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Summer of Sam

Posted by martinteller on March 2, 2012

Spike Lee’s trip back to 1977 New York is somewhat scattershot, but compelling nonetheless.  The film is only tangentially about David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam” serial killer… although parts of the film do focus specifically on him, mostly he lingers in the background, his shadow dividing friends and neighbors.  Primarily the story focuses on Vinnie (John Leguizamo), a flashy hairdresser with a taste for disco, his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) who tries to please her conflicted husband and his wandering eye, and his old friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a would-be punk rocker whose peculiarities arouse the suspicions of the neighborhood goons.  Lee frequently ratchets up the intensity with explosive confrontations which might be a little much unless you’re in the right mood.  Personally, I found the tension riveting, not as much as his masterpiece Do the Right Thing (which touches on similar themes of mob mentality, bad decisions made hastily in moments of weakness, and violence arising from external stimuli) but enough to make the film sufficiently engaging despite its length.

The leads all do a very good job, Sorvino unfortunately not getting many chances to shine but Brody and Leguizamo are both flawed and sympathetic, reasonably well-rounded characters.  The craftsmanship is often top-notch, especially a stunning montage set to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (a later sequence with “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a little less successful, but has some fine moments).  We get the usual Spike Lee signature shot (need I explain? If you’ve seen more than one Lee film you should know what I mean) and a little bit of that unusual Sokurov-esque skewed vision from Crooklyn.  I do have to wonder if he borrowed the “long take into the disco” shot from Boogie Nights, though.  The soundtrack is a mighty fine selection, and to me the period recreation felt more authentic than something like Dazed and Confused, though perhaps that has more to do with growing up in an urban environment as opposed to a suburban one.

The film’s nadir is a scene involving Berkowitz’s madness that could have been amazingly creepy and disturbing but comes off as utterly laughable.  Maybe it was Lee’s intention to trivialize the killer but I would say that’s a stretch.  Actually, none of the scenes with Berkowitz work all that well, to the point where the movie might have been better if they’d been left out entirely.  I also didn’t care for the collection of knuckleheads who take it upon themselves to track down the killer.  I mean, I know I’m not supposed to like them, but they were pretty grating and stereotypical.

Despite some missteps, I thought it was overall an impressive and intriguing effort.  I still have a few more Lee to check out… some of them I’m pretty skeptical about, but maybe I’ll chance them anyway.  Rating: Very Good


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