A veteran of the U.S. Civil War, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired by the Emperor Meiji to train a Japanese army as Western soldiers to defeat samurai warriors. Upon arriving in Japan in 1876, Algren is met with great uncertainty but steps forward to complete the job for which he is hired. His army is comprised of mere peasants with little or no experience in battle, and they are expected to go up against the samurai Katsumoto and his sophisticated rebels much too soon. When Algren is captured by the enemy, he is taken to their village and kept so that Katsumoto may learn more about this strange Western warrior. But what Algren would never have expected was how much he was to learn and inevitably respect the ways of the samurai. "The Last Samurai" is another stirring Civil War-era epic directed by Edward Zwick ("Glory"). (Suzanne Hodges)
You are going to love this special features' menu—easy to read, easy to use, and little clicks and pops to guide you, plus a cheat sheet (look to the right) that tells you about the special feature before you select it. Talk about time-saving! Anyhow, there's a ton of extras, so secure your sword and read on. List One includes audio commentary with director Edward Zwick, a 22-minute featurette which dicusses the political upheavel in Japan during the late 1800s, an 18-minute conversation with Zwick and Tom Cruise about the making-of, 12 minutes of Tom discussing the approach he took to become his on-screen character, seven minutes with production designer Lilly Kilbert, six minutes with costume designer Ngila Dickson, a five-minute segment chronicalling the basic training involved in the Imperial Army, five minutes with the authentic weapons used during filming, and a 26-minute director's video journal. List Two is home to two additonal scenes with optional commentary with Zwick, almost seven minutes of video footage from the film's premiere in Japan, the seven principles of Bushido, and the theatrical trailer, plus a reminder to visit Warner online.
WOW! While John Toll's sweeping cinematography was beautifully rendered on the anamorphically enhanced DVD, it is even more pristine on this HD DVD. A further comparison between DVD and HD DVD is unnecessary as every aspect of image quality is expectedly improved. Gunsmoke, clothing textures, and fine details are incredibly delineated in what is almost always a deeply textured picture with color saturation that is complementary to the 19th century storytelling. Rich reds, vibrant blues, and bold greens are very nicely rendered, as well as deep solid blacks and natural fleshtones. Desaturation and blue overtones are compelling for Algren's flashbacks. Contrast and shadow delineation are also well balanced. There are some minor anomalies inherent in the source element, and there are a few segments in which the picture is slightly shaky. Very rarely will viewers find any objectionable VC-1 compression artifacts. (Suzanne Hodges)
The disc includes three Dolby® Digital•Plus-encoded soundtracks (English and French 5.1-channel tracks and one Spanish 2.0-channel track). The English track plays back at 14 dB below that of the DVD version when both are played back on the same player. While some of this may be from the decoding/encoding process within the Toshiba HD-XA1 player (we measured drop by about 2 dB on Universal's HD DVD releases), it is a huge difference in overall level. This may not be a problem technically—as you can always just turn the volume up—but getting the disc to reference level may introduce clipping distortion in your system, depending on the equipment you use. The Dolby Digital•Plus soundtrack provides a noticeable improvement in overall fidelity over the Dolby Digital DVD soundtrack, as should be expected with the increased bit rate. The entire soundtrack is more refined, with better articulation that helps bring the soundtrack closer to true life. Voices sound very natural, but the increased audio resolution can make it easier to pick out when ADR is used, which is especially noticeable in outdoor scenes. Dialogue can sound so good, however, it is easy to get lost in listening to the voices, tuning out all else. Effects are imaged well around the room, although center surround imaging is limited. While comparing the HD DVD soundtrack to that of the DVD would not be fair, due to the differences in the formats used for encoding, it also makes it difficult to justify the sound rating—especially with so few HD DVD titles to set a comparison to. This a very good soundtrack, though, although it could benefit greatly from more localized imaging around the soundstage. Note: I took half a point off the sound rating due to the very low encoding level of the audio. (Danny Richelieu)