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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » The Last Samurai (HD DVD)
The Last Samurai (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // R // April 18, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted April 26, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"Too many mind. Mind sword, mind people watch, mind enemy. Too many mind. No mind."

The Movie:
There's a reason all the industry wags jokingly referred to it as "Dances With Samurai". Just another in a long string of Tom Cruise vanity projects, the Oscar bait historical epic The Last Samurai follows the formula of Kevin Costner's overrated blockbuster Dances With Wolves almost to the letter. We start with a washed up Civil War veteran who narrates from his journal pages. Feeling jaded and guilty over his participation in the atrocities of war, the White man heads west (or in this case all the way to the Far East) where he encounters and is ingratiated into a community of the supposedly less-civilized natives, only to discover the beauty of their culture. After learning to respect the noble savages and falling in love with one of their women, our hero must then defend them from the encroachment of White man's civilization. Change the costumes a little bit and replace Indians with samurai and you've got basically the same movie.

Everybody's favorite Scientologist jackass Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a drunken has-been whoring his reputation as a war hero for the Winchester rifle company and despising himself for it. Offered an opportunity to make good money in Japan, where the young Emperor is desperate to Westernize his country and needs military advisors to train his army in modern warfare, Algren takes the cash, expecting to put in little effort and drink himself into a sake stupor. Things seem to be going well in this regard until the battalion under his tutelage is rushed too soon into conflict with a band of rebellious samurai terrorizing the countryside. In a battle pitting the modern world against the ancient, the modern gets its ass handed to it and Algren is taken captive. Fortunately, his resilience impresses the head samurai (Ken Watanabe), who allows Algren to heal up and detox, and then slowly teaches him about their way of life. The two men butt heads at first but soon learn mutual admiration, while Algren's sensitive soul melts the heart of a beautiful native babe. Soon enough the White man becomes an honorary samurai and helps his new friends to defend their culture from his old cronies. Naturally, many valuable life lessons are learned in the process.

Directed by Edward Zwick, Hollywood's go-to guy for any movie involving historical battle scenes, The Last Samurai is certainly a handsomely mounted production, replete with fabulously ornate costumes and sets. Everything about the film is beautiful, from John Toll's glossy cinematography to the gorgeous locks of Cruise's hair flowing in the wind behind him as he charges forward on his majestic steed. If only the story weren't so clich├ęd and predictable. Even setting aside the obvious Dance With Wolves comparisons, the exotic-foreign-culture-through-a-White-man's-eyes tale is trite and melodramatic. The weepy conclusion featuring preposterous blaze-of-glory heroics and many teary-eyed enemies is especially eye rolling.

Nonetheless, the movie delivers the big Hollywood glitz expected of it. No matter how much of a horse's ass he makes out of himself in public, Tom Cruise is still undeniably a real movie star and knows how to carry a film like this. The movie's hefty budget is clearly evident on screen, and Zwick expertly choreographs the rousing battle footage. The picture has samurai, and ninjas, and swordplay, and decapitations, and roaring volleys of cannon-fire blasted into the midst of charging armies, and what could possibly be wrong with all of that? Though not a great film, The Last Samurai (or at least specific parts of it) has enough entertainment value, sometimes despite itself, to be worthy of a few viewings now and again when the mood strikes.

The HD DVD:
The Last Samurai debuts on the HD DVD format as one of the premiere launch titles from Warner Home Video (released simultaneously with Phantom of the Opera). HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.

Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD. If a movie were to receive a higher score on the DVD scale than the HD scale, that does not necessarily mean that the DVD disc looks better than the HD disc. It just means that the DVD compares better in relation to other DVDs than the HD disc compares to other HD discs.

Video:
The Last Samurai HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD.

To be honest, the first couple of shots in the movie concerned me. I'd heard good things about this disc's picture quality, but the opening footage of the ocean looks like it may have come from some grainy photography with heavy DNR filtering applied. I started to worry. As soon as the scene changes, however, there's a dramatic improvement from that point forward. Truly, amazingly dramatic. The rest of the movie looks fantastic, some of the best imagery I've yet seen in my home theater.

The movie has some breathtakingly picturesque cinematography, and the HD DVD captures every subtle nuance of it. Colors are vividly reproduced down to the minute variances in each actor's skin complexion. Black level, shadow detail, and contrast range are just about perfect, and deliver a nice sense of depth to the image. The high degree of fine object detail really brings out the textures in the intricate samurai armor. You'll find yourself actually counting the whiskers on Tom Cruise's face. Scenes with complex elements such as smoke and fog are rendered without a trace of compression artifacting. This is simply an excellent looking disc and a fine showcase for the new format.

Since this is a launch title, I hesitate to rate the disc too highly. Future releases will only improve as the mastering process advances. If I have to nit-pick, there are a couple of wide shots where the picture looks a little soft, but of course this may have also been present in the original photography. In exactly two shots I thought I might have seen some very minor edge ringing, unless the effect is actually a lighting silhouette. Both problems are so subtle that I'm not sure the disc is at fault. As mentioned earlier, the opening shots look a little dupey, as do a few at the closing. Whatever the reason for that, it's hardly worth complaining about in light of how fantastic everything else looks.

The Last Samurai HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.

The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.

Audio:
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format, which offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD. The initial launch titles from Warner Bros. have an acknowledged mastering issue where the audio volume is set by default much lower than the comparable DVD edition of the same movie or HD DVDs from other studios. I found that I had to raise my receiver's volume by 10 dB over my usual settings. After having done that, however, the soundtrack comes alive with plenty of immersive surround activity, crisp sound effects, and a fair to good amount of bass. I didn't have the Last Samurai DVD for comparison, but I'm told by others that the DVD has deeper bass than the HD DVD even after adjusting the volume. That may be true, but without a direct comparison I didn't feel that the HD DVD was missing anything. My subwoofer still got a satisfying workout from all the cannon blasts and my chair shook when I expected it to. No noise or hiss was introduced into the audio by raising the volume as needed.

A French dub track is also available in DD+ 5.1, as well as a Spanish dub in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Optional subtitles include English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish. All of the optional subtitles are authored to appear half-in/half-out of the 2.35:1 movie image, which is very annoying for many front projection users. The movie also has default English subtitles for non-English dialogue scenes that appear within entirely the 2.35:1 area, however.

Extras:
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD launch title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Future releases may offer more advanced features. The interactive menus have a handy feature that allows you to view a still from each of the supplements before you watch and provides the running time. The menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).

All of the supplements from the DVD appear to have carried over, including the text-based ROM material (now included with the regular features). Your tolerance for most of these features will be entirely dependant on how much you liked the film and how much you can stand Tom Cruise. Frankly, my patience wore thin pretty quickly.

  • Audio commentary by Edward Zwick. The director has a very smooth speaking voice that may lull you to sleep if you're not careful.
  • History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai (22 min.). A blatantly promotional and fairly cheesy History Channel special about the work put into making the film historically accurate.
  • Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise (18 min.). Zwick comes across as enormously pretentious while Cruise seems to honestly believe that he's an expert on every subject known to man.
  • Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey (13 min.). Listen to Cruise expound on his expertise about the Japanese culture and history. By the time this was over, I just could not stand to listen to him speak any longer.
  • A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert (7 min.). By far the most interesting supplement on the disc, this short feature goes into enormous detail about the research and effort it took to rebuild historical Japan on the Warner Bros. studio backlot.
  • Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson (6 min.). As you can glean from the title, this one is a look at the artistry of costume design.
  • Imperial Army Basic Training (6 min.). Another interesting supplement about the technical recreation of the historical setting.
  • From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons (5 min.). More of the above.
  • Edward Zwick: Director's Video Journal (26 min.). A production diary comprised of behind-the-scenes footage. Zwick's monotonous voiceover narration is very wearying.
  • Additional Scenes with optional commentary by Edward Zwick. Only two scenes are provided, both presented in non-anamorphic widescreen pillarboxed into the center of the 16:9 frame. The beheading is pretty cool.
  • Japan Premieres (7 min.). Interviews with the cast on the red carpet.
  • Theatrical Trailer. Exactly what it sounds like.
  • Bushido: The Way of the Warrior. Some text material about the samurai code and way of life.
No interactive features have been included.

Final Thoughts:
The Last Samurai may not be the great movie it thinks it is, but it's a serviceable enough entertainment with all the spit and polish that Hollywood can muster. The HD DVD from Warner Home Video is true demonstration quality. With fantastic video, pretty good audio (excepting the volume issue), and all the supplements from the DVD, it's worthy of a recommendation just as show-off material alone, regardless of how you feel about Tom Cruise these days.

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