I'd been impressed with director Rod Lurie's previous films, "Deterrence" and "The Contender"; both were strong political thrillers with excellent performances. Neither really showed a strong visual style, but Lurie's films have certainly showed improvement technically and "Last Castle", with its terrific widescreen compositions, is the best looking of the three. Yet, it's unfortunate that, while the film boasts a superb cast, the material never really becomes particularly believable and, as the first hour comes to a close, the movie isn't getting to the point fast enough.
Robert Redford stars as Gen. Eugene Irwin, a highly decorated war hero who has just been court-martialed and sent to a military prison, which is ruled over by Col. Winter (James Gandolfini); both Col. Winter and the prisoners have heard of Irwin and respect him highly. While Irwin responds to Winter with respect at first, things quickly turn confrontational when Irwin finds out about how Winter has handled his term as Warden.
Thus begins a chess match between the two, as Irwin rallies the inmates around him in an attempt to take down Winter's command of the "Castle". There are several problems within the film, apparent during the first hour. Rather than attempting to build tension, Lurie doesn't develop the supporting (or main, for that matter) characters very well and goes for Emotional Moments and general melodrama. While occasionally implausible as well, I'd felt that Lurie's previous efforts (both written by himself, while David Scarpa and action writer Graham Yost wrote this film) side-stepped these instances better.
Lurie's film runs two hours and change, and could have been a little less. The pacing is problematic in the first half and doesn't really get moving until the main action sequence that starts 3/4ths of the way through, which is exciting, but rather unbelieveable. There should have been a stronger and more detailed build-up to the uprising. While Gandolfini and Redford both offer very good performances, there's really not enough to their character's interactions; the battle of wits between the two isn't as entertaining as it should be. A fine supporting performance from Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count On Me") is also entertaining. A cameo from Robin Wright-Penn as Irwin's daughter is nice, but it doesn't really lead anywhere.
Overall, "The Last Castle" is a mixed effort; good performances and solid technical credits are seen, but the story is difficult to believe at times and the characters aren't that well developed. By the time the credits rolled, I was somewhat entertained, but certainly, I thought the last 133 minutes could have been stronger.
VIDEO: Dreamworks presents "The Last Castle" in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. The terrific widescreen compositions are presented well on this edition from Dreamworks, but, as with a few of their recent titles, there are a few more problems then I am used to seeing from the studio's releases. Sharpness and detail are quite good, if not perfect: the image can seem very slightly soft now and then and doesn't offer much depth.
The presentation's main flaw is edge enhancement, which is visible and somewhat irritating at times. No pixelation was seen, nor was any scratches or marks on the print used. Some very slight grain was seen, but this hardly was much of an issue. Colors remained subdued throughout, but brighter colors could appear at times. Overall, this is a passable and satisfactory presentation.
SOUND: Lurie's "Contender" and "Deterrence" really didn't have much need for agressive sound use, but "Last Castle" does a particularly fine job inserting the viewer into the prison environment. It's not demo material, but it's certainly a very strong effort. Even during the first hour, there are several sequences within the prison where the surrounds do a solid job providing distinct ambient sounds. Once the battle sequences begin, the audio becomes more of an assault, with strong bass and sound effects use. Audio quality was generally very good throughout, as Jerry Goldsmith's score, dialogue and sound effects remained clear and crisp. Both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks are included; the DTS soundtrack provided a slightly more detailed and rich sound, but the differences remained very minor.
MENUS: Clips from the film serve as backgrounds, while Goldsmith's score plays.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Rod Lurie, who has provided commentary tracks for the DVDs of his two previous films. Lurie has previously noted that he very much enjoys providing these discussions of his films and he does so again at the begining of this track. Most of the commentary is, as with Lurie's previous discussions, very interesting and informative; he discusses the contributions of his fellow crew members and occasionally talks about what he would have done differently. There are a few minor patches where Lurie hangs on praise for the actors, but mostly, this commentary moves along at a decent clip and provides good information.
Deleted Scenes: 9 deleted scenes are included, complete with commentary from director Lurie, who chats intensely about why the scenes were included and his dislike of having to remove scenes that he liked, but do not work for whatever reason in the final film.
Trailer: The film's theatrical trailer is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1; the trailer is well-done and exciting.
HBO "First Look": A 12-minute piece that goes over the usual ground that these promotional pieces do; some slight behind-the-scenes clips are placed in-between a lot of discussion about the story.
Also: Production notes, bios.
Final Thoughts: I found "The Last Castle" to be somewhat entertaining at times, with good performances, but the characters weren't particularly well-developed and the first half wasn't very involving. Overall, it's certainly got moments, but I couldn't help feel a bit dissapointed. Dreamworks' DVD edition provides respectable video and solid audio quality, along with some decent supplements. I'd mildly recommend it as a rental.