Last Samurai DVD Review

The Last Samurai has been critized by some for its lack of historical accuracy. While I can certainly understand why this would be an issue for some people, it never really makes the claim at any point to be a true story. It's a movie BASED in history, plain and simple, and an incredible one at that. Tom Cruise plays a Civil War veteran named Nathan Algren. He is under severe stress, emotional problems, and has a tendancy to indulge in a bit too much alchohol. His problems stem from recurring images in his mind due a slaghter of American Indians he took part in. He is then invited to Japan to train their new modern army and also eliminate the samurai who are refusing to change with the times. Trapped and captured by the samurai during a battle, Algren slowly begins his tranformation into their lifestyle and agrees to help them defeat the new Japanese army, even if it means certain death.
Directed by Edward Zwick who gave us the outstanding war film Glory, Last Samurai is a brilliant film, quite possibly one of the best to come out of Hollywood in the past ten years. This is a beautiful epic, filled with outstanding performances from not only Cruise, but his Japanese counterpart Ken Watanabe (in his first English speaking role). The cinematography here his just gorgeous, with stunning sunsets and rolling camera shots that show off the country like few films have. Hans Zimmer supplies his 100th movie score and it's one of his best. His pounding battle theme heightens the tension and adds another dimension to the already incredible battle scenes. Some may find Tom Cruise a bit hard to swallow in this role, but the perfectly written story is entirely plausible and his transformation is believeable. This is not an action film (though it certainly has a jaw dropping fight at the end), but a story that is gripping and flawlessly put onto the screen. This is a must see two and half hour movie and could easily go down as a classic in a few years time. (***** out of *****) The Last Samurai is available in both 2.35:1 widescreen and seperately in a full screen pan & scan version. This movie cries out to be seen in it's orignal ratio and I cannot fathom what would happen to it when cropped. Anyway, this is a great transfer, though certainly far from perfect. Heavy grain is apparent almost throughout the entire movie, though more obvious in the nightime sequences. Beyond this issue, colors are great, black levels are solid (save for a few brief sequences), and the amazing photography is captured in all it's beauty. (****) Two sound options are available, English and French 5.1 Surround. Lacking any serious bass, it's a minor dissapointment. The "just invented" cannons just don't have the impact they should. The surrounds are used extensively (and very well) during battle sequences, but they are hardly touched elsewhere. Still, there are some nice left-to-right stereo effects, but this one should be much more active than it is. (***) Extras are extensive on this 2-disc set starting with a Edward Zwick commentary track. I tested it briefly and Zwick is very monotone, but provided some great info on the shoot. There is a History Channel segment that focuses on a variety of topics, and rarely compares real history with the film which is odd considering the title "History vs. Hollywood." It's mostly filled with interviews focusing on Zwick and Cruise. Next up is a segment on Tom Cruise entitled "A Warriors Journey." Cruise talks about the real samurai and Japan itself for a little over 10 minutes. Edward Zwick hosts a video diary that runs about half hour. He gives out various information about the scenes being shown in the background. It's insightful and runs for about a half hour. If you haven't had enough of Zwick and Cruise up until this point, you can indulge with a conversation between the two, sandwiched between various clips from the film. They talk about how they came to meet, give stories from the set, etc. It's great to see their side about how everything came together, but most of the info mentioned here is contained elswhere. Thankfully, the disc finally ignores those two for a brief time and focuses on Lilly Kilvert, the production designer. This is a short segment but it's simply incredible how a set comes together. You can also visit with Ngila Dickson who did the costumes. Her attention to detail is astounding. There is a segment on the training of all the extras in the film which took place in New Zealand and another on the weaponary. As much as I love cannons, it's a shame to see so little time devoted the samurai's weaponary. Alot of the movie talks about how their sword is their soul and THAT would make an interesting documentary. As if all of this wasn't enough, you'll get 2 deleted seqeunces with optional commentary. A deleted beheading scene is followed by a brief "making of." It's amazing what it takes to chop someones head off nowadays. Ok, the remainder of the features includes a look at the premiers in Japan (2 different cities), some DVD-ROM features I can't access since I don't own a drive, and the trailer. Whew. (*****) Most studios have been abusing the 2-disc set as of late so it's great to see someone use it to perfection. It's even better when the movie is destined to be a classic. I can't imagine enjoying the story of a movie more over the action sequences I generally cherish. This is a near perfect movie and one you wish everyone you know would run out an see it.

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