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The Star Chamber(1983)
Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.
For more about The Star Chamber and the The Star Chamber Blu-ray release, see the The Star Chamber Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on June 1, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Michael Douglas, Hal Holbrook, Yaphet Kotto, Sharon Gless, James Sikking, Otis Day
Director: Peter Hyams
» See full cast & crew
The Star Chamber Blu-ray Review
Vigilantism from afar.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, June 1, 2013
At least I tried to do something.
Sometimes, justice must find a way. Justice -- doled out from law books, not the barrel of a vigilante's gun -- is one of the most complex organisms in the world, one in which everything must be in precise working order to operate at full capacity, to identify, prosecute, and convict society's worst. There can be no shortcuts, no deviations, no skirting the letter of law. But it can be a double-edged sword. One slip, one misstep, one glossed over fact, one slight variance in exacting procedure can result in the entire process breaking down. And when the system fails, someone -- some collective -- may need to pick up the slack, himself, herself, or itself now the lawless, working beyond the code, prosecuting away from the formalities and procedures of the court room. The Star Chamber looks at what happens when judges, fed up with a broken system, work outside of the law, when, like Judge Dredd, they expand on their duties and become jury and executioner when they remove the black robe.
Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) has recently presided over two cases. One, that of a criminal accused of murdering the elderly for their welfare checks and two, a pair of men accused of participating in a child pornography and murder ring. Though the evidence points heavily in the prosecution's favor, Hardin has no choice but to throw the cases out thanks to tainted evidence or evidence collected without the proper warrants or procedures, releasing obviously dangerous men on legal technicalities. Hardin's frustration with the system becomes evident. His elder colleague, Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook), tells him of a secret society dubbed "The Star Chamber" constructed of judges who prosecute criminals in private gatherings and put out hits on those they deem guilty. Hardin, blinded by his disillusionment with the system, joins the group and partakes in proclaiming the guilt of those who have been "wrongly" released by the letter of the law. When he comes to believe that the group is having innocent men killed, he must choose to keep his mouth shut or go rogue and put an end to a dangerous collection of individuals before they can hurt more of the wrong people.
Adjectives like "riveting," "intense," or "thrilling" don't really fit into a description of The Star Chamber, but the film at least has a fairly novel feel and appeal, not so much in structure but certainly in idea. It's a fascinating brand of vigilantism that just isn't translated very well to the screen. It's quite the opposite of a film like Death Wish; it lacks that kind of chaotic violence and instead tries to play vigilantism through a more dramatic angle. Its characters, outside of Douglas' Hardin, are depicted as almost soulless automatons who may have agreed to participate out of frustration and anger but who seem to have become desensitized to what they do, right or wrong. And that's where the main crux of the dramatic conflict comes in. When Hardin learns that, maybe, they're moving too fast, that they don't take long enough to flush out the truth, he must choose between a strange sort of private club of judge, jury, and executioner or go rogue against them and attempt to salvage what little bit of integrity he, and the system, have left. It's a strong idea with all sorts of moral quagmires and minefields and thought-provoking elements to explore. Unfortunately, the movie never finds much beyond the superficial, leaving the audience craving more from a good idea that's only halfway fulfilled on the screen.
That unfulfilled promise doesn't translate into a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, The Star Chamber also overcomes fairly repetitive first and second acts, hanging on thanks to the strength of the concept, some of the raw emotions that surface, the courtroom intrigue, and the dealings within the "chamber" itself that all do a nice job of luring the audience into the film's world of justice unserved and the men and women who decide to make it work on their own moral authority rather than the letter of the law. The movie fails to climax in any sort of truly exciting way, throwing in the obligatory big action sequence (though at no time does Hardin wield a gun, as is suggested on the poster art) and ending on a fairly nice final shot that's suggestive and open ended but executed well enough to leave audiences pondering the consequences of what's happened and what may or may not follow. Douglas turns in a fairly strong performance that's shaped by his character's simple but dramatically effective arc that could be the prototype for how an "arc" works, from the burgeoning frustrations to his first utterance of "guilty" in the chamber and on through the final shot of the film. He's supported by a rock-solid effort from Hal Holbrook and an underutilized Yaphet Kotto.
The Star Chamber Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Star Chamber arrives on Blu-ray with a decent but mostly underwhelming transfer, just about the sort of picture quality longtime format fans have come to expect of a catalogue title plopped onto a disc for cheap release. Grain fluctuates between excessively sharp and so subtle it's almost invisible. The image shows some scattered edge halos, but nothing too distracting. Details are just alright; faces and clothes are nicely defined in close-up shots, but backgrounds are often drab, soft, and lacking in much definition, In fact, there's a pervasive softness around the edges of much of the film. Colors, too, are bland, not looking dull or faded but certainly not popping off the screen like would be seen in a new movie. Black levels fluctuate a bit, though not too far from the norm, at times hinting at crush or showing just a little paleness. Flesh tones, however, prove a bit more stable. There are a couple of random pops and scratches here and there, but again nothing worth a considerable markdown in score. It's an "eh, OK" sort of transfer. Expect little and enjoy.
The Star Chamber Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Like the video, The Star Chamber's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack is nothing special. It does deliver a bit more in the way of pronounced range and clarity than some of the lower end two-channel tracks floating around with cheaply priced catalogue titles from other studios, but clarity isn't demonstrably better. Larger sounds in particular -- a rumbling garbage truck, a tussle and gunshot partway through the movie, even an explosion near the end -- lack much in the way of body and power. The subwoofer never really gets to crank out much low end goodness, leaving the film's heaviest effects sounding rather puny and mushy. Even lighter ambience, like gentle applause or the background din of a restaurant, fail to really excite the listener, place him or her in the location, or even find much in the way of simple clarity. There's a slightly wider-feeling stage at the Dodger Stadium segment, but again raw accuracy suffers. Dialogue comes through evenly enough from the center, and as a dialogue-intensive film, the track at least gets right its most important piece. Audio retailers won't flock to this title for demo purposes, but it suits the lower end release and price point well enough.
The Star Chamber Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Star Chamber contains no extras, and no menu is included. The film begins playback immediately after disc insertion. Optional English SDH subtitles must be switched on or off in-film with the remote control.
The Star Chamber Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Star Chamber makes for a serviceable little cinematic venture. It features several good actors in a few strong roles. However, the film works better on its promise than its execution. It's a great idea but one that might have worked even better on page rather than screen, where it may have had greater opportunity to better define the characters, the inner turmoil, the inner workings of the chamber, and the outward effects of its choices. In the film, most is explored only around the periphery, but with the quality of idea that's enough to make for a movie that may not be compelling but that's at least thought provoking and sufficiently entertaining. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release of The Star Chamber features adequate video and audio. No extras are included. Probably best enjoyed as a rental.
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