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Murder in the First(1995)
An eager and idealistic young attorney defends an Alcatraz prisoner accused of murdering a fellow inmate. The extenuating circumstances: his client had just spent over three years in solitary confinement.
For more about Murder in the First and the Murder in the First Blu-ray release, see Murder in the First Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on August 6, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Embeth Davidtz, William H. Macy, Stephen Tobolowsky
Director: Marc Rocco
» See full cast & crew
Murder in the First Blu-ray Review
A high-quality Courtroom Drama earns a midlevel Blu-ray release.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, August 6, 2012
For every action there is a definite and distinct reaction.
If there's one genre in which everything always seems to come together, a grouping of films in which everything seems always to click, it's the Courtroom Drama. A good one -- and there seem to be more good ones than bad ones -- needs any number of elements to come together, elements often eschewed in other types of cinema because lazy filmmakers rely on camera work or special effects or humor to carry the day rather than content and drama. The Courtroom Drama, however, requires everything be in working order if the picture is to even have a chance to succeed. An engaging story, a smart script, a captivating narrative, strong pacing, and first-rate acting are all necessary if the film is to place the audience in the jury box or the gallery, to sense the difference between fact and fiction, to feel the tension build, the air thicken, and the sweat drip. From cinema greats like To Kill a Mockingbird to more modern fare like A Time to Kill, the movies have always been home to any number of great films centered in the halls of justice (and often sourced from great printed works of Legal Fiction). Even the small screen offers a natural medium for such storytelling endeavors; whether series centered on the courtroom like "Law & Order" or merely standalone Courtroom episodes of popular television shows like "Measure of a Man" from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," there's just no shortage of wonderful stories to tell and great filmed entertainment plots to enjoy. 1995's Murder in the First is another in the long line of cinema Courtroom greats. It has everything required working in perfect order, the film defined by a captivating story and wonderful characters that both immerse the audience into the courtroom with the best of them.
Henri Young (Kevin Bacon, Tremors) is serving hard time at Alcatraz. He's not a hard criminal, however; he's been transferred in with some of the nation's most notorious thugs to satisfy quotas. His crime: petty theft of $5 which ballooned into a federal offense because the location he robbed happened to be a United States Post Office. Young, along with several other inmates -- including a man named McCain (David Sterling) -- attempt to escape the inescapable prison. They're caught thanks to McCain's double-cross. Only he and Young survive the ordeal. McCain returns to general population and Young is placed in solitary confinement, known around Alcatraz as "The Dungeon." It's a dank, dark, sealed-off room barely large enough to hold a single man. The average stay in the hole is nineteen days; Young is forced to endure more than three straight years inside. He's finally released and is a different man physically, emotionally, and mentally. He's lost all semblance of self-control, rational thought, and coherence. In a rage, he murders McCain in front of guards and hundreds of inmates during mealtime. He's taken to trial, and the case is expected to be quick and decisive. There's no question that Young committed the crime. A fresh-from-law-school attorney named James Stamphill (Christian Slater, He Was a Quiet Man) is given the case nobody wants; he's told to make it an experience, real-world preparation for his next, first "real" case. But Young isn't satisfied with simply going through the motions. He declares his client guilty, but also lays blame on the correctional facility itself, claiming Young's years of solitude and inhumane treatment constitute crimes against humanity. Now, Stamphill has the entire Alcatraz system on trial. The case explodes into a media frenzy, and suddenly a young attorney and a guilty man stand alone against the system.
Murder in the First may not be the pinnacle of the Courtroom Drama or the one single picture one might select as the prefect representative for the genre, but it's a high-grade, high substance movie that flirts with flawlessness in every critical arena. The picture is engaging and consistently so; there's never a dull dramatic moment, whether living in the hellish conditions of the hole with Henri Young or hanging on every word in the courtroom. The picture paints a detailed picture of the particulars of the case and the events leading up to them, all without overwhelming the plot or distancing audiences from the themes. Murder in the First easily balances background, narrative, drama, and intensity, all not equal in importance but all necessary in the construction of superior Courtroom cinema. The movies flows naturally and moves quickly; Director Marc Rocco (Dream a Little Dream) situates all the elements with commendable precision. His direction captures the essence of the story and intermixes specifics with generalities to dramatic perfection. His direction is defined by slow movement, long pans, and unique perspectives. However, never does Murder in the First feel like a product of its camerawork or dependent on its visuals to carry the story. Instead, Rocco accentuates the proceedings, heightens the intensity, captures the realities of places and situations, and transports the audience into the film through his precision workmanship. But for all the good in Murder in the First, it's the lead performances that set the tone and define the movie at the end of the day.
Murder in the First is the beneficiary of several pitch-perfect performances and a few that fill in the background pieces on the way to a dazzling, complete motion picture experience. Of those secondary characters, William H. Macy, Embeth Davidtz, and Gary Oldman are spectacular. Macy plays Macy; he's a fine character actor but seems to capture that same rhythm and demeanor in all his parts, here as the somewhat cocky prosecutor. Davidtz carries her scenes well and blends right into the movie, and Oldman delivers a standout performance as the arrogant prison warden, his work defined by an early scene played against Kevin Bacon and, later, on the witness stand opposite Christian Slater. R. Lee Ermey perfectly fills out the judge's robe, playing just the sort of character he was born for: a tough-as-nails, vociferous, but fundamentally fair character who gets his way but isn't afraid of conflict or demonstrating his authority. Christian Slater turns in one of his best efforts as a young but determined public defender. If there's a fault in the film, it's that Slater's character seems more polished and prepared for the rigors of the courtroom and the trials of taking on a supposedly open-and-shut case of some magnitude. The film never seems to truly take advantage of the character's inexperience and naiveté, though fortunately that doesn't hurt the film too badly or detract all that much from the core story. That core is defined by the dazzling work of Kevin Bacon, who in this film sets aside his dancing shoes and delivers a gritty, detailed, wholly-convincing performance of a man unjustly imprisoned and unfairly treated for over three years. Bacon absolutely transforms into a lost, tortured, battered soul; from his grasp of the degraded mental state to the nuance of the physical performance, Bacon becomes a man destroyed internally and shaken externally by years of unimaginable hardship. In the verbal cadence and outward twitches and behaviors, he delivers startling work through every scene, culminating in an incredible fear-of-God performance defining a final scene in which he takes the stand and comes face-to-face with his greatest fears. It's an exhilarating performance that was snubbed of Oscar consideration but was nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and won at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards.
Murder in the First Blu-ray, Video Quality
Murder in the First's 1080p, 1.77:1-framed transfer isn't a dazzler by any stretch of the imagination -- eyes won't pop and jaws won't drop -- but it is a very proficient, high quality, film-like image that should please purists. This is a warm; slightly soft, at times; image, occasionally a hair too soft but generally easy on the eyes and pleasant in texture. Bright colors are rare and not very vibrant. The image favors a golden tinge, particularly in the courtroom scenes that are accentuated by dark wooden elements. Elsewhere, in the dreary prison locales, the film goes black and blue and gray, symbolizing a sense of despair and hopelessness that's countered by the more pleasing courtroom hues. Detailing is steady, not absolutely revealing but satisfying on a base level. Brighter close-ups offer nicely defined skin textures, and various furnishings around the courtroom offer above-average proficiency in resolution. A light coating of grain accentuates the positives throughout. Blacks can be a bit overwhelming, canceling out shadow detail in the darker scenes, and flesh tones often carry a slightly bronze-ish coloring. There are a handful of black speckles and very slight blocking across a few dark backgrounds, but overall this is a very strong catalogue transfer from Warner Brothers.
Murder in the First Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Murder in the First arrives on Blu-ray with a satisfactory but sonically uninteresting DTS-HD MA 2.0 lossless soundtrack. It's fairly flat and lacking in energy and spacing, but considering this is a dialogue-intensive film, there's not much that it misses. The track creates a fair sense of space in "The Dungeon" when dripping water lightly saturates the front of the listening area in a somewhat cramped manner. Such subtle ambience is sufficient, but there are no scenes where audiences are pulled into the film from an audio perspective, even in hectic courtroom scenes with a packed gallery. Voices do reverberate a good bit when the prosecutor, defender, judge, and witnesses speak loudly during the proceedings. There's a fair din amongst a collected press pool outside the courthouse and, earlier in the film, inside the prison cafeteria after Young is released from solitary, but again audiences won't feel as if a part of either crowd. A few fireworks pop with good authority and a fair low end midway through the movie. General dialogue occasionally seeps away from the center and plays with a little too much distinction off to one side or another. All in all, though, this is a sufficient track that gets audiences through the movie without any major problems of note.
Murder in the First Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Murder in the First contains the film's theatrical trailer (1080p, 1:59) and the featurette Kevin Bacon: Back to Alcatraz (1080p, 12:30), a good, new, eloquent, and insightful supplement featuring the actor discussing his place in acting, taking on different types of roles, his work in JFK and landing the part in Murder in the First, the picture's themes, his character's personal qualities and how they are shaped by three years in the hole, his preparations for the part, finding the character, working with Director Marc Rocco and his cast mates, and more.
Murder in the First Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Murder in the First is a strikingly good film and an all-around fine representation of the Courtroom Drama. It's not the cream of the sub-genre crop, but the picture embraces all of the necessary elements and exemplifies what good storytelling is all about. The movie is shaped by high quality direction, a very good pace, a tight script, and high quality acting, including a detailed, convincing, award-worthy performance from Kevin Bacon. It's not the Courtroom movie to see, but both fans of the sub-genre and curious outsiders alike would be wise to make this required viewing. Warner Brothers' Blu-ray release of Murder in the First offers solid video, acceptable audio, and a high quality new extra featuring Kevin Bacon. Recommended.
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