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Owen Rogers
Owen Rogers

The Last Samurai Image



Parents need to know that this movie has extreme and graphic violence with many grisy wounds and a lot of blood. Many characters are killed, including some we have come to care about. Parents should especially be aware of the way that this movie portrays the traditional samurai notion of suicide as an honorable choice in the event of a defeat. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol abuse, smoking, and sexual references. One of the movie's strengths is its respect for the Japanese culture and its portrayal of strong and respectful relationships between people of different races and cultures.




The Last Samurai image


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THE LAST SAMURAI centers on Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a Civil War veteran irredeemably corrupted by wartime atrocities and devoid of honor. When he is offered a job to train Japanese soldiers in modern fighting techniques, he does not care whose side he will be on. He is still haunted by a raid that killed civilian Indians. Algren goes to work training soldiers in modern tactics so that they can defeat a samurai rebellion led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Against his best judgment, the troops are sent in against the samurai too soon. They are defeated, and Algren is captured. Algren learns that the samurai believe that they, not the troops Algren has been training, are doing what the emperor needs. He's impressed and ultimately moved by them. Algren -- or at least the man he once was -- has more in common with the samurais' life of "service, discipline, and compassion" than he has with any of his peers. The samurai have all the honor and self-respect that Algren left behind when he followed orders he despised. Algren is trained by the samurai in the ancient arts, which include not just fighting but living.


The Last Samurai has some outstanding action scenes and memorable performances, but its greatest strength is its scope. Director/co-author Edward Zwick imbues every part of the screen with respect, even majesty. The epic reach of the movie is grounded in committed and thoughtful performances, especially Watanabe and Koyuki as Taka, his sister. Cruise delivers his usual performance, sincere and loaded with movie star charisma. His mastery of the samurai fighting techniques is impressive.


However, the movie's greatest weakness is that while we know that Algren's commanding officer is a bad guy, the emperor is a weak guy advised by a greedy guy, and Katsumoto is a good guy, we never understand the substance of the conflict well enough to take sides. One side may be corrupt, but it is grappling with the inevitable in engaging with modernity. The other side may have honor and dignity, but in embracing its own extinction it seems to have forgotten how to do anything but fight, no matter what the consequences to its community. And the last 20 minutes or so are disappointingly formulaic, undercutting the power of everything that went before.


Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe co-star, as a shabby Civil War veteran and a proud samurai warrior. Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a war hero who now drifts and drinks too much, with no purpose in life. He's hired by Americans who are supplying mercenaries to train an army for the Japanese emperor, who wants to move his country into the modern world and is faced with a samurai rebellion.


The role of the samurai leader Katsumoto (Watanabe) is complex; he is fighting against the emperor's men, but out of loyalty to the tradition the emperor represents, he would sacrifice his life in an instant, he says, if the emperor requested it. But Japan has been seized with a fever to shake off its medieval ways and copy the West, and the West sees money to be made in the transition: Representatives from the Remington arms company are filling big contracts for weapons, and the U.S. Embassy is a clearinghouse for lucrative trade arrangements.


Into this cauldron Algren descends as a cynic. He is told the samurai are "savages with bows and arrows," but sees that the American advisers have done a poor job of training the modernized Japanese army to fight them. Leading his untried troops into battle, he is captured and faces death -- but is spared by a word from Katsumoto, who returns him as a prisoner to the village of his son.


Katsumoto has pledged his life to defending the dying code of the samurai. Algren finds himself gradually shifting allegiances, away from the mercenaries and toward the samurai, but his shift is visceral, not ideological. He bonds with Katsumoto, respects him, wants to find respect in his eyes. The movie illustrates the universal military truth that men in battle are motivated not by their cause but by loyalty to their comrades.


The director is Edward Zwick, whose other war films ("Glory," "Legends of the Fall," "Courage Under Fire") have also dealt with men whose personal loyalties have figured more importantly than political ideology. Here he gives Algren a speech attacking Custer, whose last stand was fresh in everyone's mind. ("He was a murderer who fell in love with his own legend, and his troops died for it.") Yes, but how would Algren describe this film's final battle scene, in which Katsumoto leads his men into what appears to be certain death? To be sure, his men share his values, but is there an element of seeking "a good death"? Is a there a line between dying for what you believe in, and dying because of what you believe in?


Which makes the pressure of which disc to watch first almost unbearable. If I'm being honest, I can't say that if I had my druthers, the first HD DVD discs consumers would have to chose from would be 'Million Dollar Baby,' 'Serenity' and 'Phantom of the Opera.' They are all good movies to be sure, but I definitely would never have picked a Tom Cruise movie to kick off a new HD format, let alone one as big-budget, bloated and self-important as 'The Last Samurai' (geesh, even 'Top Gun' would have been better -- at least that one has flying jets and Kenny Loggins on the soundtrack). But here I am, picking 'Samurai' as my first-ever high-def DVD review title, if only because it allows me to pay the biggest compliment I can think of to the new HD DVD format -- despite the fact that I would normally hate this movie, I loved every last single second of it.


First the good news. Warner has not skimped on its first HD DVD releases. 'Last Samurai,' like Warner's other two initial HD DVD offerings ('Million Dollar Baby' and 'Phantom of the Opera') showcases the movie by encoding it at 1080p -- meaning you're going to get every last pixel of the HD format's absolute maximum 1920 x 1080 resolution. Hooked up properly to a HDTV that can accept an 1080p input, you're getting a professional-grade image that can only be bettered by today's multi-million dollar digital cinema formats.


Now, the bad news. There are very few HD display devices on the market today that can accept a 1080p input (we're using one of them, the HP Pavilion 65" DLP RPTV, as the centerpiece of our reference system), but then Toshiba's two first-gen HD DVD players (the HD-A1 and its slightly snazzier cousin, the HD-XA1) can only output 1080i anyway. That means the performance you can get today out of these first HD DVD discs is a slight notch down from full 1080p. But rest assured, it can still deliver one hell of a picture, and is certainly a major leap forward in image quality over even the best standard DVD image.


Now, at last the results. Watching 'The Last Samurai' at 1080i via HDMI on the HP was certainly an impressive experience. At times it delivered some of the best video I've ever seen on a pre-recorded consumer format. Many shots are breathtaking -- the kind of three-dimensional images you rarely seen outside of the cinema. Close-ups predictably had the biggest wow factor, though even some of the widest panoramic shots boasted noticeable fine detail that exceeded anything seen on standard DVD. Colors also "popped" incredibly well, with a few shots containing lots of deep oranges and lush greens that were incredibly striking. The transfer's blacks were also rock solid, and contrast was excellent. Plus, I noticed none of the ringing or halos still frequently seen on standard DVD transfers, which gave 'Last Samurai' a very natural, film-like appearance.


Finally, comparing the HD DVD versus standard DVD, the victor was clear. HD DVD is simply sharper, clearer, more vibrant and more real. I was also a bit surprised that the HD DVD of 'Samurai' sported stronger colors and better blacks than the standard DVD version, even though they appear to be minted from the same master. The considerably increased detail of the HD DVD format also gives the image a better sense of contrast, as distinct picture elements like the glint on a blade or fine clothing textures now "pop" off the screen that much more, as opposing areas of light and dark are now more pronounced. (I will take a closer look at HD DVD quality versus upconverted standard DVD in my review of Universal's 'Serenity.')


Now, the extras. Once again we have an audio commentary with director Ed Zwick, who is certainly an articulate, knowledgeable guy. To be honest, though, I have not been a fan of most of his commentaries. He usually comes off as dry and humorless, and there is no exception here. But if you have 132 minutes to spare and want to know every last production detail -- from staging the fight scenes to working with a star of Cruise's magnitude, who as Zwick makes clear has his own input into every aspect of the film -- this commentary won't disappoint.


But it doesn't have to be that way. The Last Samurai proved that you could launch a big movie in this very weekend provided it was something audiences wanted to see. I'm not sure 2001's Behind Enemies Lines counts, since 20th Century Fox's Gene Hackman/Owen Wilson "downed fighter pilot" thriller was something of a "first nationalistic war movie to drop after the 9/11 attacks" fluke, but otherwise do note that film's $18 million debut and $91m worldwide take on a $40m budget. And just last year, Universal/Comcast Corp. absolutely learned the lesson of The Last Samurai with Krampus. 041b061a72


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