond builds between them, one that rubs against Evans' bone-deep principles and wry, smooth-talking, observant Wade's less confined version of his own. The psychologies of the two men emerge and tangle and drive one another to action, especially after Wade's loyal gang arrives, making 3:10 to Yuma a rare character-driven and humanistic action-thriller Western.

From the early stagecoach ambush, hooves a-thunder, to the climactic bloodbath of a train station shoot-out, the violence is sudden and brutal -- all those bullets sure sound awesome on the DVD surround-sound -- yet displays not a single gratuitous stroke as it supports the movie's classic Western themes of honor, courage, manly respect and gun-enhanced power.

Mangold's film is more than sufficiently subtexty and cynical for our modern sensibilities while simultaneously embracing Mangold's obvious pleasure in the Westerns' time-honored swinging saloon doors and stern masculine traditions. Also worth a look are Peter Fonda as a bounty hunter, young Logan Lerman as Evans' impulsive teenage son disenchanted by his father and needing a hero to admire, Ben Foster as the worshipful gunslinger Charlie Prince, and Alan Tudyk as Doc Potter, who's a long way from his veterinary practice.

Lionsgate's DVD impresses our boots off with a superb -- seriously, it's fantastic -- image (widescreen anamorphic 2.40:1) and fully immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX audio.

The DVD extras are pretty ordinary, starting with the routine but informative audio commentary by director James Mangold. The prefab "making of" featurette, "Destination Yuma," delivers the expected behind-the-scenes footage plus input from the cast and crew. "Outlaws, Gangs and Posses" brings us historians and academics discussing legendary Wild West bad hombres. "An Epic Explored" gives us more interviews with the cast and crew, this time focusing on the Western as a film genre. Seven brief deleted scenes don't add much to the package, but then they don't really need to.

The Blu-ray edition offers English PCM 7.1 Surround and additional featurettes.




Zodiac (Director's Cut) (Paramount)

Director David Fincher took James Vanderbilt's crackling, obsessively dense screenplay about obsession -- a newspaper cartoonist's obsession to find the cryptic, media-teasing, self-styled "Zodiac" serial killer that stalked San Francisco during the '60s and '70s -- and turned it into a gripping, atmospheric, retro-stylized police procedural epic spanning 20 years. And it's one of the most accomplished films of 2007.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the real-life Robert Graysmith, whose books about the case are the film's source. The other hunters out to bring the killer to justice, largely by outlasting the police and the dysfunctional bureaucracy when the trail goes cold, are superb Robert Downey, Jr.'s drunken crime-beat reporter, and determined homicide cops Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards. Likewise standing out in this standout cast is Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith's exasperated wife.

Fincher, more subdued that we're used to seeing him and aching for a return to the smart suspense films from the likes of Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula, pulls us by the collar into the frame and cranks the sense of menace taut without cheap tricks or cop-out gimmicks. The fact that the killer was never caught isn't one of the film's points. Instead, this fine film explores the lengths and depths that ordinary, driven people will go when everyone else throws in the bloody towel.

Out now in standard def and HD DVD, this Director's Cut edition -- packaged unnervingly in a case that recreates one of the Zodiac's letters to the San Francisco Chronicle -- adds a few minutes to the original cut, with no fundamental changes impacting the new running time of 162 minutes. (Andrew Fitzpatrick details the Director's Cut additions at his blog The Blood Spattered Scribe.) The image (anamorphic 2.35:1) and DD 5.1 audio are quite good, identical to last July's bare bones DVD.

Where this new edition really shouts out is through its second disc and quality extras. On tap are two commentary tracks: a solitary track by Fincher and a composite track with Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr., Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt and novelist James Ellroy.

The extras on Disc 2 are separated into two categories: The Film and The Facts. The first group holds "Zodiac Deciphered," an hour-long, eight-part examination of the production, beginning to end, with behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals and shooting. "The Visual Effects of Zodiac" gets into the surprisingly complex CGI work that went into such a grounded, beneficially "old school" film. "Previsualization" presents three before-and-after clips showing how Fincher used computer animatics to plan his production.

Under The Facts we get "This is the Zodiac Speaking," a feature-length comprehensive documentary about the real-life events that inspired the movie, with interviews with actual investigators and surviving victims. Then a 42-minute featurette, "Prime Suspect: His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen," collects interviews with people who have reason to believe that they know who the Zodiac was.




Joshua (Fox Searchlight)

A success at Sundance that didn't get the theatrical box office it (mostly) deserves, this effective and unconventional horror chiller mines the old "demon seed" quarry of creepy-kid suspense films. This one's a real audience-splitter, though, with one half of its viewership likely to be unsatisfied by its ambiguities, contrivances and red herrings, not to mention its pervading air of asphyxiating unpleasantness. Meanwhile, others will appreciate how Joshua injects a non-formulaic degree of generational angst and naturalistic parental anxiety to its core of nervous dread, making Joshua a bewildering extension rather than a retread of this played-out sub-genre.

Jacob Kogan plays nine-year-old Joshua, the first-born son of affluent young Manhattan couple Brad and Abby Cairn (terrific Sam Rockwell and irksome Vera Farmiga). An unfathomably morbid and precocious prodigy -- classical piano, dressing only in formal wear, and ancient Egyptian embalming techniques are among his little hobbies -- Joshua doesn't quite take to the arrival of a second child, a perpetually screaming baby girl. The family can't miss the macabre Omen-like clues, such as a ritually disemboweled stuffed animal, assorted dead pets, a bumped-off granny and other incidents suggesting that the alienated and increasingly sociopathic Joshua deserves a time-out. Each parent individually unravels. Abby, on the greased slide toward a complete psychotic snap, feels their luxurious Central Park high rise home become more claustrophobic and threatening day by day. Adding to the tension are Abby's gay aesthete brother (Dallas Roberts) and Brad's braying born-again mother (Celia Weston).

The cast, especially Rockwell, earned their pay, and cinematographer Benoît Debie deserves great credit for the atmospherics. The climax's revelations will prompt some eyebrow raising, but not everyone will feel that the muted payoff is worthy of the travel getting there.

The DVD includes DTS 5.1 audio, a commentary track from writer/director George Ratliff and co-screenwriter David Gilbert, deleted and extended scenes, Jacob Kogan's audition tapes, the typical press junket interviews with cast and crew, and the music video of "The Fly" by Dave Matthews, whose production company was behind the film.




Death Sentence (Fox)

Speaking of played-out genres, the white-collar action revenge fantasy gets another go-round, this time spinning its tread-worn wheels as Saw director James Wan directs Kevin Bacon as Nick Hume, an ordinary, tough-cookie corporate wheeler-dealer who transforms into a vengeful vigilante killer after a gang murders his beloved hockey-hero son in an initiation ritual.

Bacon, as usual, is quite good even when he's slumming, and as a trashy B-movie redo of Death Wish the movie works well enough for a Saturday afternoon with a case of brewskies. While running through the usual plot points for a generation that missed them the last time around, it brings only one thing marginally new to the table, a theme that's the antithesis of so many iterations of this plot since the 1970s -- that violence brings only more unnecessary violence, that "an eye for an eye" just leaves everyone with gross-out sockets. That's no great morality tale shocker, but the ending's somber rather than triumphalist tone is a welcome sign of evolution. There's an unnerving creep-out factor in John Goodman as the gun dealer Bones, and Garrett Hedlund as Bones' skinhead son, Billy. Aisha Tyler is the required only-in-Hollywood hot-babe police detective.

Occasionally the script tries so hard to be so effing tough and "street" that, line by line, it's full of gigglesome, embarrassing moments that lean toward accidental self-parody. "Go with God, and a bag full of guns." "Don't let me smell fear on you. Fear is for the enemy. Fear and bullets. Lot's of f***king bullets." The fact that it's John Goodman saying most of it just barely alleviates the guilt.

20th Century Fox's DVD contains two versions of the film (via branching), with both the R-rated theatrical cut and a new unrated cut that includes 10 minutes of footage "too intense for theaters." We also get some behind-the-scenes featurettes from Fox Movie Channel Presents, plus numerous Webisodes featuring director James Wan, Bacon, "making of" sequences, fight choreography and stunts, and more.