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Summer of Sam

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Summer of Sam

Starring: Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo
Director: Spike Lee
Rated: R
RunTime: 142 Minutes
Release Date: July 1999
Genres: Drama, Suspense

Review by Greg King
2½ stars out of 4

This controversial, disturbing and visually stylish new film from Spike Lee is certainly not for the faint hearted. Dealing with the killing spree of David Berkowitz, dubbed the Son of Sam, during the hot summer of 1977, this uncompromising film is something of a return to form for Lee, whose last couple of films have lacked impact, and have even failed to secure a release in this country. But Summer of Sam is no mere police procedural depicting the intense investigation to track down the killer, who later claimed that he was ordered to kill by his neighbour's barking dog. Rather, Summer Of Sam recalls Lee's superb Do The Right Thing, which explored how events reverberate throughout a neighbourhood, like a rock thrown into a pool sends out ever increasing ripples that disturb the smooth surface.

Lee beautifully evokes the heat and steamy tension of New York during that unforgettable summer, characterised by an unusual heat wave. Real life events from the time are also woven into the narrative, giving a sense of authenticity. Lee captures feverish Saturday nights spent dancing in hip discos, the palpable sense of fear that permeated the neighbourhood with Sam stalking the streets, the sweaty heat wave, and the deep seated suspicions and tensions that upset an otherwise close knit Italian American community.

John Leguizamo (the awful Spawn, etc) gives a career best performance here as Vinny, a swaggering and macho Brooklyn hairdresser, whose marital infidelities finally catch up with during that fateful summer. Sex, drugs and an increasingly chaotic lifestyle soon take their toll on Vinny, and creates a rift between him and his long suffering wife Dionna (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). His best friend is Ritchie (Adrien Brody, recently seen in the star studded The Thin Red Line, etc), who proudly struts around the neighbourhood sporting his new look, heavily influenced by the British new wave of punk rock, much to the chagrin of his buddies who profess a far more reserved and traditional outlook. But as Sam's killing spree continues, fear and suspicion soon permeate the neighbourhood. Vigilante gangs form, the mob offers a hefty reward, and some outraged citizens take the law into their own hands, targeting those whose behaviour they view as suspicious. Soon Vinny and Ritchie find themselves on a violent and nasty collision course that will forever taint their friendship.

Summer Of Sam is a very violent and confronting film, and Lee sails close to the wind with his recreation of both a time and a place that has left some very deep psychological scars. The scenes dealing with Sam have a gritty intensity and palpable sense of madness to them, and Lee gives these sequences a bizarre, almost surreal touch that sometimes jars with the other elements of the film. Lee has bathed the film in hits from the '70's, which creates a nostalgic mood for many in the audience. But rather than merely using the music as an accessory on which to hang the obligatory soundtrack album, Lee carefully integrates the songs into the structure and fabric of the film.

Somehow he has married two vastly different story strands into what is largely a nostalgic look at the glory days of disco. It's almost as if Son of Sam had wandered into Saturday Night Fever and started blasting away at random! Lee also cleverly bookends the narrative with a monologue from Jimmy Breslin, the former reporter who wrote the definitive book on the Son of Sam killings, which gives the material a nicely ironic touch.

Performances throughout are quite solid, with The Practice's Michael Badalucco, cast against type, delivering a rather intense performance as the driven killer. Sorvino is also strong as Dionna, who finally summons up the courage and strength to leave her philandering husband. One weak link is Lee himself, who gives a very wooden and uncomfortable performance as a television journalist attempting to seek out community responses to the murder spree.

Lee uses a lot of his usual cinematic tricks to give the film an idiosyncratic look and feel, but Summer Of Sam will test the patience and stamina of many within the audience. As strong and as compelling as Summer Of Sam may be, though, one is left with the overwhelming impression that the definitive film exploring the Son of Sam killings has yet to be made!

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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