Summer of Sam [DVD]
Screenplay : Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, and Spike Lee
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : John Leguizamo (Vinny), Adrien Brody (Ritchie), Mira Sorvino (Dionna), Jennifer Esposito (Ruby), Michael Rispoli (Joe T), Saverio Guerra (Woodstock), Brian Tarantina (Bobby Del Fiore), Al Palagonia (Anthony), Ken Garito (Brian), Bebe Neuwirth (Gloria)
"Summer of Sam" finally lost me about two-thirds of the way through. As everyone probably knows, the "Sam" of the title refers to "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz, the serial killer who terrorized New York for more than a year in the late 1970s, stalking people and shooting them with a .44-caliber handgun because, as he claimed at the time, his neighbor's dog told him to.
That dog is what finally causes the movie to fall over the edge, from being overproduced and scattershot into being plain silly. The scene involves Berkowitz on his hands and knees in his apartment, and the dog comes through the door and, thanks to computer-generated effects, actually starts talking like a demented reject from the cast of "Babe." It's a scene that should not have been literalized, and it serves as an extreme example of everything that is wrong with the movie as a whole.
This is not to say that "Summer of Sam" is all bad. It certainly has its moments, and director/co-writer Spike Lee ("Do the Right Thing," "He Got Game") should be given credit for creating a gritty image of urban life during a record-breaking heat wave in New York City in the summer of 1977. However, everything that is good about "Summer of Sam" is also bad because Lee pushes every good impulse he has into overdrive.
Lee has always had urges toward stylistic overkill, and here he goes right over the brink. In combining just about every stylistic flourish in the book--from sweeping crane shots to jittery, hand-held cameras to tilting and spinning angles and distorted images, all of which is shot in eye-straining, grainy film stock that is overexposed--Lee makes the movie into a messy cinematic buffet. A little neorealism here, some surrealism there, a tracking shot inspired by "GoodFellas" (1990), a disco soundtrack worthy of "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Silence of the Lambs"-style horror--it all adds up to too much. At one point, Lee almost brings the movie to a grating stop in order to interject a montage of scenes cut to The Who's "Baba O'Riley"; the scene plays more like a misplaced pumped-up music video than a necessary piece of the narrative.
Of course, "Summer of Sam" would have been much more invigorating if it had come complete with a narrative that could sustain such immense technical flourishes. Instead, Lee and co-screenwriters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli (both of whom are experienced actors and first-time screenwriters) come up with a series of stories that follow various characters in the Bronx whose lives are somehow affected by Berkowitz's killing spree.
Chief among these is Vinny (John Leguizamo), whose bizarre Catholic sexual hang-ups about his wife (Mira Sorvino) cause him to cheat on her with scores of other women. Then there is Vinny's friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), whose recent submersion into the burgeoning punk scene and secret life of dancing at gay bars alienates him from his neighborhood friends and causes them to suspect that he is the so-called ".44-Caliber Killer." Nestled into these stories are strands about Ritchie's relationship with the neighborhood slut (Jennifer Esposito) and even a few scenes involving the local Mafia.
Lee does a fine job of rendering the seedy world these characters inhabit, but he fails at making us care about them. None of these characters are particularly sympathetic people, and it's difficult to become involved in their plights. And the movie, at close to two and a half hours in length, constantly tries to get us worked up about the characters' fears and dilemmas, some of which are inspired by the Son of Sam, some of which are the result of their own demented lifestyles.
"Summer of Sam" marks the first time Spike Lee has directed a film that has not spoken directly to the African-American experience. The immediate impulse is to take this as a sign that Lee is only good as a director of "black films," but that would be a specious and knee-jerk conclusion.
The fact is, Lee is just as adept at portraying Italian-American culture (or any other culture, for that matter) as he is at portraying African-American culture. In fact, the best parts of "Summer of Sam" involve Lee stepping back from the individual characters and looking at the culture as a whole, especially a scene when there is a blackout in all five boroughs of New York City, and the Italian Mafia gets the neighborhood to band together to protect itself while other neighborhoods around it self-destruct in looting and riots. He also creates a palpable sense of panic and fear, showing how a city of sixteen million people could be literally brought to its knees by one madman.
The scenes involving David Berkowitz are harrowing, but not particularly original. We gets grimy close-ups and purposefully truncated shots of the overweight Berkowitz in his apartment, clawing at his head and literally going crazy while listening to the dog barking outside. (These scene work because we hear the dog barking, but are left to imagine for ourselves how Berkowitz's mind is translating these sounds into "Kill, kill." It's much more effective than the ridiculous scene showing the dog's lips moving.) Like Jonathan Demme, Lee shows a surprisingly adept flair for exploiting horror genre conventions, and the sequences involving Berkowitz murdering his victims are sudden, violent, and a bit sickening. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie comes nowhere close to achieving kind of emotional impact.
16x9 Enhanced: No
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Surround
Extras: Theatrical Trailer
Even for those viewers (like myself) who thought "Summer of Sam" was overcooked, it is impossible to deny that the film is a visual feat, perhaps Spike Lee's most intensely visual movie (in terms of color schemes and camera movements) since "Do the Right Thing" (1989). Therefore, "Summer of Sam" is a movie that is perfectly suited to a superior home video medium like DVD.
The DVD of "Summer of Sam" is technically strong, with vivid, intense color saturation without bleeding, and a complete lack of any compression artifacts or film imperfections. The shadow contrast and detail are exquisite, especially in the creepy sequences that take place in David Berkowitz's grimy apartment. Overall, the picture on this disc is beautiful, and digitally mastering it must have been a chore because the picture varies from over-saturated scenes in daylight, to dark, highly contrasted scenes at night, and it incorporates every stylistic device imaginable.
The superb picture is matched by the disc's Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, which makes liberal and effective use of the surround speakers (especially during many of the retro '70s songs, including The Who's "Baba O'Reily" and ABBA's "Fernando") and the low-frequency effects (again, these are especially effective in the sequences Berkowitz's apartment--note the similarity to the music used in "Silence of the Lambs").
Unfortunately, the technical superiority of the picture and sound far outweighs anything else the disc has to offer. With the exception of a theatrical trailer (which is an entertaining piece of work in and of itself), the disc has absolutely no extras (except a pointless "Film Recommendations" section that somehow assumes that, if you liked "Summer of Sam," you'll like the campy horror film "Deep Rising" and the Will Smith paranoia thriller "Enemy of the State," which, once again, proves that these are silly marketing ploys that waste space on the disc). So, like too many DVDs, "Summer of Sam" takes full advantage of the technical aspects of the medium, but nothing more.
©1999 James Kendrick