DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Last Samurai (RECOMMENDED).

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, Apr 20, 2004.

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  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    [​IMG]
    The Last Samurai





    Studio: Warner Brothers
    Year: 2003
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 154 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Enhanced Widescreen
    Audio: DD 5.1
    Color/B&W: Color
    Languages: English & French
    Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
    MSRP: $29.95
    Package: Keep Case





    The Feature:
    The Last Samurai stars Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren who is a Civil War hero haunted by many of the atrocities he witnessed during battle. The film is an epic story which is set in Japan during the late 19th century just as the nation first opens its doors to the West with the hopes of forming new trading partners. Since his return home from battle, Algren plies his trade as a Winchester rifle salesman for $25 a week but has fallen into a self destructive state of hate and alcoholism. He speaks disparagingly and with that of contempt for his former commanding officer, Custer and is troubled by the needless death of his comrades for what amounted to “modern conveniences”.

    His feelings are conflicted when he is recruited by a Japanese railroad baron named Omura (played by Masato Harada) to train the Japanese Emperor's fledgling army to crush a rebellion of traditionalist samurai who want to block Japan's path to modernity. But the Japanese representative makes Algren and his partner an offer that is just to rich to turn down. He then heads to Japan with his partner, Sgt Gant (played by Billy Connolly) and quickly winds up training poor conscripted Japanese farmers.

    It doesn’t take long for the government to realize that in spite of Algren’s warnings, he is disregarded and the ill-prepared troops are taken into battle and virtually slaughtered immediately, even though the samurai only fight with traditional weapons. Algren is captured by the samurai leader, Katsumoto (played brilliantly by Ken Watanabe), so that he may learn and study his American enemy. Algren is held captive in the remote mountain village which is virtually inaccessible. Over time he gradually becomes more involved and befriends many of those who have helped him recover from his wounds. He is impressed by the samurai lifestyle and its philosophy and eventually he starts to bond with a beautiful young woman, Taka, whose husband he killed during the recent battle. He is even more amazed, upon discussing the young samurai’s death, when he is told by the leader, Katsumoto, “it was a good death”.

    Though he knows he is an outsider, he eventually becomes integrated into their culture. Months go by as he eats with them, trains with them, believes in their ideals and is eventually accepted as worthy, of the samurai status. After an attempt to rid the village of the samurais is thwarted, they learn of an impending attack by thousands of soldiers who have been recruited to defeat them, and have come prepared with cannons and modern Gattling guns. They must now prepare for what will be the largest battle of their lives.

    The film was directed by Edward Zwick, who also directed the 1989 classic, Glory and the 1994 epic, Legends of the Fall. The Last Samurai is a film worth watching and I’ll be honest, as I watched it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of two other truly classic films with many similarities, Dances With Wolves, and to a lesser extent, Lawrence of Arabia. That’s not to say I felt the film was on par with either of these two classics, but it certainly shares many similar properties. This film has a lot going for it, including a number of great performances and subtle yet classy writing. The direction is most certainly on par with any of Zwick’s other projects and the cinematography is comparable to anything we have seen come out of Hollywood in the past couple of years. Finally, a magnificent score by Hans Zimmer is used to great effect.

    Lastly, fans will be pleased to hear that WB has used another keepcase for this two disc set (now if we could only get them going on single disc films). While the film and commentary are exclusive to disc one, the remainder of special features can be found on disc two.



    Video:
    Shown in its native aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and widescreen enhanced, this transfer looks absolutely gorgeous. Mostly filmed in Japan and New Zealand, the cinematography is a visual work of beauty. While we’re on the topic, it’s been a while since a film has had a greater sense of dimensionality than this one has looked, at least with my projector. Many of the scenes had a wonderful look of depth, particularly scenes showing low growing grass in front of a mountain backdrop. It was almost as though you could reach in to touch the grasses, rendering a beautiful filmlike image which was very impressive.

    Colors were extremely vibrant and always nicely saturated. Much of what troubled Nathan appeared in the way flashbacks. They were shown using blue filters rendering a rather sterile and clinical feel which was effective. Blacks couldn’t have been any deeper as was obvious by looking at the U.S. Army uniforms. Conversely, whites were always clean and stark in appearance. Flesh tones looked very real and natural, although Cruise usually had a somewhat “paler” look to his appearance… which leads me to my next point.

    Image clarity. To be honest, this whole clarity issue thing even had me playing around with my projector, experimenting with the focus control. To me, it really seemed as though many of the facial close-ups didn’t look quite as sharp as some of the current new releases we see nowadays. I suspect there are filtering issues going on here. To be fair, I didn’t get to see this film theatrically, so those who have a better knowledge of what the film might look like, please jump in and offer your impressions. Other than facial close-ups, I would say everything else looked very nice and very well defined. Considering the popularity of the film and its budget, I can’t help but think it would be anything but representative of what was shown theatrically.

    There was virtually no film grain whatsoever to speak of and as would expect, the film was absolutely spotless of any debris or dust. There was little in way of compression artifacting although I did see a couple of minor instances of edge enhancement. These can be seen during his journey to Japan aboard the ship with the sunny background. Not a big deal.

    This epic looking film’s transfer has an extraordinary overall look to it. As I said earlier, my praise for the sense of dimensionality couldn’t be greater, although I was expecting a somewhat more defined look in terms of facial close-ups. When all is said and done however, overall I give this transfer a pretty good grade.

    Beware – There is also a FULLSCREEN version available.



    Audio:
    The track provided here is a DD 5.1 which is pretty aggressive. The track is very clean and free of any hiss or other problems and has a rather warm quality to it.

    Dialogue was also exceptionally clear and intelligible and never lost among the many battle sequences or actions shots. Much of the film is accompanied with a beautiful score by Hans Zimmer, and again, never impedes on the distinction of dialogue. The front soundstage is relatively wide affording the score, a very nice spatial feel to it.

    We’re treated to a track that has a fairly substantial dynamic range. I found myself making a lot of notes pertaining to the rustling of grass, the clanging of the swords and bamboo cane, the thunder of horses and the tiniest of distinct sounds such as the walking on gravel. All of these examples really show off the finer details and range of the track.

    The use of surrounds were employed aggressively, yet tactfully. There was a very impressive sense of envelopment during many of the battle scenes, but the rears never became intrusive. Your sub will get a fairly decent workout with all of the cannon fire during many of the battle scenes.

    While I wouldn’t necessarily put this track in the same category as many of the current blockbusters that have surfaced lately a la Master And Commander and the recent Matrix releases for example, it does a pretty effective job at keeping your interest. In a nutshell, what this amounts to is, we’re becoming spoiled…



    Special Features:
    Only the Commentary is located on disc one, and the remainder of the special features can be found on the second disc.
    [*] The Commentary features Edward Zwick. This is a solid commentary by the great director, who completed this feature just after the film was released theatrically. He starts by offering a brief overview of the film and also spends a great deal of explaining the various acting techniques that were used. He also spends a great deal of time discussing the type of effects that were used never veering into a technical bore. Mr. Zwick at times sounds somewhat monotonous, but always manages to keep this interesting with never any dead time. This is most certainly worthy of your time.

    On disc two, you’ll find:
    [*] Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journey which Tom Cruise starts by discussing his role as Capt. Algren and how he eventually integrates within the samurai and it’s culture. Also discussed is the stunt preparation for the many fight sequences he is required to undertake. Duration: 12:54 minutes.
    [*] Edward Zwick: A Director’s Video Journal this contains a number of video clips of various scenes and Zwick describes locations and techniques etc. Essentially, this is a carryover from the initial commentary with visuals. Very interesting. Duration: 26:17 minutes
    [*] Up next is Making An Epic: A Conversation With Tom Cruise And Edward Zwick which discusses how Zwick initially approached Cruise and how the project got off the ground – the focus is the ideas and they all came together. Duration: 17:51 minutes.
    [*] History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai is a History Channel Documentary which gives us a wealth of background information relating to the history of the Japanese Samurai. There is a great deal of participation from Cruise, Zwick and Mark Ravina, a Japanese historian. Duration: 22:05 minutes.
    [*] The next feature is A World Of Detail: Production With Lilly Kilvert which focuses on production design and the creation of the many sets that were replicated to imitate many of the Japanese settings. Considering some of these scenes were shot a WB back-lot, the amount of detail that went into these sets is astounding. Duration: 7:15 minutes.
    [*] Silk And Armor: Costume Design With Ngila Dickson is an interesting little feature as the designer describes some of the hurdles she had to overcome to design the various costumes and uniforms for the film. Duration: 6:29 minutes.
    [*] An Imperial Army: Basic Training feature describes what was required in the huge undertaking of recruiting the young men as Japanese soldiers and training them in New Zealand for the battle scenes. Cruise & Zwick participate. Duration: 5:41 minutes.
    [*] From Soldier To Samurai: The Weapons. This is a great little feature which focuses on the weapons that were used throughout this film. The cannons that were used were fully operational, while the Gattling guns were perfect replicas. Great little feature. Duration: 5:10 minutes.
    [*] Bushido: The Way Of The Warrior - in a number of text messages the code of honor and the philosophy of the Japanese Samurai is spelled out.
    [*] There are two Deleted Scenes which amount to about 6 minutes of footage. They can be viewed with or without commentary.
    [*] Japan Premieres - the Tokyo/Kyoto premieres which feature a number of interviews with many of the participants. Duration: 6:54 minutes.
    [*] The Theatrical Trailer is also included.
    [*] And finally, there are also DVD-ROM features as well.

    There is a boatload of special features located on this set many of which are very well done and most deserving of your time.



    Final Thoughts:
    The way I see it is this; the film had two major hurdles to get over right from the get go. Let’s face it, anyone with even the slightest background in film was sure to compare this modern day samurai epic to any of the great Kurosawa films. And secondly, poor Tom. Everyone seems to be down on Tom lately. To be honest, I like Tom Cruise even though there are a few of his films that even he probably wishes he could scratch from his dossier. But he has proven, particularly with his last few films that there is more to him than just good looks, even though his character of Captain Algren really isn’t all that removed from those that made him so popular years ago. Regardless of my feelings for Cruise in this film, make no mistake about it; Ken Watanabe steals the show here folks.

    While I’m not necessarily a fan of the clichéd ending, I am a fan of the film. What I appreciated most about this film was its subtlety. Other than the expected fierce battle scenes, the overall feel and mood throughout the entire film was rather laidback and never in your face and I appreciated that. Despite my wee reservations regarding the softness of the images, Warner Brothers has put together a most impressive package that’s sure to please fans of this modern day epic.

    Recommended…!!




    Release Date: May 4th, 2004
     
  2. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    Terrific review as always, Herb!

    Have seen a copy of this film on DVD and the
    transfer and audio are indeed excellent.

    I felt the The Last Samurai was an
    exceptional film, that is, right up until
    the end (where as Herb points out) it became
    ridiculously clichéd. The ending really put
    a damper on a film that 2/3 of the way through
    was just a joy to watch.

    Having said that, I would still highly recommend
    this film as a blind purchase for anyone that
    has not seen it.
     
  3. JonZ

    JonZ Lead Actor

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    Seems most dont like the last 10 minutes.

    But its not enough to ruin the movie.REALLY looking foward to seeing this one again. [​IMG]
     
  4. Tim Glover

    Tim Glover Lead Actor

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    Great review Herb. Last Samurai is definitely one of the best films of 2003, and snubbed by the Academy. I thought Cruise was outstanding. Ken Watanabe is awesome, but if one can't identify with Cruise's character then the film would have failed. Cruise is one of the most un-appreciated actor today. I think he's just naturally good at nearly everything he does.

    I suppose the film could have ended differently. However, how would you have ended it??? Use spoilers of course.

    Terrific cinematography, score, acting, and directing. Can't wait for May 4! [​IMG]
     
  5. Ron-P

    Ron-P Producer

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    Thanks for the review Herb. Haven't seen it yet but I will buy it blind.
     
  6. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    I loved this movie for samurais and yes, ninjas. A definite buy for me.
     
  7. LaMarcus

    LaMarcus Screenwriter

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    I for one thought the movie was excellent. I can't recall being disappointed by the ending. I'll have to wait till May to see if I can understand why the ending was a let down.
     
  8. Lou Sytsma

    Lou Sytsma Producer

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    Cruise's character should have died.
     
  9. Justin Bauer

    Justin Bauer Supporting Actor

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    ^^yeah
     
  10. PaulEB

    PaulEB Stunt Coordinator

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    Nice review Herb, I will definitely take a look at this since I missed it at the theaters.

    I'm with you Herb, Go Leafs! Those darn Bruins (and Canadiens) did it to us again.
     
  11. Emilio_M

    Emilio_M Auditioning

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    Despite the poor ending, this still makes for a solid DVD that I'll most likely buy.

    Though I wonder whether the script was always intended to end the way it did?
     
  12. Joseph J.D

    Joseph J.D Cinematographer

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    This is one of my favourite films from 2003. I have no problems with the ending whatsoever and will grab the disc as soon as I spot it on release day. Can't wait![​IMG] [​IMG]
     
  13. Harminder

    Harminder Second Unit

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    I absolutely loved this movie. From beginning to near-end. [​IMG]

    I remember specifically telling my girlfriend after the movie, how the end was very cliched and that Tom Cruise's character should have died
    .

    However, even with the current ending, I loved the movie. No doubt at all, this is worth the blind buy! [​IMG] [​IMG]
     
  14. Bill J

    Bill J Producer

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    Great review.

    Am I correct in assuming that the subtitles for the Japanese dialog are player generated?
     
  15. ChrisMatson

    ChrisMatson Cinematographer

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    Great movie. I saw it twice in the theater, once with friends, and then again with my wife at the cheap theater as she missed it the first time. As others have said, Ken Watanabe steals the show. He should have a nice future in America if he chooses roles wisely. I am interested in how he does in Batman Begins.
     
  16. Nkosi

    Nkosi Stunt Coordinator

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    Great review Herb. I pretty much agree with everything that has been said in the talkback thus far from Watanabe's acting to the disappointing ending to the film in general to Zwick, etc. Definitely one of my favorite films of last year. I'll be picking this one up.
     
  17. ChrisBEA

    ChrisBEA Screenwriter

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    Thanks for the review!
    I loved this film, it made number 3 on my top 10 of '03.
    Ken Watanabe did steal the show, can't wait to see how he fares in the next Batman film! I thought Cruise was good, but his acting style and look are very modern, almost taking you out of his performance, but his charisma kept me right there in there. Can't wait for this disk!
     
  18. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    I was sitting back to see what the majority of fans had to say about the ending of the film and Lou captured my feelings exactly, not only from a clichéd standpoint but from a believability one as well. I think it’s a testament on how good the film really is when so many people seem to have problems with the ending, yet are unwilling to allow that to affect how they feel about the first 140 minutes of the film. Think of how perfect the film might have been with a different spin on the end…

    Other reviewers are also mentioning softness issues. I’m really curious to hear what others have to say when this disc streets, particularly those with larger displays.

    Paul, all I can say is, they better have Belfour wrapped in plastic for the next couple of weeks. He’s the one winning, not the Leafs.

    Bill, sorry I didn’t make any notes on the subs. I’ll try and get down there tonight or tomorrow and check them out. Thanks.


    Herb.
     
  19. Neil Joseph

    Neil Joseph Lead Actor

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    Thanks for the review. I missed this theatrically but will pick it up and hopefully not be disappointed.
     
  20. Brandon A

    Brandon A Agent

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    The issues with the Close Ups being out of focus is a problem with the film. I remember seeing it in theaters and being very bothered by it. I thought it was just film deterioation, I wanted to see it in Irvine where they showed it with a DLP. Guess it was just some poor cinematography.

    As far as the film goes... it was good, but could have been better, namely without Tom Cruise. Such a great story, IMO, was ruined in an attempt to make it wholly entertaining... such as the stupid humor referencing modern times. Such things really take you out of the movie.
    I compare this to Gladiator to show how it should have been done. An incredible actor (Russel Crowe), who was also a nobody, had an amazing performance, instead of Cruise, who you have seen in too many other roles for it to work properly, you are reminded he's an actor. Also, there were no lame jokes in Gladiator - Is your name Bob? I will call you Bob, hahaha >[​IMG]
     

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