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SUMMER OF SAM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, Ben Gazzara
Director:  Spike Lee
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Touchstone
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  December 21, 1999

Film ****

Spike Lee is a filmmaker who fully understands the terrible power of hatred.  In Do The Right Thing, he unsettled American audiences by showing how close to the surface racial violence is, and that it’s not as distant from ourselves as we might like to believe.  In other words, it doesn’t have to be the KKK waving crosses, or groups that wear their misguided ideals on their sleeves.  The hatred and intolerance that lies dormant, simmering underneath and rarely surfacing, can be just as dangerous given the right circumstances.

In Summer of Sam, he explores similar territory, and the results make this a movie that deserves mention alongside the aforementioned Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X as one of Lee’s greatest films.  Here, he takes a real life, notorious incident in American criminal history, and displays a different side.  He shows us the victims of the crime, but not the ones who die from a serial killer’s gunshots.  The victims we see are the ones who live in rapidly mounting fear and paranoia.

In other words, Summer of Sam is not really a movie about convicted killer David Berkowitz at all.  He makes his presence felt in the movie, but mostly in brief cuts as a mysterious, faceless identity as he stalks his victims.  And we see what it is that he does, in a few grisly scenes.

Instead, Lee creates a cast of characters from the neighborhood, and tells their story.  Each new Son of Sam killing simply ripples through their lives, like a pebble dropped in some far away pond.  But as the killings grow more and more frequent, and as it becomes apparent that their Bronx neighborhood is the target, therefore the Son of Sam probably lives amongst them, their lives start turning upside down.

Soon, everybody’s suspicious of everybody else.  Occasionally, there’s a bit of humor in that scenario, as in the fellow who suggests that the Son of Sam is Reggie Jackson…after all, the killer totes a .44 caliber gun, and Reggie wears number 44, right?  His friend responds, “Even if he is, we still need him for the playoffs.”  But mostly, Lee’s vision is painfully truthful, with no sugar coating.  This is a group of people entrenched in fear, and the more they are afraid, the more they give in to whatever tendencies they might have for intolerance and hatred.

They can’t understand why one of the neighborhood’s own sons (Brody) suddenly shows up with spiked hair and talking like an English punk rocker.  When it’s later discovered that he has a secret life as a seedy sex show performer, the suspicions grow worse.  We take the punk look for granted today, but here, we see how much it scared people when it first came out, in the heart of the disco era.  And when this character is refused service in a diner simply for his look, Lee makes the valid argument that such an action is not really any different than refusal to serve black people in decade’s past. 

The tragedy that is brought about here is entirely one born of human nature.  If we didn’t instinctively fear the things we don’t understand, or the things that are different, a story like this might not have taken place.  But Lee lived in New York during the Summer of Sam…in fact, he got his first movie camera in the same year of 1978.  He saw what happened, and he was the right filmmaker to bring the tale to the screen as a fable with a moral lesson.

He’s assembled an extraordinary cast here…not one weak link, and his characters are funny, richly drawn, and speak like real people.  John Leguizamo is particularly good as a married man with a strange infidelity problem…he’s into kinky things, but feels it’s somehow disrespectful to do them with his wife (Sorvino), so he ends up doing them with others.  There’s enough quality material with these two characters over the course of the film that their story alone could have made a good movie, which is a testament to Spike Lee’s brilliance.  Here, they’re just one part of the picture.

Equally good is Adrien Brody, who in many ways, is the most important figure in the film.  We know our history, therefore, we the audience have the benefit of knowing for sure that he’s not the Son of Sam…something the other characters in the film don’t know.  This structure allows Lee to break away from the more convention whodunit style of suspense, and allows us to concentrate fully on the real message, which is the fact that innocent people can be cruelly victimized by bigotry and intolerance, particularly when fueled by an ever increasing paranoia.

And Spike Lee himself appears as a reporter, in one of the worst looking 70’s suits you’ll ever see.  He’s never been above using himself for a laugh in his pictures, particularly when an occasional one is welcomed to offset the seriousness.

I should warn, however, that this is not a film likely to appeal to all tastes.  The language is realistically harsh, and there are plenty of scenes that will likely shock…some involving sex, others violence.  It’s not a film that compromises or softens anything, and as such, might be a bit too strong for some viewers.

But for the rest of us, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam is both a masterpiece and one of the best and most important films of the year, and should not be missed.

Video ***

As usual, the Disney studios have given us a great movie without the benefit of an anamorphic transfer, and I, for one, am getting a bit tired of the practice.  That being said, this is a mostly good looking disc, with sharp images and terrific coloring throughout.  One or two darker scenes exhibited a bit of grain, but nothing distracting.  For the most part, the print is clean, and flesh tones are natural, with no color bleeding. 

Audio ***1/2

The soundtrack is phenomenal, though.  The 5.1 mix offers a crisp, dynamic range that will occasionally explode from your speakers and subwoofer.  This is also one of the best song scores I’ve heard for a film, and the loudness of the classic 70’s tunes and the way it tends to spread out to all channels is an enjoyable touch.

Features **

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Summer of Sam is a terrific film that should further Spike Lee’s reputation as one of the best American filmmakers working today.  He skillfully tells a story about a mix of very real people, no different from you or I, and what happens to them when fear and paranoia begins unraveling the fabric that holds them together.  It’s a film that not only proves Lee a master of storytelling, but a master of cinematic arts as well.  His editing, camerawork, and use of sound and music, sometimes ironically, make this a picture that no serious film lover should skip.